The Universes Inside the Lighthouse by Pam Stucky

LIGHTHOUSE
The Universes Inside the Lighthouse by Pam Stucky
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Young Adult/Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary, Action/Adventure
Length: Full Length (208 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Seventeen-year-old Emma and her twin brother Charlie think they’re in for a boring summer vacation. That is, until Emma notices something unusual in the lighthouse lobby. Unraveling this mystery proves to be just the beginning of an adventure that will take Emma, Charlie, and their unlikely new friends to distant planets, throughout the multiverse, and to a place where everything is possible … and will ultimately lead Emma to discover the unfathomable powers that reside within her own mind.

Sometimes extraordinary things lay hidden in the most ordinary places.

This novel had great dialogue. Unfortunately most of my favorite quotes from it contain too many spoilers to share in this review due to the points in the plot when they occur. I was especially entertained by how Ms. Stucky reworked common expressions into places or ideas that made me grin, though, and I never grew tired of seeing what she might come up with next.

It’s rare for stories written for this age group to include subplots about characters being in relationships or having crushes on one another. While there was nothing inappropriate about that storyline, I was surprised when it showed up because everything else in the plot seemed to be specifically written for middle grade readers. The romance could have easily been cut out. If it had, I would have been comfortable choosing a higher rating.

What would it be like to visit other planets? As someone who has often wondered about this, I was intrigued by all of the places that these characters see. Earth is unique in many different ways. It was nice to see this subtly acknowledged before the author went on to show the amazing range of possibilities.I would have liked to visit (almost) all of them.

The pacing of this book was sometimes uneven. Very exciting things would happen, but then the plot would slow down to add exposition or share a joke. While I was amused by these things, I also wished that I could know what happened to the characters more quickly. Often these pauses took place at exactly the same time when I was most interested in seeing how everyone would get out of their latest scrape. It was a little disconcerting.

A good antagonist makes a big difference. It took a while for the villain in this tale to show up, but I enjoyed the suspense of it all along the way. There were a few hints about Emma and Charlie were up against along the way. The big reveal was still fun, though, and it made me curious to see what might happen in the sequel.

I’d recommend The Universes Inside the Lighthouse to anyone who is a fan of zany science fiction.

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.

The Star Catcher by Molly Dean

STAR
The Star Catcher by Molly Dean
Publisher: Wild Child Publshing
Genre: Contemporary, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Suspense/Mystery, YA
Length: Full Length (239 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Orchid

When fifteen year-old Hawke feels fed up with not being able to walk, he escapes in his mind to a misty island filled with moorlands, ancient forests, and monolithic stones: a place where he can move and run and accomplish heroic quests.

His life is turned upside down, though, when he’s thrust into this dream world and finds it real! He becomes ‘Star Catcher.’ The job? Track and collect shooting stars or meteors sent from a more advanced civilization, which have powers that protect the island from approaching evil. He finds many helpers along the way: a serving girl who can communicate with animals and create light, an alluring mermaid, a savvy one-eyed crow, and an old farmer with a secret.

Hawke must also discover what’s going on inside the imposing mansion called Moon House. Why do rooms change? Why do objects mysteriously shift? Who lives inside the old forest behind the place—and why is the Star Catcher forbidden to enter it? And most importantly, who are Hawke and his stars really battling against? An evil genius? A pirate-like group called the Shrikers who have taken over the island? An Ancient Magic? Or, maybe an aspect of himself?

Hawke’s life sucks – his legs are paralyzed, he’s confined to his bed, his father has left, his mother is unhappy and trying to find solace. Hawke escapes the real world and dives into a world of dreams where he becomes the star catcher. He has to catch five stars as they fall from the sky – one every other day – and when he has caught the last star the magic will return to the strange land.

The world of Hawke’s dreams is very well thought out and each trip to find a star is like a different jewel in a necklace. Similar but each an individual in its own right. Hawke is typical of a young teenage boy but Emma, the girl servant at the Moon House, has several different facets to her character. Evil is easy to recognize as it comes in the guise of the Shrikers and Facsimiles but working out who the good guys are takes a little more time.

This story has a smattering of various animals, humans and mythical creatures. They confuse, assist or act against Hawke and as the reader I never knew which way each character would go.

