Before Takeoff

This is an evening like any other in the Atlanta airport. Sixteen-year-old James and eighteen-year-old Michelle are both on a layover when their paths cross. They are drawn to something nobody else seems to notice: “a blinking green light that will soon cause all hell to break loose.” While James is hesitant to do anything, an impulsive Michelle reaches her hand toward it. When she realizes that “it’s not just a light, but a button,” she presses down.  

Impossible events begin almost immediately. One end of the airport jumps to ninety degrees while snow falls at the other. Explosions, tornados, and rushing rivers spring out of nowhere. To make matters worse, nobody can locate an exit, glass windows refuse to break, cell phone calls aren’t going through, and anytime someone tries to text “something about the events at the airport, [their] words turn into a string of emojis” that are indecipherable.  

As James and Michelle search for their families inside the airport, the mayhem keeps getting worse, and people are quick to form groups and turn on one another. Michelle realizes that she caused this—that the green button must be responsible for this madness—and that she needs to destroy it before it’s too late. 

Before Takeoff is told in omniscient third person, taking the reader inside the minds of James, Michelle, and countless people throughout the airport. Occasionally, the story will make references to things that will happen after the narrative is over. These tactics allow for a better understanding of the grand scope of this situation, as readers are privy to knowledge and events that the main characters are not. The narrative occasionally makes remarks that are informal and playful, at one point describing a series of fights that break out as a “Hunger Games-esque/Battle Royale fiasco.” This is a way of demonstrating an awareness of the absurdity of the plot and inviting the reader to just go along with it.  

Unfortunately, Before Takeoff ‘s perspective makes it difficult for the reader to get an intimate understanding of James and Michelle. There are so many glimpses into the heads of so many people that it becomes easy to feel detached from the two main characters. Readers may find it difficult to care about them. In addition, as their ordeal stretches on, the plot drags because readers are not given much incentive to be invested in the characters or the outcome. 

From the start, readers know that James and Michelle will reunite with their families and successfully put an end to what is going on. Their romantic connection is also predictable. The narrative tries to make a point about human nature. Particularly, it focuses on how quick people are to grow hostile towards each other in chaotic situations, how they “succumb to their biases . . . blame the people they know the least about.” However, it fails to set itself apart in any way from countless other stories that have made comments about the same phenomena. Unfortunately, Before Takeoff’s enticing premise falls flat. Since the characters are hard to care for and the storyline is so predictable, the book is not worth reading unless the reader is an avid fan of fantastical survival stories. While the writing is often witty, getting through the whole story ultimately feels like a chore.  

Sexual Content 

  • Michelle remembers an old boyfriend and how they snuck around “finding places to make out, finding new places to press their bodies together.” 
  • During a conversation with James about love, Michelle muses, “‘I’d be content with something simpler than love… A perfect sexual relationship, sure.’” 
  • James has not cried in a long time, but  “he came close a few times during those weeks when [a classmate] refused to talk to him after they’d hooked up.” Later, the book implies that they did not have sex, as James lists it as something he would like to do before he dies. 
  • Michelle and James enter an airport shop to get dry clothes to change into. Michelle tells James not to look, and “reaches back to unclip her bra right as James forces himself to stare at a wall.” 
  • Michelle tells James,‘“the boy’s I’ve been with . . . forget gradients of sexuality; we’re talking intimacy here, lie-in-the-dark-and-talk-about-deep-shit intimacy—they’ve all asked some sort of question related to numbers. . . How many other times did you do this.” James reiterates that “sex or making out or whatever” shouldn’t be quantified by how many people you’ve done those things with. 
  • James and Michelle kiss passionately in a closet. There is a skip in time and the two are described as still being in the closet and “still clothed and mostly chaste . . . closely attuned to the joys of the physical.” 
  • An airline employee named Rosa remembers going to a frat party where guys were “walking around shirtless, thinking that the display alone would get them laid.” 
  • James and Michelle dance at one point, and “it doesn’t take long for sex to enter [their] minds.” Their bodies are pressed together and James wonders if Michelle “can feel him start to harden.” 
  • While dancing, Michelle “can feel [James’] erection any time their hips meet. Her hand dips below the waistband of his jeans.” A new commotion interrupts them before they can go further. 
  • A woman reminisces over a lost love, and how “every now and then, during, sex, she’ll still picture [his] face instead of her husband’s.”  

Violence 

  • Two men have a confrontation, and a man named Taha attempts to diffuse the situation. When one man attempts to hit the other, Taha instead “catches the blow directly on the nose, and that sound carries towards James, as does the sound of the back of Taha’s head when it lands against the floor. . . There’s a splatter of blood on the tile.” This leaves Taha unconscious. This whole altercation takes place over two pages. 
  • There are two explosions of ambiguous cause. The first one “ripples the air and shakes the walls, sending several people to the ground.” The second is described as “knocking a few more things to the ground, handing out another dozen concussions or so.” 
  • James and his family lived in Humboldt Park “when the shootings were bad.”  
  • The narrative states that in Concourse A, “A Hunger Games-esque/Battle Royale fiasco has broken out, and since we have weak constitutions . . . we shall pass over the events that take place there for the remainder of this narration.” 
  • A man named Joseph accuses Taha of knowing something about what’s going on at the airport. Joseph intimidates him and jabs a finger at his chest. Before it makes contact, “Taha has grabbed it with one hand and Joseph’s wrist with his other hand, then twisted so that Joseph’s arm is behind his back and his finger is some slight pressure away from breaking.” Taha lets Joseph go after insisting he has no right to accuse him of anything. 
  • An airline employee unsuccessfully attempts to break through a window to escape, swinging a chair at it and punching it in frustration. The narrative notes a stream of blood leaking “from between his clenched knuckles, his skin cracked from the efforts to break free.” 
  • A vaguely described curse passes through the airport causing many people to “merely stop breathing, quietly passing from this life without a bang or a whimper.” 
  • During a commotion, “fistfights [start] to merge, an almost cartoon-like cloud of punches and kicks and curses.” 
  • It is stated at one point that “a handful of other people die in the unspoken battles of the A gates” due to the violence that has broken out there. 
  • People are trampled in stampedes. At one point, people who are unable to get out of the way are “[bracing] themselves for uncaring boots. They curl up in balls and protect their heads.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • James recalls that he often gets stuck looking at mirrors “in the midst of anxiety-ridden afternoons and drug-addled nights.” 
  • “Two white twentysomethings named Brad and Chad, buzzing off their earlier choice to pair shots of Jameson with twenty ounce beers” run around the airport during the chaos. 
  • “The smell of filth and alcohol” is described as coming from stranded passengers. 
  • At one point, a couple of people are noted to be smoking cigars. 
  • James and Michelle get drunk on unspecified alcoholic beverages during a salsa party that breaks out. 

Language 

  • Profanity is used rather frequently, both in the narration and dialogue.  Profanity includes ass, asshole, fuck, shit, bullshit, damn, and goddamn.  
  • Michelle often uses the French swear word “putain,” which translates to whore, bitch, and slut. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual 

  • James recalls being pulled over for not using a blinker and how the cop made him and his friend get out of the car and “only because he found nothing else, and they deferred to him like he was God, did they get back in.” 
  • A woman was “begging the God she stopped believing in when she was fourteen that she’ll see her kids again.” 
  • James thinks about God and going to church with his friend Marcus. James at one point “believed in God even though he never saw evidence of Him, other than what the preacher at church would say.”  
  • A congregation of people gather on their knees, “whispering their prayers in a dozen languages.” 

The Words We Keep

It’s been three months since Lily found her older sister, Alice, bleeding from her wrists on the bathroom floor. Now, with her father having drained his bank account for Alice’s mental treatment program, Lily knows she is not allowed to be a burden to her family. She’s told no one about her panic attacks, or how she impulsively picks the skin on her stomach until it bleeds, sometimes even in her sleep. She constantly wonders to herself, “What if you’re going crazy? Just like [Alice]. What if . . .you’re already gone?” Still, Lily knows she cannot let any of this out. She needs to keep her eyes on the prize – that being a full track scholarship to Berkeley. 

Her sister’s return home from Fairview is coupled with a boy named Micah transferring to Lily’s high school. As it turns out, Micah was in treatment with Alice, and he’s also Lily’s new partner for a school art project. The two embark on a project that involves leaving poetry in unexpected places throughout the school. The two maintain their anonymity, gaining the title “the guerilla poets of Ridgeline High.” Lily knows Micah can assist her in finding a way to help her sister. However, Lily also finds that she needs Micah to help her, because the words she’s kept inside for too long are beginning to break through. 

Told from Lily’s perspective The Words We Keep is a vivid and gripping story about the effect depression and anxiety can have. The reader feels the push and pull of Lily knowing she needs help but wanting to be strong for her family. The poetry she writes communicates this struggle very well. The highlight on mental illness and self-harm is unflinching, and while at times difficult to read, the narrative handles the difficult subject matter beautifully. Occasionally the chapters end by showing the reader Lily’s Google searches and her word-a-day calendar entries, which allow for deeper glimpses into her psyche. Other chapters end with comments on the high school’s student message board, offering insights into how other students perceive Lily and Micah’s poetry project.  

Lily and Micah’s tentative bond and eventual romance is developed well. Micah’s mysterious nature and affinity for the characters of Winnie the Pooh intrigue Lily, and she muses that he might be able “to understand [her struggles]. Maybe he’s the only one who could.” The strained relationship between Lily and Alice is also very important to the narrative. The sisters are both suffering, but unable to console each other because they are holding their struggles back for the sake of the other. Through their relationship, the importance of openness with those close to us during trying times is emphasized. 

The major characters in The Words We Keep are largely well-developed and likable, but those outside of the main cast are too numerous and one-dimensional. For example, a bully named Damon is at points unrealistically cruel to Micah. Damon goes as far as giving Micah a bottle of aspirin with a note suggesting that he kill himself, which Micah just shrugs off. Other characters, like Lily’s best friend and her stepmother, provide little substance to the narrative and seem to leave and reenter the story at random periods with little impact, leaving the reader to wonder why they were included at all. 

The flaws of The Words We Keep ultimately do little to detract from the impact of the story. Readers will be able to connect with Lily and will want to see her story to its finish. While not for the faint of heart, this is an important novel that explores the pain of suffering in silence, and how to overcome the fear of letting it out and asking for help. Readers will learn that many people around them may be fighting inner demons, and that compassion and openness about one’s own struggles is imperative. Readers who want to explore mental health through fiction should add Paper Girl by Cindy R. Wilson and Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge to their reading list. 

Sexual Content 

  • Lily texts Micah saying that a talk with her sister went over “like a fart in an elevator.” Afterward, Micah jokingly texts Lily that she needs to “work on [her] sexting skills.” 
  • When students begin leaving poems throughout the school, Lily notes “the occasional blow me” written along with them. 
  • Lily says that her father and stepmother are newlyweds, “which means sex. And lots of it.” 
  • Lily and Micah almost kiss in a janitor’s closet and rumors spread. One student speculates on the student message boards that Micah was “banging [Lily] in the janitor’s closet.” 
  • When Lily and Micah kiss for the first time, Lily describes, “his lips [moving] slowly, as gentle as a breeze, but the taste of him makes my whole body hum . . .our bodies, our lips, melt farther into each other.”  
  • Lily and Micah go skinny dipping in the ocean. Lily says, “I taste the ocean on his skin as I press my mouth to his shoulder, his neck, his jaw. He groans, low and guttural, when his lips find mine.” 
  • Lily sees her sister going skinny dipping with a guy at a beach party. He later says that the two of them were “messing around.” 
  • Micah was with Lily and her family at the hospital after Lily attempts suicide. He later confesses, “‘I have to tell you something . . . they put you in a hospital gown and I totally saw your butt.” She jokingly asks if it was “good for [him],” to which he responds it was. 

Violence 

  • As a child, Lily nearly drowned while swimming in the ocean. Her sister guided her back to shore. Lily remembers, “salt water fills my mouth, my ears, my everything . . . and then I’m on the sand. Dad’s swearing. He’s pounding on my back. He’s yelling my name so loudly, it hurts my head.” 
  • Lily discovers Alice on the bathroom floor, “blood draining from her wrist, pooling on the tile . . . Dad scoops her up, legs limp, blood dripping like a fairytale crumb down the stairs.” Alice is taken to the hospital and then to a mental facility. Lily recalls finding her in the bathroom several times throughout the book. 
  • Kids at school discuss rumors surrounding Micah. One boy says, “‘I heard someone found him perched on Deadman’s Cliff, trying to, you know. . . ’ [he] makes a throat slitting motion with his thumb.” 
  • One student says they heard that Micah “went full psycho on a kid at his last school. Like stomping him to the ground.” 
  • On a message board for students at Lily’s high school, someone suggests they make bets on “how long until [Micah] offs himself.” 
  • Lily self-harms. The earliest incident the reader is privy to is when she vigorously plucks hairs around her eyebrows, “[digging] the tweezers in until blood beads on my skin. But I keep going . . . got it . . . I wipe the pinpoints of blood from my eyelids.” 
  • When Lily was seven, a man, who is later revealed to be Micah’s father, leapt from Deadman’s Cliff. She remembers “watching the body covered in a white sheet like a bloated whale on the sand” on the news. 
  • Lily picks at the skin on her stomach, constantly picking off scabs and opening new wounds. She says, “it helps calm me, keeps me from having a full on meltdown . . . before long, blood coats my fingertips.” This process is described vividly throughout the book. 
  • Lily picks at her wounds in her sleep as well, waking up to find “bright red, angry splotches where I’ve ripped open my skin.” 
  • Micah lashes out at one of his bullies. In a fit of rage, Micah pushes him “up against a locker, and he’s hitting him, hitting him, hitting him.” A school security guard apprehends Micah and he is suspended from school and sentenced to do community service work. 
  • Alice has a breakdown at a beach party and tries to jump from Deadman’s Cliff, apparently convinced that she might fly. Lily tries to climb up to convince her to get down. She reaches for Alice’s ankle and “as she yanks her leg away, her other foot slips . . . and she’s falling. And screaming . . . and there’s blood in her hair. So much blood.” Alice survives the incident, ending up with a concussion. 
  • After her sister’s fall. Lily picks the skin on the entirety of her body in the bath, saying, “I continue even though the pain fills me. Because the pain fills me . . . I scrape myself away.” This happens over three pages. 
  • Lily has a nightmare about finding her sister in bed with “a waterfall of blood [pouring from her covers]. Soaking her nightgown. Splattering onto the carpet.” 
  • While in her room, Lily opens a box of razors and runs her finger “across all the razors and pencil sharpeners and scissors . . . If pain is all we’re going to feel anyway, why not bring it on?” She snaps herself out of it before she can act on the urge. 
  • Lily runs away from home in the middle of the night and attempts suicide by jumping off of Deadman’s Cliff. She thinks, “I just want it to stop. All of it—the monsters, the guilt, the never enough. It’s the only way.” Alice, Micah, and her father arrive and stop her. This scene lasts six pages. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Lily finds her father cleaning out a medicine cabinet in preparation for Alice’s homecoming. She suspects this is so he can “make sure Alice doesn’t down a fistful of Aspirin when she gets home.” 
  • Lily’s father takes sleeping pills. 
  • Lily begins secretly taking her father’s sleeping pills to combat her intrusive thoughts. 
  • A bully leaves Micah a bottle of aspirin with a note reading, “Do us all a favor.” 
  • After picking at her entire body, Lily takes one of her father’s sleeping pills and one of Alice’s prescribed pills. She sleeps for days while her father and stepmother are constantly with Alice at the hospital. When she awakes, she takes a double dose of sleeping pills and several of Alice’s before returning to sleep.

Language 

  • After Alice falls from the cliff, a student on the message board says that she and Lily are “total attention whores. The world would be better without them.” 
  • Shit, bitch, and damn are said on a few occasions. 

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • Lily says that she and her family talk with her therapist while holding each other’s hands “like we’re saying a prayer. And maybe we are, supplicating a higher power to help us.” 

The Queen Will Betray You

In the second installment of The Kingdoms of Sand & Sky series, Princess Amarande deals with the aftermath of her fateful wedding. Having killed Prince Renard of Pyrenee, Amarande brought war to the Kingdom of Ardenia. She must return to her home to restore order while her true love, Luca, will return to the Torrent to reclaim his title of Otsakumea, the rightful leader of the Otxazulo, the fallen kingdom that was taken over by the Warlord.

Returning to Ardenia, Amarande is shocked to find her mother, Geneva, also known as the Runaway Queen and Warlord of the Torrent, has returned to Ardenia with Ferdinand, the son of the late King Sendoa. Despite having raised him on her own, Ferdinand is not Geneva’s son, but the son of General Koldo, making him Amarande’s half-brother. Far from a cordial family reunion, Amarande is imprisoned by her mother and declared dead. With Amarande’s absence, Ferdinand takes over as King. To make matters worse, Queen Inés of Pyrenee has vowed to marry King Domingu of Myrcell to fortify their kingdoms and attack Ardenia.

Imprisoned and betrayed by her family with her true love, Luca, miles away, Amarande finds help from an unlikely ally, Prince Taillefer of Pyrenee. The same Prince who tortured Luca to near death in the first novel. Knowing this is her only option for escape, Amarande accepts his help and the two of them escape to the Torrent to be reunited with Luca.

Meanwhile, in the Torrent, Luca finds the Otxazulo resistance and convinces them he is the lost leader of the fallen kingdom. The proof rests in the black wolf tattoo upon his skin. While Luca leads the resistance, Amarande and Taillefer are captured by the regent Warlord, who was appointed by Geneva. Now, Luca must save Amarande and prove, once again, that their love will survive any conflict.

At the brink of war, Luca leads the Otxazulo resistance to Amarande where she is rescued, and the regent Warlord is killed. Taillefer also escapes to kill his mother and reclaim Pyrenee as his own. Only Geneva is left for Amarande to defeat. However, facing her mother in an intense duel, Amarande is wounded and Geneva flees, leaving Amarande and Luca with a broken kingdom they must rebuild in the next chapter of their story.

The second book in this series has another fast-paced, action-packed plot, making it very engaging and easy to read. There is, however, a significant amount of graphic violence making it more suitable for older readers. Like the first book, the novel deals with the themes of true love, but there is also an emphasis on the importance of loyalty and trust as Amarande must decide who to put her trust in and who is worthy of forgiveness.

Amarande and Luca are kind, dedicated, and inspiring protagonists, but their characters are still undeveloped. Their love story is clear but lacks depth. This is addressed when Taillefer asks Amarande, “is Luca really your true love or just all you’ve known?” While it is unclear why Amarande and Luca are together, the uncomplicated history of their relationship makes for a sweet and pure romance. Overall, this is a fitting read for fans of The Princess Bride who enjoy wholesome romance with lots of action and adventure.

Sexual Content

  • Safe and far away from Pyrenee, Amarande kisses Luca “softly, mindful of his wounds. But her love was stronger than he seemed and put gentle fingers in her auburn hair, pulling her closer, deeper.” Soon, Amarande pulls away. After discussing their next adventure, Amarande “dropped another kiss on his lips, then up the line of his jaw.”
  • Before saying goodbye, “Amarande kissed Luca one last time—hard. As hard as she wished she had before he was kidnapped. As hard as she did when it was clear they’d escaped Pyrenee alive. As hard as she could—this kiss would have to hold her for days, if not weeks, or months.”
  • Queen Geneva refers to General Koldo as a “whore general.”
  • Amarande recalls the time on the pirate ship “she’d slept next to the bed in the captain’s quarters, holding [Luca’s] hand from her spot on the floorboards. He would’ve lain there, too, if the pain weren’t so great. Her stubbornness won out yet again.”
  • Happy to be reunited with Luca, “Amarande kissed him then. Eyes closed, mouth hungry, her whole mess of a body folded into Luca’s warmth. His arms tightened around her, a hand snaking through her hair and to her neck.”
  • Before returning to the fight, “Luca pressed another fevered kiss to Amarande’s lips, the princess shutting her eyes and drinking it in until, with one last gentle sweep of a thumb against her cheek, he drew away.”
  • Before facing her evil mother, Amarande showers Luca with kisses “to his spine. His shoulder blade—one, and then the other. Up his neck. Again, behind the ear—one, two. She settled the curve of her throat over his shoulder, her chin coming to rest on his collarbone, parched lips at his ear.”
  • After the battle with Geneva, Luca visits Amarande who is recovering in bed. He kisses Amarande and when she decides she is “strong enough to kiss him back, she did so, moving her hands to his hair, keeping Luca where she wanted him until she realized they weren’t alone.”

