End of Normal by S.C. Arscott

End Of Normal
End of Normal by S.C. Arscott
Publisher: Champagne Books
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (216 pages)
Age Recommendation: 16+
Heat Level: Sensual
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Sixteen-year-old Olivia Richards’ last day of normal is just that, normal. She worries about impressing Sawyer Rising, the hottest guy in school, and argues with her mother. Everything seems fine except for that strange, glowing plant in the yard and her dad lying to her and deaf twin brother Charlie, which is the weirdest thing of all because their parents do not lie to them. Ever.

Normal ends as lights shoot out of the sky and turn into stinging drones, killing their parents. As he lay dying, their father gives them cryptic clues about coordinates and begs forgiveness before insisting they leave.

The twins join forces with Olivia’s boyfriend Axel, her best friend Clara, and heartthrob Sawyer. Together they go in search of answers only to find conspiracy, death, and an awful truth about their families.

Sometimes parents keep secrets from their kids, but most of them aren’t as dangerous as the one Olivia’s father has been keeping from her.

One of the things I appreciated the most about Olivia is how calm she stays in a crisis. She thinks through her options carefully before making a decision even when she’s in danger. This isn’t something that typically happens in this sort of tale, so it was a real treat to realize that the protagonist is such an intelligent and level-headed girl.

The pacing of this novel was disjointed. While the flashbacks to Olivia’s previous life were interesting, describing what her last few days of normalcy were like took up a disproportionate amount of space in the plot. These scenes would have made a good prequel, but they didn’t blend in very well with the fast-paced material that appears later on.

There are times when a book needs to be vivid and gross in order to get its point across. This isn’t normally the sort of thing I seek out in this genre, but it worked really well for this particular story. It’s hard to discuss it in detail without giving away spoilers, of course, but I was pleased to see how neatly the author tied everything together. Certain scenes would have been much less effective without these elements. I also thought I should mention it in my review because it’s something I would have preferred to know about ahead of time.

I’d recommend End of Normal to anyone in the mood for action-heavy science fiction.

The Innkeeper of Bethlehem – The Story of Santa Claus by Scott Roloff

INN
The Innkeeper of Bethlehem – The Story of Santa Claus by Scott Roloff
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre:: Contemporary, Historical, Holiday, Inspirational, YA/Middle Grade
Length: Short Story (75 pages)
Age Recommendation: 8+
Rating: 4.5 stars
Reviewed by Orchid

The Innkeeper of Bethlehem will permit you and your family to enjoy Santa Claus and the other secular customs of Christmas within the Christian celebration of Jesus’s birth. For little children, Santa Claus becomes a real person delivering presents to them from Jesus. Each Christmas season, reading a chapter a night will become a holiday tradition for the entire family.

How did Santa Claus happen? Now I’ve read the book I know how the workshops at the North Pole happened.

Each night two children are told a chapter of a story which involves the nativity and Santa Claus. Strange combination? Not really when you consider Santa Claus comes to visit all children on Christ’s birthday.

When Mary and Joseph arrive at the stable in Bethlehem Shai and Adi are sleeping in the stable because they’ve let out all the room at their inn. Adi helps Mary give birth to Jesus and when an angel warns them of the plan to dispose of all new babies, they escape with the new family to Egypt. Shai and Adi stay with the family for the rest of the story and then their own tale begins.

The Innkeeper of Bethlehem tells the nativity and life of Jesus in a fictional way ending with the birth of Santa Claus. Each chapter has a daily date running from December 6th to December 24th. I wish I had a grandchild living nearer to me so that I could read a chapter each night. I’m sure it would encourage a young person to go to bed quickly so the next day and next chapter would arrive quickly.

Well thought out and well written. I thoroughly enjoyed this book as it presented facts and fiction in a way bound to interest children.

Ben Brown’s Flying Machine by Michael Thorp

BROWN
Ben Brown’s Flying Machine by Michael Thorp
Publisher: Free House Studios Ltd.
Genre: Young Adult/Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary, Action/Adventure
Length: Short Story (130 pages)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

When the first manned spacecraft to Mars disappears and its crew explorer vehicle crashes onto the Brown’s wheat farm, what Ben discovers leads him on an adventure that he could never have imagined. He builds a flying machine and flies off to a planet in another universe where he finds himself fighting free its enslaved people, eighteen foot giants, and then to save his own planet. Ultimately, it’s a story about faith and a young man’s quest for love and redemption for his father’s untimely death.

There are thousands of stars in the sky than we can see with the naked eye, but we only know the secrets of a few of them.