I found this book to be very attention grabbing. At first it dragged a little but once Hawke started his travels in the other world I had to keep reading to see what happened next. While not the usual mystery and adventure, this fantasy certainly has a hint of magic, mystery and adventure. All make this a worthwhile read.

Ennara and the Fallen Druid by Angela Myron

DRUID
Ennara and the Fallen Druid by Angela Myron
Publisher: Stardance Publishing
Genre: Young Adult/Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Action/Adventure
Length: Short Story (122 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

When a mysterious curse threatens to transform everyone into shadowy demons, a magical eleven year-old girl must travel to a sunken city ruin—fighting pirates, monsters, and an undead sorcerer along the way—to find a weapon that can save her world.

Sometimes you choose the quest. Sometimes the quest chooses you.

I liked Ennara immediately. She’s brave and resourceful, but she also isn’t afraid to admit it when she doesn’t know something. The explanation for why she knows so much about magic was as satisfying as it was useful. It was even more interesting to see how she reacted to spells and other incantations that she hadn’t actually tried before. I know there is a sequel in the works for this book and am looking forward to seeing what sort of adventures she has next!

There was a lot of backstory that needed to be explained before Ennara’s adventures can begin. The first twenty pages or so were dedicated to explaining her society as well as why people like her are so highly valued. In a full-length novel this amount of detail would have been perfect, but explaining all of it at the beginning of a novella weighed down the pacing at a time when I would have otherwise expected things to move along quickly.

With that being said, the worldbuilding itself was fascinating. The bad guys were deliciously scary. What made them even better was how much about them was left up to the imagination. There were basic descriptions of their abilities and looks, of course, but I liked having a few of my questions about them unanswered because it allowed my imagination to fill in the blanks. It’s rare for me to be just as interested in the villains as I am in the protagonists, but all of the ones in this tale were well worth my time.

Ennara and the Fallen Druid was a fun read. I’d especially recommend it to anyone who enjoys action-heavy fantasy.

Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of Shadow Hills by Carrie Cross

HILLS
Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of Shadow Hills by Carrie Cross
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Young Adult, Suspense/Mystery, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (260 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Thirteen-year-old sleuth Skylar Robbins plans to become a private detective like her grandfather. Stuck at her bullying cousin Gwendolyn’s Malibu estate for the summer, Skylar brings her detective kit, portable spy tools, and her journal for taking notes in secret code. She had no idea how dangerous the next eight weeks would prove to be. On the first day of summer school an odd classmate named Kat passes a note in backward writing, introducing Skylar to the secret world of witchcraft. Practical Skylar didn’t believe in magic—until the spells they perform in an abandoned garden actually begin to work. Skylar finds herself accepting the increasingly risky challenges made by her new BF, and when Kat tells her that a mysterious group is doing wicked things up in Shadow Hills at night, she can’t help but investigate. Her classmates are nervous and rumors are flying. The teen sleuth uses the tools in her detective kit and faces her most embarrassing fear to find the truth. If Skylar survives the summer, her life will be changed forever.

There are some things that puzzle even the smartest detective. Will Skylar be able to figure out why her cousin is such a bully or what’s really happening late at night on Shadow Hill before the summer ends?

Skylar’s insatiable curiosity made me like her immediately. She’s an intelligent and resourceful girl who is clearly accustomed to thinking on her feet. What really endeared me to this character, though, were her faults. They’re things that a lot of us struggle with, and they show up so early on in her summer vacation that they feel like natural extensions of her personality. The fact that she’s willing to do this makes me think she’s a great role model. It takes a lot of courage to own up to this stuff, after all.

There were times when I questioned Skylar’s choice of friends. She’s a kind person, but she seems to be attracted to people who don’t necessarily share that character trait. It would have been helpful to know why she befriends people who have such a different outlook on life given that Skylar doesn’t seem to have a mean bone in her body. I’m hoping that this part of her life will be more fully explored in the sequel.

As a lifelong fan of codes, I was pleased to see so many different types of them represented in this story. There’s something fascinating about writing a message that most other people won’t be able to understand. At a few different points I actually paused and played around with the various codes that Skylar and her friends used to keep their communication with each other hidden. To me this is a sign of a great young adult mystery!

