Mirage by Shutao Liao


Mirage by Shutao Liao
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary, Poetry
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The poet found himself retreating to his own lodge as an observer after long tedious travel, writing down everything across his mind, to reveal a splendor of romantic emotions as well as a profound sense of beauty throughout the words between the lines.

An intimate journey to the kingdom of self salvation.

Change isn’t always easy, but it’s an unavoidable part of being alive.

I enjoyed the repetition of certain themes throughout this collection. For example, the speakers spent a lot of time talking about the circle of life and death and how what might seem to be a catastrophe in one moment can be interpreted very differently if a long term view of the problem is taken instead. Natural disasters were one example of this, and they made me think of how fire can look quite destructive for a prairie or a forest in one particular year but also be critical to the survival of that ecosystem decades or centuries from now. Finding patterns like these made it difficult for me to stop reading. I kept wanting to pick out more examples of what the author was talking about and connect everything together.

There were times when I struggled to understand what the author was trying to say. Poetry can be written in ways that can lead to multiple valid interpretations of the same text, of course, but I did find myself wishing that some of these passages were a little easier to comprehend. The writing style was so detailed that it saddened me to walk away from certain stanzas without fully figuring out what they were trying to share with the audience. If not for my confusion in those moments, I would have happily gone with a higher rating.

The references to the events of 2020 were an interesting surprise. I liked the way Mr. Liao discussed how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone’s lives to this day, from the tragedy of the countless deaths from this disease to the social isolation that all of us survivors have dealt with while trying to slow the spread of the virus. The poem after this one described the author washing his dusty soul for reasons I’ll leave other readers to discover for themselves, and I thought it was a pleasant way to wrap up a reference to something that is still such a major portion of everyone’s lives.

Mirage made me yearn for spring and the beginning of the next cycle of the seasons.

Pebble by Jane McKay


Pebble by Jane McKay
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The small drone sped away from its dying star.

It did not look back at the doomed orb as it traveled through black space. It had a single mission – find a new viable planet and report. Many years of travel later it saw a possible candidate for its mission. The drone spied the blue-washed planet ahead. Would it find a world for its people or be doomed to a lonely existence on a faraway world?

Read the exciting story of Pebble as it helps to battle for its new family on its new home world, Earth. Can it help protect them from a menace from outer space?

Kindness is essential.

It’s always nice to meet characters who think logically and plan ahead. Some of the dangers they faced could be predicted far in advance, and they did a good job of predicting what might happen and figuring out the best ways to respond if their first few attempts to deflect the antagonists or escape didn’t work out so well. This kind of common sense is a breath of fresh air, especially in the young adult genre.

I had trouble keeping track of the large cast of characters in general. Not only were there a lot of them, their character descriptions and development weren’t always strong enough for me to read a familiar name and immediately know who the narrator was referring to. If only this had been easier to figure out.

With that being said, I enjoyed the many exciting plot twists in this book. There were multiple subplots that wove themselves together in all sorts of attention-grabbing and also surprisingly kind ways. This was especially true when it came to Pebble’s backstory and how its programming tipped the scales into surviving dangerous circumstances over and over again.

Pebble was an adventurous read.

Bloodstone by Rebecca Henry


Bloodstone by Rebecca Henry
Publisher: Finch Books
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Paranormal, LGBTQ, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Romance, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

There’s something wicked in the wind on Ambrosia Hill and strength is held within a stone.

Zinnia knows nothing is as it seems in the witching world, and she realizes the aunts calling her back to the Fern House was not without consequences. Zinnia must embrace her witch abilities and undergo her biggest test yet. Can she learn to rely on her personal magic, the strength in others, and trust that what she sees isn’ t always reality? There’ s something wicked in the wind this Halloween on Ambrosia Hill and Zinnia must fight for those she loves most.

What might you find if you peeled back the stereotypes and looked at who someone really was?

The romantic subplot made me smile. I’ve enjoyed seeing it gradually develop from a friendship into a heartwarming romance since first meeting these characters in Amethyst. Not only was the slow burn approach perfect for them, it also gave me plenty of time to notice all sorts of similarities between them that make me think they’d be a great match. I can only hope that any sequels in the works will include more of this storyline as it’s such a nice contrast to the sometimes-scary work a witch must do.

Once again, I would have liked to see more character development. Yes, it is happening slowly, but I found myself wishing that Zinnia especially would be given more opportunities to show the audience how she’s changed as a result of coming out of the closet as a member of the LGBTQ community as well as accepting her identity as a witch. This was the only thing holding me back from choosing a five-star rating.