This was a highly detail-oriented story. I visualized what was going on in every scene without ever consciously thinking about what specific room or person might look like because they were sketched out so well. What made it even more interesting is that the author used almost every sense in order to present his universe to the readers. I didn’t only see what was happening, I felt like I could smell, hear and feel it as well.

With that being said, too much time was spent describing these moments for a novella of this size. This was especially true during the first chapter as it was full of technical descriptions that took a while to understand. There would have been plenty of room to take these pauses in something full-length, but it slows down the plot too much in shorter works. As intrigued as I was by the premise, I had a hard time getting into Ben’s adventures at first because I was so distracted by everything else that was going on.

This tale had some thought-provoking things to say about why people believe harmful stuff and what happens when you encourage them to approach their beliefs from other perspectives. I wasn’t expecting to encounter such philosophical questions in a young adult novel, but the narrator made me think about other ways to approach such a potentially sensitive topic. It was one of my favorite things about Ben’s adventures.

Ben is friendly, courteous, loving, and extremely intelligent. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on a character’s best side, but it isn’t easy to identify with a protagonist who doesn’t appear to have any real flaws. Even someone as goodnatured as Ben struggles with something. I would have been quite interested to discover what it is that he finds challenging in life.

The relationship between Ben and his mom made me smile. It was nice to see such a tight bond between two family members who have such wildly different personalities and interests. They not only love each other, they genuinely seem to like one another as well. That’s not something I see regularly in the young adult genre, so it was refreshing to come across it here.

I chose the 12+ age recommendation due to violent content. It may be appropriate for some readers who are slightly younger, but I’d strongly suggest pre-screening this book to anyone who is thinking about doing this.

Ben Brown’s Flying Machine is a good choice for anyone who is fascinated by space exploration.

Isla’s Inheritance by Cassandra Page

ISLAS
Isla’s Inheritance by Cassandra Page
Publisher: Turquoise Morning Press
Genre: Young Adult/Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary, Paranormal
Length: Full Length (207 pages)
Age Recommendation: 16+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Isla was content to let her father keep his secrets, but now she can’t stand the touch of iron and her dreams are developing a life of their own. She must discover the truth — before it’s too late.

Seventeen-year-old Isla Blackman only agrees to participate in a Halloween party séance because Dominic, an old crush, wants to. She is sure nothing will happen when they try to contact the spirit of her mother. But the séance receives a chilling reply.

SHE IS NOT DEAD.

Isla doesn’t want to upset her father by prying into the family history he never discusses. When the mysterious and unearthly Jack offers to help her discover the truth, Isla must master her new abilities to protect her loved ones from enemies she never knew existed.

Nothing can be kept secret from everyone forever.

At first I wasn’t sure what I thought of Isla. Her personality was described in great detail, but her flaws happened to be things that I find irritating. She definitely caught my attention, though, so I withheld further judgement until I got to know her better. I’m very glad I did this because Isla is the kind of protagonist who becomes more alluring the longer I spend with her. All of her flaws ended up making her a well-rounded, intriguing girl I was a little sad to say goodbye to.

Early on a section of dialogue mentioned that certain characters are much more sensitive to iron than they are to steel. This was confusing to me since steel is is made by smelting iron ore to remove impurities and make the metal stronger. I would have liked to have some sort of scientific or paranormal explanation for why this rule was the exact opposite of what I would have logically expected to be the case. It could have added a lot of depth to this part of the plot.

Isla’s close bond with Aunt Elizabeth brought warmth to this story. I’m a big fan of young adult fiction that treats adults with respect. By no means is Aunt Elizabeth perfect, but the unconditional love she has for her children and niece make me look forward to hearing more from her. She was a wonderful supporting character.

There were several instances when the pacing was uneven. The first few chapters were well paced and full of excitement, so I was surprised to find my interest flagging after that in large part because there were so many different things going simultaneously. While the subplots were interesting, some of them did have the tendency to steal the spotlight in situations when I would have rather learned more about the main plot.

The use of color in this book was interesting. Almost everyone agrees that red is an angry color and blue is a calm one. Ms. Page used these cultural assumptions in some pretty fun ways during the course of her tale. This wasn’t something I was at all expecting to occur, so seeing exactly where she went with them was even more amusing than it might have been otherwise.

Isla’s Inheritance made me smile. It’s a good choice for anyone who likes contemporary fantasy.

