We Just Had a Baby by Stephen Krensky


We Just Had a Baby by Stephen Krensky
Publisher: Capstone Young Readers
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

It’s not easy getting used to a new baby in the house. Everyone in the world thinks whatever the baby does is amazing! And if you aren’t the baby, everyone acts like you’re invisible. This clever, funny picture book is told from a slightly older sibling’s point of view. The observations about living with a new sister or brother are poignant, spot-on, and will make even the youngest reader chuckle.

Change isn’t always easy, especially for children who had no say in the matter.

One of the things I liked the most about this picture book was how honest it was about the positive and negative aspects of becoming an older sibling. The main character loved his sister, but he also had some perfectly reasonable reasons to be occasionally irritated with how she had affected his life. For example, some adults favor babies over older children, and all babies cry. Acknowledging the difficult portions of this experience can make it easier to also notice the benefits of it.

I found myself wishing that the narrator’s parents would have been a little more involved in the storyline. Yes, this was about the creation of a brand new sibling relationship, but parents influence how these things develop in both helpful and unhelpful ways. It would have been nice to see the mom and dad encourage their children to become close as the baby grew up.

The ending made me smile. I enjoyed seeing how the main character had matured as a result of his experiences. He was a kind kid who ultimately needed some time to adjust to his family’s new routines. This was such a realistic take on the subject matter. It made me wish for a sequel about these siblings as they grow older, but I was also satisfied with how the reader left them in the final scene.

We Just Had a Baby was a well-balanced look at how a family changes after they have another child.

Arbitrium by Anjali Sachdeva


Arbitrium by Anjali Sachdeva
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Vashti is a pathogenic diplomat—an ambassador to the world of viruses, whom she communicates with through a machine that can translate their chemical signals into images, tastes, smells, sounds, and memories. She begins a negotiation between the US Government and a diplomatic contingent from Arenavirus, a virus which has just begun spreading a deadly mutation in Florida. If Vashti is successful, she and Arena will reach a diplomatic agreement; if not, the Arenavirus infection will continue to spread, and humans will have to race to try to find a vaccine or treatment. As she navigates the diplomatic discussions, Vashti is also trying to connect with her daughter Alma, who lives on the other side of the country in a technology-averse commune. By the time the negotiation ends, Vashti discovers that Arenavirus have learned some impressive and deadly tricks from their interactions with humans.

This tale takes the idea of having a bad day at work to an entirely new level. Humanity may go extinct if Vashti fails.

It’s rare for me to find science fiction about viruses that can communicate with humans, so I was thrilled when I discovered this short story. Intelligence in other species doesn’t have to look anything like human intelligence in order to be valid or, in some cases, dangerous. I was intrigued by the thought of how the world would look through the eyes of a creature so different from us, and Ms. Sachdeva certainly gave me a lot to think about there. Her decision to frame everything through the perspective of a person trying to communicate with the enemy was a smart one, too. There was plenty of room for character and plot development in the interactions between two such wildly different species alone, much less everything else that was happening in the storyline simultaneously.

I found myself wishing the ending had been given as much time to develop as the beginning and middle had to work with. The plot twist near the last scene was such a game changer that I was surprised to see how quickly the ending appeared from there. I’m not the sort of reader who expects everything to be wrapped up neatly, especially in a genre like science fiction that often thrives on unanswered questions, but I did find myself wondering if I’d missed something after I finished this piece. It would have been truly helpful to have a bit more information about what was happening there.

Vashti was a well-developed protagonist who had a sympathetic backstory and a likeable personality. Of course, it’s not strictly necessary for me to like a character in order to empathize with them or to be curious about what will happen to them next by any means, but it’s always delightful to get to know someone in fiction who I think I’d get along with quite well if she were a real person. She was a logical, calm individual who thought through everything carefully and had a contingency plan for all sorts of possible outcomes. I wanted to sit down with her and ask her at least a dozen questions about her work. That is a sign of memorable writing in my opinion.

Arbitrium was full of surprises.

