Books · REVIEWS

Skeleton Tree by Kim Ventrella

“The ones you hold dear never leave you.”

Twelve-year-old Stanly knows the bone growing in his yard is a little weird, but that’s okay, because now he’ll have the perfect photo to submit to the Young Discoverer’s Competition. With such a unique find, he’s sure to win the grand prize.

But, oddly, the bone doesn’t appear in any photos. Even stranger, it seems to be growing into a full skeleton . . . one that only children can see.

There’s just one person who doesn’t find any of this weird–Stanly’s little sister. Mischievous Miren adopts the skeleton as a friend, and soon, the two become inseparable playmates.

When Miren starts to grow sick, Stanly suspects that the skeleton is responsible and does everything in his power to drive the creature away. However, Miren is desperate not to lose her friend, forcing Stanly to question everything he’s ever believed about life, love, and the mysterious forces that connect us.

Book Links: Amazon | Book Depository | Goodreads | Publisher

Personal Thoughts:

With mystery, adventure, and resilient character, Skeleton Tree is a welcome experience for young readers.

Stanly found a skeleton bone in their backyard, which turns out not just an ordinary bone. The skeleton is growing from the ground like an actual tree with life of its own. Stanly thought this discovery will make him win a contest, and a chance to see his father again and travel with him. At first, he intend to keep the bone a secret, but soon without so much choice, he told about the bone to his younger sister, Miren, and his best friend, Jaxon. Even their caretaker Ms. Francine eventually knows about the Skeleton. The only person who isn’t aware about it is Stanly’s mother. For some reason, his mother cannot see the Skeleton, a mystery that Stanly did not understand at first.

Miren get to spend a lot of time with the skeleton, since she’s always at home due to her sickness. Miren seems enjoying her time with the Skeleton, and become friend with him. But Miren’s health condition is not getting better, and Stanley think that the Skeleton is to blame. Is there anything he can do to stop the Skeleton?

For a debut novel, Skeleton Tree is an impressive one. Kim Ventrella successfully delivered a sensitive topic for middle-grade readers with care. Death is inevitable, as an adult that is clear to many if not all of us. But for children, it is not an easy subject to deal with. So putting it out there with this book, give chance to openly discuss the topic. An imaginative story that can be useful for parents and children. With Skeleton Tree, Kim not only creatively and sensitively handle heavy topic, but also manage to be realistic and whimsical at the same time.

Few pages in, readers will see how Stanley taking care of his sister, Miren. Which makes Stanley adorable in my opinion. He tried to understand and even tolerate Miren. He even has Slurpy, an imaginary zombie in Stanley’s head whom he feed all his frustrations and anger.

At a very young age, Stanley is obviously smart and perceptive. He understand his family’s situation – how his mom is trying her best for them, his sister’s health condition, and his missing father. In his own ways he tried to help, like by tolerating his sister, understanding their situation, and trying his best not to add to his mother’s worries.

“She did the best she could, only keeping a whole family together wasn’t supposed to be a one-person job.”

But no matter how he tried to be a good boy, things doesn’t always go to his wishes. At a young age, Stanly learned that sometimes we have to accept the inevitable. Life happens and we have to embrace it.

“Love is a funny thing. Sometimes it is long and slow and rolling. A lazy river of love. Other times, it’s over so fast, you blink and you might miss it. Both things are love, Stanly. Don’t forget that.”

On the whole, Skeleton Tree is a bittersweet story about family, love, loss, and life. It’s a beautiful book that should be introduce to younger readers with parental presence to add more understanding about the important and heavy topic it sensitively delivered. This whimsical book is a welcome addition to the middle-grade shelves.

* This review is based on an ARC received from the publisher, Scholastic Press Philippines in exchange for my honest opinion about the book.

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Books · REVIEWS

The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington

“Clothes show who you are, or who you want to be.”

Rose, Ella, Marta and Carla. In another life we might have all been friends together. But this was Birchwood.

As fourteen-year-old Ella begins her first day at work she steps into a world of silks, seams, scissors, pins, hems and trimmings. She is a dressmaker, but this is no ordinary sewing workshop. Hers are no ordinary clients. Ella has joined the seamstresses of Birkenau-Auschwitz.

