Sugar Lump by Megan Gaudino


Sugar Lump by Megan Gaudino
Publisher: Evernight Publishing
Genre: Young Adult, Suspense/Mystery, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (209 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Seventeen-year-old travel blogger CC is stuck on a never-ending road trip with her wanderlust-addicted father. When her dad lands the job of his dreams in Sugar Lump—wedding capital of the world—CC finally finds a place to call home. Complete with two quirky best friends and a quixotic guy to crush on, Sugar Lump is more shades of perfect than she can possibly count. But when CC accidentally overhears the mayor complaining that she has to “take out” a rogue employee for not fulfilling the terms of his contract, the idyllic town’s facade crumbles. Devastated by the possibility of having to move yet again, CC discovers everyone has been keeping a massive secret from her—including her own father.

Many communities have secrets, but most of them aren’t quite as big as the ones hidden in Sugar Lump.

The town of Sugar Lump honestly sounded like the perfect place to live when I was first introduced to it. I adored how friendly and helpful everyone was, especially when it came to helping new residents settle in and figure out all of the little quirks that make every community unique. This kind of genuine hospitality only made the events later on in this tale even more unsettling than they would have otherwise been.

It took a very long time for the plot to develop past the point of introducing the characters and exploring the idyllic community they seemed to be living in. As much as I liked getting to know CC and her friends, it wasn’t easy to stay interested in what was happening to them because of how slowly everything was moving. I started reading with the expectation that I’d love this book, so I was surprised and disappointed by how much I had to struggle to keep reading it.

CC was an interesting girl. I liked the fact that she was so oblivious to the thought that something odd might be happening in the town she’d just moved to. While there were definitely times when I wanted to text her and ask her how in the world she could accept everything she heard and saw without questioning it, this part of her personality wasn’t something that she could easily change. Her sometimes naive approach to life did have its endearing side.

Sugar Lump should be read by anyone who is in the mood for a slow-burning mystery.

My New Mom & Me by Renata Galindo


My New Mom and Me by Renata Galindo
Publisher: Schwartz and Wade
Genre: Childrens, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (34 pages)
Age Recommendation: 3+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

A heartwarming “tail” about adoption, diversity, and acceptance that’s perfect for young readers!

Told from the point of view of a puppy who is adopted by a cat, this gentle and reassuring tale is perfect for very young readers and listeners.

When the puppy comes to live with his new mom, he is nervous. After all, his mom has stripes and he doesn’t. But his mom says she likes that they look different, and soon the puppy likes it, too. (And who cares what anyone else thinks!)

The puppy’s new mom does all the things other parents do. She plays with him, takes care of him, and sometimes even makes him mad! But that’s okay, because when he’s feeling sad, she knows just what to say.

Adoption is complicated sometimes, but talking about it always helps.

One of the things I liked the most about this book was that the main character was old enough to understand what was happening when he was moved to a new home. Most adoption stories talk about infants, not older children who can have conversations about all of the changes in their lives and feel complex emotions about their new parent or parents.

I would have like to see more development of the plot. There were a few fascinating references to other animals staring unkindly at this unconventional family and to the puppy wishing his fur was the same color as his mom’s fur. Both of these issues would be great topics for exploring what it means to be a family and why some children aren’t the same race as their foster or adoptive parents, so I was surprised by the fact that the author didn’t spend more time showing how these things affected the puppy and how he learned to adjust to his new home.

The cat was such a nurturing parent to her son. She always reassured the puppy when he had questions about the differences between them or when he needed to know that her love for him was unconditional. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a better parent for this shy little puppy. She did a wonderful job of helping him to adjust to his new family and react appropriately to anyone who didn’t understand how a dog could call a cat his mother.

I’d recommend My New Mom & Me to anyone who is part of a family that stands out in a crowd for any reason.