Oh Uganda: An Intrepid Volunteer’s Perspective by Karen L. Smith


Oh Uganda: An Intrepid Volunteer’s Perspective by Karen L. Smith
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Non-Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

In this book, the author recounts her experiences as a volunteer with VSO in Uganda. Using tongue-in-cheek humour and a Canadian’s viewpoint of the Ugandan culture she tells the stories of her daily observations and interactions with Africans.Having agreed to live and work in the bustling city of Kampala, Karen finds herself being sent to tough it out in rural Uganda within weeks of her arrival. There she is forced to live without electricity, running water, a working knowledge of the local Lusoga language or other overseas volunteers for support. Although she has some success at integrating, Karen never fails to find the Ugandan ways amusing, exasperating and even bizarre. Karen describes her everyday encounters ranging from chickens and servants at home to managing an educational project and installing boreholes in the community. Then just when Karen is ready to wrap up her volunteer stint, things take a surprising turn.

Changing the world is much harder than it looks.

Ms. Smith had a marvelous sense of humor that shone through brightly in her memoir. I chuckled as I read about the creative solutions she came up with for all sorts of ordinary problems in Uganda, from keeping most of the bugs out of her bed to asking for directions in an unfamiliar town when her understanding of languages like Lugandan wasn’t good and the people she was talking to knew little to no English. Sometimes the best thing to do in life is to find the funny side of frustrating or unexpected events, and the author definitely excelled at that here.

I did find myself wishing that more time had been spent exploring what the people living in Uganda who knew the author thought of her as a person. There were some delightful passages that shared some of their assumptions such as the idea that all white people and all Canadians are wealthy. These were such eye-opening scenes, and they provided a nice framing for the culture shock that Ms. Smith often felt when she was living in Uganda. If they had occurred more often, I would have happily gone for a full five-star rating.

Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that explored the many cultural differences between Uganda and Canada. Ms. Smith arrived in Kampala with assumptions about everything from how animals should be treated to what the definition of a good teacher should be. Of course, the people already living in Uganda had their own opinions on those topics, too. It amused me to see how everyone responded to being exposed to other ways of looking at the world, especially when the two cultures had wildly different ideas about the same topic. There is so much to be said for expanding one’s horizons and learning about how other people live.

Oh Uganda: An Intrepid Volunteer’s Perspective was a humorous and educational read.

Divine Vintage by Sandra L. Young


Divine Vintage by Sandra L. Young
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Paranormal, Romance, Contemporary, Historical
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Tess Burton is always up for an adventure. She’s risked her inheritance to open Divine Vintage, a clothing boutique. While modeling an elegant gown from an Edwardian era trousseau, her mind is opened to a century-old murder. Visions–seen through the eyes of the murdered bride–dispute local lore that claims the bridegroom committed the crime. Trey Dunmore doesn’t share Tess’ enthusiasm for mind-blowing visions, yet the appeal to clear his family’s tainted legacy compels him to join her in exploring the past. Aided by the dead woman’s clothing and diary, Tess and Trey discover that pursuing love in 1913 was just as thorny as modern day. As the list of murder suspects grows, the couple fears past emotions are influencing, and may ultimately derail, their own blossoming intimacy.

It’s never too late to make amends.

The lush descriptions of modern and historical Michigan City, Indiana made me feel like I was truly there. Some of the best scenes were the ones that described the buildings that existed in both eras, how they were furnished, and who lived in them. Those moments were vividly written and filled with fascinating details about what people did and did not value in a home or business in the early 1910s as well as the early 2010s. It was fun for me as a reader to compare and contrast them. Some things never change, but other social expectations about the places we live and work in most definitely have!

I would have preferred to see a bit more time spent on the character development, especially when it came to Tess and Trey. Their histories and the way their personalities interacted with each other were some of the most integral pieces to understanding their connection to the past. While I can’t go into a lot of detail about this without sharing spoilers, I would have gone with a full five-star rating if this had been developed more thoroughly. The basic gist of it was all there. It simply needed to be expanded upon.

One of the things I liked the most about this novel was how well all of the storylines flowed together. Ms. Young did an excellent job of weaving the paranormal, mystery, dramatic, and romantic elements of the plot into scenes that pushed all of them forward seamlessly. I often have a quiet preference for a particular subplot when so many genres are mixed together, but in this case, I genuinely enjoyed all of them equally. Each one was necessary for the entire story to be told, and it was delightful to see how much effort the author put into making sure that everything was tied together neatly.

