Category Archives: Fantasy

Review: Mind Over Monsters by Betsy Uhrig

Mind Over Monsters by Betsy Uhrig

Mind Over Monsters
Betsy Uhrig
Margaret K. McElderry Books
Published July 16, 2024

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About Mind Over Monsters

Gordon Korman meets Scooby-Doo when anxiety-prone middle schoolers try a mindfulness app that has them face their fears all-too-literally in this spooky and humorous middle grade adventure.

FACE YOUR FEARS! That’s what the meditation app with the cheesy name De-stress-o-rama is telling Lena to do. She’s one of seven always-worried middle schoolers trying out this new app to see if it can help students handle stress. But something is going wrong—very, very wrong.

The group’s fears are becoming all too real, first lurking and dangling, then chasing them around and threatening to swallow them whole. From a stubborn inky blob that is fear of the dark, to the queasy giant in sweaty underpants that is fear of public speaking, monsters are invading Cranberry Bog Middle School! Can Lena’s group of worriers figure out how to conquer their fears before the whole school is swarmed?

My Review

This was a really fun book with some really cool moments. I liked that the story featured meditation as a helpful practice for people with anxiety. Of course, if your meditation app created real creatures based on your fears, it wouldn’t be very helpful. I still liked that meditation is shown in the book, and many kids found it helpful (sans monsters).

Another thing I liked a lot was Lena’s relationship with her mom. There was a moment in the book where I thought I knew what was going on, and I remember thinking I was going to be mad if the book left this thing unaddressed. And Betsy Uhrig proved yet again that my trust in her is well-placed because I loved how she handled the issue between Lena and her mom.

The monsters that emerged from the app made sense but also weren’t meant to be super terrifying. It made sense that the kids in the book would be scared, since the creatures were tailored to the kids’ specific fears, but they didn’t make the book overly scary. I think the story is really accessible to kids with big fears. I love that, too.

The monsters emerging into real life in this book made me think of The Darkdeep by Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs. I think readers who enjoyed that series will like this one. I recommend it for middle grade readers struggling with fears, too.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 8 to 12.

Representation
Lena is white, but her group of friends, the Worriers, is pretty diverse.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
None.

Romance/Sexual Content
Lena’s best friend seems to have a crush on a boy who likes her.

Spiritual Content
Fears begin appearing in the form of three-dimensional beings.

Violent Content
Situations of peril. Descriptions of fears.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review: The Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

The Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking
T. Kingfisher
Argyll Productions
Published July 21, 2020

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About The Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

Fourteen-year-old Mona isn’t like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can’t control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt’s bakery making gingerbread men dance.

But Mona’s life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona’s city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona’s worries…

My Review

I heard about this book from Mara at BooksLikeWhoa on YouTube. I can’t remember which video in which she talks about this book, but she doesn’t often review middle grade, and she liked this one, so I knew I needed to try it. I’ve also really wanted to read something by T. Kingfisher since I hear so many positive things about her books. I think this was a great place for me to start, since I had a great time with this book.

There’s something really special about fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously and kind of makes fun of some of the fantasy tropes. In this case, this story is about a girl who has a magical affinity for bread. She can make gingerbread men dance. She can convince the baguette of her enemies to be so stale it’s a brick. And she’s somehow the only person who can stop a serial killer.

I loved the goofiness of some of the moments in the book. Mona is fourteen, and still feels young and awkward. She sometimes makes analogies and then says funny things that acknowledge the hyperbole of her analogy. It’s a really playful book. I also loved the way that Mona grows throughout the story. She finds courage and confidence in her abilities, and she builds relationships with other characters.

WIZARD’S GUIDE TO DEFENSIVE BAKING is a quirky, fun read that will appeal to fantasy lovers looking for a laugh. I could see fans of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON by Cressida Cowell enjoying this a lot.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 10 to 14.

Representation
I don’t remember character descriptions that included race details.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Mild profanity used infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
None.

Spiritual Content
Some characters have the ability to use magic. One character can reanimate dead horses and their bones.

