YA – Where We Are

McGhee, Alison. Where We Are. Atheneum/A Caitlyn Dlougy Book, 2020. 978-1-534-44612-0. $18.99. Grades 7-10.

Micah and Sesame had a plan. If Micah and his parents mysteriously disappeared from their home in present-day, downtown Minneapolis, Micah would text Sesame and she would find him. When Deacon comes to escort the Stone family to the South Compound, he confiscates their cell phones so Micah leaves a cryptic note on the wipe-off board on the refrigerator. The Stones have joined a cult that scorns all worldly things—even pencils—and cower and obey the harsh and unreasonable mandates of one man they call the Prophet. Not Micah. He resists and accumulates so many infractions for what the cold and domineering Prophet deems insubordination that the young man barely exists in solitary confinement. Though free, Sesame Gray lives a secret life. After her mother dies (she calls her grandmother because the woman was older when she adopted Sesame), she concocts stories so that neither her friends nor her solicitous neighbors suspect she is living alone in an abandoned garage. Throughout the book, Sesame reflects on both her grandmother’s goodness and also her habit of keeping them isolated and self-sufficient. That behavior serves Sesame well in her current situation, but her experience relying on others to help in the search for Micah brings a new realization that every person needs to depend on someone. High school seniors and sweethearts, Micah and Sesame narrate this curious story in alternating chapters: faithful Sesame on the outside, remains single-mindedly determined to find her lost boyfriend; resilient Micah, imprisoned in a basement laundry and wasting away, continues to leave clues, sure Sesame will find him. In the hands of a different writer, this book about cults and loss would be a toss off. Author Alison McGhee’s writing pulls the reader along this strange tale and makes us care about these two sensitive and insightful characters. Still, the subject manner is very particular and though there is the element of romance, their love is played out through devotion rather than a relationship, leaving the book with limited appeal. It is unclear what ethnicity the characters are (the cult and its members seem white); two neighbor couples are gay; it all is seamless.

THOUGHTS:  I have read other books by Ghee (Maybe a Fox), and admired her unique plot selections. A hide-and-seek love story centered around a cult but not really about the cult is unique, but not so interesting. The fact that present-day Minneapolis is the focal point of so much foment, violence, and pain, and Ghee picks that city to be the setting for a cult/kidnap/romance seems to me an odd-and avoidable-choice. The dust jacket states Ms. McGhee splits her residence between Minneapolis and another place, so perhaps the setting doesn’t matter. Though I couldn’t, I thought these factors promoted this book: subtle but solid theme, good writing, clever idea of creative Sesame to leave poems boxes around town, appealing characters. Like McGhee’s other books, this one fits only a narrow audience. 

Realistic Fiction Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Ready Player Two

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player Two. Ballantine Books, 2020. 978-1-524-76133-2. 370 p. $28.99. Grades 9 and up. 

Wade Watts has won the contest. He’s rich, he’s famous, he’s living the life of his dreams? Inheriting billions of dollars and taking control of GSS has left Wade wrapped up in a lavishly padded but empty life. With robotic staff at home and avatars inside the Oasis, Wade very rarely interacts with actual, physical people. While the rest of the High Five move on, creating great lives and names for themselves, Wade is left behind. That is until the unexpected happens and the High Five are thrown back together again, with a new race to save the Oasis. One with even greater consequences than before.

THOUGHTS: Ready Player Two is as much an action-packed whirlwind as the first. Readers will delight in meeting friends, old and new, that change the face of humanity.

Science Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

Wade Watts has just won James Halliday’s contest and, along with his friends, the high five, has become one of the new co-owners of Gregarious Simulation Systems. As James Halliday’s heir, he now wears the robes of Anorak while in the Oasis, giving his avatar Parzival unlimited power. Days after winning the contest, Wade also discovers a new technology called ONI (Oasis neural interface) which has never been released to the public. Halliday specifically left this technology to his heir, and Wade, along with his co-owners Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto, has to decide if the world is ready for this technology. Only Art3mis objects, and soon the world starts experiencing the Oasis in a new and improved way. Wade quickly becomes addicted to the new ONI experience, and lives a very solitary life, always waiting to get back into the Oasis. However, when a new quest is revealed, similar to Halliday’s egg contest in the previous installment, Wade needs all of the help he can get, from both old friends and new, and Parzival must once again step up to the challenge to save the Oasis while keeping ONI users out of danger.