Every dress she makes could be the difference between life and death. And this place is all about survival.

Ella seeks refuge from this reality, and from haunting memories, in her work and in the world of fashion and fabrics. She is faced with painful decisions about how far she is prepared to go to survive.

Is her love of clothes and creativity nothing more than collaboration wth her captors, or is it a means of staying alive?

Will she fight for herself alone, or will she trust the importance of an ever-deepening friendship with Rose?

One thing weaves through the colours of couture gowns and camp mud – a red ribbon, given to Ella as a symbol of hope.

Book Links: Amazon | Book Depository | Goodreads

Personal Thoughts:

The Red Ribbon is an affecting story of friendship and survival that shows a piece of Auschwitz history.

“The place where everyone arrives, and nobody leaves.”

The story introduced Ella, a fourteen year old Jew. She was on her way home from school when she was taken from the streets by police and sent to Birchwood, or most popularly known in history as Birkenau-Auschwitz. She was stripped of her clothes and other belongings, in exchange of the identical stripey garments for prisoners which is more like a sack than a clothing. Prisoners like Ella are just numbers in a striped uniform. They don’t have identity, their lives doesn’t matter. They are not humans to their oppressor.

When Ella arrived at Upper Tailoring Studio to find work, she had to fake her age as sixteen. Otherwise she’ll be consider as useless and eventually end up dead. There she met Rose, a young girl who came from a wealthy family but for some reason end up in the same situation like her. Ella and Rose soon become friends. They found an ally in each other, something to treasure during the war in a place like a concentration camp.

“People weren’t simple, made up of just one characteristic, like pure silk, or pure will. They were woven dram all sorts of threads on complex patterns – tartans and abstracts.”

The book itself is beautiful – with it’s colourful designs and arts related to sewing (pins, buttons, ribbons, scissors and others) that are scattered to the pages. And the story is a treasure – something that everyone should read, not only for the history but also for the sensitive story it delivered.

“It’s only when you’ve been without something that you truly appreciate how wonderful it is.”

In The Red Ribbon, Lucy Adlington sticthed together history and fiction, creating a powerful story for readers to experience.

Ella and Rose are in the same situations. But they see and take things differently. Rose is the optimistic one, while Ella is more realistic. Given their situations, I admire Ella’s survival attitude. In a place like Birchwood, you need to be tough and smart to survive, and hope that your humanity stays intact even after all the horrifying experiences.

“Cross that bridge when you come to it, or swim the river if you have to.”

Before Birchwood, Ella has a normal and happy life with her grandparents. While at Birchwood she can’t help but remember her old life and family, especially her grandma. Every time she recall her grandmother’s sayings, you’ll feel the love and longings. Even it is not explicitly said, Ella obviously look up to her grandmother. In every dress she make, she thought of her – how her grandma sew clothes and her constant reminder for her words or saying. Those sayings from her grandma not only remind Ella of what to do and what not to do, but also reminds readers of a happier memories that Ella used to have. And to hope that Ella survive the war and that she’ll get back to that happier life she once have.

“If the sun isn’t shining, make the most of rain.”

On the whole, The Red Ribbon is an affecting and enlightening read. A fictional story that feels and read like real events, which makes the hearth-breaking scenes more aching. Just like Rose said in the book, “stories has different way of telling the truth”, and The Red Ribbon is one proof of its validity. Through Ella’s story, Lucy Adlington reminds readers about one of the great horrors of the past. An important and eye-opening read especially for the younger generations. Whether you’re a target audience of this book of not, I suggest you pick this one up.

* This review is based on a copy received from the publisher, Bonnier Publishing  via Midas Public Relations in exchange for my honest opinion about the book.

Books · REVIEWS

Deadzone (Horizon, #2) by Jennifer A. Nielsen

“…if we’re going to be a single team, then we’re going to function like one.”

The survivors have made it out of the jungle, but they may be sorry they ever left when they stumble upon a whole new ecosystem, populated with entirely new threats. And the greatest threat of all may come from within. Because one of the kids is changing . . .

The seven-book series begun by #1 New York Times bestseller Scott Westerfeld only gets bigger and bolder under the frenzied imagination of bestselling, critically acclaimed author Jennifer A. Nielsen!