A Hippy-Hoppy Toad by Peggy Archer


A Hippy-Hoppy Toad by Peggy Archer
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Genre: Childrens, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (40 pages)
Age Recommendation: 3+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

From the illustrator of the award-winning Sophie’s Squash comes a rollicking read-aloud featuring a very tiny toad who gets displaced as animals–and humans–brush past him on the road.

In the middle of a puddle
in the middle of a road
on a teeter-totter twig
sat a teeny-tiny toad.
Snap! went the twig!
Up went the toad!
And he landed on a tree
by the side of the road.

It’s hard to be a tiny toad minding your own business on a twig. First a bird pecks at him. . . . Then a bee buzzes. . . . Then a dog barks . . . and so on. And each time the toad is surprised by a buzz or a woof (or the toe of a sneaker!), he hops to a new location farther down the road. With fun sounds, clever rhymes, and an irresistible rhythm, this is the perfect story for sharing one-on-one or in a group.

Anything can happen to tiny toads who climb onto sticks that can’t support their weight.

All of the plants and animals in this ecosystem lived in perfect harmony. Until the toad began accidentally flying through the air, their patch of land was a peaceful and quiet place for everyone to live. The fact that the toad honestly never meant to disrupt any of the things his neighbors were doing only made me more curious to see what kind of mischief he might find himself in next.

I wish that this tale had explained why the twig in the opening scene snapped. That action set all of the frog’s future adventures into motion, so it was surprising to me to see it happen without any explanation as to why it occurred. If it had included an explanation, I would have given it a much higher rating. Everything else about it was catchy and worth reading over and over again.

The rhymes were seriously adorable. I especially liked the section that talked about the tiny toad tumbling to a flower in the park by the road. The imagery in that line made me giggle with joy, and I liked the way the author rhymed common words together like that while still finding a creative way to fit everything into her tale. It was even more fun to read out loud than it was to read silently to myself.

A Hippy-Hoppy Toad should be read by anyone who likes stories that are full of friendly rhymes.

Black Panther Little Golden Book by Frank Berrios


Black Panther Little Golden Book by Frank Berrios
Publisher: Golden Books
Genre: Childrens, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (24 pages)
Age Recommendation: 3+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Marvel’s Black Panther springs to life in his first ever action-packed Little Golden Book!

Meet Marvel’s Black Panther! As an Avenger, this super hero uses his strength, speed, and unbreakable claws to pounce evil-doers! Boys and girls ages 2-5 will love this action-packed Little Golden Book as they learn about the Black Panther–from his Wakandan origins to his powers as well as his friends and foes.

Whether you’re visiting Wakanda again or for the first time, now is always the right moment to explore it.

My favorite scene was the one that showed how Black Panther rescued innocent people who were in danger as a result of the dangerous decisions his antagonists made. One of the reasons why I like this superhero so much has to do with how hard he works to save everyone who crosses his path even if he has to put himself in serious danger to do it. That’s an admirable thing to do, and it was explored well in this storybook.

I would have liked to see more time being spent developing the plot of this story. It did an excellent job of describing who Black Panther was and why he was so powerful, but there wasn’t a lot of energy being devoted to giving this character a villain to fight or a problem to solve. I started reading with the assumption that I’d love this tale just like I loved the film, so it was disappointing to have so little substance to work with.

The best section was the one that described where Black Panther’s abilities came from. They weren’t something he was born with or developed after being bitten by a radioactive spider, so finding out that piece of his past was a little more involved than it would be for some of the other super heroes out there.

Black Panther Little Golden Book is a thorough introduction to this superhero for readers who don’t know anything about him at all.

Ebba, the First Easter Hare by Leen Lefebre

 
Ebba, the First Easter Hare by Leen Lefebre
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Holiday, Historical
Length: Short Story (80 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

King Stern rules over a dark empire of hares. His brother Atta leaves. Before his love Hulde gives birth to their first child, he wants to find a field of his own, bathing in light. Every day Hulde runs to the frontier, where she stands on the lookout for Atta. But then the baby arrives, too soon.

