Serafina and the Black Cloak

23507745by Robert Beatty
Children’s Fiction
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel: July 14, 2015

I bought a bunch of MG books last year and this one has sat on my shelf the longest. I wasn’t sure what to expect (especially given my limited experience with the Disney imprint) but it was not the “safe” adventure I expected!

Serafina and her father secretly live in the basement of the Biltmore mansion. Her father is the estate’s head engineer, and Serafina does not exist, as far as the Biltmores are concerned. But when children start disappearing from the estate, Serafina reveals herself to the Biltmore’s nephew, Braeden, and they try to save the children before it’s too late.

What surprised me is just how dark this story got when it came to tracking down the Man in the Black Cloak! Not only is the Cloak super sinister, the things Serafina encounters as she hunts him down made me squirm with the creeps. (I read it on a plane and actually squirmed, several times). Encounters with various bloody remains and dark places in the Forest had me cringing in the best way! Serafina is a tougher girl than I am, and could grit her teeth and keep going.

It’s not the subtlest in terms of Serafina’s mysterious past and such, but it was fun and pretty satisfying. Gothic vibes made for middle-grade readers!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Serafina and the Black Cloak is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman – The other gruesome MG book I have read. Coraline’s family moves to a new house, and she has fun exploring it. Then she finds the Other Mother, who is determined to keep Coraline forever if Coraline can’t outsmart her trap.
  • Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi – A girl’s quest to locate her father in a neighboring magical realm goes horribly wrong. This is an interesting blend of total lighthearted whimsy and the darker depths of human nature. Enjoy this journey through two realms who use magic very differently! See my review here.
  • Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke – Definitely YA, but with that same creepy, country vibe. Three unreliable narrators tell you what they think happened one dark night at the haunted house. See my review here.

Wintersong

24763621by S. Jae-Jones
YA Fantasy
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel: February 7, 2017

One of my highly anticipated reads for this year! JJ co-hosts the fantastic podcast Pub(lishing)Crawl about all things writing and publishing and I have been dying to read her gothic fantasy for months. Not having seen “Labyrinth” I didn’t really know what to expect but she is so wise I knew it would good regardless, and I was not wrong!

The eldest of three, Liesl’s dark life of poverty in the Bavarian woods is only lit up by music. Her younger sister Kathe is the beautiful one, engaged to be married to Liesl’s childhood crush. Her younger brother Josef is the musical genius—the talent their parents obsess over. An upcoming audition could change his life forever. Only Josef acknowledges Liesl’s talent: composing. Josef can bring any song to life, but Liesl hears new songs in her head.

Then the Goblin King takes Kathe to become his wife, and Liesl must challenge the Lord of Mischief to save her sister, and ultimately herself.

This is a soul story. Liesl’s quest to save her sister leads her to make sacrifices that could kill her (in mind or in body) and she continues on. But her struggle to claim her identity, her music, her life, feels so deeply personal. JJ’s passion for this story is lovingly drawn on every page but it doesn’t feel like self-insertion because what Liesl fears is universal. Who doesn’t struggle with finding a sense of self and place in the world? Who doesn’t fear their own potential? It’s not often reading a novel feels so intimate without creating the feeling of intrusion. This journey Underground is slow and winding, a fitting pace for the gradual way that understanding sinks into our bones with every experience we gain. It’s a savory, personal journey that leaves you feeling as changed as Liesl.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book of goblin magic and music! If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Wintersong is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik – Agniezska is forced to serve their wizard, known as the Dragon, only to realize she has a role in saving the town from a dark forest determined to devour them. See my review here.
  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – An atmospheric story in the wilderness of Rus’ with one girl facing her village’s censure as she tries to protect them from dark forces at work in their land with rituals out of favor with the new Christian church. See my review here.
  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman – Seraphina is only passionate about music, but her post in the royal castle requires her to become a diplomat of sorts between humans and dragons. Her desire for musical recognition is tempered by the secret she hides that would ruin her. See my review here.
  • Caraval by Stephanie Garber – Scarlett enters the magical game-world of Caraval to save her sister Tella—but as the game plays out the lines between reality and entertainment are blurred. See my review here.

Writing Update: Deciding to Embrace Decisions

I have been experiencing an inadvertent fallow period. (I say “experiencing” rather than “enjoying” because I am constantly accompanied by a heavy side of guilt for not progressing faster with Fox Story). With work demanding more of my time the last few months, I think this was my mind’s way of balancing what pays my bills with what is important to me.