I know I’ve mentioned the beautiful world building in both of my previous reviews of the first two books in this series, but it continued to impress me this time around. Ms. Henry has been doing a wonderful job so far of feeding the audience exactly enough information about witchcraft and witch culture in this universe to keep my interest levels high. Just when I think I have it all more or less figured out, she adds yet another layer to it that deepens my previous understanding of how it all worked and makes me eager to see what might happen next. As far as this reader is concerned, there’s still a ton of ground to cover for these characters, and I hope for many more updates to come in the future.

While the plot itself could technically function as a standalone work, this is the third instalment of a series that should be read in order to best understand the complex and memorable world the author is building here.

Bloodstone made me yearn for more.

Waiting for Snow by Marsha Diane Arnold


Waiting for Snow by Marsha Diane Arnold
Publisher: Clarion Books
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Badger cannot wait one more minute for it to snow. When his friend Hedgehog explains that everything comes in its time, Badger is as unconvinced and impatient as ever. But Badger’s friends have a few tricks up their sleeve to try to get the snow’s attention and distract their pal in the meantime. In the end, Badger sees there’s no trick—only waiting—until at last, it’s time.

Wanting something doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen.

Remaining patient can be difficult for people of all ages, and it’s often even harder for kids (and hedgehogs) who haven’t had as many chances to practice it yet. There were some subtle and thought-provoking messages in this tale about how someone should act when they really want something but can’t have it. Ms. Arnold’s decision to trust her audience to understand what she was saying worked nicely for these characters and this setting. Not everything needs to be spelled out directly, and sometimes a message can be even stronger if it isn’t.

I would have liked to see more attention paid to why Hedgehog was yearning for snow so much. Other than the fact that he thought it was an essential part of winter, what did he hope to do with snow? There were so many fun answers he could have given to this question, and I would have gone with a higher rating if he’d explained his plans at some point.

Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that showed the zany things Hedgehog and his friends did to encourage a snowstorm to come their way. They had some pretty creative tricks up their sleeves, and I chuckled as they cycled through them in an attempt to find something that worked.

Waiting for Snow made me smile.

That Morning by Toño Malpica


That Morning by Toño Malpica
Publisher: Windmill Books
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Mangrufo and Leuklaya don’t feel like themselves. Mangrufo can’t enjoy playing with toys or reading, like he usually does. Neither can Leuklaya. They hurt each other the day before, and both feel ashamed and lonely. However, neither one of them knows what to do with their feelings. It’s not until they come together once again that all feels right with the world. This book boasts a subtle monster theme within a real-world, relatable situation. Through powerful language and fantastical illustrations, That Morning is a guidebook through the difficult feelings of conflict and the power of forgiveness.

Everyone has conflicts with the people they love sometimes, but figuring out how to behave after a fight takes a completely different set of skills.

I was intrigued by how little time was spent on the only grown-up in this story. Mangrufo and Leuklaya’s relationship took center stage, and their frustration with each other was shared in ways that felt completely appropriate for their young ages. Normally, I’d expect their mother to swoop in and make things right between them fairly early on. The fact that she didn’t show up until much later gave these two characters all of the space they needed to explore their feelings and try to figure out what to do with them.

It would have been helpful to have more plot development. As important as the message was, the little ones in my life would struggle to understand it without a discussion about what happened afterwards because of how both of the monsters changed abruptly at such a late point in the storyline. I’m saying this as someone who loved the creativity of it and wished I could justify choosing a higher rating.

Some of the most interesting scenes were the ones that compared Mangrufo and Leuklaya’s feelings. We weren’t told who started the quarrel between them the day before or what they argued about, but it was clear that they both felt guilty for their behavior and weren’t exactly sure how to talk to each other after what appeared to be a pretty big fight. There is definitely something to be said for encouraging this sort of reflective thinking in this age group. Empathy is something that can take years to fully develop, but the faintest glimmers of it could be found here.

That Morning was a creative tale.

The Night Before New Year’s by Natasha Wing


The Night Before New Year’s by Natasha Wing
Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Another title in Natasha Wing’s bestselling Night Before series! It’s the night before New Year’s, and the whole family is determined to stay up until midnight! Everyone’s stocked up on sparkly streamers and festive party hats, but after a night filled with card games and too many cupcakes, the little ones are getting sleepy. . . Can they make it until the clock strikes twelve?

