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Book Review: The Lovely and the Lost by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Title: The Lovely and the Lost

Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Series: N/A

Genre: YA Fiction

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Kira Bennett’s earliest memories are of living alone and wild in the woods. She has no idea how long she was on her own or what she had to do to survive, but she remembers the moment that Cady Bennett and one of her search-and-rescue dogs found her perfectly. Adopted into the Bennett family, Kira still struggles with human interaction years later, but she excels at the family business: search-and-rescue. Along with Cady’s son, Jude, and their neighbor, Free, Kira works alongside Cady to train the world’s most elite search-and-rescue dogs. Someday, all three teenagers hope to put their skills to use, finding the lost and bringing them home. But when Cady’s estranged father, the enigmatic Bales Bennett, tracks his daughter down and asks for her help in locating a missing child—one of several visitors who has disappeared in the Sierra Glades National Park in the past twelve months—the teens find themselves on the frontlines sooner than they could have ever expected. As the search through 750,000 acres of unbridled wilderness intensifies, Kira becomes obsessed with finding the missing child. She knows all too well what it’s like to be lost in the wilderness, fighting for survival, alone. But this case isn’t simple. There is more afoot than a single, missing girl, and Kira’s memories threaten to overwhelm her at every turn. As the danger mounts and long-held family secrets come to light, Kira is forced to question everything she thought she knew about her adopted family, her true nature, and her past. -Goodreads

The Review:

The Lovely and the Lost was a light YA mystery involving trauma recovery, a missing persons case, and search and rescue dogs in action.

Barnes is exceptional at giving her characters depth (especially compared to other YA writers). There’s always a deeper story of trauma affecting the plot, which adds a lot of cool dynamics. Stuff like that can often make a story feel too heavy, but she balances it out with fun characters who are animated and engaging despite their inner demons, and there’s something deeply compelling about that.

I also loved the search and rescue premise of the book – especially the dogs! It added a bit of fun to an otherwise dramatic story. I don’t believe there are any sequels planned, but I liked it enough to continue the series if there was one.

Lament: I waited (impatiently) for like five months to get ahold of a copy of this book from my library, letting it take up precious space in my holds lineup, only to give it half-assed attention because, you know, life. Even so, I absorbed most of it, and it’s a decent read. But I wasn’t as engrossed as I was with her Naturals series… and I don’t think it was all because of my distractions.

There’s an overall mystery to this story, but the focus is on the close relationships between characters and the personal issues they’re working through. I would have preferred a stronger focus on the mystery itself. Something to get the characters more active and mentally engaged with it. I was enjoying the story well enough, but I never felt drawn to it to see what would happen next. That lack of suspense affected my rating a bit. The Naturals was so phenomenal, it may have ruined me for mystery YA forever.

Recommendations: this is a great read if you like highly character-driven YA fiction. The search and rescue dogs made the story fun, and Barnes’ great writing always delivers a solidly composed story (great mysteries). However, if you’re new to this author, I’d say go straight for her Naturals series and come back to this one later… :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Title: Skyward

Author: Brandon Sanderson

Series: Skyward #1

Genre: YA Science Fiction

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Defeated, crushed, and driven almost to extinction, the remnants of the human race are trapped on a planet that is constantly attacked by mysterious alien starfighters. Spensa, a teenage girl living among them, longs to be a pilot. When she discovers the wreckage of an ancient ship, she realizes this dream might be possible—assuming she can repair the ship, navigate flight school, and (perhaps most importantly) persuade the strange machine to help her. Because this ship, uniquely, appears to have a soul. -Goodreads

The Review:

Skyward is an easy book to recommend. It’s a YA sci-fi adventure filled with great characters, lots of action, and plenty of snark that will appeal to the masses.

