Small Saul by Ashley Spires


Small Saul by Ashley Spires
Publisher: Kids Can Press
Genre: Childrens, Action/Adventure, Historical
Length: Short Story (32 pages)
Age Recommendation: 3+
Rating: 4 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

From the creator of Binky the Space Cat, a hilarious story about an unconventional little pirate.

Ahoy there! Will this sweet little pirate find his place aboard The Rusty Squid or will he be forced to walk the plank?

When Small Saul joins the crew of The Rusty Squid, it doesn’t take long for the other pirates to notice something is very different about this tiny fellow. He was born to sing sea shanties, bake pineapple upside down cakes and redecorate, not to hold a sword and plunder. Being rough and tough just isn’t in his nature.

Small Saul learned at Pirate College that pirates only care about three things: their ship, being tough and lots and lots of treasure. Can Small Saul show these ruffians that despite his gentle spirit, he’s worth his weight in gold? With treasure chests of laughs, Small Saul’s high-seas adventure is a light-hearted celebration of individuality, perseverance and being true to one’s self.

If you’ve ever struggled to fit in, keep reading.

This story had so much compassion for kids who have quirky personalities or interests. Small Saul was far more interested in cooking delicious food than he was in being aggressive, and that was only one of the many ways in which he was nothing at all like his peers. I loved seeing the friendly way the narrator treated this character and, by extension, all of the young kids hearing this tale who had their own special ways of relating to the world. There is enough room in the world for every type of personality to flourish, and Ms. Spires did a very good job at making Saul a relatable and wonderful role model for his audience.

I would have liked to see a little more attention paid to why Saul decided to be a pirate in the first place. While the plot did briefly talk about why this character picked a job that was so wildly different from his interests in life, I was surprised by how many other aquatic careers that might have suited him better weren’t even considered when Saul was deciding what he wanted to do with his life. With that being said, this was a minor criticism of a tale that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that showed the humorous side of being an unconventional pirate. Saul’s shipmates seriously didn’t know what to make of him when he first began sailing with them. He was a kind, sensitive guy who didn’t care about sword fights or stealing treasure. They were stereotypical pirates in every way, from their stinky living quarters to their obsession with becoming wealthy one day. The sharp contrast between him and them lead to several funny moments that made me giggle out loud.

Small Saul should be read by people of all ages who love pirates or who dance to the beat of their own drum.

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.

Master Fantastic by J.S. Frankel


Master Fantastic by J.S. Frankel
Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Horror, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (226 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

High school student Paul Coleman’s life is an ordinary one. His existence takes a turn for the extraordinary when he and his best friend, Rory, are attacked by a winged demon one day. The demon, which calls itself Hekla, possesses the power of sound, and kills Rory with its scream. Paul survives, but the force from the blast has left him mainly deaf. A year later, Paul is out of school, working part-time, and is fearful of going deaf forever. Although he has learned sign language well, he wonders where his life will go. All that changes when Montague (Monty) Trillian, also known as Master Fantastic, enters his life and requests his services as a sign language teacher for his daughter, Myrna. Paul accepts, and soon finds out that Trillian is not just any magician, but an Elementalist, one capable of wielding the four elements of Earth with ease. He can also open portals to other worlds, and often does so, visiting those of earth, water, and fire. Many adventures follow, and Paul and Myrna grow close, but Hekla returns and demands Myrna be given to her. It seems that Myrna is the product of a union between Monty and Hekla, and like all mothers, she desires to protect her own. Now, Paul must do everything he can to save Myrna from being used for a fate far worse than death, and only the abilities of Master Fantastic can save them all—or can they?

There’s more to magic tricks than you might think.

This book had one of the most attention-grabbing beginnings that I’ve ever read. The demon’s attack on Paul and his friend was terrifying and life changing. Yes, there were grisly moments to it, too, but the gore had a purpose and it fit into the rest of the storyline beautifully. What made this scene even more powerful was how severely it affected Paul’s life long after that day ended. He reacted with just as much trauma as anyone would after seeing the violent death of a friend. As difficult as it was to see this character in so much emotional pain, it also pulled me into the plot and made it impossible to stop reading.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about the romantic subplot was how much the characters involved in it had in common. I can’t remember the last time I read a tale about two deaf or hard-of-hearing people falling in love, so it was nice to see it happen here. The similarities between these characters didn’t end there, though. Everything from their senses of humor to their ideas about how to spend their free time was so complementary that I wanted them to end up together as soon as I realized there was a spark between them.

The world building was fantastic. This was true not only for Earth but also for the other places that Paul and his employers explored every time a portal opened. Every single setting was described in such great detail that I felt like I’d been there myself once I finished reading about them. Any one of them would have made me want to give this story a five star rating. The fact that this happened so many times made it impossible for me to pick any other rating!

Master Fantastic is a must-read for anyone who loves magic in any form.

Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke

Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke
Publisher: First Second
Genre: Childrens, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Action/Adventure, Historical
Length: Short Story (40 pages)
Age Recommendation: 6+
Rating: 5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Goblin, a cheerful little homebody, lives in a cosy, rat-infested dungeon, with his only friend, Skeleton. Every day, Goblin and Skeleton play with the treasure in their dungeon. But one day, a gang of “heroic” adventurers bursts in. These marauders trash the place, steal all the treasure, and make off with Skeleton—leaving Goblin all alone!

It’s up to Goblin to save the day. But first he’s going to have to leave the dungeon and find out how the rest of the world feels about goblins.

The world looks completely different when it’s viewed through the eyes of a goblin.

This was such an inventive twist on what happens in the typical fantasy tale. I’d never thought about what the average quest must look like from the perspective of the monsters whose homes and lives are turned upside down. What humans see as an adventure had a completely different meaning when the storyline focused on how they disrupted the quiet life of a goblin and skeleton who never meant to do any harm to anyone.

Goblin was such a loyal friend to Skeleton. I loved seeing them spend time playing together in the beginning, and I couldn’t wait to find out if Goblin would be able to rescue his buddy from the humans who kidnapped him. The thought of them never seeing each other again made me sad. I hoped Goblin would find a way to figure out where Skeleton had been taken, but I had no idea how that might happen. The further away from home his journey took him, the more curious I became to see what would happen next.

I really appreciated how understated the message of this tale was. It had a lot of important things to say about the dangers of negative stereotypes and how everyone should treat people they don’t know, but the narrator never sermonized the points they were trying to make. Instead, the audience was given many opportunities to see what happens when someone jumps to the worst possible conclusion without taking any time to reflect on what is really happening around them. This is something that adult readers can enjoy just as much as kids because of how open-ended the questions the narrator raised were and how much freedom the audience was given to think about what they’d read.

Nobody Likes a Goblin was the most creative children’s story I’ve read so far this year. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater


The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater
Publisher: Beach Lane Books
Genre: Childrens, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Historical
Length: Short Story (48 pages)
Age Recommendation: 6+
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

An inquisitive fox sets off on a seafaring voyage with a crew of deer and pigeons in this enchanting tale of friendship and adventure.

Marco the fox has a lot of questions, like: how deep does the sun go when it sinks into the sea? And why do birds have such lizardy feet? But none of the other foxes share his curiosity. So when a magnificent ship adorned with antlers and with a deer for a captain arrives at the dock looking for a crew, Marco volunteers, hoping to find foxes who are as inquisitive as he is that can answer his questions. The crew finds adventure and intrigue on their journey. And, at last, Marco finds the answer to his most important question of all: What’s the best way to find a friend you can talk to?

Marco can’t stop wondering about how the world works. Will he find the answers he seeks?

One of my favorite things about this book was how curious Marco was about the world. Not only he was a very smart fox, he was a persistent one as well. He never stopped asking questions even when the other animals around him didn’t understand what he was asking or didn’t know how to respond to him. The better I got to know him, the more I hoped that he’d figure out all of the stuff he couldn’t stop wondering about.

I would have liked to see the fantasy elements of this story explained better. Marco and the other animals regularly did things that animals normally aren’t capable of without any explanation given for how or when they learned to do that stuff. It felt odd to me to ignore this since it played such a huge role in how the plot developed. Even a sentence or two that talked about where their abilities came from would have been enough of an explanation for me.

Anything can happen when a ship is sailing on the ocean. I enjoyed all of the plot twists that snuck up on the characters while they were exploring their world. Some of them made me laugh, and others made me wonder how Marco and his friends would solve the problems they faced while they were traveling. If Ms. Slater ever decides to write a sequel, I’d sure like to find out what happens to these characters next.

The Antlered Ship should be read by anyone who is in the mood for an adventure.

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman


Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Childrens, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Historical
Length: Short Story (128 pages)
Age Recommendation: 8+
Rating: 5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Written by New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by UK Laureate Chris Riddell, this new edition of the thrilling, wintry Nordic tale weaves a truly magical story of legend and adventure that will grip and enchant readers from beginning to end. This new edition is heavily illustrated and has an oversize trim, much like the New York Times bestselling The Sleeper and the Spindle.

Odd, a young Viking boy, is left fatherless following a raid, and in his icy, ancient world there is no mercy for an unlucky soul with a crushed foot and no one to protect him. Fleeing to the woods, Odd stumbles upon and releases a trapped bear…and then Odd’s destiny begins to change. The eagle, bear, and fox Odd encounters are Norse gods, trapped in animal form by the evil frost giant who has conquered Asgard, the city of the gods. Now our hero must reclaim Thor’s hammer, outwit the frost giants and release the gods…

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes.

I liked Odd from the first moment he first appeared in the plot. Not only was he a brave kid, he was kind and compassionate as well. He’d been through several difficult experiences before his journey began in this tale, but he didn’t allow those memories to overshadow all of the happier times he hoped were on the way for him.

The adventures that Odd had with the Norse gods he met while spending time alone in the woods were fantastic. Their quest was an exciting one. Asgard was full of all sorts of unusual and wonderful things that have never existed here on Earth. One of my favorite parts of their visit to that land happened at a pool of water that Odd and his friends visited right after they arrived there. It set the scene nicely for everything that happened after that point, and it was also a lot of fun to imagine what it would be like to visit that pool myself.

There’s nothing better than witty dialogue, and this book was full of it. The gods all had funny takes on how they should speak to a young boy who was far away from home and a little frightened. They definitely didn’t seem like they were used to spending time with human children at all. This made some of their conversations with Odd sound delightfully strange, especially when they were trying to reassure him but completely missed the point of what was scaring him.

Odd and the Frost Giants is the perfect choice for anyone who loves fairytales or adventure stories.

The Time Hunters by Carl Ashmore


The Time Hunters by Carl Ashmore
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Contemporary, Historical
Length: Full Length (198 pages)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Becky is a typical thirteen year old girl. She likes Facebook, her friends, and plenty of sleep. So when she and her brother, Joe, are invited to stay with their ‘loony’ Uncle Percy at his stately home, she thinks it’ll be the worst summer ever. What she doesn’t realise is that Bowen Hall is also home to a baby Triceratops, two Sabre-tooth tigers and the mythic hero, Will Scarlet…

‘The Time Hunters’ is a thrilling adventure that takes Becky, Joe, Uncle Percy and Will on a quest through time to find the legendary Golden Fleece.

Even the distant past is only a heartbeat away for anyone who has a time machine.

There are many reasons why I like time travel stories. Two of the biggest reasons why they appeal to me have to do with how cool it would be to actually see an extinct species in person or have a conversation with a famous historical person. Watching Becky and Joe do both of these things was a thrill. They really appreciated the fact that they were experiencing things that should not have been possible, and that made me curious to see how they’d react once their adventures became even more exciting.

The beginning was confusing to me because the plot introduced a large number of characters without describing who most of them were or how they knew each other. When this was combined with the limited amount of time the narrator spent explaining what the main conflicts were and why certain characters were acting so afraid, I struggled even more to understand what was going on. There were too many vague hints and not enough exposition.

One of my favorite parts of this tale was how nicely it was paced. There was a lot going on in the plot, and the author kept everything moving quickly from the first scene to the last one. This strong and even pacing made it difficult for me to take breaks while I was reading. Every chapter had something new and exciting in it, and I wanted to find out what secrets all of them held.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure, look no further than The Time Hunters.

Seer’s Fate: Faylands by Annalisa Ely


Seer’s Fate: Faylands by Annalisa Ely
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Historical
Length: Short Story (46 pages)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Journey through strange lands with stranger companions in this fast-paced fantasy short story, the first of the Seer’s Fate series.

Some adventurer’s guiding force is greed; for others it’s excitement or necessity. Collin Damion just goes where his visions tell him. But now they’re sending him farther than he’s ever gone, into hostile territory where the land itself doesn’t want him. He’ll have to hide every step along the way while trying to help the very people who mustn’t discover him, negotiate unfamiliar terrain, and make nice with magical creatures he’s never heard of before. And this is only the start of a quest that will take him across a continent and into ever greater danger.

But his mission isn’t solo anymore. Each of his companions will have their own motivations, and only together will they reach their goals.

Collin was born different. He’s about to find out what it means to have his special powers and why he isn’t like anyone else in his family.

The plot itself was exciting. I enjoyed the quick pace of it, especially once the individuals who would become Collin’s companions were introduced and their quest really started to get rolling. They sounded like fascinating folks, so I couldn’t wait to see how they’d react to all of the dangerous things they were about to face.

This story would have benefitted from more detail. The narrator spent so little time describing the settings and characters that I had a hard time visualizing what was happening and who it was happening to. It was something I especially noticed when the characters were first being introduced and the narrator spent such a brief amount of time describing who they were and what they looked like.

I liked the way the author included so many different intelligent and human-like races in this universe. Humans weren’t the only ones who lived there by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, humans weren’t even the most interesting group of people either! The more I learned about the other races, the more curious I became to find out what they were like and how they were different from the average homo sapian.

While I understand that this is the first instalment of a series, I would have preferred to see more care taken with how the last scene was written. I was expecting to have plenty of loose ends left to be resolved later on in this series, but I was surprised by how abruptly the storytelling stopped in the last paragraph. There wasn’t a sense of closure for any of the conflicts that the characters had been wrestling with. Having even one of them wrapped up in some way would have gone a long way in keeping this reader satisfied.

The dialogue was nicely written. This wasn’t the kind of tale that had a lot of room to spare for long, drawn-out conversations, so I appreciated the fact that everyone kept their chats short and to the point. That was a good choice for something this fast-paced and full of action.

If you’re in the mood for an adventure, go read Seer’s Fate: Faylands.

Wee Sister Strange by Holly Grant and K.G. Campbell


Wee Sister Strange by Holly Grant and K.G. Campbell
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Genre: Childrens, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (32 pages)
Age Recommendation: 6+
Rating: 5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

They say there’s a girl
Who lives by the woods
In a crooked old house
With no garden but gloom.

She doesn’t have parents.
No one knows her name.

But the people in town
Call her Wee Sister Strange.

Like Emily Winfield Martin’s bestselling Dream Animals, here is a bedtime read-aloud sure to entrance young listeners. Each evening, as the shadows grow long, Wee Sister Strange climbs from her window and runs into the woods. She talks to the owls and rides on a bear. She clambers up trees and dives into the bog. She is searching for something…. She looks far and wide, over forest and marsh. What is it she seeks? Why, it’s a wee bedtime story to help her fall asleep!

Just because the sun has set doesn’t mean it’s time to go to sleep quite yet.

The descriptions in this book were vivid and beautiful. One of my favorite parts of it had to do with the main character’s origins and how the people who live nearby reacted to her unusual habits for a girl of this age. There were just enough details to explain what was going on without making her life seem any less whimsical than it was. I also liked the fact that the author left plenty of room for a possible sequel here. While I don’t know if she’s planning to write it, I’d sure like to read it if she ever does.

All of Wee Sister Strange’s adventures made me smile. I was intrigued by the idea of a young child wandering around in the dark, especially since she was so confident in every corner of the woods. The forest was her playground in so many different ways. This wasn’t necessarily something I was expecting to find, so I was thrilled to see how much she loved doing everything from talking to the animals to going on a late-night swim.

After spending so much time hinting at what the main character was searching for when she ran through the woods alone at night, I couldn’t wait to get an answer to this question. The ending not only satisfied my curiosity, it fit in perfectly with the general tone of this tale. While the blurb does give away part of it, I also appreciated the fact that it left some of the final scene a mystery. It was nice to be pleasantly surprised once I reached that part of the storyline.

Wee Sister Strange was one of the most creative bedtime stories I read this year. It’s a must-read for children and adults alike.

Interstellar by J.S. Frankel


Interstellar by J.S. Frankel
The Titans of Ardana, Book 3

Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (215 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. Their powers are now known to the general public, and their wish is to help out those who need it.

However, those in the law enforcement world aren’t so accepting. Reduced to starring in their own reality show—and messing it up—other, more urgent matters take precedence. The weather has changed, and the sun has started to turn blue. Although it’s a physical impossibility, it has happened. The Earth will freeze in a matter of weeks if nothing is done, and only Martin and Dana can help.

Their journey takes them back to Ardana, Dana’s home world, in search for answers, and subsequent searches send them on a quest across the galaxy where they meet vampires, energy-sapping rays, cat-mole people, and a boy-not-a-boy who may be the answer to everyone’s prayers.

Sometimes, giving everything isn’t enough. Sometimes, you have to give more than that—even your life.

Some problems really are black and white. If Martin and his friends can’t warm the sun up again, everyone will be doomed.

The premise caught my attention immediately. There are plenty of science fiction books out there about global warming, but very few of them talk about what would happen if our sun stopped giving out heat. I was mesmerized by this idea and couldn’t wait to see how it might play out and if Martin would be able to reverse the process before he ran out of time. The more I learned about the rapidly cooling sun, the more curious I became about why it happened and what could be done to save everyone.

There were some mild pacing issues. They were especially noticeable after the narrator had caught the readers up on the important backstory. I expected the plot to need some time to speed up while that was happening, but it remained a little slow for me even after the characters had begun trying to figure out what happened to the sun. With that being said, the pacing problems weren’t serious and I did enjoy the storyline quite a bit overall.

One of the many reasons why I’m such a big fan of Mr. Frankel’s books is that he always comes up with fascinating scientific advances and devices in the worlds he imagines. This tale was no exception to that rule. Not only did the characters find creative ways to stay warm while their sun cooled and their world began to freeze, Martin also stumbled across some science experiments along the way that were as unique as they were attention-grabbing.

This is part of a series, but it can be read as a standalone work.

Interstellar should be read by adult and young adult fans of science fiction who are in the mood for something inventive.