At a rapid pace, Princess Ebba grows into a smart child. Hulde notices that this curious girl resembles Atta more and more – and that is not a gift. When they discover an abandoned bird’s nest in a rabbit cave, Ebba wants to go on a trip just like her father. But, is she as brave as him?

No one is ever too small or too young to make a difference in the world.

Ebba was such a compassionate and brave character. She lived in a world that was full of danger for hares and other animals, and she knew the risks she was taking when she decided to break the rules of her society. I liked her as soon as I met her, but seeing her decide to break those rules no matter what the consequences would be made me like her even more than I already did.

This story had a slow beginning. Roughly the first third of it was spent introducing the characters and exploring the world they lived in. As interested as I was in what it would be like to be part of a hare kingdom, this didn’t leave enough space for Princess Ebba’s later adventures once she grew old enough to leave her mother. It would have been nice to have more time to get to know Ebba after she discovered what was in the next and decided how she was going to react to it.

The ending made me smile. Not only did it fit Ebba’s personality perfect, it tied up all of the important loose ends of the plot that hadn’t been resolved yet. While I would like to know what happened next in her life because of how much I liked this character, I was also satisfied by what the narrator shared about what happened to her as she grew older.

I’d recommend Ebba, the First Easter Hare to anyone who enjoys fantasy adventure tales.

Monsters Eat Whiny Children by Bruce Eric Kaplan


Monsters Eat Whiny Children by Bruce Eric Kaplan
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Genre: Childrens, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Holiday, Horror, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (40 pages)
Age Recommendation: 6+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Dad has warned Henry and Eve: If you whine too much, monsters will eat you. Henry and Eve don’t listen, of course. The only problem is, when the monster comes, he can’t find the right recipe for whiny children—and neither can his monster friends! A whiny child salad doesn’t work because there’s paprika in the dressing. A whiny child cake won’t do because the flour spills all over the floor. And whiny child burgers are out of the question because the grill is too hard to light up. Arguments and hilarity ensue. And just when our persnickety monsters decide on the perfect dish…the worst thing of all happens….

Sometimes deciding what to make for dinner is the hardest part of the day. This is true even for monster who are planning to turn human children into the main ingredient of it.

The premise of this tale caught my attention immediately. I’ve always loved children’s fiction that has a dark side, especially if it includes the horror genre in a playful way. The best moments of Eve and Henry’s adventures were the ones that showed what can happen to kids who refuse to stop whining. Not only were they funny, they taught an important message about communicating your needs without whining.

Most of this jokes in this book seemed to be geared to adults instead of kids. For example, one of the monsters decided against baking the children into a cake because she was worried about her bottom being too large and she didn’t want to gain any more weight. This isn’t something that most children think about at all, so it was strange to me to see it included in something that was otherwise written for them.

All of the kitchen accidents made me giggle. Cooking, baking, or grilling a delicious dinner isn’t always as easy as it may seem. It turned out that monsters are no better at any of this stuff than the average person is, so there were plenty of mishaps along the way as they decided how they should prepare the human children they’d just caught.

Monsters Eat Whiny Children is a good choice for anyone who loves snarky fiction.

When the World Is Full of Friends by Gillian Shields


When the World Is Full of Friends by Gillian Shields
Publisher: Bloomsbury Childrens Books
Genre: Childrens, Historical
Length: Short Story (32 pages)
Age Recommendation: 3+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

When the world
is full of friends,
the fun and laughter
never ends.

Albert, Tom, Flossie, and Pipkin love to play. And while they have fun inventing games together, their biggest wish is to have friends to share them with. One day, something magical happens. A family of squirrels moves in across the stream! They could be the perfect friends–but how will they cross the stream?

With a little help from Father Rabbit, Albert, Tom, Flossie, and Pipkin will discover just how wonderful it is when the world is full of friends. This touching story from the revered team behind When the World Is Ready for Bed and When the World Was Waiting for You will warm the hearts of readers young and old.

Sometimes you have to put some effort into making a new friend.

Making new friends definitely isn’t always as easy as it seems, especially when it requires solving a problem first. I liked the fact that Albert and his siblings had to plan ahead of time how they might accomplish their goal and then work together to try to achieve it. That’s a good message to share with this age group, and all of these rabbits were excellent role models.

The plot was a little thin. While I was expecting a sweet and gentle tale that was meant for a young and sensitive audience, I would have liked to see the rabbit family work harder to figure out how to cross the stream so they could meet their new friends. There simply wasn’t enough conflict as it was written to keep me interested in reading. Even one more attempt at solving that problem would have been enough for me to choose a much higher rating.

Albert and his family were so cooperative with each other. I enjoyed seeing them brainstorm possible ways to cross the stream safely as a group. They listened to each other nicely and took everyone’s opinions into consideration before they tried one of their ideas. I also appreciated the fact that they explained why some ideas might work better than other ones. Their reasoning made sense, and it also helped me keep reading until the end.

When the World Is Full of Friends would make a peaceful bedtime story.

Ollie’s Easter Eggs by Olivier Dunrea


Ollie’s Easter Eggs by Olivier Dunrea
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Genre: Childrens, Holiday, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (40 pages)
Age Recommendation: 3+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Gossie, Gertie, BooBoo, and Peedie are all dyeing Easter eggs. Ollie wants Easter eggs too and he has a plan on how he’ll get them! Humor and vibrant ink-and-watercolor illustrations fill Olivier Dunrea’s holiday follow-up to Merry Christmas, Ollie. Dunrea again gets the preschooler emotions exactly right, capturing a range of holiday-inspired feelings, from Ollie’s wiggly impatience to be included to the pure joy of the older goslings discovering that Ollie has arranged the best Easter egg hunt of all.

 

What happens when someone breaks all of the rules of an Easter egg hunt?

Ollie made me giggle and shake my head. Not only was he determined to rewrite the rules of Easter egg hunts, he changed the way that game is played without letting anyone know what was happening in advance. His silly approach to this tradition made me want to keep reading until I’d found out what was going to happen once everyone figured out he was the one behind all of the unexpected things that were going on in the plot.

The ending wasn’t satisfying because of how quickly it was all wrapped up. Ollie had gotten into so much mischief earlier on in the storyline that I was looking forward to finding out how his friends would react once they realized something strange was happening. I was disappointed by how little time was spent on this part of the plot when compared to how much foreshadowing there was about it in the beginning.

Finding a good spot to hide eggs is very important during one of these hunts. It shouldn’t be too easy or too hard for other players to find. I liked seeing where Gossie, Gertie, BooBoo, and Peedie originally hid the eggs they’d dyed. They thought of some good places to stash eggs before the festivities began. If not for Ollie’s decision to break the rules, their hiding spots would have remained safe until the game officially began.

Ollie’s Easter Eggs should be read by anyone who has started counting down the days until Easter arrives.

The Last First Daughter by Abbie Fine


The Last First Daughter by Abbie Fine
Publisher: Evernight Publishing
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (262 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Lindy is the only surviving member of the First Family.

During the first television broadcast in a decade, direct from the White House, terrorists attack. Eighteen-year-old Lindy escapes thanks to her secret service officer, Henry, and now finds her country under the control of a cruel, oppressive regime—and she and Henry the targets of a countrywide manhunt.

Using fake identities and Lindy’s engineering skills, which allow her to build a network of radios, Lindy and Henry join a group planning to fight back against the new regime. Lindy must decide if she can sacrifice the relationship closest to her heart, her safety, and possibly her life to give millions of others hope for their future, and take back the White House.

The only way to stay alive is to keep running.

One of the things I liked the most about this book was how much common sense all of the characters had. When they were in dangerous circumstances they paid close attention to their surroundings and took all of the precautions they could to stay safe. This is something I always enjoy finding when I’m reading about people who live in places where there’s no such thing as a hospital or police station in every community anymore. I would be cautious in that kind of environment, so it’s nice to read about characters who take the same sensible approach.