Two things about this book made it stand out to me: the abundance of training and battle scenes involving many fun members of a flight team, and how much I liked Spensa. I love learning new things from books that you can’t actually learn in the real world. How to fly spaceships (okay, not totally out of the realm of possibilities, but still…) and how to engage alien fighters in combat. The characters were great – I especially appreciated all the animated profiles and how they worked together as a team. I loved Spensa as a main character. She has an interesting backstory that fuels her determination – a trait that’s really attractive to me. She’s the type of character you can always trust to make things happen, for better or worse (meaning there’s never a dull moment). And she’s also a character willing to grow through each experience despite being incredibly stubborn….

The story is especially good at unveiling mysteries as it progresses. The more you find out what’s going on, the more questions you have. But the trickle of information is just enough to keep you page turning, but not so tight that you get frustrated (Maze Runner series, I’m talking to you). I had a bunch of theories while reading (none of which panned out… so far), but I liked the fact that the book was engaging enough to get me thinking beyond the words right in front of me.

I remember reading that this series is Sanderson’s creative re-imagining of a classic dragonriding story (he didn’t think he could bring anything new to the idea, so he went another direction completely… a direction involving a young girl’s determination to become a fighter pilot, sassy AI spaceships, and lots of alien ship battles. I definitely could see the influence, but everything else was just pure Sanderson awesomeness.

Recommendation: Sanderson books are always easy to recommend – his baseline quality is incredibly high. Yet Skyward is even easier than most because of its wide age-range appeal. It’s very accessible, with a great balance of silly humor, heavier problems, and loads of action to keep most readers engaged. As long as you’re even mildly interested in sci-fi, this is a great pick. I wish it had been around back when I was a bookseller because it would’ve made hand-selling during the holidays a bit easier.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Queen of the Blood by Sarah Beth Durst

The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst

Title: Queen if the Blood

Author: Sarah Beth Durst

Series: The Queens of Renthia #1

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: An idealistic young student and a banished warrior become allies in a battle to save their realm in this first book of a mesmerizing epic fantasy series, filled with political intrigue, violent magic, malevolent spirits, and thrilling adventure. Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow . . . But the spirits that reside within this land want to rid it of all humans. One woman stands between these malevolent spirits and the end of humankind: the queen. She alone has the magical power to prevent the spirits from destroying every man, woman, and child. But queens are still just human, and no matter how strong or good, the threat of danger always looms. With the position so precarious, young women are chosen to train as heirs. Daleina, a seemingly quiet academy student, is under no illusions as to her claim to the throne, but simply wants to right the wrongs that have befallen the land. Ven, a disgraced champion, has spent his exile secretly fighting against the growing number of spirit attacks. Joining forces, these daring partners embark on a treacherous quest to find the source of the spirits’ restlessness—a journey that will test their courage and trust, and force them to stand against both enemies and friends to save their land . . . before it’s bathed in blood. -Goodreads

The Review:

Queen of the Blood hooked me from the first page. Which is saying something, considering how hard I’ve been on YA lately.

It had an excellent start – surprising me right out of the gate with a few plot decisions that I really appreciated because I’m well past the point of feeling most YA novels are repetitive. It has been many moons since one defied my straightforward predictions so well. It maintained a level of distinction from other books in the genre the whole way through. Nice.

Although not expanded on, there were some really neat world-building attributes to the story that gave it a unique flair. Setting: settlements and towns nestled in rich, forested areas. Atmosphere: the ever-present threat from looming spirits. Leadership structure: one woman selected by the spirits to control them (what could go wrong here?). School systems: fun training exercises to teach young women how to harness spirits (in case they become queen). All of these components are what made the novel so successful for me.

What knocked it back down a notch or two was that I don’t think some of these things were expanded on enough… most specifically the school system. It’s the main selling point of the story, but I think there were many missed opportunities to provide a true moment of training for the reader. Obstacle course tests were really brief and lacked detail. Coursework was mentioned, but the reader rarely got to learn anything from it. At least it did incorporate a lot of spirit-harnessing work outside of the academy, so that saved it to a degree. Even so, I wish there had been more.