All Things to Everyone by Aldred Chase

MEDIA KIT All Things To Everyone Cover

All Things to Everyone by Aldred Chase
Publisher: Self
Genre: Fantasy
Length: Short (141 pgs)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rated: 4 stars
Review by Snapdragon

Fifteen year old Paul Blake is not looking forward to spending quality time with his grandmother, who has never taken an interest in him. This time however, things are different because he reveals to her an ability to see the supernatural. She wants to train him but she is not the only one who is keen to help him develop his talents. He soon realizes that he can’t be all things to everyone and he will have to make some difficult decisions. His choices will lead him into a terrifying fight for survival that will test his skill and courage to the limit. All Things to Everyone is the first book in the Sinister Sydney Series: stories where the supernatural pierces the thin skin of modern life in Sydney.

Paul Blake is an unusual person – but possibly not quite as unusual as he at first believes. You see he has these abilities, and they do seem pretty singular. They set him apart, a little too much. He also is not having the easiest time of it, as his Mom uproots them and they end up living with ‘Gran.’

Gran, as it turns out, is not the boring old lady he believed her to be. It starts with her cane …

While this charming tale kicks off in a friendly, conversational tone, it does not have most gripping of openings. We can see Paul has reason to less than satisfied with life, but really, he’s a nice enough guy. Even his Mom and Gran aren’t so disagreeable. Just as you start to believe that probably nothing much is going to happen, they sit down for tea and suddenly, you realize that Aldred Chase has lured you, the reader, right in.

Paul is fast acting and circumstances are, well, reporting actual circumstances might reveal too much; but circumstances are both and strange and unpredictable all at once. No spoilers here: you have to read All Things To Everyone to find out the details. Once you reach the stage where unpredictable things start to happen, you will not be able to tear yourself away.

The story does ramble around, from hauntings to disappearances; some motivations are unclear (in fact, it isn’t always easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys) but the characters are interesting, and events unexpected!

Suffice to say All Things to Everyone is unpredictable and fun; and runs the gamut from the weird to the grotesque. This is a great fun read for anyone really, its not just for kids! Also, kudos to the cover design–it fits wonderfully!

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Atlantia by Ally Condie

ATLANTIA
Atlantia by Ally Condie
Publisher: Dutton
Genre: Action/Adventure, Historical, Paranormal, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full Length (298 pgs)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Lupine

Can you hear Atlantia breathing?

For as long as she can remember, Rio has dreamt of the sand and sky Above—of life beyond her underwater city of Atlantia. But in a single moment, all her plans for the future are thwarted when her twin sister, Bay, makes an unexpected decision, stranding Rio Below. Alone, ripped away from the last person who knew Rio’s true self—and the powerful siren voice she has long hidden—she has nothing left to lose.

Guided by a dangerous and unlikely mentor, Rio formulates a plan that leads to increasingly treacherous questions about her mother’s death, her own destiny, and the complex system constructed to govern the divide between land and sea. Her life and her city depend on Rio to listen to the voices of the past and to speak long-hidden truths.

I’m a big fan of Ally Condie, and could wait to dive into this book.

Though I appreciate Ally Condie’s amazing writing, there was a lot in the book that I really didn’t enjoy but I understand why it was needed. I’d like to start with the setting, as it was amazingly described and written. Though there is more than one places in the book, Above and Below, and they were written in such detail that I was taken aback at how excellent they were. I did struggle with the pacing a little since it was a little difficult to get around the complex world building and into the main plot of the story. It dragged quite a bit for me, but the thoughts that were always running through Rio’s mind sort of kept me focused and on track.

I appreciated that Rio showed so much dedication to her sister and that was never broken, even with the introduction of the love interest. Speaking of which, I wish that there had been more romance between Rio and the boy…it seemed that she was so focused (and rightly so, don’t get me wrong) on getting to her sister that the cuteness of the two of them together was thrown in the corner.  Also, can I add in a personal thought – I was so happy to read about a tall, largely built heroine. It appealed to me because she was something different than the average petite thing that a man has to protect in times of trouble.

Also, I’d like to interject on how much I liked the ending parts of the book and, though I wished there had been more to the conclusion, it was very well done and beautiful.

Krystal’s Calling by Melissa Solorzano

KRYSTAL
Krystal’s Calling by Melissa Solorzano
Publisher: Forever More Publishing
Genre: Young Adult/Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary, Action/Adventure
Length: Short Story (142 pages)
Age Recommendation: 16+
Heat Level: Spicy
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Krystal enters adulthood on her eighteenth birthday, and to have her life change forever as Mother Earth marks her as her daughter. Together Krystal and Courtney leave on a calling, unsure of where they’re going or what lays ahead.

Krystal awakens on her eighteenth birthday to discover her life will change forever. Mother Earth has decided to awaken something inside her that the realm is in need of, as dark forces seek to do harm.