The romantic subplot felt completely out of place to me. There were so many serious and time-sensitive things going on in Lindy’s life that I really didn’t understand why she was spending so much energy on her crush. This behavior didn’t fit her personality, and it also felt odd in a plot that was so full of other conflicts. While I liked the idea of these characters eventually exploring the possibility of a relationship, it would have worked better in a sequel that didn’t have so many other storylines happening simultaneously.

Lindy was a brave and resourceful young woman. The world she lived in was a dangerous one, and she knew just how quickly things could go terribly wrong for her if she made the wrong move. I really liked seeing her adjust from life as the sheltered daughter of a world leader to the one she lead as someone who was always on the run. She handled that transition really well.

There were pacing issues. This was something I noticed most heavily in the middle of this story. Lindy and Henry spent so much time planning their next move in that section that I had trouble keeping up my interest in what would happen to them next. As much as I liked seeing how seriously they took the various steps in their mission, I would have preferred to see them begin to carry them out much more quickly than they did.

With that being said, the world building was well done. I was especially interested in the scenes that talked about how ordinary people survived after they realized they could no longer count on the government for any kind of help at all. Farming is a difficult profession, and the narrator got that point across nicely while also showing the upside of people being required to grow or trade for everything they needed.

I’d recommend The Last First Daughter to anyone who is looking for romantic science fiction.

Cast No Shadows Anthology


Cast No Shadows by Jordan Elizabeth, Derek McFadden, Grace M. DeLeesie, Ashley Pasco, Al Dorantes,‎ Kae P. Quinn, Tracina Cozza, Heather Talty, James McNally, Gloria Slade, C.K. Raggio, A.F. Plant, W.K. Pomeroy, A. Elizabeth Zumchak, Misha Murphy, Joan O. Scharf, Nicole Green, Lorna MacDonald Czarnota, Jeremy Mortis, Amy L. Gale, Lisa Oak, Rachel Pond, Grant Eagar, Clare Weze, Molly Jauregui, Christine Baker
Publisher: Curiosity Quills Press
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror, Holiday, Contemporary, Historical
Length: Full Length (479 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Welcome to the shadowed woods, where the trees breathe with ghosts and the wind whispers of the past.

Twenty-six authors take you through haunted houses and cemeteries with tales that will chill.

Beware the dark, for the spirits await you.

No two ghosts are like in this anthology! Just like humans, they can be sad, frightening, sentimental, and even kind.

“Ghostly Affection” followed the friendship of a ghost child and a little boy name Tommy she first met when he was sent to live at the foster home she’d been haunting. They grew up together but were always bothered by the fact that Tommy was the only person who could see her and that neither of them ever noticed other ghosts in the same predicament. The plot twists were really well done. I didn’t see most of them coming, and the ones I did figure out in advance still managed to surprise me in many other ways. What made them even better was how they were all resolved in the last scene. It was the perfect ending to something I enjoyed quite a bit.

This collection was uneven. There were stories I loved just as they were and others I thought could have used more polishing. “Moving In with the Ghost” was one of the ones that could have benefited from some extra development. As much as I liked the idea of a family knowing in advance that they were moving into a haunted home and choosing to live there anyway, Daniel and Geri sure didn’t take that warning seriously. These characters weren’t developed enough for me to know if this was unusual for them or if they were unwilling to take advice in general. Not being sure what their personalities were like in general made it hard for me to empathize with them once paranormal things began happening in their new home.

In “Graveyard Dust,” Emma realized she had special powers after both of her parents died. She began to have conversations with her mother’s ghost in the graveyard. Eventually, she began to make plans to attend a dance after getting advice from her mother and the other spirits. What I enjoyed the most about Emma’s life were all of its references to a famous fairy tale that were embedded into it. Seeing how the author reinterpreted those scenes to better fit the paranormal genre made me smile.

If you’re looking for something spooky, Cast No Shadows is a good place to start.