Revisions have been daunting to me for a variety of reasons. It is basically the opposite of the adventure and excitement of drafting. You trade exploring for city planning. My wise CP and friend Katy Pool wrote this post about revisions that I have been taking to heart for a few weeks now. Revisions were always a to-do list of “Fix This, Delete That, Add This” for me, and it really helped me see my story in a whole new light. It also made me feel like I could make about a million decisions. Your choices are nearly limitless! Just start choosing! Why is that such an overwhelming thing?

See this thread, which reminded me how much we have to combat decision fatigue to write after work. Understanding why you feel drained is the first step to defending against it! Being presented with the freedom to make a bunch of decisions is exciting, but it is not easy. Fear of making the wrong choice can be crippling. What if you choose the wrong option? Your brain wants you to believe that Irreparable Disaster will follow. Then this common proverb floats into your mind: “Just go with your first choice: it’s your gut. Don’t get side-tracked by other options.”

Nope. Your gut can protect you in a flight or fight situation, sure. Intuition can be a guiding factor, sure. But your gut is also lazy, because as we have mentioned, decisions are hard and burn some calories. We rely on short-cuts to combat fatigue. If you go with your first choice for a plot point or character arc, you are pretty much guaranteed to be going with the wrong one—a short-cut that is no fun for anybody. So that means you can’t ignore the other options! You are supposed to generate several choices in order to roll past your brain’s lazy answer and get to the good stuff. #science

This brings me to Maggie Stiefvater & Court Stevens’ 7 Sentences Seminar, which was a bit like spending 9 hours in an “I didn’t study for this test!” dream sequence. My friend and I traded slightly panicked looks as we went through the process of taking an idea from concept to ready-to-draft in one day. (Yes—idea, premise, mood, setting, plot, character, language—one day). What they explained was that to be an author you must write many books, and the faster you can do that the better. But writing a book requires so many decisions, some of which you can spend months mulling over. Behold: this seminar will give you a process that speeds up your decision-making and allows you to solidify the book sooner, thus writing it faster. What better way to tell me to stop being afraid of making decisions? The entire day was spent making decisions, and making them quickly. It was exhausting—and by the end, it was also not scary.

Because it doesn’t matter if you make the wrong choice when you can follow it to the end quickly and go with the next option, and the next and the next. You know when to trust your gut (because it has been working hard and not just giving you an instant answer). You know because you had some failures—and that’s normal. And only those failures let you know when you’ve landed on something Good.

After several weeks of this, I feel like a plant drowning in water. Occasionally I buy a plant to neglect and when its leaves droop, I overcompensate, almost kill it again with care, and then sigh with relief when it grows taller and stronger than before. As haphazard as the past month has been, I drowned my drooping leaves with inspiration and information. I feel refreshed and ready to plunge into Fox Story with a more realistic lens and plenty of resources when I inevitably get stuck further down the road. It’s spring, even in Denver: new beginnings, new goals, renewed energy!

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You’re Welcome, Universe

25701463by Whitney Gardner
YA Contemporary
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel: March 7, 2017

From the first chapter, Julia’s adamant self-confidence prepared me for a wild ride! When her friend is the victim of a graffiti slur on the school’s wall, Julia takes care of it herself. It’s what friends are for, right? Apparently not, because Jordyn rats her out, and Julia is expelled.

At her new school, Julia has to have an interpreter–she is the only Deaf student.  She’s ready for a fresh-start trust-no-one no-friends year, until her tags start getting attention from another artist, forcing her to retaliate.

The short chapters flew by (embellished with artwork!) as Julia reluctantly befriends an ex-cheerleader she dubs YP and hides her continued passion for painting from her moms. Her friendship with YP ended up being the gold nugget of this book for me! I loved that this story explored the highs and lows of friendships through Jordyn and YP–the devastation of betrayal and the joy of finding someone who Gets You.

Julia’s self-assurance gives her the confidence to strike out on her own, but it also lands her in serious trouble. The contrast of needing faith in yourself with knowing when you’re wrong made her such a fun character to spend time with. Even when I knew she was screwing up I was cheering for her! So many YA books focus on obtaining confidence to begin with, which is fine, but it’s fun to spend time with a girl who acts first and contemplates later (if ever).

What else did I love? Every character had the chance to show Julia (and me) the layers beneath a first impression. Good or bad, nobody was merely what Julia saw at first glance and it’s even more impressive in such a short book.

