Throw Like a Girl

When softball star Liv Rodinsky throws one ill-advised punch during the most important game of the year, she loses her scholarship to her fancy private school, her boyfriend, and her teammates all in one fell swoop. With no other options, Liv is forced to transfer to the nearest public school, Northland, where she’ll have to convince their coach she deserves a spot on the softball team, all while facing both her ex and the teammates of the girl she punched. . . Every. Single. Day.

Enter Grey, the injured star quarterback with amazing hair and a foolproof plan: if Liv joins the football team as his temporary replacement, he’ll make sure she gets a spot on the softball team in the spring. But it will take more than just a flawless spiral for Liv to find acceptance in Northland’s halls, and behind that charismatic smile, Grey may not be so perfect after all. 

Readers will instantly connect with Liv, who is a hard-working, spunky protagonist worthy of admiring. When Liv is forced to change schools, she is determined to prove that she will be an asset to the softball team. Even though Liv joins the football team to impress the softball coach, Liv doesn’t slack or complain. Because of her competitive nature, Liv gives the football team 100% and proves to the players and the coaches that she is an integral part of the team. While Liv’s work ethic and athletic ability are admirable, Liv’s loyalty to her family and friends makes her lovable. However, Liv is not portrayed as a perfect person; teens will relate to Liv’s flaws and insecurities. Plus, Liv’s lively personality makes Throw Like a Girl incredibly fun to read.  

Liv is surrounded by well-developed and likable supporting characters. Liv’s family is an important part of the story and her little brother is adorable. While Liv’s family don’t always agree with each other, they (usually) don’t hide secrets from each other. The family’s healthy dynamics make it easy to fall in love with them. However, Grey steals the show with his winning smile, his charismatic personality, and his confidence in Liv’s football skills. There are plenty of swoon-worthy moments that will have the reader’s hearts melting.  

Throw Like a Girl has the perfect amount of football action, teen drama, and romantic moments. In addition, the story has a positive message because Liv learns that “standing up for yourself doesn’t mean walking away.” Readers will cheer for Liv when she’s on and off the field and by the end of the book, Liv will feel like a favorite friend. Throw Like a Girl is so charming that it will appeal to both sports fans and romance enthusiasts. For more sports and swoon-worthy moments read Defending Taylor by Miranda Kenneally and Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg .

Sexual Content 

  • When Liv first begins playing football, she is nervous about being a quarterback. During practice, Liv is uncomfortable because “for the eighth time in so many minutes, my hands are hovering near the rear-end seam of his pants. Like, right underneath his junk. Big, bulgy, manly junk.” 
  • Before a football game, Grey meets Liv outside the girl’s locker room. Grey’s “fingertips graze my cheek, moving down until they gently tip up my chin. My pulse stutters. . .” Before they can kiss, a friend interrupts them.  
  • When Liv drives Grey home, they sit in the car and talk. Then, “Grey closes the space between us, his lips warm against mine. They’re softer than I imagined, but the scrape of stubble pressing into my chin is 100 percent rough-and-tumble boy.” They stop when the porch light comes on. 
  • Grey and Liv kiss often. However, most of the kisses are not described. For example, Grey shows up at Liv’s house to check on her and her “arms lock his neck, lips to his.” 
  • During one conversation, between Liv and Grey, she thinks “We’ve made out and I’d love to do it again rightthehellnow. . .” Later in the conversation, Grey asks Liv to be his girlfriend. Liv “answer[ed] him with a kiss. Hard and full.”  
  • When his parents are away for the weekend, Grey invites Liv in and takes her to his bedroom. Then he tells Liv a secret. Liv “close the distance between us, twisting to push up onto my knees, draping my arms over his shoulders. . . I’m looking down on him, my chest touching his, the end of my hair pooling against his collarbone. . . And then I kiss him.” The scene ends here. 
  • Liv and Grey have an argument. A few days later, at football practice, they make up. “Even with the eyes of our teammates on us, he dares to touch my face, his strong hands cupping my cheeks, rough thumbs dusting my mouth in the breath before his lips crash into mine. Immediately, I wrap my arms around his waist. The hard planes of his chest conform to my curves. . . The wolf whistles start. . . It’s only by sheer, indoctrinated willpower that I’m able to pull myself out of the kiss.” 

Violence 

  • Liv’s sister, who is a lesbian, is the softball coach. During a softball game, a member of the opposing team, Kelly, says, “Does it bother you? Your sister being paid to check out your teammates?” When the game is over, Liv attacks Kelly. Liv describes, “The knuckles of my hand smack her straight across the ski jump of her obnoxiously pert nose, and we tumble to the infield dirt. I have her pinned, my butt across her kidneys, knees on either side of her squirming stomach.” When the girls are torn apart, Kelly has a bloody nose and Liv has a black eye. The fight is described over three pages.  
  • During a football game, the opposing team is unnecessarily rough. One of the payers, Jake, gets tackled and afterwards he does not move. The coaches go out to check on him and call for a medic. Liv “exhale[s] as I realize that though they’re keeping him steady, not a single one is gripping him like he’s not moving under his own power. I can see Jake’s mouth moving. Blood streaming down from a cut over his left eye.” Jake is not seriously hurt.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • During dinner, Liv’s adult sister drinks wine and her father “pops open a beer.” 
  • Grey takes Tylenol for a headache.  
  • After Liv goes on a date, her dad waits up for her. When she arrives, he has a “beer in hand.” Another time when Liv gets home, her father and sister are waiting for her and they both are drinking beer. 
  • Before the story begins, Grey was driving drunk and crashed into a tree. The accident isn’t described.  

Language 

  • Profanity is used profusely. Profanity includes ass, asshole, bastard, bitch, crap, damn, dick, freaking, goddammit, hell, and shit. 
  • God is frequently used as an exclamation.  
  • Christ and Jesus are used as an exclamation several times. 
  • After fighting the opposing team, Liv thinks, “Maybe all the soccer players in Kansas City are smart enough to know that gay people aren’t pedophiles.” 
  • When a football player flips someone off, the coach says, “Put down that hand, Rogers, or I’m taking that finder as a sacrifice to the god of high school football. Might take that senior captain title, too, for good measure.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • While talking about sports, Liv’s best friend says, “God did not make you a volleyball player, that’s for sure . . .” 

Nic Blake and The Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy

Nic Blake has a secret to keep from the rest of the world—she has a magical power called the Gift. This makes her, like her father, a Remarkable. Nic explains her life as a Remarkable in an Unremarkable world, “an Unremarkable . . . doesn’t have the Gift or any supernatural ability.” Nic knows that the majority of people in her town are Unremarkables and that “a majority of Unremarkables don’t know about the Gift or know that Remarkable creatures exist. Though Nic knows she has these powers, she still does not know how to use them. As she is about to have her twelfth birthday, Nic is excited that, “My dad’s gonna teach me how to use the Gift so I can finally be a real Manifestor.” Nic reveals, “Although we Manifestors are born with the Gift inside of us, we still have to learn how to use it, and there are lots of ways to use it, too.”

In Jackson, Mississippi, Nic is happily living with her father, Calvin, and hanging out with her best friend, JP. Her world is about to change, however, when Nic’s mother, who Nic has not seen since she was a baby, suddenly reappears in her life—along with a twin brother, Alex, whom Nic didn’t know she even had. Nic’s twin brother Alex and Nic’s mom reveal that they had to find Nic because her father has been accused of stealing a magical weapon by the Remarkable government. Nic’s mom and her brother have come all the way from the land they call home, Uhuru, a super technologically advanced city where only Remarkables live, to find Nic.

When Nic’s dad is accused of stealing a dangerous, magical weapon, Nic, JP, and Alex must set out on a quest to find the magical weapon and prove that Nic’s father is innocent. Along the way, Nic shows herself to be an extremely insightful Manifestor, even though she doesn’t know how to control the Gift. Throughout the novel, Nic learns more about her powers as well as how they connect with her ancestry. For instance, Nic recalls a story about how some of her ancestors who were caught by slavecatchers were freed by a Manifestor who “whispered ancient words to them, and they remembered who they were . . . They flew off like birds to freedom.” Nic recognizes that the Gift “helps us when we need it,” and gradually learns how to use her powers.   

Nic is an extremely empathetic character, who struggles to comprehend having a mom and brother enter her life unexpectedly. Nic explains, “It feels like my world was made of sand and I didn’t know it, and a gigantic wave has crashed in, wiped it out, and left me with something that doesn’t resemble my life.” Readers will appreciate the sacrifices Nic makes to prove her father’s innocence, even though her family dynamic is completely uprooted. Nic thinks, “I never would’ve thought that my dad would be a wanted criminal . . . it’s hard to believe this is my life.” Nic’s father admits his mistakes in keeping secrets from her. Nic’s dad says, “No matter my reasoning, I kept you from an amazing mom and brother.”  

Another reason readers will love Nic is that she is a very open-minded character and treats each new person she meets with respect, Remarkable or not, because her father has taught her that “some Manfestors like to make sure other Remarkables know that [Manifestors] are the most powerful Remarkables. Dad says it’s silly; that as Black folks we’ve seen people like us get treated as inferior and we shouldn’t do that to others.”

A major theme in Nic Blake and The Remarkables is reconnecting with estranged or lost family. Nic is dealing with a lot: “finding out I was kidnapped, that my dad may be a criminal and that I have a mom and a twin brother.” Throughout the novel, Nic has to learn to trust and rely on Alex to help her navigate through Uhuru. Alex shows Nic how to use Uhuru’s technology. But Nic also helps Alex by demonstrating bravery, such as when she approaches a dragon for help, while “Alex whimpers.” In this way, both Nic and Alex bring something to the table and help each other on their journey. Alex and Nic’s relationship adds a great deal of heart to the story, as they realize that they actually have a lot in common, they even begin to call this “twin telepathy.”

Nic Blake and The Remarkables ends on a cliffhanger, with Nic receiving a threatening message from an anonymous source because she has found and returned the magical weapon. The threat tells Nic, “You think you’re gonna get away with finding what I hid?” This ending will certainly keep readers on their toes and excited to read the next book. Readers who enjoy stories with fantasy, action, and family will find this book absolutely delightful. Nic’s journey leaves readers with an amazing message about trusting in your own abilities. As Nic says, “The power to save myself, it lies within me.” 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Nic’s powers accidentally knock out her Uncle Ty. Nic explains, “Our hands touch, and everything happens in a flash. Uncle Ty’s Glow goes out like a fire doused with water, and a jolt shoots through my palms, making my own aura glow so bright, it blinds me . . . [Uncle Ty] hits the ground with a thud.” Uncle Ty recovers quickly, but Nic feels extremely worried that she accidentally hurt someone.  
  • Nic and her dad visit a Civil Rights Museum when her dad tells her what happened to Emmett Till. Nic explains what her father taught her about the event, saying, “[Emmett] was accused of whistling at a woman. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but Dad said that back then because Emmett was Black and the woman was white, some people did think it was a big deal. The woman’s husband and brother-in-law kidnapped Emmett in the middle of the night and killed him. [Emmett] was fourteen; a kid like me.” 
  • Nic and JP encounter a Boo Hag, which Nic explains is like a vampire except that these creatures “live off breath instead of blood. They climb on victims at night and suck the oxygen from their bodies, and sometimes they steal the person’s skin.” 
  • Nic and her friends encounter a ghost-like creature called a haint. JP asks the haint how he died: “[the haint] points at a tree, hangs his head, and holds his hand up as if it’s a rope. ‘Oh,’ JP murmurs. ‘You were lynched.’” 
  • Based off his interpretation of a prophecy, Uncle Ty believes that he is meant to defeat Nic and attacks her. Nic says, “My brain doesn’t process what he’s said until the lightning bolt whizzes straight for me.” Nic is able to escape Ty with her mom and dad’s help.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • Nic’s father gets her a hellhound as a birthday present: “The woods dissolve, revealing my backyard, and that fire-breathing, gigantic hellhound is a tail-wagging little hellhound pup.” 
  • Nic explains the difference between the Gift and magic. “The Gift is an innate power that lives in us Manifestors. Magic, on the other hand, is a corrupt form of the Gift. It’s hard to control and super destructive. Also, magic in real life can only be performed with a wand, and the magic in wands runs out after a while. We Manifestors don’t need wands.” 
  • While Nic is in the kitchen, “a deep growl rattles the door to the basement.” Nic asks, “Is that the demon you caught at the governor’s mansion?” Nic’s dad explains that it is a demon, saying, “I swear, demons can’t stay away from that place.” 
  • Nic can identify other Remarkables. Nic says, “the Remarkables light the place up a bit thanks to the Glow, different-colored auras that tell you the kinda Remarkable they are.” 
  • Nic’s dad creates an illusion of stars on her ceiling. “With the wave of his hand, my ceiling disappears and a night sky takes its place.” 
  • Nic’s father’s best friend, whom she calls Uncle Ty, gives Nic a G-Pen. Uncle Ty explains that the “Gift-Infused technology” can only be bought in Remarkable cities. The G-Pen allows Nic to “write to any [Remarkable person] with it, and they’ll see it wherever they are . . . You simply think about the person and write to them in midair.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • JP has very religious parents. JP’s parents tell him, “Phones are quick access to the Devil.”  
  • Nic’s neighbor, Mr. Zeke, takes a trip to “a Remarkable city or historic site” each year, and this year “he went to Africa to see the Garden of Eden.” 
  • Nic and her friends encounter a woman named DD, but they realize something about her real identity. Nic says, “You’re the Devil’s daughter,” and then Nic hears, “Countless voices wail as a cackle echoes in the distance, sounding as evil as the Devil himself. That’s because it is the Devil himself.” 
  • JP saves Nic from the Devil’s daughter by chanting “Jesus” and “holding a cross made of forks, spoons, and rubber bands like a shield. [JP] points it in DD’s direction. ‘Jeeee-suuus!’ The skeletal hands explode into dust, freeing [Nic].” 

Why We Fly

From the New York Times bestselling authors of I’m Not Dying with You Tonight comes a story about friendship, privilege, sports, and protest. 

With a rocky start to senior year, cheerleaders and lifelong best friends Eleanor and Chanel have a lot on their minds. Eleanor is still in physical therapy months after a serious concussion from a failed cheer stunt. Chanel starts making questionable decisions to deal with the mounting pressure of college applications. But they have each other’s backs—just as always, until Eleanor’s new relationship with star quarterback Three starts a rift between them. 

Then, the cheer squad decides to take a knee at the season’s first football game, and what seemed like a positive show of solidarity suddenly shines a national spotlight on the team—and becomes the reason for a larger fallout between the girls. As Eleanor and Chanel grapple with the weight of the consequences as well as their own problems, can the girls rely on the friendship they’ve always shared? 

Why We Fly was inspired by real people who took a stand against racism. John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their Black power fist at the Olympics in 1968. Similarly, Collin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem in protest of the treatment of Blacks. Why We Fly explores the idea that players should “shut up and play” and the consequences athletes face if they voice their opinions. The story’s message is clear—athletes and others should not be punished for peaceful protest. However, the main characters’ experiences also highlight the importance of having a plan before you protest. In addition, the story reminds readers that no one should be forced to support a cause. By reading, Why We Fly today’s readers will gain insight into effective activism and be encouraged to explore ways they can help others. 

The chapters alternate between Eleanor’s and Chanel’s points of view. Since the girls are of different races, readers will begin to understand how race and wealth affect a person’s experiences. While the story explores important themes, the main characters are difficult to relate to. Even though Eleanor and Chanel have been best friends most of their lives, neither one is a good friend. For example, after Eleanor is voted captain of the cheerleading team, Chanel ghosts her. In addition, Chanel is critical of Eleanor’s relationship with star quarterback, Three. Many readers will dislike Eleanor’s and Chanel’s behavior and thus will have a hard time relating to them. 

On the other hand, Eleanor has a difficult time considering things from other’s point of view. When she is voted cheerleading captain, she accepts the position and never considers how it will affect Chanel. As cheerleading captain, Eleanor doesn’t show positive leadership skills and Chanel eventually has to jump in to unite the team. Then, when Eleanor encourages the cheerleaders to kneel during the national anthem, she doesn’t think about the consequences or how it would affect others. Eventually, she goes to talk to a rabbi who says, “Living up to a legacy doesn’t mean celebrating it. It means we pick up the baton and keep running the race. It also means we need to check ourselves and our assumptions about how far we’ve come, or haven’t.” Eleanor learns that when protesting, having good intentions is not enough—she should have also considered different people’s points of view and the consequences others would face if they protested.  

While many books have imperfect characters, Why We Fly’s characters are unlikable because they are self-centered and have unhealthy relationships. Despite this, readers who are interested in activism can learn important lessons about effective protest. In addition, readers may want to research some of the influential people the story mentions such as Dorothy Buckhanan Wilson, President of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Readers who want to explore issues of discrimination and wealth should also add these books to their reading list: Jackpot by Nic Stone, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and I’m Not Dying with You Tonight by Kimberly Jones & Gilly Segal. 

Sexual Content 

  • After physical therapy, Three and Eleanor are talking. “He leans closer, and I freeze, dying for him to kiss me and feeling ridiculous that I’m so desperate for him to kiss me that I’m willing for it to happen in this doctor’s office. . . I lift my face, and his lips brush mine gently at first, and then he presses closer, and we fall over a cliff into the kiss.” The doctor interrupts them. 
  • One of the characters wears a shirt that reads, “Woke Up Lesbian Again.” 
  • Eleanor and Chanel go to a BBQ at Three’s house. When Eleanor and Three begin to flirt, Chanel says, “It’s a Planned Parenthood cautionary tale right before our eyes.” 
  • Before a football game, Three and Eleanor have a moment alone. Eleanor kisses him. Three “holds me to him, running that hand all the way up my back and into my hair. His lips part mine, and we kiss until we’re so tangled in each other that the stadium noises fade. . .” They are interrupted by another football player, who yells, “Three! Untangle yourself from that octopus, and let’s go.” 
  • A friend drops Three off at Eleanor’s house. Eleanor wonders, “Why did he have to get a ride to what is obviously going to look like a hook-up?” 
  • Eleanor slept with her previous boyfriend, Roman. Eleanor’s friend said, “Roman was the type to kiss and tell, and she was right. . .” Eleanor isn’t sorry that she slept with Roman, she’s “just mad everyone thought it was cool to slut-shame me for my choice while admiring him for doing the same thing.” Later, Eleanor reveals that Roman is the only person she has had sex with. 
  • Eleanor and Three are hanging out at her house. They begin kissing. Three says that he doesn’t expect her to have sex with him, but Eleanor says she wants to. “Three lies back, taking up my entire bed, leaving me no space and no option other than to press up against him and rest my cheek on his chest. . .” Before they can have sex, they get into an argument, and Three leaves. 
  • On social media, someone posts: “Looks like Chanel Irons will be the next Barack Obama. Anyone know if she’s straight? I’m here for being her Michelle. We can un-hetero that White House together.” 

Violence 

  • Before the book begins, Eleanor falls during cheerleading practice. Eleanor “came down wrong. . . I flailed, trying to save myself too. My head thwacked James’s shoulder on the way down, then hit the mat. One leg bent under me, and my ankle collapsed. . . when I came to, the throbbing in my head blinded me to all the other pain.” Months later, Eleanor is still in physical therapy. 

 Drugs and Alcohol 

  • In order to deal with stress, Chanel sneaks into the school bathroom to vape marijuana. She loads “the cartridge of Runtz, press and release the button, and take a short breath.”  
  • Chanel is suspended from school. Afterwards, she hides in the shed behind her house. “Even though I normally take only one short puff, I find myself taking extra puffs today and holding the vapor longer.”  
  • Because of the pressure of applying to colleges, Chanel is “stoned for nearly two months.” 
  • After a football game, a bunch of teens go to a player’s house. Before his parents leave the room, they padlock the liquor cabinet. 

Language 

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes ass, bitches, bullshit, crap, damn, hell, piss, and shit. 
  • Fuck is used once. 
  • Oh God and dear God are infrequently used as an exclamation. 
  • Three’s mother dislikes Eleanor and calls her “locker-room lice.” 
  • Eleanor and Chanel kneel during the national anthem at a football game. Afterwards, someone posts a picture with a caption that says, “Now we’ve got a Jew bitch on her knees with the primates.” 

 Supernatural 

  • None 

 Spiritual Content 

  • Eleanor was part of a competition squad that would pray “before every tournament—in Jesus’s name.” Because Eleanor is Jewish, she seeks out her rabi’s advice. “His guidance gave me the guts to ask the team to change the prayer to something more egalitarian.” 
  • Eleanor mentions religious holidays such as the High Holy Days and Rosh Hashanah. 
  • Eleanor goes to synagogue during the High Holidays. Her brother wears a bar mitzvah tallit (a prayer shawl), but Eleanor is upset that she forgot hers. The knots on the tallit represent “the number of commandments in the Torah.” 
  • During the service, the rabbi says, “When I look around, both at our larger world and our own community, I see enormous pain. I see injustice . . . There are those who deny the humanity of people of color. Who asks that they be silent in the face of unequal, hateful, violent treatment. . . We have a moral obligation to bear witness to injustice in society. . . it is our responsibility to protect the marginalized and to partner with other communities to confront the powerful who perpetuate injustice.” The sermon goes on for two pages. 

Treasure Island: Runaway Gold

Three kids. One dog. And the island of Manhattan laid out in an old treasure map.  

Zane is itching for an adventure that will take him away from his family’s boarding house in Rockaway, Queens—and from the memory of his dad’s recent death. Some days it seems like the most exciting part of his life is listening to his favorite boarder, Captain Maddie, recount her tales of sailing the seven seas. 

But when a threatening crew of skater kids crashes the boardinghouse, a dying Captain Maddie entrusts Zane with a secret: a real treasure map, leading to a spot somewhere in Manhattan. Zane wastes no time in riding the ferry over to the city to start the search with his friends Kiko and Jack, and his dog, Hip-Hop.  

Through strange coincidence, they meet a man who is eager to help them find the treasure: John, a sailor who knows all about the buried history of Black New Yorkers of centuries past—and the gold that is hidden somewhere in those stories. But as a vicious rival skateboard crew follows them around the city, Zane and his friends begin to wonder who they can trust. And soon it becomes clear that treasure hunting is a dangerous business . . . 

Treasure Island: Runaway Gold reimagines Robert Louis Stevenson’s iconic book Treasure Island. While the books have a similar plot line, many of the original story’s details are changed. Treasure Island: Runaway Gold revolves around Zane and his three friends, who are searching for a lost pirate treasure. Along the way, they meet Captain John, who claims that he wants to help the kids find the treasure but doesn’t want a share of the prize for himself. Right from the start, many red flags show that Captain John cannot be trusted, and Captain John eventually betrays Zane’s trust. However, Captain John was clearly a villain from the start, so his betrayal feels anticlimactic.  

The first chapter jumps right into action and there is never any lull. Fast-paced action scenes dominate the book. Despite this, the book finds time to shine a light on how Black slaves were used to build Wall Street and other important Manhattan buildings. In death, many were buried in a graveyard. However, “colonists didn’t care about a Black cemetery. For centuries, folks kept building over and through their graves.” This historical information blends seamlessly into the story, creating a cohesive mystery that is tied to the pirate treasure.  

Readers who want a story with plenty of action and suspense will quickly be swept away by Treasure Island: Runaway Gold. However, the story’s fast pace doesn’t leave a lot of room for character development, the ending is rushed, and readers will be left with many questions. Despite these flaws, Treasure Island: Runaway Gold uses an interesting premise to teach about Black history.  

A few black-and-white illustrations are scattered throughout the book, which helps bring the events to life. In addition, the back of the book has a glossary of Zane’s skateboarding tricks and an Afterword that explains “how the [enslaved] Black people contributed to New York becoming the economic heart of the world,” as well as how “Thomas Downing, the son of enslaved people,” used his wealth to fund the Underground Railroad. Readers who want to learn more about the Underground Railroad should also read The Underground Abductor: An Abolitionist Tale about Harriet Tubman by Nathan Hale and Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Zane has a friend named Jack, who has an abusive father. Zane explains, “Since second grade, I’ve known the pattern. Dad home, Jack had accidents. Bruises, sprains. A black eye.” Later it is revealed that his father once broke Jack’s arm. 
  • Jack shows up at the skate park with “his body tilting left while his hand holds his side. Kiko says, ‘His dad still thinks he’s a punching bag.’ ” The conversation stops there. 
  • Zane gets home and finds, “it looks like a bomb has hit the dining room. Broken plates, shattered glasses, oatmeal, soft eggs, and crushed toast are on the floor. . .” Zane runs upstairs to find Captain Maddie “passed out cold.” Zane’s mother explains that skater kids and “that nasty boy came in frightening our guests, tearing up the place. Demanding to see Captain Maddie.” 
  • When the doctor comes, Captain Maddie, “is upright, flailing a small knife, slick with blood.” Captain Maddie dies. The doctor says, “The shock was too much for her. Probably an aneurysm.”  
  • During the night, the skater kids come back to Zane’s house. “Six skaters dressed in black, canvassing the house . . . Hip-Hop dives, racing across the grass, and bites someone. A scream. Jack is right behind Hip-Hop, punching right, left. . . Zane and his friends begin throwing baseballs at them . . . Some boys try blocking with their skateboards. Others limp away. Another runs. . .” 
  • Zane, Jack, and Kiko go to Manhattan to look for treasure. The skater crew swarms them. “Brave, ready for a fight, Jack sails into the gang, his board sideswiping other boards, his hands shoving, unbalancing the skater. . . A kid pulls Jack’s arms behind his back. . . [Zane] pull[s] the kid off Jack while Jack punches back at three kids trying to get a hit.” 
  • As the fight continues, “Jack gets pinned, his face against asphalt. I tug one kid off before I’m pounded in the gut and taken down.” At the end of the fight, “bloodred bruises cover his [Jack’s] face and arms. More, I know, are hidden beneath his shirt. He took the brunt of the beating. . .” The fight is described over five pages. No one is seriously injured.   
  • Zane and his friends are on a boat driven by John when the skater boys begin to “tail our boat, edging closer and closer, gunning, then leveling the engine. Almost like he’s going to ram us.” The skater boys’ boat gets so close that “a wall of water rises, slaps, and [Zane] topple[s] overboard.” 
  • John, Zane, and his friends sneak under a restaurant that was used to hide slaves. When men hear them, the men give chase. Zane describes, “The men are closer. Close. I’m not going to make it. . . I kick. The man grunts, stumbles back. . . Jack, beside John, is furiously pitching oyster shells. With a grunt, he throws his weight against a shelf filled with dusty jars, and jugs. The shelf falls, crashing, shattering glass and ceramic.” John, Zane, and his friends slip under the restaurant and escape. 
  • Zane and Kiko sneak into the old Woolworth’s building. A guard sees them entering an elevator and the guard gives chase. Zane shouts, “startling the guard, using my skateboard to whack his hand away.”  
  • One of the skater boys, Findley, grabs Hip-Hop and puts him in a sack. Matt, another boy, grabs Zane. Zane describes how Matt “twist[s] my arm. My knees buckle. He punches, kicks me. I crumple.”  
  • Kiko tries to help Zane. She grabs a cane and “like lightening, the cane flashes down on his arm, swings sideways—whack—slamming into [Matt’s] side. . . [Matt] dashing forward and back. Hopping left, then right. Feigning a punch. . .” Kiko uses the cane to smack Matt who “gasps, drops to his knees. He’s not unconscious, but it’s still a knockout . . .” The scene is described over three pages. 
  • In a multi-chapter conclusion, Jack reveals that when his father beats him, his mother “doesn’t defend me. Never did. Even when I was little, she said, ‘A boy needs to learn how to defend himself.’ When Dad started whaling on me, she left the mobile home.” 
  • John reveals that he is the lead of the skater boys’ gang, and takes Zane and Kiko to his secret hideout. John’s “first mate” Rattler makes sure Zane and Kido can’t escape. “Taunting, Rattler faces me as two pirates pin my arms beneath my back, roping my hands together.” Kiko is also tied up. Afterwards, Zane is hit occasionally. 
  • John’s secret hideout is under the city in an old, abandoned tunnel system. To search for treasure, John has his crew begin dynamiting the ceiling of a tunnel. “Gunpowder with wicks are driven into the tunnel’s sides, its unfinished ceiling.” Petey, who is about eight years old, is tasked with lighting the dynamite. When the dynamite goes off, “Petey tumbles. The torch arcs, twirls like a giant sparkler, landing on Petey’s back. . . Jack’s on it. Kicking aside the torch, he drops, patting Petey’s shirt, smothering flames. . . Petey groans. Beneath his shirt’s jagged burnouts, his skin is red, blistering.” Petey passes out and Kiko administers first aid. 
  • As the skater crew continues to set off explosions, the bones of the people buried there begin to fall. The kids are “tossing skeletons like ordinary sticks. . . ‘Look at this.’ A kid holds a skull and happily throws it to his mate.” Zane is upset that John and his crew are “disturbing graves.” 
  • John taunts Zane by saying, “Zane, a mama’s boy. Worse, a weak, whiny boy missing his dad.” Zane goes “berserk. I’m hitting, kicking, punching John. . . I fall flat, seeing stars. John slapped, shoved me.” When Zane and Kiko refuse to join John’s crew, they make them “walk the plank.”  
  • While in an underground abandoned subway, Zane and Kiko are forced to “walk the plank” which is an old pipe that is dangerously high. Kiko goes first and the crew begin throwing bones at her. “Findley lets a rib bone fly. Others throw rocks. Kiko wabbles, tries to duck low. Arms protecting her head, she shifts forward and back, side to side.” Kiko makes it across the pipe. 
  • As Zane walks the plank, “stones, skeletons fly. Rocks sail wide, especially from younger boys. Others bruise my shoulder and arm.” Zane makes it across the pipe. 
  • Zane and Rattler, one of the skater boys, duel it out by skating. After Zane has a good run, “Rattler leaps toward me, swinging his board at my head.” Kiko jumps in, “Knocking it out of his hands.” The fight ends. 
  • While in an underground tunnel, Zane, Kiko, and Hip-Hop find “hundreds of rats. Rats squeaking, running, crawling over one another. . . In his jaws, Hip-Hop snaps rat after rat. Shaking his head, he breaks their necks. He’s an efficient, killing machine. . . Hip-Hop has made a path—but it’s gross. Limp rats, blood. . .” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Jack’s father spends his money on alcohol instead of food and bills. 
  • John tells Zane that his “best mate” was a woman who would “drink gallons of rum and never spend a day hungover.” 
  • While talking about the history of slaves being used to build Wall Street, John says, “I need a swig. . .Rum helps set the mind straight.”  
  • Jack says, “Alcohol turns my dad into a wild man. . .” 
  • At one point, John is “sauntering off-balance” because he’s drunk. He offers Zane a flask and says, “Rum cures a lot of ills.” 
  • When a young boy is burned, Kiko gives him ibuprofen. 

Language 

  • Occasionally, there is name-calling such as brat, loser, failure, jerk, and traitor. 
  • John opens an old trunk expecting to see treasure. When the trunk is empty, he yells, “Aargh. Damnation.” 
  • John calls one of the skater boys a “gutless swine.” 

Supernatural 

  • Zane sees visions of the past. “Images like photographs. Now they seem like a silent movie. Figures move, stumble. I see a long line of shackled people, some stumbling, some wailing . . .” During the three-page vision, Captain Maddie shows Zane how slaves were used to build Wall Street.  
  • Occasionally Captain Maddie appears, but Zane is the only person who can see her ghost.  
  • Zane has a vision of Thomas Downing, a wealthy Black man who helped hide people who were escaping slavery. The vision guides Zane to the underground room where Thomas hid slaves.

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Ace of Spades

Chiamaka, one of two Black students at the elite Niveus Academy, is more than ready for her senior year. Since her freshman year, everything she’s done at Niveus has been with Yale’s pre-med program in mind – taking the hardest classes, staying on top of her grades, making connections. When she is selected to be one of the senior Prefects at the back-to-school assembly, she is pleased but not surprised. After all, this was the track she meticulously planned for since day one. 

By contrast, Devon, the only other Black student, is ready to fall back into Niveus’s monotony, finish his senior year, and get out. Quiet and shy, the only place he truly feels at ease at Niveus is in the music classroom, where he can escape into building his portfolio for Julliard’s piano performance program. So, when he is also selected to be a senior Prefect, he is taken aback: he is a good student, but not an exceptional one.  

But things never stay quiet at Niveus for long: soon after the semester begins, a mysterious entity who calls themselves Aces begins sending incriminating messages to the entire school, exposing students’ deepest, darkest secrets. After a few texts, Chiamaka and Devon realize something disturbing: Aces seems to be only targeting them. They pair up to try and take Aces down, but the more they dig, the more they uncover about their classmates, teachers, and Niveus’ dark past. It soon becomes clear that they can only trust each other – or can they do even that? 

Ace of Spades is a gripping read from the start. The pacing is a bit off-putting at times– the book starts slow, uncovering the story layer by layer, and then speeds up in the end with several plot twists that are not as developed as they could be. Nevertheless, Chiamaka and Devon are both such smart and compelling narrators that readers will quickly get hooked – the story is told from both of their perspectives, so readers get full insight into both characters’ lives and see both similarities and differences in their experiences. Both Chiamaka and Devon go through a lot of character development throughout the story. Despite their flaws, they are sympathetic characters that readers will root for and be able to relate to.  

While Ace of Spades is a deeply important read, it does handle many difficult topics, such as institutional racism, drug use, incarceration, and death. None of these issues are sugarcoated and they are all integral parts of the story, especially racism. Because these issues are given the gravity they deserve, several parts of the story are rather heavy. While readers should be aware of the heavy subject matter going into this book, it should not deter them from reading it since all of the issues are important to talk about and learn about as they are prevalent in our world today. 

Overall, Ace of Spades is a suspenseful thriller that exposes many systemic injustices prevalent in our world today, sending an important message about how to combat them. It has a multi-layer plot that is slowly and carefully peeled away to reveal a big picture that is truly shocking and thought-provoking. Although parts of this story are uncomfortable to read about, they reflect important issues in our modern society that are vital to address and discuss. Ace of Spades will hook readers from the start, and leave them thinking about it for weeks to come.  

Sexual Content 

  • Chiamaka remembers the first time she and her best friend, Jamie, hooked up at a party. “He told me to meet him in his bedroom, and while that night we only made out, it was the catalyst for what happened the rest of the year: Jamie sneaking kisses, whispering things in my ear, asking me to come over . . . ” 
  • Aces leaks a video of Devon and his ex-boyfriend having sex. Chiamaka (and the rest of the school) get a text notification from Aces, plus the video: “Just in. Porn is easy to come by these days. You either search for it online or it falls right in your lap when you least expected it to.” Chiamaka doesn’t click on it, but she “could hear the sounds of it playing from Jamie’s phone.” 
  • Aces exposes the fact that Chiamaka and Jamie hooked up last year. “Belle Robinson [Jamie’s current girlfriend], you have a problem. I’d ask your boyfriend and his bestie, Chiamaka, what they were doing this summer. Hint, it involves no clothes and a lot of heavy petting.”
  • Devon has sex with an ex-boyfriend. “Dre moves off the bed and goes over to the drawer in his desk, pulling out some condoms. I look away from him now and up at the ceiling, listening to the sound of the rain hitting the windows and the wind angrily crying out, letting it drown my thoughts. His weight tilts the bed as he leans over me and joins our lips together again . . . And then, when we are finally done and I’m in his arms, I let myself cry.” 
  • A poster of Chiamaka is circulated at a party and spreads around Niveus. “Posters of a passed-out Chiamaka in a short silver dress, black tights, black heeled boots, mascara dried on her cheeks, and her hair a tangled mess. Some of the posters have Bitch written in big black bold text, others Slut.” 
  • It’s implied that Chiamaka and her girlfriend make out, or more. “Belle nods, a sly smile on her lips as she reaches up to her shirt and starts to unbutton it. ‘Want to continue not talking?’ she asks, the yellow of her bra making everything inside tingle. ‘Not talking is my favorite thing to do,’ I tell her.” 

Violence 

  • Chiamaka has a flashback to when she was in the car with Jamie behind the wheel, and they hit a girl. “Rain pounds the road as I peer out the window at the body – her body. Through the rivulets, I see her face. Blond curls, pale skin, a dark pool forming a halo around her head. I gag, gripping on to the cold, hard dashboard, closing my eyes. I feel so sick.” This scene is described over two pages. 
  • After a picture of Devon and his ex-boyfriend kissing is leaked, Devon worries about the violence he might face from the homophobic community. “The guys in my neighborhood, the ones I used to go to school with, they’d kill me if they saw that picture. Toss my body into the garbage disposal once they were done with me. These guys watch me on my walk home, staring me down, smirking. Sometimes they yell shit. Other times they push me to the ground, then walk off laughing. The picture would make things in my neighborhood ten times worse.” 
  • Jamie physically attacks Chiamaka, and she defends herself. “I’m cut off by Jamie wrapping his hands around my neck and squeezing. He’s shaking as he strangles me and I’m wheezing, laughing and gasping for air . . . I don’t want Jamie’s face to be the last thing I see before I die, and so I summon all the remaining strength I have, and I kick him in the crotch. Jamie staggers back, releasing me. I cough, throat hurting, chest aching. I don’t give myself time to pause before I kick him again. This time he falls to the ground.” Chiamaka runs away, shaken but uninjured. 
  • The headmaster of Niveus holds a gun to Chiamaka’s forehead to stop her from exposing Niveus’ secrets but doesn’t shoot her. “Before I can do anything else, I feel a large hand grab me, dragging me away through the curtains. I glance back, trying to break out of this powerful grip, and that’s when I feel cold metal pressed to my forehead. A gun.” Chiamaka gets away by “[sticking] something in [the headmaster’s] neck. He freezes up and drops to the ground, the gun dropping with him.” 
  • A fire breaks out at Niveus. Most make it out, but a few people die, including Jamie. These deaths are only mentioned, not described.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Chiamaka got drunk at a party with her best friend, Jamie. “We’d both gotten drunk, so drunk I don’t remember much of that night.” 
  • Chiamaka got drunk at a party with her now-ex-boyfriend. “He thrusts his hand out, this time spilling a bit of his drink, before concentrating hard on placing it down straight.” 
  • Devon has sold drugs to support his family. When he asks his mom to let him help with the bills, she “shakes her head. ‘I know what you want to do and I don’t want you doing that ever. I want you off those streets, in that classroom – making your life better, not jeopardizing it.’” 
  • Chiamaka and Devon have some wine in her basement. “I open up one of the liquor cabinets and I take out a bottle of Chardonnay, placing it on the island. I get out two wineglasses and pour some into each, before sliding one over to Devon. I don’t even like the taste of it, but I know it will help me relax a little. I only poured half a glass so that we wouldn’t be too relaxed or out of it, just enough to give us some liquid courage.” 

Language 

  • Shit and fuck are used occasionally. 
  • The n–word is used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Devon’s mother is a devout Christian and often prays to God. For example, when the family is struggling financially, she says, “It’ll work itself out, Vonnie. God never falters.” 

Yes No Maybe So

Jamie’s summer is not turning out like he hoped it would. After his fear of public speaking cost him a spot in a highly coveted internship, he settles for volunteering on a campaign for a Georgia State Senate candidate. It’s certainly not the glamorous summer he envisioned, but he’s wanted to be involved in politics and effect change for as long as he could remember, so he’ll take what he can get. Plus, it gives him breaks from bat mitzvah planning with his younger sister, Sophie. 

Maya’s summer doesn’t look promising, either. Between her parents potentially divorcing and her best friend, Sara, focused on work and getting ready to move away to college, it feels like her life is completely falling apart. Nothing feels right anymore, and she wonders if it ever will again. 

But when Jamie and Maya’s moms reconnect, they suggest that Jamie and Maya go door to door trying to get votes for the campaign Jamie is volunteering for. At first, neither is thrilled about the idea– Jamie is a nervous wreck around strangers, and Maya has enough on her plate already. But the more time they spend knocking on doors and promoting their candidate, the more they realize just how much is at stake in this election. And the more time they spend together, the more they realize that they don’t completely hate each other’s company. Are they growing closer as friends, or something more? 

Yes No Maybe So is a fast-paced rom-com that readers will tear through. Because the chapters alternate between Jamie’s and Maya’s perspectives, both characters are well-developed. Seeing the story unfold through both of their eyes adds lots of layers and nuance. Both characters have regrets and make mistakes, but learn from them and apologize; their ability to communicate and willingness to share their feelings is refreshing. The buildup to their eventual romance is satisfying too. Since they start out as friends, their relationship is clearly based on mutual respect and genuine regard for one another.  

This book also deals with complex issues such as antisemitism and Islamophobia, and how those manifests in politics. While these issues are not sugarcoated and are given the gravity that they deserve, there is still a healthy balance between the political and the romantic subplots. The two subplots complement each other well because neither one dominates the other. Yes No Maybe So’s main message is one of love and acceptance. Although we all have differences, it is important to respect people’s choices for how they want to live their lives, provided they are not hurting those around them. 

Overall, Yes No Maybe So is a fun and engaging read, perfect for teenagers who are looking for an optimistic (but not cheesy) view on the world we live in. It is a heartwarming romance full of twists and turns, while still sending a vital message about the importance of speaking out against injustice. Readers will fall in love with Jamie and Maya, and root for them as they try to navigate their friendship, as well as the ever-changing world around them. 

Sexual Content 

  • When thinking about how he often fumbles when giving a speech in public, Jamie nervously envisions himself giving a campaign speech and makes a sexual joke. He says, “Seriously, I wouldn’t just lose my election. I would call it an erection. And then I’d lose.” 
  • Jamie’s eighth-grade sister, Sophie, discusses games that she and her friends are planning to play at a no-adults birthday party. “We’re doing Spin the Bottle, we’re doing Seven Minutes in Heaven, we’re doing Suck and Blow. . . With a playing card.” 
  • Maya’s favorite season of The Office is “season two. All that Jim and Pam sexual tension.” 
  • Maya goes to Jamie’s house. His friends leave, joking that Jamie and Maya probably want “alone time.” Jamie and Maya laugh it off, but Jamie thinks, “Alone time. With Maya. In my house, which contains my room, which contains my–okay, I’m not going to think about beds. That would be absurd. No point in thinking about beds or alone or Maya or alone with Maya in beds or–” 
  • Jamie and Maya watch an episode of The Office together. During a particularly romantic scene, Maya puts her head on Jamie’s shoulder, and Jamie gets an erection. “Her head’s still on my shoulder, even though I’m the king of awkward, with my arm just hanging down stiffly. God. Speaking of stiff– I adjust the blankets, blushing furiously. Think of Asa Newton. Think of Ian Holden, Jennifer Dickers. Fifi. Fifi’s humanoid hands—Crisis averted.” 
  • Jamie and Maya kiss for the first time in Target. Then they move into a dressing room for privacy. Maya “sinks onto the bench, and I follow—kissing her forehead, her cheeks, her lips. But then she hugs me, shifting backward, until I’m almost on top of her. I rest my hand behind her head before it hits the bench. Our legs tangle together, sneakered feet dangling off the edge. This time, when we kiss, it’s more urgent. Her hands fall to the back of my neck, gently threading my hair. My fingers trail down her bare arms, and she smiles against my lips.” 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • “Fuck” and “fucking” are sometimes used as an intensifier. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Jamie is Jewish and Maya is Muslim. They bring up their faiths, and how it affects their lives, many times throughout the story. For example, this story takes place during Ramadan, so the fact that Maya is fasting often comes up. She says, “‘I don’t do coffee on Ramadan. . .  I don’t even do water. I eat suhoor way before the sun is up and then I eat after the sun sets. That’s it.” 

Always Isn’t Forever

J.C. Cervantes’ novel follows Ruby and her long-time boyfriend, Hart. When Hart suddenly passes away in a drowning accident, Ruby struggles to figure out her new plans for the future—a future without the love of her life. Unbeknownst to his friends and family, Hart experiences a miracle, as his soul comes back to life in the body of someone else. Unfortunately for Hart, his new body is that of Jameson Romanelli, a football player at his school that Ruby describes as “arrogant, selfish, [and] obnoxious.” Because Jameson is in a coma after a car crash, an angel named Lourdes is able to put Hart’s soul into Jameson’s body. Lourdes explains to Hart that Jameson’s soul is about to pass on, and this is what allows her to put Hart’s soul into his body.  

Hart must try to reckon with his new body and he can’t tell anyone who he really is. This allows him to grow and experience new things. For instance, Ruby describes Hart as a bit of a “worrywart. . . when we were kids, he wouldn’t climb the monkey bars or anything more than four feet off the ground, he started a petition for seat belts on the school bus.” In addition, Hart is “a stickler for the rules.” But that changes when Hart has to learn to convincingly do things that Jameson would normally do, in order to not clue anyone in about his divine intervention. For instance, Hart needs to learn a lot about football, as Jameson is a top athlete at their school and he is under a great deal of pressure from his father. Being in Jameson’s body allows Hart to understand that people face pressures we have no way of knowing about from surface-level encounters. Hart explains, “I’ve only lived in Jameson’s body a day and I already feel like shit. Imagine how bad he felt living his whole life under this kind of pressure.” 

Because Hart (referred to as Hart/Jameson later in the book), now in Jameson’s body, is not able to tell Ruby what happened, Ruby feels completely confused as to why Jameson is suddenly reaching out to her and being nice. Eventually, as Ruby spends more time with this “new” Jameson, she starts to feel that “I couldn’t stand [Jameson] and then he woke up from a coma and I felt this weird connection and then I hung out with [Jameson] and to be honest he wasn’t that bad; he was nice.” Ruby feels conflicted about enjoying her time with Jameson, but says, “I felt like . . . like we’re connected by something bigger.”  

Always Isn’t Forever switches points of view at the start of each chapter, which will help readers relate to each of the characters individually. Though Hart initially judges Jameson, Hart grows as a character because he can feel Jameson’s emotions. For example, Hart discovers that Jameson had a serious girlfriend who “had a rock-climbing accident and died.” Hart is able to feel Jameson’s grief: “I feel an ache deep between my ribs that shoots into my heart.” Hart recognizes that this grief is what drove Jameson to alcohol. Hart learns about how the pain of grief can affect people who may seem hardened on the outside, like Jameson.  

Even though the book’s characters are extremely empathetic, the situation regarding what happens to Jameson’s soul when Hart’s soul is put into his body is not explained in detail. This causes confusion especially because Jameson’s memories begin taking over Hart. For instance, Hart lost some of his memories. He explains, “I have no idea how to sail this boat that evidently, I bought and fixed up and don’t remember a damn thing about.” However, Hart regains all his memories at the end, and though this leaves a happy ending for Ruby and Hart, the reader might be confused as to why the angel did not just give Hart all of his memories to begin with.  

Overall, the theme of processing grief is extremely pertinent in Always Isn’t Forever. Readers will empathize greatly with Ruby as she explains how she feels after Hart’s death: “At first, I let [grief] have at me. I knew the grief was eventually going to swallow me up. And I wanted it to.” Later in the novel, Ruby recognizes that her grief has caused her to give up things she used to enjoy. She reflects that she’s “given up what I love: the water, my dreams to travel—even myself. I guess a part of me is terrified that if I let myself want again, it’ll just be one more thing ripped away. But how is a life without desire worth living?” Eventually, Ruby is able to open up to Jameson and share her feelings, which allows her to refocus on her dreams of travel and college that she had put aside in the depths of her grief.  

Sexual Content 

  • Hart and Ruby share a quick romantic moment. Hart says, “[Ruby] gives me a kiss, meant to be a peck, but I’m greedy, and in a nanosecond the kiss is deeper, our bodies pressed so close I think we could melt into this mattress.” But the kiss ends abruptly, with Hart saying, “Sometimes I wish we had never agreed to wait to have sex until college.”  
  • To test her theory that “a part of Hart is inside Jameson,” Ruby approaches Jameson and kisses him. Hart/Jameson describes, “[Ruby] pulls me closer, opens my mouth with her own. Every nerve in my body is on fire. I let go. I deepen the kiss, feel its heat, its desire, and all the questions it’s asking . . . our erratic breathing matches the rhythm of the kiss now, frantic, out of control. As if this is the last kiss we’ll ever have. I want more of [Ruby]. All of her.” 
  • Ruby and Hart/Jameson spend a romantic evening together. Ruby says, “Each kiss more urgent than the second before, the longing growing, growing, growing.” 
  • Ruby asks Hart/Jameson if he wants to be intimate with her. Ruby explains, “We’d sworn we’d wait until college. But now. . . if this is my only chance. It was always going to be Hart. It was, is, and forever will be—Hart.” But they stop before they go any further than kissing because Hart/Jameson says, “No, not like this.” 

Violence 

  • When a little boy accidentally falls overboard during a storm, Hart goes out into the dangerous waters to rescue him. Even though the boy is saved, as Hart attempts to get to the boat’s ladder, “My fingers trace its edges just as a colossal swell sucks me under. The waters are dark . . . violent. I fight my way to the top, but it’s not there. I have no idea which way is up.”  
  • Hart’s drowning is described over a page, including Hart’s feelings about dying: “They say our life passes before our eyes right before we die, but it isn’t true. I think two things in that moment: I should have spent that extra minute with my dad. I should have chosen to spend tonight with Ruby. The water closes in . . . Water rushes into my nose and mouth, floods my lungs.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • It is briefly mentioned that Jameson’s car accident was caused because he was driving under the influence. Later, Hart explains that Jameson’s long-time girlfriend passed away. “That’s why [Jameson] started drinking.” 

Language 

  • Ruby refers to Jameson as a “two-faced son of a bitch”  because he cheated off her schoolwork and toilet-papered her house.
  • Occasionally, characters use words like asshole, shit, and damn.  
  • Rarely, characters use the word fuck.  
  • When frustrated, Ruby exclaims, “I swear on the baby Jesus that I am not a violent person.”  
  • Gabi, Ruby’s sister, exclaims, “Holy Santos,” when she discovers “a part of Hart is somehow inside of Jameson.” 

Supernatural 

  • Lourdes, an angel, explains to Hart that he “can go back to a human life; you can live out your days until your actual scheduled time to die . . . All we have to do is find a body that is on the verge of death.” 
  • As Hart’s soul enters Jameson’s body, Hart explains, “I stare out of Jameson’s eyes. The world looks different . . . I thought [Jameson] might tell me to get the hell out of his body. But no. You want to know what he said? What his last words were before he checked out for good? ‘Don’t waste it, man.’” 
  • Gabi, Ruby’s sister, tells Ruby that she has a theory about Jameson. Gabi says, “What if . . . [Jameson] has a message from the other side, from Hart . . . because he was so close to death?” 
  • Initially, when Lourdes uses her angel powers to put Hart’s soul into Jameson’s body, she explains that Hart will not be able to tell anyone exactly what happened to his soul. Lourdes explains that in order for Hart to be able to explain the truth of what happened to his soul to Ruby, Lourdes will “use the only power I have that is great enough . . . I will give up a single wing.” Lourdes’ sacrifice allows Hart to be able to explain what happened to his soul, so that Ruby can understand what happened to his soul after he drowned.  
  • Lourdes tells Hart, “When the death angel came for me . . . I asked to use my last wing to give you back your memories.”

Spiritual Content 

  • Lourdes tells Hart that she used her abilities as an angel on him. “You’re not in heaven, and you’re not exactly dead . . . I saw you struggling and I knew [drowning] was going to be painful, so I pulled your soul out early to save you from all of that.”  
  • Ruby’s sister, Gabi, does a card reading for Ruby. The cards that have been passed down through generations in their family. Gabi says the cards are “a special gift from the ancestors.” Gabi “takes the World card in her hands, closes her eyes, and meditates for as long as necessary until she gets that ‘message’ from our ancestors.” Gabi explains that she “heard a single whisper; it said, ‘message?’” 

Flirting with Fate

Ava Granados’s family has a magical secret. Ava explains, “All the women in the Granados family had this keen, odd, otherworldly ability to pass along blessings to their female descendants. But here was the catch: they could only do so from their death beds.” When her grandmother is dying, Ava and all her sisters rush to their grandmother’s bedside. Unfortunately, due to a flash flood, Ava gets into a car accident and is too late to receive her Nana’s blessing. While her sisters receive their blessings, including an extremely detailed memory and the ability to persuade others, Ava is devastated to not have received her grandmother’s parting gift.  

When Ava attends the celebration of Nana’s life, she looks up and suddenly sees her recently deceased grandmother looking at her. Ava describes, “A figure emerged from the orchard a mere thirty feet away. Wide-eyed, dimple-cheeked, perfect auburn coif. Nana?” When Nana lay dying, she accidentally gave Ava’s blessing to someone else, but because she is now a ghost, she has no memory of what happened. Nana asks Ava to help her restore the blessing to its proper recipient or Nana “will remain a ghost . . . until this is made right.”  

Ava realizes that Nana’s blessing must have accidentally landed on the boy whose car she crashed into. For guarded Ava, befriending some random boy is the last thing she wants to do. Desperate to help Nana reach peace, Ava must find a way to connect with this mysterious boy, Rion, in order to be able to recapture her Nana’s blessing. Nana encourages Ava to open up to Rion and to look within herself. Nana says, “You can always recognize the love when it belongs to you.” Over the course of the novel, Ava learns to trust in herself and her feelings for Rion.  

Many readers will be able to relate to Ava because she is afraid of being hurt or rejected. Ava begins to spend more time with Rion, all the while trying to figure out how best to get her Nana’s blessing back. Nana encourages Ava to look within herself. Nana says, “You can always recognize the love when it belongs to you.”  

Ava and Rion end up connecting over the loss of a parent. Rion’s parents died in a car accident while Ava’s mom left. However, they both blame themselves for their parents’ absence.  Because Rion is able to share his emotions, Ava is able to truly open up about her feelings. Ava explains, “I used to blame myself for my mom leaving too. She left when I was seven, and I used to think if I had been better, nicer, more, then she would have stayed.” Ava is able to comfort Rion by sharing what she has learned. She tells Rion, “We can’t blame ourselves for things we had no control over.” Ava and Rion’s relationship is extremely impactful as it allows them both to share feelings about things that they previously kept inside.  

Overall, Ava’s journey to opening up her heart and embracing things she never thought possible is extremely compelling. Similar to Cervantes’ other work, Enchanted Hacienda, Cervantes continues exploring the theme of magic being inherited through female descendants. Though there is a romantic relationship brewing between Ava and Rion, there is also a major focus on the importance of family, as Ava’s relationship with her Nana is central. Nana encourages Ava to open her heart, saying, “I gave you the gift of an open heart . . . you keep people at arm’s length; you don’t trust. I don’t want you to go through life closed off from love.” This wonderful novel leaves readers with an important message: trust yourself and open your heart to possibilities.  

Sexual Content 

  • Ava’s sister, Carmen, sees a cute guy at a party. Carmen tells Ava, “Look, there are a lot of boys to kiss in this world.”  
  • Ava explains her negative history with relationships. “Relationships always ended badly, with a goodbye and a broken, unmendable heart . . . at least for someone. But last year [Ava] did kiss Bryce Wellington on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland just to get it over with . . . Sadly, it felt unimpressive.” 
  • Ava’s sisters are watching The Notebook in the living room, and Ava remarks, “Clothes were flying off [the characters] and the last thing Ava wanted to do was stand there with her grandmother’s ghost and a fifteenth-century saint while a monster sex scene played out ten feet away.” 
  • Ava believes she and Rion are having a romantic moment, when suddenly, she realizes she is actually kissing his twin brother, Achilles. Ava says, “His lips brushed against hers. She felt a jolt, an alarm that screamed wrong, wrong, wrong.” After realizing she is actually kissing Rion’s brother, Ava “jerked free, horrified, as she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand.” 
  • After pushing Rion out of the way of a falling tree, they kiss. “She felt her body yielding, falling deeper into Rion. And then their mouths met. And Ava was no longer falling. She was dissolving. The forest and the sky fell silent. The world evaporated. There was only this moment.” 
  • Ava kisses Rion at a party. Ava “reached up, bringing his lips to hers. Allowing herself to be swept away in his trust, his warmth, his love.” 

Violence 

  • When Achilles tricks Ava into kissing him, Rion finds out and tackles Achilles. “The brothers rolled across the dirt, all grunts and curses and years of unspent anger.” They finally stop when Ava yells at them. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • Characters occasionally use moderate language like shit, damn, and ass.  
  • When Nana suddenly appears as a ghost, Ava exclaims, “Jesus Christ!” 
  • Nana, in her ghost form, splashes water at Ava’s sisters who exclaims, “Holy Mary, Mother of God!” 

Supernatural 

  • Ava explains an example of a blessing in her family. “Ava’s great-grandmother had graced Nana with an angel’s voice. Before that, Nana couldn’t even sing off-key . . . After the death-bed blessing? It was like listening to a Mexican Pavarotti [Opera star] when [Nana] opened her mouth to sing.” 
  • Ava’s sister, Viv, is given the blessing of persuasion by her grandmother. Viv explains, “It’s not like I can go around making people do anything I want them to. Nana said I would just be able to help others see my side of things.”  
  • Ava’s other sister, Carmen, received the blessing of memory from Nana. Carmen says, “I got the blessing of memory, which I guess means that I can recall details, read or hear or see something once and remember it verbatim . . . it’s weird—like having a camera in my head.” 
  • Ava’s Nana appears to her one last time at the end of the book. Ava explains, “And then, as if by magic, the mist parted, just enough for Ava to see Nana . . . [Nana] was young, beautiful, beaming with joy.”  

Spiritual Content 

  • As Ava drives to get to her grandmother’s bedside, Ava prays that she will make it there in time to say goodbye. Ava says, “Listen, God . . . If you get me home with enough time, I’ll go to confession for. . . I’ll go for a whole week.” 
  • Nana is guided in her ghost form by Saint Medardus. Medardus introduces himself as, “I am the patron saint of weather, vineyards, brewers, captives, prisoners, and teeth . . . I hail from the fifteenth century and am [Nana’s] guide, here to help her.” 
  • Ava attends confession, as she promised to do on the night of her Nana’s passing. Ava is nervous about it and says, “What if I see someone I know? What if the priest laughs at me? What if I get it all wrong?” But she ultimately speaks to the priest and after she confesses, the priest says, “Your penance is to say six Our Fathers and three Hail Marys.” 

These Violent Delights

The year is 1926. Shanghai is a city torn apart by violence and bloodshed. Two rival gangs–the Chinese Scarlet Gang and the Russian White Flowers–have long been engaged in a blood feud that leads to perpetual chaos in the streets. Nobody knows exactly how this feud started, but neither side shows signs of stopping, preferring instead to fan the flames by continuing to match action for action. 

Not only that, but new, much more obscure powers are also slowly seeping in, threatening to divide Shanghai even further. Growing numbers of Europeans are arriving, attempting to reform the ways of the city in the name of “progress.” There’s also a monster that now lives in the Huangpu River, identified only by its massive form and glittering eyes. In addition, a madness is sweeping through the city like a contagion, possessing ordinary civilians and causing them to suddenly rip their own throats out. 

Caught in all this chaos are Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov. Juliette has just returned from her four years abroad in America. Now, she must assume her rightful place as the heir to the Scarlet Gang. Roma, on the other hand, has been performing his duties as heir to the White Flowers. Despite the feud between their families, and their own complicated history, Roma and Juliette come to realize that everything plaguing Shanghai is interconnected. They must combine powers–secretly, of course–to save their city. After all, they had been lovers once, before betrayal on both sides sent Juliette away. But is their former relationship enough of a buffer between their families’ complicated history to allow them to work together? As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule. 

These Violent Delights is a stunning fantasy retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This novel takes a familiar story in wildly unfamiliar directions, transposing it onto a landscape that is closer to our modern world while retaining a historical element. This is not the Shakespeare you read in English class – the fantastical elements and action-packed scenes are sure to hook readers from the start. The characters themselves are also compelling because the point of view shifts between characters, allowing readers to get to know both Roma and Juliette and sympathize with them despite their cutthroat actions.  

Because this story has many moving parts to it, with several subplots and historical commentary woven throughout, the pacing of the plot feels off at times – too slow in some parts and not nearly slow enough in others. The prose, too, often oscillates between lush and imaginative, and clunky and awkward. However, the wide array of characters in this book greatly redeems its lacking qualities, and readers will root for Roma and Juliette in their quest to fix both the problems in their city and in their relationship. 

Overall, These Violent Delights is a fantastic debut novel, perfect for teenagers who want a fresh spin on a classic tale. It ends in a dramatic cliffhanger, setting the scene perfectly for its sequel, Our Violent Ends. 

Sexual Content 

  • Several passing references to brothels are made. For example, Juliette comments that, “In Shanghai, it was easier to count the establishments that didn’t double as brothels than the ones that did.”  
  • Roma and Juliette accidentally walk in on a couple who are implied to be having sex. “Juliette opened the first door she came upon. Two distinct yelps of surprise sounded as light seeped into the tiny room. Juliette squinted and saw a man with his pants down. ‘Get out,’ she demanded. ‘This is my room,’ the woman on the bed protested.”  
  • Roma and Juliette kiss in a private room. “Juliette hooked her legs around his and twisted her hips until Roma was the one flat on his back and she loomed over him, kneeling on the sheets . . . his hand was moving higher and higher, brushing her calf, her knee, her thigh. Juliette’s palm sank lower, until it was gripping the space underneath the smooth collar of his white shirt . . . They both gave in at once. Roma’s kiss was just as she remembered. It filled her with so much adrenaline and exuberance that she could burst. It made her feel too ethereal for her own body, as if she could tear out of her own skin.”  

Violence 

  • A group of Scarlets and White Flowers get ready to fight. “In a blink: guns upon guns. Each arm raised and steady and trigger-happy, ready to pull.” The police stop them before any further violence ensues. 
  • Juliette watches a man possessed by the madness kill himself. Juliette “saw the man thrashing on the ground, his own fingers clawing at his thick neck. . . most of his nails were already buried deep into muscle. The man was digging with an animal-like intensity–as if there was something there, something no one else could see crawling under his skin. Deeper, deeper, deeper, until his fingers were wholly buried and he was pulling free tendons and veins and arteries. In the next second, the club had fallen silent completely. Nothing was audible save the labored breathing of the short and stout man who had collapsed on the floor, his throat torn into pieces and his hands dripping with blood.” Many similar scenes occur throughout the novel. 
  • Juliette verbally provokes her cousin, Tyler, who physically attacks her. “Quick as a flash, Tyler slammed her into the wall. He kept one hand scrunched against her left sleeve and the rest of his arm splayed against her clavicle, pushing just enough to make a threat.” Juliette retaliates in self-defense. “Her right hand jerked up–fist clenched, wrist hard, knuckles braced – and made centered, perfect contact with her cousin’s cheek . . . Then Tyler stumbled, letting go of Juliette and whipping his head to look at her, hatred stamped into the hollows of his eyes. A red slash buried the line of his cheekbone, the result of Juliette’s glittering ring scraping through skin.”  
  • Juliette remembers an explosion caused by the White Flowers that killed many of her family members. “Her ears were screeching – first with the remnants of that awful, loud sound, then with the shouting, the panic, the cries wafting over from the back, where the servants’ house was. When she hurried over, she saw rubble. She saw a leg. A pool of blood. Someone had been standing right at the threshold of the front door when the ceiling caved in.” 
  • Juliette has a cutthroat reputation. “[The Scarlets] were killers and extortionists and raging forces of violence, but as the rumors went, Juliette Cai was the girl who had strangled and killed her American lover with a string of pearls. Juliette Cai was the heiress who, on her second day back in Shanghai, had stepped into a brawl between four White Flowers and two Scarlets and killed all four White Flowers with only three bullets. Only one of those rumors was true.”  
  • Roma tries to accost Juliette with a gun to her forehead, and Juliette defends herself. “Before Roma could so much as blink, her right hand came down hard on his right wrist, twisting his gun-wielding hand outward until his fingers were unnaturally bent. She slapped down at the gun with her left hand. The weapon skittered to the ground. Her jaw gritted to brace for impact, Juliette twisted her foot out from behind Roma’s and jerked it against his ankles–until he was falling backward and she followed, one hand locked on his neck and the other reaching into her dress pocket to retrieve a needle-thin knife.” Roma surrenders, stopping the fight. 
  • To get information, Juliette physically attacks someone with a garrote. “Madame squawked when Juliette pulled the garrote wire tight, her fingers flying up to scrabble at the pressure digging into her skin. By then the wire was already wrapped around her neck, the micro-blades piercing in.” Madame survives this, left with a bleeding cut on her throat. 
  • Roma participates in a sparring match that starts out as a game, but takes a turn when he realizes that his opponent, Dimitri, has a blade. “Dimitri kicked out and Roma took the hit. A fist flashed in his periphery, and in his haste to get away, Roma dodged too hard, overjudging his balance and stumbling. Dimitri struck again. A flash of the blade: a slit opened on Roma’s jaw.” The match ends when Roma is declared the winner after he “[reaches] out and [grabs] a fistful of Dimitri’s shoulder length black hair…[slams] a knee right into his nose, [takes] his arm and twists backwards until Roma [has] a grip on his neck and a foot stomping down on the back of his knees.”  
  • A British soldier draws his gun on Roma and Juliette, and Roma shoots him in self-defense. “A bang sounded from the space between them. Juliette immediately whirled around to catch the British tail collapsing where he stood, a bright-red spot blooming on his chest.”  
  • Marshall, Roma’s friend, hits Juliette, and she attacks him back. “From his seat, Roma bolted up and shouted, ‘Mars!’ but Juliette was already pushing Marshall back, her throbbing jaw giving way to anger and her anger intensifying the pulsating pain making its way to her lip.” The match ends abruptly when Marshall starts laughing, and Juliette helps him to his feet; this altercation ends as quickly as it began, and Marshall and Juliette work together for the remainder of this scene. Neither is seriously injured.  
  • Juliette shoots the man she and Roma believe to be the cause of the madness, Zhang Gutai. “Juliette fired. Zhang Gutai looked down, looked at the blotch of red blooming on his white shirt.” Zhang Gutai dies as a result of this wound. 
  • Juliette attempts to shoot the monster in the Huangpu River. “Juliette aimed her gun and fired – again and again and again in hopes that it could kill the monster, or, at the very least, slow it down – but the bullets bounced off its back like she had shot at steel.” 
  • Paul, a British man, tries to drown Juliette when she discovers a secret. Paul “grabbed a fistful of her hair and stuck her head in the water . . . Juliette bucked and kicked, harder and harder with no avail.” She gets away by stabbing a needle into his wrist.  
  • Juliette kills the river monster’s human host, Qi Ren. “Juliette raised the pistol. Her hands were shaking. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. Once again, she pulled the trigger. The bullet struck his heart. The bullet was as loud as the bang at the end of the world. But Qi Ren’s sigh was soft. His hand came up to his chest gingerly, as if the bullet were nothing but a heartfelt compliment. Rivulets of red ran down his fingers and onto the wharf, tinting his surroundings a deep color.” 
  • Juliette shoots Marshall and his “head lolled back. He was motionless. Motionless.” It is later revealed that Juliette and Marshall staged this “murder” and Marshall is alive.   

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Several references to opium are made: for example, the narrator describes fighting between the Scarlet Gang and the White flowers as “more commonplace in heady Shanghai than the smoke of opium wafting from a thick pipe.”  
  • One key plot point is that the British supply lernicrom, a fictional opiate, to various groups. 
  • Benedikt, Roma’s cousin, drinks vodka at a bar. “Roma lifted the cup in front of Benedikt and took a cautionary sniff. His cousin snatched it from his hands. ‘Don’t drink that,’ Benedikt warned.” 
  • Roma and Juliette play a drinking game with someone they want to get information from: one shot in exchange for one question. Roma gets drunk enough to fall down; Juliette gets “woozy enough to see in doubles but not enough to lose balance.” 

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

That Weekend

Three best friends. A lake house. And a secret trip—what could possibly go wrong?  

It was supposed to be the perfect prom weekend getaway. But it’s clear that something terrible has happened when Claire wakes up alone and covered with blood on a hiking trail with no memory of the past forty-eight hours. Now everyone wants answers—most of all, Claire. She remembers Friday night, but after that . . . nothing. And now Kat and Jesse—her best friends—are missing.

What happened on that mountain? And where are Kat and Jesse? Claire knows the answers are buried somewhere in her memory. But as she’s quickly finding out, everyone has secrets—even her best friends. And she’s pretty sure she’s not going to like what she finds out. 

That Weekend begins by following Claire, who wakes up in the middle of the woods and cannot remember anything. Right from the start, suspense is created due to Claire’s missing friends.  

Although readers may sympathize with Claire’s situation, Claire is so wrapped up in herself and her romantic feelings for Jesse that it is often difficult to feel sorry for her. This makes her an unreliable narrator, leaving readers wondering if she is telling the whole truth. All of this creates a character that readers may struggle to like. 

The book’s timeline isn’t consistent, which causes confusion. For example, the first chapter begins in the present, but then jumps to a flashback from three days earlier, then two days earlier, and then one day earlier. Later, the second half of the book jumps from the present to flashbacks, while also changing to another character’s perspective. Keeping track of the narrator and various flashbacks means the reader has to pay close attention to the titles at the beginning of each chapter in order to understand what is happening.  

Another flaw is that the conclusion of the story isn’t very convincing. For instance, the FBI is unable to find Kat and Jesse, however Claire is able to locate her missing friends without difficulty. To make matters worse, the reader discovers that Kat and Jesse planned their own kidnapping because Kat’s father was abusive and Kat’s grandmother demanded that Kat break up with Jesse. However, in the end, Kat and Jesse part ways and Kat returns to her controlling family. Plus, it can be hard to sympathize with Kat because her actions are responsible for three deaths.  

Because of the forgettable characters, the complicated timeline, and the strange plot twists, That Weekend is a confusing story that readers may want to leave on the shelf. If you’re looking for a suspenseful book that is more entertaining, read Six Months Later by Natalie D. Richards or We Were Liars by E. Lockhart 

Sexual Content 

  • There is a rumor that Jesse “had hooked up with some girl from Westhampton beach after Battle of the Bands.” 
  • After breaking up with Ben, Claire tells Jesse that sex “doesn’t have to be a big deal. Ben turned out to be an asshole, but I don’t regret that he was my first.” Jesse is surprised that Ben was Claire’s first.  
  • At school, Jesse gets into a fight with “some asshole sophomore who’d been teasing him. Jesse was white in the face when a teacher pulled the other kid off him. When Jesse looked down at his hands, drenched in the blood spurting from his nose, he’d started to tremble . . .” 
  • When Claire was fifteen, she went to a party and met up with Amos, who “at seventeen, was practically a man to me.” Amos “runs his hands down my sides, tugs the waist of my jeans. I’m in my brand-new red bra. . . Amos flipped me onto his bed. The Captain Morgan shots roiled in my gut; his sheets, too cool . . .” When Amos tries to undo the zipper of Claire’s jeans, she stops him and says she wants to go home. 
  • On New Year’s Eve, Claire goes home with her ex-boyfriend, Ben. They’re sitting on the couch when Claire notices Ben watching her. “I feel my lips part as he reaches. . . I climb onto Ben so I’m facing him. He pulls my face to his and kisses me. . . he flips me over, pushing my shirt up to kiss my belly button. He moves lower, and I close my eyes. . .” It is implied that they have sex. The scene is described over one and a half pages.  
  • Ben drives Claire home. Before she leaves, Claire is “brushing my lips over his. . . but the urgency in Ben’s body as he kisses me back makes it clear. This time, things will be on my own terms.” 
  • After Claire and Kat have a fight, Amos tells Claire, “[The fight] almost made me pop a boner.” 
  • Kat babysits for a woman who “disappears so fast there’s no doubt she’s off to get laid.”  

Violence 

  • At a party, Claire sees her boyfriend walking up the stairs with another girl. Claire assumes he is cheating on her. When he chases after her, she “slap[s] him across the face.” Claire then leaves the party. 
  • A television personality, Brenda Dean, has a show about real crime. “Twenty years ago, Brenda Dean’s younger sister was abducted off her bike and murdered, the killer never caught. Brenda dedicated her life to justice—first as a lawyer, then with her own cable show.” 
  • Brenda interviewed a woman whose toddler disappeared. Brenda “accused the mom of knowing more than she was saying about what happened to the baby; the woman left the set a sobbing mess, and went home to slit her wrists in the bathtub.” 
  • While at a ransom drop, Kat’s father tries to stop the getaway car and he is dragged behind it. He has surgery but never awakens from his coma. He dies several months afterward. 
  • An FBI agent interviews Claire. During the interview, the agent says, “You ever hear of the plane crash in Queens after September eleventh? . . . My mother and aunt were on that flight.”  
  • Kat comes home late and her dad grabs her. Kat yells, “Get the fuck off me!” Then Kat’s father grabs her and “the world went black when my head smacked against the wall. For a moment I thought I might not come back, that I was dying— when I woke to him shaking me, fear replacing the rage on his face, my mother in the doorway whimpering. . .”  
  • Kat, Jesse, Amos, and another accomplice, Mike, plan a fake kidnapping. However, many things go wrong. Claire, who didn’t know about the plan, gets angry and leaves. She runs into Mike, who panics and attacks Claire, who stabs him with a knife. Afterward, “Mike winced as he lifted the sleeve of his T-shirt . . . Blood poured from an angry slash on his shoulder.” He cleans the wound with Vodka.  
  • Claire is canvassing a house where she thinks Amos is hiding out. “I’m changing gears when my car lurks forward. My forehead knocks into the steering wheel . . . A scream catches in my throat as Amos Fornier pulls me from the car and throws me to the ground, my spine numbing as it hits snow and ice. I see the shovel in his hands at the same moment he brings it down on my head.” Amos takes Claire hostage. 
  • Claire tries to leave, but Kat “blocks my escape through the doorway. When she grabs my arm, something snaps in me. . . I grab a handful of her hair and pull until she’s struggling beneath me like a cat. . . She’s clawing at me; I yank her hair until she’s falls to her knees, smashing her face into the edge of the dresser.” Amos holds a gun to Claire’s head and she stops fighting. 
  • Amos tells Claire about an incident with Kat’s father. Kat’s father found Amos playing with a cigar torch. He “picked me and Kat up by the backs of our shirts. Dragged us outside and held me over the deck railing. He stuck the flame right in my face. He kept saying, ‘You want to see what fire does to a body?’” 
  • Amos, who is drinking heavily, tries to convince Kat to allow him to kill Claire. His plan was to, “Get some booze in her, slip [a fentanyl patch] on while she’s passed out, and bam, overdose.” Kat refuses to let Amos kill Claire, but later Claire puts the fentanyl patch on Amos and he dies. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Both the adults and the teens in the story drink alcohol, so not all instances of alcohol consumption are listed below.  
  • Claire goes to a party and sees her boyfriend in a hot tub sitting on a girl’s lap. In response, she goes inside. Claire’s friend pours her a “few inches of rum into a cup and tops it off with a splash of Coke.” Claire gets drunk. Other teens at the party are also drinking alcohol.  
  • When lost, Claire goes into a bar where a man “raises his beer bottle to his lips, his eyes raking over me.”  
  • When Claire and Kat are alone in the lake house, Kat breaks out a bottle of wine and the two share it and get “giggly-tipsy.” 
  • While in the hospital for a head injury, Claire is given morphine, ibuprofen, and Ambien to help her sleep. Claire is also given a prescription for Ativan, which is supposed to help her with anxiety; however, she is soon taking Ativan in larger doses than recommended.  
  • Claire’s cousin, Amos, smokes weed and eventually becomes a drunk.  
  • Claire finds out that Amos was kicked out of school for selling drugs on campus but he continues to sell drugs afterward.  
  • Someone posts a picture of Claire at a party. “Jamie Liu and I knocking back shots. My eyes are glazed, my head tilted back. Jamie is laughing at me . . . I barely recognize the girl in the picture. She looks like the sloppy chick at the party you never talk to, who hangs on your neck like a spider monkey, crooning into your ear that she’s so wasted.” 
  • A few days after Clarie gets home from the hospital, she sees her mom, “cradling a glass of seltzer that I’d wager has vodka in it.” 
  • Claire is working at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. One of the customers is her ex-boyfriend’s mother, who is drinking champagne.

Language 

  • Profanity is used often and includes ass, crap, damn, goddamn, fuck, hell, piss, and shit. 
  • OMG, Oh God, and Jesus are used several times. 
  • There is some name-calling such as asshole, bitch, bastard, and douchebag.

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Occasionally, Claire quickly prays. For example, after leaving a party, Claire is “praying I won’t cry in front of Jesse . . . I am not religious, but I say a silent prayer to whoever. . . [that] I had the presence of mind to keep my goddamn mouth shut. . .” 
  • When her friends disappear, Claire thinks, “I wasn’t raised with religion, but I don’t know if I accept that it’s all random, that we’re not accountable to anyone. I make a silent bargain with whoever is listening: . . . I’ll be a better friend, if only they come home and be okay.” 
  • Claire is home alone when the doorbell rings. She says “a silent prayer that whoever is at my front door is selling something . . .” and is not someone she knows.

Siege and Storm

After narrowly escaping the Darkling and his army, Alina and Mal are on the run. They try to make a new life for themselves in Novyi Zem, but they have to be careful. Alina, the Sun Summoner, is hardly inconspicuous wearing her amplifier made from Morozova’s stag as a collar, and the Darkling has spies everywhere. 

But she and Mal can’t outrun their enemies. They aren’t in Novyi Zem long before the Darkling finds them. He captures them and brings them on a ship led by Sturmhond, a famous privateer. The Darkling intends to drag Alina and Mal back to Ravka and continue expanding the Fold. But first, he is determined to hunt down the sea whip – the second in the triad of Morozova’s legendary creatures that can be used as powerful amplifiers – and force Alina to kill it and claim its scales as a second amplifier. This would magnify her summoning abilities and give the Darkling access to even more of Alina’s power.  

But Sturmhond and his crew are not what they seem. When they turn on the Darkling, Alina finds herself with powerful allies and renewed hope. Her new alliance with Nikolai Lantsov, the ever-witty and incredibly charming second-born prince of Ravka, throws her into Ravkan political dealings. Ravka’s precarious position in world politics means the country cannot be saved with Grisha power alone. Alina begins accompanying Nikolai to war council meetings as Ravka attempts to broker peace treaties with its neighboring countries, and she quickly realizes that Ravka was in much greater danger than she ever imagined. But will all of Alina’s efforts be enough to stand against the Darkling, who remains Ravka’s greatest domestic threat? And can Alina and Mal’s strained relationship survive Alina’s growing power and importance? 

If writing a good first book in a trilogy is hard, then writing a good sequel is even more strenuous. But Siege and Storm electrically picks up Alina’s story right where it left off and keeps the momentum going all the way to the end. The plot involves many twists and turns and never lets readers be lulled into a false sense of security. From heart-stopping action scenes to breathtaking exchanges between characters, there is never a dull moment. 

In Siege and Storm, Bardugo fleshes out her world even more, expanding on Ravka’s function as a country by placing it into a larger “world” context. Readers learn about this complicated history along with Alina, so the new information is masterfully woven throughout the story. Alina is a fascinating narrator, and readers get to experience her thought process and understand how and why she makes her decisions. Alina is not a perfect heroine by any means, but her flaws are what make her relatable. Even when she makes mistakes, she strives to fix them, and her self-awareness, compassion, and perseverance are traits that make her an admirable protagonist.  

Siege and Storm brings back all of the fan-favorite characters from the first book in the series, Shadow and Bone. Plus, several new characters are introduced that are equally quotable and loveable. Bardugo delves even deeper into her characters, forcing them to confront their darkest demons and complicating their relationships with each other. As tensions rise and power dynamics shift, Alina and her friends and allies must fight to remain united in the face of the real threats instead of turning against each other and letting their jealousies and vulnerabilities win. Siege and Storm ends on a dramatic cliffhanger that will leave readers excited beyond measure to get their hands on the next (and final) book in the series, Ruin and Rising.  

Sexual Content 

  • Mal kisses Alina harder than usual when they are in private. “His tone was light, but when his lips met mine, there was nothing playful in his kiss. He tasted of heat and newly ripe pears from the Duke’s garden. I sensed hunger in the slant of his mouth, an unfamiliar edge to his need that sent restless sparks burning through me. I came up on my toes, circling my arms around his neck, feeling the length of my body melt into his. He had a soldier’s strength, and I felt it in the hard bands of his arms, the pressure of his fingers as his fist bunched in the silk at the small of my back and he drew me against him. There was something fierce and almost desperate in the way he held me, as if he could not have me close enough.” 
  • During a fight, Mal tells Alina that he distances himself from her to protect her position as a leader. “‘Why do you think people asked me on the royal hunt? The first thing? They wanted to know about me and you.’ He turned on me, and when he spoke his voice was cruel, mocking. ‘Is it true that you’re tumbling the Sun Summoner? What’s it like with a Saint? Does she have a taste for trackers, or does she take all of her servants to her bed?’” 

Violence 

  • Alina has nightmares. “Sometimes she dreamed of broken skiffs with black sails and decks slick with blood, of people crying out in the darkness. But worse were the dreams of a pale prince who pressed his lips to her neck, who placed his hands on the collar that circled her throat and called forth her power in a blaze of bright sunlight.” 
  • The Darkling describes how he will punish Alina if Mal refuses to track the sea whip [a dragon]. “Because every day we don’t find the sea whip, I’ll peel away a piece of her skin. Slowly. Then Ivan will heal her, and the next day, we’ll do it all over again.”
  • The Darkling and Sturmhond’s crew capture and kill the sea whip. “Beads of water flew from [the sea whip’s] mane, and its massive jaws opened, revealing a pink tongue and rows of gleaming teeth. It came down on the nearest boat with a loud crash of splintering wood. The slender craft split in two, and men poured into the sea. The dragon’s maw snapped closer over a sailor’s legs and he vanished, screaming, beneath the waves.” This scene is described over three pages. 
  • After Sturmhond’s crew turn on the Darkling and become Alina’s allies, the Darkling and his army attack them. “Pistol shots rang out. The air came alive with Inferni fire. ‘To me, hounds!’ Sturmhond shouted, and plunged into action, a saber in his hands.” This scene occurs over 10 pages. The following two bullet points happen during this scene. 
  • Ivan, the Darkling’s right-hand man, is killed by Tolya, one of Sturmhond’s crew members: “The fingers of Tolya’s outstretched hand curled into a fist. Ivan convulsed. His eyes rolled up in his head. A bubble of blood blossomed and burst on his lips. He collapsed onto the deck.”  
  • The Darkling unleashes his nichevo’ya, or shadow monsters, on Alina and her allies. “The nichevo’ya reached the masts of the schooner, whirling around the sails, plucking sailors from the rigging like fruit. Then they were skittering down onto the deck. Mal fired again and again as the crewmen drew their sabers, but bullets and blades seemed only to slow the monsters. Their shadow bodies wavered and re-formed, and they just kept coming.” Sturmhond’s crew manages to confuse the nichevo’ya long enough to escape. 
  • Sturmhond tells Alina she needs to be more ruthless, and tells her how he earned the respect of his crew. The first time he ever tried to board an enemy ship, the captain laughed at him and mocked him, so Sturmhond “cut off his fingers and fed them to [his] dog while [the captain] watched.” 
  • Mal spars with other Grisha soldiers in practice fighting matches. “Eskil [a minor character who is Grisha] let out a loud oof as Mal clamped his arms around him, keeping the Grisha’s limbs pinned so that he couldn’t summon his power. The big Fjerdan snarled, muscles straining, teeth bared as he tried to break Mal’s hold. . . Mal tightened his grip. He shifted, then drove his forehead into [Eskil’s] nose with a nauseating crunch. Before I could blink, he’d released Eskil and hammered a flurry of punches into [Eskil]’s gut and sides.” This scene occurs over three pages. 
  • Alina wanders outside the city and encounters the Ravkan peasants who congregate outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of Sankta (or Saint) Alina. They crowd around her, trying to get close to her and touch her. “The bodies pressed tighter, pushing and shoving, shouting at each other, each wanting to be nearer. My feet lost contact with the ground. I cried out as a chunk of my hair was ripped from my scalp. They were going to tear me apart.” Tolya and Tamar, Alina’s bodyguards, rescue her before it’s too late, and Alina is left shaken but uninjured.  
  • The Darkling and his nichevo’ya attack the Grand Palace after Vasily, Ravka’s lazy and arrogant crown prince, double-crosses his brother, Nikolai. Nikolai is Alina’s ally and friend, and he had plans to save both Alina and Ravka. However, many people die in this nichevo’ya attack. Vasily, Alina, and many others are injured. This scene occurs over 13 pages, with several interludes for dialogue.  
  • During the fight, “Vasily lifted his saber high and charged, bellowing with rage. Mal stepped in front of me, raising his sword to block the blow. But before Vasily could bring down his weapon, a nichevo’ya grabbed hold of him and tore his arm from its socket, sword and all. He stood for a moment, swaying, blood pumping from his wound, then dropped to the floor in a lifeless heap.” 
  • Alina attacks the nichevo’ya to save her friends. “Another pack of nichevo’ya descended from the windows, clawing their way toward Nikolai and his mother. I had to take a chance. I brought the light down in two blazing arcs, cutting through one monster after another, barely missing one of the generals who crouched cowering on the floor. People were screaming and weeping as the nichevo’ya fell upon them.” Alina and many of her friends, including Mal, escape, but they don’t know whether or not Nikolai was able to get to safety. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Novyi Zem is the center of the jurda trade. Jurda is a stimulant people use to stay awake. For example, “Zemeni men liked to tuck the dried [jurda] blooms between lip and gum, and even the women carried them in embroidered pouches that dangled from their wrists. Each store window [Alina] passed advertised different brands: Brightleaf, Shade, Dhoka, the Burly.” 
  • When Mal returns from a hunt, he tells Alina about how he and the other Grisha who went on the hunt entertained themselves. “We spent more time every day playing cards and drinking kvas [an alcoholic beverage analogous to beer] than anything else. And some duke got so drunk he passed out in the river. He almost drowned. His servants hauled him out by his boots, but he kept wading back in, slurring something about the best way to catch trout.” 
  • Alina complains about how boring war council meetings are, and Nikolai jokes, “Next time, bring a flask. Every time [Vasily] changes his mind, take a sip.” Alina replies, “I’d be passed out on the floor before the hour was up.” 
  • After missing his guard shift, Mal is found hungover. Alina and Tolya find him the next morning. “[Mal] hadn’t changed his clothes from last night. There was stubble on his chin, and the smell of blood and kvas hung on him like a dirty coat.” 

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • Siege and Storm involves a magic system known as the Small Science, which is a way of manipulating matter that appears supernatural or magical. Those who can wield the Small Science are known as Grisha; many of the main characters in this novel are Grisha.  
  • The Grisha are split into three orders: Corporalki (the Order of the Living and the Dead), Etherialki (the Order of Summoners), and Materialki (the Order of Fabrikators).  
  • The Darkling and Baghra, Alina’s tutor, are Shadow Summoners, while Alina is a Sun Summoner. These are unique abilities that no other known Grisha possesses. For example, Alina uses her power when Sturmhond steers his ship through the Fold: “Hurriedly, I braced my feet against the deck and threw up my hands, casting a wide golden swath of sunlight around the [ship].” 

Spiritual Content 

  • When she and Mal reach Novyi Zem, Alina prays, “Let us be safe here. Let us be home.” 
  • Ravkans worship Saints, and some have started to worship Alina as a living Saint, calling her Sankta Alina (Saint Alina) and Sol Koroleva (Sun Queen). 
  • Some Ravkan peasants sell relics of Saints, such as fake bones supposedly once belonging to different Saints. Nikolai tells Alina, “There are rumors that you died on the Fold. People have been selling off parts of you all over Ravka and West Ravka for months. You’re quite the good luck charm.” 

The Enchanted Hacienda

Harlow Estrada is an editor who has recently been through a breakup and lost her dream job, as she struggles to decide what her next path in life should be. Harlow’s mother invites her to come to the family farm, referred to as the Estrada Hacienda, and spend time reconnecting with her family and their land.  

Harlow feels out of place, even among her family, as she is the only female member of her family without magical abilities. She explains, “the magic happened to skip me entirely. Unlike my two sisters and pair of primas [cousins] and every other ancestress before me.” Harlow’s mother and aunt decide to leave on a sudden vacation. They leave Harlow to take care of the family’s land, as well as their magical plants. Harlow is determined to use this time to learn more about her family’s legacy and about how she fits into it.  

Harlow is an empathetic character that many readers will be able to relate to, as she struggles to figure out her place in the world, as well as within her family. Harlow emphasizes, “I mean, if I can’t have the Estrada family magic, I still want to feel like there’s significance to my work, my life . . . And now I’m worried I am and always will be unremarkable.” During her return to her family’s farm, Harlow realizes that it is a great opportunity to write something of her own, and she feels deep down that she should write “something magical.” She begins working on a novel inspired by the magic she experiences upon her return to her family’s land. 

Though she’s just experienced a terrible breakup, Harlow happens to run into a mysterious man named Ben, who she later learns is the grandson of Beverly—her late grandmother’s best friend. Tied together by their families and the magic of Harlow’s family farm, Harlow and Ben’s initial spark only grows stronger as they pursue a relationship together. However, their feelings for one another become complicated by Harlow’s important self-discovery, as she realizes she does in fact have magical abilities like the rest of her family. Harlow notices a glimmer in Ben’s eyes when they are kissing and realizes, “Ben Brandt has been magically bonded to me.” 

Desperate to understand how Ben was bonded to her, Harlow returns home to ask her mother for help. Harlow is shocked when her mother tells her, “[Your aunt] and I believe that you are an enchantress,” as Harlow has “lived [her] life believing [she has] no magic.” This exciting revelation leaves Harlow with a difficult decision to make, as she realizes, “I have to break the bond,” and risk magically destroying all of the feelings she and Ben have for one another in the process. Readers will be on the edge of their seats as they wonder what will happen between Harlow and Ben.  

The Enchanted Hacienda is written for adults, many teens will be drawn to it since J.C. Cervantes has written so many young adult novels. Readers who enjoy fantasy, magic, and an immersive setting will love this book, as it heavily focuses on the power of nature and the beauty of Mexico.  

Harlow’s growth throughout the novel provides a reassuring message that everyone has something that makes them special. Through writing her novel, Harlow realizes that her main character is reflective of her own desire to “find her way, to learn to speak the language of the blooms, to unearth the family secret.” Harlow’s writing mirrors her own journey of learning more about herself and her family. Harlow’s completion of her novel and the support of her family emphasizes a major theme in the novel: the strength in family. Harlow summarizes the theme of family when she calls this love, “The kind of love that believes in you, challenges you, walks through fire for you, makes a home for you—the kind of love that transforms you.” 

Sexual Content 

  • When Harlow visits his family’s home in Quebec, Harlow and Ben kiss for the first time. Harlow says, “Drowning in his touch, I drink him in while he kisses me hungrily, urgently like he might never kiss me again.” This passionate kissing scene lasts for about a page.  
  • While waiting out a rainstorm inside an old barn, Ben and Harlow kiss passionately, and it begins to go further. Harlow says, “And then I feel that tug again. Powerful. Alluring. A kinetic spark that ignites every cell in my body . . . Ben’s fingers trace my bare stomach. They hover near my bra, then slip the seam.” Before they go any further, they are interrupted when Ben gets a distressing phone call. 
  • Harlow and Ben spend an intimate afternoon together beside the river.  “I’m [Harlow] still sinking when my hand unhooks the front clasp of my bra. I want to feel his heat against my bare skin.” This scene lasts about two pages, but just before they go further Harlow stops Ben, noticing a magical, “uncommon spark of light” that unnerves her.  
  • Harlow and Ben begin to passionately kiss. Harlow says, “My body is on auto-drive, operating on sheer emotion when I tilt my head back and kiss him. An urgent fiery kiss that is all-consuming.” This scene continues for three pages before Harlow stops Ben, feeling guilty about the bonding magic.  
  • Harlow and Ben are intimate. “We finally break apart near the table, and then [Ben’s] reaching behind me and untying my apron, never taking his gaze from mine as it falls to the floor. I stand perfectly still, savoring the pleasure of his touch.” This scene lasts four pages.  

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Harlow explains that her ex-boyfriend, Chad, is excellent at telling when there is a problem. Harlow explains, “He smells problems like a police dog sniffs out cocaine.” 
  • Harlow is about to attend a party to support Chad, even though she’s just been unexpectedly fired from her dream job. Harlow thinks, “You’re going to pull your shit together . . . pour a glass of merlot, put on a dress, and have the time of your goddamn life.” 
  • After Harlow’s break up, her friend “pulls bottles from her oversize bag and begins to mix a concoction of gin, sugar, champagne, and some red syrupy stuff.” 
  • Harlow enjoys the solitude of the empty hacienda, explaining, “I make a margarita with that aged añejo tequila my mom saves for special occasions before I find a good book in the study.” 
  • While attending a vow renewal of family friends, Harlow sees Ben who “is holding out a champagne flute to me.” 
  • Before Harlow attempts to remove the bonding magic between her and Ben, she takes “a shot of añejo” with her aunt. Harlow says, “’To courage,” and then she “tip[s] the amber liquid back.” 