Divine Vintage was a sweetly sentimental read.

Home Boys by Seth C. Kadish


Home Boys by Seth C. Kadish
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Non-Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

In the year 2000, new therapist Seth C. Kadish is assigned a caseload of Probation boys at a Southern California group home. It’s trial and error, with moments of insight and learning, as Seth attempts to connect with the challenging teens – violent, manipulative Timothy who loves his mother and sister … Ramon, a bouncing butterball of energy and mayhem … odd Ryan who states a desire to be the first man buried on the moon … rapper Joey, jokester Enrique, sweet-natured Manuel … wanna-be gangster Antonio whose father is in the Mexican Mafia … and Rodney, angry and mistrustful, whose sole aim in life is to get back to his drug-addicted mother.

The generational cycle of trauma and abuse can be broken, but nothing in life is guaranteed.

One of my favorite aspects of this book had to do with how many questions I was left holding by the end of it. That may sound unusual but let me explain. I’d expect a work of fiction to resolve most of the conflicts in it, but that’s not how real life works. It felt utterly right to meet these individuals but not necessarily get to know if they lived happily ever after in the years that followed after the author moved on to other work. While I would love to read a sequel that gave updates, I was also satisfied with the idea that not everything in life can be tied up neatly in the end. Sometimes simply meeting interesting people is more than enough.

I wish more time had been spent diving into the backstories of specific residents of Cal Home. Every time it did happen, I was fascinated by the experiences these kids had and how trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next so easily if there’s a tragedy or if the adults in question don’t seek help for their troubles. It was a little odd to compare those scenes to the ones that fleetingly mentioned residents but never gave the audience a chance to get to know them on a deeper level. I think I would have preferred to only be introduced to residents who were going to share their stories.

There was so much compassion woven into this memoir. All of the kids Mr. Kadish worked with had experienced traumatic events, from being the victim of various forms of abuse to losing parents or parent figures at tender ages to seeing other people die from sudden acts of violence. It was impressive to me to see how the author shared examples of the suffering his clients experienced without broaching confidentiality or making excuses for the things they did that lead them to being sent to Cal Home or juvenile detention. Not only did he give wonderfully nuanced accounts of their pasts, but he also made it all seem so effortless even when he had very mixed feelings about particular kids on his caseload.

Home Boys was an engrossing read.

Not Yeti by Kelly DiPucchio


Not Yeti by Kelly DiPucchio
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Monsters are loud. And rude. They like to smash things and they always need to be right. But not Yeti. Yeti bakes banana bread and sings to whales and always has a nice word to say. But sometimes you find yourself alone when you’re different. And Yeti doesn’t know there’s a special surprise in store for him.

Anyone can change if they really want to.

It was refreshing to read about a monster who was gentle and loving instead of scary. Yeti spent his days making the world a better place for others, from crocheting sweaters for penguins to protecting baby turtles right after they hatched. I adored this character as soon as I met him and looked forward to seeing if his dreams would come true for him.

The ending felt abrupt and confusing to me, especially since this tale was written for such a young audience. While I soon understood the point the author was attempting to make, it was vague enough that I would have felt compelled to explain it if I’d been reading this to a small child. I found myself wishing that the narrator had been more forthright about the benefits of being different and choosing to be kind even if others don’t make the same choice.

Yeti’s character development was handled beautifully. The reader soon learned that he hadn’t always been a nice monster, and the explanation for how and why he’d changed was well worth reading. What made this even more interesting to me were the unpleasant interactions he had with a couple of other monsters. He could have so easily slipped back into old habits, and yet he stuck to his principles no matter how others tried to provoke him. What a great role model he was for anyone who is trying to fix a bad habit or personality flaw.

Not Yeti was a thought-provoking read.

Death at Dusbar College by Laura DiNovis Berry


Death at Dusbar College by Laura DiNovis Berry
Publisher: Indies United Publishing House
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Welcome to the world of Antyfas where invisible monkeys play and dragons fly! Cristiano has just turned eleven, and his aunt has invited him to visit her at the magical Dusbar College. Wondrous acts of magic and fantastical beasts await him, but can he solve the Grand Magician’s riddle?