The characters were good. They reminded me a bit of those in the Lunar Chronicles from a dynamic standpoint. There could’ve been more connection with the side characters, however. They all blended together to the point where, when something happened to one of them, it didn’t have an impact because they were interchangeable. A huge gripe of mine (the biggest hit to my rating) was how ignorant the main characters remained to what was really going on, despite having clues that a grade schooler could pick up on (the reader knows all along… I’m not a fan of dramatic irony, either). You could rationalize a few explanations, but it came off to me as a craft issue – the author needed the characters not to know something to keep the story going, so she lessened their ability to reason through evidence instead of reworking how it was presented. It drove me crazy because it was an inconsistency of character (beings who were capable, careful, thoughtful, intuitive… all thrown out for convenience). I don’t normally rant in my reviews, but this issue tested my patience. Queen of Blood was still a fun read… just be prepared to “go with it” to a degree.

Overall, I’m thrilled at how often the book surprised me. The writing was engaging and fluid, making it easy to devour. There were a few things I thought could’ve been developed more, but hopefully they’ll get expanded on in the next book.

Recommendations: this YA fantasy offers a lot of fun and creativity. It would be a great rec for people who liked the feel of the fae in the “Wicked Lovely” series, and those who appreciated the unique atmosphere of the “Lunar Chronicles.” I had some minor personal gripes with it, but comparably it’s still a very strong recommend if you like the genre. :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Rebel by Marie Lu

Title: Rebel

Author: Marie Lu

Series: Legend #4

Genre: YA Dystopian

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: With unmatched suspense and her signature cinematic storytelling, #1 New York Times–bestselling author Marie Lu plunges readers back into the unforgettable world of Legend for a truly grand finale. Eden Wing has been living in his brother’s shadow for years. Even though he’s a top student at his academy in Ross City, Antarctica, and a brilliant inventor, most people know him only as Daniel Wing’s little brother. A decade ago, Daniel was known as Day, the boy from the streets who led a revolution that saved the Republic of America. But Day is no longer the same young man who was once a national hero. These days he’d rather hide out from the world and leave his past behind. All that matters to him now is keeping Eden safe―even if that also means giving up June, the great love of Daniel’s life. As the two brothers struggle to accept who they’ve each become since their time in the Republic, a new danger creeps into the distance that’s grown between them. Eden soon finds himself drawn so far into Ross City’s dark side, even his legendary brother can’t save him. At least not on his own . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

I remember loving the original Legend Trilogy. In hindsight, however, I think I rated it so highly because I was only comparing it to other YA dystopians. Of the dozens I tried at the time, Legend ranked close to the top of my list. I don’t know that I would have been so generous with my ratings had I honesty compared them to all books I enjoyed and not just that very specific branch of the YA market.

Rebel was just okay. The plot was cute, extending the romance between June and Day. Actually it’s biggest selling point was how much better this ending wrapped up their love story. Unfortunately, everything else was really surface-level. The plot didn’t get complex, the characters didn’t have a lot of depth, and the concept for the story wasn’t really that compelling. In my review for earlier books, I mentioned that I loved the point-system hierarchy (where you rise in rank and status based on how much you contribute) of the society she created in Antarctica, and since Rebel takes place there, it should’ve provided a much more in-depth exploration of it. It did not. I suppose world building is not usually the main focus of a straightforward YA, but even so, I let my expectations drive my experience a bit, and my overall rating reflects that. At the end of the day, I wish this resolution had come out much closer to when I’d read the first three books because it does do a good job at wrapping things up. It’s highly recommendable for Marie Lu’s Legend fans. But for my reading tastes these days, it was a decently entertaining bit of fluff and not much more.

Other books you might like*:

*I decided to go with less-typical recommends because, let’s face it, if you like the genre you’ve most definitely already read the mainstream ones like Divergent and Hunger Games. I recommended these books for similar vibes, setting, and character motive. :)

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

Title: Ship of Smoke and Steel

Author: Django Wexler

Series: Wells of Sorcery #1

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka comes to collect when there’s money owing. When her ability to access the Well of Combat is discovered by the Empire—an ability she should have declared and placed at His Imperial Majesty’s service—she’s sent on an impossible mission: steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship—a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit. -Goodreads

The Review:

I love it when high fantasy authors transition to YA. Their stories are always much more robust than other books in the genre because they’re used to creating expansive worlds, complex characters, and detailed plots for their audience.

