Category Archives: Young Adult

Thorn Ogres of Hagwood (The Hagwood Trilogy #1)

Title: Thorn Ogres of Hagwood

Author: Robin Jarvis

Series: The Hagwood Trilogy #1

Gamaliel Tumpin is pudgy, clumsy, and terrified of taking the class that will teach him the secrets of his race. The werglings can change their form into birds and mammals, but Gamaliel is certain he won’t do well. But the forest where they live borders a much darker wood, and it won’t be long before the thorn ogres are unleashed on the land . . .

I liked this quite a bit, but I’m tempering my rating and enthusiasm based on the depressing fact that this is clearly setting up a sequel, which has had years to fail to materialize. So it’s hard to recommend something that only resolves a small part of the bigger issue and doesn’t work all that well as a standalone.

All of the characters are well-drawn, but I liked Finnen, an older student with precocious gifting, much better than any of the kids. In a way this book is really more Finnen’s story, as he sees in his mentorship a chance to give Gamaliel what he lacked as a student, and possibly turn Gamaliel down a different road than the one he chose. And when his choices are revealed, and he has to bear the consequences, he still chooses the hero’s path to combat the greater evil. Even if he has to do it all by himself. Where Gamaliel’s character arc is retreading a familiar path, Finnen’s isn’t as clear, so it was a lot easier for me to get involved with Finnen’s struggles.

Really, the lack of a sequel is the biggest downside. The world teases some interesting bits of magic and mystery, which would presumably reveal more later. Gamaliel and those who survived have drawn the ire of creatures much larger and more powerful—but like the thorn ogres, not without their weaknesses. And if the characters continued to mature and grow into their strengths, it could easily surpass this book. But again, this is just the beginning of a quest that never quite takes off. I rate this book Neutral.

Vault of Shadows (The Nightsiders #2)

Title: Vault of Shadows

Author: Jonathan Maberry

Series: The Nightsiders #2

Milo is not having a good week. Milo somehow not only outsmarted the deadly Huntsman, an evil human made worse by the alien Bugs modifying him to be a supersoldier, but stole the egg containing all the Bug’s DNA and technology patterns. And the Nightsiders who helped with that—a tree spirit, a fire salamander, a rock boy, and a werewolf—are now part of the uneasy alliance with the last of humanity to take back the Earth.

But the Huntsman isn’t about to forget Milo. He’s determined to retrieve the stolen egg. And he’s got an entire race of aliens ready to support his every plan.

I still wonder if these aren’t a bit too dark for the age range, or if maybe this would work better for me if Milo wasn’t 11. On the one hand, the book doesn’t flinch away from the fact that when the Earth gets overrun by alien invaders, not even kids get a free pass. On the other, we’re not only dealing with people Milo knows dying, but it goes beyond that to human sacrifice (although this does at least happen completely offscreen).

The stakes go even higher, too. This time around a villain from the Nightsiders appears, someone who would prefer humanity to go extinct and will even join with the Huntsman to do it (parallels to the Wild Huntsman are likely intentional).

Milo’s dreams provide the only real edge his group has. Glimpses of past, present, and future warn and guide them. I did like the library, and the ghost who reads there. I also really appreciated the book pointing out that although Milo can only see his own group of resistance fighters, there is still fighting in the rest of the world, and all of them are contributing towards the hope of success.

Overall this is still a strong followup to the first book, although something about it still doesn’t quite click with me. Still, as long as the horror aspects aren’t too bothersome for the reader, it’s a good read. I rate this book Recommended.

The Dreamer’s Awakening (Eloik: Nightmare Fighter #1)

Title: The Dreamer’s Awakening

Author: Martin Bois and Sebastian Levek

Series: Eloik: Nightmare Fighter #1

Eloik has always let fear rule his life. But as a danger which lives in dreams reaches out across to the waking world, he’ll have to conquer his worst nightmares.

Oh good. I’m finally done with this.

I really had to force my way through this. The execution stumbles at a number of points, which took what could have been some good ideas and bogged them down in a story that had me throwing the book at the wall at multiple points.