What could be better than visiting a magical college?

Some of the best scenes were the ones that showed how Cristiano tried to figure out the mystery that everyone else was also trying to solve. There was a riddle attached to it that was the key to everything. I grinned as he worked through the possible answers to the riddle and hoped he’d be the one to come up with the right answer and win the prize at the end.

I would have liked to see more conflict included in this novella. As fascinated as I was by the world building, there wasn’t much going on with the storyline itself other than the mystery that was soon cleared up. There was so much more the author could have done with these characters and this setting. If she writes a sequel, I hope she’ll give her characters more complex problems to solve as the writing itself was wonderful.

The magic in this universe was delightful. My favorite examples of it were the ones that explained how to do ordinary things like summon a fresh glass of apple juice or tailor a shirt to fit perfectly onto the person wearing it. They weren’t the sort of experiences that I’d ever think of trying to make interesting if I had magical powers, so I was thrilled by how the narrator turned those moments into something unforgettable.

Death at Dusbar College was a playful middle grade mystery that I’d recommend to anyone who also loves modern fantasy.

Amethyst by Rebecca Henry


Amethyst by Rebecca Henry
Publisher: Finch Books
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, LGBTQ, Romance, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

She was sent away because of her feelings for another girl. But what she discovered at her aunts’ lake house was a birthright of magic.

Thirteen-year-old Zinnia is about to turn fourteen when her life is flipped upside down. With her parents on the brink of a divorce, Zinnia is sent to spend the summer with her eccentric great-aunts at their lake house away from her home in Manhattan. Zinnia arrives at her aunts’ massive Victorian house with a heavy heart after a recent falling out with her best friend Charlotte, who betrayed her trust by showing the meanest and most popular girl in school a letter Zinnia wrote confessing her feelings for Charlotte. The aunts rely on practical magic, acceptance and old family friends to help heal their great-niece in more ways than one.

What Zinnia discovers on Ambrosia Hill is more than just her birthright to magic—she meets Billie, a girl who conjures feelings inside Zinnia that she can no longer deny.

What’s better than a summer in the countryside?

It can be hard for kids to understand topics like divorce and marital conflict. Zinnia was a smart teenager, but even she struggled with the idea that her parents were fighting and might not stay together. Some of the most memorable scenes in this novella were the ones that explored her feelings on this topic and tried to explain her parents’ anger with each other in ways that were appropriate for a fourteen-year-old to hear. These aren’t easy things to discuss by any means, but they are quite important. The author did a great job of giving Zinnia a chance to understand her parents a little better than she had before and to learn about how adult relationships sometimes work.

I would have loved to see more character development in this piece. As intrigued as I was by the setting and plot, it was disappointing to meet characters whose personalities weren’t well defined and who didn’t seem to grow very much as a result of their experiences even when they were the main focus of the storyline. There seemed to be plenty of opportunities for them to do so. I simply needed more examples of them reacting to those moments, sharing their personalities in more complex ways, and showing the audience how they’d changed.

The world building was delightful. I loved the way magic was woven into every facet of the characters’ daily lives, from the messages that were left in the arrangements of soggy tea leaves in the bottom of a teacup to the spells the aunts cast to help their visitors reach any number of personal goals. It wasn’t always clear to me where the magic ended and ordinary explanations for certain events began. I reveled in how beautifully ordinary the author made certain scenes feel even if they included moments that can’t be explained with modern science or physics. There is something special about visiting a world that accepts these shades of grey and invites the reader to come up with their own explanations for them.

Amethyst was a playful read.

Saturday at the Food Pantry by Diane O’Neill


Saturday at the Food Pantry by Diane O’Neill
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Molly and her mom don’t always have enough food, so one Saturday they visit their local food pantry. Molly’s happy to get food to eat until she sees her classmate Caitlin, who’s embarrassed to be at the food pantry. Can Molly help Caitlin realize that everyone needs help sometimes?

Everyone needs a little help sometimes.