Violent Content
Situations of peril. In the opening scene, Mona finds a girl on the floor of the bakery who has been murdered. Mona’s sourdough starter, Bob, has become carnivorous, or so the rat skeletons she found in the basement seem to indicate. Someone attacks Mona more than once. Brief descriptions of a people group who burn villages to the ground before moving on to a new place to burn. A few scenes describe a battle.

Drug Content
Mona mentions that once, as a child, she and a boy stole a bottle of sacrificial wine and drank it. This made them both really sick.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog.

Review: Of Jade and Dragons by Amber Chen

Of Jade and Dragons (Fall of the Dragons #1)
Amber Chen
Viking Books for Young Readers
Published June 18, 2024

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About Of Jade and Dragons

Eighteen-year-old Aihui Ying dreams of becoming a brilliant engineer just like her beloved father – but her life is torn apart when she arrives a moment too late to stop his murder, and worse, lets the killer slip out of reach. Left with only a journal containing his greatest engineering secrets and a jade pendant snatched from the assassin, Ying vows to take revenge into her own hands.

Disguised as her brother, Ying heads to the capital city, and discovers that the answer to finding who killed her father lies behind the walls of the prestigious Engineers Guild – the home of a past her father never wanted to talk about. With the help of an unlikely ally – Aogiya Ye-yang, a taciturn (but very handsome) young prince – Ying must navigate a world fraught with rules, challenges and politics she can barely grasp, let alone understand.

But to survive, she must fight to stay one step ahead of everyone. And when faced with the choice between doing what’s right and what’s necessary, Ying will have to decide if her revenge is truly worthwhile, if it means going against everything her father stood for . . .

My Review

This book definitely has some Mulan vibes. It reminded me a bit of Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim, especially in the first quarter. (Girl goes to a big city and attempts to enter an elite, male-only guild.) I liked the relationships Ying cultivates with the other guild hopefuls, especially a younger one who becomes a close ally. (I hope book two includes this character.)

When I first saw this book, for some reason, I thought it was a middle grade book. It’s not. It’s clearly intended for a young adult audience. Sometimes, the writing and the way the characters related to one another felt more in line with a middle grade story. That isn’t to say anything is wrong with the writing or character relationships. It’s possible I felt that way because I had the other age group stuck in my head already.

There is a romantic subplot in the story, too. I love that the author doesn’t follow every expectation readers might have with a romance story. Ying is a strong character and has a deep commitment to her mission. She doesn’t want anything to distract her from finding out who had her father killed. She wants entry into the engineers’ guild to finish his work.

I love that this book includes so much about engineering as a field of study. A lot of the lessons and tests shown in the story involve defensive or offensive vehicles and weaponry, but some characters mention other kinds of engineering. I would have enjoyed seeing more of a spectrum of engineering projects, but I can see why those focuses would fit better in the story because of the push toward war.

On the whole, I enjoyed this one. It looks like the start of a series, so I’m curious to see where the story goes from here.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
Characters are Chinese-coded.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Strong profanity used very infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between boy and girl.

Spiritual Content
Characters pray to and mention Abka Han, the god of the skies and guardian of Ying’s homeland. When a good or bad thing happens, it’s taken as an omen from Abka Han.

Violent Content
Situations of peril. Characters face assassins and armed enemies in several scenes. References to and reports of warfare. In one scene, an assailant stabs an unarmed man after ransacking a room.

Drug Content
Characters drink alcohol at social events.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review: Goblin 2: The Wolf and the Well by Eric Grissom and Will Perkins

Goblin 2: The Wolf and the Well (Goblin #2)
Eric Grissom
Illustrated by Will Perkins
Dark Horse Books
Published July 16, 2024

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About Goblin 2: The Wolf and the Well

What would you give up to protect the one you loved? Uncover the mystery in the thrilling sequel to the fantasy adventure graphic novel Goblin.

One dark and stormy night, Rikt meets a mysterious fortune teller in the woods. Looking into his future, she foresees that his best friend and only companion, a wolf named Fish-breath, is in mortal danger. Overcome with the fear of losing his four-legged friend, Rikt trades the freedom of the wild for the protection of Underwood—a boarding school for monster children and a sanctuary for wolves. Was his bargain worth the price? And what terrible fate awaits the children who live there?