As a half-elf, Krystal is now an adult and can make her own choices. Her first calling comes, and she must leave her home to start a journey she hopes will have her following in her father’s footsteps. With her best friend at her side, Krystal rides away from their childhood home to an unknown destination that could shape her destiny.

It’s much easier to focus on the freedom that comes with growing up than it is to think about all of the responsibilities that come with it. How will Krystal adjust to the new rules in her life?

One of the things I look for in a protagonist is someone whose faults could actually have a negative effect on the plot. Krystal definitely fits this bill. Knowing that she isn’t perfect, and, more importantly, that there’s a chance she could make a big mistake that unravels all of the good she’s trying to do was helpful. I liked what the author did with this character’s personality and development.

There was a lot of telling instead of showing in this novella. It was especially noticeable in the dialogue. I learned almost everything I know about Krystal’s importance to her people through conversations with her mother. It felt odd for these two characters to go into so much detail about this part of their lives when no one else was around because all of it was stuff their whole family had been aware of for a very long time.

I’ve always had the impression that elves are absolutely horrified by modern human technology, so it was intriguing to see something written about their race that was set in the present day. Ms. Solorzano struck a delicate balance between portraying the quiet, nature-loving elements of their culture that I’d expect to see while also showing how they might thrive in the twenty-first century.

Figuring out the most appropriate age recommendation was really tricky. Krystal acts much younger than her chronological age for reasons that I never figured out. The writing style included playful plot twists that are much more common in middle grade fiction, yet there were also explicit sexual content that I’ve only ever seen written for mature teens. It’s quite unusual to see these kinds of things included in the same book. I even briefly wondered if Krystal had some sort of learning or developmental disorder due to certain things that happen in the first few scenes. Had the author provided even a brief explanation of what was going on here, I would have felt comfortable giving this tale a higher rating.

If there’s one thing a decent villain needs to be, it’s legitimately dangerous. I was pleasantly surprised by just how frightening the villain in this story turned out to be. The threat to Krystal’s safety is made painfully obvious as the identity of her antagonist is exposed. There is no doubt here at all that this bad guy has terrible intentions.

Krystal’s Calling is a good choice for anyone who really enjoys fantasy stories about elves.

Pandora’s Jar by Sharron Riddle

VIEL
Pandora’s Jar by Sharron Riddle
Veil Walker, Book One
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Contemporary, Paranormal, YA
Length: Full Length (312 pgs)
Age Recommendation: 16+
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Poinsettia

It’s hard enough being a seventeen year old Veil Walker, but when your boyfriend’s a demigod and your mom’s dating a soul sucker, things can get a lot worse.

Pandora has seen ghosts since she was a kid, and now she learns she can bring back the spirits of the dead. Why would she do that? She has enough trouble getting rid of the ones stuck on this side. One annoyingly perky ghost wants Pandora to find her killer, but Ukwa, her super-hot boyfriend, doesn’t like the idea.

When trouble finds her, will she discover the true strength of a Veil Walker or, like the others, will her soul be trapped in her own Pandora’s Jar forever?

Is ignorance really bliss?

I truly feel sorry for Pandora. She knows very little about her abilities as a Veil Walker. With no one to teach her about her power, every day is a struggle, and Pandora constantly lives in fear of accidentally acknowledging a ghost in front of others. Consequently, Pandora has no close friends. A particularly bad encounter with a ghost followed by an argument with her father prompts Pandora to go and live with her mom in Florida. Pandora is hoping for a fresh start, but she soon learns that she can’t hide from her problems.

Pandora’s relationship with her parents is beyond messed up. It is clear that her parents love her, but neither of them really act like parents. While it is understandable for parents to have interests and lives outside of their children, Pandora’s parents have taken this to the extreme. They are so self-involved that they completely ignore their daughter at times. I found the whole situation quite disturbing, especially when Pandora’s dad makes a particularly shocking revelation toward the end of the book. Honestly, I’m amazed that Pandora is sane given the nature of her power and the complete lack of familial support.

Pandora is very strong and she has managed to hold herself together without help from anyone else for a long time. However, I really enjoyed watching her blossom when she made some friends at her new school. In a short time, I saw a lot of positive changes in Pandora. She still has some issues to work through, but having others to confide in has gone a long way in bringing Pandora out of her shell.

Pandora’s connection with Ukwa is intense and complicated. They have excellent chemistry, but his refusal to give her straight answers about her power is very annoying. While his intentions might be good, he ended up treating her like a child. I think it would have been more effective if he would have respected her and had an honest conversation with her right from the start. Despite this issue, Pandora and Ukwa make a wonderful, if unusual, couple. Even though they find themselves in some intense situations, I really like that they make time to talk and really getting to know each other.