One of the early scenes showed what happened at the beginning of their visit when Molly spied a box of cookies and desperately wanted them. Her mother was worried that their family was going to be harshly judged by what they put into their cart and refused to allow the girl to choose anything unhealthy. This conflict piqued my interest as it was similar to my desires at that same age. I’ll leave it up to other readers to discover how this conflict was resolved, but I can say that I loved seeing how compassionately the author handled it. She couldn’t have done a better job at humanizing her characters and explaining how much things like this matter, especially for people like Molly’s family who are already struggling.

By far my favorite portion of this picture book was the one that addressed the shame people often feel when they need to use food pantries and other forms of social assistance. The tone was so kind and reassuring that it brought a tear to my eye. The author couldn’t have handled this topic better, and I’m saying this as someone who grew up in a family that occasionally needed help to have enough food and other necessities. No one should ever feel embarrassed about visiting a food pantry in order to keep their family fed!

The power of friendship was another beautiful theme in this tale. Everyone needs a support system in life. Molly and her mother added to theirs in a surprising and heartwarming manner. I smiled as I saw this new and exciting chapter in their lives begin to unfold. There was plenty of room here for a sequel, but I was also satisfied with how it was all wrapped up in the end.

Saturday at the Food Pantry was an excellent read for both kids who have personal experience with food insecurity as well as those who might want to learn more about it through the eyes of a sympathetic main character.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – A Modern Graphic Retelling of Little Women by Rey Terciero


Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – A Modern Graphic Retelling of Little Women by Rey Terciero
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), LGBTQ, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Little Women with a twist: four sisters from a blended family experience the challenges and triumphs of life in NYC in this beautiful full-color graphic novel perfect for fans of Roller Girl and Smile.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are having a really tough year: with their father serving in the military overseas, they must work overtime to make ends meet…and each girl is struggling in her own way. Whether it’s school woes, health issues, boy troubles, or simply feeling lost, the March sisters all need the same thing: support from each other. Only by coming together–and sharing lots of laughs and tears–will these four young women find the courage to discover who they truly are as individuals…and as a family.

Meg is the eldest March, and she has a taste for the finer things in life. She dreams of marrying rich, enjoying fabulous clothes and parties, and leaving her five-floor walk-up apartment behind.

Jo pushes her siblings to be true to themselves, yet feels like no one will accept her for who she truly is. Her passion for writing gives her an outlet to feel worthy in the eyes of her friends and family.

Beth is the shy sister with a voice begging to be heard. But with a guitar in hand, she finds a courage that inspires her siblings to seize the day and not take life for granted.

Amy may be the baby of the family, but she has the biggest personality. Though she loves to fight with her sisters, her tough exterior protects a vulnerable heart that worries about her family’s future.

There is nothing this family can’t handle if they stick together.

Mr. Terciero did an excellent job of updating this classic tale for the twenty-first century. He struck the perfect balance between satisfying the expectations of readers like me who are lifelong fans of the original while also keeping the storyline accessible to people who may know nothing at all about these characters yet. I was especially impressed with how he handled issues like Robert March being away at war and the serious health problem that one of the characters was diagnosed with. He made these plot twists feel modern and fresh while still remaining loyal to L.M. Montgomery’s storytelling.

I wish this graphic novel had spent more time on character development. In the first Little Women, all four sisters had clear character arcs that gave them ample opportunities to show how they slowly changed for the better. While there were signs of similar personal growth in this retelling, it was sometimes hard to follow those plotlines because of how much less space they had to work with. For example, Meg made a major revision to her life goals that was announced so suddenly to the audience I briefly wondered if I’d missed something earlier. These sorts of things happened often enough that they did negatively affect the rating even though I wanted to choose a higher one.

Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that explored the relationships between Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The story eventually explained the origins of their multiracial family for anyone who might be curious about that, but the opening scene was all I needed to know that these four sisters were as loving, playful, accepting, and occasionally irritated with each other as ever. It was delightful to see how they handled the ordinary disagreements that all siblings have as well as to get a peek at how they made up after an argument. This was exactly the sort of wholesome content I was hoping for.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – A Modern Graphic Retelling of Little Women made me smile.