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.

Outcasts by J.S. Frankel


Outcasts by J.S. Frankel
Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (231 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 4 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Mitch Kessler, teenage high school dropout, jobless and mostly friendless, lives a life of solitude, but not by choice. Endowed with the ability to bring wings out of his body as well as claws, and transform himself into a fierce creature of the night, he’s picked up a nickname from the general public that he hates: gargoyle. However, that’s the least of his worries. His girlfriend, Callie, can’t keep her genders straight, his best friend is a spinning top, and his other acquaintance is made of rock. It’s obviously a government plot, but Mitch doesn’t know who’s behind it or why. Worse, various and sundry creations have now appeared out of the woodwork and are out to kill him. Aided by his friends, the four outcasts attempt to find out who’s running the show. They’re out to stop the forces of evil before they can do more damage. That is, if they survive.

Being different from other people is never easy, but it’s especially difficult when those differences are impossible to hide.

The romance between Mitch and Cassie was nicely written. He clearly loved his girlfriend a lot, and it showed. I enjoyed seeing how hard Mitch worked to keep her safe and how much attention he paid to what was going on in her life. Not only did they make a cute couple, they seemed to be perfect for each other as well.

There was only one part of this tale that I didn’t immediately like. The cast of characters was so large that I had trouble keeping track of everyone was after they were introduced. As much as I enjoyed reading the descriptions of all of the people Mitch encountered, it would have been nice to remember them more easily by either having a smaller cast or being able to reference a list of who everyone was and how they knew each other.

I’ve been a fan of Mr. Frankel’s work for several years now. One of the many things I enjoy about his writing is how talented he is exploring sensitive real-world issues through the science fiction and fantasy genres. This particular tale spent a lot of time exploring what it means to be transgender or intersex. It also talked about what it feels like to be a teenager whose sexual orientation or gender identity isn’t clear yet. Mr. Frankel did an excellent job showing how his characters dealt with these questions and why they came to the conclusions about these parts of their lives that they did.

Outcasts is a must-read for anyone who has ever felt as if they don’t belong anywhere.

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.

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.

Midnight Blade: A Soul Stones Story by T.L. Branson


Midnight Blade: A Soul Stones Story by T.L. Branson
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Historical
Length: Short Story (58 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Kingdoms rise and fall by the blade.

For Davion Callum, that blade is closer than he’d like. Ever the pawn in a scheme of epic proportions, he is given a choice to stand beside those who would wield him as a weapon or defend those who would call him friend.

When the lines blur between ally and enemy, all is not as it seems. Will he uncover the truth? And what will he do when he does?

Orphans don’t have anyone they can rely on if they make a mistake, so failure isn’t an option for Callum.

Mr. Branson sure knows how to write an exciting battle scene. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I look forward to reading his stories, and this one was no exception to that rule. I deeply enjoyed seeing how Callum reacted to sword fights and battles in general. He was a courageous character in even the scariest circumstances, and that made me want to see him spend even more time in battle.

The romantic subplot felt completely out of place. I was surprised when it suddenly popped up because the main character had spent most of his time up until that point simply trying to survive. Since he hadn’t resolved any of the conflicts that were threatening his safety, it didn’t make sense to me for him to suddenly be thinking about romance when his life was still in danger.

Callum’s character development was handled nicely. He only had a limited amount of time to show the audience how he’d changed as a result of his experiences, but I noticed several subtle changes in his behavior as he learned from his past and grew as a person. It was rewarding to see him mature before my eyes. I’m hoping he will appear again in a future tale from the author so that I’ll be able to continue watching him become the man I saw glimpses of today.

Midnight Blade: A Soul Stones Story should be read by anyone who in the mood for some medieval swordplay.

Immortal Matrix by Marisa Chenery

Immortal Matrix by Marisa Chenery
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Length: Short Story (107 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

In the year 2217, Amarah is a donor for the Immortal Matrix, practically a slave, owned by a pharmaceutical corporation. Almost eighteen, she’s destined to be joined to a recipient to keep them young and fit while she does all the work. Her life is grim, except when it comes to a boy in her pod, Dyer, who means more to her than is allowed. Amarah and Dyer are sent to the pool of donors early, and their lives and feelings for each other are put to the test. She gets caught up with a group that wants to end the Immortal Matrix, and soon will find out how strong she really is, and how far she’ll go to keep Dyer as her own.

Amarah’s life has always been tightly controlled by the people who own her. Only time will tell if she’’ll ever get the chance to do something as simple as kiss the boy she likes.

This was such a descriptive tale. I could vividly picture what every room Amarah visited looked like because of how much time was spent showing the audience how they were laid out. The level of detail was even more valuable for the frightening scenes. Some of them made me shudder due to how easy it was to picture the scary stuff that was happening in them.

The cast of characters was so large that I had trouble keeping everyone straight at times. Had this been a full-length novel, there would have been plenty of room for the character development that would have made it easier to remember who was who. As it was written, though, everything happened so quickly that I didn’t always recall who was who because of how many different characters there were to get to know and how few scenes there were to explore all of their personalities and backstories. If not for this issue, I would have chosen a much higher rating as the storyline itself was well done.

Speaking of the plot, I enjoyed how much time the author spent showing what Amarah’s life was like in her pod. Every detail of her existence was meticulously planned by the employees of the Immortal Matrix, from what she learned to what she ate to what kinds of exercise she did. I was intrigued by the idea of someone growing up in such a restrictive environment. The more I read about it, the more curious I became to find out what would happen to this character once she was moved to the adult unit and if she’d ever find a way to make her own decisions.

Immortal Matrix should be read by anyone who likes the dark side of science fiction.

State of Emergency by Mary Hallberg


State of Emergency by Mary Hallberg
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (157 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

17-year-old Dallas Langdon is fighting off zombies with a pizza cutter. Dallas has always loved zombie movies. But when she catches a real live (erm, dead) musician eating a man’s intestines backstage after the show, she knows her movies have become a reality. And what do characters in zombie movies do? Seek shelter. Fortunately, Dallas’s eccentric uncle owns a farmhouse in Chattanooga, an eight hour drive from New Orleans. It’s on top of a steep mountain, surrounded by electric fences, and cut off from the worlds of the living and the dead. Dallas’s parents, still safe at home, laugh at her idea over the phone. Her friends only agree to join her because it’s fall break and they could use a mini vacation anyway. But then Dallas’s best friend is killed by a zombie horde when they’re attracted to her ringing cell phone. Civilians think their reanimated loved ones simply have the flu, leaving them alive (well, undead) and rapidly increasing the zombies ranks. And since minors can’t buy guns, Dallas’s only weapon is a giant industrial pizza cutter she swipes from a gas station. George A. Romero never mentioned anything like this. With one friend dead and no zombie survival guides to help her, Dallas and her friends must get to Chattanooga before joining the ranks of the undead themselves.

The world is quickly changing from a relatively safe place to an extremely dangerous one. If Dallas is going to survive it, she’ll have to adapt without a moment of hesitation.

Most zombie stories don’t spend a lot of time explaining why people are coming back from the dead or what caused all of their weird symptoms. I was happy to see that Ms. Hallberg decided to break this rule, especially once the characters understood what made someone a zombie in this universe and how they should change their habits in order to reduce their chances of becoming one themselves.

The character development wasn’t very strong, especially when it came to Dallas. Despite all of the frightening and life-altering things that happened to her, she didn’t change a whole lot from the first scene to the last one. This struck me as odd and a bit disappointing. There were plenty of opportunities for her to grow as a person, so I was surprised by the fact that she didn’t take advantage of them.

One of my favorite parts of the storyline were the clippings of news articles that the author included in several of the chapters.They added a sense of urgency to the plot, especially once the mainstream media realized that the reports of people coming back from the dead weren’t a hoax or a joke. It was interesting for me as a reader to see how the tone of these articles changed, too. They mirrored Dallas’ reactions to the new world she lived in, and they made for some engrossing reading as well.

State of Emergency should be read by anyone who loves a scary zombie tale.

She’s Like a Rainbow by Eileen Colucci


She’s Like a Rainbow by Eileen Colucci
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (299 pages)
Age Recommendation: 16+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

“The summer I turned ten, my life took a fairy tale turn.” So begins Reema Ben Ghazi’s tale set in Morocco. Reema awakes one morning to find her skin has changed from whipped cream to dark chocolate. From then on, every few years she undergoes another metamorphosis, her color changing successively to red, yellow and ultimately brown. What is the cause of this strange condition and is there a cure? Does the legend of the White Buffalo have anything to do with it? As Reema struggles to find answers to these questions, she confronts the reactions of the people around her, including her strict and unsympathetic mother, Lalla Jamila; her timid younger sister, Zakia; and her two best friends, Batoul and Khalil. At the same time, she must deal with the trials of adolescence even as her friendship with Khalil turns to first love. One day, in her search for answers, Reema discovers a shocking secret – she may have been adopted at birth. As a result, Reema embarks on a quest to find her birth mother that takes her from twentieth-century Rabat to post-9/11 New York. Reema’s humanity shines through her story, reminding us of all we have in common regardless of our particular cultural heritage. SHE’S LIKE A RAINBOW, which will appeal to Teens as well as Adults, raises intriguing questions about identity and ethnicity.

 

As soon as Reema adjusts to one new skin color, her complexion changes yet again. Will she ever discover why this is happening?

While this book had a large cast of characters, I never had any trouble remembering who was who. I appreciated how much attention Ms. Colucci paid to all of the small details of her characters’ lives. She made them come to life so vividly in my mind that I was able to keep track of everyone even when multiple new people were introduced at the same time.

The pacing was slow. As fascinated as I was by the premise, it was difficult for me to stay interested in the storyline at times because it took so long for the main character to find any clues at all about what was happening to her skin or whether or not she had actually been adopted. It was interesting to read about the ordinary details of her daily routine like what she ate for meals, but there were so many of these scenes that they slowed down the plot and distracted me from the mysteries of this character’s life.

Reema had a complex and difficult relationship with her mother that included a lot of conflict between them as she was growing up. Some of the most memorable scenes were the ones that showed how this relationship evolved as the main character began to make her own decisions in life. I found it intriguing to see how things changed between mother and daughter over the years. Watching Reema attempt to understand why this part of her life was so complicated was one of my favorite parts of this tale.

I’d recommend She’s Like a Rainbow to anyone who is in the mood for something thought provoking.

The Hidden Legacy by Christine Rees


The Hidden Legacy by Christine Rees
Publisher: Evernight Teen
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (271 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

The curse of premonition follows Faye Lithyer, forcing her to witness death—over and over again. When Faye moves in with her grandmother in Astoria, Oregon, her visions grow stronger. Faye watches a new friend fall victim to a murder in the not-so-distant future and becomes obsessed with preventing it from happening. However, Faye’s insecurity has her undecided whether she should tell her friend about their impending death or hunt down the murderer before it’s too late. Faye will be faced with an epic choice that threatens to expose her abilities. Will she choose to save her friend from a monster or risk becoming one herself?

Having special powers isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be.

The dialogue was nicely written. None of the main characters came across to me as particularly talkative people, so it made perfect sense that they usually tended to get straight to the point when they did have something to say. It was a nice, subtle way of showing the audience who these individuals were without ever needing to spell all of it out.

There wasn’t a lot of character development. Faye and her friends seemed to remain more or less the same people regardless of what happened to them. While there were definitely things I admired about these characters, the fact that they didn’t change much over the course of the plot made it harder for me to root for them. It was difficult to understand how someone could go through the experiences they had and not be strongly affected by them.

Faye’s relationship with her grandmother was so sweet. While her grandmother was only in a select number of scenes, it was heart-warming to see such a positive relationship between a grandparent and grandchild. One of my favorite parts of this book happened in the first scene when Faye was warmly welcomed into her grandmother’s home. It was a beautiful introduction to both of these characters, and it only made me want to read more.

One of the other things I found confusing about this tale was how many different characters it followed. The group of friends Faye connected with was just large enough that I sometimes had trouble keeping track of everyone’s backstories and how they all knew each other. While I liked everyone as individuals, I would have enjoyed getting to know a smaller number of them much better rather than learning a little bit about all of them.

With that being said, I did appreciate how well everyone in Faye’s social circle looked out for each other. They genuinely seemed to care about one another, and it showed. This isn’t something I see nearly enough of in the Young Adult genre, so I was pleased to meet a group of friends who were as close as these characters were.

I’d recommend The Hidden Legacy to anyone who has ever felt out of place after moving to a new area or when trying to make some more friends.

Mirror Me by Tara St. Pierre


Mirror Me by Tara St. Pierre
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Young Adult, Suspense/Mystery, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (188 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Hannah McCauley doesn’t look at herself in the mirror anymore.

After a rebellious past, she now attends a strict private school in a new town, where her recently divorced mother has put her on social lockdown. No driving. No bad grades. No skipping classes. No unapproved friends. No makeup. No boys. And the subject of her best friend from her old school is definitely forbidden.

Hannah is being punished for something that happened a year earlier, something that she would like to put behind her. But strange occurrences frighten her, and she’s accused of breaking rules and doing other terrible things without any recollection of them. No one believes her, so she starts distrusting everything, even her own reflection.

Is she being haunted by her past? Stalked by someone with a grudge? Or is it all in her head? If she doesn’t figure out what’s happening fast, her existence could end up irreparably shattered.

Forgetfulness is one thing. Losing track of huge chunks of time is quite another.

Hannah was a smart girl. I enjoyed seeing how much effort she put into solving all of the problems that came her way. She was persistent even when nothing was going her way, and that made me admire her. Her insistence on figuring out solutions was also a nice contrast to her faults. I wouldn’t have expected someone who was occasionally flighty to also have this side to her personality. It was interesting to see how those parts of her fit together, especially since they ended up working together so nicely.

There were pacing issues. Hannah spent so much time dancing around the mystery of her past that it slowed down the descriptions of what was currently going on in her life. While I fascinated by what she might have done to make her mother so angry and mistrusting of her, I was also frustrated by how much time it took for the plot to move forward or to reveal even small hints about her big mistake.

The dialogue was well done. Hannah and her friends spent a lot of time bantering back and forth. Their conversations often made me grin, especially in the beginning when they talked about light-hearted stuff like what their plans were for after school. They seemed to get along with each other nicely, and that made their dialogue even better than it already was.

I’d recommend Mirror Me to anyone who likes mysteries that take their time to share their secrets.