Book Links: Amazon | B&N | Book Depository | Goodreads | Publisher

Personal Thoughts:

Deadzone is a survival story with a video game vibe and mystery, that will keep young readers at the very edge of their seats.

Those of you who have visited this blog for some time probably know that Jennifer Nielsen’s The Ascendance Trilogy is a favorite middle grade series of mine. It’s one of those fantasy books I love to read and reread. Which put Jennifer Nielsen to my auto-buy list. I’ve been looking out for her latest releases, hoping that she’ll create a new character like Sage/Jaron of The Ascendance trilogy. But in this new book of her, Deadzone, I didn’t actually expect a character like Jaron. Since the series is basically a collaboration from different authors, I know that Jennifer will have to continue the previous author, Scotte Westerfeld’s story. Which only means, same characters to play and expand for Jennifer.

Team Killbot – Kira, Yoshi and Akiko are still stranded in the arctic rift, trying their best to survive. Together with other survivors they have to cross the Blood Sand with the hope to finally find safety and answers. But crossing the Blood Sand is not an easy task. There are dangers and risks involved which may cost not only their energy and sanity but also their lives.

For a sequel of a series with different author from the previous book, Deadzone offers a same feel of read. Jennifer Nielsen continue the story from Scott Westerfeld’s Horizon with ease. She manages to deliver the same urgency if not more engaging. Unlike with the prequel, Jennifer doesn’t have to set-up the ground for the storyline anymore, giving her more space to push the story forward. Which she successfully did by giving readers and the characters new playing grounds, and more difficult battle to face.

With relatively diverse characters, Jeniffer weaved a compelling story in this sequel. The characters are not only struggling to survive the situation they are into but also each of their personal issues. Moly had to embrace her leadership role for the team Killbot; Yoshi has to accept his mother’s reason for sending him to Japan; while Kira and Akiko has some language barrier that they need to overcome in order to contribute more for the team.

Overall, Deadzone is a solid follow-up to Scott Westerfeld’s Horizon. Jennifer Nielsen not only moves the story arc forward but also set a higher stakes for the characters.

* This review is based on an ARC received from the publisher, Scholastic Press Philippines in exchange for my honest opinion about the book.

Books · REVIEWS

Roar (Stormheart #1) by Cora Carmack

“Confusion leads to knowledge for those brave enough to seek it.”

In a land ruled and shaped by violent magical storms, power lies with those who control them.

Aurora Pavan comes from one of the oldest Stormling families in existence. Long ago, the ungifted pledged fealty and service to her family in exchange for safe haven, and a kingdom was carved out from the wildlands and sustained by magic capable of repelling the world’s deadliest foes. As the sole heir of Pavan, Aurora’s been groomed to be the perfect queen. She’s intelligent and brave and honorable. But she’s yet to show any trace of the magic she’ll need to protect her people.

To keep her secret and save her crown, Aurora’s mother arranges for her to marry a dark and brooding Stormling prince from another kingdom. At first, the prince seems like the perfect solution to all her problems. He’ll guarantee her spot as the next queen and be the champion her people need to remain safe. But the more secrets Aurora uncovers about him, the more a future with him frightens her. When she dons a disguise and sneaks out of the palace one night to spy on him, she stumbles upon a black market dealing in the very thing she lacks—storm magic. And the people selling it? They’re not Stormlings. They’re storm hunters.

Legend says that her ancestors first gained their magic by facing a storm and stealing part of its essence. And when a handsome young storm hunter reveals he was born without magic, but possesses it now, Aurora realizes there’s a third option for her future besides ruin or marriage.

She might not have magic now, but she can steal it if she’s brave enough.

Challenge a tempest. Survive it. And you become its master.

Book Links: Amazon | B&N | BookDepo | Goodreads | Publisher

Personal Thoughts:

Roar is the first installment of a YA fantasy Stormheart series that introduced magical storms and a princess without magic but will travel a great length to keep her kingdom and prove that she can control her own life even her future is already decided for her.

Aurora Pavan is the heir to the throne, groomed by her mother to be the perfect Queen. She came from a long line of Stormling rulers who has the power to dispels storms with the help of stones or gems called stormhearts. At the age of eighteen Aurora’s magic does not manifest yet. She has no power to control any storms even rumors tells otherwise. Without magic to protect her people, Aurora will lose her Kingdom, so her Mother try to form an alliance to other Stormling rulers by marrying Aurora to stormling Prince, Cassius. But Cassius has his own reason for agreeing with the marriage and it doesn’t have to do with alliance. When Aurora discover a black market and meet storm hunters she realized that marriage is not the only choice to claim the throne and retain her Kingdom.

“All things were unfamiliar once upon a time. If we all gave up when there were no answers to be found, there would not be hunters like us. Sometimes you must make answers when there are none.”

What I really like about this novel is the magical concepts that Cora Carmack introduced – magical storms with hearts and practically alive, souls reincarnated as storms after death, and Storm hunters who fight storms with or without magic. These things are fresh concepts for me. I haven’t read anything like these before, which makes the book interesting and intriguing at the very least.

Aurora as the main character started as insecure girl without a power to protect her Kingdom. I admit, she’s not the best heroine out there, she annoyed me sometimes with her decisions and her temper got on my nerves that sometimes I feel like my patience is draining really fast. But throughout the course of the story, I found some growth in her, not just with her physical strength and magical power but most importantly as a person. I hope to see more development on her in the next installment because I don’t think she really hit her full potential here. Not yet, but definitely still growing.

The other characters are a mixed cast of stereotypical characters. There is an antihero in Cassius, likable hero in Locke, and intriguing and loyal friends in Nova and Jinx. Though they are a bit common and predictable for me, I still find them equally intriguing just like Aurora.

And since Cora Carmack is first known for her romance novels, it is expected to have some romance thrown in the story. Aurora and Locke relationships started in an instant connection, which normally I don’t like in my readings. In here, it’s not that I don’t like it but more like I don’t mind it, which is worse. Because it means, I don’t care enough about the characters. Though I enjoy the banters between Aurora and Locke, they don’t make me swoon or root for them as a couple.

That one quibble aside, Roar is still an enjoyable fresh read. Cora Carmack introduced a unique magical concepts in this first installment of her fantasy series, Stormheart. With enough intrigue and suspense especially about the magical storms, readers will surely find themselves immerse in Aurora’s world.

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* This review is based on an advance reader’s copy I received courtesy of the publisher, MacMillan International in exchange of honest opinion about the book.

 

Books · REVIEWS

Lucky in Love by Kasie West

“Sometimes regardless of what we want, reality takes over. “

In this new contemporary from YA star Kasie West, a girl who wins the lottery learns that money can cause more problems than it solves, especially when love comes into the picture.

Maddie doesn’t believe in luck. She’s all about hard work and planning ahead. But one night, on a whim, she buys a lottery ticket. And then, to her astonishment —

She wins!

In a flash, Maddie’s life is unrecognizable. No more stressing about college scholarships. Suddenly, she’s talking about renting a yacht. And being in the spotlight at school is fun… until rumors start flying, and random people ask her for loans. Now, Maddie isn’t sure who she can trust.

Except for Seth Nguyen, her funny, charming coworker at the local zoo. Seth doesn’t seem aware of Maddie’s big news. And, for some reason, she doesn’t want to tell him. But what will happen if he learns her secret?

With tons of humor and heart, Kasie West delivers a million-dollar tale of winning, losing, and falling in love.

Book Links: Amazon | B&N | Book Depository | Goodreads | Publisher

Personal Thoughts:

Lucky in Love is a about a girl who won a lottery jackpot and the changes that money brought to her life.

Maddie is living a normal and simple life. At school she is one of the smart kid flying under the radar. She works hard to get good grades so she can get scholarship for collage. On the night of her 18th birthday when her best-friends ditch out on her, she ended up buying a lottery ticket after a convenience-store clerk convince her to do so. She can’t believe how much the universe is paying her back when few days after she found out that she won fifty million dollars. Suddenly her life change. She’s an instant celebrity. People in school wants to be friends with her. Relatives she never knew get in touch. She’s buying sports car, pricey clothings, and hanging out with the popular kids. Almost everything and everyone around her change except for one, Seth, her co-worker at the zoo, who seems oblivious about her winning, and treated her just the same old Maddie.

Lottery winner stories in fiction or in real life has its own appeal. How someone beat the odds, and how regular people from all walks of life, find their lives suddenly transformed by vast wealth can easily provide important lessons and examples for readers. And Kasie West’s latest novel, Lucky in Love manage to furnish the same.

Through Maddie, readers of Lucky in Love will see how instant wealth easily brings changes to a person and to the people around her. The changes that happened to Maddie after winning, shows how money influenced people’s life – from the way she view the world around her, and the way other view her. After winning a huge amount of money, Maddie thought that she doesn’t have to worry anymore about collage, or her family. But turns out even with so much money, she cannot guarantee her slot to collage, or her family being happy. There are issues that money alone cannot solve.

Maddie’s as an instant millionaire is quite believable. Though I don’t agree with most of her decisions especially with how she’s spending her money, I still find those parts realistic. After all, Maddie is a teenager who knows nothing about finances and investments.

As expected from Kasie West’s novel, Lucky in Love does not lack in terms of romance department. Seth, Maddie’s co-worker at the zoo will surely be love by readers. But what I really like about Seth presence in the story is the diversity he adds to the plot. Being an Asian guy who lives in America, Seth shows some issues of a non-American people is experiencing.

Overall, Lucky in Love is a quick, light and enjoyable read. Maddie’s story shows how instant wealth can easily change a person and the people around her, and that money is not always the answer to problems, it can solve some but it can also create new ones.

* This review is based on an ARC received from the publisher, Scholastic Press Philippines in exchange for my honest opinion about the book.

Books · REVIEWS

Beanstalker and Other Hilarious Scarytales by Kiersten White

“…spelling matters.”

Once upon a time, a girl skipped into the forest and became a zombie.

Wait, no, that’s not how this story is supposed to go. Let’s try again.

Once upon a time, a boy did a horrible job as a sheep-sitter and burned his tongue on stolen pie.

No, children in these stories are always good and virtuous. From the top.

Once upon a time, a king and queen tried to find a princess for their son to marry, and he wound up fleeing from a group of very hairy vampires.

Hmmm…

What about, once upon a time, a bunch of fairy tales got twisted around to be completely hilarious, a tiny bit icky, and delightfully spooky scarytales… in other words, exactly what fairy tales were meant to be. Grab some flaming torches, maybe don’t accept that bowl of pease porridge, and get ready for a wickedly fun ride with acclaimed author Kiersten White and fairy tales like you’ve never heard them before.

Book Links: Amazon | B&N | Book Depository | Goodreads | Publisher

Personal Thoughts:

Beanstalker and Other Hilarious Scarytales is a twisted fairy tale collection for kids. It’s scary, fun, creative and delightful.

Having read the first two books of Kiersten White’s The Conqueror’s Saga, I am eager to try her other works. So when I get the chance to read this latest novel, Beanstalker and Other Hilarious Scarytales, I just couldn’t pass that chance. Add the fact that the book promise a delightful read with all the fantasy and retelling, I just have to read the book.

In Beanstalker and Other Hilarious Scarytales, Kiersten White not only turn the familiar fairy tale characters to their twisted version, but also managed to make their story surprisingly dark and fun at the same time. In here, will get Kiersten White’s fun side with her twisted sense of humor. Though I have to admit, as much as I enjoy this one, I have few reservations, especially considering the book is for kids. So fair warning, the book is bit spooky and there is one off-putting scene, especially if you have a vivid imagination like me.

The familiar characters we all love such as Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and others get a new, twisted and frightening look. Snow White is a vampire, Red Riding Hood is a zombie, Goldilocks is a thug, and Cinderella and Prince Charring are pyromaniacs. There are also twisted version of kids rhymes in each chapters, and sketches made by Karl Kwasny that adds creativity as well as balance to the creepy story.

Overall, Beanstalker and Other Hilarious Scarytales is a gorgeously looking, delightful, fun and spooky middle-grade fiction. Kiersten White not only manage to make the classic fairytales new but also bring the familiar characters into a different light. With horror, humor, fantasy, Middle-grade readers will surely enjoy this one. A perfect gift for kids during Holloween season.

* This review is based on an ARC received from the publisher, Scholastic Press Philippines in exchange for my honest opinion about the book.

Books · REVIEWS

Now I Rise (The Conqueror’s Saga #2) by Kiersten White

“Sometimes the only way forward is to destroy everything that came before.”

Lada Dracul has no allies. No throne. All she has is what she’s always had: herself. After failing to secure the Wallachian throne, Lada is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her blood-strewn path. Filled with a white-hot rage, she storms the countryside with her men, accompanied by her childhood friend Bogdan, terrorizing the land. But brute force isn’t getting Lada what she wants. And thinking of Mehmed brings little comfort to her thorny heart. There’s no time to wonder whether he still thinks about her, even loves her. She left him before he could leave her.

What Lada needs is her younger brother Radu’s subtlety and skill. But Mehmed has sent him to Constantinople—and it’s no diplomatic mission. Mehmed wants control of the city, and Radu has earned an unwanted place as a double-crossing spy behind enemy lines. Radu longs for his sister’s fierce confidence—but for the first time in his life, he rejects her unexpected plea for help. Torn between loyalties to faith, to the Ottomans, and to Mehmed, he knows he owes Lada nothing. If she dies, he could never forgive himself—but if he fails in Constantinople, will Mehmed ever forgive him?

As nations fall around them, the Dracul siblings must decide: what will they sacrifice to fulfill their destinies? Empires will topple, thrones will be won . . . and souls will be lost.

Book Links: Amazon | Book Depository | B&N | Goodreads

Personal Thoughts:

Now I Rise is a dark, rich, action-packed and trilling sequel to this historical fantasy series that re-imagines the life of Vlad the Impaler on the shoes of a young vicious girl, Lada Dracul.

Alternating between Lada and her brother Radu’s point of view, the story continues where Lada journey back to Wallachia in an attempt to reclaim her throne. While Radu stays with Mehmed trying to help the Ottoman Empire win a battle against the Byzantine Empire to retake Constantinople. Lada needs Radu’s assistance and interpersonal skills, but Radu is busy helping Mehmed with the hope that Mehmed finally see him the way he want to be seen. Unfortunately for Radu, Mehmed has his eyes on one thing only, and that is Constantinople. Mehmed will do anything to get his dream city, even if it means sacrificing those close to him.

Kiersten White manage to breathes life into this particular period of history by creating a believable characters and realistic atmosphere for them to dance around. Not only she gives readers a general outline of the political affairs at the time, but also the unsaid thoughts and issues of leaders at that time. Even if those are not the real deal, they still carry weight and feel like real. Kiersten White successfully blends her characters’ story line to the real history where they are based from.

To those who are not familiar with the Fall of Constantinople or about Vlad the Impaler and other rulers at his time, this book is an educational treat while also entertaining and thought provoking. Even if it is technically fiction, the story still follows events of actual history. Kiersten White clearly did her research well.

The topics of equality, faith and religions, politics and war are just few of the things that makes this series a must read. Through her characters, Kiersten White easily scatters great points, ideas and truths that will surely make readers think and question things and even themselves.

Radu’s point of view alone will give readers the chance to see the different sides of war. His internal struggles about alliances, equality, sacrifices, faith and religions, winning and losing will surely leave readers thoughts to ponder and questions to rise. There are intricacies in his thoughts and depth in his opinions that is not only for fiction but also applicable to real life. Clearly, Radu is one complex character.

“He would die on the wall tonight, between his brothers and his enemies, because he could no longer distinguish between the two. They had finally come to the end. Whichever side won, neither would triumph.”

As for Lada, she took a back seat in this installment compare to Radu. Though she still strong and fearsome, her character arc basically stay the same. Lada like Mehmed is a power-driven person. She and Mehmed will do anything and sacrifice everything or even anyone to get what they want. They are dangerous, vicious and even selfish. They both live for their dreams and ambitions. One is Constantinople, the other one is Wallachia. As leaders they can be great but they can also easily bring destructions.

“They love themselves and their ambition above all else. They love what feeds their ambition, and when it stops feeding that, the love will turn to hate with more passion than either could ever love with.”

With violence, murder, betrayal, and heartbreak Now I Rise is sharp-edged, intense, thought provoking, and deliciously vicious sequel to And I Darken. I am really excited to find out how Kiersten will end this series in the next and final installment.

* This review is based on a copy I received courtesy of the publisher, Delacorte Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.