Figuring out the best age recommendation for this book was tricky. The plot is clearly intended for middle grade readers. Skylar seemed to written to appeal to an audience that is a few years younger than her. Chronologically she’s a teenager, but hasn’t yet developed an interest in the kind of stuff that typically appeal to adolescents.

Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of Shadow Hills was a strong introduction to a fun, new series. I’m looking forward to catching up with Skylar on her next adventure, and I’d heartily recommend doing the same to anyone who is a fan of mysteries or young adult novels.

Wishing Will by Daniel Harvell

WILL
Wishing Will by Daniel Harvell
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (255 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Outcast middle schooler Will Cricket wants a new look, popular friends, cool parents and enough coordination to dribble a basketball – but he never actively pursues any of it. Instead, Will makes wishes. When the magical wishing corporation known as the Sky Castle Network and Enterprises (a.k.a. the SCENE) agrees to grant him his ultimate wish to be someone different, he must work for his reward. Becoming a super-powered agent for the organization, Will teams up with a celestial wish agent with delusions of Hollywood stardom, a shape-changing half-Genie, a narcoleptic Dreamweaver and a stick-in-the-mud wish lawyer. Together, they grant the wishes of Will’s classmates and family members, helping the same people who pick on Will every day. As if these challenges weren’t enough, there’s a mystery surrounding his peculiar grandmother and a malevolent force bent on enslaving humanity. Will might have to fight not only for his wish but also for the entire world!

Have you ever wondered who is in charge of making wishes come true? Magic isn’t infinite, after all, and it can’t be used to fix everything.

Will is an easy guy to like. His empathy for other people reveals itself fairly quickly, but what I really appreciated about him is what a well-rounded character he is. He has realistic strengths and weaknesses that interact with the plot in ways that I often didn’t see coming ahead of time. I had a good time getting to know him, and I’d be interested in reading more stories about him in the future.

There were a few pacing issues in the beginning that threatened to distract me from the plot. A surprising amount of time was spent describing Will’s family and school. I enjoyed seeing what his daily life was like before he received this peculiar assignment, but this tale would have easily earned a much higher rating if some of that exposition had happened within more action-packed chapters. Eventually I did get drawn into Will’s world, but the slow beginning was a bit of deterrent for me at first.

I had an inkling that this book might be funny, but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy its zany sense of humor as much as I did. The supporting characters were just as flamboyant as I’d expect from beings who work for a magical wish fulfilment company, but the creative, little details about their costumes and physical appearances that the author made sure to point out to the reader were what really endeared me to them. Imagining exactly what each one of them looked like was effortless.

Whether you’re a kid or a kid-at-heart, Wishing Will is a good choice for anyone in the mood for something lighthearted.

Chase Tinker and the House of Destiny by Malia Ann Haberman

HOUSE
Chase Tinker and the House of Destiny by Malia Ann Haberman
Book 3 of the Chase Tinker series
Publisher: Crossroad Press
Genre: Contemporary, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery, Childrens
Length: Full Length (211 Pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Cyclamen

In Chase Tinker’s world, magic, lies and secrets can be a lethal combination…

For eight agonizing months Chase Tinker’s guilt over the despicable act he committed on Halloween night has been eating away at his heart and mind. Chase’s life gets even more complicated when secrets about the mysterious Relic in the attic are revealed on the eve of a visit from an unwelcome caller. It doesn’t help that this all occurs on his fourteenth birthday!

Despite his problems, his biggest concern is that his family’s Dark Enemy, the Marlowe Family, is becoming more powerful with each passing day, fueled by the energy they continue to pillage from the many magical beings of the world. If Chase and his family are ever going to win, they will need a whole lot of magical help; they must destroy the most evil threat the world has ever known!

Chase Tinker is suffering agonizing guilt because he had to kill his evil cousin in order to save his brother. However, eight months later that guilt becomes the least of his problems. He and his family must fight the Marlowes, not only the Tinkers’ greatest enemies, but the world’s as well. The Marlowes are pillaging magic from all magical beings, bringing destruction and despair on everyone, and it is up to Chase and his family to stop them.