After losing his parents, Rikt struggles with a fear of being alone. The anxiety becomes unbearable when he receives three prophecies from a mysterious witch, one of which foretells a terrible fate for his best friend, a wolf named Fish-breath. After the first two prophecies prove true, Rikt meets Ms. Evelyn, a friendly human who offers them protection at Underwood, her boarding school for monstrous creatures and wayward wolves. Rikt soon learns things at Underwood are not what they seem and suspects the other children are in danger. With the help of a servant troll girl and a neurotic faun, Rikt must uncover the mystery of Underwood before he learns first-hand what horrors await at the bottom of an ancient well.

The Wolf and the Well is perfect for fans of fantasy adventure graphic novels like Amulet, Lightfall, and City of Dragons.

My Review

This is quickly becoming one of my favorite graphic novel series. I’d never heard of these books until the author approached me to ask if I’d be interested in reviewing the book. I’m so glad he reached out!

My favorite part of the series so far is the relationship between Rikt and Fish Breath, the white wolf. In the first book, Rikt forms a grudging attachment to the wolf. By the end, though, it’s clear she’s really important to him. I love that this second book in the series centers a little more around their relationship and the connection between them. It also introduces a lot of new characters and a sinister magical threat.

This book is one of those where the sum is greater than its parts. The dialog is great and shows a lot of emotion and depth. The illustrations add even more, creating the sense of a woodsy magical world with the browns and greens of the color palette. They show rich character expressions and settings, too.

I’m excited to see where the series goes next. I think readers who enjoyed Estranged by Ethan Aldridge will love this one.

Recommended for Ages 10 to 14.

Representation
Main character is a goblin named Rikt. Other characters of other fictitious races face prejudice for their identities.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
None.

Romance/Sexual Content
None.

Spiritual Content
Rikt has met the Goddess he grew up worshipping. He meets another deity on his journey, and a woman offers to tell his future through a tarot card reading. A strange liquid appears to transform creatures into powerful, deadly beings.

Violent Content
Situations of peril. Brief battle sequences. Rikt witnesses what appears to be the murder of children.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday

I’m sharing this post as a part of a weekly round-up of middle-grade posts called Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday. Check out other blogs posting about middle-grade books today on Marvelous Middle-Grade Mondays at Always in the Middle with Greg Pattridge.

Review: A Magic Fierce and Bright by Hemant Nayat

A Magic Fierce and Bright
Hemant Nayat
Simon & Schuster
Published July 9, 2024

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About A Magic Fierce and Bright

A young technomancer teams up with a handsome thief to save her sister in this propulsive, magic-filled young adult fantasy that is perfect for fans of Gearbreakers and Iron Widow.

Adya wants nothing more than to be left alone. Content to be loyal to no one but herself in the isolated jungles of South India, she dreams only of finding her lost sister, Priya, and making enough money to take care of their family. It’s too bad that her rare ability to wake electric machines—using the magic that wiped them out five centuries ago—also makes her a coveted political pawn. Everyone seems to believe that her technomancy can help them win the endless war for control over the magic’s supernatural source.

These senseless power struggles mean little to Adya. But when her enemies dangle news of her sister before her, she’s all too quick to leap at the chance to bring Priya home—even if it means teaming up with a rakish, disreputable thief in order to do it. With the threat of invasion looming ever larger on the horizon, Adya must reconcile the kind of person she is with the kind of person she wants to be and untangle the web of intrigue, conspiracy, and deceit that threatens to take all of India down with it.

My Review

Once in a while I read a debut novel and come away from it knowing I’ll happily read whatever the author writes next. A Magic Fierce and Bright is one of those debuts.

The story has so many incredible elements. First, I love the unusual magic of the technomancers. In this book, machines have souls, and Adya can sense them. They communicate with her, too. Honestly, there’s one motorcycle that’s quite possibly my favorite character in the whole book. It’s got a great personality and hilarious insults.

I’m also a huge fan of sister stories, so Adya’s quest to find her missing sister absolutely resonated with me. Her relationship with her overly optimistic younger brother is so sweet, and her antagonistic relationship with Dsouza, the boy she refers to as Bad Day made me laugh. (And maybe swoon, a little bit.)

I devoured chapter after chapter of this book, getting lost in its dense jungle and magic-soaked cities. It’s a fantastic adventure with a sliver of romance. I have no idea if it’s a standalone or the beginning of a series, but I will eagerly watch for the next book by this author.

Fans of Flower and Thorn by Rati Mehrotra or The Star-touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi will not want to miss this one.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
Most characters are Indian.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Mild profanity used very infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
A brief kiss between boy and girl.

Spiritual Content
Adya prays to focus her magic. She encounters the spirits of different machines and can repair them using magic. Other kinds of magic exist in India, too. Adya’s mother believed combining them could be incredibly powerful, but Adya believes it’s what got her killed.

The story contains other fantasy characters and creatures like giants, elves, werewolves, and vampires.

Violent Content
Situations of peril. References to torture. A group of mercenaries burn a home to the ground with a woman trapped inside. A powerful gangster executes people who displease him in a cage into which he lowers a spiked platform.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review: A Whisper of Curses by J. Elle

A Whisper of Curses (Park Row Magic Academy #2)
J. Elle
Bloomsbury
Published July 9, 2024

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About A Whisper of Curses

New York Times bestselling author J. Elle continues her magical middle grade series with our favorite witches from Park Row Magick Academy!

While the new Magick Academy is under construction, an invitation to Retreat Week arrives! Before the students leave Park Row, Kyana is grabbed by an Available and, even after she slips from the spirit’s grasp, can’t stop either laughing or crying. Ashley thinks whatever it is, Dr. Minzy, a famous teacher at the retreat, will know what to do. But when the portal to the retreat suddenly dissolves, trapping everyone, Ash Availables are involved. With Kyana acting weird and Russ live-casting everything to the MagickWorld, Ash must say something to the directors (even though she isn’t sure she’s right) or mind her business and trust that Dr. Minzy will fix it?

In this adventurous sequel to A Taste of Magic, can Ashely, Kyana, and Russ figure out what the spirits are up to and save the day?

My Review

I loved getting to visit this magic-infused world again. In the first book in the Park Row Magic Academy series, Kyana has only just discovered she’s a witch with access to a whole hidden world of magic. She enters a baking competition to try to help save her magic school.

Because baking and food featured so prominently in the first book, I expected to see some food or baking in the second book. There is some focus on food, but not baking, like in the first book. What’s really interesting is the way that different foods impact characters and events in the book. I thought the author’s use of them was pretty clever.

I also enjoyed the theme about leadership and what makes a good leader. Several characters position themselves as leaders, from a leading researcher to a camp director to Kyana’s role in student leadership at her magic school. As Kyana tries to figure out how to lead effectively, she learns surprising lessons about effective leadership from the people around her and her own experience.

The chapters alternate between Kyana and Ashley’s points of view. I liked getting to know both girls more and seeing what was happening in their minds as they tackled different problems and sometimes had different ideas about how to help each other.

On the whole, this is an excellent addition to a fun series. I’m excited to see where J. Elle takes the story and these characters next!

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 8 to 12.

Representation
Kyana is Black. Ashley is Latine. One minor character wears a hijab.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
None.

Romance/Sexual Content
None.

Spiritual Content
Characters can perform magic and travel through portals to other realms. Some characters are not human but magical individuals called Availables who have different abilities than humans.

Violent Content
Situations of peril. Someone grabs and holds characters with the intent to harm them.

Drug Content
Potions and charms have the ability to impact people around them. For example, a sleep potion makes someone go to sleep.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday

I’m sharing this post as a part of a weekly round-up of middle-grade posts called Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday. Check out other blogs posting about middle-grade books today on Marvelous Middle-Grade Mondays at Always in the Middle with Greg Pattridge.