Violence

  • When Queen Geneva reveals her plans to imprison her daughter, Amarande draws her sword to attack but is thwarted by a hand clenching her neck, “squeezing precisely on the artery that supplies oxygen to the brain. An arm gripped around her middle—an arm clad in garnet-and-gold regalia.” Amarande faints and is brought to her cell.
  • Ula offers to clean Luca’s torture wounds. Luca confesses, “the sting of the process was one of a thousand bees under the skin, but the pain was minor in comparison with what he’d felt in the past week. And the wound looked only a little better, the skin bruised and raw with inflammation that ran down the whole hand-length gash in the middle of his chest, just beside his wolf tattoo. The flat black sutures were tight, straining to keep the swollen edges of flesh together.” His wounds are slowly healing.
  • Trying to look out the window of her prison, Amarande hoists herself up the wall using a bit of cloth. However, the “cloth tore and before she could lunge for another grip or pull her feet from the wall, Amarande fell with a resounding thud, the back of her head bashing into the stone floor.” Amarande feels a bit disoriented from the fall, but she is more frustrated than hurt.
  • Amarande’s brother, Ferdinand visits her in her prison cell to make peace, but Amarande refuses his offer; “the moment he was in range Amarande’s boot struck out and made jarring contact with his kneecap.” Amarande tries to attack again but, “Ferdinand was ready, grabbing her boot and yanking at it, trying to wrest it off with both hands. She pulled back, but he held fast, even managing to keep the dagger in his grip. Amarande’s other foot shot out and clocked his left hand. His grip faltered, he dropped his dagger, and she drove her heel hard into his knee yet again.” Soon, Ferdinand gains the upper hand. As Amarande hesitates, he removes a dagger from his boot, throwing it through the air. “The knife pinning her right between the tendons that sewed her knuckles in place. Impaled, Amarande’s hand flew open, dropping the dagger.” Ferdinand then removes the blade from her hand. “He braced her wrist against the wall with the other hand and, in one smooth motion, removed the blade,” but, “Amarande didn’t cry out, even as stars swirled in her vision and blood began to pour from her hand.”
  • While traveling through the Torrent, some of the Warlord’s men try to capture Luca by attacking his crew with fire. Ula, however, wouldn’t let them and “a fist-sized fireball shot over Luca’s shoulder, plowing straight into the leader’s gut.” The man “fell back, tunic and skin suddenly aflame. His bandana slid down as he hit the dry ground behind him, his face distorted with panic as he screamed horrifically.”
  • Before the other servants of the Warlord could retaliate, Ula’s “blade cut the stout one down with a blow to his wide upper back, and his grip upon Luca immediately died as he fell away.” Urtzi and Osana, friends of Luca’s, come to the rescue as Urtzi hits the other two men “with his own bucket and the glass jug. The instant the caustic antiseptic made contact, the torches shuddered and exploded,” and “all three men suddenly were ablaze.” The Warlord’s men are burnt to death, but Luca and his friends escape.
  • Luca and his group come across the dead body of their friend, Erfu. Urtzi examines the body and describes a “dart in his neck and an assassin’s smile. Slowed him down and then sliced him open. His tunic is torn, too—they checked his tattoo. Carved an X through it.”
  • Escaping from her prison cell, Amarande takes out her guard who “only seemed to register Amarande in the split second before the hilt of her sword crashed down upon the guardswoman’s temple.”
  • While fleeing Ardenia with Amarande, Taillefer kills a guard. “In the twitch of a moment, Taillefer’s free hand seized the guard’s dagger from the sheath at his belt, and sank it into the soft meat of the boy’s side.”
  • Amarande and Taillefer come across several dead bodies that “lined the creek bank—two, three . . . no, five—and two more floated in the shallow waters. No blood stained their sun-bleached clothes, no stab wounds obvious, no wounds at all.” Amarande discovers the water had been poisoned.
  • In the Torrent, Amarande and Taillefer encounter members of the resistance. Not trusting Amarande, “a knife shot out of the man’s hand, and the princess dove to the side. She rolled to her feet, dagger out and ready. His companion immediately rushed at her, sword tip aimed straight at Amarande’s belly. The princess pivoted and flattened, and the woman crashed forward under the weight of her driving weapon. As she fell to the dirt, Amarande immediately smashed the blunt hilt of her dagger down upon the back of her skull, rendering her unconscious.”
  • While Amarande fought with the resistance group, Taillefer battles a wild wolf. The wolf’s “paws connected with Taillefer’s chest and shoved him to the ground. He struggled to push away the animal’s jaws as the whole of the wolf’s weight was on him now, the snarling beast holding all the leverage.”
  • Taillefer and Amarande escape their battle only when the man pushes Amarande into a sand hole. The man’s “boot connected with her twisting back. The blow knocked the princess off-balance and she stumbled forward, her exhausted body lunging for solid ground. Where there wasn’t any.” Amarande tumbles into a hidden cave and Taillefer follows. They are bruised and sore, but alive.
  • After poisoning King Domingu, Queen Inés “did not release Domingu’s chin as he thrashed, words burbling up through the white foam on his lips.” He dies moments later.
  • At one of the Warlord’s camps, Taillefer was lifted into the air by a giant man. Amarande tries to save him, “but the movement she’d anticipated didn’t come—the prince’s body was tossed vertically, not horizontally. And, as he plummeted back toward the cracked earth, the man’s leg shot out and his boot connected with Taillefer’s gut. The crunch of a shattered rib reverberated in the air, a cry escaping into the new dawn with it. Taillefer landed in a heap, blood rolling out of his mouth.” Taillefer’s ribs are broken.
  • Amarande and Taillefer fight with followers of the Warlord until “something thunked hard against Amarande’s temple, tossing her off-balance. Her opponent used that split second to roll onto the princess, driving Amarande’s face into the sandy earth as she sat atop the princess’s back, pinning her in a way that left all of Amarande’s fight useless.” Amarande and Taillefer are captured to be brought to the Warlord.
  • To prove her ruthlessness, the Regent Warlord orders those who do not comply with her to be burned in a fire pit. She will spare only one of them if they “fight to the death—disfigurement, loss of consciousness, and general injury do not count. You have to be the last living, breathing person standing.” From her confinement, Amarande watched the “human kindling. Hopes and dreams consumed nightly, reduced to flesh, fat, skin, and sinew, until there was nothing left to burn.” Then, she heard “the unmistakable sigh of a blade carving the breath from a man’s throat. One. Two. Two bodies draped gently on the ground. One. Two.”
  • When Luca reveals himself to the Warlord, more chaos erupts. There is “blood spray, bodies tumbling into the pit, the fire roaring and coughing smoke with each addition. Daggers and swords met in violent, reverberating clangs. Boots crunched bones, and live bodies, shrieking to the stars.” In the chaos, the Warlord “was sent headfirst into her own flames.” She is burnt to death.
  • Taillefer is fighting for his life against the Warlord’s men with his “hands in a fury, going for all the soft spots on the soldier’s face—ears, eyes, lips. The prince’s forearm caught the boy’s windpipe, and his head flew back with a crack, sucking cry escaping from his lips.” He escapes.
  • While escaping her prison cart, Amarande notices “her arm was bleeding from her shoulder through the length of her forearm, the wood of the fractured cart taking a sliding bite on the way down.” Ula stitches up Amarande’s wounds later.
  • To defeat his mother, Queen Inés, Taillefer stabs her guard and “twisted and removed a dagger from where it had been lodged in the soldier’s liver for hours on end.” The soldier bleeds out and dies. Taillefer then throws poison on his mother, burning her skin and killing her. “The tincture had dissolved the skin at her throat, the meat of her exposed, veins and capillaries burned back like parchment blackening and curling in flame before vanishing altogether.”
  • While Amarande converses with the Royal Council members, Geneva violently enters the room and “one guard and then another fell to the floor, assassin’s smiles carved across their throats, blood gushing onto the collars of their regal Ardenian uniforms.”
  • While fighting, Geneva thrust her blade “straight for the vulnerable flesh of Luca’s unprotected torso.” Luca is wounded but not killed. Next, Geneva turns to fight Amarande. “Geneva smashed her body backward, driving Amarande even harder against the wall, so hard that her skull thudded off the unforgiving stone with a terrific crack.” General Koldo attempts to save Amarande by attacking Geneva from behind, but she is thwarted when Geneva thrusts her into a table. “[Koldo] was bleeding from the head, a huge gash over her eye from where she’d made contact with the massive piece of scrolled furniture.”
  • When the action subsides, Luca notices he had accidently struck Taillefer in the neck with his dagger. Luca watches as “blood framed each of his teeth in stark red, as if he’d sunk them into a still-beating heart.” Luca then saw the “weak slice to the jugular.” Taillefer slowly dies from the loss of blood.
  • Amarande is stabbed in the leg by her mother. She tries to overpower Geneva with her good leg, but Geneva “thrust a thumb straight into Amarande’s leg wound, and the princess’s body seized as she cried out, vision fading to white. Her mother shoved Amarande and her blade aside, and scrambled free.” Amarande begins to lose consciousness with “all her adrenaline tapped, blood pooling under her body from her leg, arm, somewhere else.” Amarande survives, but her mother escapes.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Hell is used once. When Amarande is brought to the Warlord, she curses by saying “stars and hell.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Elena Brown

Disney Frozen Polar Nights: Cast Into Darkness

Two months after the events of Frozen 2, the Arendelle sisters are still adjusting to their new roles. Elsa rules over the Enchanted Forest but admits, “even now that I’ve taken my place among the spirits, magic isn’t always easy.”  Meanwhile, Anna is newly engaged and new queen of Arendelle. While in the midst of planning for the annual Polar Night’s Festival, Anna takes a break to visit her sister alongside Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven. Around a campfire, Kristoff recalls the legend of a different pair of royal sisters, how one drowned the other in a jealous rage. The murdered sister arose as a zombified creature—a draugr—a “‘soulless monster ready to seek revenge against those who did it wrong.’”

After Kristoff finishes the story, a mysterious storm blows in, and when he and Anna return to Arendelle the next day, something is amiss. Storms keep coming, the sky grows darker and darker, and everyone seems to be losing their memories. It seems the draugr from the story is real and after them. Anna and Elsa must embark on a quest to figure out how to stop the creature before it’s too late.

Disney Frozen Polar Nights is told from the alternating third-person perspectives of Elsa (written by Mancusi) and Anna (written by Calonita). The two authors seamlessly blend the chapters and the story flows well. The reader gets a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of both sisters and is able to have a better understanding of their relationship with each other as a result. Through the characters’ actions, the franchise’s theme of sisterhood and the importance of family are brightly showcased.

Anna, Elsa, and the other characters stay true to how they were portrayed in the films. The bond between the sisters is well illustrated, and their dynamic is charming, with Anna being more impulsive and Elsa being more grounded. Because of their differences, they balance each other out and bring out the best in each other. Anna’s romance with Kristoff is also very sweet, and it’s charming to watch them interact because they show how much they care about each other.

The plot revolves around Anna and Elsa figuring out the truth of what happened between the sisters from Kristoff’s story. It is a bit predictable that the circumstances around the death of the younger sister differ dramatically from the story that spread, and that this misinformation is the primary cause of the spiritual unrest. However, the journey is still enjoyable and is certain to captivate the target demographic.

Fans of Frozen will be swept up in this story that so vividly captures the Frozen world and characters. Disney Frozen Polar Night is a dramatic tale, but characters like Olaf provide some humor along the way to balance things out. The spooky story contains some imagery and tense moments that might be scary for certain readers. However, readers who appreciate monsters and mystery will enjoy the familiar characters and simple plot. Readers who are looking for kid-friendly ghost stories should add The Trail of the Ghost Bunny by Linda Joy Singleton to their reading list. Readers who love fairytale-inspired stories can jump into other fairytales by reading the Whatever After Series by Sarah Mlynowski.

Sexual Content

  • Anna and Kristoff kiss multiple times. The kisses are not described in detail. For example, the most detailed description depicts Kristoff “kissing her deeply” during an emotional reunion between the two at the end.

 Violence

  • Kristoff tells a legend of sisters Inger and Sissel. In a jealous rage, Inger “snuck behind [Sissel] and shoved her in [a river].” Inger watches as Sissel went over a waterfall and drowned.
  • While running from the draugr, Anna hits her head on a rock and injures her ankle. Elsa notes the “blood crusting in her sister’s hair.”
  • Elsa nearly drowns after falling into a river. As the current drags Elsa, she was “gulping river water too fast, choking and sputtering as she [tries] to find the river’s bottom . . . her feet only [kick] uselessly.” Anna saves her.
  • Elsa and Anna witness a vision of Sissel’s drowning. The vision reveals that the drowning was in fact accidental. Sissel tried to hold onto a branch by the riverbank for support but “the branch broke free. Sissel’s body was tossed like a rag doll over the [waterfall]. Inger screamed in agony, collapsing to the ground.”
  • A pirate ship shoots cannonballs at a ship that Anna and Elsa are on. Elsa needs to get to the ship to deliver a message. She rides there on the Nokk (a horse-shaped water spirit) while fighting the onslaught with her ice powers. “The cannonballs hit the ice in front of them . . . shattering [them] into a thousand pieces.” Elsa manages to get to the ship unscathed and stop the attack. The attack is described over four pages.
  • Plagued by memory loss, an Arendellian general named Mattias draws his sword and attempts to attack Sissel (still in the form of a draugr). He says, “I will slash you down where you stand.” As he charges Sissel, Elsa shoots an ice wall in front of him. He bounces “off the ice, falling backward and landing hard on the ground,” stopping from harming Sissel. He is not seriously injured.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • Elsa lives in the Enchanted Forest, home to the wind, fire, water, and air spirits who appear at certain points throughout the story. The fire spirit Bruni, for example, takes the form of a salamander that can catch fire at will.
  • The plot revolves around Sissel’s spirit coming back as a vengeful creature known as a draugr. Draugrs are “creatures of old folklore, and they supposedly cause terrible storms when they show up.” The draugr “haunts Arendelle and [steals] memories to try and make people stop thinking [her sister] murdered her.”
  • The group hears mysterious moaning in the night and when they go to investigate, their tent is knocked down by an apparent supernatural force.
  • The draugr appears to Anna and Elsa. It is described as “clearly human shaped . . . [with] blackened skin, misshapen bones . . . and green slime oozing from its pores.” The creature calls for its sister, and Anna and Elsa attempt to fight it off before running. It eventually vanishes but appears to the sisters a couple more times. It never harms them.
  • Eventually, Anna learns that the draugr isn’t really a ghost, but rather a “reanimated, decayed corpse… [that] didn’t receive a proper burial.”

Spiritual

  • None

Every Reason We Shouldn’t

Sixteen-year-old figure skater Olivia Kennedy’s competitive dreams have ended. She’s bitter but enjoying life as a regular teenager instead of trying to live up to the expectations of having Olympians Midori Nakashima and Michael Kennedy as parents. . .until Jonah Choi starts training at her family’s struggling rink.

Jonah’s driven, talented, going for the Olympics in speed skating, completely annoying. . . and totally gorgeous.

Amid teasing Jonah, helping her best friend try out for roller derby, figuring out life as a normal teen, and keeping the family business running, Olivia’s got her hands full. But will rivalry bring her closer to Jonah, or drive them apart?

Olivia’s life is a mess. Her father is on the road working, her mother is so doped up on pain pills that she’s mostly absent from Olivia’s life, and Olivia’s best friend is dealing with her own set of troubles, including raising her daughter. Then, Jonah enters the picture. The “Ice Prince” may set Olivia on fire, but his cocky attitude puts a damper on the romance. Instead of being a sweet and sexy love interest, Olivia and Jonah sneak into storage rooms, behind counters, and even behind a dumpster to make out. The abundance of kissing makes their romance seem shallow and cheap. Instead of rooting for the two teens, readers will have a hard time believing the two are really in love.

Olivia’s parents are another negative aspect of the story. Olivia has no parental support. While Olivia’s mother’s excuse is her constant pain, her injury is never explained, which leaves the reader wondering if the pain meds are necessary or just a way for her mother to escape. To make matters worse, the book’s conclusion is unrealistic because it portrays Olivia and her parents as a cohesive group that supports each other when there is absolutely no evidence that supports this.

Unfortunately, Every Reason We Shouldn’t isn’t a fun, flirty romance that readers will enjoy. Instead, it’s full of forgettable characters that are hard to relate to. While both Jonah and Olivia hope to go to the Olympics, they spend more time kissing than they do on the ice. The story combines skating with romance and parental pressures; however, the book’s flaws will quickly damper reader’s interest. Instead of reading Every Reason We Shouldn’t, readers looking for an entertaining story that mixes sports and romance should check out the Hundred Oaks Series by Miranda Kenneally.

Sexual Content

  • The father of Mack’s baby asks her if she wants to go to his house. He says, “Derek will get us a six-pack or two. We’ll hang and stuff . . . My mom doesn’t’ care if you sleep over. Long as we’re quiet.”
  • Olivia watches Jonah skate. “Every time he stops, Jonah looks over at me and smiles. I’m melting. I fantasize about stepping up onto his bladed feet, wrapping my arms around his neck, and kissing him until we’re standing in a puddle of water in the middle of the rink.”
  • When Olivia asks a friend for boy advice, the friend texts, “and use protection. . . And he better not be sending you pictures of his junk.”
  • Olivia and Jonah lay on a couch. Olivia brings “my other hand up underneath his T-shirt until my palm rests over his heart. . . Jonah pushes me gently down on the couch until his whole body presses into mine. . . When Jonah’s lips find mine, the blanket becomes completely unnecessary.”
  • Olivia and Jonah go into a supply closet at the skating rink. “As soon as the door is closed, I launch myself at him, our lips connecting like I’ve wanted them to do all morning. . . Cold fingertips glide underneath the back of my T-shirt and up my spine. . . I pull the zipper of Jonah’s skinsuit down to mid-chest. . . Jonah’s breath hitches when I slide my cold hand underneath the fabric.” They part when Jonah’s father calls him.
  • At the skate rink, Olivia and Jonah kiss. Jonah makes a “trail of kisses from my ear to my throat.” Then Olivia pulls “Jonah down until we are both kneeling on the well-worn carpet behind the skate counter. . .” They are interrupted by Jonah’s father.
  • After being apart for several days, Jonah goes to the ice rink. Olivia goes to take out the trash and, “As soon as I walk out the front door, Jonah grabs the trash with one hand and my hand with the other and pulls me behind the building to the dumpster. His lips meet mine before the bag of trash even hits the bottom of the dumpster.”
  • Olivia and Egg (her old skate partner) go to Los Angeles for a skate audition. While driving, Egg says, “Do you know what this looks like? Human trafficking.”

Violence

  • Olivia’s school has a lock down because of an angry parent’s “disorderly conduct” and a “confrontation” with the school’s security officer.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Olivia’s mom has an injury so she takes muscle relaxants and pain medication. Olivia says the medication makes her mom “spaced out.”
  • Olivia thinks that some of the high achieving kids at her school “snuck into their parents’ medicine cabinet to take a Xanax or two because their anxiety was way off the charts.”
  • Olivia’s classmate has a panic attack. She says, “The new medication helps. I still spent the rest of the day in bed surrounded by all my dogs and watching sea otter videos though.”

Language

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes ass, crap, damn, freaking, hell and pissed.
  • OMG, God, and Lord are used as exclamations occasionally.
  • Mack calls two boys “boneheads.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Love & Gelato

Lina Emerson already knows she faced the most challenging moment of her life when her mother suddenly passes from pancreatic cancer. But moving into an Italian WWII cemetery with a stranger claiming to be her father is not exactly going to be a walk in the park either. While navigating her own grief, Lina moves to Florence, Italy to meet Howard Mercer, a man at the center of her mother’s dying wishes.

Lina promises her mother that she will stay in Italy for the summer and the following school year. Lina realizes that Howard is more amicable and fatherly than she initially assumed. This then leads her to two very pressing questions: Why did she not know anything about Howard until now? And, if he is the father he claims to be, is she ready to be his daughter?

Seeking desperately to solve the mysteries in her mother’s past, Lina turns to a journal—the journal her mother filled during her own time in Italy. Following her mother’s puzzling narrative, Lina reads about the events leading up to her mother’s decision to leave Italy and now finds herself in a similar position. While Lina finds love, friendship, and beauty in Italy, just like her mother, she must similarly ask herself— is it best to leave Italy or to stay?

Love & Gelato is a narrative filled with decadent and delicate descriptions of early love, recognized grief, and Italian landscapes filled with the warmth of food and art. Welch so easily captures the tourist avenues through Florence, Italy, while also leading the reader through locations that a first trip to Italy may overlook. Throughout these descriptions, Lina’s bubbly voice and personality shines strong and easily intertwines with her mother’s own backstory. Entries from Lina’s mother’s journal are set intricately alongside Lina’s current adventure in Italy, resulting in a satisfying and touching plotline that transparently demonstrates the way our loved ones walk alongside us even in their deaths. Readers are able to follow the true spectrum of Lina’s grief as it transitions from an insurmountable weight to a memory she finds herself able to carry.

The portions of Love & Gelato that focus on young romance sometimes feel like they conclude too simply and resolve Lina’s challenges with grief too quickly. However, it is because of its lighthearted narrative that Love & Gelato is perfect for someone looking for a sweet and warm story of friendship and newfound adventure.

In building her relationship with Howard and romance with Ren, Lina ultimately shows that family bonds can be forged with anyone, at any time, so long as both people choose to love each other. Though troubling decisions permeate throughout the entirety of Love & Gelato, Lina’s story shows that the decisions we make in our life are always ours to own, and ours to change. Readers looking for more engaging romance stories may enjoy reading Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson and A Pho Love Story by Loan Le.

Sexual Content

  • Lina goes to a club called Space, where she describes how people “were really dancing. Like having-sex-on-the-dance-floor dancing.”
  • While at Space with her friends, Lina describes being harassed by an older man. After seeing her, the man follows Lina and grabs her butt. As she tries to get away, the man pulls her close until her “pelvis was smashed up against his.” One of Lina’s friends, Mimi, sees the interaction and yells at the man until he leaves.
  • Lina’s mother’s journal describes a statue in Palazzo Vecchio called The Rape of the Sabine Women. Though a mistranslation, wherein the true title of the piece should be The Kidnapping of the Sabine Women, Lina’s mom still describes a grotesque backstory in which Roman men kidnapped Sabine women and forced them into marriage.  In describing this confusing history, Lina’s mother says, “When Rome was first settled, the men realized their civilization was missing one very important ingredient: women. But where to find them? The only women within striking distance belonged to a neighboring tribe called the Sabines, and when the Romans went to ask for permission to marry some of their daughters, all they got was a big fat no. So in a particularly Roman move, they invited Sabines to a party, then, partway through the night, overpowered the men and dragged all the women kicking and screaming back to their city. Eventually, the Sabines managed to break into Rome, but by that time they were too late. The women didn’t want to be rescued. They’d fallen for their captures and it turned out life in Rome was actually pretty great. The reason I was confused by the statue’s title is that it is mistranslated in English. The Latin word “raptio” sounds like “rape” but actually means “kidnapping.” So really the sculpture should be called The Kidnapping of the Sabine Women.” This is the extent of the description behind this sculpture.
  • When Carolina meets her real father for the first time, Matteo Rossi, he accuses her mother of lying about their relationship and says, “Later I heard she began sleeping with any man who looked her way. I’m guessing you’re a product of that.”
  • When Lina and her friends attend an eighteenth birthday party, there is a description of the birthday girl’s mother. The mother “was wearing a tiara and a hot-pink minidress that was about ten seconds from giving up on keeping her boobs covered.” Elena tells Lina that the mother “displays sexy pictures of herself around the house.” Thomas then comments that Elena’s mom has “bionic cleavage.”

Violence

  • The prologue mentions Lina’s mother suffering from an incurable and inoperable form of cancer. This illness is alluded to, so most details are left for the reader to assume, but the decline of Lina’s mother may not be suitable for all readers.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Ren takes Lina to a party, and the students drink intermittently throughout the scene.
  • One of Lina’s friends, a teenager named Thomas, drinks heavily at an eighteenth birthday party Lina attends with him.

Language

  • At Elena’s party, a student named Marco tells Lina the beer someone brought is disgusting, and then continues with, “I’d offer you a drink, but I just told you it tastes like piss.”
  • At Elena’s party, Lina mishears someone and thinks, “Crap. Did they ask me something?
  • After hearing what Matteo Risso said to Lina about her mother, Ren calls him, “Che bastardo.

Supernatural

  • Elena’s house is a historical mansion, so there is some talk of ghosts when Lina first visits the house. For instance, Ren tells Lina that Elena “passes the ghost of her great-great-grandmother Alessandra on the stairwell every night.” Elena’s sister, Manuela, refuses to live at the residence because “ever since she was little she’s had this ancestor appear to her. The spooky part is that whenever the ghost appears she’s the same age as Manuela.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Hannah Olsson

Twilight: The Graphic Novel, Volume 1

When Bella’s mother gets remarried, Bella leaves her home in sunny Phoenix and goes to live with her father in the perpetually rainy town of Forks, Washington. Forks is a tiny, gloomy town and Bella is fully prepared to be miserable for her final two years of high school. She doesn’t expect anything interesting to happen in Forks. That is, of course, until she meets Edward Cullen.

Something is different about Edward. Breathtakingly beautiful and from a wealthy family, he baffles Bella with wild mood swings. When they first meet, he instantly despises her to the point of frightening her. Then—after disappearing for a week—he appears perfectly cordial. But it’s not until Edward saves her life in a feat of superhuman strength that Bella realizes the Cullen family is guarding a dangerous secret.

It would be smarter to walk away. Edward is unsure if he will be able to resist his thirst for Bella’s blood. But by the time she realizes the danger she is in, it’s too late. Live or die, Bella has fallen in love with Edward. She can’t walk away, even if her relationship with Edward costs her entire life.

Twilight is an epic story of love overcoming all challenges. In this graphic novel, Kim does a wonderful job bringing the characters and the storyline to life. By breaking the first book into segments, Kim ensures none of the essential story points are missing. For those who have not read Twilight and for avid fans alike, this graphic novel is an enjoyable escape into the Twilight universe.

Twilight, The Graphic Novel, Volume I uses soft shades of grey to bring its beautiful illustrations to life. The characters are all drawn to be beautiful, which is aesthetically pleasing if not the most accurate. Occasional splashes of color emphasize important moments and the characters’ expressions are easy to understand, which adds depth to the story. The graphic novel format manages to capture the essence of the original Twilight book without losing any of the essential aspects of the original story, an impressive feat that makes this a wonderful choice for reluctant readers.

Bella is not an overpowering heroine; she is quiet and clumsy to a fault, but she is fiercely loyal and brave. Bella risks everything for love, a choice that not all adults will agree with, but that most readers will understand as they follow Bella’s journey. Twilight is a wonderful story that swept through a generation of young readers like wildfire. Now in graphic novel form, it will continue to be picked up by even the most reluctant readers in years to come.

Sexual Content

  • When Bella and Edward kiss for the first time, Bella describes, “Blood boiled under my skin, burned in my lips.”

Violence

  • A van skids on ice in a parking lot and almost hits Bella. Edward pulls her out of the way. She is not injured, though the driver of the van is later shown in the hospital with bandages on his head.
  • Bella researches vampire legends online, including the Slovakian Nelapsi, “a creature so strong and fast it could massacre an entire village in the single hour after midnight.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • A legend of the indigenous Quileute people, “claims that [they] descended from wolves – and that the wolves are our brothers still.”
  • Edward and his family are vampires. They have super speed, strength, eyesight, etc. Unlike most vampires, Edward and his family survive off the blood of animals, so they do not have to murder people.
  • Some vampires have special abilities. Edward can read minds.

Spiritual Content

  • At first, Edward tries to stay away from Bella because he thinks it would be safer for her. Then he decides “as long as I was going to hell, I might as well do it thoroughly.”

by Morgan Lynn

All the Invisible Things

Helvetica and Peregrine were destined to be friends. Bonding over their strange names, Vetty and Pez became close the moment they met at ten years old. They are used to sharing secrets, supporting one another, and racing their bikes all around London together. However, after Vetty’s mother passed away, her father decided to move the family away from London forcing Vetty to leave Pez to grieve without his support. While Pez made an effort to stay close, the two slowly fell out of touch.

Three years later, Vetty’s father decides it’s time for the family to leave his sister’s home and move back to London. Back in her old home, Vetty encounters a much different Pez. The new Pez is moodier and keeps secrets, and Vetty is unsure where their friendship stands now that they have gotten older. To make the situation worse, Pez has a glamorous new girlfriend, March, who ignites suppressed feelings inside Vetty. As Vetty grows closer to March, she discovers things about herself and her identity that may further complicate her relationship with Pez. To save their friendship, Vetty and Pez must learn to be honest with themselves and each other and live their own truth.

All the Invisible Things is told through Vetty’s perspective as she comes to terms with her identity and the realization that she is bisexual. Pez also opens up about his own experiences with sex, his struggle with a porn addiction, as well as his desire to change. The book’s main theme is honesty and learning how to live a truthful life, even if the truth is difficult to share. Through Vetty and Pez’s friendship, readers will learn how honesty is often met with love and support. The book also gives a voice to teens curious about their own identity and lets them know they are not alone in the potentially scary and confusing emotions that accompany growing up.

While there are some important themes, there are also problems with the writing of the novel. In the novel, Vetty struggles to find resources to help her figure out her sexuality and none of the characters seem aware of the term bisexual despite the novel being set in 2018. This made Vetty’s journey seem a bit inauthentic and forced at times. All the Invisible Things is also very clichéd in its writing. At one point, Pez tells Vetty she is “not like other girls” which confuses Vetty. At times, the novel seems a bit too sexually explicit, which distracts from the more sensitive moments in the book.

Because of the sexually explicit scenes, All the Invisible Things is best suited for older teens. Despite the book’s flaws, the novel will resonate with the LGBTQ+ community because of its representation of bisexual and lesbian characters. The way the story focuses on LGBTQ+ characters as the center of the story truly demonstrates the importance of their identities.

Sexual Content

  • There are frequent conversations about sex, porn, and masturbation throughout the novel.
  • Vetty and her friends are discussing their teacher’s inadequate sex ed program. As Liv recalls, the teacher, “got through our entire sex ed without even uttering the word ‘vagina.’ Not once… she was way more comfortable with the word ‘penis.’”
  • Liv asks Vetty who she thinks about while masturbating. Liv says, “Say you’re at home, alone in your room, and, like . . . testing your batteries or whatever, just say . . . who do you fantasize about?”
  • When Vetty and Pez were twelve, they kissed. Vetty “made him pretend he was George, our new tennis teacher who was twenty-two and from Greece . . . George was a girl, but this didn’t bother either of us much.”
  • Kyle, one of Pez’s friends, makes a comment that implies he wants to sleep with Pez’s mom. Kyle says, “Real talk though, Pez. Your mum—I mean, I would. We all would.”
  • Vetty finds pornographic images on Pez’s computer. The screen is “filled with small squares and inside these squares bodies pump and thrust and flail about; naked bodies, boobs, and bare bums everywhere!”
  • March opens up to Vetty about her abusive ex-boyfriend. March says, “soon as I slept with him, he lost interest.”
  • Vetty searches porn on her laptop and begins masturbating. “I watch one video play out, unsure I like what I’m watching—it’s pretty fake—but I’m inching my hand below the waistband of my pajama bottoms anyway.” Vetty is soon interrupted by her dad knocking on the door.
  • At a party, Vetty and Rob begin to kiss. She describes how “his lips move to my [Vetty’s] cheek and words fly out of my head and I start to imagine where he’ll kiss me next but then his lips are on my lips again . . .” A noise at the party breaks them apart.
  • Pez comes clean to Vetty about his porn addiction and confesses, “I haven’t wanked without it since I was thirteen.”
  • While acting as extras in a film, March kisses Vetty: “I open my mouth and her tongue lightly scoops the space inside.”
  • While thinking about the kiss with March, Vetty tries masturbating again. “I pull my underwear down and tip onto my knees, moving my fingers in small circles until I’m only my body, allowing my mind into places I’ve never really let it linger in before.”
  • Pez and Vetty share a kiss. Vetty describes her “mouth feels small on his and I keep it closed. His lips are fixed and I leave them there and it’s a few seconds before I kiss him back.”

Violence

  • While riding his bike, Pez is hit by a car. Vetty describes “half of him lies hidden under the car and the other half looks up at the night. One eye’s closed, an eyebrow arched in surprise, but his throat is loose and relaxed, peaceful almost, as a tiny trail of blood trickles from the side of his mouth.” Pez is taken to the hospital and survives.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • While with a group of friends, Pez offers Vetty a beer. She thinks, “Normally, I don’t drink beer, but I take a slow sip, hoping it might soothe the hard edges beneath me.”
  • At another gathering, Pez “takes out a cold bottle of Corona and hands it to Lucas, who slickly pops the top without an opener.”
  • Kyle comes to Pez’s party “smoking a large spliff.” Spliff is British slang for cannabis.
  • Amira, March’s friend, pulls “a bottle of Smirnoff out of her bag” and passes it around.

Language

  • Shit is used numerous times. For example, Pez states, “I don’t give a shit,” when asked about his dad’s behavior.
  • Hell is used four times. For example, Vetty says the “motorway was hell” on her way to Camden.
  • The word dick is used five times. After telling the paramedics that Pez has a famous mom, Vetty explains she felt “like a dick for pointing that out, like Luna’s fame is remotely relevant now.”
  • Ass is used a few times. Vetty thinks she’s “being a total ass” for asking Pez’s guy friends to rate her appearance.
  • Fuck is used five times. After an argument, March locks herself in Pez’s room and he demands that she “just fucking open it.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Elena Brown

Frosted Kisses

Former Manhattan girl, Penny, has quickly discovered that life in a small town is never dull. Not when there’s a festival for every occasion, a Queen Bee to deal with, an animal shelter to save, and a cute boy to crush on.

But Hog’s Hallow just got another new girl: Esmeralda. She’s beautiful, French, and just happens to be Charity’s (the Queen Bee’s) best friend. Penny figures with the arrival of Esmeralda, the Queen Bee might be too busy to keep making her life miserable. Penny couldn’t be more wrong.

But Penny doesn’t have a lot of time to worry about Charity. Her best friend, Tally, has recruited her to help save the local animal shelter, which is in danger of closing unless they can raise some desperately needed funds.

Then there’s Marcus, the adorable and mysterious boy that Penny thinks might likes her as much as she likes him. But while things with Marcus are wonderful and fluttery, they are also confusing at the same time. Can Penny and her friends save the animal shelter, navigate her new family dynamics, and get the boy—or will Charity and Esmeralda find a way to ruin everything?

While The Cupcake Queen was a cute romance that would appeal to middle school readers, the second book Frosted Kisses falls flat. Much of the story follows the exact same format as the first book and none of the characters are given any more depth. In addition, there are too many topics—divorce, jealousy, bullying, and parental problems. None of these topics are fully explored. Instead, the story jumps from topic to topic and leaves the reader with too many questions.

In The Cupcake Queen, Penny’s insecurity was understandable because she had just moved to a new town and her parents had recently separated. However, in the second installment of the story, she is still insecure, this time focusing her insecurities on Marcus. Penny’s jealousy and inability to talk to Marcus are frustrating. In addition, the fact that Marcus and Penny do not talk or spend any time together at school is unrealistic.

Frosted Kisses is a holiday-themed romance that doesn’t add any sparkle to the season. Instead, Hepler writes a stagnant story that relies on a typical mean-girl, love-triangle format. There is nothing exciting or wonderful to keep the story interesting. While readers will enjoy the first installment in the series, Frosted Kisses will leave readers disappointed. If you’re looking for a holiday-themed story to read while snuggling up by the fire, the Celebrate the Season Series would make an excellent choice.

Sexual Content

  • Penny wonders if Marcus is going to kiss her, but they are interrupted before anything happens. Penny thinks, “As much as I think I would want Marcus to kiss me, part of me isn’t sure I’m ready. Because there’s this tiny part of me that likes looking forward to it.”
  • Someone tells Penny that Marcus and Charity kissed “a few times last summer.” Penny gets upset and all she “can think of is him kissing her. And I know it was before I knew him and it shouldn’t bother me, but it does.”
  • Penny’s grandmother tells her a story about Dutch, who she dated in the past. When the two rekindle their romance, Penny’s grandmother kisses him several times.
  • At a festival, Marcus “bends and brushes his lips against mine [Penny’s]. And everything falls away.”
  • After Marcus walks Penny home, she kisses him. “I have to stand on my tiptoes to reach. It’s fast and I might have actually missed his mouth a tiny bit, but it was a kiss.”

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Several times a mean girl calls Penny, “Penny Lame.” The same girl also refers to Penny as a loser.
  • At one point Penny says, “I’m an idiot.”
  • “Oh my God” is used as an exclamation once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When Marcus tells Penny he is going to be tutored, she prays, “Please not Charity. Please not Charity.”

The Sun is Also a Star

Natasha Kingsley, a lover of science, believes in facts and evidence. According to Natasha, nothing lasts forever. There is no “meant to be,” and there is no such thing as love.

Daniel Jae Ho Bae, a poet, believes in love and destiny. He trusts that the specific amount of circumstances required to bring two strangers together has meaning, even if it can’t be scientifically explained. On his way to a Yale interview, Daniel sees a beautiful girl with large pink headphones walk into a record store. Obeying what he believes are signs from the Universe, Daniel follows her and finds his world colliding with Natasha’s.

Compelled by the inexplicable feeling that they are meant to be, Daniel postpones his interview in order to prove that love is real by making Natasha fall in love with him in one day. Natasha reluctantly agrees to this plan. However, Natasha is almost certain they are not meant to be a couple because it is likely her last day in America. Natasha and her family, who are Jamaican immigrants, have been asked to leave the country and return to Jamaica following her father’s DUI.

Despite the impending threat to her life in America and her aversion to love, Natasha finds herself falling for Daniel. Eventually, the secret of Natasha’s deportation is revealed and the two vow to make the most of their time together by condensing a whole relationship into one day. Despite their respective responsibilities for the day, they always find their way back to one another, proving their destiny is to be in each other’s lives.

However, in the end, Natasha cannot change her fate and must return to Jamaica with her family, while Daniel remains in America to pursue his dreams of becoming a poet. Due to the distance, Natasha and Daniel grow apart. But chance brings them together years later, making the readers wonder if they are meant to be after all.

The novel mainly switches between Daniel and Natasha’s perspectives, with brief interruptions to feature the perspective of supporting characters or to explain scientific concepts relevant to the story. Other chapters also provide historical context for relationships between racial groups in America. For example, the historical connection between Korean immigrants and the black-hair care industry.

The novel also depicts the experiences of young first and second-generation immigrants. Although Daniel was born in America, his parents view American culture as a threat to their Korean values. On the other hand, Natasha was not born in the United States but still views America as her home. Despite the history of racial tension between their cultures, Daniel and Natasha bond over their shared identity as Americans.

Overall, The Sun is Also a Star is an irresistible love story that explores the connection between art and science. Through beautiful metaphors and complex characters, Nicola Yoon exposes the poetic nature of science, which ultimately brings people together.

 Sexual Content

  • Natasha finds herself attracted to Daniel and assumes his “sexy ponytail may be addling my [Natasha’s] brain.”
  • The science behind love and attraction is explained. “Oxytocin is released during orgasm and makes you feel closer to the person you’ve had sex with.”
  • When Natasha says, “I like it big” in reference to her hair, Daniel’s brother makes a crude joke that she “better get a different boyfriend.”
  • Daniel gets a glimpse of Natasha’s thighs when her dress shifts. “They have little crease marks from the couch. I want to wrap my hand around them and smooth the marks with my thumb.”
  • Daniel and Natasha start kissing in the norebang, a Korean karaoke place. “We start out chaste, just lips touching, tasting, but soon we can’t get enough…She’s making little moaning sounds that make me want to kiss her even more.” Daniel and Natasha move to the couch and continue to kiss passionately. Eventually, they stop; there is no sex or nudity.
  • Daniel stares at Natasha “because I’m picturing her in a candy striper outfit and then picturing her out of it.”

Violence

  • Daniel and his brother, Charlie, get into a fight over Charlie’s racist and sexist comments regarding Natasha. Daniel’s “fist catches him [Charlie] around the eye socket area, so my knuckles hit mostly bone.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Natasha’s father gets a DUI.

Language

  • Ass/asshole is used numerous times by Daniel. For example, Daniel calls his brother an “overachieving asshole.”
  • Pissed is used three times. For example, Daniel states his brother “was so pissed that his voice cracked a little.”
  • Shit is used repeatedly.
  • Daniel explains his brother’s anger after his mother’s disapproval of him. Daniel’s mom “could’ve called him an epic douche bag, an animatronic dick complete with ball sac, and it would’ve been better than telling me not to be like him.”
  • Goddamn is used five times. For example, Daniel’s parents believe America has made him soft and Daniel thinks, “If I had a brain cell for every time I heard this, I’d be a goddamn genius.”
  • Profanity is used in the extreme. Profanity includes fuck, dick, shit, ass, pissed, damn, bastard, and douche-bag. For example, a passenger on Daniel’s train tells the conductor to “shut the fuck up and drive the train.” Also, after a fight, Daniel explains his lip “split open on the outside because the bastard [Charlie] hit me while wearing some giant-ass secret society ring.”

 Supernatural

  • None

 Spiritual Content

  • Charlie hears a hurtful comment from his mother “because of God or Fate or Sheer Rotten Luck.”
  • Natasha’s father believes their deportation is part of God’s plan, but Natasha thinks “he shouldn’t leave everything up to God.”
  • On the train, Daniel hears the conductor give his testimony. “God HIMself came down from HEAven and he saved me.”
  • Daniel believes when people are born, “they (God or little aliens or whoever) should send you into the world with a bunch of free passes.”
  • Natasha’s father is sure “God wouldn’t have gifted him with all this talent with no place to display it.”
  • While entering the subway, Daniel decides to “say a prayer to the subway gods (yes, multiple gods).”
  • Daniel explains if he could invite anyone for dinner, it would be God.

by Elena Brown

Breaking Dawn

In Part One of Breaking Dawn, Bella thinks she has her happily-ever-after when she and Edward are married. But halfway through their honeymoon, Bella realizes she is pregnant. A child between a human and a vampire is supposed to be impossible, yet Bella’s pregnancy progresses at an abnormal rate. As the creature inside her threatens her life, Edward is prepared to get it out of her at all costs. But to Bella, this isn’t a monster growing inside her, but a beautiful child. With Rosalie on her side, Bella is determined to have her baby at any cost. Even if that cost is her life.

 Part Two is told from Jacob’s perspective. Jacob never expected to see Bella again—not while she was human. When she returns from her honeymoon with a story about catching a rare disease, Jacob assumes she has become a vampire. Looking for a fight, he goes to the Cullen’s house, only to realize the reality is more horrible than he could ever imagine. Suddenly he finds himself protecting Bella—and the Cullens—against his own pack. But even if Bella and her child survive the pregnancy, this hybrid child may be the only excuse the Volturi need to come and destroy the Cullens. Told again from Bella’s point of view, Part Three ends this exciting quartet.

 Breaking Dawn is a satisfying ending to the Twilight series. Readers will swoon over Bella and Edward’s wedding, and ache for the difficulties that follow. As Jacob fights to protect Bella, he will break the hearts of readers on Team Jacob and threaten to steal the hearts of those on Team Edward. And as the Volturi draw nearer, an entire host of new vampires are introduced in a delightful way.

Breaking Dawn has a lighter tone than the previous books, as Bella thinks she’s finally getting her happily-ever-after. However, danger isn’t done with her yet. While the suspense is lighter in this installment, there are plenty of interesting developments to keep readers engaged. An increase in sexual content and a graphic C-section may unsettle younger readers, but Breaking Dawn ends a whirlwind quartet with several satisfying twists and unexpected turns.

Sexual Content

  • Bella wants to sleep with Edward before she turns into a vampire, because she is worried she will not want Edward in the same way afterward, and she doesn’t want to lose that human experience. “I wanted the complete experience before I traded in my warm, breakable, pheromone-riddled body for something beautiful, strong . . . and unknown. I wanted a real honeymoon with Edward. And, despite the danger he feared this would put me in, he’d agreed to try.”
  • Bella and Edward make out often. On one occasion, Bella “ran [her] hand down his stone chest now, tracing across the flat planes of his stomach, just marveling. A light shudder rippled through him, and his mouth found mine again. Carefully, I let the tip of my tongue press against his glass-smooth lip, and he sighed. His sweet breath washed—cold and delicious—over my face.”
  • Another time, Bella “clutched [her] arms around his neck again and locked [her] mouth with his feverishly. It wasn’t desire at all—it was need, acute to the point of pain.”
  • Bella and Edward have sex multiple times on their honeymoon, but the sex is not described.
  • Edward asked his father what it was like to have sex as a vampire. “Carlisle told me it was a very powerful thing, like nothing else. He told me physical love was something I should not treat lightly. . . I spoke to my brothers, too. They told me it was a very great pleasure. Second only to drinking human blood.”
  • Edward accidentally bruises Bella all over her body the first time they have sex. Afterwards, he says, “I will not make love with you until you’ve been changed. I will never hurt you again.” After that, he keeps Bella, “busy, distracted, so that [Bella] wouldn’t continue badgering him about the sex thing.
  • Bella is willing to stay human longer because she doesn’t want to give up her physical relationship with Edward. Edward says, “Sex was the key all along? Why didn’t I think of that? I could have saved myself a lot of arguments. . . You are so human.”
  • Bella’s period is late. “There was no way I could be pregnant. The only person I’d ever had sex with was a vampire, for crying out loud.” Then she remembers old vampire legends. “They mostly seemed like excuses dreamed up to explain things like infant mortality rates—and infidelity. No honey, I’m not having an affair! That sexy woman you saw sneaking out of the house was an evil succubus. I’m lucky I escaped with my life! . . . There had been one for the ladies, too. How can you accuse me of cheating on you—just because you’ve come home from a two-year sea voyage and I’m pregnant? It was the incubus.
  • When thinking about Bella and Edward’s honeymoon, Jacob thinks “maybe [Edward]’d smashed her like a bag of chips in his drive to get some.”
  • The Cullens had no idea a male vampire could get a human woman pregnant. Edward says, “They’re out there, the sadistic ones, the incubus, the succubus. They exist. But the seduction is merely a prelude to the feast. No one survives.”
  • Edward is worried that carrying his child will kill Bella. He is willing to let her have a child by Jacob if she wants a baby so badly. When Edward asks Jacob, Jacob says, “How? By offering my stud services?” Jacob thinks, “Wrong. Sick. Borrowing Bella for the weekends and then returning her Monday morning like a rental movie? So messed up. So tempting.”
  • Wolves’ clothes do not morph with them. “Nudity was an inconvenient but unavoidable part of pack life. We’d all thought nothing of it before Leah came along. Then it got awkward. Leah had average control when it came to her temper—it took her the usual length of time to stop exploding out of her clothes every time she got pissed. We’d all caught a glimpse. And it wasn’t like she wasn’t worth looking at; it was just that it was so not worth it when she caught you thinking about it later.”
  • During her emergency C-section, “Bella was on a table . . . skin ghostly in the spotlight.” Jacob thinks, “How many times had I imagined her naked? Now I couldn’t look. I was afraid to have these memories in my head.”
  • After Bella becomes a vampire, she and Edward kiss several times. “It was like he’d never kissed me—like this was our very first kiss . . . my breathing sped, raced as fast as it had when I was burning. This was a different kind of fire.”
  • After she turns into a vampire, Bella and Edward make love several times. “My skin was so sensitive under his hands, too. He was all new, a different person as our bodies tangled gracefully into one on the sand-pale floor. No caution, no restraint . . . We laugh together, and the motion of our laughter did interesting things to the way our bodies were connected, effectively ending that conversation.”

Violence

  • Bella has a nightmare where she sees a child in danger. “I sprinted toward the boy. Only to stagger to a halt as I got a clear view of the hillock that he sat upon. It was not earth and rock, but a pile of human bodies, drained and lifeless . . . and directly beneath the adorable boy were the bodies of my father and my mother.”
  • Jacob fights with his packmates a lot, all of whom heal extremely quickly since they are werewolves. In one fight Jacob “lunged. His nose made a very satisfying crunching sound of its own when my fist connected.”
  • When Jacob is depressed, he wonders, “Would a bullet through my temple actually kill me or just leave a really big mess for me to clean up?”
  • When something goes wrong with the pregnancy, “Bella screamed. It was not just a scream, it was a blood-curdling shriek of agony. The horrifying sound cut off with a gurgle, and her eyes rolled back into her head. Her body twitched, arched in Rosalie’s arms, and then Bella vomited a fountain of blood.”
  • Bella has a graphic C-section, during which Edward cuts the baby out with his teeth. Rosalie’s “hand came down on Bella’s stomach, and vivid red spouted out from where she pierced the skin . . . another shattering crack inside [Bella’s] body . . . her legs, which had been curled up in agony, now went limp . . . I glanced over to see Edward’s face pressed against the bulge. Vampire teeth—a surefire way to cut through vampire skin.”
  • Transforming into a vampire is extremely painful. Bella is given morphine, which paralyzes her but does nothing to ease the pain. She thinks, “If I couldn’t scream, how could I tell them to kill me? All I wanted was to die. To never have been born. The whole of my existence did not outweigh this pain. Wasn’t worth living through it for one more heartbeat. Let me die, let me die, let me die.”
  • Caius, one of the Volturi, slaps a vampire named Irina. “Caius closed the distance between them and slapped her across the face. It couldn’t have hurt, but there was something terribly degrading about the action.”
  • Bella hunts and kills several deer and a mountain lion. “My teeth unerringly sought his throat, and his instinctive resistance was pitifully feeble against my strength . . . my teeth were steel razors; they cut through the fur and fat and sinews like they weren’t there.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Bella is given morphine when she transforms into a vampire. It is supposed to numb the pain, but it fails.

Language

  • Pissed is used several times. For example, Bella says, “I’m sort of pissed, actually.”
  • Damn and dammit are used often. For example, when Bella thinks she has food poisoning, she says, “Damn rancid chicken.”
  • Leah and Bella both call Jacob a moron.
  • Hell is used often. When Edward says Jacob has to do something, Jacob says, “The hell I do.” Another time, Jacob tells a packmate “Oh yes you are the hell going to stand behind Sam!”
  • Crap is used often. Once, Jacob asks Edward, “Where is this psycho crap coming from?”
  • Jacob calls vampires parasites and blood suckers.
  • Shut up is used often.
  • Jacob calls someone an idiot.

Supernatural

  • A legend of the indigenous Quileute people “claims that [they] descended from wolves – and that the wolves are our brothers still.” Some members of the tribe are able to transform into wolves.
  • Edward and his family are vampires. Unlike most vampires, Edward and his family survive off the blood of animals, so they do not have to murder people.
  • Some vampires have special abilities. Edward can read minds; his brother Jasper can control the emotions of those around him; his sister Alice can see bits and pieces of the future.

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Morgan Lynn

 

Lovely War

In a hotel room in Manhattan in the midst of World War II, the Greek gods Aphrodite and Ares are caught in an affair by Aphrodite’s husband, Hephaestus. Hoping to understand Love’s attraction to War, Hephaestus puts Aphrodite on trial. Her defense is to tell the tale of one of her greatest successes, the intersecting love stories of Hazel Windicott and James Alderidge, and of Aubrey Edwards and Colette Fournier. Aphrodite’s witnesses are Ares (god of war), Apollo (god of music), and Hades (god of death). Each contributes their own different, but overlapping, perspectives to the proceedings.

The story begins as piano player Hazel and soldier James meet at a parish dance and fall into instant, dizzying love, only to be separated three days later when James is sent to the front. Desperate to distract herself from anxiety about her soldier’s well-being, Hazel joins the YMCA where she meets Colette, a singer who lost her whole family in an attack on her home in Belgium. There, they happen upon ragtime musician Aubrey, a Black soldier who desires to make a name for himself on stage and on the battlefield. Aubrey and Colette bond over their music and realize their affections go beyond an appreciation for each other’s talents.

While the story addresses dark and violent subject matter due to its historical period, the frame narrative allows for light moments as well. The banter among the gods, and their respective belief that their part of the story is the most memorable, allows the mood to lift as needed. The darker moments hold meaning within the larger narrative and the smallest joys are heralded as gifts from the gods.

The human characters hold their own amongst their immortal narrators. Each character is likable and humorous in his/her own way. Over the course of the war, Hazel emerges from her meek demeanor, learning to stand for what she sees is right, while not losing her innocence and goodness of heart. James is goofy and sincere, making his experience in combat all the more tragic, as he must reconcile that what he does on the battlefield does not have to mean a loss of himself. Colette is strong-willed and a fierce defender of her friends, though internally she fears that anyone she loves is destined to die. She opens up, however, to the charming dreamer Aubrey. Aubrey’s experiences with racial violence show that the enemy to their happiness is not only the German soldiers they encounter on the battlefield but also those who perpetrate violence and discrimination against black Americans within their own neighborhoods and war camps.

Teenage readers who enjoy romance, Greek mythology, and historical fiction may enjoy this book. It is recommended that readers proceed carefully, as the book does address racism and racial violence as well as the terrors and destruction of war. Despite the hate and violence which surround them, the couples find their way back to love amidst it all. Their fragility as mortals in wartime allows for precious love to shine, as even the impermeable gods come to admire. After Aphrodite reminds Hephaestus that the mortals die, he responds, “They do. But the lucky ones live first. . . The luckiest ones spend time with you.”

Sexual Content

  • Two characters are briefly described as having an affair. “In an instant they are in each other’s arms. Shoes are kicked off, hats tossed aside. Jacket buttons are shown no mercy.” Their kisses are “like a clash of battle and a delicious melding of flesh, rolled together and set on fire.”
  • Athena and Artemis are called, “Those prissy little virgins.”
  • Some of the gods make brief jokes about paying attention to women’s bodies.
  • Hazel’s attraction to James sparks “a series of little explosions” which “began firing throughout her brain and spread quickly elsewhere.”
  • Stéphane admires Colette’s spine and thinks that “he could run his fingers along her back.” He does not act on his thought.
  • Colette is attracted to Aubrey’s musical talent, saying, “It was sexy. And so was its athletic high priest at the piano bench.”
  • During an attack on Aubrey, a racist soldier implies that Aubrey is after white women. Aubrey retorts asking if the man has “ever been with a black girl.” When the soldier laughs, Aubrey “had no illusions about her being a willing participant.”
  • Joey assumes an encounter between Aubrey and Colette was sexual in nature. He asks Aubrey, “Did you . . .?” Aubrey informs him, “It’s not like that,” and then scolds him for presuming that Colette is a “hooker.”
  • Aubrey hides so as not to be seen by a supervisor and realizes “he was free to ogle Colette from the shoulders down just at that moment, and he took advantage of it.”
  • Colette tries to understand Hazel’s fear about meeting up with James. Colette assumes that Hazel’s fear might be due to the possibility of one of them “taking advantage” of the other. Hazel admits that “if anyone found out, there’d be such a scandal.” She explains, “When I’m around James, I do the most outrageous things.”
  • Colette recognizes that being “alone in the dark” could lead to “dozens of ways a young man could try to take advantage of this situation,” although nothing comes of it.
  • A couple says goodbye, and “the brief kiss she gave him at the door was filled with neither passion nor desire, but sweetness, affection, gratitude.”
  • Hazel removes her stockings at the beach, and it is said, “The sight of her bare feet was just about enough to give poor James a stroke there on the spot.”
  • Hazel is pushed into James’ arms and, “The feel of her body pressed against his went through him like an electric shock.” They hold each other for a moment, spinning in circles.

Violence

  • There are multiple instances of racial violence perpetrated against Aubrey and his bandmates. There are also third-party historical sources referenced. Words such as “darkie,” “coon,” “negroes,” and “colored” are frequently used by other characters to address these men. At one point a southern soldier states, “An ape’s an ape.” Other racist comments permeate the experience of the black soldiers at home and abroad.
  • The black soldiers face fears of waking to a “lynch mob.”
  • The narrator describes an instance of police brutality. “A white police officer had entered a black woman’s home without a warrant, searching for a suspect. When she protested, he beat and arrested her, dragging her from her home though she wasn’t fully dressed. When a black soldier saw this and tried to intervene to defend the woman, the white policeman pistol-whipped the black soldier, seriously injuring him.” She then briefly mentions the “shooting that followed” which killed many people.
  • When addressing the possibility of looking at white women, Aubrey states, “No pretty face is worth swinging from a tree.”
  • The “Rape of Belgium” is described in detail over five pages. The narrator notes that German soldiers “pulled men from workplaces and homes and hiding places and executed them in the streets. Women, children, and babies were executed too. As old as eighty-eight. As young as three weeks.” Later, Aphrodite goes on to reference “the stories of women raped, children crucified, nailed to doors, of old men executed. . .”
  • The story frequently finds itself in the midst of trench combat. There are descriptions of the training process, of learning how to kill another man with minimal remorse, and of soldiers often encountering death and the bodies of those lost in battle. The men learn about the effects of gas attacks and how “those poor buggers in the first gas attacks drowned in their own blood.” At one point the trenches are described as “slick with blood.”
  • James imagines his own brother ending up the way his fellow soldiers have. “He saw Bobby’s burnt and blood-soaked body lying in the mud at the bottom of a trench.”
  • The soldiers travel “past live horses and dead horses and trucks and motorcycles.”
  • Multiple racially motivated murders take place in the camps. Two men are “strangled” and the discovery of one body is described over 6 pages. Aubrey and Lieutenant Europe come to the realization that “that was blood on the snow. His head. His face. His bloated, blackened face.” They assume the killers “beat his face in with their rifles.” They note, “You almost wouldn’t know it’s him” and they “gently [close] his gaping lower lip to hide the horribly broken jaw.”
  • Aubrey is held at gunpoint by a racist soldier who says, “We ain’t gonna let you Negroes get a taste for white women.” Aubrey took the man’s gun and “pressed the cold muzzle of the revolver against his victim’s temple.” Then, Aubrey warns his attacker not to mess with the Black soldiers again.
  • The narrator cynically describes how little detail is provided in the notifications of soldiers’ deaths, explaining, “They never said, ‘hung for hours on a barbed wire fence with his bowels hanging out, pleading for rescue, but nobody dared go for fear of hostile fire.’”
  • James partakes in trench warfare. He is a sniper and frequently must shoot German soldiers. After he shoots a man, “a red throat pours blood down a gray uniform.” James actively tries to not think about what he is doing in order to protect his friends.
  • A flamethrower is used in combat. The soldiers try to distinguish the fire, and the narrator notes that “the smell of flesh on fire reminds James of food, of cooking meat.” Ares goes on to narrate that “Chad Browning has stopped his screaming. His clothing is half melted away, half fused to his skin.”
  • Hazel is sexually assaulted by a prisoner of war. The attack is thwarted quickly but not before, “He licked her lips and teeth with his foul tongue, then forced it inside her mouth.”
  • Multiple explosions occur throughout the text. For example, after one explosion “the smoke lifted, and James scrubbed the grit from his eyes, Frank Mason wasn’t there anymore. Just a fire, a helmet, a torn pair of boots, and a little charred prayer book.” It is later implied that there would not be a body to bury.
  • Later, another explosion occurs. “The engine and the first two cars were annihilated. The cars beyond buckled and crashed into one another. Soldiers and war workers were thrown all about the cars. Shards of glass from shattered windows flew like shrapnel. Colette emerged unscathed, for Hazel had thrown her body over her friend’s.” James must treat Hazel’s injuries. Hades goes through the necessary course of action to “apply pressure to the bleeding and summon a medic. Clear airflow, release tight clothing.”
  • Hazel receives a blood transfusion. She notes the “tubes of red blood dangled from jars mounted to a metal frame and ran, Hazel realized, into a needle injected into her arm.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • A character jokes about how the soldiers of the 369th “were knocked on their backs by the routine daily allotment of wine for French soldiers.”
  • While under treatment for shell shock, James is given sedatives.

Language

  • The narrator quotes real news articles about the 369th infantry; these include racist comments and one censored use of the n-word.
  • Offensive terms for opposing soldiers are often used. These include “Jerry,” “Russkies,” “Fritz,” and “Boche.” They refer at one point to Kaiser Wilhelm as “Wee Willie Winkie.”
  • Audrey calls the racist behavior of another soldier “shit” twice.
  • A trainer tells soldiers that in the event of a gas attack, “‘If you’ve lost your mask, you still stay calm. If all else fails, piss on a hankie and breathe through that.’” He warns that they will “break out in damnable sores everywhere” and that they “hurt like hell.”
  • Joey calls Aubrey a “jackass.”
  • Men are called “bastards” twice.
  • Aubrey calls his own behavior “damnably stupid.”
  • There is one use of the oath “Chrisssake.”
  • Emile regrets not being injured sooner, saying, “But non, you stayed away, leaving me healthy and sound, so the Germans could piss on me with their shells and bullets year after year…”
  • Aphrodite calls her husband a “blooming ass.”

Supernatural

  • Spirits occasionally observe their loved ones from the afterlife. At one point, James feels Frank’s presence and begins speaking to him. James wonders if he is going mad.

Spiritual Content

  • The story is told from the rotating perspectives of four Greek gods. Their influence and powers are often employed as catalysts for plot developments.
  • Hades comes dressed as a Catholic priest, as that is how he presents himself to humans.
  • Many of the human characters are Christian and are described praying, visiting churches, and lighting votive candles. They also reference Christian stories and practices.
  • After losing everyone she loves to the war, Colette struggles with her faith. She believes herself to be a “plaything to a vindictive god.” She calls god “it” and explains that “a loving god would never allow this. And if there was no god at all, surely chance would occasionally favor me, non?”
  • After standing up to an authority figure, the narrator says that Hazel “wasn’t a Catholic, but at the rate she was going, she probably needed a priest to take her confession. Before she was struck by lightning and cast down to hell.”

by Jennaly Nolan

 

14+    480   4.7   4 worms   AR   hs  (World War I)

Diverse Characters, Strong Female Character

 

 

 

 

 

She’s The Worst

Sisters Jenn and April used to be close, but lately they’ve been drifting apart. Thanks to school, sports, and the looming threat of college, the two don’t spend much time together. Plus, their emotionally immature, always-bickering parents have made their home an unpleasant place. But as Jenn prepares to start college, April remembers a pact she made with Jenn at the beginning of high school: before Jenn leaves town, they’ll spend the whole day together, revisiting places in Los Angeles that hold special memories for them.

Despite boyfriend troubles, needy parents, and secrets keeping them apart, the girls manage to make time to embark on their journey. Through the course of the day, secrets are revealed, arguments break out, and tensions rise. High-achieving Jenn plans to leave for Stanford soon, but she hasn’t told her parents, who think that she is staying in LA to work at the family antique store. Messy, sporty April thinks she can get a soccer scholarship, but doesn’t know how to get her family to take her hobby seriously.

While the girls work through their issues with themselves, their parents, and their respective love interests, they discover that they haven’t been communicating nearly enough. By respecting each other’s differences and talking things through, they’re able to address conflicts that have been bothering their family for years—and become closer as sisters. Through the course of a single day, their lives and relationships change dramatically.

She’s the Worst is a light read that moves quickly through its time frame of a single day. Its fast pacing sometimes comes at the expense of emotional impact or effective description. Readers still may find themselves connecting emotionally to Jenn and April’s struggles, especially when the story addresses their parents’ relationship.

The family antique store has caused a rift in April and Jenn’s parents’ marriage, and the sisters have both coped in different ways—Jenn mediates her parents’ arguments, while April spends as little time around them as possible. Readers who are familiar with such family dynamics will enjoy seeing them faithfully played out on the page. After seeing how desperately Jenn wants to get away from her parents, but how deeply they rely on her to keep the family business functioning, readers will surely root for her in her quest to leave her hometown.

She’s the Worst promises a story of sisterhood, and while it delivers that story, it also delivers a story of dysfunctional families, emotionally immature parents, and the complicated relationships people have with their hometowns.

Sexual Content

  • April is “sleeping with” Eric, a boy from school. Eric has “snuck in [her] bedroom window a few times already,” as April knows her parents would not approve.
  • April remembers “the way Eric kissed me last night, the way his body felt next to mine as we fell back asleep.”
  • April says that even though she’s not dating Eric, “that doesn’t mean we can’t hook up.” When Jenn expresses concern that Eric is toying with her feelings, April says, “What are you, a nun?” Jenn says, “Does he really like you? Or does he just like having sex with you?”
  • Eric kisses April. April says, “It’s fast but deep, like he wants to have as much of me as he can while he can, and I shiver despite the sun on my back.”
  • April admits her feelings for her friend Nate, and they kiss. April says, “I . . . press my lips to his. He freezes for a second, as surprised as I am by what I just did. Then his lips part and he pulls me closer. The kiss deepens as his hands start to creep down my back.” They are in public and don’t go any further.
  • Later April and Nate share an intimate moment in April’s bedroom. “Then he lifts me up and carries me to the bed, and it’s still me and Nate, but not like always—it’s totally new, and totally hot. I wrap my legs around him as the kiss deepens and intensifies, and soon I’m not thinking about anything at all. When he eventually pulls back, I feel drunk with happiness.”

Violence

  • April jokes that if someone went to the UK and called soccer “soccer” instead of “football,” they would “get jumped by a hooligan.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Jenn says, “Remember when we brought up sparkling cider and pretended it was champagne?” April says, “We could probably get our hands on some real champagne. Or at least some cheap beer.”
  • April’s friend Nate brings the sisters some red wine he stole from his house.

Language

  • Profanity is used somewhat frequently. Profanity includes crap, ass, piss, hell, and damn.
  • “Fuck” is used very infrequently.
  • April says, “Mother. Fucker.” once.
  • April uses the expression, “Speak of the devil.”

Supernatural

  • April remembers using an Ouija board with Jenn once, but goes into no further detail.

Spiritual Content

  • April recalls wearing a new dress for a relative’s neighbor’s bat mitzvah.

by Caroline Galdi

 

Beneath the Citadel

Prophecies have ruled the city of Eldra for centuries. With each new prophecy, the ruling high council tightens their control on the city, crushing any who would rebel against them. For Cassa Valera, the council and their leader, the chancellor, are her number one targets for revenge. After her parents led a rebellion and were killed, Cassa has been looking for a chance to free the city from the council’s clutches. Along with her friends Evander, Alys, Newt, and Vesper, she hatches a plan to infiltrate the mighty citadel where the council resides.

But even if Cassa and her friends are brave enough to fight against the citadel, their plans won’t go smoothly. The council will hound their every step, as they use their diviners to foresee the future. Old friends will betray them. Their loved ones will be in danger. And most of all, their relationships will be strained.

The fight against the council will be a hard one. Yet, with the unexpected help of a stranger, they may just be able to pull it off. That stranger, however, may turn out to be more monstrous than the council. Will Cassa and her friends be able to save the city they love?

Beneath the Citadel is a fun read that follows the main characters Cassa, Evander, Alys, Newt, and Vesper. The story jumps from each character’s point of view. Each character is unique, with their own realistic troubles and fears. For instance, Alys deals with anxiety that affects her everyday life.  Alys’ younger brother, Evander, is afraid he won’t be able to protect his family. Newt was abused by his father, and worries he doesn’t matter to anyone. And Cassa is always afraid that nothing she does will ever matter. But while these characters have flaws and fears, they work to overcome them, making them likable. Readers will root for them to triumph in the end.

While the characters will pull readers in, the plot is strong as well. The plot is simple to understand, but complex enough to make readers think about each character’s actions and decisions. At the start, the group’s goal is simply to take down the citadel, but by the end, each member is fighting against a monster more destructive than the council: a man named Solan. Solan is the main villain who has numerous powers including being able to see the future and steal people’s memories. Readers will enjoy the thrill of watching the four young heroes fight to stop Solan in his tracks before he destroys Eldra.

Overall, Beneath the Citadel has a nice pacing and is a fun read from start to finish. It focuses on the theme of teens dealing with the mistakes of their parents and predecessors, as well as the smaller themes of handling anxiety and discovering a new love. As a standalone novel, everything is neatly wrapped up by the end of the story. Destiny Soria’s novel is a great choice for any reader of YA fantasy fiction.

Sexual Content

  • Before the start of the story, Evander and Cassa were romantically involved. “They had broken off their romance six months ago. It had been a mutual decision and very amicable, but you don’t just forget almost a year of your life being so closely intertwined with another person’”
  • Newt recalls when he first met Evander and Cassa. They were still an item and Newt watched as Cassa turned to Evander and “leaned down and kissed him.”
  • Evander is bisexual and falls head over heels for Newt. “Evander had figured out he was bisexual around the same time he’d figured out what sex was. But Newt held a strange fascination for him, ever since their first chance meeting years ago.”
  • Newt realizes he has feelings for Evander too. “There was a thrill of new energy inside him, a tingling in his fingertips, and the dawning certainty that one day he was going to fall in love with Evander Sera.” When they’re outside of the city walls, Newt and Evander kiss each other. “It wasn’t Newt’s first kiss, but it was the first one that mattered. His thoughts were deliciously hazy. He was kissing Evander Sera. Evander Sera was kissing him.”

Violence

  • Evander recalls being beaten during an interrogation. “He’d already earned a few bruises during the interrogation. It wasn’t supposed to be a painful process, but the sentient who was reading his memories hadn’t appreciated his sense of humor and had called in a burly guard to impart the wisdom of keeping his mouth shut.”
  • Newt can contort his body in order to get in and out of bad situations. “Newt breathed in deeply through his mouth and, with a wince, popped his left thumb out of its socket. It didn’t hurt, but he’d never grown used to the uncanny sensation.” That contortion takes a toll on his body. “He’d never told them about the alarming frequency of sprains when he didn’t use the braces, that while he could bend his body in fantastic fashion, it came at a price.”
  • Alys watches Newt knock out a guard. “She didn’t see Newt until he was only a few feet away from the guard and was swinging something—a lantern—in a high arc toward the back of the man’s head. There was a terrific thump, followed by another thump as the man fell to the floor, his gun clattering beside him.”
  • Alys often thinks she’s dead weight. At one point she thinks, “Maybe it would be better if she just died before they caught up. Maybe it would be better if she died now. Maybe it would be better. Maybe it would.”
  • When Mira, the Blacksmith’s daughter, performs the blood-bonding ritual on Solan, she has to cut open his arm. “Mira leaned in beside Cassa and slit a long, deep line into the inside of Solan’s left arm, a mirror to Evander’s own scar.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • The group originally sneaks into the citadel in barrels. “The kitchen workers had unknowingly smuggled all four of them into the basement storerooms in barrels of beer that were only half full.”
  • Cassa talks to Alys about possibly becoming a legend in the streets of Eldra. Cassa then tells Alys, “We’ll get a whole tavern drunk one night and spread the rumor.”

Language

  • Damn, ass and shit are used frequently. For example, when her friends break her out of a prison cell, Cassa says, “Just open the damn door.” Another time, Evander talks to Cassa about her terrible escape plan. “I doubt your half-assed escape plan would work a second time.”
  • Bitch and bastard are both used a few times. For example, the Dream Merchant, a man who buys and sells dreams, tells off Cassa. “This is none of your business, you little bitch.”
  • The Dream Merchant calls Cassa’s parents, “scum parents.”

Supernatural

  • Eldra, and the country it’s a part of, Teruvia, are ruled by ancient prophecies. These prophecies dictate life for the vast majority of people in the city of Eldra. Pretty much everything in Eldra revolves around prophecies, and many characters use these powers to see the future. The Chancellor says, “The teachings laid down by Teruvia’s forefathers tell us that the elder seers saw every thread of the tapestry that is our present and future.”
  • There are official gatherings in Eldra to talk about prophecies. For example, “Most of the citadel’s inhabitants would be at the monthly council session, where any new prophecies were discussed and the fulfillment of old prophecies was speculated on.”
  • Solan uses runes to foresee Cassa and her friends stumbling across him in the dungeons beneath the citadel. Solan has “known for a while that you [Cassa] would be coming. I saw it in the runes.”
  • Bloodbonding is a process by which an individual is magically connected to some metal or other substance. The Chancellor thinks about bloodbonding after meeting with Evander. “With a bloodbond’s complete control over a particular metal, any number of everyday items could become weapons.”
  • Evander is bloodbonded to silver. “He could feel the silver like an extension of himself, moving farther and farther away, the connection weakening more and more.”
  • People who can manipulate other’s memories, or take them, are called Rooks. Vesper is a rook. She thinks about how “Rooks had to be patient and gentle, so very gentle. Memories were fragile. They could be torn or teased out too thin.”
  • When Cassa visits the Dream Merchant, a man who barters in dreams, she’s afraid he’ll take too many of her memories. “She had no doubt that Gaz would try to take far more than the memories she’d offered. And she didn’t know if she’d be able to stop him—or pull away once he’d started.”
  • Those that can magically read a person’s immediate past in their face are called sentients. Newt thinks, “He’d heard that skilled sentients could read so quickly and thoroughly that they might as well be reading someone’s mind instead of just their past.”

Spiritual Content

  • In Eldra, people worship the Slain God. Vesper, in a church, listened as, “The choir began to sing a gentle, haunting requiem in Teruvia’s dead language. The tale of the god who had once cradled Teruvia, protecting it from those who, in envy and greed, would do her harm.” Soon after the choir sings, “The tale of their dying god, who used the last of his strength to scatter his omniscience across Teruvia, a gift for the chosen devout few.”
  • It is believed the Slain God gave a few people his power, allowing them to foresee the future.
  • Before people pass on, they are typically given death rites. Death rites often involve taking one’s memories. Cassa thinks about the practice. “She did know that the devouring of memories was meant to be a cleansing of sorts, a final penitence in honor of the Slain God.”
  • Alys thinks about the typical rituals. “Normally, even if someone died without death rites, a priest would be on hand to talk about how every person’s greatest honor is to join the Slain God in blissful oblivion. Candles would be lit and doused at intervals. Sometimes someone would sing a verse from the Slain God’s requiem.”
  • Solan very much hates the religion of the Slain God. He tells off the chancellor, saying, “What a strange way of describing the duty that your pathetic religion demands of me.”

by Jonathan Planman

Deathcaster

In the Fells, the war with Arden couldn’t get any worse. The Queen is sick and out of the picture. The young Ardenine King, Jarat, is marching his army to the capital of Fells. And the heir to the gray wolf throne, Alyssa ana’Raisa, has been captured by the ruthless Empress Celestine.

For Ash, prince of the Fells, the only way forward is to rescue his sister, Lyss, from the Empress. But now that Celestine is on the war path, her armies ravaging the coast, that isn’t going to be an easy task. To cross the ocean and take on Celestine’s bloodsworn army, he’ll need help from unlikely allies and former enemies.

The rebel Ardenine general Hal wants nothing more than to see Lyss safe and in his arms. Yet to do that, he has to find a way to crush Celestine’s invading army. Between the arrogant King Jarat and his stubborn father, fielding an army to help the Fells drive off Celestine won’t be a walk in the park. Will Hal succeed in freeing Arden and the Fells from Jarat and Celestine’s grasp? Will Ash succeed in bringing his sister home to take her rightful place on the throne? Only time will tell.

Chima’s final entry in the Shattered Realms series is a wonderful conclusion to the saga. Focusing on the epic battles between the three nations and royal families, Deathcaster doesn’t disappoint in its suspense and action. Since this is the final book, the main theme of war is much more prevalent as multiple armies battle each other. These battles are each unique and well thought out, creating exciting and heart-pounding scenes.

The book splits its chapters into many points of view, including all of the main characters such as Ash, Lila, Jenna, Lyss, Hal, Destin, and Evan. While the sheer amount of main characters might appear to be overwhelming, the ease with which each chapter transitions to different points of view will pull readers in and never make them feel overwhelmed. Plus, each character is unique and interesting, with their own problems and personality that will hook readers.

The events of the story are believable, from the civil war in Arden to Ash’s journey across the ocean to save his sister. The ending feels a bit rushed, while some parts of the novel drag on, but overall the story is very well paced. The writing is easy to read and flows well, with each character getting a distinct voice. Overall, Deathcaster is a satisfying final entry to Chima’s Shattered Realms series.

Sexual Content

  • After a year apart, Ash meets Jenna. “There were many kisses but few words. His questions drew brief, vague answers, punctuated with the vivid images she delivered through touch.” Ash and Jenna have sex. “Making love with Jenna Bandelow was a twining of minds as well as bodies, a mingling of imagery and sensation so complete that sometimes it was hard to tell who owned what—who was giving, who receiving.”
  • Jenna tells Ash about dragon mating, “Dragons often mate in flight, so they twine their tails in order to, you know, maintain their—.”
  • Empress Celestine believes Lyss and Breon are lovers, and often tries to break them up. During dinner, Lyss thinks, “Celestine often included some handsome young men for Lyss, and a lovely young woman for Breon, or vice versa. She seemed determined to distract the erstwhile lovers with new options.” Later on, Lyss nearly shouts, “If I go to bed with someone, I want it to mean something.”
  • Samara, Celestine’s attendant, says, “I find that a bout between the sheets stirs my blood and prepares me to shed the blood of others.”
  • Ash gives Evan a massage to help ease the pain in Evan’s body after a fight. Evan then teases Ash, saying, “According to customs here in the drylands we are married now, and you are bound to perform this service every day.”
  • A soldier tells Hal, “There’s a rumor going around that you died at Delphi but the witch queen brought you back to life because she fell in love with your dead body.”

Violence

  • Lyss thinks about the fighting tournaments Celestine holds. “Sometimes the empress would choose two women to fight, or a mixed pair, or three against three. In one case, she blinded two soldiers, and then set them against each other.”
  • Evan and his subordinates are ambushed in his home. “Blood spattered Evan’s face and the floor around him. He lay on his back, helpless, though fully conscious, while the fighting went on around him. He was stepped on at least once.”
  • Hal is told that, “Karn’s disgraced, dead, and hanging from the city walls.”
  • Jenna’s dragon, Cas, attacks a member of the empress’ army. “He struck the bloodsworn, hard, just as he took his shot. The shot went wild and the soldier ended up pinned to the ground, screaming, bleeding from a dozen wounds.”
  • A group of dragons attacks the empress’ fortress city, “They burned everything that was burnable, from the quays to the houses that were tucked into the terraces on the hillside, to the small fishing boats that were all that remained in the harbor.”
  • Lila discovers a dead body in the woods. “It was what was left of one of the Darian Brothers, blood spattered all around. A knife lay in the mud nearby. He looked like he’d been torn apart by wolves.”
  • A servant is killed during a coup. “Before he could get there, the maiden lay dead in a pool of blood, run through by one of the blackbirds.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Hal’s younger brother says, “This drunk stumbled up to me, and I thought she was going to ask me for money or something.”
  • Ash and Sasha get drunk on a beach after being stranded at sea. Evan, the only one sober, “got the impression that they’d been at the cider for a while.”

Language

  • Bastard is used several times. A soldier tells Hal about a general’s death. “The scum-sucking bastard’s dead, thank the Maker.”
  • Ass is used frequently. When King Jarat orders Destin to lead a company of mages, Destin thinks, “And I will pull mages out of my ass.”

Supernatural

  • Jenna can see images of a person’s true self. “When Jenna gripped the Commander’s hands, images slid through her mind—a much younger Adam and Alyssa, dressed in elaborately stitched clothing, holding hands, watching a funeral procession, both weeping.”
  • Evan binds his followers to him with a blood ritual. “One dose was enough to bind a person; after that, they had an unquenchable thirst for more.”
  • Ash travels to the dream world, Aediion. “He was swept into a swirling black vortex. Gradually, he rebuilt the scene at Drovers’ Inn from memory.” In Aediion, spirits can meet with the living. Ash meets his father there, and his deceased father says, “Thank the Maker. I was close to giving up.” In Aediion, Ash also meets a demon. “It resembled a demon’s face—thin-lipped, hollow-cheeked in a cowl and prelate’s robes.”
  • When Ash enters Aediion, a demon attacks him with shadows. “It took everything Ash had to stand fast with shades flying into his face, swiping around his body, sliding under his clothes.”
  • Hadley DeVilliers uses her magic to sound proof a room, “Back at Kendall House, Shadow pulled glasses down from the shelf while DeVilliers circled the room, her hand on her amulet, putting up barriers to eavesdroppers.”
  • In Arden, mages are collared to keep them in check. Hal tells a mage about a key that can unlock every collar. “One key opens all of the collars. One key controls all of the collars. Nearly all the mages fighting for the Ardenine king are wearing them now.”

Spiritual Content

  • Magic is viewed as a heresy in Arden. Father Fosnaught condemns a group of mages. “You will burn for this, I promise you. We will wipe the scourge of magic from every corner of the Seven Realms.”
  • The Church of Malthus is the primary religion in Arden. Destin Karn, a spymaster, thinks about a saint, “There was plenty of information about Saint Darian, one of the patriarchs of the Church of Malthus a thousand years ago, and his followers, known as Darian Brothers, who were bent on eliminating the gifted from the Realms.”

by Jonathan Planman

The Girl with the Broken Heart

For the past few months, family has meant nothing but heartache for Kenzie Caine. When her second year at college comes to a close, the last thing she wants to do is return home. Luckily, she’s just landed her dream summer job working at the well-known Bellmeade horse farm in the nearby town of Windemere. Rehabilitating abused horses is hard work, but it’s the perfect distraction from her mother’s deep depression and her turbulent relationship with her father. With the beautiful horses, Kenzie is in her element.

Still, she has her own health limitations—a weakened heart. Her employers, the affable Jon and Ciana Mercer, are well aware of her condition and have tasked the charming stable hand, Austin Boyd, with helping Kenzie with some of the heavy lifting. But Austin has his own secrets. As Kenzie and Austin become closer, those secrets lead to shocking revelations that test the walls Kenzie has built around her heart.

The Girl with the Broken Heart follows a familiar romance format and holds few surprises. Kenzie is an admirable character who doesn’t allow her heart condition to get in the way of her dreams. However, the complicated backstory, which lacks development, makes it difficult to connect with Kenzie. Much of her conflict is internal and revolves around her family life, but the reason for her conflict lacks detail, which causes confusion.

Even though The Girl with the Broken Heart is a clean romance appropriate for younger readers, the age of the character may make it difficult for readers to connect with her. Kenzie is in college, but her love interest’s age is unclear, though he has been working as a police officer for many years. The story hits on the topic of sexting, internet bullying, and suicide. However, these topics are also underdeveloped and unfortunately don’t evoke an emotional reaction.

Kenzie’s summer job is rehabilitating abused horses and the story explains the dangers of the painful method of soring Tennessee Walking Horses. While the abuse may resonate with those familiar with horse competitions, others may be confused because soring isn’t described until later in the book. In addition, the story focuses more on Kenzie’s relationship with Austin instead of her interaction with the horses.

The Girl with the Broken Heart is a sweet romance, but the older characters and lack of plot development make the book more appropriate for older readers. While Kenzie’s heart condition adds interest to the story, in the end, her character will quickly be forgotten. Teens looking for romance with a unique plot should try I Believe in A Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo.

Sexual Content

  • Dawson and his fiancée kiss several times. For example, “Dawson bent down and kissed Lani on the mouth.”
  • After Kenzie acts frosty towards Austin, he says, “Why, I could have sworn yesterday when we held hands that you liked having me close to you. So much so that if I’d walked you to your door last night like I wanted, I might have gotten a kiss.” Kenzie denies her attraction towards Austin.
  • Austin tells Kenzie about his first kiss. “We kissed once just to try it out and broke out laughing. No chemistry. No magic.”
  • Kenzie doesn’t know how to feel about Austin. “When he’d leaned over her, listening to her every word and looking into her eyes, she’d felt a fluttering sensation in her heart. . . desire.” She thinks Austin is going to kiss her and is disappointed when he doesn’t.
  • Austin doesn’t like it when a coworker “let his gaze roam over Kenzie’s body.”
  • Kenzie falls asleep while caring for a sick horse. When Austin sees her, he “wanted to touch her, smooth her hair . . . He wanted to bend down and kiss her awake.”
  • Kenzie recalls when she was thirteen and one of the ranch hands cornered her in the stable. The man “came up behind me, started rubbing my shoulders, telling me he thought I was pretty. I froze. He said other stuff, too, sexy things I didn’t understand at the time. . . Then he turned me around and planted a big wet sloppy kiss on my mouth.”
  • After walking Kenzie home, Austin “longed to take her in his arms, hungered for the feel of her warm mouth on his.” He forces himself to leave.
  • After an outing with Austin, Kenzie “placed both hands against his chest, rose up on her toes, and brushed her lips over his. Pulling away with a saucy smile, she whispered ‘Tag, you’re it,’ and ran back to the house.”

Violence

  • An upperclassman convinced Kenzie’s sister to “send pictures of her naked body to him, she did . . . because he said he loved her.” The boy then sent the pictures to others, who “shamed her! Made f-fun of her.” Afterward, Kenzie’s sister hangs herself on Valentine’s Day.
  • Someone vandalizes Kenzie’s car. “Both seats had been slashed with long vicious wounds that left the innards oozing out of the pale creamy leather like pieces of roadkill.”
  • When Austin is in the barn alone, a masked man stabs him with a knife. “Austin, gagged, heard a whoosh—his lung blown, deflating. He staggered, twisted away from the stall, fell backwards, his head slamming against the hard floor. . . searing, burning pain.” The farm dog attacks the man. “The assailant was hurled to one side, then hauled backwards amid growls and snarls. The man screamed. Human bone crunched.” Both men end up in the hospital.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Kenzie goes to a party where people “gathered around patio tables, drinking sodas and beer.”
  • Kenzie’s mom takes pills for depression.
  • While at a Fourth of July party Austin is “nursing a beer.”
  • While in the hospital Austin is given a “morphine infusion pump.”
  • Austin tells Kenzie about a case he was working on. “Kids were dying. Opioids. Five area high schools had lost seven teens in four months.”
  • After taking drugs, a teen tells Austin, “The first time I used, I felt like I’d been kissed by an angel. Every time after, I was chasing that feeling. Never got it again.”

Language

  • Kenzie calls Austin a conceited jerk. Later, Austin tells Kenzie that someone is “pretty much a jerk.”
  • Crappy is used twice. Once Kenzie says, “Having a crappy heart condition wasn’t going to slow me down. So far, it hasn’t.”
  • At a horse competition, a man sees Kenzie looking at a horse. The man says, “If it isn’t the bitch who helped destroy my grandfather.” After the altercation, Austin asked, “And what should I have done? Beat the crap out of him?”
  • Damn is used once. Hell is used twice.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

11 before 12

Kaylan and her BFF, Arianna, have a foolproof plan for surviving middle school: 1. Make a list of eleven things they need to do to become amazing before they turn twelve and 2. Show off their brand-new selves with the best joint birthday party in the history of West Brookside Middle School.

But between cafeteria drama, crushes gone wrong, and some major misunderstandings, Kaylan and Ari lose sight of the one thing they forgot to put on their list: “Keep our friendship strong.” As their party grows nearer, they’re both left listing the ways their friendship is falling apart.

Told from Kaylan’s point of view, 11 before 12 is a one-sided story told by a self-centered, manipulative preteen. Unfortunately, Kaylan is hard to sympathize with for a variety of reasons. She is only nice to her mother when she wants something. Both Kaylan and her brother yell at each other and their mother. Kaylan wants to be treated like a mature grownup, but she acts like a brat and doesn’t take anyone else’s feelings into consideration—not even her best friend’s.

For the majority of the book, Kaylan and her BFF, Arianna, aren’t talking to each other because of a fight. However, they are both “loyal to the list” and continue working on checking everything off the list, including a first kiss. The story has plenty of awkward boy moments and silly conversations that will appeal to preteens. One positive aspect of the story is that Kaylan learns that “there’s really no purpose in dwelling on the past or mistakes or regrets. The only thing we can do is try and learn something and then move on.”

In the end, Kaylan and Arianna repair their relationship. However, the happy ending feels unrealistic and, unfortunately, the reader may wonder why Arianna would want to be friends with Kaylan. While the topics of first kisses and new friends will appeal to tweens, Kaylan’s selfish behavior dominates the story. Pugs and Kisses by J.J. Howard has similar tween-friendly themes with a more relatable main character.

Sexual Content

  • Ari’s mom says, “I think my first kiss was when I was eleven. I was at camp.
  • At lunch, a girl tells her friends about her first kiss. She mets a boy at camp and, “We kissed on the last night.”
  • At a party, Kaylan thinks Tyler “want to kiss me. I really do. Too bad for him I don’t kiss doofus boys like him, especially doofus boys who taunt my brother.”
  • Kaylan’s friend Saara, had a “first kiss miss.” Saara was at a party playing mancala when, “out of nowhere, he leaned in and kissed me.” Saara said she “backed away” because “it was too weird! I didn’t even know him!”
  • Instead of going to class, Jason and Kaylan go outside. Jason asks her a strange question. Then when Kaylan is distracted, he “kisses me. . . Well, it’s kind of a kiss. Our teeth crash. Part of his lip ends up on my nose. . . His lips are on my lips, kind of. My lips are on his lips, kind of.” Kaylan gets upset because she thinks the kiss was a “pity kiss.”
  • Arianna meets a boy at Hebrew school. Arianna says, “So anyway, we went to get some of the gummy snacks out of the vending machine, and we were standing side-by-side, and he just kissed me! Right there!”
  • At a party, Kaylan takes Jason into the laundry room so they can have a “redo” kiss. “We both lean in a little, and then Jason’s lips are on my lips. This is the redo. And it’s going really well. We’re kissing. We really are.” They both decide that the redo went “really well” and then return to the party.

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • At a party, a group of boys try to get Kaylan’s brother, Ryan, to drink out of a baby bottle. Kaylan wonders, “what if it’s laced with something? Some kind of poison?” When Ryan refuses, “people start saying, ‘What are you, chicken?’ and ‘He really is a baby!’ and ‘Scaredy-cat.’”

Language

  • Some of the teens occasionally call each other names such as jerk, doofus, dimwit, losers, imbecile, and flea brain. For example, when Tyler asks Kaylan if she likes him, she replies, “how can I like you if you’re that big of a jerk to my brother?. . . Do you even know what it means to be a good person and not a complete turd?”
  • God, “Oh my God” and OMG are used as exclamations frequently.
  • Freakin’ and darn are both used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Occasionally Kaylan says a silent prayer. For example, Kaylan’s brother, Ryan, grabs a list out of her hands. Kaylan thinks, “Thank god he didn’t see the sabotage Ryan part.”
  • Kaylan’s mom starts crying and Kaylan “prays that my mom stops crying.”

Defiance #1

Girls in Baalboden learn to be submissive and obey their male Protectors. While other girls learn how to sew dresses, Rachel’s father has been teaching her to survive in the wilderness and wield a sword. When her father, Jared, doesn’t return from a courier mission, everything changes for Rachel. When her father is declared dead, Rachel is assigned a new protector: her father’s apprentice. Now Rachel is commanded to obey Logan, the boy who rejected her two years ago. Rather than meekly obey, Rachel is determined to find her father and prove that he survived the Wasteland.

Logan is many things: orphan, outcast, inventor, apprentice to the city’s top courier. Logan is focused on learning his trade so he can escape the tyranny of Baalboden. But his plan never included being responsible for his mentor’s impulsive daughter. Logan is determined to protect her, but when his escape plan goes wrong and Rachel pays the price, he realizes he has more at stake than disappointing his mentor.

As Rachel and Logan battle their way through the Wasteland, stalked by a monster that can’t be killed and an army of assassins out for blood, they discover romance, heartbreak, and a truth that will incite a war decades in the making.

Even though Rachel is headstrong and capable of defending herself, she is not a very likable character. Rachel often acts impulsively, which almost leads to her death. She is forced to go into the Wasteland with Melkin. When Melkin attacks her, Rachel kills him. Afterwards, she is overcome by guilt because she believes that Melkin wouldn’t have killed her. Although Rachel’s feeling of guilt is understandable, her reasoning doesn’t make sense. This is just one of many frustrating inconsistencies in this story that just don’t make sense.

While Defiance has some action-packed scenes, too much time is devoted to Rachel finding her father and then returning to the city. When Rachel finally makes it to her destination, she learns that her father has died, but left her a package, which Logan is supposed to destroy. Because of this, Rachel’s long journey into the Wasteland and back to Baalboden seems pointless.

Defiance jumps back and forth between Rachel’s and Logan’s points of view. Even though this allows the reader to understand both of their thoughts, readers may still have a hard time relating to either character. Much of the plot is devoted to the characters’ inner monologues, which revolve around their feelings for each other. Many of their troubles could have been easily prevented if they would have talked to each other. In addition, Logan is inconsiderate, controlling, and only thinks about himself. Unfortunately, there is little to like about Rachel or Logan.

The predictable villain, the characters’ inner monologues, and the plot inconsistencies will frustrate readers. The world building is so vague that it does little to add to the dystopian plot. Unfortunately, Defiance is an underdeveloped, forgettable story. If you’re looking for a must read end-of-the-world novel, you should leave Defiance on the shelf and instead read The Host by Stephanie Myer.

 Sexual Content

  • Logan almost kisses Rachel. His “gaze wanders to her lips, and I can’t see anything but a thin trail of water gliding over her skin, gathering at the corner of her mouth, then slowly drifting toward her neck. . . I ache to press her against the wall and taste her.”
  • Rachel thinks about Logan. “I remember the intensity in Logan’s eyes as we leaned close to each other in his kitchen. The way his hand felt pressed against my skin.”
  • When Rachel is too distraught to speak, Logan is worried that she’s “been violated.”
  • Logan notices Rachel’s breast. “The neckline dips down and curves over breasts I didn’t realize until just this minute were so . . . substantial. I force my eyes to scrape over her trim waist, but in seconds I’m staring once more at the way the glittering line of thread along her neckline barely contains her.”
  • Logan and Rachel kiss multiple times. For example, while cleaning off in a lake, Rachel and Logan kiss. “His kiss is rough, tastes like lake water. . . and is the best thing I’ve ever felt. I press against him, consuming him like I’ll never get enough, and when we break apart, my pulse pounds against my ear. . .” The scene is described over a page.
  • Logan grabs Rachel and pulls her close. Logan “can’t hear anything beyond the pounding of my heart and the soft catch of Rachel’s breath as I fist my hands in the back of her tunic and pull her against me like I can’t stand to have a single sliver of air between us.” The three pages of description imply that Logan and Rachel have sex.

Violence

  • When Rachel argues with the Commander, “he grabs a handful of her hair and twists her around to face him. . . She hisses a quick gasp of pain but meets his eyes without flinching.”
  • Logan frequently thinks back to his mother’s death. She was killed when she left the house without male supervision. Logan thinks about the Commander’s “whip falling in cruel precision across my mother’s back . . . my mother’s broken body lying lifeless at the Commander’s feet.”
  • Rachel attempts to leave the compound. A guard begins to follow her. Logan takes a “leap forward, slam my fist into the side of his head, and drag his unconscious body back under the lip of the roof.” Both Rachel and Logan are captured.
  • After the Commander captures Rachel and Logan, a guard “lays the edge of his sword against my [Rachel’s] neck. I raise my chin as the silver bites into my skin, but I refuse to beg for mercy.” At one point, the commander “swings his sword until the tip digs into the soft skin beneath my [Rachel’s] chin. . . The pain is sharp and quick, and a hot trickle of blood slowly snakes its way down my neck.” The Commander eventually lets the two go. The scene is described over five pages.
  • Rachel and Logan ignore the Commander’s orders and the Brute Squad grabs Rachel. “The Commander’s sword plunges deep into the chest of the guard beside me. The man makes a wet gurgling noise in the back of his throat as he reaches up to grasp the blade embedded in his chest. Blood pools beneath his palm and slides along the silver in a single, sinuous streak as he slowly crumples to the floor.”
  • The Cursed One attacks. “It looks like a huge wingless dragon, nearly half the height of the wall, and just as thick. . .” The citizens try to get back into the city wall. The Commander “slashes with the whip, driving people into the side of the wall. One man can’t move out of his way fast enough, and the Commander rides over the top of him. The man lies crumpled and still in the Commander’s wake.” Many people are killed, but their deaths are not described.
  • In order to get Rachel to obey, the Commander shows Rachel someone covered in cloth. He “smiles and drives his sword into the lump. Whoever is trapped beneath the cloth sucks in a raspy breath and moans. Blood blossoms beneath the cloth and spreads like a fast-blooming rose.” When the cloth is removed, Rachel sees her grandfather Oliver, who dies from his wounds.
  • Rachel and Logan are walking home when three drunk men try to rob them. Rachel freaks out and “she whips her knife out of its sheath, raises it above her head, and rushes toward the men. . .” Logan jumps in and “slam[s] the butt of my sword into the man closest to me, whirl to block a blow from the other. . .” After a brief struggle, the men run away.
  • While at a ceremony, Rachel defies the Commander. He “let’s go of my arm to backhand me across the face. I tumble to the floor and see Logan, sword raised, face ablaze, charge the Commander.” People begin to run as Logan “drives his shoulder into the first guard who reaches him, sends the man flying off the stage, and whirls to block the sword thrust of another.”
  • Rachel joins the fight and “a guard jumps in front of me. I drive my knife through his stomach, twist it to the right, and yank it free while he’s still in the act of telling me to halt. Crimson splashes onto my pretty blue skirt.”
  • The Commander catches Logan and, “In seconds, he has his sword against Logan’s neck, and his vicious smile twists his scar into an ugly, knotted ball of picked flesh.” Several guards die. Rachel threatens to kill herself, so the Commander doesn’t kill Logan.
  • The Commander throws Logan into prison. The two men argue and the Commander “lunges for me [Logan], but I duck back. Swinging the chains up, I wrap them around his arm. One swift jerk and I fling him onto the filthy floor of the cell. He lands hard, and I drive my knee into his back, but the guards outside the cell are already on me.” The guards repeatedly hit Logan. “Pain flares to life within me, and it’s all I can do to curl up in a ball and endure as the guards use me as their punching bag.”
  • The Commander brands Logan’s neck. “The smell of scorched skin fills the air, and I retch as brilliant spots dance in front of my eyes. I drag in a deep breath and try to ride out the worst of the agony, but it refuses to abate.”
  • While looking for Rachel in the wasteland, Logan finds a soldier on guard duty. When the man hears him, Logan drops “to my knees, grab the dagger in my boot, and thrust it up as his momentum drives his abdomen onto my blade.”
  • The Commander sends Rachel and Melkin into the Wasteland to retrieve a package. Once they find the package, Melkin tries to take it from Rachel. “He’s in the air, long legs dropping down, his face a mask of murderous intent. I broke his right wrist. The weapon must be in his left hand. . . Flipping my blade around, I push myself off the ground and bury my knife deep into his chest. . . His blood seeps along the knife hilt, thick and warm, and coats my hand.” Melkin dies.
  • Logan knows that a tracker is hunting Rachel. The tracker “turns, but he’s too late. I slam into him, wrap my hands around his throat, and drive both of us onto the ground. . . His knife arm goes up, and his eyes lock on mine, but before I can react, an arrow sinks into the narrow space between his eyes with a soft thud. He shudders, his body sags. . .”
  • The Cursed One attacks a battalion. “The beast rears back, swings its head to the left, and strafes the line of Rowansmark soldiers with fire. The flames incinerate most of them on the spot, but a few fall to the ground wailing in agony.”
  • In the multi-chapter conclusion, the Cursed One attacks a city. “Fire leaps from the creature’s mouth. Two members of the Brute Squad are incinerated and then crushed beneath the thing’s monstrous length as it races forward.”
  • Logan can hear “the citizens in the East Quarter are screaming in agony . . . And through it all, the monstrous shape of the Cursed One coils, lashing out with its tail to crush wagons, buildings, and people.”
  • Logan and a group of people throw jars filled with explosives. When they hit the Cursed One the explosives “blow a section of its tail to pieces.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Logan goes into a tavern, the owner, “slaps a heavy wooden mug filled with ale in front of me, though I haven’t ordered a drink.”
  • Logan mentions a man who “can’t hold his liquor.”
  • While in prison, someone gives Logan medicine to help relieve his pain.

Language

  • Rachel wants Oliver to leave the city. Oliver says, “I aim to be great-granddaddy, if that takes riding an ass across a godforsaken wilderness. I guess that’s what I’ll do.”
  • Hell is used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When the Commander forces Rachel to agree to his plan, she prays that “I’m not making the biggest mistake of my life.”
  • When the Commander shows Rachel a man covered in a cloth, she “prayed it would be a stranger.”
  • During a fight, Rachel prays “Logan isn’t already dead.”
  • Rachel accidentally tells Logan that he is handsome. Then she prays “he’ll change the subject.”
  • When the Cursed One attacks, Logan prays “the citizens there heard the screaming of their neighbors and had enough warning to start running.”

 

Blood Relatives

The absolute last thing goth-girl Raven and her vampire boyfriend, Alexander, need is another hitch in their nighttime-only romance—but dark trouble hovers on the horizon when Raven and Alexander discover four freshly dug graves filled with empty coffins. When a crew of sketchy vampires takes up residence in Dullsville’s lonely graveyard, Alexander finds this motley bunch led by his very own blood-sucking cousin, Claude Sterling. Shocking! Claude and his creepy crew can only spell out more problems for the pair, especially when Raven finds them in daylight in the very last place she could ever imagine. What could Claude and his invaders be doing—or searching for—in Dullsville?

Blood Relatives is based on a YA vampire romance novel that falls under the Vampire Kisses umbrella. Readers will find that the graphic novel Blood Relatives does not follow the same plot as any of the other novels. However, while Blood Relatives is extremely short and lacking in plot, it introduces all of the main characters and villains.

Even though Blood Relatives focuses on Raven and the vampire Alexander’s relationship, Alexander spends most of his time trying to keep Raven safe. However, she is determined to find answers to the mystery, even if that means putting herself in danger. While teens may like the protective Alexander, some of the plot is unrealistic, such as when Alexander’s cousin Claude drags Raven down the school’s hallway and grabs her hair, but none of the students or teachers notice the abuse. In addition, no one questions why four new students, who are all the same age, enroll in school on the same day.

Readers will enjoy the manga artwork, especially Raven’s fashionable goth clothes which include skull barrettes. While most of the black and white artwork is beautiful, some of the pictures do not feel finished. For example, in one picture Raven is crying but her eyes are empty and her face is poorly sketched. In addition, in one picture a “Cool Pax” is magically staying over her eye. Each page has eleven or fewer words. While some of the text is in quote bubbles, other text is printed in black with a white border that makes the text difficult to read.

The simple plot and vocabulary make the graphic novel a quick read. If you’re looking for well-developed characters and a unique plot, Blood Relatives will be a disappointment. However, if you want to bite into a vampire romance that is pure entertainment, add Blood Relatives to your reading list. Make sure you have the second book in the series ready because the first installment ends with a cliffhanger.

Sexual Content

  • Raven kisses her vampire boyfriend three times. “One night at the mansion we sealed our date with a heart-meltingly passionate kiss.”
  • While at school, Raven walks by two kids kissing in the hallway.

Violence

  • Raven runs away from a group of vampires that want to get information from her. One of the vampires grabs Raven by the hair and says, “like perhaps, at your house. . . for a midnight snack.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • A group of half-mortal, half-vampires are looking for vials filled “with centuries-old pure vampire blood.” The blood would make them complete vampires.

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

The Cupcake Queen

When her mom decides to leave Manhattan and open a cupcake bakery in Hog’s Hollow, Penny gets dragged along. She doesn’t know how she’ll survive high school without her lifelong friends and big-city comforts. To make matters worse, her father is staying behind, and her mom isn’t talking about what the future holds for them. And as if that weren’t enough, Penny’s clumsiness leads to a cupcake-avalanche mishap at the Queen Bee’s birthday party, which instantly makes her a social pariah.

But small-town life isn’t all bad. Penny finds bright spots in Hog’s Hollow—like her art class and her free-spirited friend Tally. Then there’s Marcus, the cute and enigmatic boy who is always running on the beach. . . and into Penny. Just when Penny is settling in, her parents ask her to make a choice that will turn everything upside down again.

Told from Penny’s point of view, The Cupcake Queen focuses on small-time life in Hog’s Hollow. Anyone who has been a target of bullying will relate to Penny as she tries to find her place in a new town. Penny struggles with the changes in her life, including her parents’ separation. Like many teens, Penny is frustrated that her parents are keeping secrets from her, especially since their decisions have a huge impact on her life.

The story also shines a light on the importance of dealing with loss. Even though Penny’s parents are alive, she feels neglected by a father who doesn’t have time for her. Penny’s friend Tally lives with her aunt because her musician father’s career is more important than her. Meanwhile, Marcus still grieves his mother’s death. Even though each character has faced the loss of a parent differently, the book acknowledges that sometimes, “Life can be pretty hard. . . I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. It just gets different.”

While The Cupcake Queen has some predictable factors such as a mean girl, a cute boy, and an eccentric friend, the characters are relatable and likable. Tally adds a dash of spice to the story, while Marcus adds a little romance that doesn’t go past holding hands. The Cupcake Queen doesn’t sugarcoat events that are confusing and hurtful. Instead, both Penny and Tally learn that “at some point you just have to let go of what you thought should happen and live in what is happening.”

Middle school readers who want a character-driven story with a sprinkle of romance will enjoy The Cupcake Queen. Penny’s story continues in the holiday-themed book Frosted Kisses. Readers may also want to add How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor and The Dog Who Lost His Bark by Eoin Colfer to their reading list. Both are engaging stories that skip the romance and focus on parental problems.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Someone calls manure “cream of crap.”
  • In a yearbook, someone drew over Penny’s mother. “You know, the usual—glasses, mustache, black teeth. Underneath the photo someone crossed out her name and wrote in Hog’s Hollow Ho.” Penny’s friend tells her, “Don’t let those morons get to you.”
  • A mean girl calls Penny a loser and stupid.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Loveboat, Taipei

Ever Wong’s parents came to America with little, but they were determined to make a better life for their children. Ever’s father, a talented doctor, was unable to obtain a medical license in the US and the family is barely scraping by. The Wongs are determined to see their daughter become a doctor. The only problem is that Ever has very little talent for medicine and would much rather go to dance school.

Ever wants to spend her summer dancing with her friends, but her parents have different plans for her. Ever’s mother pawns her most valuable jewelry to pay to send Ever to a rigorous pre-med program. Then Ever’s mother sends her to Chien Tan, a summer program designed for Chinese-American high school students learn about their culture through eight weeks in Taipei, Taiwan.

In Taipei, Ever finds herself among a Chinese-American majority for the first time in her life, but she also discovers that many of her peers have grown up quite differently from her. Most of the Chien Tan students have enormously wealthy parents, and nobody else has had to pawn jewelry to pay for their airfare. Many of Ever’s peers are fluent or near-fluent in Mandarin, which Ever never learned.

Sophie, Ever’s roommate, tells her that Chien Tan has the nickname “Loveboat.” It’s the status quo for students to sneak out at night, go clubbing, and abandon their boyfriends and girlfriends back in the States for intense, short-lived love affairs. Away from her family for the first time, Ever begins to break all of her parents’ strict rules: she drinks, dresses immodestly, and kisses boys. She finds herself caught in an intense love triangle between golden-boy Rick and mysterious bad-boy Xavier.

Loveboat, Taipei addresses many issues that readers may find relatable: the pressure of overbearing parents, the pressure to get drunk or have sex for the first time, and the complicated feelings one can have over cultural identity. The romance is well-written and the love triangle is cute, but readers may find it hard to believe that the two most popular boys in Loveboat are both so smitten with the likable, but unassuming, Ever.

Much of the book’s plot concerns the drama around Ever’s love triangle. Through Ever’s perspective, readers see background characters work through their own drama, too. The cast of characters is large to start with, and it gets confusing when the book names too many extra characters who aren’t part of the plot and only exist to populate the background.  Chien Tan gives unbridled freedom to kids on the cusp of adulthood. They form hasty relationships, hurt themselves, and hurt each other—emotionally and sometimes physically. For example, Sophie spreads nude photos of Ever out of spite. Readers may think this was unforgivable, but they eventually make up.

Ever’s frustration with her parents is a major theme; despite their disagreements, the family clearly loves each other. The narrative reflects the nature of this complicated relationship. Ever learns to stand up for herself and exercise her new freedom staying true to her own values. Loveboat, Taipei will be a compelling choice for readers looking to read about culture, class differences, and “leaving the nest”.

Sexual Content

  • The official rules at Chien Tan say, “No boys and girls in a room with the door closed.” However, this rule is often broken.
  • Ever says that her mother believes that “sex is a by-product of marriage to be endured, preferably through a hole in the blanket.”
  • Later, after having sex for the first time, Ever says, “Sex isn’t the barely tolerable duty of procreation, like Mom always insinuated. It’s two human beings fitting seamlessly together.” However, she still feels guilty, because she “wanted to wait for love.”
  • Ever sees a boy she once kissed and remembers, “those big hands on my hips. His tongue pressing my lips apart. He taught me everything I know about kissing that I didn’t learn from practicing on oranges” with her best friend in middle school.
  • At the Chien Tan dormitories, a couple is ousted from their room. The girl is “clutching her pink dress to her bra.” Ever says that the boy “grabs his shorts–but not before I catch a glimpse of his . . . equipment.” Ever says she is “too stunned to close my eyes.”
  • Ever says that a girl enjoying a meal makes “moaning noises straight out of a scene I wouldn’t be allowed to watch on TV.”
  • Someone asks Rick if he and his long-distance girlfriend have been “having phone sex.”
  • At a club, Ever sees “middle-aged men who line the walls, eyeing girls on the dance floor.”
  • Ever dances with a boy from Chien Tan. “His eyes sweep my body. His neck gleams with sweat. My hair’s damp. I writhe with him, matching thrust for thrust. His hip wedges against mine as he pulls me deeper, deeper–and then I feel him. Oh my God. Oh my God. Is that what I think it is?” She realizes he has an erection and backs off. Later she thinks, “I’ll have to see him in class every single day, knowing I gave him a boner, and him knowing I know.”
  • Sophie tells Ever, “Xavier and I hooked up. Last night. We did it.” She tells Ever “far more detail than I need or want: how they’d made out the whole cab ride home, fumbled down the darkened hallway, tumbled into a spare bedroom on the first floor.” Ever notices that Sophie has “a pink, quarter-sized hickey” on her neck. Ever says, “I can’t imagine sleeping with a guy after knowing him only a week.”
  • Sophie and Ever go to take “glamour shots.” The photos get more and more risqué until Sophie takes a photo naked. “Her bikini lies in a silky, white heap on the floor. She’s naked. Not practically. Actually. Yannie’s lights shine off her golden skin, illuminating bikini patches.” Sophie tells Ever, “This is art, not porn.”
  • While taking photos, Ever remembers how she always felt “the grip of shame” about her body, especially when she “developed more parts to feel ashamed of flaunting.” She decides to follow Sophie’s lead and pose for her own nude shots.
  • Later, someone makes copies of Ever’s nude photos and distributes them to everyone. Ever sees the photos, which show “A girl. She’s back-dropped in white, the only object in her rectangular world. Her hands open like fans at her sides. She gazes out at me, chin raised boldly, dark-red lips parted with a seductive intake of breath, coils of black hair swept up to show off every curve of skin from the slope of her neck to her coyly cocked ankle–and everything in between.” The photos get her into a lot of trouble. The Chien Tan students and staff all see the photos, and Ever is mortified and almost expelled.
  • Ever recalls that some men have “Asian fetishes.” She remembers explaining to a white friend why attracting men’s interest simply because she’s Asian is “not flattering, why it’s based on stereotypes that have nothing to do with who you are.”
  • A girl in the bathroom seems very embarrassed while she scrubs at a blood stain on her sheets. Ever blushes when she realizes that they’re “not period stains” (The implication is that the girl bled during sex).
  • Later, after having sex for the first time, Ever sees “a red smear, like a smudge of calligraphy ink,” on the bedsheet. She’s embarrassed and hopes she’ll never have to see the boy again.
  • Ever passes a couple’s room and hears “soft little moans and kissing sounds.”
  • Xavier kisses Ever. “His mouth is soft, sweetened by wine. He tucks his fingers into my hair and cradles the curve of my neck. Under his lips, my back arches slightly… His mouth silences me, parting my lips, making me gasp with the unexpected pleasure of his tongue.” They stop a few moments later.
  • Ever has sex with Xavier, but the scene isn’t depicted. The next morning, “I lie on my side on a cloud of down feathers, nude between cotton sheets and a blue duvet and the weight of Xavier’s arm over my waist. His naked body presses against my back from shoulder to thighs. Last night returns like a dream: Xavier’s hand on my back, guiding me to this room as our mouths moved together, the click of the door sealing our privacy, then his mouth on my eyelids, my cheeks, the hollow of my neck, his hands exploring . . . my fingernails in his shoulders. My body is sore in places I didn’t know could feel sore.”
  • Ever and Rick bathe in a hot spring together and become intimate. The scene takes place over several pages and concludes with, “His mouth burns a line down to my belly button. It makes my body quiver like a tightly strung instrument. The splash of water echoes as he slips back into the pool. My stomach dips as his hands part my knees. He slides his shoulders between them, and his hands tuck under my thighs and take hold of my hips. He kisses a trail along the inside of each thigh, his breath warm on my skin, so near and intimate. My pals press the stones, all my body throbbing, unbelieving, as he asks permission to continue, and my whisper yes blends with the gurgle of the hot waters. He takes his time. A slow burn that builds and builds, until I am clawing at the stones and my back arches and my toes splash and my body ripens under his grip.” Later, Ever says, “Who knew Boy Wonder was so good with his tongue?”
  • During Chien Tan’s talent show, one of the boys dresses in drag. A character sees the drag queen and says, “Whoa, she’s stacked.” The drag queen’s “red lace bra is covered only by the middle button of her coat.”

Violence

  • Ever remembers hearing about a child prodigy who “died by suicide.”
  • Ever resents Rick and says, “I indulge a fantasy of me using that big, hard body as a punching bag.”
  • When Xavier gets out of his dad’s car, Ever notices that “a reddish blotch shines on his cheek–a bruise? Did his dad hit him?”
  • During a conversation with Ever, Xavier reveals that his dad said “[he] should’ve beat me harder to beat [the dyslexia] out of me.” Ever is horrified that Xavier was abused over his dyslexia. Xavier says, “My dad gave me a new set of trophies and told me I was a disgrace to nine generations.” Ever realizes that by “trophies” he means “bruises.”
  • Ever remembers “Mom with the chopsticks, hitting the inside of my bare thigh once, twice, three times. I don’t even remember what I’d done. The chopsticks only came out occasionally, and left no scars, but the shame has lingered.”
  • A man making ‘snake-blood sake’ cuts the head off of a snake. “His hatchet bangs down. The snake’s fanged head flies” at one of Ever’s friends. “Its severed end spurts dark red blood . . . Into one vial after another, the man squeezes the snake’s cut end. Dark red blood pulses out, pinking the liquor.”
  • At a bar, Ever is accosted by “two hundred pounds of meaty guy.” Ever says he “crushes me against the bar. He reeks of alcohol and sweat. I shove back, but it’s like trying to move a brick wall.” A boy from Chien Tan comes along and rescues her by telling the man, “She’s with me.”
  • A Chien Tan couple has arguments that “usually ended with something broken—a bulletin board, a lamp, his toe.”
  • When he’s angry, Rick “slams his fist through the center of his rice sack.”
  • Ever becomes interested in the choreography of fighting with staffs and sticks. She and Rick often mock-duel, but never with the intention to hurt. There are several pages of scenes where they ‘fight’. For example, “The crack of wood on wood punctuates the air, reverberating in my hands. I swing again. Again. Force him back until his foot hits a brick wall. And then he’s shoving me back, stick flying. . . swing a blow at his head. He ducks.”
  • During one fight, Ever says, “I instinctively whip my stick down—and slam his knuckles.” Ever apologizes immediately, because she didn’t mean to hurt Rick.
  • Someone tells Ever about “samurai of feudal Japan, soldiers who didn’t fall on their swords like the Romans did, but disemboweled themselves.”
  • Rick and Xavier get into a fight. “Xavier’s arms are locked around Rick’s neck, both bent double as they lurch into Marc, who grabs at them, earning himself a punch in the stomach . . . They’re inseparable, a force of muscled arms and legs and rage, knocking over everyone in their path.” Chien Tan counselors break up the fight and send them to the infirmary to clean up their bloody noses.
  • Sophie arrives home with a black eye and claims she “walked into a wall.” Later, Ever discovers that Sophie’s boyfriend Matteo has been violent with her. Ever sees Matteo “in a drunken stupor,” chasing after Sophie. Sophie locks herself in her room and Ever hears Matteo “spewing curses. The door shakes under his weight. I jam the door in place, then hang on tight. Under me, the door convulses as he pounds and pounds.” Later Sophie says that Matteo was mad because she “bit him.” Sophie agrees to let Ever tell the Chien Tan counselors about the incident, and Matteo is expelled and sent home.
  • Someone talks about how their mom struggled to find employment. “My mom went to work in a hotel and then some asshole manager slapped her butt and she shoved him onto his . . . now she’s cleaning toilets.”
  • Rick speaks about the tense relationship he has with his girlfriend, who suffers from severe depression and relies on him for emotional support. “We were in her kitchen. Cutting a loaf of bread we’d picked up. And she started crying and saying she couldn’t anymore, couldn’t take her parents, school, life, without me. She grabbed the knife, and I grabbed hold.” He “opens his palm to sunlight. Under its harsh yellow rays, the four inch-long scars line up in their row.” He admits that he eventually only stayed with her because he was afraid she would harm herself. The book later explores how this relationship has harmed Rick.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When trying to navigate the airport, Ever runs into a man who stinks of “cilantro and cigarettes.”
  • Ever soon learns that the drinking age in Taiwan is eighteen—making her legally able to drink. Still, it’s against Chien Tan rules. She says she’s “never even tried alcohol,” and that the last time she went to a wedding, her mom “whisked [my] champagne glasses from under the waiter’s bottle.”
  • During a study group, some boys “are passing a steel bottle around.” Ever declines the first time, but partakes at later meetings.
  • Ever breaks her parents’ “no-alcohol” rule by drinking ‘snake-blood sake’. After watching a man chop off a snake’s head and squeeze the blood into the alcohol, she drinks it. “I throw back my head. The warm, salty blood and sake set my throat on fire. It tastes bitter. Like metal. Heat sears my chest, opening up a pipe there I’ve never felt before . . . My head feels stuffed with rice, then it explodes in a million directions. Kaleidoscopic tingles dance through my body.” Later in the evening, she throws up on the street and has to be carried home.
  • After being in Chien Tan for several weeks, guava cocktails are Ever’s “new favorite.”
  • Xavier hands Ever “a bottle of . . . a French wine with a white label. I fit its glass top to my lips and take a long pull. Dark cherry, rich and strong. I take a second pull, a third, letting its smoothness warm my body.”
  • In her messy room, Ever notices that some clothing lying on the floor “has soaked up a can of stale beer.”
  • After Ever sprains her ankle, a paramedic gives her “a white pill—prescription-strength ibuprofen.”

Language

  • Profanity is used infrequently. Profanity includes crap, ass, asshole, hell, damn, shit, bastard, bitch.
  • Oh my God and Jesus are occasionally used as exclamations.
  • Fuck is used four times.
  • Ever calls Rick a brown-noser.
  • Someone calls Ever a slut.
  • Someone calls Sophie “fucking bitch” and “cocktease.”
  • Ever remembers seeing a store clerk call her dad a “stupid chink.”

Supernatural

  • A hotel “has no fourth floor—the Chinese equivalent of unlucky thirteen, because four sounds like death in Mandarin.”

Spiritual Content

  • Ever describes her parents as “Chinese-Baptist.”
  • When dancing, Ever says she feels like “a goddess.”
  • Ever recalls “sorting I Ching sticks with a fortune-teller” while touring Taipei.
  • One girl at Chien Tan is “really involved with the weekly Bible study she started.”

by Caroline Galdi

 

 

 

 

Never Evers

Thirteen-year-old Mouse is pretty sure her life is totally over. Now that she’s been kicked out of ballet school, she has to go on her new school’s ski trip basically knowing no one. Well, except too-cool-for-school Keira and crazy Connie-May (and her adorable hamster, Mr. Jambon).

Meanwhile, Jack’s life is just about to begin. He’s on the way to the slopes with his school too, and all he can think about is how to get his first kiss.

With her new friends by her side, Mouse has more fun skiing and building igloos than she expected. And when Jack catches Mouse’s eye, he’s smitten. All’s well—that is, until mega-pop star, Roland arrives on the scene and sets his sights on Mouse too! A week in the snow is about to get complicated. . .

Never Evers is ridiculous, over the top, and funny. The story focuses on two friend groups. One group includes three boys—Jack, Max, and Toddy. Max is totally obsessed with kissing a girl—any “hot” girl. Even though Jack is smitten with Mouse, Max keeps pushing Jack to spend time with another hot girl, which causes some drama. Like many preteen boys, the three friends are immature, use body humor, and talk about “pubes” (pubic hair).

The other friend group includes Mouse, Connie, and Kiera. In order to determine if Jack likes Mouse, the girls make a love spell, which causes some laughable moments. However, unlike the group of boys, the girls are not obsessed with boys. Instead, Mouse is also dealing with getting kicked out of dance school, a mean girl, and making new friends.

Never Evers is full of friendship drama, crushes, jealousy, and misunderstandings. The story’s point of view flip flops between Jack and Mouse, which allows the reader to understand their confusion about the opposite sex. Using humor, the story expertly portrays the confusion and insecurity that many tweens feel about growing up. While the story is often laugh-out-loud funny, it also shows the importance of kindness and having friends who will stand by you no matter what.

While Never Evers is not great literature, it will resonate with tweens who often feel awkward and uncertain. Middle school readers who aren’t ready for more mature romances will enjoy Never Evers. If you’re looking for a similar tween-friendly romance, add Pugs and Kisses by J.J. Howard to your reading list.

Sexual Content

  • A group of boys talk about a boy who said, “he kissed sixteen girls in five days.
  • A group of boys talks about their inability to get a girlfriend. “You know Ed’s kissed ten girls now? Ten. He’s a month younger than me and he’s on double digits.”
  • Mouse has never kissed a boy, but her friend, Keira, has “kissed three other boys.” Keira says, “You’re not missing out on anything, to be honest. It’s a little anticlimactic, really. You think it’ll be this big, life-changing moment, but it’s actually just Elliot Campbell slobbering all over you.”
  • While on the bus, a boy moons a group of girls.
  • While talking about Connie’s true love, the bus passes a sign for a French teen singer. Connie says, “Ron is my one true love. But I might let Roland English-kiss me. To warm me up for Ron.”
  • While watching Romeo and Juliet, Mouse thinks, “Watching sex scenes with your parents is horrendous, but it turns out watching them with a bunch of people your own age is also really bad.”
  • While lost in the wilderness, Jack and Mouse go into an igloo to keep warm. Jack “buried all my worries and fears deep in the snow, and leaned in to kiss her.” Before he can, a rescue team shows up.
  • At a dance, Connie kisses a boy. Someone sees them, and says, “That Connie girl’s a man-eater.”
  • Jack thinks about kissing Mouse. “I knew I shouldn’t feel scared anymore, but I did. It was scary. Doing anything for the first time is scary. But I wanted to kiss her so bad.” He moves closer to Mouse, and, “Then I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and leaned in towards her.”

Violence

  • While talking to a group of girls, Jamie was teasing Jack and his friends. “Before I could stop him, Max launched himself at Jamie, shoving him hard in the chest and sending him crashing onto the cold, hard ice. . . Jamie was too shocked to even respond.” A teacher scolds the boys.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • “Oh my God,” and “Oh God” are used as an exclamation frequently.
  • Occasionally there is name calling, such as dummy, idiot, lunatic, loser, jerk, freak, and wierdo. For example, Kiera calls a mean girl and her friends “a bunch of rancid, pathetic losers.”
  • Crap (or a version of it) is used six times. Jack says, “The only snow I’ve seen is the crappy kind that turns gray and icy and melts within a day.”
  • Freakin’ is used three times. A boy yells, “You’re a freakin’ maniac, Max!”
  • Hell is used seven times. When Mouse disappears, Jack thinks, “I couldn’t tell what the hell was going on.”

Supernatural

  • Mouse and her friends use The Teen Witches’ Book of Spells to cast a love spell. As part of the spell, the girls make a circle out of their clothes and stand in the circle. Mouse’s friend Keira says, “We need paper and a pen. A true belief in magic. A full moon. . . A hair from your head and a mason jar.”
  • Mouse puts a piece of her hair in a jar. Then she writes a boy’s name and puts it into the jar. Kiera says, “Okay, now we’re going to hold hands, and we all have to sing, ‘Name is written / Hidden singing / Compel the object to my bidding / So mote it be.”

Spiritual Content

  • Mouse hides in a bathroom stall so she can hear a group’s conversation. While there, she prays, “Please, God, don’t let my phone ring.”
  • Occasionally the teens pray. For example, when Kiera writes Jack (Mouse’s crush) on her jeans, Mouse prays that Kiera “didn’t wear those jeans again this week.”
  • Jack asks Mouse if she wants to get a hot chocolate. When she turns him down, Jack prays, “Please, God, let something happen now to end this moment—a fire alarm, an avalanche, a rip in the space-time continuum. . . Anything.”

Stormcaster

Pirate Evan Strangward has been hunted by Empress Celestine for most of his life. Being able to control the weather can only protect him for so long. Now, he’s looking to the Fells for allies to take the fight to the Empress. Evan must warn the queendom that Empress Celestine and her bloodsworn army won’t wait forever to invade.

After four years in Arden, Ash sul’Han is on his way back to his home in the Fells. It’s a chance to see his mother and sister, and all the friends he left behind. But once he finds out his sister, Lyss, was taken by Empress Celestine, he’ll stop at nothing to get her back and save the royal line. Ash might not trust Evan, but he needs the pirate’s help if he wants to infiltrate Celestine’s stronghold and end the war before it gets out of hand.

Stormcaster, the third entry in Chima’s Shattered Realms series, is a wonderful installment in this epic tale. The story primarily follows Evan Strangward and Ash sul’Han. Stormcaster goes back in time to show the beginning of Empress Celestine’s rise to power, as well as Evan’s reason for opposing her. Destin Karn’s backstory is also explored. While this backtracking is extensive, it’s a well-thought-out and interesting addition to the story.

When the backstories are caught up to the present, the rest of the main characters are reintroduced. Ash sul’Han, who was absent from the previous novel, is finally back in the picture. When he makes it home to his queen mother, he finds the world completely changed. Ash is a lovable character, who has matured from his rebellious stage. Now he is willing to do whatever it takes to protect his family. As he struggles to work his way back into a world he doesn’t recognize, Ash embodies the themes of maturity and loss.

Overall, Stormcaster is a fast-paced ride. Since most of the main characters are back in action, each chapter shows the reader another part of the world, creating a fleshed-out and believable setting. Luckily, the shifting views are easy to follow. The story focuses on bringing together most of the main characters, so they can plan how to stop Empress Celestine. Will Ash finally reunite with his sister? Will Evan be able to take down the Empress that’s been hunting him? Readers will find out in the final installment, Deathcaster.

Sexual Content

  • When Evan and his shipmate Brody look at Empress Celestine, Brody thinks she’s beautiful. Evan notices Brody “was gazing at the young captain in a way that he’d never looked at Evan.” Later, Evan thinks about his love life. “There were other, less complicated lovers in the ports on both sides of the Indio, boys who offered sweet kisses and warm embraces.”
  • Evan and Destin have an ongoing romance. While sitting close together, “Destin put his hand on Evan’s arm, setting his heart to flopping like a beached fish.” However, Destin is afraid of love. “He’d learned his lesson well—that love was as risky as mercy.” Evan thinks, “Do not fall for this dangerous, moody, mercurial boy. It will lead you to heartbreak or worse.”
  • After confiding in each other, Evan “gripped Destin’s coat, arched his body up, and kissed him firmly on the lips.”
  • Destin’s parents have a terrible relationship. Destin tells Evan that his father “kept pounding on my mother—trying to get her to admit to cheating on him. He didn’t want to believe I was really his.” Later on, Evan asks, “If he didn’t love her, then why couldn’t he just set her aside and marry someone else.”
  • When Ash’s mother, Raisa, speaks about her marriage, she says, “I’m glad, now, that I married young, so that Han and I had more time together. It was twenty-five years, but it just flew by.” Later, she tells Ash, “Falling in love in wartime is chancy, just like having children. We’ve had a lot of pain, but a lot of joy, all the same.”
  • Madeleine, younger sister to the new King Jarat, says, “They were talking about all the women they’d had, and would have. Jarat said Father never bedded a wolf, but he would, and even a wolf could be tamed.”

Violence

  • Destin and Evan talk about killing. Destin says, “Killing is always personal. It’s the second-most-intimate thing that can happen between two people.”
  • When Destin and Evan are captured by Destin’s father, the two are forced to fight each other. Evan punches Destin, and then, “Destin somehow wrenched free of his captors, lurched forward, wrapped his hands around Evan’s neck, and began to squeeze.”
  • Adrian talks with his mother, and thinks, “Your daughter Hanalea went into the borderlands, and was murdered. Your son went south, and became a murderer.”
  • Hal fights members of Celestine’s bloodsworn warriors. During the fight with a horselord, Hal “drove his sword beneath his rib cage, all the way to the hilt.” Later, Hal cuts off a man’s head. “The head splashed into the water, but the body continued to stagger around, spraying blood from its severed neck until it tripped over a rock slab and went down.”
  • One of Celestine’s bloodsworn cuts down an old man. “It seemed that one of them wasn’t moving fast enough, because his horselord guard unslung his blade and cut him down.”
  • Destin says his father beat his mother. Destin’s father, “beat her all the time. Half to death, once or twice. Sometimes at court, but mostly at his keep on the Bittersweet. He kept a full time mage healer to patch her up again.”
  • After Evan calls Destin’s father a monster, Destin says, “Oh, he is. He started beating me, too, once I was too big to ignore and still too small to defend myself. . . If I had to do it over again, I’d have opened his throat and stabbed him through the heart with a poisoned blade and cut off his head and hung it over my door.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Hal talks to his former subordinate, Bellamy, at a tavern. Bellamy orders a “Small beer. I’m on duty in a little while. On second thought, I’ll have bingo. A double.”
  • Lyss bumps into Breon. Breon tells her, “There’s a lot of rum around, if that’s appealing.”
  • Destin thinks about King Jarat and his entourage. “They were more than happy to take the young king under their tutelage in the study of drinking, hunting, dicing, wenching, and swordplay.”
  • One of King Jarat’s loyal men comes home drunk one night. Destin sees him as he “stumbled to the garderobe and unbuttoned his breeches, hurrying to unburden himself of excess ale.”

Language

  • Hell is used a few times. For example, when Evan first meets Destin, Destin tells him, “To hell with your bloody books.”
  • Damn is used occasionally. For example, when Evan thinks about his job as a shipmaster, he thinks, “He was damned by his own success.”
  • Bastard is used a few times. Once, “When Destin inquired about Lucky Faros, saying he’d heard good things about the young captain, Kadar had informed him that Faros was an ungrateful, greedy, unreliable bastard he should steer clear of.”
  • Kadar, the streetlord of Evan’s city, tells Destin, “Go suck the Breaker’s balls.”

Supernatural

  • Wizards, also known as mages, are commonplace.
  • Wizards and mages produce a power called “flash” constantly. Destin describes flash, “like a kind of magical vapor that dissipates as soon as it appears. Amulets allow us to accumulate enough to work significant charms. Power transfers to it through skin, when you touch it.”
  • Destin talks about amulets. “They’re used to store and control magical energy, something we call ‘flash.’ There are other magical tools as well, such as talismans to protect against magical attacks, all made by upland clans.”
  • A blood mage is a type of mage that uses blood in their spells. Brody, Evan’s subordinate, says, “They make people drink their blood, and turn them into slaves.”
  • Destin is a mage. Evan notes that Destin “had an entire menu of nuanced magic he could work using his amulet and specific words spoken in the wetland language. Power including immobilization, persuasion, interrogation, and the like.”
  • In Arden, magic is considered a sin. Destin tells Evan, “Back home, magic is considered to be the work of the Breaker, a misfortune, nonetheless, can be put to use for the greater glory of the crown.” He later says, “A mage is a precarious thing to be in the wetland empire, because of the church. The king finds us useful, but he is as changeable as spring weather when it comes to the tension between magic and religion.”
  • Evan is a stormlord, a mage that uses weather magic. When Destin attacked Evan, “A storm surge of magic welled up in him, and electricity crackled across his skin, as if the power that seethed beneath it was leaking out.” Later, Evan “didn’t consciously reach for power, but it came unbidden. Small whirlwinds erupted all around his feet, sucked up a mixture of sawdust and straw, flung it in the soldier’s face.”
  • Jenna is one of the magemarked, a group of people that have unique abilities even among mages. Destin tells Evan about Jenna’s abilities: “She claims to be clairvoyant—that she sometimes sees images of the future, sees people as they really are, or can tell when someone is lying.” Later, he also says, “She heals quickly, and is resistant to flame. In fact, she develops a kind of armor for protection.”

Spiritual Content

  • Kadar, Evan’s former employer, thinks about his gods. He thinks, “It seemed that Omari Kadar, street lord of the Tarvos waterfront, had been abandoned by the gods.”
  • Evan is worshipped by his Stormborn pirate crew. “In the space of four years he’d gone from being a kind of shipboard mascot to being ‘Lord Strangward,’ the central deity of a Stormborn cult.”
  • When Evan and Destin get a new ship, Evan wants to perform a ceremony to the gods. Destin’s mother says, “I hope you don’t plan to sacrifice a goat and make us drink the blood. The goats, I need.”
  • When Ash tells Lila about his mistakes, she says, “If you want absolution, go to a speaker or priest. I’m hardly in a position to give you advice.”
  • Ash’s mother tells him, “Some speakers say that we must wait to be rewarded in the next life.”

by Jonathan Planman

King’s Cage

After completing her mission to secure an army of newbloods, Mare Barrow finds herself once again trapped in the royal palace of Norta. She’s become King Maven’s pet, forced to play a dangerous role at his side. Her forced words carry weight with the Reds, and create schisms in the Scarlet Guard and Norta as a whole.

Without Mare, the Guard has trouble accepting both the newbloods and Silvers into their ranks. Cameron Cole, a newblood herself, knows exactly what it’s like to be ostracized for her ability. After seeing Mare struggle to control her ability, Cameron fears becoming like her; yet, she’s not alone in the struggle. Farley, a new commander of the Scarlet Guard, continues to fight after losing her lover, Shade. Kilorn, Mare’s best friend, must decide whether to continue fighting or focus on protecting Mare’s family. Cal must figure out what side he will choose. Will he be able to continue to kill his Silver comrades, or will he betray the Scarlet Guard?

But just as loyalties are tested in the Scarlet Guard, so are they in Maven’s court. Evangeline Samos, now betrothed to Maven as the future queen of Norta, wants nothing more than to rule. When noble houses begin to betray Maven left and right, navigating the palace becomes more complicated. Will Evangeline get to rule Norta? Will Cameron and the Scarlet Guard prove too much for the Silvers to handle? Will Mare be able to change Maven for the better and abolish the monarchy?

As the third installment of the Red Queen Series, King’s Cage is an excellent continuation of the story because Mare is back in the thick of political intrigue. She’s right there to see the complicated and unique relationships between the Silvers, allowing the reader to see both sides of the power struggle.

The plot is a roller-coaster of twists and suspense, leading Mare, Cameron, and Evangeline through many life-changing and life-threatening moments. The three main heroines are fascinating to follow because each one is constantly on the edge of danger. For instance, Mare has gotten over her selfish and arrogant nature, but now struggles to stay at Maven’s side. Mare is forced to pretend that she betrayed the Scarlet Guard, yet she manages to stay sane enough to secretly gather intel. Cameron struggles with the fear of turning into a monster. And Evangeline must find a way to rule over Norta without becoming Maven’s bride.

The theme of betrayal is once again central to the plot, as characters and noble houses backstab each other left and right. The action scenes are the best yet with each heroine battling individually at first, but then all coming together in a big battle at the end. The buildup and suspense work well as Mare’s, Cameron’s, and Evangeline’s stories intertwine. Overall, King’s Cage is a great follow-up to a lackluster sequel. The story will conclude in the final book, War Storm, where readers will find out whether Mare will triumph over King Maven.

Sexual Content

  • During an argument, Maven kisses Mare. Mare thinks, “His kiss burns worse than his brand.”
  • Maven pledges his hand to the Lakeland princess, “From this day until my last day, I pledge myself to you, Iris of House Cygnet, princess of the Lakelands.”
  • One morning, Evangeline wakes up to her lover’s kisses. Elane “laughs against my neck, her touch a brush of lips and cold steel.”
  • Mare is torn up about her love for Maven. “There are still pieces of me, small pieces, still in love with a fiction. A ghost inside a living boy I cannot fathom.”
  • Mare is humiliated by her guards. “Kitten forces me into the scarlet gown, making me strip in front of them all.”

Violence

  • Mare’s former tutor says, “I watched babies die without seeing the sun.”
  • When visiting wounded Silver soldiers, Mare thinks, “Their kind aren’t meant to bleed. Not like this.” The soldiers fought in a battle against the Scarlet Guard.
  • In a military transport, Mare attacks Maven. Mare “jumps forward, lunging, hands stretched out to grab him by the collar. Without thinking, I shove, pushing, smashing him back into his seat.” Later, Mare thinks, “I fantasize about cutting his throat and staining Maven’s freshly painted walls with Silver blood.”
  • Mare is forced to attend a feast put on by Maven. It ends in an assassination attempt, which kills Maven’s foreign guest, Prince Alexandret. Mare sees, “Prince Alexandret, slumped dead in his seat of honor with a bullet hole between his eyes.” At the same time, Mare sees Maven wounded, “Silver blood bubbles from his neck, gushing through the fingers of the nearest Sentinel, who is trying to keep pressure on a bullet wound.”
  • During an attack on the capital, Cal kills Samson. “Fire races down Samson’s throat, charring his insides. His vocal cords shred. The only screaming I hear now is in my head.”
  • During a sparring match between Mare and Cal, Cal overwhelms her. Mare gets hit with Cal’s fire, and her “flesh ripples with fresh blisters, and I bite my lip to keep from screaming. Cal would stop the fight if he knew how much this hurt.”
  • In a final battle between Maven’s army and the Scarlet Guard, the first casualty is a Red soldier. Mare sees the soldier fall, and then “shouts as he goes over the edge, plunging thirty feet—before sailing skyward, born of a graviton’s concentration. He lands hard on the wall, colliding with a sickening crack.” In the thick of the fight, Farley, a Scarlet Guard commander, kills some Silvers. “Farley peppers them with gunfire, dropping a few Silvers where they stand. Their bodies slide off into darkness.” The battle is described over 20 pages.
  • A newblood committed suicide after being outed as a spy. Mare thinks, “I’ve seen suicide pills before. Even though I shut my eyes, I know what happens next.”
  • Three of the noble houses of Norta attack Maven. Mare watches as “Laris wind weavers toss Iral silks from one side of the room to the other with sharp gusts, wielding them like living arrows while the Irals fire pistols and throw knives with deadly precision.” A few of Maven’s guards are hurt in the fight.
  • When Cameron infiltrated a prison, she used her ability to kill Silvers. Her ability is to snuff out other abilities, as well as other lives. Cameron thinks, “The memory still makes me sick. I felt their hearts stop. I felt their deaths like they were happening to me.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Maven explains that his mother controlled his father. Maven says, “He was a drunk, a heartbroken imbecile, blind to so much, content to keep things as they were. Easy to control, easy to use.”
  • While at a party, Mare notices, “Music dances on the air, undercut with the sweet and sickening bite of alcohol as it permeates every inch of the magnificent throne room.”

Language

  • During a televised speech, Mare is forced to say the former King and Queen “rightfully knew that a Red with an ability would be considered a freak at best, an abomination at worst, and they hid my identity to keep me safe from prejudices of both Red and Silver.”
  • Bastard is used several times. For example, Cameron calls Cal a “Silver Bastard.”
  • When thinking of her twin brother, Cameron wonders, “Send him home? To another hellhole?”
  • Cameron thinks Mare is a “condescending twit.”
  • Ass is used several times. For example, Cameron calls Cal a “veritable pain in the ass.”
  • Someone calls Evangeline’s lover a “whore.”

Supernatural

  • Samson Merandus, one of Maven’s allies, describes his ability. “As a whisper, my ability allows me to bypass the usual lies and twists of speech that most prisoners rely on.”
  • During an infiltration mission into a Silver compound, Cameron takes the newblood, Harrick, along. She sees a pair of guards as Harrick uses his ability to make their “figures ripple slightly, like the surface of disturbed water.” Harrick can create illusions to manipulate people’s senses.
  • Cameron’s ability allows her to stop other’s abilities. When Cal confronts her, she notices his flames still “waver before my ability, fighting to breathe, fighting to burn. I could snuff them out if I wanted to.”
  • When he gets angry, Cal will let loose his fire. “The gleaming bracelet at Cal’s wrist flickers, birthing sparks that travel along his arm in a quick burst of red flame.”
  • Evangeline can manipulate metal. When Mare is about to be shot, Evangeline catches the bullet mid-air. “Her fist clenches and the bullet rockets backward to where it came from, chased on by splinters of cold steel as they explode from her dress.”
  • The leader of Montfort, a country far from Norta, can create blue walls out of thin air. He stops Cal and Mare’s sparring match with “another blue wall of something divides the spectators from our spar. With a wave of Davidson’s hand, it blinks out of existence.”
  • During the final battle, nymphs on Maven’s side flood a city. Mare watches as “the rain shimmers, dancing on the air, joining together into larger and larger droplets. And the puddles, the inches of water in the streets and alleys—they become rivers.” No one is injured.

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Jonathan Planman

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