Kindness in a Scary World, written by Rebecca J. Hubbard & illustrated by Becca Johnson
★★★★★ Kindness in a Scary World, written by Rebecca J. Hubbard and illustrated by Becca Johnson, is a children’s book that serves as a conversation starter with kids about tragic events like terrorist attacks and mass shootings. The story follows a child who observes his parents’ reaction to live news footage of a shooting, and witnesses some of that footage himself. This draws parents and child into a discussion about the causes and effects of tragedies such as the one they watched play out on the television that very evening, and whether there is anything the family can do to help make the situation better. Ultimately, the child’s parents tell him, many of us are only able to contribute in small ways, like sending money or thoughtful letters. But even these small instances of kindness can add up to make large differences in the lives of people affected by tragedy.
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Gus and the Winter Sprite by J. Steven Young
★★★★ In Gus and the Winter Sprite by J. Steven Young, a diminutive dragon named Gus is lamenting the loneliness that winter brings—after all, his friends are all hibernating for the season and his treasured garden has gone dormant—when a winter sprite comes zooming into his cozy house and interrupts the quiet. Crystal, the sprite, has a problem of her own: she’s not like other sprites, and helping to bring on winter doesn’t make her happy like it does everyone else. Gus swaps a story for a story and tells Crystal that he was once feared by the other inhabitants of the forest, who didn’t understand that Gus is actually harmless. Emboldened, Crystal tells Gus that what she really wants to be is a phoenix, the legendary bird of fire. She uses the power of a wish to transform into her heart’s true desire and helps awaken Gus’s friends so that they can all gather for a festive winter party. Continue reading “Recently Reviewed”
Sarah’s Shadow, written by Nick Jones & illustrated by Si Clark
In Sarah’s Shadow, written by Nick Jones and illustrated by Si Clark, a young girl arrives home after being bullied about her scrawny shadow on the school playground that day. Upon seeing a shooting star up in the sky, Sarah makes a poorly thought-out wish to get rid of her shadow, thinking she’ll be better off without it. Initially, Sarah is thrilled to discover that her wish has come true and that she is no longer dogged by her shadow. But later at summer camp, as Sarah and her campmates are making shadow puppets on the wall of their tent, Sarah realizes just how disastrous of a situation her wish has created for her. In the end, she finds her shadow and the two of them pair up to perform some truly dazzling shadow puppetry for the entire camp.
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The Shroud of Peace by Nathaniel Szymkowicz
A young man wakes up in a hospital room, completely unharmed, on a distant planet with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. Within moments, he is set upon by anonymous assailants, kicking off a cat-and-mouse game that will span entire worlds and civilizations. But just who is he? Mitchell, some call him. MH-217 is another name he hears, its very mention sparking something in the back of his mind. Remembering his true nature could ultimately be the key to his survival—and also might help explain why he seems imbued with the strength of ten men, and the regenerative stamina of a starfish. As secrets spill out among MH-217’s friends and enemies, one thing becomes clear: real peace will not come easy to this sprawling empire. And no one is getting out of this without blood on their hands. Continue reading “Recently Reviewed”
The Sorceress’s Apprentice by Jonathan Gardner
In this riveting young adult fantasy, two nations—the Eisenberge and Alkilion—have long been at war, spurred on by a vicious act performed by the Eisenberge’s malevolent ruler, the Sorceress. Now, the Sorceress and her apprentices seek to end the conflict between the neighboring countries by laying utter waste to Alkilion. In an effort to aid her mistress, Athala, one of two apprentices, abducts the Alkite princess with the intention of inciting the armies of Alkilion to attack the Eisenberge. Little does Athala know that she has single-handedly destroyed the Sorceress’s long-laid plans of conquest, putting her very country’s future at risk. Sentenced to death, Athala is saved by a young Alkite soldier named Zimri, who has been sent to rescue the imprisoned princess from the Sorceress. Together, Athala and Zimri form an uneasy truce and set out to destroy the darkness at the heart of the Eisenberge. But will they be destroyed by their own secrets along the way?