This is the third novel in a wonderful series. I have read the other two, but this novel may also be enjoyed as a stand-alone. The author provides enough background so that a new reader will have no difficulties getting right into the story. That being said, the series is a very strong and exciting one, so personally, I’d recommend reading all the books in order.

The characters are well defined and I really found Chase to be a very sympathetic character. He has to make some very hard decisions, and he makes them with care. The contrasts between his family and his cousins’ is dramatic, and I was pulling for Chase and his friends every inch of the way.

The magical spells seem very real and plausible. I had no difficulties at all believing that Chase could make himself invisible or shrink an unexpected and unwanted visitor so that the visitor would fit in a water bottle.

The story speaks to more than just the fantastical adventures. It also speaks to issues of determining good and evil, figuring out who to trust, acting honorably, and looking out for others. The lessons Chase learns are valuable lessons for our world as well.

The pacing is wonderful and I really wanted to read this novel in one sitting. As I neared the end, I began to worry. There was no way this could end. Sure enough, I came to the end of this novel and discovered that the fourth in the series is the concluding book. The House of Destiny has a reasonable ending, but it also is obvious that things are not resolved, and all I can say is that I hope the author is ready to release the final book in the very near future. I, for one, am sitting on the edge of my chair waiting.

Fantasy lovers will delight in the adventures of Chase and his family and friends. The action is hair-raising, the antics are fun, and the entire adventure is absolutely delightful.

The Road to Nyn by Brian G. Michaud

NYN
The Road to Nyn by Brian G. Michaud
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, YA
Length: Full Length (269 Pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Reviewed by Cyclamen

In a land where magic is outlawed, a young boy is living a double life. Although Kay is training to be a knight, he has been secretly studying the forbidden ways of magic with Alamin, a powerful but eccentric wizard.

When a band of goblins raids his village and enslaves his family and friends, Kay embarks on an adventure that takes him across the Kingdom of Gaspar and into the dark and treacherous caves of the Goblin Realm. What Kay doesn’t realize is that his journey is leading him on a collision course with the Lord of Nyn – a being so powerful that none dare face him…not even Alamin himself!

Kay is thrilled when he succeeds in the Squire Trials and advances from page to squire. But before he has a chance to find out what that means, goblins attack his village, enslaving his family and friends. Even though he wants more than anything to be a knight, he has been secretly studying magic with Alamin, a powerful and eccentric wizard, despite the fact that magic is forbidden. Without any hesitation at all, Kay sets out across the Kingdom of Gaspar, determined to rescue his family.

Kay is a very likeable young man, and he is accompanied by a mischievous sprite named Felix who is able to change his shape into a variety of creatures. The two of them set out with Alamin, but soon are on their own.

The story is filled with adventures, surprises on every page. Kay has never had a lot of success with his spells. They usually backfire on him, but now he needs to learn as quickly as he can. Along the way, Kay and Felix meet others, some of whom are helpful as others try to stop them. My favorite supporting character was Bibo, a Telok or tree person. He is very small and very scared, but he is determined to help, leading Kay and Felix to Nyn.

Tension mounts as Kay and Felix get closer and closer to the Lord of Nyn. I found that by the middle of the book I was totally unable to put it down. The author has done a fantastic job of picking up the pace as the book moves forward so that the conclusion is spine tingling and very suspenseful.

Readers of fantasy are sure to be thrilled by The Road to Nyn. The Kingdom of Gaspar is a wonderful place and I really hope that the author gives us even more adventures with Kay, Felix, and their friends.

The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer

HUM
The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer
Publisher: Putnam
Genre: Contemporary, Suspense/Mystery, Young Adult
Length: Full Length (312 pgs)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Thistledown

Twelve-year-old Grace and her mother have always been their own family, traveling from place to place like gypsies. But Grace wants to finally have a home all their own. Just when she thinks she’s found it her mother says it’s time to move again. Grace summons the courage to tell her mother how she really feels and will always regret that her last words to her were angry ones.

After her mother’s sudden death, Grace is forced to live with a grandmother she’s never met. She can’t imagine her mother would want her to stay with this stranger. Then Grace finds clues in a mysterious treasure hunt, just like the ones her mother used to send her on. Maybe it is her mother, showing her the way to her true home.