The first problem was the opening. It begins with an essay that is dry, boring, and left me wondering if I’d actually picked up a work of fiction or a psychology textbook (I actually had to check to make sure I hadn’t pulled one of my nonfiction books by mistake). And the very first sentence has grammatical issues, which doesn’t help the case at all.

Then we get tons of landscape description followed by a scene focusing on two throwaway minions of the main villain. This has little relevance to the plot and is mostly there to showcase the big bad is very scary and Up To Something. The story in general likes to cut away to the villains, which feels completely pointless because we aren’t going back to the same villains (even the Nightmare Queen only shows up once at the very beginning and once at the very end), and everyone portrayed is a flat, cartoonishly evil bad guy. Cartoon evil can work in some cases, but given how seriously the rest of the story is trying to take itself, it really didn’t work for me here.

Then we have the protagonist. Eloik is described as having major social anxiety. Except the way he behaves in no way paints him anything other than COMPLETELY NORMAL. Eloik travels alone for over an hour on public transportation each way, regularly, to get to his mental health appointments. And the appointments themselves are in this giant facility with hundreds of other people, which he sees especially in the big lunch room where he eats with everyone (and he only feels sorry for himself because he has no friends and must eat alone). And on the way home he typically stops in a restaurant for dinner.

Social anxiety? What social anxiety? Here we have Mr. “I’m excused from school because I’m completely unable to deal with other people” . . . dealing with other people. A lot. Complete strangers, too. The only things that even makes him uneasy are a disappearing girl and a bully. THIS IS A NORMAL RANGE OF RESPONSES. So even though the plot keeps emphasizing him being hung up with fear, it’s impossible not to feel like the story is just lying to me.

Add to that the bits that actually are interesting, like his name, are never explained.

Next up was the big sphere used to project “virtual reality” scenarios. This is magic. There are far too many holes for it to work as a piece of technology, like how it creates entire interactive worlds when Eloik isn’t even wearing a headset or gloves to help him interact with it (wrist bracelets? Really?). Basically it would only make sense if it was interacting directly with the brain. It wouldn’t surprise me if the story actually meant it to be a Dream-fueled machine, but Eliok was a fool if he believed this was possible through non-alien levels of technology. I have no problem with magic, but the inconsistency in how it was portrayed bugged me.

THEN the Nazis show up. I wish I was joking.

Look, you have a great big dream world where literally anything is possible, and nothing HAS to follow the rules. You can have evil fluffy bunnies or killer clouds or a Rubik cube that eats your brain. Go wild! Instead, we get Nazis. Because apparently Nazis are and forever will be the pinnacle of evil (and let’s ignore the fact that there were other regimes that killed even more people around the same time period, because Nazis. I get that they’re evil, but I’m so, so sick of Nazis.)

And the story devolves into elaborate conspiracy theories about Nazis, WWII, secret societies, and I’m so close to the end I really want to just be done but I’m wondering if I can force myself to go another few words.

I think this might have been better as a comic, because the pictures were at least interesting, and then I wouldn’t have to put up with a lot of the prose. The prose is often clunky, especially near the end when the whole team is talking with each other. But even being a comic wouldn’t solve the more glaring plot and character issues. Not Recommended.

The White Road of the Moon

Title: The White Road of the Moon

Author: Rachel Neumeier

Meridy has always been able to see ghosts. With her black eyes and Southern blood, she’s distrusted as a witch even among her own village. But when an encounter with a strange ghost leads her to a journey she never expected, she finds herself in the middle of a conflict that has raged for hundreds of years. And even death won’t stop the fighting . . .

I love the worldbuilding in this. The border between life and death, the ghosts, the White Road of the Moon, the real and the ethreal—it feels like the story explains everything well, but still barely scratches the surface of what might be possible. And as Meridy learns more about what is possible, and what she can do, it’s interesting to see how it compares to the daydreams she has in the very beginning, where she wants to be a sorcerer and delve into the most powerful arts. I also want to mention the bits of poetry, which I’m curious to hear in audiobook format, and whose translations are nicely lyrical.

The characters are equally solid. Meridy is young and ignorant of the wider world, but well-educated for all that. I liked how believable her journey was, both in its events and in her emotions. I also really liked Herren (poor kid). He’s vastly put-upon, but never complaining, and I think he lends a somewhat different facet to all those types of stories about young children being the Chosen One. (Technically, Meridy could also fit that role, but she’s more of the Mentor than the Chosen One herself.) Herren’s fate is something everyone’s squabbling over, but he himself only has the smallest choices in all of it. Yet they are the choices that decide everything.

The ghost characters are also a lot of fun. Being ghosts, they don’t follow quite the same rules as ordinary folk, but with Meridy there to lend a hand, things can get a lot more interesting.

And I especially liked the ending. The imagery of prophecy flows through the events, and I loved the way everything was portrayed.

All in all, this is a great book. It’s pretty self-contained, but I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing a sequel somewhere down the road. I rate this book Recommended.

Pyromantic (Firebug #2)

Title: Pyromantic

Author: Lish McBride

Series: Firebug #2

Ava had hoped that killing Venus, the old Coterie boss, would make her life better. But she’s still bound to the Coterie, and she can’t figure out how to react to the new boss. He seems NICE. Professional. Possibly even a great guy. Still, he’s someone who will use her the same way Venus did, as an enforcer against troublesome supernatural beings. She can’t figure out her relationship with Lock anymore, either–not after turning him down so badly. And she can’t afford to stay in this mixed-up state. Ava’s never far from trouble, but this time she could lose it all . . .

I love these books. I love these characters, and the way they grate against each other but still have bonds stronger than death. I love the easy camaraderie (even though Ava is having a really hard time with that for most of the book because of Lock, but the foundation of that friendship is still there). I love how FUNNY they can get. Every Lish McBride book has had me stopping because I was laughing too hard to keep reading. Some of my favorite quotes:

Ezra, on Lock’s new minivan:

“I, for one, approve of Lock’s new mom car. Obviously I wouldn’t be caught dead owning one myself, but I like that we can transport a body and have enough cup holders for all of us.”


Ava, thinking about Lock:

Now simply wasn’t the time to stray from comfortable paths. I also didn’t want any first-kiss kind of stories to involve the phrase “a few feet from a fresh corpse.” I’m particular that way.


On the way to a mission:

Talking is great, but sometimes a well-placed uppercut is really more efficient.


I also really like that the world goes way beyond the usual urban fantasy menagerie of fantastic creatures. There are several weres, but not of the wolf variety. Kelpies feature prominently in the story, and other more obscure creatures also get a good bit of attention. It makes everything feel much bigger, more magical, more deadly. Because you never quite know what’s going to pop up next.

The mystery is pretty good too. Ava’s thrown into one escapade after another, and in between trying not to die, she and the rest tackle the question of why it’s all happening in the first place.

I don’t want to spoil too much, so I’ll tie it up here. These are some of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and they’ve quickly risen to the top of my favorites list. I do hope that there will be many more books in this world, both with familiar characters and new. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

The True Meaning of Smekday (The Smek Smeries #1)

Title: The True Meaning of Smekday

Author: Adam Rex

Series: The Smek Smeries #1

Gratuity is a precocious 11-year-old who happens to get a first-hand look at the alien Boov takeover of the planet. Little does she know a chance encounter with a Boov mechanic on the run will pull her into a war that’s spanned the galaxy. All she really wants, though, is to find out what happened to her mother (preferably while not being shot at by aliens).

The writing on this is strong, with a good sense of voice and engaging main characters. Gratuity (Tip) is independent enough to tackle her problems herself, even when it involves a long drive cross-country through alien-occupied territory. But she still wouldn’t get very far without a Boov who calls himself J.Lo, whose mechanical genius is matched by his appetite for toxic substances.  And the humor is also pretty strong, much of it in Tip’s wry observations about her circumstances.