Wexler didn’t dumb things down, but he did pull a few punches to make the story more accessible… but not by much. There’s some grit here (older teen appropriate), and I appreciated how ruthless the main character was right out of the gate. She surprised me a few times, and that’s difficult to do these days.

The concept sold me right away. A “ghost” ship riddled with monsters that’s more or less a lifelong prison to anyone who boards it. It provided an eerie atmosphere, and was definitely memorable. I’ve read so many high-seas fantasy novels… it’s nice to find one with a unique twist. The swordplay was also a highlight – you can tell Wexler enjoys writing fight scenes because he does them well.

My least favorite aspect of the story was the sentimentality, oddly. Although it showed some meaningful character growth, the main character got a little too soft for my tastes, especially since there are more books to come in this series. That said, at least it was a gradual cracking of her hard demeanor. I also thought the magic system was vastly underplayed to the point where I don’t think I could even describe how it works.

This is my first Django Wexler, and it definitely won’t be my last. I’m interested in the sequel to this book, but I’m more excited about starting his Shadow Campaigns fantasy series, now that I know I like his writing style.

Recommendations: this is a gritty breath of fresh air for the YA fantasy market. I’d hand it to older teens and adults, especially ones who don’t want romance as the main focus (although it does contain some). Y’all will have to let me know how it compares to Wexler’s high fantasy works!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Nyxia Uprising by Scott Reintgen

Nyxia Uprising by Scott Reintgen

Title: Nyxia Uprising

Author: Scott Reintgen

Series: Nyxia Triad #3

Genre: Teen Science Fiction

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Desperate to return home to Earth and claim the reward Babel promised, Emmett and the Genesis team join forces with the Imago. Babel’s initial attack left their home city in ruins, but that was just part of the Imago’s plan. They knew one thing Babel didn’t. This world is coming to an end. Eden’s two moons are on a collision course no one can prevent. After building eight secret launch stations, the Imago hoped to lure Babel down to their doomed planet as they left it behind. A perfect plan until the Genesis team’s escape route was destroyed. Now the group must split up to survive the hostile terrain and reach another launch station. As both sides struggle for the upper hand, the fight leads inevitably back into space, where Emmett, his crewmates, and their new allies will fight one final battle for control of the Genesis ships. Win this time, and they’ll survive Babel’s twisted game once and for all. As the Imago world falls, this is the last chance to rise. -Goodreads

The Review:

Even though Nyxia Uprising wrapped up one of the better YA trilogies I’ve read lately, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the first two books.

I just couldn’t get into it with the same gusto. Part of that was because of the lack of stimulating story components. Book 1 included a ton of engaging training sequences and compelling unknowns to discover. Not to mention exciting interpersonal conflicts and rivalries. Book 2 had a lot of dazzling world exploration, “magic” training as they learned how to use Nyxia, and some fantastic alien culture immersion.

… whereas book 3 was kindly just one long drawn out fight with few dynamics (and practically zero fun-factor elements). From a construction standpoint, I think it would’ve made for a stronger finish had the series been a duology, and final conflict shortened to wrap up the second book. As a stand alone installment, it was quite weak by comparison.

Another problem was my lack of investment in the characters. The main character, Emmett, didn’t get a lot of page-time, which I missed because it was his unique view on the world that helped hook me into the story in the first place. My issue was compounded because of how long it had been since I’d read the second book – it loses a little of the impact when you can’t remember much about the side characters. The story did eventually provide enough recap for me to recall everything, but it took a while, but even then the deaths and victories felt very distant.

Overall, I’m glad to have read this series – I enjoyed the first two books immensely. This one just didn’t tickle my fancy the same, but I still liked the resolution.

Recommendations: the Nyxia Triad is one of the better YA series I’ve read, and I enjoyed it mostly for its competition and world-building elements. It’s a watered down version of Red Rising with a very distinctive main character. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of the genre.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes