Tag Archives: small town

Review: Where There’s Smoke by E. B. Vickers

Where There's Smoke by E. B. Vickers cover shows the title words blended into orange and red flame-like shapes.

Where There’s Smoke
E. B. Vickers
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Published December 12, 2023

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About Where There’s Smoke

In this fast-paced thriller, eighteen-year-old Calli finds herself alone after the loss of her father—until a bruised and broken girl shows up on her property, forcing her to face the present, rethink her future, and unearth the skeletons of her own past.

Life has never been easy in the small desert town of Harmony, but even on the day Calli Christopher buries her father, she knows she is surrounded by people who care about her. But after the funeral, when everyone has finally gone home, Calli discovers a girl on her property. A girl who’s dirty and bruised and unable to speak. And petrified.

Calli keeps the girl secret—well, almost secret. She calls her Ash and begins to nurture her back to health. But word spreads in a small town, and soon a detective comes around asking questions about a missing girl from another town. But these only raise more questions–about Ash and about the people Calli knows well. Still, she must ask: is Ash in danger…or is she the danger?

My Review

I love the way the author has chosen to tell this story. It’s got prose chapters from Calli’s perspective, and some short chapters or scenes in poetry in between them. The poems tell several other characters’ perspectives, and they’re a little bit veiled, really anchored in the context of what Calli learns in the scenes from her point of view.

It’s hard to talk about some of my feelings about this book without spoilers, but I’m going to do my best.

One of the things that made a lot of sense but sometimes frustrated me as a reader is the way that Calli waffled back and forth in her theories about what had happened to Ash. Sometimes, minute to minute, she’s convinced this person is totally guilty of harming Ash, and the next minute, she’s certain they’re innocent, and it must be someone else. It makes sense because new things keep happening, and she’s never sure who’s telling her the truth.

I did see some of the reveals in the book coming, but I think they were ones that maybe you were supposed to figure out ahead of time. There were definitely plenty of things I didn’t expect and some things that made me look back at earlier scenes with new eyes.

On the whole, I think the author did an amazing job creating a suspenseful story and including commentary on faith and faith communities in a neutral way that allows readers to draw their own conclusions about the characters separately from religion.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
I think the major characters are white? Several characters are people who fled from a local cult.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Strong profanity used somewhat infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Calli references a past dating relationship with a boy. She also wonders if she’s falling in love with another boy.

Spiritual Content
Calli’s dad used to be the Bishop of her local church. Now, her dad’s cousin serves as Bishop. Calli still maintains her faith, and she references some Bible verses in times of need or when she faces tough decisions. Not far from Calli’s hometown is a small, very closed cult. There are rumors of children forced into marriage with much older men and girls who disappear, possibly murdered. Several characters have escaped from this group.

Violent Content
References to domestic violence and sexual assault. (Nothing graphically described or shown on scene.)

Drug Content
Calli finds empty beer bottles in a cabin that should be empty. References to adults drinking alcohol. Calli’s dad preached against drinking any alcohol at all.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of WHERE THERE’S SMOKE in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Just a Pinch of Magic by Alechia Dow

Just a Pinch of Magic
Alechia Dow
Feiwel & Friends
Published October 10, 2023

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About Just a Pinch of Magic

Alechia Dow’s middle-grade debut is as warm and sweet as a cinnamon bun, bursting with magic and sure to please the pickiest readers.

Wini’s family of enchanters runs a little bakery, but with the prices of magical ingredients skyrocketing, they’re going under. Desperate to save her family’s business, Wini takes a risk by casting a (sort of illegal) spell that would allow them to gather their own supply of their most needed magical ingredient: Love. But the spell doesn’t work. And Wini soon discovers that it didn’t just not work, it backfired. Badly. Now the whole town is in danger, and the Enchantment Bureau is sniffing around for whoever cast the wayward spell.

It’s just been Kal and her dad for as long as she can remember. They’ve weathered everything together, including Kal’s mental health struggles. But just as they’re about to move to a new town for a fresh start, Kal’s grandfather—who mysteriously vanished years ago—has suddenly reentered their lives with a desire to make amends. He joins them in opening their bookstore in the new town, but Kal can’t help but wonder if he has anything to do with the whispers around her new home about wicked magic. And it’s not just the whispers of the magical books in their shop.

When Wini and Kal cross paths—both hoping for the chance to finally make a friend without worrying about their family histories following them—the girls bond over being fellow outcasts. Together they search for the solution to fixing the magic gone awry in their beloved town—and just maybe get their dads to go out on a date.

My Review

If you, like me, have followed Alechia Dow on social media, you’re probably not at all surprised to see a book centered around delicious baked goods. I was SO excited for that component of this book. I’ve enjoyed the author’s posts about her baking experiences.

I loved both Wini and Kal’s characters. The story alternates chapters from both girls’ points of view. They both feel isolated from the magical community, Kal because she grew up in a nonmagical world, and Wini because of her family history and its impact on the town.

Both girls are smart and really need a good friend. They tentatively try to be that for each other, but friendship doesn’t happen without its bumps and bruises.

I loved the small magical town where they live, and the way the people relate to one another. It felt rich and interesting, and I would love to revisit the same setting for another story. The last few chapters of the story covered a lot of ground, but I enjoyed every page of this book, especially the recipes included between chapters! I am really excited to try a few of those out.

All in all, I’d say this is a perfect middle grade debut. It’s got magic, friendship, and delicious cookies. Who could ask for more than that?

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 8 to 12.

Representation
Wini and her family are Black. Wini’s dad and Kal’s dad are attracted to one another.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
None.

Romance/Sexual Content
Wini’s dad and Kal’s dad are attracted to one another.

Spiritual Content
Some characters have the ability to perform magic. Mentions of vampires, ghosts, and other supernatural creatures.

Violent Content
Situations of peril.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of JUST A PINCH OF MAGIC in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Maybe There Are Witches by Jude Atwood

Maybe There Are Witches
Jude Atwood
Fitzroy Books
Published June 13, 2023

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About Maybe There Are Witches

“I can’t think of a better fate for young readers.” -Steven T. Seagle, co-creator of Ben 10Big Hero 6, and Camp Midnight.

After moving to the tiny village of Biskopskulla, middle school student Clara Hutchins discovers that her family has a history in the region: one hundred forty years ago, one of her ancestors was hanged as a witch from the white oak tree on the edge of town. When Clara finds a mildewed diary in the basement, she’s even able to read the rambling thoughts of her long-dead relative.

But when the book’s predictions about Clara’s own life start coming true, she wonders if those 19th-century villagers had a point: maybe her great-great-great grandmother really did have unearthly abilities. Now, a break-in at the tomb of the town’s founder means a great evil has returned to Biskopskulla. Clara and her newest friends— two of the weirdest boys in school— must join forces to decipher the messages of a murdered witch and stop an unnatural catastrophe. But as they quest through historic cemeteries, backcountry libraries, and high-octane scholastic bowl tournaments, something sinister is lurking, watching, and waiting…

My Review

One of the things I liked about this book is the way that Clara’s quest to discover what happened to her ancestor leads her to a new group of friends. At first, on her own in a new town, she feels pretty isolated. The discovery of her great-great-great grandmother’s diary could have been something she kept to herself and which further isolated her from others. Instead, it becomes a vehicle through which she builds a new community around herself. She makes friends, like Gary and Chris, and even comes to connect with a mentor of sorts.

In terms of pacing, the story begins slowly, but the tension and speed at which things unfold gradually builds until, by the end, it’s a pretty wild ride!

There was really only one thing that I have mixed feelings about, and I don’t think I can talk about it without spoiling a couple of things, so I’m going to leave that all the way at the end, after the content summary.

On the whole, though, I think readers who enjoyed THE DARKDEEP by Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs will enjoy the eerie supernatural storytelling of this book.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 10 to 14.

Representation
Clara is white. One of her friends is Vietnamese American.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
None.

Romance/Sexual Content
None.

Spiritual Content
Clara finds a diary that appears to predict the future and responds to her actions and questions. She and her friends encounter other artifacts that have supernatural abilities. Clara and her friends try to complete an elaborate ritual they believe will banish evil from their town.

Violent Content
Situations of peril. Someone tells Clara macabre stories of the town’s history, including the story of a cult leader who was murdered by gun violence and a woman hanged to death for being a witch. References to a teenager killed in a car accident. More than once, people enter Clara’s house without permission. (One person mistakes it for a bed and breakfast establishment, and another appears intent on harming her and her friends.) Someone chases Clara and her friends and locks them inside a garage. A person uses a cattle prod to incapacitate someone else. Someone stabs another person through the heart.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of MAYBE THERE ARE WITCHES in exchange for my honest review.

SPOILER

The only thing I had mixed feelings about is that the woman who was murdered by the townspeople does turn out to be truly evil. There isn’t really any examination about whether, since she was evil, her execution was justified. One character comments that, basically, there are good witches and witches who cause harm, the same way that there are in other groups of people. So it is obliquely addressed, but it did leave me feeling a little weird because maybe the book implied that not all of the witch trials/murders were a bad thing (in a made-up world in which magic and witchcraft really do exist).

It’s possible that I’m reading way too much into the story and feeling weird for no reason. I liked a lot of other elements of the book, so I’m glad I had a chance to read it.

Review: The Night in Question by Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson

The Night in Question (The Agathas #2)
Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson
Delacorte Press
Published May 30, 2023

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About The Night in Question

How do you solve a murder? Follow the lessons of the master—Agatha Christie! Iris and Alice find themselves in the middle of another Castle Cove mystery in the sequel to New York Times bestseller The Agathas by powerhouse authors Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson.

Alice Ogilvie and Iris Adams became the talk of Castle Cove when they cracked the biggest case of the fall: the death of Brooke Donovan. Together, the Agathas put Brooke’s killer away for good, and since then, things around town have been almost back to normal. Quiet, even.

But if Alice and Iris know anything, it’s that sometimes quiet is just the calm before the storm. The truth is, Brooke’s disappearance wasn’t the first mystery to rock Castle Cove, and it won’t be the last. So when their school dance at the infamous Levy Castle—the site of film starlet Mona Moody’s unsolved death back in the 1940s—is interrupted by a violent assault, Iris and Alice pull out their murder boards and get back to work.

To understand the present, sometimes you need to look into the past. And if the Agathas want a chance at solving their new case, that’s exactly where they’ll need to start digging. Only what they uncover might very well kill them.

My Review

The first book in The Agathas series introduced an unsolved Castle Cove mystery involving a film star named Mona Moody. I love that this second book explores more of what happened to her.

I enjoyed the number of female characters and the scenes connecting them with one another. It felt natural– I didn’t even notice until looking back at the end of the book. But there are a lot of female characters and a lot of scenes showing connections between them. Female characters are also very often the ones making the bold moves at the forefront of the story.

At the beginning of the story, I struggled a little bit with Alice’s negativity. She’s been estranged from her old friend group and feels pretty hostile toward them. She has some pretty unflattering thoughts about them, and after a while, it started to feel pretty mean. At one point, she finds an unconscious girl who’s been severely injured, and instead of caring that she could die without help, she rushes off after a potential suspect. I think the idea was that she’s kind of an impulsive person who can get laser-focused on one thing and sort of ignore everything else. And that makes some sense, but it felt kind of cold to me.

Iris’s empathy and vulnerability balanced out my feelings about Alice, though. And as the story progressed, Alice warmed and experienced some vulnerability of her own. I enjoyed the relationship between them quite a bit.

I’m not a super experienced mystery reader, but I thought the pacing of the mystery here was excellent. I’ve read books where the last few chapters wind up the story in a mad rush that leaves me feeling dizzy. None of that here. The elements came together in ways that raised the intensity without making me feel overwhelmed by the speed at which things unfolded. All in all, I thought it was very nicely done.

Would I continue this series? Absolutely. I really enjoyed this one and how it tied together past and present.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 12 up.

Representation
Major characters are white.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Mild profanity used pretty infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
The girls learn, in passing, that a peripheral friend (and high school graduate) works at a strip club to pay for college. At one point, Iris laments that she hasn’t kissed a boy yet.

Spiritual Content
None.

Violent Content
Situations of peril. References to domestic violence. The girls find the victim of a violent attack. Iris sees someone in the midst of trying to kill someone else. A person waves a flare gun, threatening to use it to kill someone. Someone hits a girl over the head with a blunt object, causing head trauma. A girl sustains injuries to her face that require stitches. Someone kicks a girl in the stomach repeatedly, breaking one of her ribs.

Drug Content
Alice notices teen boys passing a flask at a school dance. Adults drink alcohol at a social gathering.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of THE NIGHT IN QUESTION in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Julieta and the Romeos by Maria E. Andreu

Julieta and the Romeos
Maria E. Andreu
Balzer + Bray
Published May 16, 2023

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About Julieta and the Romeos

You’ve Got Mail meets a YA Beach Read with a bookish mystery at its heart in the newest rom-com from Maria E. Andreu. The ideal next read for fans of Emily Henry, Kasie West, and Jennifer E. Smith.

Julieta isn’t looking for her Romeo–but she is writing about love. When her summer writing teacher encourages the class to publish their work online, the last thing she’s expecting is to get a notification that her rom-com has a mysterious new contributor, Happily Ever Drafter. Julieta knows that happily ever afters aren’t real. (Case in point: her parents’ imploding marriage.) But then again, could this be her very own meet-cute?

As things start to heat up in her fiction, Julieta can’t help but notice three boys in her real life: her best friend’s brother (aka her nemesis), the boy next door (well, to her abuela), and her oldest friend (who is suddenly looking . . . hot?). Could one of them be her mysterious collaborator? But even if Julieta finds her Romeo, she’ll have to remember that life is full of plot twists. . . .

From the author of Love in English comes a fresh take on love and romance, and a reminder to always be the author of your own life story.

My Review

I haven’t read anything by Emily Henry, but I definitely see the comparisons between this book and books by Kasie West or Jennifer E. Smith. It has a fluffy romance anchored in family life like I’ve seen in Kasie West’s books.

I loved the references to writing. Julieta is a writer and often thinks about a moment in terms of how she would write it. One of the things she wrestles with is the way that internalizing or imagining takes her out of the present and sometimes leads her to overlook what’s right in front of her.

My favorite thing about the book is the way the mystery of the identity of Happily Ever Drafter unfolds. I also loved the way the romance develops in her life. At first, I thought I knew exactly how the story would go– I’ve read enough romance novels to pick up some clues. And I was right about some elements, but I was completely blown away by others.

Julieta’s family owns a restaurant which she discovers isn’t doing all that well since the pandemic. She also lost her grandfather during the pandemic (I think) and since then, her grandmother has moved to town to be closer to the family. The relationship between Julieta and Abuela is so great. I absolutely bawled through one of the tender scenes in which Abuela opens her heart to Julieta and delivers some much-needed encouragement and wisdom.

On the whole, I had such a great time reading this book! It’s my first time reading anything by Maria E. Andreu, but I can tell it won’t be the last. I found the story really entertaining and tender. It’s a great book to start the summer with.

Content Notes for Julieta and the Romeos

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
Julieta and her family are Argentinian Americans.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Mostly mild profanity used fewer than ten times. One instance of stronger profanity.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between boy and girl. In one scene, Julieta sees a boy on top of a girl and references that he’s touching her. She doesn’t say where but implies it’s sexual.

Spiritual Content
None.

Violent Content
None.

Drug Content
Teens drink alcohol at a party.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of JULIETA AND THE ROMEOS in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Last One to Fall by Gabriella Lepore

Last One to Fall
Gabriella Lepore
Inkyard Press
Published May 9, 2023

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

About Last One to Fall

Six friends. Five suspects. One murder.

Savana Caruso and Jesse Melo have known each other since they were kids, so when Jesse texts Savana in the middle of the night and asks her to meet him at Cray’s Warehouse, she doesn’t hesitate. But before Savana can find Jesse, she bears witness to a horrifying murder, standing helpless on the ground as a mysterious figure is pushed out of the fourth floor of the warehouse. 

Six teens were there that night, and five of them are now potential suspects. With the police circling, Savana knows what will happen if the wrong person is charged, particularly once she starts getting threatening anonymous text messages.

As she attempts to uncover the truth, Savana learns that everyone is keeping secrets—and someone is willing to do whatever it takes to keep those secrets from coming to light.

My Review

I liked a lot of things about this book. First, I liked that the murder doesn’t happen until later in the story. This creates a lot of time for the reader to get to know the person who’s killed, and to get to see the dynamics in the friend group in action. I can’t remember if I’ve read another murder mystery like that before. I can really only think of stories in which the person is murdered either before the story begins or very near to the beginning. So I thought that was a cool, different way to tell this particular story.

The friend group also had some interesting dynamics. I guess the downside of telling a friend group story like this is that it makes for a large cast to introduce all at the beginning. Once I grasped the relationships between the characters, though, I felt like I was able to follow things pretty quickly.

In terms of the mystery– I can honestly say I kept thinking I had it figured out, and I definitely didn’t. I liked that there were clues I could look back at and recognize after I knew what to look for. So that was nicely done, I thought.

I liked the romantic moments, too. It made sense why the characters kind of danced around each other for so long, and I think it also added to my anticipation of seeing them finally work things out between them.

On the whole, I think fans of Diana Urban or Karen McManus will find a fast-paced mystery with a splash of romance in LAST ONE TO FALL.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
Jesse’s friend Freddie is Black. Jesse’s dad is an alcoholic.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used somewhat frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between boy and girl. Brief sexual assault in one scene when a boy forces himself on a girl, kissing her against her will.

Spiritual Content
None.

Violent Content
A girl witnesses a person’s fatal fall from a fourth story window. Boys get into a fist fight. In one scene, two boys attack another boy, beating him up. A boy and girl fight, and his behavior certainly has some red flags for abuse. He’s controlling, jealous, and grabs her arm at one point.

Drug Content
School officials find steroids in the locker of one of Jesse’s friends and expel him. Teens drink alcohol at a party.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of LAST ONE TO FALL in exchange for my honest review.