Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of the Hidden Jewels by Carrie Cross

Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of the Hidden Jewels by Carrie Cross
Publisher: Teen Mystery Press
Genre: Young Adult/Middle Grade, Suspense/Mystery, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (244 pages)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Voted BoM by LASR Readers 2013 copy

A deserted mansion perches on a steep hillside, overlooking a rocky canyon. Tattered curtains hang behind broken windows, and a turret stretches toward the sky. Three years ago the wealthy owner disappeared suddenly, leaving behind a house full of secrets: A mysterious note, tantalizing clues, a hidden floor, one piece of a treasure map, and a missing fortune in diamonds.

Thirteen-year-old sleuth Skylar Robbins moves into the mansion with her parents and embarks on a new and dangerous mission. Armed with her detective kit, and with the support of her BFF Alexa and a team of secret agents, Skylar sets out to decipher the clues and find the diamonds. Can she outwit a gang of aggressive bikers and find the hidden jewels before they do? Or will the perils of middle school–like battling ruthless bully Emelyn Peters for the attention of class hottie Dustin Coles–get in her way?

Old houses can carry a lot of secrets, but they’re not always keen on revealing them.

It was a lot of fun to observe Skylar’s relationship with her parents. This was the first time that she’s attempted to solve a mystery while living with them, so there were many opportunities for her sleuthing to be squeezed into otherwise ordinary days. The relationship between mother and daughter was particularly interesting because Skylar and her mom have completely opposite personalities and interests.The occasional disagreements that resulted from these differences were well written and believable.

The character development was also strong. Skylar has learned from her previous adventures and occasionally mentions those lessons as she attempts to solve this mystery. I liked seeing a slightly older and more mature version of this character and am looking forward comparing this version of her with who she will become in the future.

My only criticism of this tale is a minor one. Early on in the plot Skylar’s parents buy a house that’s three times the size of what they actually need. The characters discuss how unusual this decision is, but they never really give any concrete reasons for why a small, nuclear family would have any interest in such a huge home. I would have preferred to see at least one more conversation later in on the plot explaining this decision.

Attempting to solve the mystery before anyone in the plot figures it out is one of the things I look forward to the most with this series. The clues are revealed slowly and methodically. Some of them are easy to figure out, but others require more thought. I’ve really enjoyed puzzling out both of Skylar’s mysteries so far.

This is the sequel to Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of Shadow Hill, but it can be read as a standalone novel. The most important background and character information from that story is briefly recapped in this one.

Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of the Hidden Jewels has made me eager to read more about Skylar’s adventures. I’d heartily recommend this tale to anyone who is a fan of mysteries or the young adult genre.

Sisters Fate by Jessica Spotswood

Sisters Fate by Jessica Spotswood
Publisher: Penguin
Genre: YA, Paranormal, Alternate Reality
Length: Full Length (368 pgs)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rated: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Snapdragon

A fever ravages New London, but with the Brotherhood sending suspected witches straight to the gallows, the Sisters are powerless against the disease. They can’t help without revealing their powers—as Cate learns when a potent display of magic turns her into the most wanted witch in all of New England.

To make matters worse, Cate has been erased from the memory of her beloved Finn. While she’s torn between protecting him from further attacks and encouraging him to fall for her all over again, she’s certain she can never forgive Maura’s betrayal. And now that Tess’s visions have taken a deadly turn, the prophecy that one Cahill sister will murder another looms ever closer to its fulfillment.

In an alternate 1900s New England, suspected witches are sent to the gallows–although they are hardly the witches of olden days. No, these are gorgeous contemporary girls with lives, loves, and special powers. They’d use the power for good, if they could–like curing disease–but they are in a world where helping someone means putting themselves at risk.

Spotswood’s characters simply shine. The good in their hearts speaks louder than any special magic skills, readers can’t help admiring them and sympathizing with their plight. These are not the dark characters found in some tales: no, in fact, Cate’s specialty is healing magic. Tess, who can foretell, seems always the sweetest and most vulnerable of the sisters, Maura… oh, dear, Maura. Sisters can be sisters! In a family of remarkable closeness Cate and Maura have their differences – different approaches to try to achieve the same thing, only here, those differences might lead to disaster.

Cate struggles not to lose boyfriend Finn, who has no memory of her, while being true to her sisters. Finn is a simply wonderful, real, heartfelt character; readers will adore him.

Spotswood’s New England is both familiar and entirely strange: geographically the same and yet, a magical world that is scene to the struggles between powers.