THOUGHTS: The futuristic setting of both Ready Player One and Ready Player Two doesn’t seem as unrealistic as it did to me when I first started this series. One of the benefits of the Oasis is that people can interact safely without the fear of spreading disease, and they often reference a terrible flu that killed millions before the Oasis became so widely used. Since so many of our interactions in 2020 were virtual, it makes me wonder if something like the Oasis will be in our future as well. I’m glad this book picked up right where book one left off, and the events that transpired after didn’t come as too much of a surprise to me either. Readers must remember how young Wade Watts is, and after inheriting everything from James Halliday in the previous book, it only makes sense that he’s not always going to make the right choices after becoming a billionaire overnight. Mostly, I loved all of the 80s pop culture references, especially the John Hughes planet inside of the Oasis! It was a nice wrap up to events set in motion in Ready Player One, and a perfect book to read during these primarily virtual times.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Kingdom of the Wicked

Maniscalco, Kerri. Kingdom of the Wicked. Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 978-0-316-42846-0. $18.99. 448 p. Grades 9-12.

Emilia and Vittoria, twin sisters, are also witches known as streghe. They come from a family of witches who must hide from both humans and The Malvagi, or The Wicked: Princes of Hell who would stop at nothing to capture their souls for themselves. Emilia and Vittoria have grown up hearing stories about the seven Princes of Hell from their grandmother, Nonna, and for protection, each girl wears a cornicello, a horned shaped amulet. According to Nonna, they must never take them off and never put them together because The Malvagi are always watching, and always waiting. When Emilia finds Vittoria murdered, her Nonna’s stories don’t seem so unbelievable anymore, and she finds herself summoning a demon to discover what happened to her sister. When she inadvertently summons Wrath, one of the seven Princes of Hell, she reluctantly accepts his offer to help her find the murderer of her sister and other witches, but from Nonna’s stories, she knows she cannot really trust him or the other princes she meets in her city. However, Wrath is unlike his brothers, and against her better judgement, she starts to rely on their alliance and cannot deny the attraction growing between them. In order to avenge her sister and protect her family, Emilia may just have to make a deal with the devil.

THOUGHTS: Kingdom of the Wicked is a refreshing, new fantasy series that takes place in the 19th century on the Italian island of Sicily. Emilia’s family owns a restaurant called Sea and Vine, and trust me, you’ll be craving some homemade Italian food after finishing this one. Although the time period wasn’t obvious to me when starting the novel, it became more apparent as I continued to read, but to be honest, I had to do a Google search to completely understand the setting of this book. Along with witchcraft, this book introduces the Seven Princes of Hell, referred to as The Wicked, which are basically the embodiments of the seven deadly sins, and they certainly add to the uniqueness and eeriness of this new, historical fantasy.

Fantasy           Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Skyhunter

Lu, Marie. Skyhunter. Roaring Brook Press, 2020. 978-1-250-22168-1. $19.99. 384 p. Grades 9-12.

Talin lives in the futuristic nation of Mara, and she is a striker. Every striker has a shield, a partner during a fight against the ghosts, the once human turned zombie experiments created by the Karensa Federation. If a striker’s shield is attacked by a ghost, it becomes their responsibility to end their shield’s life before he or she turns into a federation ghost as well. Mara and Karensa are at war, but Mara is losing since they do not have the technology of the “early ones” that Karensa has discovered and used to its advantage. Although Talin lives and fights for Mara, it hasn’t always been her home. Talin and her mother fled from Basea to Mara years ago when it was under attack from Karensa, and after inhaling poisonous gas, she lost her ability to speak when her throat was badly damaged. Referred to as a “rat” by many Marans, she found her place among the strikers who commonly communicate with sign language in order to sneak up on the ghosts they hunt. When the strikers capture a strange Karensa prisoner, Talin steps in to save his life, and as a punishment for her actions, he becomes her shield and her responsibility. It doesn’t take long for Talin and her fellow strikers to discover that this prisoner, called Red, is a new “weapon” of the Federation and possibly the key to their salvation from Karensa. Talin and Red soon form an inseparable bond, and together, they plot to bring down the Federation that has taken so much and caused them both so much pain.

THOUGHTS: Readers will quickly discover that when Talin speaks of “the early ones” she is speaking of the world in which we currently live. It certainly adds some mystery to the story since Talin isn’t sure exactly what destroyed the early one’s civilization and brought upon the current nation of Mara and the Federation of Karensa. Talin, who is Basean, not Maran, must endure some pretty harsh racism from the Marans who consider her to be beneath them, along with the rest of the Baseans living in poverty within the nation of Mara since Basea was destroyed and conquered. So many of the same issues that exist in today’s world are present in this futuristic society, and fans of Marie Lu, science fiction, action, or popular shows like The Walking Dead will enjoy Skyhunter. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – The Queen’s Assassin

De la Cruz, Melissa. The Queen’s Assassin. Penguin Random House, 2020. 978-0-525-51591-3. $18.99. 384p. Grades 9-12.