Nancy, the ghost, is definitely my favorite secondary character. I could clearly picture her flitting around, laughing, causing mischief, and playing with Pandora’s dog. Nancy’s perky attitude was a nice contrast to Pandora’s more serious moods and the darker events of the story.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to read Pandora’s Jar. I found the concept of a Veil Walkers very intriguing, and I still have a lot of questions buzzing around in my head. I certainly hope that Ms. Riddle has plans for a sequel soon so I can satisfy my curiosity. Fans of paranormal romance won’t want to miss Pandora’s Jar.

Suspicion by Alexandra Monir

SUSPICION
Suspicion by Alexandra Monir
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Genre: Action/Adventure, Historical, Paranormal, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full Length (295 pgs)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Lupine

Mysterious. Magnificent. Creepy. Welcome to Rockford Manor.

“There’s something hidden in the Maze.” Seventeen-year-old Imogen has never forgotten the last words her father said to her seven years ago, before the blazing fire that consumed him, her mother, and the gardens of her family’s English country manor.

Haunted by her parents’ deaths, Imogen moves to New York City with her new guardians. But when a letter arrives with the news of her cousin’s untimely death, revealing that Imogen is now the only heir left to run the estate, she returns to England and warily accepts her role as duchess.

All is not as it seems at Rockford, and Imogen quickly learns that dark secrets lurk behind the mansion’s aristocratic exterior, hinting that the spate of deaths in her family were no accident. And at the center of the mystery is Imogen herself–and Sebastian, the childhood friend she has secretly loved for years. Just what has Imogen walked into?

I loved this book beyond belief – and that’s saying something for me.

Suspicion had me hooked from the cover to the final page, and considering how much I read and how picky a reader I can be, I have to applaud the author for excellent writing. It was an interesting trip through modern day royalty and mystery, along with a little romance thrown in. Though there was only one slow spot near to the middle, where ends were being tied, there was nothing else in the least bit negative I could say about it. The characters were wonderful and developed, easy to identify with, and the setting was beautiful and easy to picture, along with a little magic.  The plot twists were endless and incredibly difficult to predict as well.

I loved this book so much!  I’m a new fan of the author and can’t wait until she writes more.

Sceadu by Prashant Pinge

SCENDEAU
Sceadu by Prashant Pinge
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Young Adult/Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary, Action/Adventure
Length: Full Length (246 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

All this while, Matilda’s shadow had been growing larger and larger. Suddenly, it lunged out of the ground and swallowed her, like a python does its unsuspecting prey.

Nine year old Matilda ends up with a century old book through a series of strange coincidences. And disappears. Her brother and cousins are forced to suspend their hostilities and pursue her to Sceadu, a land inside the human shadow. Once there, the reluctant visitors find themselves chased by the vicious Hefigans, creatures of Sceadu. However, everything changes with the revelation of an ancient prophecy that foretells the doom of the world they left behind.

With the stakes suddenly raised, the children must now navigate the dangerous terrain, overcome grave challenges, and unlock the secrets of the shadow. But can they do it in time to thwart the plans of the treacherous Hefigans? Or will they succumb to the guile of a ruthless enemy who is equally determined to destroy mankind?

Sceadu is a fast-paced adventure which blurs the boundary between the physical and the psychological, the real and the mythical.

Shadows usually follow people around harmlessly. Sometimes, though, they break those rules for very good reasons.

One of the things I enjoy the most about fantasy stories written for this age group is how magical the worlds in them can be. There’s something special about being transported to a time and place that doesn’t share our laws of physics or biology. Discovering what is and isn’t possible in other worlds is exciting, especially in cases like this one when the worldbuilding is so intricate.

With that being said, I had a lot of trouble keeping track of all of the names, places, and terminology that was used to describe the place where the human characters had ended up. Some of these terms shared so many letters or sounds in common that I never did get them completely sorted out. It would have been really helpful to either have a glossary of them or have more context clues about the words that were most similar to each other.

The mythology of Sceadu was well done. It’s hard to discuss where it comes from without giving away spoilers, but I was pleased to see how much work the author had clearly put into piecing everything together. This portion of the book reminded me of the explanatory passages I’ve seen in fantasy tales that were written for an adult audience. While there’s nothing inappropriate here for middle school students, this is also something I suspect much older readers might enjoy as well.

I’d recommend Sceadu to anyone who likes complex, otherworldly novels.