A Penguin Story by Antoinette Portis


A Penguin Story by Antoinette Portis
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Childrens, Contemporary
Length Short Story (44 pages)
Age Recommendation: 3+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Edna the penguin only knows the three colors that surround her: white ice, black night, and blue sea. She is convinced there is something more out there. So she sets out on a quest—a quest for color. When she finally finds what she’s been looking for, it’s everything she hoped for and more. But that doesn’t mean she will ever stop looking.

A little exploration is a good thing for a curious penguin like Edna.

Edna was such a brave main character. I loved her adventurous personality, especially once she’d wandered far enough away from home that she began to see things that no one else in her flock had ever imagined might exist. She wasn’t about to stop until she’d figured out what she was seeing and how it all worked. This made me like her even more than I did when I first met her.

The ending was a bit of a letdown. The first scene gave a lot of hints about what Edna would find when she went on her quest to discover what colors existed in the world other than white, black, and blue. I was surprised by how the narrator interpreted those hints because of this. It wasn’t what I was expecting to find at all, and I would have appreciated a better explanation of why it all turned out the way it did.

There was a creative plot twist about halfway through this tale, however. I hoped for something exciting to happen, and the way this scene was written made me pretty happy. It fit it beautifully with what Edna had dreamed about in the very first scene, and it also include some humor as well. If the whole plot had been written this way, I would have given it a much higher rating.

I’d recommend A Penguin Story to anyone who is looking for something new to read at bedtime.

Just Another Quiet Little State by J.S. Frankel


Just Another Quiet Little State by J.S. Frankel
Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (293 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Teenager Gabe Common and his girlfriend, Millie Themmes, have moved back to Chumsville, the place where the magic that changed them started. Although they attempt to move on with their lives, some forces in the world will not let them. For one, the ambient magic still exists, and this time it has spread across the state of South Dakota. In fear, the president authorizes the military to contain the Changed, those transformed into something other than human. Additionally, civilian militias are out to kill the Changed. Once again, Gabe has to lead the residents of Chumsville and fight the intolerance around them, even at the cost of his life. It comes down to not only a battle for acceptance, but also one of survival. The only question is whether Gabe and his friends can survive the upcoming conflict.

How would you fight a foe who was many times bigger and stronger than you are?

The romantic subplot was handled well. I’ve really enjoyed seeing how Gabe and Millie’s relationship has developed over the years. They have been through a lot together since their bodies were transformed by ambient magic, but every crisis only seemed to draw them closer together. I liked watching them work together so closely, and I was pleased with how well they got along with each other.

This tale would have benefited from having many more details included in it. While the plot was just as fantastic as I would expect from Mr. Frankel, I had a lot of trouble picturing what was happening in many scenes because the narrator didn’t describe the events in them as vividly as he had earlier on in this series. It was almost as though I were listening to him retell it later on instead of experiencing the plot twists alongside him. I desperate wanted to give this story a much higher rating, but this issue prevented me from doing so.

While the world building in this series has always been excellent, it was even better than normal this time around. I especially appreciated all of the references the narrator included to various events that have happened in the United States over the past year or two. They made the plot even more meaningful than it would have otherwise been, but they were also subtle enough that I suspect they’ll still feel fresh and relevant years from now.

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

I’d recommend Just Another Quiet Little State to anyone who loves contemporary science fiction.

Thunder Horse by Eve Bunting


Thunder Horse by Eve Bunting
Publisher: Roaring Book Press
Genre: Childrens, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (32 pages)
Age Recommendation: 6+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

When a girl receives a small horse from her aunt, she doesn’t quite know what to do with it. It turns out that this horse is a very special horse: it has wings.

As the horse grows and grows, so does the girl’s love for it, but as everyone knows, sometimes you have to let go of those you love so they can grow in their own way. But you can always hope they come back to you someday.

Eve Bunting’s Thunder Horse is a beautifully crafted tale that will work its way in to the hearts of readers, and the good thing is, they never have to let it go.

Sometimes loving someone can lead to painful decisions down the road.

What beautiful storytelling! I deeply enjoyed the way the author wove her lesson into the plot. She had an important message to share with the audience about allowing loved ones to make their own choices. The story was always more important than the message, though, and that made her point even clearer than it would have been if she’d paid less attention to creating a captivating and thought-provoking storyline before anything else.