But I found myself losing steam as the book progressed. The literary style started into a lot of literary tropes I’m tired of seeing. Oh, here’s a homosexual who got beaten senseless because people are nasty to homosexuals (this is one sentence and feels more like trying to check an Issues bingo card). Here’s how the greatest problems with sticking the entire country into one state are mostly people of different races devolving into bouts of racism (personally, I think the far, far, FAR bigger problem that wasn’t addressed was the severe lack of bathrooms. You can’t just stick millions of people into Arizona and expect to have enough toilets for everyone. And that’s discounting the fact that Arizona is kind of noted for being rather dry, so are the aliens running the plumbing systems now too, so that everyone can afford to flush? What about toilet paper? My thoughts go here because a large portion of the plot does get spent in bathrooms. But you could make the same argument about basic shelter or hygiene or medicines. But the story never talks about people dying left and right, unless they’re shooting each other.)

There were others, but it was in the same vein. The second big thing that bugged me with the end was Gratuity’s mom. The beginning paints her as lovable but not quite all there, easy to manipulate, easy to take advantage of. Given that, I never could believe what she ended up doing (trying to avoid spoiling anything, but it was before the Gorg).

So . . . nice prose, sure. But not for me. I kept fighting to suspend disbelief with the setting, and I didn’t like how the whole book felt like a Message about certain Issues in addition to a story. I rate this book Neutral.

St. Griswold College for Abandoned Boys (Xavier #1)

Title: St. Griswold College for Abandoned Boys

Author: E.M. Cooper

Series: Xavier #1

Xavier never suspected life wasn’t going well—until his parents dropped him off at St. Griswold College for Abandoned Boys, and never returned. Now more or less a prisoner at the school, which is surrounded by high walls and a deadly forest, he dreams of escape, rescue, anything. But the purpose of St. Griswold is more sinister than he knows, and if he can’t get out soon, he might lose more than his life . . .

I really wanted to like this one more than I did. Angels are hit-or-miss for me (I prefer general people with wings over the various things angels bring into the picture), but I didn’t mind them here. There’s a fair amount of flying, certain fun powers, and hints Xavier is growing into something more than anyone really knows (JUST BE ABLE TO FLY, is all I ask).

The biggest problem with the book for me was the fact that I spent the entire thing really confused about the big picture. It would have helped to have the map on the front page instead of at the very end (I only noticed it after I finished the book). By default, I’m going to assume a book is set in the present-day on Earth unless informed otherwise—and the beginning of the book appears to support that. Except then we get a creepy school in a haunted forest, which turns out to be supernaturally infested with a lot of things, and a wider world where apparently telephones and computers aren’t all that common anymore. If I had to guess, this is Earth after some sort of world war, but even THAT only came up very close to the end. And the story doesn’t help by completely glossing over anything big-picture-related, which makes the very detailed focus on the immediate environs frustrating.

What HAPPENED? Is this Earth after a war? The kids are in school—can’t their history class (or memories of a history class outside) just say so? Why are the people outside apparently used to actual demons running around, when Xavier is shocked to find out they even exist? Same with magic. Some people shrug it off and some act like they’ve never heard of it before. Which would be fine if I had more CONTEXT.

And the plot is a mess of cliches interspersed with more interesting original ideas. St. Griswold is stereotypically evil in a lot of ways: bad food, poor clothing, prisonlike atmosphere. Introducing Gabe into the whole mess helped liven things up a lot, because when someone born out of a stroke of lightning shows up things are bound to get better. And I’m definitely going to pay attention when people with wings start appearing.

Things went reasonably well (except for the whole being-totally-confused-about-what-year-and-country-this-is bit) until the escape. The boys have a lot of close calls, and for a while are managing on their own, but eventually they have to turn to other people for help, and this is where I hit the second bit cliff of disbelief. Pretty much everyone Xavier turns to for help does help, very nicely, with no payment required and no questions asked, up to and including a random guy who shows up one page and dies the next. And this after all the talk about shapeshifters and spies. (Yes, yes, there was that one incident, but technically Xavier didn’t fall into that, Gabe did).

And the END . . . made me so angry. It felt like the entire journey had basically been pointless. I am curious about seeing Xavier with full-fledged powers (and hopefully some wings sooner or later), but I’m not sure I want to go through another book to get there.

Overall, the inconsistent quality of the writing bogs down what could have been a much better story. Big details are skimmed or nonexistent while little ones get tons of focus. This especially hurts towards the end, when the story tries to widen to include more of the country. I’m only rating this slightly higher because I feel like it could possibly get better. I rate this book Neutral.