Pumpkinhead by Eric Rohmann

Pumpkinhead by Eric Rohmann
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genre: Children’s, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Holiday, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (32 pages)
Age Recommendation: 6+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Otho was born with a pumpkin for a head. And despite what one might think, he was not seen as a curiosity by his family. So begins this brilliantly droll tale of a very unusual boy. Otho loses his pumpkin head–quite literally–when a bat decides it would make a good home. And despite what one might think, this is not the end for Otho, but the beginning of a great adventure. Is Otho’s story a parable? A cautionary tale? A celebration of the individual? A head trip? That is something each reader (and Otho) will have to decide. . . . .

There’s nothing wrong with being born a little different from everyone else. In fact, sometimes it’s the best possible thing that could happen to someone!

The dialogue was adorable. I especially liked seeing how other characters reacted to Otho when they met him. They often made funny, lighthearted comments about him. That wasn’t really something I was expecting to see happen at all when I first began reading, so it was nice to see him being treated so well.

I would have liked to see more details included in this book in general. Everything from how Otho’s parents reacted when they realized their child had been born with a pumpkin for a head to what happened to him when he lost his head was brushed over. The author had a lot of interesting material to work with, and yet he didn’t spend much time at all describing what Otho’s life was like before, during, or after the loss of his head. Had this happened, I would have chosen a much higher rating for it as the storyline itself was fantastic.

With that being said, this was one of the most quirky and creative Halloween tales I’ve read recently. The plot twists were handled beautifully, especially when it came to what happened to Otho while his head and body were separated. No, those scenes were never gross or scary. They were playful instead, and that was a great choice for this age group.

Pumpkinhead was an imaginative adventure that I’d recommend to anyone who is looking for a non-frightening Halloween story.

Soul Siphon by T.L. Branson

Soul Siphon by T.L. Branson
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Historical
Length: Short Story (20 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Rating: 4 Stars
Review by Astilbe

Alexander Drygo, king of Sunbury, is reeling from the loss of his wife. Despite his best efforts using an incredible power, she is no longer among the living.

When a rival kingdom seeks to take advantage of this delicate time in Drygo’s life, he is thrust into a battle for the future of his kingdom.

Can he save his people where he could not save his queen?

There’s no room for hesitation in a battle for your city and your very life.

This was a beautifully descriptive story. The author showed the characters and setting in such vivid detail that I couldn’t stop reading it. At times it felt like I was watching a movie play out in my mind instead of reading words on a page. I happily lost myself in the plot as I waited to discover what would happen next and whether the main character would successfully beat back his enemies.

I would have liked to see a little more time spent on character development, especially when it came to everyone other than Alexander. While I was quickly able to figure out what a brave and stubborn man he was, it was more difficult for me to determine what the personalities of the people around him were like. Had the plot given me a few more clues about their personalities, this tale would have easily earned a much higher rating from me as I loved everything else about it.

The battle scenes were fast-paced and exciting. Alexander was clearly skilled in sword fighting, so I was eager to see how he’d handle both the easier fights in the beginning as well as the big one he’d need to win to defend his city and his people. The more I saw of his swordsmanship, the more respect I had for him as a king as well as a person. He knew exactly what he was doing and what he’d need to do to win.

Soul Siphon kept me glued to my seat until the final scene. This is a fantastic choice for anyone who is in the market for a spellbinding adventure.

Brave New Girls: Girls Who Science and Scheme Edited by Mary Fan and Paige Daniels

Brave New Girls: Girls Who Science and Scheme by Edited by Mary Fan and Paige Daniels
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery, Action/Adventure, Contemporary, Historical
Length: Full Length (423 pages)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Dive into a universe of sci-fi wonders.

This collection of sci-fi shorts features a variety of brainy young heroines—girls who engineer, tinker, experiment, and more. Voyage to far-off galaxies with girls who use their science savvy to fix rovers, rescue friends, and protect alien critters. Visit steampunk realms where young ladies put their skills to the test building mechanical wonders and solving mysteries. Trek across sci-fi landscapes with girls who save androids and repair robots. Journey to post-apocalyptic futures where heroines use their tech know-how to bring down overlords and spread the most dangerous thing of all… knowledge. And drop in on a few near-future heroines who use their smarts to take down supervillains and bring a little more understanding into the world.

Proceeds from sales of this anthology will be donated to a scholarship fund through the Society of Women Engineers. Let’s show today’s girls that they, too, can be tomorrow’s inventors, programmers, scientists, and more.

T. Eric Bakutis, Elisha Betts, Steph Bennion, Bryna Butler, Margaret Curelas, Paige Daniels, Kay Dominguez, Brandon Draga, George Ebey, Mary Fan, A.A. Jankiewicz, Evangeline Jennings, Jamie Krakover, Jeanne Kramer-Smyth, Stephen Landry, Karissa Laurel, Michelle Leonard, Meg Merriet, Jelani-Akin Parham, Josh Pritchett, Holly Schofield, and Lisa Toohey.

Featuring artwork by Hazel Butler, Sonya Craig, Ken Dawson, Evelinn Enoksen, Ben Falco, Kathy Ferrell, Christopher Godsoe, Evangeline Jennings, Deanna Laver, Jennifer L. Lopez, Jelani Akin Parham, Josh Pritchett, Emily Smith, and Jennifer Stolzer.

There’s no such thing as too much science in these universes.

Morrigan and her niece, Cethlenn, struggled to avoid getting sucked into a black hole in “The Non-Existence of Gravity.” While I can’t say why they ended up in such a predicament in the first place without giving away spoilers, I can say that their reaction to such a dangerous fate made it impossible for me to stop reading. They were so brave and quick-thinking that I simply had to know what would happen to them next, and I was quite pleased with how they reacted as soon as they realized something was terribly wrong.

As much as I enjoyed all of the storylines, there were a few sections that could have benefitted from more development. For example, the premise of “In A Whole New Light” caught my attention right away. Nina, the main character who was biracial, tried to figure out how to make her cousin stop mocking her for her race and interest in the Black Lives Matter movement. Her life was full of many interesting ideas that could have easily been expanded into a full-length novel, although it worked quite well at its current length, too. What I would have liked to see done with Nina’s adventures, though, was to spend more time on how she came up with her futuristic plan to change her cousin’s opinion of black and biracial people. Her solution was brilliant, but it wasn’t exactly something I’d expect the average 15-year-old to pull off. If that part of the plot had been given more time to shine, this would have easily beaten “The 17th Quadrennial Intergalactic Neo-Cultural Expo and Science Fair” as my favorite tale in this collection.

In “The 17th Quadrennial Intergalactic Neo-Cultural Expo and Science Fair,” Alice, Jay, and Hayden were putting the finishing touches on their science fair project when the life support system on their ship suddenly failed. They only had about 40 minutes to figure out what to do before they ran out of oxygen, and none of the adults in their community were around to help them. What an exciting premise that was! These characters had to think hard in order to make any progress at all at reaching their goal to save themselves and everyone else. I spent most of their adventure seriously wondering how they were going to survive and if they would fix their ship in time. It was so interesting to see how the plot unfolded.

I liked this anthology even more than I did the first one in this series, Brave New Girls: Tales of Girls and Gadgets. While they definitely don’t have to be read in order, I would recommend checking out the first instalment to anyone who enjoys this one.

Brave New Girls: Girls Who Science and Scheme was a creative collection of short stories that should be read by both young adult and adult fans of science fiction.

The Border by Steve Schafer

The Border by Steve Schafer
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Genre: Contemporary, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full Length (342 Pages)
Age Recommendation: 16+
Rating: 5 Stars
Review by: Stargazer

BoM LASR YA copy

One moment changed their lives forever.

A band plays, glasses clink, and four teens sneak into the Mexican desert, the hum of celebration receding behind them.

Crack. Crack. Crack.

Not fireworks―gunshots. The music stops. And Pato, Arbo, Marcos, and Gladys are powerless as the lives they once knew are taken from them.

Then they are seen by the gunmen. They run. Except they have nowhere to go. The narcos responsible for their families’ murders have put out a reward for the teens’ capture. Staying in Mexico is certain death, but attempting to cross the border through an unforgiving desert may be as deadly as the secrets they are trying to escape…

Do any of us truly value the life and opportunities that we have? Even by reading this review you have so many more opportunities than others in the world.

The Border is a first person account of the ruthless killing, drug trafficking and greed that proliferates portions of Mexico near the United States border. The four teens lose everything they have ever known when they are caught in the crossfire of a drug war near the border. After they are pursued and a bounty is listed for their capture or deaths, they are forced to cross the border into U.S. territory.

What comes next is heart rendering; the close connections that the friends forge, the shift from living life to simply surviving shows a different side of human nature and a dark reality that we often try not to dwell on. This story brings that reality into perspective and forces the reader to see and understand the pain that each of the characters experience.

Faced with setback after setback, the teens forge ahead with dreams of what life in the U.S. will be like. The author does an amazing job at character development through the entire story. Not a single character remained unchanged, in fact, the author highlights how the characters reflect on their own psychological changes after choices are made that impact the survivability of the entire group.

Just when it seems like everything will be okay, more adversities stand in the way; then when it seems like all hope is lost, there is still the beauty of the human spirit to overcome those adversities. This story brings to life the current political turmoil and debate of immigration but places it in a very different light then what many of us are accustomed to seeing.

Make sure that you do not miss The Border if you want to understand what truly drives the human spirit to push on when all is lost!

The Dreaming Spires by William Kingshart

The Dreaming Spires by William Kingshart
Publisher: Finch Books
Genre: Action/Adventure, Contemporary, Historical, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Short Story (140 pgs)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rating: 5 stars
Review by Aloe

What do you do when the troll at the end of your garden tells you everything you ever believed in is a fantasy and your fantasies are reality?

When Jake moves from California to his new school in Oxford, he knows he is going to a different country, but he doesn’t realize he is entering a whole new world.

His first clue is when Gorm, a nine-foot, three-thousand-year-old Irish gnome, appears at the foot of his garden and gives him three special powers—powers that are of absolutely no use to him—or so he thinks.

But when things start getting really weird and Jake discovers that there’s an ancient prince from Tír na nÓg who is out to get not only him and the girl he is in love with but the whole of mankind, too, he also discovers that the powers Gorm has given him are more useful than he could ever have dreamed possible.

Jake knew that moving from California to England would mean some changes in his life. What he didn’t realize was just how much it would change and what direction that change would make…

The author has a very good imagination and when he introduces a nine foot tall gnome who is always eating while visiting, it’s just the beginning of strange creatures vexing Jake. He’s told he’s a changeling. He’s given a necklace from his mother (the one he never knew), and he’s told about his powers. He’s not impressed by the powers. He can’t turn invisible or anything. But the ones he gets are the ones that will help keep him alive!

The pace of the story is fast and there’s action on almost every page. He has a bully after him, a girl he’s interested in, and a good friend that stands by him in thick and thin. He’s going to need him.

He has more than one quest, he’s facing danger from the fae world, and his fae brother is trying to kill him. In the meantime, he has to convince the powers that be to change their minds and stop drilling in the ocean. The points he makes about the climate changes and the damages humans are doing to the earth are real. With no changes, we might see the type of collapse Jake was trying hard to stop.

It reads fast, is a fun read, has lots of fantastic characters and you find yourself rooting for Jake, even if he is the underdog. Sometimes just sticking with it makes a difference. He’s trying to save the girl he loves, so he has a good cause. Young readers will want to be as good as he is with a sword or bow.

A Poem for Britain by S.W. Wilcox

A Poem for Britain by S.W. Wilcox
Bards of Fantasia: (Book 1)

Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Historical
Length: Short Story (124 pages)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

IF YOU EVER WONDERED how future teens might interact with Arthurian figures, in terms of intellect and technology…

Two lab partners trek the coasts of the United Kingdom in 635 AD, encountering prototypes of the King Arthur myths. Their time-travel mission? Change the past just enough to forestall a 22nd century nuclear war. Their main weapon? Music. To meet the greatest Dark Age legends face to face is something any can dream of but few may hope to see.

Yet for young Skall & Dor, the chance of a lifetime is their sole alternative to chaos and despair. But history is a lonely place to pursue justice! Their compound’s fuel all but gone, the two youths are equipped only with their portal-opening device & guitars. The duo then bravely leap into a time gate before school-turned-fortress can cut power to the lab.

Time travel is only for the bravest souls.

The gods and other mythical beings in this tale were a lot of fun. As Dor said, “Gods: first uncaring as stone and then a wreck like teens in love – a mystery for the ages.” I never knew what to expect from them next, and that made me keep reading to see what zany things they’d say or do when or if the main characters crossed their paths again.

This story didn’t include enough details about what was happening in it. I had trouble immersing myself in the plot because of this. It was hard to imagine what the settings looked like or what it would be like to meet the characters because there were so few references to stuff like that. While I enjoyed the fast pacing in general, I needed a lot more information about what was happening with the characters so that I could get to know them well enough to worry about them when they found themselves in danger.

The dialogue was written well. There were a few different times when one of the characters came up with a coy response to something someone else said that made me laugh out loud. I also appreciated the fact that all of the main characters had such unique voices. It was easy to tell who was speaking because of how differently each person spoke. Skall used words in ways that Dor never would, and vice versa.

I’d recommend Bards of Fantasia: (Book 1) A Poem for Britain to anyone who really likes time travel.

Wyshea Shadows by Geoffrey Saign

Wyshea Shadows by Geoffrey Saign
– Divided Draghons Book One

Publisher: KiraKu Press
Genre: Action/Adventure, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Young Adult
Length: Full (307 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet
Age:  16+
Rating: Best Book
Review by: Orchid

A hundred-year-war that won’t end…

Three young women sworn to kill each other…

Famere, the wyshea butcher, seeks vengeance with loyal mythic beasts called shadows, Jennelle, commander of the Northerners, fights for her people’s survival using brilliant strategies, Camette, a wild divided draghon, searches for her kidnapped lover…Famere, Jennelle, and Camette must discover who is friend or enemy, who is responsible for the hundred-year dark sky and death mists, and if the men they adore will still love them.

From the award-winning author of WhipEye Chronicles comes the new epic fantasy series, Divided Draghons—an action-packed thriller with mystery, romance, and battles set in a world as beautiful, dangerous, and mysterious as the three heroic women—Famere, Jennelle, and Camette—who must fight for their people’s survival and the men they love.

The debut fantasy book from Geoffrey Saign, Wyshea Shadows, is a new addition to the great epic fantasy tradition of Dean Murray, Marc Secchia, and Ava Richardson.

When Famere unexpectedly becomes the Wyshea Guide instead of her proposed bond mate, she also bonds with the shadows who have returned after many decades away. With their help she leads her people to war, earning herself the nickname of Wyshea Butcher.

Jenelle becomes the leader of the Northerners after her father is killed by Famere. These two very intelligent women are the main pivot of the story, each a leader of her people, neither willing to allow the other races of the world to overrun their domains.

There are good books and there are great books, Wyshea Shadows is a great book. It’s too long to read all in one go, but I would have done this if it had been possible. There are male characters in this story, and they play strong roles, but the females are not overshadowed by them. The weaving together of males and females, the different races, magicians and wyshea is skilfully done. This is well crafted with a good flow between the different races and a strong story which is a pleasure to read. Excellent.

Snow Island by M.Y. Zeman

Snow Island by M.Y. Zeman
Chronicles of a Wererabbit

Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (250 pages)
Age Recommendation: 16+
Heat Level: Sensual
Rating: 4 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Vampires, werewolves, unicorns, pterodactyls, and other creatures from myth or brought back from extinction.

A deadly monorail with an insanely cheery Artificial Intelligence tour guide.

A fortune teller’s frighteningly accurate prediction of death…

Snow Island begins five months after Snow Bunny with Snow, now 15, receiving an ominous prediction from a fortune teller. She travels to a mysterious island with Josh, her dads, her friends David and Charlene to find out what happened to the creatures and werewolves that have been disappearing.

Chronicles of Wererabbit—a young adult paranormal/fantasy series about a girl who can shift into a rabbit and her journey to become a hero.

There’s never been an island quite like this one before.

Snow’s character development continued to surprise me in all kinds of wonderful ways. I liked her quite a bit in the beginning of this series, but seeing how she’s changed over the course of the first three tales of her life has only made me love her more than I ever have before. She has such a sweet and playful personality that I always look forward to seeing what she’ll do next.

There was a lot of violence in this story. While I deeply enjoyed the plot itself, I’m cautious about what age range I’d recommend it to because of how often various characters were harmed in sometimes pretty terrible ways. There was a disconnect between scenes like these and the overall tone of the plot that seemed to be written for much younger readers. If the author decides to continue this series, I hope the target audience will be made more clear as the storytelling itself was excellent.

The creatures living on the island that Snow and her companions travelled to were deliciously frightening. All of the descriptions of them were so vivid that I almost felt as though they were creeping up behind me when I read about all of the ways they could possibly harm someone. There were some incredibly creative twists here about what dangerous creatures look like and and what they’re capable of.

This is the third book in a series. It can be read on its own or out of order.

Snow Island: Chronicles of a Wererabbit made me grin. I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who is in the mood for an adventure.

Battlefield by J.S. Frankel

Battlefield by J.S. Frankel
The Titans of Ardana 2

Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (235 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 4 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Martin Calder and his girlfriend, Dana—no last name given—are back. Possessing superpowers, Martin joins up with Dana to fight crime throughout their adopted city of Baltimore. Fighting crime on Earth is easy, but when an old enemy from Dana’s world, Ardana, returns to wreak havoc and seek vengeance, it will take more than anyone can possibly give to defeat him. Sometimes, though, giving everything isn’t enough.

Every day is a new battle when you’re fighting an impossible strong alien.

My review of the first story in this series talked about Martin not having much character development in it. It made me happy to see how much he grew in this sequel. His basic personality remained the same, but he matured in all kinds of wonderful ways. It was especially intersting to see how he changed as a result of some information about his past that came to light. I can’t say anything else about that part of the plot without giving away spoilers, but I liked how Mr. Frankel connected this character’s past and present. Martin’s evolution made perfect sense because of it.

I would have liked to see Dana get more attention from the plot. She was such a strong presence when they first met that I was a bit surprised by the less active role she played this time around. If these characters get the chance to share more of their adventures, I hope she’ll be given more chances to shine. Dana has a lot of talents, and I’d love to see her show them off. With that being said, this is a minor criticism of something I otherwise enjoyed quite a bit.

One of my favorite things Mr. Frankel’s writing style is how well he writes action scenes. He has a way of drawing a reader into the middle of a battle so completely that I can never stop reading when one of them begins. I simply have to know how it ends, and there were a lot of those moments in this tale! It was especially interesting to see what kinds of weapons the aliens used. Some of them were nothing like what humans have. They made the fight scenes even more exciting than they already were.

This book is the second in a series. It can be read a standalone work, although I would also recommend checking out The Titans of Ardana if you had a good time with this one.

If you like adventure, take The Titans of Ardana 2: Battlefield for a spin.

Last Voyage a the Vengeferth by G.A. Schindler

Last Voyage a the Vengeferth by G.A. Schindler
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Middle Grade, Action/Adventure, Historical
Length: Short Story (130 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

An adventure tale pitting man against nature. The Vengeferth pirates meet a great white shark, then they’re capsized by a rogue wave. Seven crewmen escape the overturned ship to spend months a’ sea in a smallboat. During that time they share stories from their lives. They encounter the Crazy Cousin, a foundering ship with a broken pump and a belly full of water. And she has more problems.

Anything can happen when the only thing standing between you and bad weather is a single ship.

What an adventure this was! The wave that capsized the Vengeferth made me shudder, but it was what happened to her crew afterwards that kept me so interested in the plot. The stories the characters told about their previous lives were just as entertaining as their attempts to live on almost nothing but raw fish for months on end while they waited to be rescued.

I had trouble keeping track of all of the characters. There were a lot of them, and the narrator didn’t spend quite enough time explaining what everyone’s job was on the ship. This made it hard to remember who was who and which backstory belonged to which character. It would have been helpful to have more time to absorb this information before their troubles started. I often had to stop and double-check this stuff to clear up my confusion.

To be honest with you, it did take me some time to get used to the dialect that the characters spoke in this tale. Once I did, though, I really liked how colorful it was. Sailors definitely wouldn’t worry about speaking proper English, so it made perfect sense for them to speak so casually. I’m glad I took the time to figure out what they were saying in the beginning. It quickly became worth that little bit of extra effort.

Last Voyage a the Vengeferth was a wild adventure that I’d recommend to anyone who is looking to sail the high seas.