Some parties are worth staying up late for.

New Year’s Eve tends to be an adult-oriented holiday, so I was curious to see how certain traditions from it would be reimagined for preschoolers. Ms. Wing did a wonderful job of explaining what grown-ups do to ring in the new year and how kids can join in on the festivities by drinking sparkling juice or playing with noisemakers. One of my favorite scenes happened early on when the entire family went to a party supply store to buy festive hats, horns, and other stuff for their party. It was such an exciting moment for the main character as he continued to figure out this holiday.

It would have been nice to have a little more plot development. For example, I would have liked to know if this family follows any of the superstitions about what one should or shouldn’t do on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day like ensuring their home was clean and their fridge was filled with food to bring them good luck for the next year. There was a lot of space to include little things like this, and I would have gone with a full five-star rating if they had been.

I adored the warm relationships between the parents and kids in this picture book. Both of the parents were tuned into the needs of their children and did everything they could to ensure their entire family had a wonderful New Year’s Eve celebration at home together. The kids’ excitement for this tradition was adorable and contagious. They were just barely old enough to understand why it’s a special day, so their occasional misunderstandings of what one usually does to ring in the new year were as amusing for readers as they were for their patient parents.

The Night Before New Year’s was a sweet and heartwarming read.

The Mystery Hat by Rune Brandt Bennicke and Jakob Hjort Jensen


The Mystery Hat by Rune Brandt Bennicke and Jakob Hjort Jensen
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Crow, Pig, and Beaver are taking a nice stroll in the woods when they come across a red hat sitting in a puddle. Whose hat is it? What mysterious circumstances could have brought it to this very puddle? Crow thinks that Bear lost the hat when he fell into a giant hole. Perhaps Bear is holding his breath underground, waiting to be saved! Beaver thinks he’s got a better idea. Maybe Turtle, who was wearing the hat, was snatched up and made into yummy turtle soup by a crazed snowman! Can Pig come up with a logical explanation so that the friends can be rid of all these hogwash ideas?

Imaginations run wild in this hilarious picture book from Rune Brandt Bennicke and Jakob Hjort Jensen. The Mystery Hat is sure to get a chuckle from all during the cold winter months.

Who wouldn’t want to solve a mystery in a peaceful winter forest?

It was amusing to see how Pig’s calm and rational personality reacted to the creative and sometimes dramatic things his friends said. He was nothing like them in many ways, and yet their friendships were strong and kind ones. This was one of the things that first drew me into the storyline given how warmly the narrator described every character no matter who they were or how they behaved. I was curious to see how characters with such wildly different personalities would get along.

There was a scene involving a snowman who wanted to add one of these characters’ friends to a pot of soup he was making that I thought was a little too scary for the younger portion of this audience. Some kids might find it amusing, but I would have been frightened by that idea as a preschooler. This is one of those situations where grown-ups should know their audience well and be prepared to tailor that plot twist to something gentler if needed. As much as I liked the storyline in general, I would need to think carefully before reading this to younger kids who are sensitive to things like mistreating animals.

I enjoyed seeing how Pig used logic and reason to figure out what really happened to the missing hat. He was a smart animal who clearly took his time to consider all of the explanations before offering his own opinion about what happened. Critical thinking also isn’t something I’ve seen addressed in many picture books, but it’s an important skill for everyone to learn.

The Mystery Hat made me smile.

A Loud Winter’s Nap by Katy Hudson


A Loud Winter’s Nap by Katy Hudson
Publisher: Capstone Young Readers
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Every year Tortoise sleeps through winter. He assumes he isn’t missing much. However, his friends are determined to prove otherwise! Will Tortoise sleep through another winter, or will his friends convince him to stay awake and experience the frosty fun of winter? Best-selling author Katy Hudson’s charming picture book, now in a board book format, will convince even the biggest winter grouch that winter can be magical if you have friends by your side.

Hibernation isn’t supposed to be this difficult.

Tortoise was such a patient little guy. No matter how many times he was woken up or prevented from falling asleep, he calmly explained his needs yet again to the friends who were being noisy. That can be a tricky thing for people of all ages to master, so it was nice to see such a good example of how to do it here.