Lyrical, poignant and fresh, The Secret Hum of a Daisy is a beautifully told middle grade tale with a great deal of heart.

What if you lost the only home you ever had? How far would you go to find it again?

Grace and her mother are each other’s family. Going place to place, they never call one place home for long. A terrible accident happens and Grace loses her mother to a fall in the river. For the first time, Grace has to navigate a life that is very different from the one her mother had carved out for them. Her writing, once so precious to her is bottled up inside, just like her feelings. Grace’s grandmother claims her and she struggles to adjust to “The After.”

How can she live without her mother? How can she find her place in a world where she doesn’t belong? She wants to return to her friend and live with her-a place her mother would have approved of. Only the plans we make are not always the ones laid out for us. Grace begins to find this out as she follows clues that lead her to find her new life. There is new friendship, family issues, loss, exploration and just a little bit of romance to be found.

This book was a journey into the mind of a child who has lost everything. Grace’s mother was her world. The small origami paper cranes she folded and the little birds her mother made out of spoons become stars to travel by in this uncharted voyage to find the center of grief and move beyond it. Grace wants no part of her grandmother-the woman who turned her back on her very pregnant mother. She can’t stand the sounds of the river so she stays in the shed, keeping her distance from everyone and everything.

The thaw is slow. Once it comes it unfolds like the petals of a flower in the garden Grace’s grandmother so lovingly tends. We are all a part of each other’s lives. The decisions we make do affect other people and sometimes you make mistakes that you want more than anything to take back. And sometimes you just have to accept the strange things about people are the parts that make them who they are and love them just the same.

This book had me in tears more times than I could count. It is a middle grade read that really reaches into the feelings of devastation you can have when your whole world gets turned upside down. Where is home? Is it a person or a place? The Secret Hum of a Daisy also made me think about imagery of origami birds and the wonderful story of Sadaku and the paper cranes. It also hit on poetry, specifically Robert Frost. Lyrical in the structure of the story and the inclusion of art and poetry, I really felt the exploration and tender unfurling of Grace’s spirit as her new world is revealed to her step by tentative step.

I cannot recommend this tale highly enough. It is a book that could help so many kids deal with grief-and adults too. It made me think of my father and his passing and just how hard it was. I looked for signs from him forever just so I knew he was still up there watching. And you know what? They are everywhere. The ebb and flow of our life is poetry in motion. It is art and substance made real by every breath we take. And sometimes, if you listen there really is a secret hum in the background telling you the way…

You have to read this book.

Ticket to Faerie by F.I. Goldhaber

FAERIE
Ticket to Faerie by F.I. Goldhaber
Publisher: Uncial Press
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (27 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

For ten years, Alyssa’s grandmother sent her magic gifts that didn’t work. But, when Alyssa correctly, for once, follows the instructions that came with her 16th birthday present, she finds herself in Faerie, desperately trying to bring home a way to save her grandmother’s life.

It’s not always easy to predict how magic will work, but Alyssa is determined to make it follow her wishes this time.

Faerie is full of surprises. The best scenes in this book involve Alyssa’s reactions to the unexpected things that happen to her while she is on her trip. It wasn’t always easy to understand why she reacts the way she does in certain scenes, but her behaviour makes more sense when she is confronted with the lighthearted side of the magical world she is visiting. If a sequel is ever written about more of her adventures I would be interested in seeing her visit the areas of Faerie that piqued my curiosity when they were briefly mentioned in this piece.

Alyssa is described as a sixteen year old, but she acts like someone much younger than her chronological age. At times her immature reactions to certain experiences made it difficult for me to relate to her because they were so at odds with how most older teenagers behave. Had her behaviour either been better explained or her character been written as someone several years younger this piece would have earned a higher rating.

With that being said, Alyssa’s responses make more sense if I assume that this book is intended for a preteen audience. I chose the 10+ age recommendation due to the inclusion of some dark themes in one particular scene. The rest of the tale is appropriate for slightly younger readers if they are not easily frightened.

I’d recommend Ticket to Faerie to middle school readers who love the fantasy genre. This is a good choice in particular for students who are beginning to transition to more mature young adult fiction.