Language 

  • Harlow and her friend, Laini, often use profanity such as shit, ass, and damn.  
  • Occasionally, Harlow and other main characters use “fuck.” For example, When Chad tells Harlow to wear something “appropriate.” Harlow’s friend says, “I’ll let you go. But only in a dress that screams, ‘Fuck the patriarchy.’” 

Supernatural 

  • Harlow describes her family’s land and how they create magic via plants. “The real family power, though, is in how they combine blooms, or concoct elixirs, using petals, leaves, and stems to create prosperity, love, health, hope, protection, or even to cause separation, doubt, fear, and misery. It’s all so complicated and beautiful and alchemical.” 
  • To help Harlow sleep, her mother uses “dream magic.” Harlow explains, “Then, as I fall back on my pillow and close my weary eyes, I remember that my mother sometimes uses holly for the power of dream magic.” 
  • Harlow discusses how her family is able to use their magic discreetly, explaining, “To the general passerby, it looks like a lovely vintage florist. But to the locals and a select few, this is the spot where you place and pick up your order of magic. After you sign the non-disclosure agreement—that is a modern addition. We operate using a whisper network, whispers carried on the wind of our town, El Viento, named for the goddess who is responsible for its creation.” 
  • To choose which Estrada family member will watch the farm and take care of the magical gardens while Harlow’s mom and aunt are out of the country, Harlow’s mother uses a “white iris petal, known for its faith and virtue.” Harlow’s mom explains, “You will each sleep with this under your pillow tonight. Whoever’s petal turns blue will act as the guardian.” Harlow’s petal turns blue. 
  • Harlow delivers a magical bouquet filled with memory magic that will allow her late grandmother’s friend, Beverly, to magically bond with her husband, William. Harlow explains that the bouquet is infused with memory magic, to help William recapture his memories of his life with Beverly, as he struggles with dementia. Harlow says, “Beverly and William Brandt were bonded at precisely 7:58 p.m. The moon was high, their hands connected, each breathing in the fragrance of the magic as he accepted the bouquet—just as instructed. I knew the moment it happened. [William’s] eyes sparked with flickers of gold, a sure sign that the bonding was complete.” 
  • The bonding bouquet that Harlow delivers to Beverly and William begins to work. Harlow explains, “[William’s] arms around [Beverly] with a familiarity that made me soar with joy and relief and even wonder,” showing that the memory magic has worked.  
  • When Harlow’s mom tells Harlow that she does have magic, Harlow tries magically bringing a flower back to life.  Harlow does “as [mom] says, and in a few seconds, I feel the vibration of life in the hydrangea; slowly I connect a thread of magic to it. The flower pulses as I open my eyes and watch it unfold into a healthy bloom.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Harlow explains the story of how their family gained magical abilities. “The Aztec goddess Mayahuel whispered the given names of each child in the family,” and this instilled their family with power that passed down through the generations.  
  • Harlow says, “A lot of kids learn fairy tales, or stories from the Bible, but in my family? The very first tale you learn and commit to heart is the tale of a young and very beautiful goddess named Mayahuel whose jealous grandmother hid her in the farthest corner of the universe . . . wanting to conceal the goddess’s beauty and power.” 
  • Harlow’s family’s magic began with her great-great-grandmother; “Legend has it that the soil called to my great-great-grandmother when she came through this land on her way to somewhere else. . . the Aztec goddess of agave, Mayahuel, appeared to her and told her that if my great-great-grandmother used the land according to her instructions, the goddess would grant our family’s female descendants an unimaginable magic.” 
  • Harlow reflects on her childhood imagination about her family’s gardens. “I used to imagine the most fantastical night creatures swooping in to pollinate the flowers, to offer their gifts of magic to Mayahuel.” 

The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You

Trixie and Ben have been sworn enemies since elementary school when Ben “accidentally” pushed Trixie off the monkey bars. Now in their senior year at Messina Academy for the Gifted, their mutual dislike of each other is still strong, to the dismay of all their friends. Harper and Cornell, Trixie and Ben’s best friends are especially affected by this — they have liked each other since their freshman year but have both been too scared to make the first move, and Harper is convinced that Trixie and Ben’s war is one of the main factors keeping them apart. 

When Harper and Cornell finally confess their feelings, Trixie and Ben try to reach an uneasy truce, but old habits die hard. During their school’s annual harvest festival, a costume party, Trixie badly insults Ben to his face without realizing it’s him under the costume. It seems that their friend groups will never find peace, until Trixie overhears Harper and her other best friend, Meg, talking about how Ben is hopelessly in love with her! Trixie immediately regrets every insult she ever threw at him, and vows to make amends. Ben, in turn, also begins to act surprisingly civil (and almost flirty), and Trixie wonders how she ever could have hated him. 

However, nothing at Messina Academy — the Mess — is ever simple. Being a school for the gifted, academic pressure is high and plagiarism is not uncommon. But when four students are put on probation for academic dishonesty, everyone agrees that this is abnormal, even for the Mess. And when the sweet, timid, and exceptionally smart Harper is expelled for supposedly altering grades, Trixie is furious. Everyone begins taking sides, tearing the large friend group apart. Trixie begs Ben to help her get to the bottom of this, and he agrees. But will they be able to uncover this mystery? And if they do, will their new relationship be able to handle what they find? 

The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You is a brilliant modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. While Shakespeare fans will enjoy finding parallels between the original play and this book, knowledge of the play is by no means a prerequisite for loving this book — the play’s witty banter and central themes of love, deceit, and confusion transpose themselves remarkably well onto the landscape of a modern high school. And while this book retains the central integrity of its source material, nothing about it seems dusty or antiquated — it brings in pop culture references and newer issues that affect teens today (such as academic pressure). These modern references blend well with Much Ado About Nothing’s timeless core. 

Trixie is a smart, engaging, and witty narrator that readers will fall in love with from the start. While some of her actions and decisions are impulsive and she does not always follow the best course of action, each mistake she makes is a learning opportunity that she takes full advantage of. Her character development is clear throughout the story, and she is a great example of how although nobody is perfect, character growth and positive change are always possible. The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You is a compulsively readable adventure from start to finish, with multiple subplots and a loveable cast of characters. This engaging story is one that readers will want to return to in the future. 

Sexual Content 

  • Trixie and Ben kiss for the first time in a public park. “He lowered his mouth to mine, catching more of my bottom lip than the top. His nose brushed mine, a hinting nudge. My mouth opened to mirror his. There was a pattern to kissing. It was a chain of individual kisses of varying sizes strung together to make the verb. I’d never considered that before. But, for once, my body knew something that my brain didn’t.” 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Chalice of the Gods

Rick Riordan’s newest installment in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series follows Percy as he navigates applying to college — a college for demigods of course. Percy is a demigod child of Poseidon, which makes him “a child of one of the Big Three” — Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. These three gods were not supposed to “sire any more demigod children.” This means Percy has a “debt . . . for existing” and the Olympian Council of Gods wants Percy to work off this “debt” before he can attend the demigod university, New Rome University. How can he do this? Well, Percy finds out that he needs “three [recommendation letters]. From three different gods.” Percy is frustrated, saying, “I have to do new quests, don’t I?”  

Percy’s first quest for the “divine recommendation letters,” is to help Ganymede, the “cupbearer of the gods,” find his missing chalice. Even though Percy’s quest to find Ganymede’s godly chalice is the ostensible plotline of the book, the novel explores the themes of changing friendship dynamics through the characters of Percy, his girlfriend Annabeth, and his best friend Grover. As Percy and Annabeth begin applying to New Rome University, Grover realizes that he feels left behind. Grover explains to Percy, “I’m worried about you and Annabeth leaving me next summer.” On top of this, Percy discovers that his mom is having a baby, and Percy will be leaving for college soon after his sibling is born. Percy is excited for his mom and stepdad, but he describes, “I was thrilled for mom and Paul . . . But also, it made my own departure seem even more real. I would be leaving just as Mom and Paul were starting a new chapter. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. . . ”  

Percy ultimately decides that he is ready for this next chapter of his life and that leaving for university does not necessarily mean he won’t be able to stay connected with his family and friends back home. Percy reassures Grover that he intends to always keep his best friend in his life. Percy explains to Grover about his dream of growing old: “I told him about the daydream that got me through the wrestling match — of Annabeth and me and him, dozing in the sunshine at a cottage on the seashore.” Percy realizes that, as Annabeth says, “[You’re] never alone . . . We’ll always be here to help you,” even when he ultimately goes away for school. Though Percy is applying to a college specifically for demigods, many readers, especially those in high school, will be able to relate to Percy as he worries about his relationship with his family and friends changing when he goes away for college.  

Overall, The Chalice of the Gods will thrill fans of the original Olympians series, but could also be read alone without confusion. Riordan explains the references to Percy’s previous adventures in a way that allows The Chalice of the Gods to make sense to new readers. For example, Percy references earlier books as he explains how his relationship with his demigod powers has changed. Percy says, “Back when I was ten or eleven, things just happened, and I didn’t understand why. Fountains would come alive. Toilets would explode . . . As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to control my powers, more or less.” 

The Chalice of the Gods emphasizes the importance of acceptance of life’s changes. For instance, Percy and his friends confront Geras, the god of old age, and in order to get back the chalice, Geras tells Percy he must defeat him. Instead of fighting back against Geras, Percy is able to end the battle by hugging Geras instead, explaining, “Getting old might be scary and difficult. It involved things I didn’t want to think about, like arthritis varicose veins, and hearing aids. But if you grew old with people you loved, wasn’t that better than the alternative?” 

Sexual Content 

  • After successfully escaping a dangerous river, Percy kisses Annabeth. Percy explains, “I tried to give [Annabeth] a kiss, but it was difficult, because she started laughing . . . She kissed me back. ‘I love you, too, Seaweed Brain.’” 
  • After Percy obtains the Chalice from Geras, the god of old age, Annabeth “marched up and kissed [Percy].” 
  • At the brunch for the gods at Mount Olympus, Zeus comments while watching Ganymede distribute food and beverages, “I do love watching [Ganymede] walk away . . . ” Hera, a goddess and Zeus’ wife, exclaims, “Could you not at the brunch table?” 

Violence 

  • Percy explains that demigods under eighteen can’t use cellphones because “they attract monsters” who then “show up and eat them.” 
  • Percy sneaks into a river belonging to the river god Elisson and is nearly drowned by the angry god for swimming in his sacred river without permission. Percy explains, “there’s a river god tossing me around at the bottom of his grotto, flushing gunk through my nostrils and mouth, it’s like trying to breathe in a sandstorm. I was blind and disoriented, slamming into rocks, unable to concentrate.” Percy is able to escape by causing the river to shoot him out like a geyser.  
  • Geras, the god of old age and the god who has stolen the chalice, tells Percy that he must “defeat [Geras] in wrestling” or be turned into “a pile of powdered bone.” Percy escapes this fate by embracing Geras and surprising the god.  
  • During the battle, Geras punches Percy. “With his free hand, he punched me in the ribs . . . At least he wasn’t smashing my face into the pavement yet.”

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Percy’s mom explains, “Why I’m not drinking [wine] tonight.” Then, she reveals that she is pregnant. 

Language 

  • Occasionally, characters exclaim, “Oh, my gods.” 

Supernatural 

  • The ancient Greek gods, heroes, and monsters are all real.  
  • Percy meets the new guidance counselor at his school and realizes she is actually a sea spirit called a nereid. Percy says, “I studied her more closely. Her curled hair was in fact a bed of oysters. Her dress shimmered like a jellyfish membrane.” 
  • Percy explains what is known as “the Mist.” He describes, “It’s weird how the Mist works. Even for demigods who see supernatural stuff all the time, you have to concentrate to pierce the barrier between the human world and the godly one. Otherwise, the Mist kind of just plasters over what you see, making ogres look like pedestrians or a giant drakon look like the N train.” 
  • Percy’s quest is to find a stolen chalice belonging to Ganymede, the cup bearer to the gods. Ganymede explains that the cup cannot fall into the wrong hands because “the goblet makes drinks taste good to the gods. But if a mortal got hold of it . . . one sip from it would grant them immortality.” 
  • Percy and Annabeth communicate through Iris-messages as opposed to using cellphones. Percy explains, “You shine a light through the water vapor to make yourself a rainbow. You throw a coin into it, say a prayer, and voila — you’ve got a shimmering Annabeth sitting next to you.” 
  • Percy uses his demigod abilities as the son of Poseidon. For example, Percy explains how he blasts himself out of a river god’s dangerous river. “My tidal wave had swept the cliff walls right up to Annabeth’s feet, leaving the rock sparkling clean . . . I had apparently given the River Elisson my super-deluxe Poseidon Wash package.”  
  • Percy uses a magical staff from the goddess Iris to fly. Percy explains that the staff can fly him to deliver a message. “Just before the staff had started pulling me upward, I’d been thinking how much I wanted to tell Annabeth I loved her. That was the message.” Percy describes flying via the magical staff: “I wasn’t just flying inside of the rainbow . . . I was becoming part of it, which sounds a lot cooler than it felt. All the molecules in my body dissolved into energy.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • There are references to the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology throughout the book.  

The Holiday Switch

Lila Santos is ready for her last winter break of high school. The snow in her small town of Holly, New York is plentiful, the mood as cozy as a fuzzy Christmas sweater, and she’s earning extra cash working at the local inn. In other words, it is the setting for the greatest film of all time, Holiday by the Lake—while moonlighting as an anonymous book blogger.

But her perfect holiday plans crash to a halt when her boss’ frustratingly cute nephew, Teddy Rivera, becomes her coworker. Lila is Type A while Teddy is Type “Anything but Lila’s Way,” and the two of them can’t stop butting heads over tangled icicle lights and messy gift shop merch. But when they accidentally switch phones one afternoon, they realize they’ve both been hiding things from each other. Will their secrets—and an unexpected snowstorm—bring these rivals together?

While Lila’s conflict is understandable, her judgmental attitude makes it difficult to connect with her. Even though Lila is the protagonist, Teddy is more likable because he goes out of his way to show Lila that he cares for her. For instance, when Teddy finds Lila’s list of Christmas activities that she wants to do, he plans ways to get Lila to spend time with him by taking her to the different activities on her list. 

The two teens eventually connect because they are both keeping secrets from their parents. Both are afraid their parents won’t understand their passions. Readers will relate to Teddy’s and Lila’s desire to meet their parents’ expectations as well as live their own dreams. In the end, both teens discover their fears are unfounded. While Lila’s parents are upset about her dishonesty, they support her goals. Likewise, Teddy also learns that his family supports his dreams.

Readers who want to snuggle up with a book during the holiday will appreciate The Holiday Switch because of the town’s over-the-top Christmas activities. The winter puns also add to the romance’s cuteness. For example, while ice skating, one of the characters “slipped on the ice and said, ‘Holy night.’” The predictable plot has some sweet moments that will warm readers’ hearts and get them into the holiday spirit. However, if you’re looking for a holiday romance that will be more memorable, grab a hot cocoa and a copy of What Light by Jay Asher.

Sexual Content 

  • Lila babysits for a couple who “party like they’d been caged animals in a zoo. They come home sweaty and red-faced, and the PDA is over the top embarrassing.”
  • While outside, Teddy asks Lila if he can kiss her. She says yes and then, “I rise up to my tiptoes and shut my eyes. When his lips feather against mine, I’m infused with energy and thrill. My hands climb his back, his cup my face, and he kisses me as if I’m another puzzle he has to explore.” 
  • Before Teddy begins a climbing competition, he kisses Lila. “Teddy lifts my chin with a finger and presses a kiss to my lips.” 

Violence 

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language   

  • Oh my God and God are used as exclamations occasionally. 
  • Crap and pissed are used several times.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Don’t Fear the Creeper

The Mob Squad are the greatest heroes the town of Cornucopia has produced since it was founded: Mal the bold, Lenna the strong, Tok the wise, and Chug the steadfast. And Jarro, who’s renounced his bullying ways to reveal a truly kind heart. Together they’ve journeyed across the Overworld, delved into the Nether, and saved the day for Cornucopia again and again.

So why can’t they get any respect from the adults who run the town? The only one who understands is Nan, Mal’s great-great-great-grandmother, who trained them to be as resourceful and adventurous as she was in her day.

So when Nan gets sick and isn’t getting any better, the kids refuse to just sit by and do nothing. There’s something out there that can help her—an enchanted golden apple that can cure just about anything. And the Mob Squad will stop at nothing to get it.

But as they venture outside the walls of Cornucopia, they aren’t counting on being followed. The kids soon discover a mysterious foe whose motives are as unknown as the face that hides behind a Creeper’s head. If the Mob Squad wants to rescue Nan, they’re going to have to save themselves first.

Don’t Fear the Creeper is a fast-paced adventure with plenty of near-death experiences to keep readers’ hearts racing. As the Mob Squad searches for the golden apple, they travel into the unknown and often end up in unexpected danger. Through it all, each member of the mob squad plays an important role as the kids work together to reach their goal. Their determination and persistence are admirable, even if their actions are often imprudent. The book’s chapters change point of view which allows each member of the Mob Squad to give their perspective. However, the alternating points of view add little to the story and the characters’ voices are not unique, which makes it difficult to keep track of who is telling the story.

While most of the events stay true to the Minecraft game, some readers may be frustrated by the Mob Squad’s careless actions. For example, when going through a cave system, the Mob Squad comes across dark green blocks. Every time someone makes noise, something shrieks. Despite this, the kids are not quiet and end up waking a monster that chases them. While they make it out of the cave safely, they nearly died because they couldn’t stop talking. 

The book’s ending also becomes a little preachy as it focuses on the Elders’ attempt to close off the town. However, Lenna thinks, “There’s value in teaching children they’re not invincible. . . There’s nothing wrong with running away when it’s the best choice.” The ending contains several epilogues that drag on. Still, fans of Minecraft will enjoy the story’s action, adventure, and the Mob Squad’s friendship. If you’re ready to delve into another Minecraft adventure, grab a copy of Minecraft: The Crash by Tracey Baptiste. 

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • When the Mob Squad sees a goat, Chug approaches it. Jarro sees “the horns lower into position, and I see the horror on Chug’s face, and then Chug is flying through the air like a bird. . .Chug flops onto the ground, his armor clanking. . . [Lenna] takes the goat out with a few shots.” Chug isn’t injured.
  • While underwater, the Mob Squad is attacked by a “drowned” which is an underwater zombie. “When the drowned throws its next weapon, Chug bats it away and goes in for a slice with his sword.” When Chug screams, Jarro draws “my own sword and kick[s] down towards Chug, who’s hurt and having trouble continuing the fight.” The drowned bites Jarro and “the bite burns my arm, and Chug lands a hit while I struggle. . .” Finally, Chug “takes it down.” The scene is described over three pages. 
  • Fish attack the Mob Squad. When Tok sees the first one, he screams and “paddle[s] backward with my hand, but the gigantic fish is right in front of me, and it slams into me, and it feels like getting run over by a horse covered in knives, and I thrash and squeal in panic. . .” When the fish attacks, Tok describes, “a wired beam of purple wavy light burst out of its giant eye and straight for me, and I flail and dodge.” The kids escape. The fish attack is described over four pages. No one is seriously injured.
  • The fish again attacks the Mob Squad. Chug beats “the fish down with my sword, but it gets a few slams in. . . Someone screams behind me and I spin to find Mal being targeted by a fish-eye bubble ray. . . I hit it with my sword from behind, and it spins and comes after me. As I keep fighting it, trying to dodge the spikes, it suddenly feels like my entire body is on fire.”
  • As the fish surround the kids, Chug is “beating on the guardians (the fish) while they’re focused on Lenna. . . I double down on my onslaught, even when one of the guardians turns to face me, spikes out and bristling and big eye shaking like he’s going to start blowing bubbles at me again. . .” The kids escape. The attack is described over six pages.
  • In a previous book, Jarro was kidnapped. When an unknown enemy taunts Jarro, he thinks, “I’m going to end up just the way I did last time, tied up and blindfolded, abandoned in the middle of nowhere. They tied me to a tree and left me to die, alone and without weapons. . .” 
  • While on an island, a zombie appears and “Efram dispatches the zombie in a few quick slashes and moves on. Then an arrow tangs at us from the left, and Lenna takes it down with a few arrows of her own. . .”
  • A man wearing a Creeperhead attacks Tok. Tok explains, “He just hit me, again and again. . . he didn’t say a single word.” Tok was seriously injured and needed a Potion of Healing. 
  • Tok takes a Potion of Swiftness that makes him run super-fast. Lenna thinks he is a Creeper, so she “takes careful aim and lets her arrow fly. . .Tok stands before us, an arrow in his shoulder.”
  • In a multi-chapter battle, a Wither (a three headed skeleton) attacks the kids. Tok jumps into the fight when the Whiter is “headed right for Lenna, and without telling my body to do anything, it’s sprinting toward her, sword out. As the skull nears us, I swing my sword, and it swooshes right past my blade and smacks me in the chest, and the world explodes around me in a flash of white against the dark sky.” Tok is seriously injured. Tok exclaims, “my body doesn’t seem to want to work. My arms are weak, my legs exhausted like I’ve already run a mile.” 
  • The Wither and the Creeperhead appear at the same time and the Creeperhead begins throwing TNT at the kids. The Wither skull hits Mal. “She’s almost limp” and Chug carries her “like a baby back toward the open cave mouth.” 
  • As the Mob Squad fights the Wither and the Creeperhead, the Creeperhead holds a block of TNT over his head. Then, “The TNT block he was holding over his head explodes, throwing him back against the mountain.” He is knocked out and the kids tie him up, but the Creeperhead is not seriously injured.
  • The Wither follows the kids into the cave. Chug sprints “right at the Wither, running it through with my sword. I hit it again and again, so fast that it can’t seem to launch a skull. . .” Then, Tok joins in the fight. “Tok lands hit after hit. It’s perfect for him, really— [the Wither] can’t move and it can’t fight back.” The Wither explodes and its skeletons run away. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Potions are often used. For example, when someone is sick or injured, they are given a Potion of Healing. 
  • In order to breathe underwater, the Mob Squad uses the Potion of Water Breathing. When Jarro drinks the potion, “the funniest feeling comes over me—like I’m inside a bubble and as light as air.”
  • After being attacked by fish, Tok gives his friends “Potions of Regeneration. They should help us heal faster, if we get hurt.” The ingredients include “a ghast tear and some Nether wart.” 
  • One of Tok’s potions uses “fermented spider eye.”
  • When given a golden apple, an elderly lady’s health is restored.

Language   

  • Poppeycock is used once.
  • The town’s people call Lenna “Loony Lenna.”
  • Heck is used once; darn is used twice. 
  • One of the Mob Squad calls someone a jerk four times. 
  • After almost dying in the fish attack, an old man saves the kids. He calls the kids “fools” and “morons.”
  • Tok is injured, but he’s still trying to talk, so Lenna says, “Shut your piehole.” 
  • Lenna calls the guards who won’t open the gates “creeps.”
  • An elderly woman calls one of the town’s elders “the little nincompoop.” 