In the land of Renovia, Shadow of the Honey Glade longs to be an official member of the Guild in which she was raised and become an apprentice to Caledon Holt, the Queen’s Assassin like his father before him. When their paths inadvertently cross and he saves her life, she takes advantage of an opportunity to return the favor. When Cal is sent to Deersia prison to protect his identity as an assassin and await his next assignment from the queen, Shadow helps him escape and convinces him that she was sent to break him out and accompany him on his mission to infiltrate the country of Montrice to discover any plots against Renovia. Shadow is actually disobeying her aunts and mother, members of the Guild, to avoid becoming a lady of the queen’s court, but Cal believes her story, especially since her magic makes her a valuable partner as they travel to Montrice. Posing as brother and sister, Cal and Shadow are quickly swept up into Montrice society, making friends with aristocrats and the king, but as they attend hunts and balls for the sake of their mission, they can’t deny their growing attraction to each other. However, Cal’s life won’t be his own unless he can locate the missing Deian scrolls for the queen, and Shadow’s secrets are preventing her from living the life of an assassin. Will their love be enough without their freedom to choose the lives they want?

THOUGHTS: The Queen’s Assassin is perfect for anyone that enjoys fantasy and romance, and I loved this book for that very reason. The story is told from both Shadow’s and Caledon’s perspectives, and I always enjoy books that have more than one POV. Both main characters are essentially trapped in a life they wouldn’t have chosen for themselves, and that’s one of the reasons they are drawn to each other as they work together throughout the novel. The novel is split into three parts, including a prologue that contains some world building information and an epilogue that sets the scene for book two. This would be a great recommendation for readers who enjoy Throne of Glass and Serpent & Dove.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Havenfall

Holland, Sara. Havenfall. Bloomsbury,  2020. 978-1-547-60379-4. $18.99. 305 p. Grades 7-12.

“To everyone who’s ever felt like they don’t have a place.” Maddie is an ordinary teenager who lives extraordinary summers at Havenfall, a Colorado inn that connects different realms: Earth (Haven), Bryn, Fiordenkill, and formerly, Solaria. The inn is run by her Uncle Marcus, and someday, Maddie hopes to take over as the innkeeper. Still traumatized by the unsolved death of her brother, which was blamed on her mother, Maddie is looking forward to her summer escape in Havenfall. However, after briefly reuniting with her uncle and beloved Fiordian soldier, Brekken, things start to go horribly wrong. Maddie awakens on her first morning to chaos: Marcus has been hurt, Brekken has disappeared, and someone has been murdered by a Solarian creature, although the door to that realm is supposed to be sealed. Suddenly, Maddie finds herself in the position she’s always wanted, but without the guidance of her uncle or best friend. On her own, Maddie must untangle the secrets and betrayals lurking around every corner and decide who she can really trust: a mysterious newcomer, or the powerful delegates of the realms she’s known for years?

THOUGHTS:  This was a refreshing, new fantasy read for me! Although it’s mainly described as a contemporary fantasy, it’s also a mystery which helps to draw the reader into the story. By the end of the novel, there are still many questions that have not been answered, which left me feeling like I needed to know more. Holland also gives her readers a glimpse into three fantastical worlds, and I’m hoping she expands upon these realms in her follow up novels to Havenfall. There is still so much of this magical story left to tell.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Midnight Sun

Meyer, Stephenie. Midnight Sun. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-0-316-70704-6. $27.99. 672 p. Grades 7-12.

Stephenie Meyer puts a twist on her bestselling novel, Twilight, by giving us Edward’s side of the story. Edward Cullen is a vampire living with his family in the rainy town of Forks, WA, trying to blend in with humans as much as he can. However, the arrival of the new girl, Isabella Swan, changes everything. Edward and his family do not hunt humans and exist instead on a diet of animal blood, but when Edward smells Bella, he has an overwhelming desire to kill her, fearing he will lose control for the first time in decades, causing his family to move to a new location yet again. When staying away from Forks doesn’t work, he returns to school and attempts to ignore her presence, but when Bella faces danger, he unintentionally becomes her protector. Against his better judgement, Edward decides to get to know this intriguing and closed off  human but struggles to control his conflicting feelings of falling in love and pushing her away to protect her from himself. With Edward’s immortal ability to read the minds of those around him, readers are able to examine the thoughts of the majority of the characters within the novel, opening up the world of Forks, WA, and the minds of the vampires that have chosen the town as their home.

THOUGHTS:  I love that Midnight Sun gave readers more information about Edward’s past, as well as the rest of the Cullens, and it was interesting to read about Edward’s struggles with Bella from his perspective. I don’t think readers realized just how dangerous he was to her by simply reading Twilight. Readers trust Bella’s perception that he would never really hurt her, but there were many close calls when reading each scenario and interaction from Edward’s side of things. The pomegranate on the front of the novel can be a great discussion topic since it  resembles a human heart, and the juicy pomegranate also looks as if it’s dripping blood. However, it also has a more symbolic presence throughout the story because Edward compares himself to Hades and Bella to Persephone. As she grows closer to him and accepts him for who he is, it’s as if she’s eating the seeds of the pomegranate, making it so much harder for her to go back to her world. Both old and new fans of Twilight will love this darker side of the story!

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD