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.

Topaz Reign by Teresa Richards


Topaz Reign by Teresa Richards
Publisher: Evernight Teen
Genre: Contemporary, Historical, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Length: Full (286 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Rating: Best Book
Review by: Orchid

Fairy tales are simply tales, told and re-told, but changed over time. It has been four months since Maggie learned the dark truth behind the tale of the Princess and the Pea and freed Princess Lindy from the cursed Emerald. Lindy is now back in the past where she belongs, queen of her tiny Scandinavian country, and Maggie is a fully reformed ex-stalker. Except … she can’t stop doing internet searches on Lindy and her country. One morning, Maggie wakes to find history turned on its head. Apparently, you can’t destroy a centuries-old curse without consequence. In order to prevent the changes in history from wiping out the present, Maggie resurrects her stalking gene and learns that fairy tales don’t stay dead for long. Or at all. Back in 1623, Lindy is juggling a threat to her family, a handsome new guard she’s not supposed to have feelings for, and a cursed Topaz with ties to the tale of Thumbelina. When past and present collide, Lindy and Maggie are brought together again, and another of Andersen’s tales turns from twisted fiction to chilling fact.

Welcome to Valestenia, a 17th century country on the tip of modern-day Sweden. Queen Shalyndria has been kept in slavery for four hundred years, but now she has returned to her own time and finds herself thrust onto the throne.

Maggie is a present day teenager who had a hand in releasing the Queen from slavery. Shalyndria’s brother, Garon, has come forward in time as he and Maggie have fallen in love.

When Maggie’s computer shows an ever changing history to what she knows to be true, Garon returns to the 17th century to put things right. When he doesn’t return Maggie and her brother Tanner search for Garon and find a way to travel to the past to help.

This book is full of present day travels, historical problems needing to be put right, and the best thing of all – Magic! The characters could be the kids next door, while the new Queen shows the uncertainty of one thrust into the limelight of ruling a country. Even the fantasy characters had me looking over my shoulder to make sure they weren’t real and creeping up on me.

This book is a true fantasy novel. No goblins and elves, or dragons and fairies, this is magic as used by real people (well real in the book) and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Brilliant book. Exceptionally good story. A must read.

Frede and Santa by Leen Lefebre


Frede and Santa by Leen Lefebre
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Childrens, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Holiday, Historical
Length: Short Story (36 pages)
Age Recommendation: 8+
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

In a faraway village there lives a farmer with his wife. The summer harvest has failed and winter already arrives. So, how should they feed their three sons? The idea arises to fetch wood in the northern forest. They could dry it, sell it from door to door and earn some money to buy food.

Frede knows that his parents are doing their best, but is it enough to withstand the most barren period of the year? Together with his brothers, Rhune and Folke, he wants to visit Santa and ask him for help. But, first they must travel through that extensive forest where the evil Elf King lurks.

One bad harvest can seriously hurt anyone who makes their living through farming. Only time will tell if Frede and his family will have enough food to get through the winter.

Frede was such a brave boy. He faced all kinds of dangers while he was trying to travel to Santa’s house, yet he never gave up no matter how difficult his journey became. He kept pushing on even when it looked like there was no way to win. I especially enjoyed seeing how he reacted to the elves he met on the way. Not all of them were friendly, but he didn’t let that stop him.

There were a few editing issues. I noticed multiple run-on sentences and punctuation errors. Some of them took a minute for me to figure out because they could be interpreted in more than one way. A couple of sentences also seemed to be missing important words. If not for these errors, I would have chosen a much higher rating as the storytelling itself was creative and beautiful.

This book was full of magic that refused to be tamed. Everything from the elves to the forest itself was so wildly different from how humans behave that I didn’t know what to expect from them next. This is exactly the kind of storytelling I always hope to find in fairy tales, so I was quite happy with how unpredictable these scenes were. They made my heart beat faster in a good way.

Frede and Santa should be read by anyone who loves Christmas.

The True Gift by Patricia MacLachlan


The True Gift by Patricia MacLachlan
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Genre: Middle Grade, Holiday, Historical
Length: Short Story (112 pages)
Age Recommendation: 8+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Experience the magic of authentic giving in this holiday classic from the Newbery Award–winning author of Sarah, Plain and Tall.

All year long Lily and Liam look forward to the holidays at their grandparents’ farm. It’s always the perfect trip: walking to the lilac library, trimming the tree, giving gifts. But this year, thanks to a white cow alone in the meadow, things will be different. This holiday, Lily and Liam will find out the meaning of a special gift.

This holiday classic from a beloved author rings in the season by celebrating the joys of family, community, and true giving.

No one should be lonely over Christmas, not even a cow!

Lily was a kind and compassionate girl who obviously loved her younger brother a lot. It was heartwarming to see how hard she worked to make him feel better about White Cow being all alone in the barn, especially once she realized that he wasn’t going to give up until he figured out how to find a friend for that lonely cow. Some of the most memorable scenes showed what happened after she decided to help him track down another cow before Christmas arrived.

I would have liked to see more time developing Lily and Liam’s characters. There were a few times in the plot when I wondered if Liam was supposed to be written as a kid who was living with an invisible disability because of how difficult it was for him to accept change and how determined he was to follow the same routine every day. Lily’s strong urge to protect her brother was also something that caught my attention. While all of these things could have simply been normal parts of their personalities and not hints about how a family dealing with special needs might experience the world, it would have been nice to know for sure how I should be reading that.

One of the nice things about living in a small town is how people in rural areas can look out for each other. I really liked seeing how the adults in that community quietly looked out for Lily and Liam. These kids were obviously known to be the visiting grandkids of a certain couple, and I enjoyed seeing how they tried to reach their goal while being surrounded by adults who were keeping a friendly eye on the situation.

The True Gift is something I’d recommend to anyone who loves animals.

Nine Short Chapter Books by Gita V. Reddy

Nine Short Chapter Books by Gita V. Reddy
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Childrens, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Contemporary, Historical
Length: Full Length (161 pages)
Age Recommendation: 8+
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

As the title suggests, this is a collection of short chapter books by Gita V. Reddy. The chapters are short and the word count of each book is between 5000 to 7000 words. The book also introduces young readers to different genres. A brief description of each title is given below.

THE HOMELESS BIRDS (Fantasy)

A young bird is left behind by his flock. Unable to fly by direction, he takes the help of a boy, and shares with him the plight of his flock.

THE MAGICIAN’S TURBAN (Magic)

Magic is no bag of tricks, discover two boys after they are trapped in the magician’s turban.

KNIFE AND FORK (Fable)

A monkey spends some time in the city. When he returns to the forest, he is a changed monkey – but not for the better.

DAKSHA THE MEDICINE GIRL (Geography &Culture)

A Himalayan girl who has knowledge of herbal medicine refuses to live away from her hamlet and study in a school. Until a resourceful doctor finds a way.

MAKE A WISH (Fairytale)

Niki had only one wish: to meet a fairy. It comes true and now the fairy wants to grant Niki a wish. What should niki wish for?

KRISHTA, DAUGHTER OF MARTEV (Science Fiction)

Krishta of Planet Ayzeon is a poor student. She comes to Earth to understand the basics of science and becomes friends with a student working in a lab. All goes well until Ikor from her planet wants revenge.

THE FORBIDDEN FOREST (Action and Adventure)

The animals are mysteriously straying out of their habitat. A factory that is shut is working secretly. Are the two connected? Abhi and his cousins find out.

DEARIE (Animal Story)

Everything scares Dearie. When his fear becomes a thread to the herd, he is made to leave. If Dearie must stay survive, he must learn to conquer fear.

THE MISSING GIRL (General Fiction)

Sneha goes missing. The presence of strange car points to a kidnap. But Sneha is having an adventure – an adventure of a different kind.

There’s something for everyone in this collection.

After not being able to fall asleep one night, Ranjan found a lost bird named Vajra who could talk in “The Homeless Birds” and decided to help his new buddy find his family. Ranjan was such a kind boy that I couldn’t wait to find out how he’d react to his magical adventure. I enjoyed seeing how he reacted to everything that happened to him. This felt like a modern fairy tale, and I’m a big fan of that genre. I also appreciated how open-ended the final scene was. It could easily lead to a sequel, but it also gave this reader plenty up to think about if Ms. Reddy doesn’t end up turning this into a series.

Two young friends named Ismail and Hassan met a magician and tried to figure out his secrets in “The Magician’s Turban.” Was the magician cleverly tricking them, or was he really capable of making things appear and disappear out of thin air? I was fascinated by how hard these characters worked to learn the answer to this question, especially during the scenes that honestly could have been explained either way.

“Knife and Fork” was a fable that showed what happened to a monkey named Bholu who heard rumors about what life was like outside of the forest and couldn’t wait to find out if they were true. After he returned from his adventures, he tried to teach the other monkeys about what he’d seen. The lessons in it were a little hard to pick out since all of the characters had flaws that made it hard for me to relate to them. I would have liked to see more examples of their good sides so that it would easier to understand where they were coming from.

The title of “Daksha the Medicine Girl” told me almost everything I needed to know about the premise. Watching her settle into a long, snowy winter in her isolated mountain village made me wonder what would happen to her before spring arrived. I liked seeing how brave she was when something frightening happened just after the first big snowfall that kept anyone from going for help. She was a kind and mature girl for her age, and it showed.

Niki decided to find out if fairies were real once and for all in “Make a Wish” by using her birthday wish to meet one. After being told by the fairy she could make another wish, she had to choose what to ask for next. The problem she tried to solve was one that most kids never have to think about, so I was curious to see if it would really be solved and how the fairy would react to such an unselfish request. This was something that adult readers may enjoy just as much as the intended audience.

“Krishta, Daughter of Martev” followed a boy named Suraj who had to stay after class to make up missing chemistry schoolwork from an illness he had developed earlier in the year. While I liked seeing how these characters met and discovering what Krishta wanted from her new friend, the pacing was so slow that I had trouble staying interested in the plot. I struggled to keep reading it because of this.

In “The Forbidden Forest,” Uday introduced his friend to his cousins and planned out a fun visit for all of them. After getting into some minor mischief, they decided to play detective and find out if any of the adults were secretly committing crimes. I enjoyed this character’s playful sense of adventure. He was good at paying close attention to his surroundings, and that made for some entertaining storytelling.

Anyone who skips around in anthologies should read “Dearie” first. It was about a delicate fawn named Dearie who had to learn a lot of lessons about surviving in the forest as he grew up. This was by far my favorite story here because of much the main character changed between his birth and who he was as an adult. Life isn’t easy for wild animals, and Dearie had to work hard to stay safe once he was too big to be protected by his mother. Many of the rules he learned can apply to humans, too, and that was yet another reason why I liked this one so much.

Sneha sent her whole neighbourhood into a panic after she failed come home on time one night in “The Missing Girl.” Some of the details of what really happened to Sneha made me wonder if kids would try to recreate what happened to her. I wouldn’t have a problem giving this to older children who understood why her choices could be so dangerous if they were repeated in the real world, but I’d be cautious about sharing them with anyone who was impressionable or impulsive. With that being said, she did have a charming personality and a real knack for figuring out problems.

Nine Short Chapter Books was a creative collection that I’d recommend to any young reader who is ready for longer pieces of fiction.

The Animals’ Santa by Jan Brett

The Animals’ Santa by Jan Brett
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Genre: Childrens, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Holiday, Historical
Length: Short Story (40 pages)
Age Recommendation: 3+
Rating: 4 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

When Big Snowshoe tells Little Snow that the animals’ Santa is coming with presents for everyone, Little Snow wants to know who he is. The animals say they have never seen him. Maybe he’s a badger, a moose, a polar bear, or a wolf, they tell him. But this spunky little rabbit thinks they are just fooling him.

On Christmas Eve, Big Snowshoe finds a way to see the animals’ Santa when a Snowy Owl in a red cap swoops down with a pack full of presents. Never again will an excited Little Snow doubt that there is an animals’ Santa.

It’s hard to prove that someone exists or what they might look like if no one has ever seen them.

The characters spent the perfect amount of time thinking critically about what kind of animal Santa would be. They had a few important clues to work with, and they made sure to examine them from every angle to figure out who he really was. I enjoyed watching them work so hard to solve this riddle. It was especially interesting to see how they reacted to the fact that no one had ever seen what kinds of tracks Santa leaves in the snow.

There were way more characters than I’d typically find in a short story. While I soon figured out who everyone was, it did feel a little odd to keep switching perspectives as the animals debated the topic of which species Santa came from. With that being said, this was a minor criticism of a tale that I otherwise enjoyed quite a bit. It was an adorable read, and I do plan to go back and experience it again before the Christmas season ends.

The ending fit the tone of this tale very nicely. I especially liked the fact that it could be interpreted in more than one way. This was something the characters had been doing for the entire storyline, so it made a great deal of sense for the readers to be given our own chance to decide if we agreed with the characters’ theories about what Santa might look like or not.

The Animals’ Santa is a wonderful choice for any child who enjoys solving riddles.

Tractor Mac Saves Christmas by Billy Steers


Tractor Mac Saves Christmas by Billy Steers
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Genre: Children’s, Holiday, Historical
Length: Short Story (32 pages)
Age Recommendation: 3+
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Every year, the whole town looks forward to the Christmas tree lighting, but this year, a blizzard has struck. The snow starts to fall more and more heavily, and soon, Tractor Mac and his pals are snowed in at the barn. Farmer Bill and Sibley the horse are supposed to be on their way to the center of town with the tree, but when they get stuck in the blizzard and it looks like the ceremony will have to be called off, Tractor Mac saves them and the whole holiday celebration.

A little bit of snow can be festive over the holidays, but a full blizzard might be able to stop Christmas celebrations altogether.

The animals that lived on Farmer Bill’s farm made me giggle. They were very good at starting entertaining conversations and keeping Tractor Mac focused on doing his job by explaining what could go wrong if they didn’t start plowing right away. My favorite scenes were the ones that showed how Tractor Mac responded to them and what happened when the snow began to fall even faster. The more worried these animals became, the more amusing they were as well.

There was a plot hole that had to do with how the town filled up with people so quickly on such a snowy day. I would have liked to see explained better as it didn’t quite make sense when compared with what was happening in the earlier scenes. Had Tractor Mac or one of his friends told the audience how everyone ended up in town so quickly, I would have given this book a much higher rating as it was otherwise very well done.

All of the characters understood how important it was to work together to solve a problem. I enjoyed watching them figure out how to free Sibley the horse and what the best way was to get the tree to town before the big party started. Cooperation isn’t an easy skill to learn, but it is an important one for kids, adults, and tractors alike to master.

This is part of a series. It can be read on its own or out of order.

Tractor Mac Saves Christmas was a humorous holiday tale that I’d recommend to anyone who likes tractors and other farm equipment.

A Christmas Spider’s Miracle by Trinka Hakes Nobel


A Christmas Spider’s Miracle by Trinka Hakes Nobel
Publisher: Sleeping Bear Press
Genre: Children’s, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Holiday, Historical
Length: Short Story (32 pages)
Age Recommendation: 6+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Long ago in a faraway place there lived two mothers. One, a humble peasant woman who struggled daily to provide for her children. And the other, a mother spider who also worked hard to care for her family. And although it would appear they were as different as night and day, these two mothers had more in common than would first seem. As the only holiday gift she can give her children, one cold Christmas Eve the peasant woman goes to the forest to get a tree, never noticing that someone has made a home among its branches. During the night, the mother spider spins webs decorating the tree, resulting in a Christmas that neither mother will ever forget. Based on an old Ukrainian story, Trinka Hakes Noble (The Orange Shoes) crafts an original heartwarming tale of the grace that can be found in the true spirit of Christmas.

Kindness can repay itself in all sorts of lovely ways.

Nothing on Earth can compare to the love of a parent for their children. I enjoyed seeing how the spider and the peasant woman did everything they possibly could to keep their babies safe, warm, fed, and happy. They were both dedicated mothers who took wonderful care of their families. The scenes that showed just how far they went to do that were the best ones in this tale.

There were pacing issues. The plot sped up and then slowed down again at various points of the story. Due to this, the quieter sections didn’t have enough going on in them while the busier scenes were a little overwhelming because so many different things were happening in them at once. It would have been nice to have one consistent speed from the beginning to the end.

The fantasy elements of this book didn’t show up right away, but they were definitely worth the wait once they did appear. I was curious to see how a spider could be connected to the fantasy genre and what either of them would have to do with the Christmas season since I don’t automatically think of spiders when I think of either one of these topics. Finding out what that connection was only made me want to know more. It was all tied together quite nicely.

A Christmas Spider’s Miracle should be read by anyone who is in the mood for new twist to a classic legend.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Tanya Simon and Richard Simon


Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Tanya Simon and Richard Simon
Publisher: Roaring Book Press
Genre: Childrens, Holiday, Historical
Length: Short Story (41 pages)
Age Recommendation: 6+
Rating: 5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature

A refugee seeking sanctuary from the horrors of Kristallnacht, Oskar arrives by ship in New York City with only a photograph and an address for an aunt he has never met. It is both the seventh day of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve, 1938. As Oskar walks the length of Manhattan, from the Battery to his new home in the north of the city, he passes experiences the city’s many holiday sights, and encounters it various residents. Each offers Oskar a small act of kindness, welcoming him to the city and helping him on his way to a new life in the new world. This is a heartwarming, timeless picture book.

No immigrant knows for sure if he or she will be welcomed in their new country or if the place they’re moving to will ever feel like home.

One of the biggest reasons why I chose such a high rating for this story had to do with the blessings that Oskar discovered after he arrived in New York City. I tried to predict what they might be ahead of time. While some of my guesses were pretty close to being correct, I was pleasantly surprised by the authors’ creative approaches to what a child would think of as a blessing. They worked hard to approach this idea from every angle, and it showed.

There was so much kindness woven into this character’s long, chilly walk to his aunt’s house. I loved seeing how the people Oskar met treated him, especially once they realized that he was travelling alone and had almost nothing to call his own. The idea of wandering around in an unfamiliar city can be a bit scary even for adults, so I was thrilled by how much compassion this character found while he was trying to find his new home.

The reference to the Night of Broken Glass was nicely handled. The page that discussed it went into enough detail to show young readers what happened that evening, but it also kept the explanation appropriate for this age group. This is the sort of book I’d happily to read to younger children. At the same time, the hints about that part of German history could also lead to more in-depth conversations about the time leading up to World War II with older kids who wanted to learn more about it.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings was a gorgeous Hanukkah story. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll by Patricia C. McKissack


The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll by Patricia C. McKissack
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Genre: Childrens, Holiday, Historical
Length: Short Story (40 pages)
Age Recommendation: 6+
Rating: 4 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Newbery Honor–winning author McKissack and Caldecott Medal–winning illustrator Pinkney have outdone themselves in this heart-warming story infused with humor and the true spirit of Christmas.

Christmas always comes to Nella’s house, but Santa Claus brings gifts only once in a while. That’s because it’s the Depression and Nella’s family is poor. Even so, Nella’s hoping that this year she and her two sisters will get a beautiful Baby Betty doll.

On Christmas morning, the girls are beside themselves with excitement! There is Baby Betty, in all her eyelash-fluttering magnificence. “Mine!” Nella shouts, and claims the doll for herself. But soon she discovers that Baby Betty isn’t nearly as much fun as her sisters. Would it be more fun to share this very best gift with them after all?

Sometimes letters to Santa get answered exactly how a child hopes they will be. Even when this happens, though, there still might be a lesson to learn before everyone lives happily ever after.

The Pearsons were such a close and loving family. I enjoyed seeing how hard Nella’s parents worked to make Christmas special for their daughters nearly as much as I liked watching the kids react to all of the surprises that were waiting for them after they opened their presents. This family found a way to make everything from cleaning their house to spending time together a cause for celebration.

While I completely agreed with the message of this story, it was a little heavy-handed. I was surprised by how quickly Nella’s opinion of the Baby Betty doll changed once she received it. It would have been nice for the main character to learn her lesson without growing tired of her new toy so quickly or changing her mind about it so soon.

This book was full of little details that made Nella’s world three-dimensional and beautiful. I actually read it a second time right after I finished it for the first time because I was so impressed with how much attention the author paid to everything from how siblings bicker when they can’t agree on something to how a parent reacts when their child makes a selfish decision.

The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll was a charming story that I’d recommend to anyone who would like to be reminded about what really matters during the holiday season.