YA: Series Updates from Ahdieh, Hocking, & More | July 2018 Xpress Reviews

A stunning follow-up to Ahdieh's rich fantasy rooted in feudal Japan; A young Valkyrie seeks justice for her mother's death; vivid short stories touch on a range of topics in The Whirlpool.

Ahdieh, Renée. Smoke in the Sun. 432p. (Flame in the Mist: Bk. 2). Putnam. Jun. 2018. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781524738143.

Gr 10 Up –Ahdieh’s sequel to Flame in the Mist begins slowly, drawing in readers yet again to the lush facades and nefarious plots set in feudal Japan. Mariko, after going undercover with the Black Clan, is now at court, slated to marry the prince’s half-brother Raiden. Mariko’s love, Okami, has been captured by the royals and is subjected to daily tortures and punishments. Mariko must hide her true intentions with Okami during the day and visit him in his dungeon at night, using her sharp wit to try to save him. Surprise help comes in the form of Mariko’s brother, Kenshin, whose loyalties vacillate between Mariko and Roku, the emperor. After a daring and risky attempt at escaping, Okami must work quickly to restore calm to the kingdom and find his way back to Mariko. Along the way, men turn into beasts, zombies are brought to life, and the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. VERDICT A well-written, lavish conclusion to the dreamlike world created in Flame in the Mist.–Amanda C. Buschmann, Carroll Elementary School, Houston

Aitcheson, Julie. First Girl. 254p. Harmony Ink. Apr. 2018. pap. $16.99. ISBN 9781640801899.

Gr 9 Up –In the not-too-distant future, the North American continent has been decimated by environmental disasters and unified under a conservative Christian council called Unitas. Gabi, the only daughter of a powerful Unitas leader, has had health problems all her life and relies on daily medication to stay alive. Despite her famous father, Gabi sees herself as a weak link in society, and her claustrophobic existence is framed by regular bullying from boys at her school and frequent blackouts resulting from her mysterious medical condition. When Gabi’s beloved grandmother witnesses something unspeakable at the Unitas hospital where she works, she urges Gabi to find out what is going on and to stop it. Gabi’s search leads her to a mysterious letter that calls her entire identity into question. Then she attends a ritualistic Unitas camp for teenagers and begins to uncover terrifying truths about the organization her father leads. Gabi’s crush on a fellow female camper provides a hint of romance, while the truth about her medical condition is explained in a surprising sci-fi twist at the conclusion. Aitcheson’s second novel is a somewhat successful dystopian drama/thriller with a nuanced representation of the allure and potential horrors of organized religion. Gabi and her grandmother are compelling characters, but the world-building and pacing are distractingly uneven. In particular, the ending wraps up far too quickly and neatly to be truly satisfying. VERDICT Recommended only as a secondary purchase for larger collections.–Kelsy Peterson, Forest Hill College, Melbourne, Australia

Barrett, Tracy. Freefall Summer. 272p. Charlesbridge. Apr. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781580898010.

Gr 8 Up –Clancy, 16, lives alone with her very protective father who owns and teaches at a skydiving school, the Drop Zone. Her mother died in a freak skydiving accident 10 years ago while practicing with her exhibition team. Clancy is very focused on school, but when she is not studying archaeological digs or packing parachutes at the DZ, she spends her free time with best friend Julia and her boyfriend, Theo. He is the classic “overbearing boyfriend” who thinks Clancy is a wilting flower. When Theo unexpectedly goes away for the summer and a very interesting college boy starts frequenting the DZ, Clancy is torn between her current, comfortable, life and a future of freedom that seems closer than ever. Clancy feels constrained by her present situation but has to confront her past before she can move forward in her life. The plot is greatly influenced by the personal and political landscape brought to light by the Gamergate controversy and the #MeToo movement. There is personal hardship, adventure and adrenaline, as well as romance (there is a heavy petting scene, but it is tame enough for an older middle schoolers). This classic coming-of-age story begs to be advertised for summer reading. VERDICT Hand it to fans of Cecil Castellucci’s Don’t Cosplay with My Heart and anything written by Sarah Dessen.–Sara Brunkhorst, Indian Trails Public Library District, IL

Blake, Kendare. Queens of Fennbirn. 240p. (Three Dark Crowns). HarperCollins/HarperTeen. Apr. 2018. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780062748287.

Gr 8 Up –Blake fills in the history of her popular series’ main characters and their ancestors in this prequel, combined into a single volume. The Young Queens reveals the early years of Mirabella, Arsinoe, and Katharine, and The Oracle Queen describes the clairvoyant Queen Elsabet and her paranoid downfall. The book provides fans of the series with more context for the circumstances of the three sister queens and the world in which they live. Readers will enjoy Blake’s high-quality prose while immersing themselves in this supplementary information about her beloved characters. The author acutely gets at the emotions of her characters, making her readers empathize with intensity from the start as political intrigue drives the plot forward. Additionally, Blake has intimate knowledge of the world she’s built for this series, and it becomes clearer with each volume. VERDICT A must-have for collections that already include the previous volumes. Fans of the series will devour these powerful, world-building novellas, and new readers will be tempted.–Abby Hargreaves, District of Columbia Public Library

Croza, Laurel. The Whirlpool: Stories. 96p. Groundwood. May 2018. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781773060323.