Although part of a series, this can be read and understood as a stand-alone. Reading this makes me regret not starting at the beginning! Although a ‘paranormal,’ Sister’s Fate, so character-driven, will have a wide general appeal and might well draft a few new readers to the genre! Beautifully written.

Left Behind Book One: The Forbidden Voyage by R. Anne Polcastro

Left Behind Book One: The Forbidden Voyage by R. Anne Polcastro
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Young Adult/Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Length: Full Length (197 pages)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

What would you do if everything you were taught about your home planet was a lie?
What would you do if you were Left Behind?

ENDIRION is a thirteen year old boy like any other. Except his skin is green and it glows. And he doesn’t have any hair on his head or anywhere else on his body. Oh and he lives in a cave underground. But so does everyone on the poisoned Mother Planet. There is little to eat and what they do have is as mutated as the people themselves. Fuel is scarce and technology exists only in history books.

Or so they are told.

When Endirion and his classmate Harlo are sentenced to hard labor at the Dump they see things that go against everything they have ever known about their planet. Determined to find out the truth the boys set off on a dangerous journey that pits them against angry marshals, mysterious animals, mutant humanoids, and lands them in the belly of a Monstruwhale. It is a harrowing quest that takes them down remote tunnels, across the Lake of Fire, into the Madlands and a whole new world.

Not every authority figure is trustworthy. Figuring out which ones can be trusted is a lot harder than it looks, but Endirion thinks he’s up to the task. Is he right?

There’s a difference between having a good idea and following through with it to its logical conclusion. I was intrigued by the premise of this book right away. It was gratifying to see how well the original concept held up as the plot progressed. Every twist added valuable information to what I’d learned in the blurb about this universe. More importantly, each one also made me more curious to see how it would all tie together in the end.

I would have liked to see more character development in this tale, especially when it came to Endirion. Given his insatiable curiosity and short temper, I was surprised to see how little he changed over the course of the plot. He experienced harrowing adventures and yet didn’t seem to learn anything from them. It was never clear to me why this was the case.

This was a highly detailed story. It took the time to explain everything from what mutated food tastes like to what it’s like to live in a damp, dusty cave. These passages were a lot of fun to read because they made it so easy to imagine what it would be like to live in this society. It isn’t somewhere I’d particularly like to visit, although I am curious to know what the deer jerky that Endiron despises actually tastes like!

I’d recommend Left Behind Book One: The Forbidden Voyage to anyone who has ever wondered what humans might be like in the distant future.

Ben Brown’s Flying Machine by Michael Thorp

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.

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!

Atlantia by Ally Condie

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.

Suspicion by Alexandra Monir

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.

The Village Green by M. A. Foxworthy

The Village Green by M. A. Foxworthy
Publisher: Astraea Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, YA
Length: Short Story (133 Pages)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Cyclamen

Kelsey stood in a long line of ragged people as she did every week, waiting to receive her weekly rations. But the rations were getting smaller and the people were worried. Had life always been like this: hunger, want, and disease? As far as Kelsey knew, it always had, but when she finds the journal of Henry Martin everything begins to change. Will she be strong enough to fulfill a prophecy?

Kelsey lives in a small village in a world where a loaf of bread, some turnips, three cabbages, and a small bag of potatoes is supposed to feed her and her father for a week. But Kelsey says nothing. The sin of causing dissension is nearly the worst sin in this world, with only the sin of hoarding being worse. The society is completely dominated by Enforcers, keeping the villagers in a constant state of anxiety. Everyone gets exactly the same house, furniture, etc. When Kelsey’s mother dies, her mother’s chair is given to a family whose third chair was broken beyond repair. The family has waited for nearly a year for a replacement.

This kind of equality pervades every aspect of Kelsey’s life, including education. “’Equality calls for sameness. Those who are more gifted must come down to the level of the least in their group of peers. Sameness will bring peace.’ This was one of the many laws all citizens memorized as children. And why it was such a rare thing for anyone to leave the village and go on to higher education.”

When Kelsey finds the journal of Henry Martin, she realizes that things haven’t always been like this. I found Kelsey to be a very believable character. She is faced with some hard facts demonstrating that the system, which was originally set up to protect Mother Gaia, is in fact corrupt and abusive. A few are living well at the expense of the masses. Kelsey’s reactions to the ideas in the journal are realistic. And when she discovers that she is meant to fulfill a prophecy, she is understandably shaken. At the same time, she realizes the importance of what she must undertake.

The village is described in great detail and felt altogether too real for anyone’s comfort. I really rallied behind Kelsey and the others in the underground resistance. The pacing is excellent and there are twists and turns within the plot which build tension. The ending of the novel does bring the events of the book to a suitable stopping point, but I sure hope that the author is going to write a sequel to let us know what happens to Kelsey.

Those who enjoy dystopian fantasy are sure to be captivated by The Village Green.

Ennara and the Book of Shadows by Angela Myron

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000446_00063]
Ennara and the Book of Shadows by Angela Myron
Publisher: Patchwork Press
Genre: Young Adult/Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Length: Full Length (156 pages)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

When strange accidents start happening around thirteen year-old necromancer Ennara and her friends, she must search for the mysterious stolen artifacts causing the attacks while learning the highest form of magic–the spells that could prevent the fruition of a terrible prophecy.

Most people worry about making new friends or accidentally wandering into the wrong classroom on their first day of school. If only that’s all that was on Ennara’s mind.

Being introduced to new mythical creatures is one of my favourite things about reading young adult fantasy novels. Ennara meets some very cool ones during the course of her latest adventure. It’s hard to go into detail on this topic without giving away spoilers, but I really enjoyed how Ms. Myron described the beasts in her story. Some of them were silly. Others were scary. All of the original ones were creative.

I had a hard time figuring out the best age recommendation for this story. The first book in the series was clearly intended for a middle grade audience based on its subject matter as well as the interests of the main characters. This one seems to straddle the divide between novels for preteens and ones intended for a slightly older audience. The pacing and style of the plot seems like its written for the 10+ age group, but the romance feels more appropriate for the 12+ one. I completely understand why the tone would begin to shift as Ennara matures, but this tale would have easily earned a much higher rating if it had been more clear about which age group it was intended for. As it is, the age recommendation is flexible.

The plot jumped into Ennara’s quest to find the stolen artifacts almost immediately. The most important information about her backstory as well as the society she lives in is shared as it becomes relevant to what was currently going on. This was a good choice given the urgency of the situation. I had no problem at all following along with the new information about this universe that is provided later on.

While this is a sequel, it can be read out of order or on its own. The most important details of Ennara’s first adventure are recapped early on. There is great worldbuilding in Ennara and the Falling Druid, but this plot can be understood without any knowledge of the first book. It was interesting to read them in order to see how Ms. Myron has grown as a writer though!

Ennara and the Book of Shadows was a magical ride. This is a good choice for anyone who has ever wished they could attend a school for future wizards.

The Stone of Kings by Shea McIntosh Ford

The Stone of Kings by Shea McIntosh Ford
Publisher: Astraea Press
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (242 pages)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Twelve year old Ardan is hopelessly distracted because he wants to meet a real faerie. But when he gets his hands on a mysterious red book loaded with faerie spells and accidentally sends himself three hundred years into Ireland’s future, he soon learns that there are more important things on which to focus his attention. Throw in some immortal druids, fun storytelling, a touch of forbidden romance, along with the music and antics of the legendary Irish harper, Turlough O’Carolan, and you’ll become swept up in a very real Irish mythological adventure.

The problem with magical objects is that they don’t always do what’s expected of them.

I’d never heard of Turlough O’Carolan before, so it was a little bit of a surprise when I realized that this character actually represents a real person instead of a mythical or legendary one. His backstory is clearly explained early on in this tale for which I was grateful. I would have never caught the reference otherwise, and it only took a few pages to catch me up on the most important details of his life.

The plot regularly jumps between two story lines that are set a few hundred years apart from one another. The transitions between these settings were sometimes abrupt. At times I had trouble settling into what was happening next because my focus had been pulled away from the characters in the distant past (or future) at such a tense time in their journey.

It was fascinating to see how Ardan reacts to being thrown so far into the future. He is mesmerized by many things that I take for granted in my everyday life, from the Internet to painkillers. The author did a great job at focusing this reader’s attention on just how strange our world would be to someone deeply unfamiliar with it

At times the romantic subplot clashed with everything else that was going on. It’s not typically something I expect to find in books written for this age group anyway, but the particulars of this specific relationship were extra puzzling for me. I never would have thought that the characters involved in it would have found one another attractive given all of the differences between them.

Faeries have always fascinated me. Knowing that they play such an integral part in this story was one of the reasons why I was so interested in reading it. While I already knew almost all of the superstitions about them that were mentioned in the plot, it was fun to see how the Irish culture’s ideas about them differ from the legends of other lands.

I’d recommend The Stone of Kings to middle grade and adult readers alike. This is the kind of fantasy story that I’d expect to appeal to a wide age range. It’s something I’d suggest to anyone who doesn’t typically read children’s fiction.