The main character’s name was never revealed, and I found that odd and distracting. The audience knew the names of everyone from her teacher to her aunt to the small horse she was given in the first scene. It would have been easier for me to connect with this character if I knew what her family called her, even if she was only ever referred to by a nickname.

With that being said, I still liked the main character quite a bit. She was a clever, sensitive girl who clearly loved her magical horse quite a bit. Knowing from the very beginning that she’d have to say goodbye to him at some point only made me more eager to find out how she’d learn to adjust to life without him and if there was any way for her to figure out how to have a happier ending than the one her aunt warned her about.

Thunder Horse was a unique modern fable that I’d recommend to adults and children alike.

Hu Wan and the Sleeping Dragon by Judy Young


Hu Wan and the Sleeping Dragon by Judy Young
Publisher: Sleeping Bear Press
Genre: Childrens, Historical
Length: Short Story ( 32 pages)
Age Recommendation: 6+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by Astilbe

Outside Beijing, China, in the year 1572, nine-year-old Hu-Wan tends the vegetable garden with his grandfather. Their specialty is growing gourds that are made into ladles and bowls and sold in the marketplace. Each year, one special gourd is made into a cricket cage. This year, it is Hu-Wan’s turn to grow and carve the special gourd. He decides it should be carved into the shape of a sleeping dragon. When Hu-Wan learns that the emperor has died and his nine-year-old son is named Emperor of China, he decides to give the dragon cricket cage to the young emperor to offer comfort and cheer.

A gift doesn’t have to cost money in order to be valuable.

Hu Wan was a very likeable main character. He wasn’t afraid to work hard, he had a gentle personality, and he had a lot of empathy for people near him who were struggling with physical or emotional health problems. With every scene I became even more fond of him. I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen to him next.

I would have liked to see more time spent developing the ending. It happened so suddenly that I was surprised by the fact it was over. Had it been given as much attention as the beginning and middle of this tale, I would have chosen a much higher rating for this book as I really enjoyed the storytelling overall.

The relationship between Hu Wan and his grandfather was so kind and supportive. What I found most interesting about their family was how much time they spent showing each other how they felt instead of talking about it. The audience had to read between the lines in order to see how much these characters really did care for each other. Finding the small gestures that showed just how close their family was to each other was one of my favorite parts of the plot.

Hu Wan and the Sleeping Dragon was a captivating story that I’d recommend to anyone who is in the mood for something that will make them feel as though they’ve just been transported hundreds of years in the past.

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.

Escape from Witchwood Hollow by Jordan Elizabeth


Escape from Witchwood Hollow by Jordan Elizabeth
Publisher: Curiosity Quills Press
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery, Contemporary, Paranormal, Historical
Length: Full Length (180 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Everyone in Arnn – a small farming town with more legends than residents – knows the story of Witchwood Hollow: if you venture into the whispering forest, the witch will trap your soul among the shadowed trees.

After losing her parents in a horrific terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, fifteen-year-old Honoria and her older brother escape New York City to Arnn. In the lure of that perpetual darkness, Honoria finds hope, when she should be afraid.

Perhaps the witch can reunite her with her lost parents. Awakening the witch, however, brings more than salvation from mourning, for Honoria discovers a past of missing children and broken promises.

To save the citizens of Arnn from becoming the witch’s next victims, she must find the truth behind the woman’s madness.

How deep into Witchwood Hollow does Honoria dare venture?

Anything can happen when someone gets lost in the woods.

Ms. Elizabeth did an excellent job of blending multiple genres together into one storyline. It was equally a ghost story, a mystery, and a science fiction novel. I honestly couldn’t narrow it down any further than that because of how all of these elements of the plot worked together to show what happened to every character who accidentally or purposefully found themselves in Witchwood Hollow.

While it was incredibly interesting to see how the town of Arnn had changed from one century to the next, I do wish that I’d been able to get to know the characters better than I did. It was confusing to move between three different time periods. Each one of them had a fairly large cast of characters to introduce to the reader, and they all had complicated plots to unravel as well. I met several unique characters in each era, but I felt like I never had the chance to learn more than pretty basic basic information about their personalities and origins. It would have been nice to dive into their lives more deeply.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about this book was how it explored grief. All of the characters had been through some kind of trauma or loss, and all of them were working through the long-term consequences of that. It was fascinating to see how people in different eras thought about their grief and what kinds of coping skills they used to get through it. These scenes were as poignant as they were beautiful.

Escape from Witchwood Hollow should be read by anyone who is in the mood for something thought provoking.

Snobbity Snowman by Maria Bardyukova and Quiet Riley

Snobbity Snowman by Maria Bardyukova and Quiet Riley
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Childrens, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Holiday, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (35 pages)
Age Recommendation: 6+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Snobbity Snowman has everything a snowman could possibly want: a shiny hat, freshly-picked noses and enough pride to last a lifetime. In fact, he is so egocentric that he can’t even see when his life starts falling apart.

What disasters must take place to open his charcoal eyes? To help him see that pride and possessions cannot bring true happiness? Will he defrost his chilly ego and embrace the warmth of friendship? Only Snobbity can tell.

Depicting winter in rich and whimsical tones, Snobbity Snowman’s quirky characters and unexpected twists promise to leave a lasting impression on all its snobbulous readers.

Nobody likes a snob, even if that snob is a snowman!

The vocabulary in this story was very advanced for this age range. There were several words that the average 6-year-old won’t know, but I liked the fact that the authors provided so many context clues about what those terms mean. I’d recommend reading this aloud as a group so that those terms can be explained if the clues don’t give enough hints. With that being said, it was a pleasant surprise and it’s definitely something that will work well for young readers who would like to be challenged a little bit.

It would have been helpful to have more examples of how Snobbity behaved before his makers moved away. He had such a terrible reputation in his neighborhood that I was expecting to see him spend more time looking down on the people who lived nearby before his circumstances began to change and he got a taste of his own medicine. While there were examples of his bad attitude, having more of them would have made the final scene much more meaningful.

The conclusion was well written and completely satisfying. Some of the earlier scenes involved people treating Snobbity very poorly, so I was curious to see how his life would turn out after they were finished mistreating him and he was left alone with nothing. The lessons he learned in life only became clearer once I saw how his tale ended. I couldn’t have asked for a better conclusion to it.

Snobbity Snowman was a heartwarming book that I’d recommend to anyone who is in the mood for something kindhearted.

In Plain Sight by Richard Jackson


In Plain Sight by Richard Jackson
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Genre: Childrens, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (40 pages)
Age Recommendation: 6+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Sophie lives with Mama and Daddy and Grandpa, who spends his days by the window. Every day after school, it’s Grandpa whom Sophie runs to.

“Here I am, Grandpa!”
“Ah, Sophie, how was your day?”

As Sophie and her grandpa talk, he asks her to find items he’s “lost” throughout the day, guiding Sophie on a tour through his daily life and connecting their generations in this sweet, playful picture book from Richard Jackson, illustrated by Caldecott Medalist and Laura Ingalls Wilder Award winner Jerry Pinkney.

The best part of every day happened right after Sophie arrived home from school.

Sophie had such a warm and kind family. I enjoyed seeing how they interacted with each other during the average day. They all loved each other a lot, and it showed. It was especially interesting to see how this character’s parents balanced taking care of their young daughter with also looking after the grandfather. They did a wonderful job of showing how a multi-generational household can nurture everyone who is part of it.

The conversations between Sophie and her grandfather were pretty repetitive. While I’d certainly expect some repetition in a children’s book, it would have been nice for their conversations to vary more from one day to the next, especially when it came to how they started the next round of this game. Reading almost the exact same conversation between them in every scene makes me hesitant to read this story again.

With that being said, I really liked the guessing game itself that Sophie and her grandfather played every day after school. He found some creative ways to hide common objects in places that I’d never think to look for them. Watching her try to find his “lost” possession was as entertaining as it was heartwarming. I found it interesting to attempt to figure out where those items were before flipping the page to see if I was right.

In Plain Sight should be read by anyone who is in the mood for a gentle tale about the fun games a grandparent can play with his grandchild.

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.