Gr 7-10 –The Canadian author presents seven short stories for young adults. Several of them (“It’s a Step,” “The Whirlpool,” “Book of Dreams”) feature teens in difficult family situations. Others (“Sunflower,” “OH!,” “Destiny”) present small moments of despair that turn into hope. “A Beautiful Smile” is perhaps the most satisfying, in which a new girl in school turns the tables on a snide bully. In “It’s a Step,” Croza shows the deterioration of a teenage girl’s home life in a calm, slightly distant manner that invites thoughtful analysis. Figurative language describing memories, nature, and dreams personalizes each entry. “The Sunflower” suggests a fleeting emotional connection between a grieving widower and a squirrel who both visit a graveyard for different reasons. There’s a persistent yet subtle sense in every story of the strive to rise above the ordinary and gain a higher view. Occasional Canadian references may elude American readers. VERDICT A thoughtful read for a contemplative teen that also provides examples for short story assignments.–Caitlin Augusta, Stratford Library Association, CT

Hocking, Amanda. From the Earth to the Shadows. 432p. (Valkyrie: Bk. 2). St. Martin’s/Wednesday Bks. Apr. 2018. pap. $10.99. ISBN 9781250084804.

Gr 9 Up –Picking up where Between the Blade and the Heart leaves off, this sequel is an action-packed adventure that is sure to capture the imagination of both fantasy and historical fiction readers. Malin is a Valkyrie on a quest to avenge the death of her mother. Vivid descriptions of the Norse gods, the unique setting, and the fascinating characters enhance this fast-paced plot and lend this extraordinary story a depth that is exceptional. With a narrative centered on a creative world and familial relationships, and light on romance, this installment is a journey of deliverance and self-discovery. Norse mythology, with its own unique anomalous history, gives this interpretation a distinctive niche in the fantasy world. Hocking’s latest will fit right in with fantasies and mythic retellings centering strong female characters. VERDICT Give this to fans of Sarah J. Maas and Veronica Roth and where the previous book is popular.–Margie Longoria, Mission High School, TX

Lynch, Julieanne. Beneath the Lighthouse. 288p. Vesuvian. Jun. 2018. pap. $16.99. ISBN 9781944109189.

Gr 10 Up –Jaime’s sister Emer was murdered, his father is abusive, and now he’s seeing ghosts. Set in Northern Ireland, this paranormal horror novel follows Jaime through a series of crises as his body and mind are exploited by a malevolent spirit. Jaime likes to visit the lighthouse near the causeway where his sister Emer’s body was found. It’s where he goes to get away from his father’s rage, and it’s where his best friend, Lenny, comes to find him. Lenny drags Jaime away from the lighthouse to go to parties and talk to girls. With Lenny’s encouragement, Jaime begins a relationship with Claire that blossoms despite the turmoil in Jaime’s life. That relationship is threatened by the vengeful ghost, Iliana, who gets hold of Jaime and won’t let go. Iliana’s traumatic death and Jaime’s family secrets mix to form an explosive brew. The depictions of Jaime, Lenny, and Claire are realistic and relatable, while other important characters are one-dimensional. Jaime’s mother is a caricature of the long-suffering Irish wife and mother, serving as a punching bag for the story. She vacantly receives the death of her child, her husband’s blows, and one other nearly unthinkable episode of violence, explaining, “I just need to find a way to make things good again.” An overabundance of plot twists will leave some readers weary before the climax. More troubling, when two characters are revealed to be lesbians, the story’s hero, Jaime, calls them “disgusting” and uses expletives. Also, there is an incestuous rape scene that makes the title appropriate only for mature readers. VERDICT Not recommended.–Carly Wiggins Searcy, McNeese State University, Lake Charles, LA

Tirrell, Kayla. Chasing Love. 278p. (Mountain Creek Drive: Bk. 3). Amazon/CreateSpace. Apr. 2018. pap. $10.99. ISBN 9781987486407.

Gr 7 Up –Rising high school senior Nicole has never found an extracurricular activity she enjoys. Though she loves her after-school job at the local Blockbuster, she is worried that her college applications are not strong enough to get her out of her Colorado small town. When a chance encounter with “hottie extraordinaire” and recent graduate Chase leads her to try out for the cross-country team, Nicole must contend with her growing attraction to assistant coach Chase and teammate Neal’s new interest in her. This is the third book in the loosely connected series. While characters from earlier outings make appearances, this book is meant to stand alone. Textual inconsistencies and underdeveloped characters mar what could have been a chaste, if predictable, romance. For example, Nicole notes that she remembers that Chase had had braces for years early in the novel, only to observe 70 pages later that she “couldn’t remember a time when he had braces.” Nicole’s decisions, including pivotal ones like where to go to college, are equally inconsistent with her established personality. Teens may find the early 2000s setting a puzzling choice. It’s evoked mainly through dial-up Internet connections, AOL Instant Messenger chats, and the existence of Blockbuster. VERDICT This blast from the not-too-distant past is a pass for most libraries.–Grace Dwyer, New York Public Library

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