While many of the interruptions were creative and adorable, I found myself wishing that this picture book would have included a discussion about the importance of respecting other people’s boundaries even if you don’t necessarily understand them. Tortoise made it clear that he needed to sleep through the winter and didn’t want to be disturbed, but his friends refused to listen to him. It’s one thing when this occasionally happens between friends or relatives who feel guilty and learn from their mistakes. Deliberate and repetitive refusals to respect boundaries are quite another. This was something I’d read to the little ones in my life after discussing what healthy relationships look like and why it’s wrong to try to push past people’s limits. If not for that caveat, I would have loved to go for a higher rating as the plot itself was a great deal of fun to read.

I did enjoy all of the sound effects included in this story. They made the dialogue come alive in my imagination and were a great deal of fun to say out loud. It was also interesting to see how including words like tap or thud added a layer of humor to something that was otherwise pretty serious.

A Loud Winter’s Nap was a humorous look at winter life in the forest.

The Sound Of It by Alison Jean Lester


The Sound Of It by Alison Jean Lester
Publisher: Bench Press
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

When Su, a divorced mother of one daughter, falls in love with Jeremy, a widowed father of two sons, they want to build a life together, but neither of their houses in Worcester is big enough for a family of five. They decide to build a dream house in farmland outside the city, in which to live happily ever after. For sound designer Su, it’s an opportunity to create an embracing home and heal past wounds of betrayal and loss, while failed entrepreneur Jeremy sees a chance to impress his overbearing father.

But what happens when hidden financial misjudgments cloud the horizon? What happens when some family ties grow strong and others don’t grow at all?

The Sound of It looks at parenting and at step-parenting, when expectations are high, dreams are big, and the Internet is very dangerous.

Dreaming is easier than making a dream come true.

The subplots about social media and Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response videos made this feel like a modern and fresh read. I’ve never read a book that included a character who knew about ASMR before, and was curious to see how it would be covered here. Their reaction to social media and ASMR told me a lot about that individual’s personality and added an additional layer of conflict that kept me reading.

Su and Jeremy repeatedly made rash decisions that left me shaking my head. They struggled to predict logical consequences for their actions or to verify things they were told that sounded too good to be true. I found myself wishing that these character flaws had been explained better. Did both of them have mental or physical health conditions that affected their cognitive abilities and short-term memories? Was there some other explanation for their illogical behavior? How did the author expect her readers to react to these scenes? These would have all been excellent themes to explore in depth and I would have happily gone with a higher rating if that had happened. As it was, though, I found myself shaking my head at their poor decision-making skills even though I otherwise liked them as individuals.

I enjoyed seeing how the relationships in this novel evolved in general. It takes work to blend two families together, and the process won’t always necessarily be a smooth one. The relationships between Su, Jeremy, her daughter, and his sons were probed from every possible angle. It was interesting to compare how the relationships between individual stepparents, stepchildren, biological parents, and biological siblings varied not only between individuals but also over time as they all got to know each other better.

The Sound Of It was a thought-provoking read.

Faces in a Window by Oliver C. Seneca


Faces in a Window by Oliver C. Seneca
Publisher: Sunbury Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Paranormal, Romance, Contemporary, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Every school has a secret.

After two beloved teachers pass away at St. Stephen’s Middle School, it’s up to Ian Evans & Michelle Thompson to fill their shoes.

But their eager anticipation soon turns to terror.

They are plagued with unexplainable nightmares and horrific visions: Students who aren’t really there; the school catching fire; scenes of their own deaths playing out before them.

Uncovering what it all means could cost them their jobs, or their lives. With each other’s determination to find the truth of the school’s past, and with the help of an old janitor, Ian and Michelle must risk it all to save more than just their souls.

Resting in peace isn’t always an option.

It took a while for the horror elements of the storyline to fully make their presence known, but it was well worth the wait. There’s definitely something to be said for giving readers tantalizing hints of what’s really going on without sharing everything right away, especially when the characters have excellent reasons for holding back some information from the newcomers.

The plot development was slow and uneven. There was plenty of thrilling material to work with here, but so much time passed between exciting moments that I struggled to remain interested in the storyline. This is something I’m confessing as a reader who was originally thrilled to pick this up and loves paranormal horror in general. The setting itself was delightfully scary. I simply needed more frightening moments and revelations about what was going on at this spooky school to justify giving it a higher rating.

I enjoyed the world building, especially when it came to how long it took the main character to discover anything substantial about the tragedy at St. Stephen’s Middle School that later generations had worked so hard to cover up. The hints about it were enough to keep my interest piqued, and it made a lot of sense to me that the surrounding community would have been so reluctant to share certain painful details about that day with newcomers.

Faces in a Window
made me shudder.