What else did I love? We stick to a pretty routine high school schedule. So often I find myself thinking “Oh yeah, homework, class, an after-school job…where are those elements?” For me, high school was busy! Julia is too, and her mundane job at McDonald’s is part of her life. Having a crush on her coworker–and watching her ex-best friend flirt with him–is part of her life. That feeling of high school being a small and pervasive bubble of drama you can’t escape is so real here!

Honestly there’s just a lot to love! This is a quick read with cool art, grab it! If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, You’re Welcome, Universe is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord – What struck me about You’re Welcome, Universe was the friendship and this is a goldmine of female friendships! See my review here.
  • Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero – A beautiful story about a girl finding herself and her strength through her poetry, as told in her senior year diary. See my review here.
  • Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes – Maguire is convinced she is cursed with bad luck, but a trip to her family’s relatives in Ireland convinces her to try a new form of therapy. A wry and emotional story of Maguire’s progress in the form of challenges she sets herself, with good friendships and a bit of romance along the way. See my review here.

What to read again:

Reading the previous books in a series a second time lets you soak up all the nuances and speculate about what’s going to happen next—I find it makes the whole experience richer and more fun! What am I going to start re-reading?

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

This is such a cute series about Lara Jean, the middle of three sisters, and their struggles to navigate sibling and romantic relationships. When Lara Jean’s secret love letters to her crushes all get mailed out at the same time, she has to deal with all the boys’ questions and what this means for her current (fake) relationship with Peter. I enjoyed the second book much more than the first, (see both of my reviews here and here) but overall this is a great series and I’m looking forward to Lara Jean’s farewell!
30312860

The Girl Who Drank the Moon

29417336by Kelly Barnhill
Children’s Lit
4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this middle grade adventure! The narrative style is cute (featuring stories within stories) and the chapters flew by.

There are several protagonists of varying ages who take up parts of the tale. The old Witch, Xan, who lives in the Bog. Antain, a conscientious objector to the village’s tradition of sacrificing one child a year to the Witch to keep everyone else safe. And Luna, one of the abandoned babies. Xan decides to raise Luna as her own–accidentally feeding her moonlight and filling Luna with magic.

These three stories converge and piece together the history of the sorrowful town and the Witch. Themes of when someone must grow up, what protection truly is, and each person’s responsibility to uphold human rights are deftly illustrated through the tragic and tumultuous lives of families in the town.

The magic is unpredictable, emerging in energetic, vibrant ways which I loved!Characters like swamp monster Glerk and Fyrian the Simply Enormous Dragon provide insight and comic relief as we explore the world.

I found myself connecting a lot with all these characters torn between wilfull ignorance and knowledge that brings a demand for action, and I liked how this was given so many facets. The journey sticks in your mind long afterward!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Girl Who Drank the Moon is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • The Night Parade by Kathryn Tanquary – Saki accidentally unleashes a death curse on her family and has just three nights to undo it with the help of mischievous spirits. See my review here.
  • Risuko by David Kudler – Risuko is just a girl who loves to climb, until a woman realizes her skills might be put to use for her country. This historical fiction highlights an interesting group of women determined to change history. See my review here.
  • Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi – Alice journeys to the strange land of Furthermore with her nemesis, Oliver, hoping to find her missing father. It’s told in a similar style to “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” with tangents, adventures, and strange magic. See my review here.

Not Quite Narwhal

30312747by Jessie Sima
Children’s Lit
5 of 5 stars
Debut novel: February 14, 2017

This little story is everything I could want in a picture book! Colorful, adorable, and full of narwhals and unicorns. I literally gasped out loud three times while reading this book, because of how adorable it is!

Kelp has never really fit in with his narwhal family and friends. His tusk isn’t as long, and he’s not a great swimmer. But then one day a current takes him to a beach where he sees strange creatures that look a lot like him!

This sweet story of acceptance is just delightful! There are some fun details tucked away on each page. A welcome escape for me that I’ll enjoy many times! I don’t often pick up picture books and definitely wanted to give this one a plug. I’m excited to see what the author/illustrator does next!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Not Quite Narwhal is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Percy and TumTum: A Tale of Two Dogs by Jill Hen – When floofy TumTum arrives in Percy’s home, he is not happy about everyone fawning over the new dog. But maybe Percy’s dislike is misplaced. This story is adorable, of course!
  • The Poet’s Dog by Patricia McLachlan – A dog saves two children in a snow storm and they spend a few days snowed in getting to know each other. Emotional and insightful, a cozy read! See my review here.
  • Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman – An illustrated adventure about one dad’s quest to get milk for breakfast and the mayhem that ensues along the way (including aliens).

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