The Sorceress’s Apprentice is a darkly charming trip through familiar fantastical landscapes. Damsels in distress, knights-errant, evil sorceresses—all are present in some form in Gardner’s novel, though they each receive a welcome refurbishment that lends this young adult fantasy a charm all its own. Gardner builds up a tightly wound tale around his two central characters, showing how quickly an individual’s perspective can change when everything comes crashing down around them – or, more likely, when they are shown the error of their ways. Other interesting touches are employed to elevate the mystique of Gardner’s world-building, such as the description of various gods and goddesses worshipped by the peoples of Alkilion and the Eisenberge (some of whom even make an appearance during the story), and the use of Germanic linguistics to help name numerous locations and spells throughout the novel. All told, this is a classy, well-constructed story that we should be so lucky as to see continued in a sequel.
The Last Straw by Ed Duncan
The Last Straw is Ed Duncan’s second book in the Pigeon Blood Red series. In this crime thriller, readers are reintroduced to the talented hitman Richard “Rico” Randers. Rico is approached by Howard Forester, a notorious crime boss in the Chicago area, after Forester’s son kills a man in an attempted carjacking. Forester is determined to silence Sandra Yanders, a teenager who, having witnessed the carjacking, is set to testify against his son. Forester asks Rico to murder Yanders but he refuses. Rico is against killing such a young, innocent girl but John D’Angelo, another hitman and Rico’s enemy, agrees to take the job. Tensions between D’Angelo and Rico run high as Rico teams up with a lawyer, Paul Elliott, to try to protect Yanders, and themselves, from D’Angelo’s fury.
With danger looming in every chapter, The Last Straw is an action-packed and nerve-racking read. Duncan skillfully draws the reader into a complex web of characters navigating difficult situations. A few key twists within the storyline keep the reader intrigued in this fast-paced thriller, and despite the fact that they are both killers, the main characters are very likable. The Last Straw casts an interesting light on right versus wrong, urging readers to reflect on the morality of the book’s characters and the motivation of one’s actions. Multiple people are killed in The Last Straw, and while these murder scenes are well executed, the emotional reactions of the surviving characters are not convincing. The Last Straw is an outstanding crime thriller which could be made even stronger by further developing its characters’ expressions of grief and fear in the face of extreme violence.
To purchase The Last Straw by Ed Duncan, click here to find it on Amazon.
Paint the Sky with Stars by R. O’Farrell
In Paint the Sky with Stars, the magical and bountiful lands of Jupiter are ruled by a council of benevolent leaders known as the Striking Stars, key leaders from each of the races (elf, fairy, human, wizard, merfolk, and more) chosen to work together and maintain the peace. Darkness takes root when one of the council members, the wizard apprentice named Meridoc, abandons his brethren and goes off in search of greater power. Power he finds, but this power comes from purest hatred. Meridoc’s newfound magic changes the landscape of Jupiter and transforms it into a wasteland, where those gifted in magic are sent to their deaths, lest they grow up to challenge Meridoc. Yet, there is a rebellion brewing, and its greatest weapon is a young girl named Seraphina who possesses the very magic of the stars. If Seraphina and her allies can pool all their strength, they just might be able to topple Meridoc’s tyranny—if he doesn’t destroy them all first.
Paint the Sky with Stars by R. O’Farrell reads like a love letter to countless fantasy classics like The Lord of the Rings, The Neverending Story, and Harry Potter—and it is a letter we will happily consume over and over again. Combining classic fantasy elements with her own unique details, O’Farrell tells the tale of Seraphina and friends while also managing to weave around it anotherstory, which takes form as a series of writings that are being penned by an unnamed character to someone named Methuselah. This technique serves to illuminate and explain in greater detail some of the intricacies of the author’s world-building, and also provides an ongoing mystery for the reader, which is revealed towards the novel’s end. One can easily imagine this novel becoming just the first in a (hopefully) long line of missives from the lands of Jupiter.