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Today Tonight Tomorrow

Rowan Roth and Neil McNair have been rivals since their freshman year of high school when Neil (very narrowly!) beat Rowan in their school’s essay contest. Rowan, an overachiever all her life, simply cannot let this slide. Now in their senior year, Rowan and Neil have earned a reputation as ruthless opponents– every grade, project, standardized test score, and even pull-up contest in gym class is compared and argued over. As soon as she realizes that Neil will not back down, Rowan has one goal for high school: to take him down. 

However, at the end of their senior year, Neil is named valedictorian. Rowan is salutatorian, still way ahead of the rest of her grade, but it’s not enough. She is devastated until she realizes that she has one last chance to come out on top: there is still Howl, a scavenger hunt that takes graduating seniors hunting for clues all over Seattle. This is a Westfield High tradition that Rowan has been looking forward to since her freshman year, but now she knows she absolutely has to win.  

After she learns that a group of seniors is teaming up to take them down, Rowan ends up forming an alliance with Neil – having someone else beat him will bring her no satisfaction. But the more time they spend together and the more they learn about each other, Rowan begins to find Neil isn’t as annoying as she thought. In fact, as much as she hates to admit it, Rowan realizes she might actually have feelings for him. And is it possible that Neil feels the same way about her, despite their brutal rivalry? 

Part romcom, part thriller, Today Tonight Tomorrow is a YA lover’s dream. The scavenger hunt subplot makes the story relatively fast-paced, with plenty of friendly (and not-so-friendly) banter woven in to balance out the action. The romance subplot is equally well done. Rowan is an engaging narrator, and readers will enjoy going on her journey of self-discovery with her. Her character is easy to relate to because of how realistic her arc is; throughout this story, Rowan realizes that real life is nothing like the novels she holds dear, but that isn’t necessarily wrong or disappointing. Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be enjoyable. 

Today Tonight Tomorrow also beautifully handles difficult topics. For example, Rowan is Jewish; the subtle yet impactful antisemitism she experiences and the way she reacts to it is a strikingly accurate depiction of what many Jewish teenagers experience in high school. Another major issue woven throughout the story is the downsides of intense academic pressure. Rowan regrets putting all of her time into academics because it meant she didn’t truly experience the social aspect of high school, which is also important. For readers in early high school, this can serve as a wake-up call to carve out time for friendships and other relationships; for readers who have the same regrets as Rowan, it is comforting to know that they are not alone in feeling this way. 

Overall, Today Tonight Tomorrow is an absolute delight. It is a love letter to adolescence and high school. Although this book can be enjoyed by everyone, it is especially perfect for graduating seniors who are nervous about leaving everything they know behind when they leave for college. Fall in love with more romance novels such as A Pho Love Story by Loan Le and American Royals by Katharine McGee. 

Sexual Content 

  • When Rowan reminisces about her ex-boyfriend, Spencer, she mentions they had sex. “The first time we had sex, he held me for so long afterward, convinced me I was a precious, special thing.” 
  • Rowan and Neil bicker in front of a wall of plaques recognizing past valedictorians, and Rowan makes a sexual joke to annoy him. “‘If you’re trying to impress me with your knowledge of past valedictorians, it’s working.’ I step closer to him, batting my eyelashes. ‘I am so turned on right now.’” 
  • Rowan finds a high school bucket list she created at the very beginning of her freshman year. One of the entries details prom night: “The night will culminate in a hotel room, where you and Perfect High School Boyfriend will declare your love for each other and lose your virginities in a tender, romantic way that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.” 
  • Rowan tells the reader about her love for romance novels, and she brings up how they informed her idea of sex. “Especially as I got older, my heart would race during the sex scenes, most of which I read in bed with my door locked, after I’d said good night to my parents and was sure I wouldn’t be interrupted. They were thrilling and educational, if occasionally unrealistic. (Can a guy really have five orgasms in a single night? I’m still not sure.) Not all romance novels had sex scenes, but they made me comfortable talking about sex and consent and birth control with my parents and with my friends…Most movies and shows I watched with my friends showed me that women were sex objects, accessories, plot points. The books I read proved they were wrong.” 
  • Rowan points out a spot where she hooked up with one of her ex-boyfriends for the first time. Neil mock-gasps and says, “Rowan Roth, I thought you were a good girl.” Rowan gets annoyed at Neil for assuming that girls who get straight As are automatically virgins. Rowan says, “You realize how wrong and outdated that is, right? Good girls aren’t supposed to have sex, but if they don’t, they’re prudes, and if they do, they’re sluts.” They have a conversation about double standards for men and women when it comes to sex. 
  • Rowan and Neil kiss in an empty room in a museum. “This has to be the earth-shattering feeling he was talking about. This: his hands sliding down the sides of my body. This: his teeth grazing my clavicle. And this: the way, when he moves back to my lips, he kisses like I’m alternately something he can’t get enough of and something he wants to savor. Fast, then slow, I love it all. Since we’re the same height, our bodies line up perfectly, and–oh. The proof of how much he’s enjoying this makes me feverish. I rock my hips against his because the pressure feels amazing, and the way he groans when I do this sounds amazing too.” 
  • Rowan and Neil make out in Rowan’s room. “I leave invisible handprints all over his chest, learning exactly where he’s ticklish. He skims his hands up to my knees, my hips, beneath the dress that has suddenly become a straightjacket. I twist on his lap, trying to reach the zipper. He has to help me with it, and together we tug it off . . . Losing my dress makes me miss him with even more urgency.  I run my hand over the front of his jeans, and he sucks in a breath through his teeth. It’s maybe the best sound I’ve ever heard, at least until I unzip and unbuckle and cast his jeans aside completely, pressing him deeper into the bed, and he releases another breathy groan again.” 
  • Shortly after, Rowan and Neil have sex. “It doesn’t last extremely long, because we’re tired or because it’s his first time or some combination of both. Every so often, he checks in with me, asking if it’s still good, if I’m still good. And yes. Yes. We try our best to be quiet, but we can’t stop whispering to each other. He finishes first, and then his fingers drift down between us and he gets me there for the second time tonight. Then we’re quiet, quieter than my sleeping, darkened house. I burrow close to him, resting my cheek against his heartbeat while he plays with my hair.” 

Violence 

  • Neil confesses that his father is in prison for nearly killing someone who was stealing from his store. Neil’s father “was so furious . . . he beat one of them unconscious. The kid–he was in a coma for a month.” 
  • Rowan and Neil are both Jewish. When sharing antisemitic microaggressions they’ve experienced, Rowan brings up that people usually make comments like that because they think it’s harmless, but then “there are security threats at your synagogue because someone called in a bomb threat. It’s harmless, and you’re terrified to get out of bed Saturday morning and go to services.” This happened right before her bat mitzvah. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Rowan invites Neil over for Shabbat dinner. One Shabbat ritual is kiddush, a blessing over wine. Rowan describes, “We pass around the kiddush cup that belonged to my dad’s grandparents, silver and ornately designed. Neil takes a small sip, then hands it to me. My sip is tiny too.”  
  • Neil suggests getting high, and Rowan is not opposed. They both take edibles with the lowest possible dosage of THC. “‘Do you feel anything yet?’ ‘Not really,’ I say, but even as the words leave my mouth, I’m aware something has changed. A laugh bubbles out of me, though nothing’s funny. ‘I– wait. I might be feeling something.’ My annoyance with him seems to float away.” 

Language 

  • “Fuck” is occasionally used as an exclamation or intensifier. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Rowan and Neil are both Jewish. Rowan invites Neil over to her house for Shabbat dinner, and the book vaguely describes the Shabbat rituals. For example, Rowan’s mother “lights the candles with a hand over her eyes,” and they all “recite the blessing over the challah.” 

How to Excavate a Heart

Shani Levine needs a break from New York. Following a bad breakup with her girlfriend, Sadie, she would rather be literally anywhere else. So when she snags a highly coveted internship at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. over winter break, Shani is elated. 

Shani’s high spirits are crushed, however, when she makes an enemy: her mother almost accidentally runs over a girl, May, while moving Shani into her D.C. lodgings. Shani is determined to watch her step from now on, but she keeps crossing paths with May. As they begin to talk, Shani begins to develop feelings for May. Once it becomes clear that May likes her too, the two girls begin to date, and for a short time everything is perfect. But can Shani juggle her new relationship and her internship? And is she really ready to be in a relationship again so soon after a messy breakup?

Readers will fall in love with Shani and May as they try to tackle these big questions together. How to Excavate a Heart is a cute, fun, fluffy romcom guaranteed to elicit smiles and warm feelings, even on the coldest winter days. At times, the pacing is quite slow, so readers looking for action should expect to consume this story in sweet, bite-sized chunks or over one long, lazy day. Because of this pacing, not every scene necessarily drives the plot forward, making some parts of the book less vivid and exciting than others  However, what really ties this book together is its cast of lovable side characters, from Beatrice, the eccentric and surprisingly spry elderly woman who houses Shani during her stay in D.C., to May’s adorable pet corgi, Raphael. Characters like these make even the slow moments delightful, especially for readers who are drawn to character-heavy books.

Teenagers will heavily relate to Shani as she struggles to find her place in a new city while also dealing with complex feelings and relationships. Issues such as love, loss, coming out of the closet, and adjusting to new stages of life are handled in a way that is informative and validating but not too heavy. How to Excavate a Heart features great Jewish and queer representation and is a perfect escape for readers dealing with big changes in their life.

Sexual Content 

  • When Shani reminisces about her failed relationship with Sadie, she explains that their relationship fell apart after having sex for the first time. “I was stressed, because if we were in love, then the next logical step was sex. And I had never done it before, I felt I needed to prepare…We had sex for the first time a couple days after we said ‘I love you,’ and, as it turned out, it was also the last time.”
  • Beatrice tells Shani that she’ll be sleeping in the bedroom Beatrice used to share with her husband. She tells her that “all six of [her] children were conceived in this room.” Later, Shani asks Beatrice where she’ll be sleeping if she’s taking the bedroom. Beatrice replies, “The attic. I haven’t been able to fall asleep in this room since my husband died. But I’m glad it’ll be put to good use.” Shani thinks, “It certainly won’t be ‘put to good use’ in the same way it was when Beatrice and her husband conceived their children here.” 
  • May’s dad, Greg, is the local weatherman. Tasha, another girl staying in Beatrice’s house, describes him as “kind of a DILF.” DIFL is slang for “daddy I’d like to fuck,” or an attractive older man.
  • Shani talks about her relationship problems with her internship supervisor, Mandira, who is also queer and in a committed relationship. Shani tells her about her bad experience with sex and how she doesn’t think she’ll ever have sex again because it ruins relationships. Mandira counters with, “Sex can be amazing. Especially queer sex. And especially if you communicate what you want with your partner.”
  • Shani’s best friend, Taylor, comes to visit her in D.C. on New Year’s. Taylor tells Shani that she was invited to a New Year’s Eve party by Teddy, the ex-boyfriend of their acquaintance Amy from Model UN, and invites Shani to come with her. Shani asks Taylor if she’s trying to hook up with Teddy; Taylor confirms this.
  • After work, Shani goes to May’s house. When Shani gets there, Shani smells badly so she takes a shower. They end up showering together but don’t have sex. “I keep my eyes closed as I press her closer to me, so that as much of our bodies are touching as possible. We explore parts of each other we haven’t before. I kiss down her neck to her chest, marveling at the fact that I get to touch her like this. But after a few minutes, the hot water runs out, and my knees hurt, and we’re kneeling in cold water.”
  • After a dinner date, Shani and May go back to Shani’s place. They start kissing, intending to have sex. Shani starts feeling uncomfortable but doesn’t want to ruin the mood. Shani hears Beatrice scream and goes to check on her. When Shani returns to the bedroom, she tells May she’s tired and doesn’t want to pick up where they left off. When May asks if she can just sleep over, Shani says no and May storms out.
  • Shani and May break up. While Shani is mourning her relationship, she texts her ex, Sadie, asking why she broke up with her. Shani tells the reader that she texted Sadie because she doesn’t actually remember having sex with her. “That Thursday, the day we said ‘I love you,’ we went to a house party and got drunk. Too drunk. Like, so-drunk-I-barely-remember drunk. Then we went back to my room. The only memories I have of that night come in flashes: Sadie grabbing my waist, leading me up to my room. Sadie kissing me. Sadie pulling down my pants, and her own. Me, copying what she did. Being excited to do it, to please her. And then, nothing. My memory goes dark. Until we woke up the next morning, both of us naked. Me with a splitting headache. Sadie grinning.” Sadie wanted to have sex again that morning. Shani told her she wasn’t ready; after pushing some more, Sadie ended it. 

Violence 

  • When moving Shani into her D.C. lodgings during a snowstorm, Shani’s mom almost runs May over with her car. “My mom finally sees her and frantically tries to slam on the brakes. She pumps them over and over, but between the snow and ice the car won’t stop. Then there’s a thud. The bump. Not a hard bump, but still. A bump. We bumped a person with our car.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Beatrice has a beige quote block at the top of the stairs that says, “Alcohol: because no great story ever started with someone eating a salad.”
  • At a New Year’s Eve party, alcohol is served. Shani pours herself a glass of a mystery drink that is “pink and sparkly and has mint leaves and blueberries and pomegranate seeds floating at the surface.” She says that it is “unbelievably delicious and barely tastes like alcohol.”
  • When Shani remembers the night before she and Sadie broke up, she says that they “went to a house party and got drunk. Too drunk. Like, so-drunk-I-barely-remember drunk.”

Language 

  • Profanity, such as variations of “fuck” and “shit” are used as exclamations often.

Supernatural

  • On her first night in D.C., Shani tries not to think about “the half-century-old sex ghosts haunting the room.”
  • Beatrice’s son, George, comes over to the house. He starts a conversation with Shani, in which he jokes that his dad haunts the room where she sleeps.

Spiritual Content 

  • When driving Shani to D.C., her mom sadly says that Shani won’t be home for Christmas for the first time. Shani reminds her that they don’t even celebrate Christmas. Her mom counters that it’s still the holidays, to which Shani responds, “Is it, though? Like, is it really the holidays? Hanukkah’s over, and it’s complete bullshit anyway. It was invented by American capitalists so that Jewish kids could be included in the Christian hegemony.”
  • After thinking about her failed relationship with Sadie, Shani resolves never to have sex again and be “the Jewish version of a nun.”
  • Beatrice’s house is decorated with “crosses and portraits of saints, along with some Christmas decorations– garlands, candy canes, a couple of wreaths.” Shani initially worries “that she’s really religious and that…she’ll be disappointed that I’m Jewish.”
  • Shani gets breakfast at a café next door, which has Christmas music playing inside. Shani thinks, “I know I complained to my mom about how Hanukkah isn’t a real holiday and how I don’t want to assimilate into mainstream Christian America, but the thing is…I fucking love Christmas music.”
  • Shani comes over to walk May’s dog, Raphael. Shani awkwardly tries to make small talk, and asks if May is Jewish because she saw a menorah in her window. May says, “Yeah, I am. But I’m not really that religious.” She later talks about how much she loves Hanukkah.
  • Mandira, Shani’s internship supervisor, tells her she’s going to a Christmas party later that night with her girlfriend. Shani is initially confused because Mandira doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but Mandira explains that she doesn’t celebrate in a religious way but her girlfriend does.
  • Shani comes over to walk May’s dog despite a blizzard. When May opens the door, she sees Shani shaking from the cold and exclaims, “Jesus Christ.” Shani jokes, “It’s almost His birthday, huh?”
  • Shani and May get snowed in at May’s house on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, the snow had stopped and been mostly cleared away, so Shani suggests that they partake in “Jewish Christmas” (watching movies and eating Chinese food). 

Arazan’s Wolves

When Maddie and Will get a message that dire wolves—huge misshapen changelings, much larger than regular wolves—have been marauding and attacking through the hills and valleys of Celtica, the Rangers are sent on a mission to unravel just who or what is behind these dangerous creatures.

Will isn’t anxious to return to Celtica, especially approaching the Rift. And as they travel, Maddie must grapple with their growing dealings with the spiritual and supernatural. But they are Rangers—and they will do whatever it takes to accomplish their mission.  

After they receive some offers of help from locals, Will and Maddie learn the name of the sorceress behind these strange and dangerous attacks: Arazan. On the way to take her down once and for all, the Rangers must face dire wolves, Wargals, dark magic, and more. As Arazan’s desires have led her to the most evil of powers, Will and Maddie must form a plan of action that can outwit not just the sorceress, but the darkest forces from the beyond. 

Arazan’s Wolves takes Will back to Celtica, where Will battled evil in The Burning Bridge. However, Will has no personal reflections about the previous events nor does he explain the significance of the places he returns to. Thus, the book misses an opportunity to show Will’s personal growth from a young man to a seasoned Ranger. Because of this, readers unfamiliar with The Burning Bridge will not understand how the two books—Arazan’s Wolves and The Burning Bridge—connect.  

Readers who love The Royal Ranger Series because of the action and adventure will be disappointed. Much of the book describes Will and Maddie’s travel to Celtica, which lacks excitement. Along the way, they don’t interact with anyone of significance other than Eveningstar, whose character lacks depth. Eveningstar, despite having magical powers, does little to aid Will and Maddie. Instead of adding interest to the story, Eveningstar leaves the reader questioning her motives and why she didn’t try to defeat Arazan herself. 

Unlike the previous books in The Royal Ranger Series, Arazan’s Wolves includes acts of magic such as summoning demons, pentagrams, and telepathic conversations. This deviation from the action and adventure may take readers by surprise. To make matters worse, for the first time, Will kills a Wargal, not out of necessity, but in order to instill fear in the other Wargals. This is so out of character for Will that some readers may be upset by the events.  

Unfortunately, Arazan’s Wolves has too many plot holes, lacks character development, and includes random supernatural elements. All of this adds up to a story that will disappoint many fans of The Rangers Apprentice Series. Readers ready to move on to another epic adventure should read Rise of the Dragon Moon by Gabrille K. Byrne, The Explorer Academy Series by Trudi Trueit, and The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • A direwolf attacks three brothers. The two younger brothers run, but Owen—the oldest—has difficulties. “His joints were stiff. His muscles were sore and weary after a day of hard labor in the fields. He heard the quick rush of the dread creature behind him as it bounded in pursuit, heard its feet growing closer, claws scrapping and rasping . . . Ahead of him Dai and Gryff heard a long, drawn-out scream from their older brother as the direwolf ran him down, dragging him to the ground. Then the screaming stopped.” 
  • A group of thieves block a road in order to steal from people passing by. They try to stop Will and Maddie, so Maddie uses her sling. “The self-styled guardians of the road heard a brief whizzing sound, then a loud CLANG! as the lead slug slammed into the center of the helmet, just above the nasal. The swordsman staggered back . . . then fell.” Will makes the thieves take off their shoes and clothes before they flee. 
  • A Celtic minder who speaks out against Arazan (a suspected sorceress), ends up dead. “One morning he was found in his cottage, sitting at his table, eyes wide-open and dead as a stone. There wasn’t a mark on him.” The villagers assumed Arazan killed the man. 
  • As Will and Maddie are traveling, a direwolf attacks. “A huge shape appeared at the top of the rock wall to their left and launched itself at Will, snarling and snapping as it came. . .” Will’s horse, Tug, doesn’t panic and instead, “he swerved and bounded sideways toward the attacker, moving under its leap. . . Its jaws, ready to tear Will’s throat and upper body, snapped harmlessly at empty space. . .” 
  • During the attack, Tug fights back. The horse “swung around and delivered a thundering kick with his hind legs. . . His iron shod hooves crashed into the wolf’s side, cracking three ribs and hurling the huge animal across the clearing to smash into the rough rock wall behind it.” The wolf tries to flee, but the horse Bumper “smashed into the wolf’s muzzle, lacerating the skin and breaking bone beneath it.” The fight between the direwolf and the horses is described over three pages. 
  • While searching for Arazan, Will and Maddie are surprised by Wargals. “As the three beasts began to charge forward. . . the two bows came up and each of them snapped off a shot. . . Both shots went home, and the two Wargals tumbled onto the sand track.” 
  • The third Wargal tries to run, but “he screamed in pain as Will’s second shot struck home on the lower leg, causing him to stumble.” The Wargal runs but is followed by Will and Maddie.  
  • At one point, the Wargal “switched tactics and he turns to attack Maddie with his spear. He lunges at Maddie several times and is able to disarm her. The Wargal “bared his fangs again and uttered another blood-chilling snarl. . . He drew his spear back for one final lunge. Then jerked forward, a look of surprise replacing the triumphant snarl on his face as Will’s arrow slammed into his back. . .” The Wargal dies, but Maddie is uninjured. The scene is described over three pages. 
  • Will and Maddie hide from a group of Wargals. As they pass by, Will “drew back and released, before freezing to the side of the rock once more. . . The speeding arrow slammed into the rearmost Wargal, sending him staggering forward with a cry of pain and shock.” The Wargal dies, but the others flee for their lives. Will lets them go because, “I want them frightened. I want them reluctant to search for us and ready to disobey Arazan.” 
  • As Will and Maddie get closer to Arazan’s hideout, they see direwolves. Will shoots one with an arrow. The arrow “slammed into the creature’s chest a second before Maddie’s shot reached its target. The massive impact threw the direwolf back onto its rear legs, rising its body off the ground and laid it open for Maddie’s arrow. . .” The two rangers look at the wolf’s body. “Its eyes were open and glazed, and its tongue lolled out of its mouth over the long, yellow canines.”  
  • Arazan calls up a demon named Krakotomal. The demon had “the body of a serpent, with huge, batlike wings covered in scales. And that dreadful, horrifying face, jaws open to reveal fangs like knives.” When the pentacle becomes broken, Krakotomal is able to attack Arazan. “She cowered back, but there was nowhere for her to go. Krakotomal was upon her in one sudden leap, folding his scaly wings around her and tearing her with the cruel claws on his powerful hind legs. . . Blood was flowing from several deep wounds in her legs . . .” 
  • After Arazan is injured, the demon tries to convince Will to allow him to go through the pentacle. However, Will shoots an arrow that “covered the few meters to Krakotomal in a heartbeat and struck the demon high on his body, punching through the scales that protected him and burying the silver warhead deep in his flesh.” As Will continues to chant the banishing spell, both the demon and Arazan disappear “leaving only a swirl of green smoke and the smell of burned sulfur behind them.” 
  • After Arazan disappears, her minion Marko attacks Will. During the fight, Will’s saxe knife “bit into the hard leather. . . penetrating easily through the leather and then the flesh behind it. Marko felt a savage flare of agony as the saxe went home. . .” Marko dies. The fight is described over two and a half pages. 
  • The last direwolf ambushes Will. “Then the wolf was upon him, driving him back with the force of the huge leap from the rocks, snarling and snapping in rage. . . Using the strength of both arms, Will pushed back against the wolf, forcing its head back away from him. . . It pulled back. . . and provided Maddie with a near-perfect target.” Maddie shoots and the arrow penetrates “deep into its mouth, then reaching further still, severing the spinal column where it reached the brain, killing the wolf instantly.”  

Drugs and Alcohol   

  • Maddie and Will go into a tavern that serves ale. However, the two do not drink any. 
  • After seeing a demon, Maddie is upset and is given an herbal sleeping draft so she can sleep through the night.

Language 

  • When Will and Maddie kill two direwolfs, Will says Arazan will “only have one left, and thank Gorlog for that.” Gorlog is a Scandian god that is referred to in the Brotherband Series

Supernatural 

  • Arazan is a necromancer who tries to make contact with the dead. According to rumor, Arazan “was conducting unholy rituals late at night. They said she was trying to raise the spirit of the Lord of Rain and Night.”  
  • Arazan uses dark magic to try to make contact with a demon.  
  • Eveningstar is a healer who knows how to use herbs, potions, spells, and the black arts. “For the past year or so, she’s been trying to keep Arazan and her vile creatures in check.” Eveningstar can also “conjure up a fog to confuse” others. 
  • Eveningstar uses magic to show Arazan’s behavior to Will and Maddie. Eveningstar “drew a circle in chalk on the flagstone floor . . . Then she handed each of them a bunch of fresh rosemary on a long leather cord, which she instructed them to place around their necks.” Eveningstar sets up a brazier and heats stones. Then she begins chanting, “Ikab bledsr rimanatof. Ibak nimendir bledsr.”  
  • As Maddie stares at the hot coals, “shapes began to appear inside the cloud.” Maddie sees a demon. “The serpent body is black, along with the scale-covered, batlike wings. . . [Its face] was black-green, with glowing, evil eyes and a fringe of broad, triangular spikes around its neck. As she watched in horror, it opened its mouth to reveal huge, blackened fangs set in multiple rows inside its jaw.” 
  • Eveningstar writes down incantations and gives them to Will. “One is a spell of banishment . . . and this one is a shielding spell, to conceal you. . .” Later, Will chants the spell, “Ikab jandlar remko. Ikab jandlar simet. Ikab jandlar, jandlar ikabl” and banishes the demon. 
  • In order for Arazan to control the demons, she needs silver. Eveningstar explains, “Ordinary weapons won’t harm him. But weapons made from silver will be deadly to him.” 
  • Rangers have a unique connection with their horses. This connection lets them communicate. Will explains, “If it’s in my mind, he knows.” 
  • When Will concentrates, he can contact Eveningstar (a sorceress) with his mind. The first time he tried, “he felt, rather than heard, a voice in his mind, like the silken touch of a spider’s web. . .”  
  • Eveningstar gives Will and Maddie rosemary to hang around their necks to ward off evil and to keep Arazan from using her mind to watch them. 

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Truly, Madly, Royally

Zora Emerson’s summer plans are simple: to attend the pre-university program at Halstead U and continue her community work in her hometown of Appleton. Zora is Black and from a modest background, which doesn’t fit the typical picture of students at Halsted U nor the royal family of Landerel – a small country in Europe. Dodging reporters, dating a prince, and attending a royal wedding were not part of the plan.  

After meeting a mystery boy in the library, Zora falls for his charm, only to discover that she’s fallen for Owen Whittelsey, the son of the Queen of Landerel. Soon, Zora’s studies and volunteering is split between dates with Owen. However great Zora’s dates with her Prince Charming are in private, the royal life is not as glamorous as it seems. Owen is constantly monitored by his security team, and the budding relationship between Zora and Owen is investigated by the press. When Zora wins a grant to bolster her after-school program, the award is taken away when outsiders hint that her connections to the royal family give her an unfair advantage.  

Despite the setbacks and scrutiny, Zora persists in growing her after-school program through different means while managing her relationship with Owen. Eventually, he invites Zora to attend the wedding of his brother as a guest of honor. During the trip of a lifetime, Zora learns how to be confident in herself and embrace her heritage.  

Truly, Madly, Royally is a romance story mixed with a unique narrator whose heart lies with helping her community. Despite the majority of students at Halstead being from rich, white families, Zora is determined to embrace her African heritage and prove that she has a place among them by excelling in the classroom and her community work. Zora’s confidence is admirable even as she’s faced with large setbacks, such as grant money for her community work being taken away. Instead of giving up, Zora runs her own fundraiser, earning the money on her own. At the end of the story, African culture is highlighted as the royal wedding is between Owen’s brother and a Black woman named Sadie. However, the romance plot takes center stage, so the book doesn’t teach much about African culture beyond these basic issues. 

Truly, Madly, Royally is an easy, quick read. However, there’s not much to learn or gain from this story due to its simplistic and predictable plot. Readers who typically enjoy the romance genre will be disappointed by the development of Zora and Owen. While the romance is underwhelming, the story of Zora’s relationship she has with kids from her after-school program is heartwarming. Beyond that, however, the story highlights the importance of community. Zora truly wants to make a difference in her community and works hard to achieve her goals. Zora’s caring nature, confidence, and African heritage bring a unique element to this common romance trope.  

Sexual Content 

  • Skye, Zora’s friend, admits that she and Zora’s brother Zach kissed. 
  • Owen invites Zora to the royal ball. Then, “Owen bows his head and kisses my hand.” Afterwards, he asks, “Am I welcome to kiss you?” Zora says yes, and Owen kisses Zora for the first time. Zora describes, “Owen closes the distance between us and bows his head closer. It’s a kiss that starts with one soft, sweet peck, quickly followed by another. We look at each other and smile before taking a deeper dive with a tender kiss that lingers. We stay holding hands the whole time. A few seconds later, we pull back slowly.” 
  • Owen kisses Zora in a lecture hall at Halstead. “He pulls me in closer for a quick, wonderful kiss.”  
  • Owen hugs and kisses Zora while dancing in a friend’s dorm. “[Owen] lifts me off the floor. He lowers my feet with a quick kiss.”  
  • When Zora shows up at a wedding, Owen greets her. “[Owen] wraps his arms around me and kisses my forehead.”  

Violence 

  • Owen’s sister, Emily, committed suicide, which Zora learns from an article that provides the details of her death. “Apparently, when [Emily] was younger, a royal biographer dubbed her the ‘redheaded stepchild.’ Sadly, the unfortunate moniker stuck. . . [Emily] was considered chubby. The body shaming, the merciless trolling, the unflattering memes everywhere all threw her down a self-destructive path that ultimately led to her tragic death. Her body was found off a cliff in a mountain range along the southern coast of Landerel.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When Owen’s sister died, there was “a high level of alcohol in her system.” 

Language 

  • Zora’s mother claims that her ex-husband, Zora’s dad, is always “showing his ass.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Zora’s mother is religious and occasionally mentions God and praying. She says, “I’m gonna pray you find a friend there you can relate to. You know God always listens to a mother’s prayer.”  
  • Zora’s father says “the only person ruling this house is Jesus.” 
  • Zora is at a community event where she feels like she has to keep standing up to greet people. “I stand up, sit down, and then stand up and sit down again. You would think I am at a Catholic church service.” 
  • The royal wedding is held in a chapel in Landerel. 

Saints of the Household

Max and Jay have always depended on one another for their survival. Growing up with a physically abusive father, the two Bribri (indigenous Puerto Rican) American brothers have learned that the only way to protect themselves and their mother is to stick to a schedule and keep their heads down.

But when they hear a classmate in trouble in the woods, instinct takes over and they intervene, breaking up a fight and beating their high school’s star soccer player to a pulp. This act of violence threatens the brothers’ dreams for the future and their beliefs about who they are. As the true details of that fateful afternoon unfold over the course of the novel, Max and Jay grapple with the weight of their actions, their shifting relationship as brothers, and the realization that they may be more like their father than they thought. They’ll have to reach back to their Bribri roots to find their way forward. 

Told in alternating perspectives, Saints of the Household outlines Jay’s and Max’s stress as they enter their final year of high school. Ari Tison is Bribri herself and brings Bribri stories and language into the text. She integrates these elements seamlessly. It gives insight into Bribri culture and provides a contrast to rural Minnesota. The boys’ connections with their home and their mother’s family are deeply important to the story, as it provides a sense of normalcy and peace in an environment that is otherwise uncertain. 

Jay and Max’s relationship drives the tone of the story. The brothers have different personalities, which causes conflict. Max wants to escape his home situation and often pulls away from Jay, who is always preoccupied with family and school matters. The brother’s bond fluctuates; the more Jay and Max exist in harmony, the more hopeful the story becomes. Both Jay and Max are sympathetic characters, and readers will find it easy to connect with them. 

Since Jay and Max are familiar with domestic violence, Saints of the Household includes violent scenes. In addition, when their classmate Luca physically abuses Nicole – his then-girlfriend – the brothers beat up Luca in order to protect Nicole. Some readers may find the abuse troubling as Tison’s remarkably succinct writing style makes the descriptions of these scenes short, yet powerful. Despite this, in the quiet moments, Jay and Max find solace in each other and in their Bribri traditions even though they live in the tundra of Minnesota. Jay also seeks comfort in his friend Nicole, while Max finds it in his art. 

In order to help readers distinguish between the brothers, Max’s chapters are all written in wandering verse, which is in stark contrast to Jay, who writes his thoughts in prose. The changing points of view illustrate the differences between the brothers as well as highlights how differently they understand their current situations. Another factor that affects the story is that religion plays a significant role in the story as the boys’ beliefs balance between Christianity and Bribri traditions. As with other elements of the book, these are integrated seamlessly into the story and there aren’t any strong stances taken on the topic itself. Religion is as much a part of Jay and Max’s life as Bribri culture, or their mom’s hot chocolate: it just is. 

Despite the darkness that cloaks the events in Saints of the Household, the ending is uplifting. The brothers have witnessed violence and have even stooped to physically fighting each other. Despite this, the conclusion hints that Max and Jay will make it through these difficult times through their family’s and friends’ love. Saints of the Household will appeal to readers looking for a more literary and thoughtful text rather than an action-packed adventure. The story ends on a hopeful note and shows that the characters will make it through to the next stages of their lives. It also reminds readers that life can get better. For more perspective from indigenous authors, read The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline and Powwow Summer by Nahanni Shingoose. 

Sexual Content  

  • Jay finds one of his dad’s porn magazines. The magazine has “a woman with a low-cut shirt lean[ing] forward on the cover.”  
  • Nicole used to date Aaron, but she “think[s] Aaron was hooking up with someone else right after we broke up because of something I saw online. They were flirting in the comments somewhere.”  
  • Max and his girlfriend, Melody, kiss. Max describes, “She leans over and kisses me./ We kiss hard, and I cry.” 
  • Max mentions that he says “no to [Melody] when she asks about sex” because he’s worried he’ll hurt her. 
  • At a school dance, Max and Melody kiss. Max describes, “Before we get to the hall,/ she turns off the lights,/ and then I kiss her, and we kiss, and we kiss,/ by the dark door.” 
  • Max and Melody “mess around, pulling clothes;/ she’s musk, honey, stomach,/ ochre colors filling my mind/ with every kiss and touch/ we unfurl on the bed,/ until she’s over me.” Max stops before things can go any further. 
  • After an absence, Nicole sees Aaron again. “Before Aaron can say anything, they hug each other, and hug and hug. She kisses him on the cheek. He kisses her back, and they start really kissing.”  

Violence  

  • The narrator asks God for forgiveness for “kicking the neighbor’s dog, for shouting at the sky, for beating up that boy.” The event where the boy, Luca, is beaten up is explained later in the book as the book’s plot follows the aftermath. 
  • After they beat up Luca, Jay and Max see a counselor. The counselor asks, “Why didn’t you stop? Why did you kick him in the face? You broke his nose…His face is severely injured.” 
  • Jay explains what happened the day they beat up Luca. Jay says, “Luca was pulling at [Nicole’s] jacket, and she pushed his hands away. Then Luca’s hands were on her shoulders while she swore at him. . . She pushed him off, then he grabbed her hand and yanked it down and then leaned forward to say something in her ear. And we snapped. We were on him, pulling him away from Nicole, and he swore at us. He shoved Max, and I shoved him back, then he shoved me back, and then we beat the heck out of him.” This description lasts for one page. 
  • Jay describes the first time his dad hit him. Jay says, “Dad opened the door and caught me listening. I saw his usual hard anger turned hot, but hotter this time. I can still feel it. That first time he swung. My body crumpled onto the wooden floor.” The description ends after a page, but it is established that this happens regularly. 
  • Jay explains his father’s domestic violence further. Jay says, “After Max’s fourteenth birthday, he took to hitting me whenever I did anything that upset him…Then he started on Max. He made us swear never to tell Mom, because she wouldn’t understand that it was what we deserved for acting like fools, for not doing what he asked, for looking at him the wrong way and how it showed him disrespect. That didn’t last long, because his anger turned to her soon.”  
  • The brother’s mom tells a story about two young men who have to stop mystical eagles from stealing children from a tribe. They lull the eagles to sleep and, while they slept, the two men “swiftly took a knife to [the eagle’s] throat and cut [them] to pieces.”  
  • Max and Jay come home and see their mom crying and holding her shoulder. Their dad is yelling. Jay reacts: “With two long strides, I am right up to him, him and his sour breath. I send my fist right to his face.” Their dad ends up leaving the house without taking a swing at Jay.  
  • Jay’s dad tries to be nice to Jay’s mom, but then Jay says, “I lay him out when he drinks too much and goes after Mom again.” It is insinuated later that his dad hit his mom in the face. 
  • After an absence, Jay and Max’s dad comes home. Jay details: “Late at night, I hear a loud bang at the back door. Mom opens it, like she does. And I hear it, the lick of fist to skin. I see Dad’s hands go hard to her neck. Max jumps on Dad.” Their dad is arrested. 
  • Jay has dreams about his dad physically abusing him. He has “dreams where Dad’s hands hit me across the face, harder for calling the authorities on him…I see the time he decked me for taking it out and how he marched me out to the alley and pushed my face into the can so hard the plastic edge cut into my skin.” His descriptions last for a page. 
  • Jay’s grandpa, Grandpa Fernando, talks to Jay about depression. He says, “I used to get sad, too. You know your great-uncle? It was so much he took his own life. I don’t want that for you.”  
  • Max and Jay fight. Max says, “I go for you first./ I go for your ankles,/ and your back cracks/ against the wood./ I’m on you,/ swinging and swearing.” The fight ends when Grandpa Fernando hits Max over the head with “a big book in his hands.” The description of the fight lasts for a few pages. Jay sustains bruises on his face, but both brothers are otherwise fine. 

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • The brother’s dad physically abuses his family, “especially when he drinks.” Jay elaborates that his dad “likes rum and Coke.” 
  • Max paints Melody’s portrait at a park next to a trailer park. Max notes, “there, a smoking empty bean can/ with cigarette butts on the steps.” 

Language  

  • Profanity is used somewhat infrequently. Profanity includes: shitty, asshole, damn, hell, jackass, and fuck. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content  

  • The book opens with a passage about communion and Christian church service. An unnamed narrator says, “I keep crying at the time of the reflection, asking God for forgiveness. I can’t stop thinking about it —  before I am told to eat the cracker and drink the two-inch cup of black-red wine.” The passage lasts for half a page, and God’s name is invoked frequently throughout the book. Jay and Max’s family does attend church. 
  • Max and Jay are indigenous Costa Rican, and Jay notes that the ocean is traditionally sacred and revered. He says that they’d “have to pray to even get close” to the ocean. 
  • Grandpa Fernando would tell Max and Jay stories about their ancestors, who were the first indigenous peoples of Costa Rica – the Bribri. He would tell them “of tricksters, the Creator Sibö, and men who were cursed after selfishness.” There are short chapters dedicated to various Bribri stories, and they each last for a couple of pages. One story is about the birth of Creator Sibö. 
  • Jay references an Old Testament story where “Jonathan risks his life for King David, and a verse says that David loved Jonathan with more love than a man had for a woman — and Max and I are like that. Brothers born eleven months apart.” 
  • Max and Jay’s mom tells them a story about mystical eagles. She explains that “the mystical eagles were the dragons of Talamanca…They’d come down from the mountains, tearing children from their mothers’ arms, snatching those who went out in the day from the pathways.” The story lasts for a page. 
  • Max says that he remembers him and Jay “laughing at the sex-garden references in the Bible—Eden, then the gardens in the Song of Solomon.” 

United We Spy

Cammie has finally discovered why the Circle wanted her dead. Once upon a time, she had seen a list of the Circle founders. Now that Cammie’s mother has the list, she and her most trusted allies are determined to track down the masterminds of the Circle and arrest them. But they are not the only ones hunting them. A splinter group of the Circle is also tracking the founders down; their goal is not to arrest, but to kill. One by one, members of the Circle arebeing picked off. But before one dies, he warns Cammie that the Circle is planning something big, and the wheels are already in motion.  

To make matters even worse, the Winters are one of the names on the list of Circle founders. Macey swears Preston Winters can’t know that his father is in the Circle, but with tensions as high as they are, Preston may be guilty by association. When he and his father are whisked off to a secret, high-security prison, Macey fears Preston isn’t safe even there. Those worries are proved right when his father is killed by a mole while in prison. Cammie and her friends are left with no choice—they must break Preston out before it’s too late. 

The mysteries of the Circle are being solved one by one, yet Cammie continually feels one step behind the Circle’s plot. As the dominoes begin to topple, Liz warns that the building tension will lead to World War III. Cammie will do anything—even give her own life—to stop the cascade before it’s too late. 

United We Spy is full of action, tension, and the satisfaction of a long-brewing mystery resolved. Cammie and her usual cast of friends and family will stop at nothing to prevent the Circle from starting World War III. The question is, can they stop the chain of events before they reach a critical mass? And even if they can, what will be the price they have to pay? Through first-person narration, Carter creates an exciting story full of relatable characters and action-packed sequences. Readers may want to have a box of tissues handy as they close the final chapter of this epic saga.   

Sexual Content 

  • Cammie sees her aunt Abby kiss Agent Townsend. “On the Tarmac, Agent Townsend whispered something to Abby, then squeezed her hand and kissed her softly when he didn’t think we were watching.”  
  • Zach and Cammie kiss several times. Most kisses are described in one to three sentences. For example, “Zach’s hand was warm in mind, and I didn’t feel the chill, even when he stopped me on the stairs, pressed me against the wall, and kissed me. Softly at first, then more urgently, hungrily. It was like he hadn’t eaten in weeks.”  
  • Another time, Zach and Cammie kiss. “I brushed my lips across his mouth, lightly at first, teasing. Tasting. And then his lips parted and the moment was over.”  

Violence 

  • When Cammie and Bex go to arrest Sir Walker, a member of the Circle, Zach’s mom beats them there and kills him. Cammie gets there and she “heard the hiss of the bullet, saw the dark spot that grew on Sir Walter’s chest, and watched him fall to his knees . . . A drop of blood ran from his lips. As the life drained out of him, he toppled over onto the floor, never to defy us—or anyone—again.”  
  • A member of the Circle launches a grenade at Cammie. Cammie describes, “Blood ran into my eyes. The grenade must have struck a gas line, because smoke swirled all around me and I could feel the heat of the explosion at my back.”  
  • Cammie and her friends are in a car crash during a getaway chase. “The crash came too fast—too hard. One second we were careening along the Roman streets, and the next there was nothing but the screech of tires and the crunch of metal. I felt myself falling, tumbling in the back of the truck as it flipped onto its side. Sparks and scraping metal.”  
  • Cammie hears Preston’s dad get shot in the next room. Cammie “jumped over the partition and into the other room . . . blood stained the concrete. His face looked almost peaceful as he stared up at me and gave me one last smile. ‘Save Preston,’ he whispered, eyelids fluttering. And then he died.”  
  • When outsiders come for Cammie, the Grand Hall of the Gallagher Academy breaks out into chaos. “Seventh graders jumped onto the backs of FBI agents. Seniors squared off against the CIA. It wasn’t cat versus mouse; it was spy versus spy.” No one was seriously injured. The fight takes place over two pages.
  • While infiltrating a prison, Zach attacks a guard. Cammie “stepped into the hall just in time to see Zach haul back and head-butt the guard, knocking him to the floor.” Later on the way out of the prison, Macey takes out some guards. “A guard rounded the corner and Macey dropped to the ground, knocking the man’s feet out from beneath him. Another guard followed so closely behind that they became tangled together, falling.”  
  • After escaping from the prison, Cammie realizes Bex has been shot. Cammie “looked at Bex just as she unzipped her heavy down jacket. Blood stained her shirt spreading across her shoulder and dripping down her side.” Bex survives.  
  • Cammie and her friends are close to a bomb that detonates. “There was nothing but a cloud of smoke and terror. People screamed . . . The force of the blow had knocked [Cammie] to the ground, and my side ached . . . A man stumbled through the crowd, his face so covered in blood that I couldn’t even tell what damaged had been done.”  
  • When Zach’s mother turns herself in, Cammie hits her because she is angry. Cammie “pulled back my fist and punched with all my might.”  
  • Cammie lunges at a man with a gun and is shot. “He fired. Once. Twice. Blinding pain coursed through me, but I didn’t stop. I just kept running toward him, catching his gun hand in my arms and spinning.” 
  • While rescuing Amirah, a fellow Gallagher girl, Cammie is shot. Cammie then kills the man who attacked her and Amirah. “Pain seared through me again—a hot, burning stab . . . I took aim at the very place Amirah had been just seconds before and pulled the trigger . . . [Amirah] crawled away from the man who was falling to the ground. His blood was on her shirt, but she didn’t seem to be in any pain.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When taken to a top-secret prison, Cammie is drugged so that she cannot reveal its location. “In the next second a syringe was in Agent Edward’s hand, and the needle was in my arm, and just that quickly my mother’s office began to spin, the whole world spiraling quickly into black.”  
  • A teacher at the Gallagher Academy developed Napotine patches, which knock a person out. These are used several times. Once, Bex “slapped [a guard] hard across the face . . . the man looked almost amused for a moment before the strength slipped out of his limbs and he crumbled to the floor. The other guard was struggling to his feet, but Macey was already on him, attaching yet another Napotine patch to the back of his neck.”  
  • Liz drugs Zach’s mother with a concoction stronger than truth serum. “Liz’s concoction entered her bloodstream. It was like she was growing drunk and sleepy. Her eyelids were heavy.”  

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Light it Up

Told in a series of vignettes from a myriad of points of view, Light it Up details a community’s reaction to a police officer killing a thirteen-year-old Black girl. An outraged city demands change, but quickly the outside world, and some white nationalists, take notice. As tensions escalate between the citizens of Underhill, and as the white nationalist group White Out arrives in the city ready to counterprotest, the lives of the residents are thrown into further disarray. 

Light it Up is the second book in her series, coming after How it Went Down, which is also about the killing of an unarmed Black teenager in the same community. It is not necessary to read How it Went Down first, but there are overlaps between the fictional setting and the characters. Each book makes sense on its own, as the focus is on different tragedies that happen to different characters. 

Magoon’s book takes place in a fictional city, but the unarmed killing of Black people in the United States is real, and she heavily borrows from real-life situations to bring her narrative to life. Magoon mentions the names of Black people killed by police in the United States including Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Martin Luther King Jr. She also includes a fictional white nationalist group, White Out, that is heavily based on real-life groups, and the KKK also makes a brief appearance. These moments serve to show how close her narrative runs along our reality.

Light it Up primarily tackles conversations about race relations in the United States from a variety of perspectives. Magoon addresses the nuances through many different points of view, including from a little girl who only speaks in simple poems, the daughter of a police officer, local nonprofit organizers, a gang leader, and many more. Each piece tells part of a larger story about the Black girl who was killed, but the lives of the other characters also shine through. Although this story is a tragedy at its core, it’s also about a community fighting the same fight day after day, and doing as much as they can to live somewhat normal lives. 

There are also segments of the book that show the scripts from news broadcasts and social media comments, which brings in extra context from outside the city of Underhill and paints an even broader picture of the conversations surrounding police brutality and racialized violence. Light it Up takes a stance that is clearly shown in one news segment in particular. A guest tries to justify the viewpoints of white supremacists, saying that their views are equally valid, and the news commentator points out, “The minute you accept the premise that intolerance is a valid point of view, you lose freedom.” This is a succinct look at one of the book’s main themes. 

Light it Up has mature content, including heavier language usage, violence, and sexual suggestions than some other young adult novels; however, its themes about race relations and community are powerful and certainly worth reading about. Additionally, most of the characters, unless otherwise specified, are college students or adults. Readers should take note that extreme bigoted language is used, but in context, the language shows the reality of white nationalists in the United States. This book is important to read because it helps illustrate the many facets of racism, and it does so in an intelligent and empathetic manner. There is not a happy ending after a child is killed, and the community can only do its best to grieve and continue the fight for a better home, despite the terrible obstacles. This is not a joyful occasion and the only way out is through. 

Sexual Content  

  • The characters in this book engaging in sexual content are exclusively adults. 
  • One character, Jennica, used to be in a relationship with a man named Noodle, and he still comes around her place sometimes. Jennica describes how Noodle says, “‘Hey, gurrrrrl.’ He drags the word out so long it sounds dirty.” When she rebuffs him, he says, “I wanna keep doing you.” Jennica also mentions that what she misses about him “has nothing to do with sex.”  
  • At another point, Noodle texts Jennica, “You look hella sexy in that apron.” Jennica is not amused. 
  • While drunk at a party, Noodle sexually assaults Jennica. Jennica narrates, “My back is against the wall and Noodle presses up against me with his whole body. His hands push up my skirt. His mouth is on my neck, my chest. When I try to wriggle away, he takes hold of my wrists, pinning them beside my head.” After a page, he is stopped by a man named Brick, whom Jennica then kisses despite Brick saying no several times. Jennica notes, “When our mouths meet, I taste salt and beer and breath. It’s one quick moment, or it lasts a hundred years. He tears his face away.” 
  • While she is drunk, Jennica makes a sexual pass at Brick. Jennica notes that Brick pushes her back a step, but she also notes, “But his eyes say different. His fly says different.” Nothing happens between them. Later, she articulates her attraction, saying, “[Brick’s] muscles. I’m kinda turned on and I hate it because it reminds me of last night. Of Noodle’s hand going between my legs.” 
  • Brick notes that he can have “any woman [he] wants.” He says, “I could lose myself in [the party], find some honey to wriggle against me, soft and warm. The one in the hot-pink mini skirt. Damn. The one with the shaved head and earrings like Olympic rings.” This is the extent of his detailing of his sexual desires. 
  • Community organizer Zeke is talking to community volunteer Kimberly at the community center as folks are seeking shelter from the police outside. Zeke gives Kimberly a blanket and notes, “She smiles up at me. So pretty. Sleepy eyes are kinda sexy, I guess.” 
  • It is insinuated that a character named Melody has sex with Brick. The only description of this is from Melody, who remembers, “my memory rings with the sensation of his muscles against me. His breath on my cheek. The quick, hard rhythm as we rise together. The way his arms wrap me tight as we lay together. His sweet whispers.”  
  • Brick and Melody have sex again. Brick’s usual dating method is: “We screw, we snuggle, then we go our separate ways. No hang-ups. I sleep careful. I sleep smart. No drama.” He says this as Melody wakes up in his bed. Brick sees Melody, “her shirt is off and the covers are pulled up right underneath her excellent rack…She’s right there, and willing, and it feels good.” They have sex again that morning, though no further details are given. 
  • Kimberly and Zeke are attracted to each other. Kimberly mentions that Zeke “is fine.” Zeke mentions that Kimberly “is fine. Can’t tear [his] eyes from that big, sexy behind of hers. Why is she wearing cute pants like that to the office? Nobody needs to look that good while filing correspondence.”  
  • Kimberly likes Zeke, but she insinuates that she may have had a relationship with another man that they mutually know. Kimberly says, “Zeke can’t ever know what happened between me and Al. Reverend Sloan. The senator.” She doesn’t elaborate about what happened further. 
  • Senator Al Sloan has a history with Kimberly, and she doesn’t like how he seems to speak in double-entendres. Kimberly notes that when he says, “I still think about that week,” she understands it as him saying, “I wouldn’t mind getting in your pants this time, if you’ll let me.” Kimberly manages to rebuff him at each opportunity. 
  • Kimberly and Zeke kiss. Kimberly describes, “His lips are soft. It’s not unpleasant. But I don’t know what to do… My hands find his fingers. His tongue plunges in and out and I try to move mine in response.” Kimberly explains to Zeke that she’s never had sex before, and after a couple of pages of discussion, it is insinuated that they do have sex, but nothing is shown. The sequence lasts for several pages. 

Violence  

  • The book’s central discussion is about police officers killing unarmed Black people. The characters reference real life examples listing, “Look at Watts in ‘65, look at LA after Rodney King, Ferguson after Michael Brown, Baltimore after Freddie Gray.” Later, students at a demonstration at their college campus, named other victims like “Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Jr., Sandra Bland,” and many others. 
  • One day, walking home from school, an unarmed Black girl, Shae Tatum, is shot and killed by a police officer. Descriptions throughout the book detail her death. For instance, after she’s shot, “the curb is dewy with blood.” Later, a police statement notes that “the child was running away and got shot in the back.” 
  • Shae’sdad comes running to the crime scene, and another character, Brick, stops him because, as Brick notes, “The next five minutes play out in my mind in sped-up slo-mo fashion: He’ll run at them. Try to bring them down with his own hands. Then he’ll be laid out beside her and they will feel justified.” Brick stops him, but the grieving father “pummels [Brick].” With the cops pointing guns at them, Brick requests that a paramedic “sedate [Shae’s dad]” and they do as he asks. The scene is described over a couple of pages. 
  • At a crime scene, the police tear gas the crowd. One cop notes, “The line we held firm for hours is shattered. So long, tenuous peace. The string of yellow tape bursts and drifts to the ground as people run and scream.” 
  • Brick seriously considers and plans to organize his gang against the cops, and he tells part of his plan to one of the women who’s attracted to him. She tells others that, “He’s talking it. Panther-level action, taking guns against the cops.” 
  • The young daughter of the police officer who killed Shae is being abused by other students at school. She notes, “When I am not looking, other kids reach out and pinch me as hard as they can. I say nothing. Like I’m supposed to.” 
  • The daughter of the police officer has a classmate who says to her, “I bet [your dad] beats your mom. All cops are beaters.” The classmate then “pounds his knuckles into the other palm,” and the daughter has flashes of what are presumably memories. She thinks, “The smack of skin on skin. Beer bottle against the wall. The boxing bag hanging from the garage ceiling… I know how to throw a good punch.” It is insinuated that she punches this classmate. 
  • It is insinuated that the police officer who killed Shae Tatum beats his wife. Their daughter notes, “[Mom’s] shirtsleeves taper smoothly to her wrists such that everything is covered.” 
  • Much of the book details the actions of the white supremacist group called White Out, but the book also details the history of white supremacist groups. One author on a news program explains, “The image of white people marching with torches by night evokes more than a belief. It evokes intent. Historically such images are associated with lynchings. The Klan and its members passed extra-legal judgment on any black people they had it in for. The image evokes hatred and represents an absence of due process. Forces that this country has been working for a century to overturn.”  Historical explanations of violence like this are explained throughout the book, but this is the end of this description. 
  • One college student, Tyrell, is having a conversation with his white classmate, Robb. Robb doesn’t understand that white supremacists and racism have always existed, and he asks Tyrell if there are white supremacists in his neighborhood. Tyrell thinks, “You mean like the cops who put us into walls, the teachers who tell us we won’t amount to anything, the cabbies who won’t stop for us, the bankers inside their bulletproof glass cages? You mean like the guy who shot my best friend?” Robb doesn’t understand that this is a system that he, as a white man, benefits from. 
  • One police officer watches the White Out rioters descend upon the city. He thinks to himself, “There is no one I hate enough to bring a torch to a park and chant in the dead middle of winter. I think hard about it. There’s no one. Well, terrorists, I guess. The kind of man who straps a bomb to his chest and walks into a school to set it off. I hate guys like that enough to set them on fire.”  
  • One white college student is driving his two black classmates to the protests, and he’s driving over the speed limit. The other two are worried about getting pulled over, and their white driver refuses to slow down. One of them then reaches “up from behind and takes his shoulder. Pinches his fingers as hard as he can into his soft tissue.” This convinces the white driver to slow down and be serious. 
  • The college students in the fray see a cop beat a young Black woman who tripped and fell during the protest. The cop’s “baton, already raised and ready, comes down hard on her. Crack! She screams as the cruel metal tube strikes her shoulder. She falls to the ground. The cop spins, putting his back to us, and brings the baton down on her again.” The white college student tries to stop the cop. The student’s “hand goes out, grabs the officer by the collar with one hand. His other hand knocks the baton aside and away from the woman on the ground.” This scene lasts for a couple of pages. 

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • Shae’s parents bring out the mulled wine, presumably for the people who are of-age. Mr. Tatum says, “My sister-in-law’s been making it like no tomorrow.”  
  • After police-mandated curfew hours, Brick considers staging a protest. Noodle tells him it’s a bad idea, saying, “The whole point is they come after us for nothing now. We can get high and forget about it.” 
  • Zeke is on a date with Kimberly and he offers her beer as “it looks like we’re out of wine.” 
  • A character notes that Brick’s parties involve a lot of “dancing and drinking and being all loud.” 
  • Jennica shows up to one of Brick’s parties angry. She says, “I came anyway. In time to see Kimberly and Zeke sitting right up where I used to sit. Holding court with Brick. I’m holding court with Jose Cuervo.” It is confirmed that Jennica is drunk. 
  • One college student, DeVante, checks his white classmate’s car he’s in for “errant weed,” as DeVante knows full well that he and Tyrell would be the ones that the cops would blame for it being in the car. 
  • DeVante and his white classmate Robb have been friends since the start of college. DeVante notes that, “We’ve talked about girls and kept each other from getting too drunk, or walked each other home when we’ve occasionally missed the mark.” It is implied that they are in their first year of college, but nothing else is described. 

Language  

  • Profanity is used frequently. Terms include hell, ass, God, goddammit, shit, fuck, and bitch.  
  • One character known for being insensitive reads about the murder. He tells his roommate, “Cops shot a girl. Only thirteen, and retarded or something.” His roommate responds, “Don’t say retarded.” This is the extent of the conversation. 
  • Robb refers to a woman news anchor as “the hot chick with the big lips.” He later says, “Can we get a scroll bar with her number?” The other people around berate his rudeness. 
  • Robb regularly makes microaggressions against Black people. For example, he notes that there are mostly white people at his college. He says, “Everyone in the room is white, except DeVante and two Asians. I mean, a Filipino and a … I forget. Chinese, maybe. Whatever — he grew up in Portland.” These comments come up semi-regularly. 
  • In one of the online forum posts, a presumably white person uses the N-word. The comment reads, “Fuck these n—-. We’re gonna take it to them where they live.”  In another post, the same commenter says, “You n— can’t keep a good cop down.” The term is written out in the book. 
  • White supremacists show up at Shae Tatum’s funeral, declaring that she deserved to be shot and that this incident was a “war on cops.” Zeke notes a photo that he sees at the funeral, describing, “The focus is on a small girl, not more than ten, standing at the front of the group. Her long blond pigtails fall over her shoulders, framing the hand-lettered sign at her chest: SHE HAD IT COMING.” Many more incidents like this occur throughout the book. Another sign at this event reads, “[The cop who killed Shae] DESERVES A MEDAL, NOT A PUBLIC LYNCHING.” 
  • A guest activist on a television program discusses the phenomenon of counterprotests. They say, “There’s a history of counterprotest. Remember, the ‘God Hates Fags’ contingent showed up at Matthew Shepard’s funeral.” This is the extent that this term is used. 
  • One newscaster notes that on social media the counter-protesters were trending the phrase, “The only good n– is a dead n–.” The newscaster doesn’t say the word but instead indicates it with the n– instead. 
  • Another person on a social media thread comments about the black protesters, “Like monkeys in the zoo. Making sounds and throwing feces. Ooh Ooh. Fenced in! Tear gas! Tase their asses!” 
  • Brick sees that his friends are being arrested for protesting. He thinks to himself, “Cops and n–s in a game of chicken- who’s more afraid of the dark?” The word is spelled out in the book. 
  • Jennica and Melody stand with the protestors against White Out. One of the white supremacists yells at the group, “Oooh oooh ooh! Go back to Africa, you motherfucking apes!”  
  • After getting Shae’s dad away from the police officers, he is sedated and lying in the back of a car. Another man is trying to keep him upright but is struggling, and he says, “Fuckin’ Christ.” 
  • Brick swears in surprise at Jennica when she’s drunk and she kisses him. He says, “Jesus, fuck.” 
  • One of the cops is complaining about paperwork. He says, “Christ, look at all these arrest reports.” His co-cop says, “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, for God’s sake.” They both laugh at his joke. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content  

  • Someone on a news forum comments saying, “Why r u up here talkin bout blessings? Ain’t no GOD in this mess.” Many other people give their “thoughts and prayers” to the community. Another comment states, “You trippin. Prayers aint enough.” 
  • Shae Tatum’s funeral is held at a church. One little girl notes, “Ladies, ladies / loud ladies / big ladies / chewing ladies / sipping ladies / humming, Lord Jesus / humming, my baby / humming all the way to the cathedral sky.” 
  • The cop who killed Shae Tatum sits with his family at their home, holding a vigil for Shae. His wife lights a bunch of candles and says to her family, “Let’s pray.” The scene lasts for half a page. 
  • A news show discusses the intersection of faith, liberty, and rights. The guest on the program notes, “When a serial killer says God made him do it, we don’t let him off the hook for his crimes. Are we supposed to accept murder as a protected aspect of faith?” This discussion lasts for several pages. 
  • A commenter on a social media forum says about the verdict, “Life and death, reward and punishment, is the purview of God Almighty. Righteousness has been on our side from day one. #HeroCop.” 
  • One of the college students is deeply upset and is thinking of his friend who was killed by police. He thinks, “Don’t know what to make of a world without justice, of a God who turns our best intentions into the dark.” This point is not elaborated on more. 

Shadow and Bone

Alina Starkov never expected to be anything but ordinary. An orphan from Keramzin, a small village in Ravka, she is a mapmaker in Ravka’s First Army. Her best friend, Mal, is also in the army as a tracker. Alina wants nothing more from life. 

But that changes when her regiment attempts to cross the Fold, a swath of deadly darkness created 400 years ago by the Black Heretic that splits Ravka in half. Alina discovers that she can summon light, making her a Grisha – someone with the ability to practice the Small Science. But Alina is no ordinary Grisha – she is a Sun Summoner, who is prophesied to destroy the Fold for good. 

Now Alina will enter a lavish world of royalty and intrigue as she trains with the Grisha, her country’s magical military elite—and falls under the spell of their notorious leader, the Darkling. He believes Alina can summon a force capable of destroying the Shadow Fold and reuniting their war-ravaged country, but only if she can master her untamed gift. 

Alina begins working with the mysterious Darkling, the only Shadow Summoner and leader of the Grisha. He tells Alina that he seeks to rectify his ancestor’s mistake and unite Ravka once more. The Darkling says Alina is Ravka’s only hope. But the more Alina learns about the Grisha world, and about the Darkling himself, the more she realizes that things are even more complicated than she previously thought. With Ravka’s future on her shoulders, Alina must figure out who her allies are and possibly prevent a catastrophe bigger than the creation of the Fold itself. 

As the first book in a fantasy trilogy, Shadow and Bone has the difficult task of setting up its characters, setting, and plot in an engaging way while still leaving room for the story to develop in subsequent books, and it does not disappoint. The world-building is excellent as it introduces just the right amount of information so that the reader is not confused but is still intrigued to learn more.  Throughout the story, Bardugo expertly weaves in more details as needed. Ravka comes to life through Bardugo’s lush prose that provides just enough description without distracting from the plot so that even the most plot-driven readers will not be able to walk away from this book. 

Another positive aspect of Shadow and Bone is its vast cast of characters. Even minor characters have multiple layers of depth which keeps readers on their toes and makes them constantly examine the characters’ decisions. Alina is an easy character to relate to for anyone who has ever struggled to fit into an unfamiliar environment, and her strength and perseverance make her an admirable protagonist. This is especially evident in her struggle to merge her new life with her old dreams for her and Mal, and readers will root for her as she searches for ways to combine her ordinary past with her extraordinary present. Readers will eagerly devour Shadow and Bone, and delight in learning about the world of the Grisha alongside Alina. 

Sexual Content 

  • A beautiful Grisha girl smiles flirtatiously at Mal. His friends tease him. “‘You know she’ll be staying at camp,’ Mikhael said with a leer. ‘I hear the Grisha tent’s as big as a cathedral,’ added Dubrov. ‘Lots of nice shadowy nooks,’ said Mikhael, and actually waggled his brows.”  
  • Mal taps on Alina’s tent after hours. One of her fellow soldiers hears the knock and giggles, “If it’s that tracker, tell him to come inside and keep me warm.” 
  • The night before their regiment crosses the Fold, Alina and Mal reminisce about their childhoods. They are interrupted and when Mal gets up to leave, he tells Alina to wish him luck. She does, and then thinks sarcastically, “Good luck? Have a lovely time, Mal. Hope you find a pretty Grisha, fall deeply in love, and make lots of gorgeous, disgustingly talented babies together.”  
  • Alina’s friend Genya usually spends her time at the Grand Palace because the Queen and especially the King like to keep her close. It is insinuated that the King treats Genya as if she is a prostitute. Genya later confirms this to Alina, telling her that “the King has his way with lots of servants.” 
  • The Darkling kisses Alina in an empty room at the Little Palace. “I’d been kissed before, drunken mistakes, awkward fumblings. This was nothing like that. It was sure and powerful and like my whole body had just come awake. I could feel my pounding heart, the press of silk against my skin, the strength of his arms around me, one hand buried deep in my hair, the other at my back, pulling me closer.” This scene occurs over two pages. 
  • As Alina wanders the outskirts of the city, a drunk man stumbles out of an inn and grabs Alina by the coat. He says, “Hello, pretty! Have you come to keep me warm?” He makes a few more comments in the same vein; Alina quickly gets away by blinding him with her light powers. 

Violence 

  • When Alina’s regiment attempts to cross the Fold, they are attacked by volcra, deadly creatures who live in the Fold and feed on humans. There are many injuries and casualties, including Alina’s friend Alexei. Alina “gasped as Alexei’s arm was yanked from mine. In a spurt of flame, I saw him clutching at the railing with one hand. I saw his howling mouth, his wide, terrified eyes, and the monstrous thing that held him in its glistening gray arms, its wings beating the air as it lifted him from his feet, its thick claws sunk deep into this back, its talons already wet with his blood. Alexei’s fingers slipped on the railing . . . His screams faded into the sounds of battle as the volcra carried him into the dark. Another burst of flame lit the sky, but he was gone.” This scene occurs over four pages. 
  • When Alina is being taken to the Little Palace by Grisha guards, they are attacked by Fjerdan assassins. Alina “huddled on the floor [of the carriage], clutching the knife’s heavy hilt, my knees to my chest, my back pressed against the base of the seat. Outside, I could hear the sounds of fighting, metal on metal, grunts and shouts, horses whinnying. The coach shook as a body slammed against the glass of the window. I saw with horror that it was one of my guards. His body left a red smear against the glass as he slid from view.” This scene occurs over four pages. Many unnamed people die, and a few are injured.  
  • Alina has a nightmare where she “threw open the door . . . and screamed. There was blood everywhere. The volcra was perched on the window seat and, as it turned on me and opened its horrible jaws, I saw it had gray quartz eyes.”  
  • During a combat training session, Alina spars with Zoya, one of the most powerful Grisha. Zoya “pressed her advantage and lunged forward. That was her mistake . . . I [Alina] stepped to the side, and as she came in close, I hooked my leg around her ankle. Zoya went down hard. . . But before I had a chance to even register my victory, Zoya sat up, her expression furious, her arm slashing through the air. I felt myself lifted off my feet as I sailed backward through the air and slammed into the training room’s wooden wall. I heard something crack, and all the breath went out of my body as I slid to the ground.” 
  • In the woods, thieves attack Alina and Mal. Alina’s training saves them. “Before he could recover, I [Alina] slammed a knee into his groin. As he bent double, I put my hands on the back of his head and brought my knee up hard. There was a disgusting crunch, and I stepped backward as he fell to the ground clutching his nose, blood spurting between his fingers.”  
  • The Darkling kills Morozova’s stag in order to use its antlers to make an amplifier for Alina. The Darkling “strode forward and without hesitating slit the stag’s throat. Blood gushed into the snow, pooling around the stag’s body. I watched as the life left his dark eyes, and a sob broke from my chest.” 
  • Alina has a nightmare. “That night, I dreamed of the stag. I saw the Darkling cut his throat again and again. I saw the life fading from his dark eyes. But when I looked down, it was my blood that spilled red into the snow.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Alina watches a friend “take a swig from the bottle [of kvas] and then lurch forward.” Kvas is the Ravkan equivalent of beer. 
  • While en route to the Little Palace, Alina, the Darkling, and the rest of the Grisha guards sit around a fire and “pass a flask back and forth.”  
  • Genya, Alina’s best friend at the Little Palace and a Grisha servant to the Ravkan King and Queen, describes the King as “probably drunk” and says that he “devotes all his time to hunting, horses, and imbibing.”  

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • This book involves a magic system known as the Small Science, which is a way of manipulating matter. Those who can wield the Small Science are known as Grisha. The Grisha are split into three orders: Corporalki (the Order of the Living and the Dead), Etherialki (the Order of Summoners), and Materialki (the Order of Fabrikators).  
  • The Darkling and Baghra, Alina’s tutor, are Shadow Summoners, while Alina is a Sun Summoner; these are unique abilities that no other known Grisha possess. For example, here is a description of when Alina summons light for the first time on purpose and by herself: “I called and the light answered. I felt it rushing toward me from every direction, skimming over the lake, skittering over the golden domes of the Little Palace, under the door and through the walls of Baghra’s cottage. I felt it everywhere. I opened my hands and the light bloomed right through me, filling the room, illuminating the stone walls, the old tile oven, and every angle of Baghra’s strange face. It surrounded me, blazing with heat, more powerful and more pure than ever before because it was all mine. I wanted to laugh, to sing, to shout. At last, there was something that belonged wholly and completely to me.” The Darkling’s power works in a similar way: “He brought his hands together and there was a sound like a thunderclap. I gasped as undulating darkness spread from his clasped hands, spilling in a black wave over me and the crowd.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Many Ravkans worship Saints, and consider Alina to be a living Saint because she is the Sun Summoner. 
  • The Apparat, the King’s spiritual advisor, tells Alina, “There is something more powerful than any army. Something strong enough to topple kings, and even Darklings . . . Faith.”  
  • Alina checks the casualty lists every week, looking for Mal’s name, and each time she doesn’t see his name she “gives thanks to all the Saints that Mal was safe and alive.” 
  • When Alina is on the run, she can’t resist slipping into a tiny church to hear the priest say Mass. The priest “offered prayers for the congregation: for a woman’s son who had been wounded in battle, for an infant who was ill with fever, and for the health of Alina Starkov. ‘Let the Saints protect the Sun Summoner,’ intoned the priest, ‘she who was sent to deliver us from the evils of the Shadow Fold and make this nation whole again.’” 
  • Alina describes Genya as “a painted icon of a Saint, her hair a burnished copper halo.” 

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