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Book Review: The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu

Publisher’s description

From the acclaimed author of The Real Boy and The Lost Girl comes a wondrous and provocative fantasy about a kingdom beset by monsters, a mysterious school, and a girl caught in between them.

If no one notices Marya Lupu, is likely because of her brother, Luka. And that’s because of what everyone knows: that Luka is destined to become a sorcerer.

The Lupus might be from a small village far from the capital city of Illyria, but that doesn’t matter. Every young boy born in in the kingdom holds the potential for the rare ability to wield magic, to protect the country from the terrifying force known only as the Dread. 

For all the hopes the family has for Luka, no one has any for Marya, who can never seem to do anything right. But even so, no one is prepared for the day that the sorcerers finally arrive to test Luka for magical ability, and Marya makes a terrible mistake. Nor the day after, when the Lupus receive a letter from a place called Dragomir Academy—a mysterious school for wayward young girls. Girls like Marya.

Soon she is a hundred miles from home, in a strange and unfamiliar place, surrounded by girls she’s never met. Dragomir Academy promises Marya and her classmates a chance to make something of themselves in service to one of the country’s powerful sorcerers. But as they learn how to fit into a world with no place for them, they begin to discover things about the magic the men of their country wield, as well as the Dread itself—things that threaten the precarious balance upon which Illyria is built.

Amanda’s thoughts

Listen. That tweet up there should tell you everything you need. Also, 100% of the book was interesting, and yet as I read I repeatedly shouted in my head, “IT JUST GOT INTERESTING!” Because it kept getting MORE and MORE interesting. Go order this book. Now.

Marya knows her place in life. As a girl, she’s seen as a helper, a caretaker, a disappointment, and a background character in her own life. Her golden boy brother, Luka, is potentially gifted as a sorcerer and Marya is just this annoyance, this threat to perfection, this problem. Thank goodness she has Madame Bandu, a neighbor who has her watch her boys. Marya can be a “wild girl” with them, and, bonus, Madame Bandu is teaching her how to read. She’s also teaching her to question everything. From Madame Bandu, Marya learns to question the stories you’re told, question who’s telling them, who they benefit. She teaches her to see coded secrets and truths in the tapestries that record history. Marya learns that reading and learning is the best way to keep away the monsters that plague their land.

But all that learning comes to a halt when Marya is sent to a reform school, where she will get a fresh start and learn how to be a lady. And maybe, if she’s really good, she will be allowed to go work on a sorcerer’s estate in some kind of helping role! At Dragomir, Marya meets other girls who were also exiled to this school and it’s clear that the way they are “troubled” has little to do with anything serious. The girls there are sullen, awkward, haughty, inquisitive, and smart. They are too much, they are inappropriate, they are girls that no one knows what to do with. So they will learn how to behave at Dragomir. They will be cast off, isolated, broken down. After all, girls are obviously either evil or weak, and they must be reformed. They can’t be running around, thinking thoughts and being willing to run headlong into monsters!

Meanwhile, the Dread is looming, but the sorcerer assigned to their school says it’s all under control. But Marya doesn’t believe him. She starts to wonder if he’s there to protect them or to monitor them. Also, how, exactly, do these “troubled” girls pose a threat? Are they in danger or are they the danger? Why does it seem like all of the men Marya meets are lying? What’s this school really about?

By the end of the story, we see the myriad ways men fail women, the way they are cowards and liars and manipulators. We see the truth, we see the lies, we see the control, the power, and the bravery. We also see that Anne Ursu is a master storyteller (which, of course, we already know) who knows just how to skewer the patriarchy and leave readers feeling inspired by the brave actions of her characters. I could not put this book down and when I did, I felt hopeful, which is an amazing feeling to experience for even two minutes these days. A smart story about control, rebellion, story itself, and the fearsome power of girls allowed to be themselves. A great book for girls who can’t follow the rules and, better yet, don’t want to.


Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062275127
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/12/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold

Publisher’s description

In this magical middle-grade novel, ten-year-old Gabrielle finds out that America isn’t the perfect place she imagined when she moves from Haiti to Brooklyn. With the help of a clever witch, Gabrielle becomes the perfect American — but will she lose herself in the process? Perfect for fans of HURRICANE CHILD and FRONT DESK.

It’s 1985 and ten-year-old Gabrielle is excited to be moving from Haiti to America. Unfortunately, her parents won’t be able to join her yet and she’ll be living in a place called Brooklyn, New York, with relatives she has never met. She promises her parents that she will behave, but life proves to be difficult in the United States, from learning the language to always feeling like she doesn’t fit in to being bullied. So when a witch offers her a chance to speak English perfectly and be “American,” she makes the deal. But soon she realizes how much she has given up by trying to fit in and, along with her two new friends (one of them a talking rat), takes on the witch in an epic battle to try to reverse the spell. 

Amanda’s thoughts

I loved this. Hand this to readers who like mostly realistic stories with just a bit of magic. Yes, the bad witch plays a big part in the story and Gabrielle’s new friend is a talking rat who wishes he were a rabbit, but it’s MOSTLY realistic.

Readers start out seeing a bit of Gabrielle’s life in Haiti. She is happy and loved, but like many, the hope is to be able to go to America. But instead of going there with her parents, Gabrielle has to go alone, to live with her relatives. And while she’s still so excited about the many opportunities and riches she has heard she will find in America (and, endearingly, she is most excited about free school), she’s worried. She fears she won’t fit in or understand things, so when a witch confirms for her that indeed no one will like her, Gabrielle begins to make some bad deals. The kids definitely are mean to her at school—they’re racist and prejudice and make fun of her—and Gabrielle decides that she will trade losing something small in return for the witch granting her some wishes. Before long, Gabrielle has lost her Haitian accent and is speaking perfect English, she’s fitting in better (thanks to wishing to be “100% pure American”), and she even gets the long, straight hair of her dreams and brand name clothes! Sounds great (maybe), right? Everything comes at a price, and those prices are hardly “small.”

Gabrielle’s story asks what you would give up in order to fit in and shows the dangers of losing yourself. Full of bravery, friendship, strength, and resourcefulness, this story of immigration, identity, and acceptance is one all collections should have.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780358272755
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 02/02/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: The Collectors by Jacqueline West

Publisher’s description

collectorsEven the smallest wish can be dangerous. That’s why the Collectors are always keeping watch.

The Collectors sweeps readers into a hidden world where wishes are stolen and dreams have a price. Fast-paced, witty, and riveting, this contemporary fantasy adventure has magic woven through every page.

It’s the first book in a two-book series from Jacqueline West, the New York Times–bestselling author of The Books of Elsewhere series. For fans of Serafina and the Black Cloak, The Isle of the Lost, and The Secret Keepers.

Van has always been an outsider. Most people don’t notice him. But he notices them. And he notices the small trinkets they drop, or lose, or throw away—that’s why his collection is full of treasures. Then one day, Van notices a girl stealing pennies from a fountain, and everything changes. He follows the girl, Pebble, and uncovers an underground world full of wishes and the people who collect them. Apparently not all wishes are good and even good wishes often have unintended consequences—and the Collectors have made it their duty to protect us. But they aren’t the only ones who have their eyes on the world’s wishes—and they may not be the good guys, after all.

Jacqueline West, author of the New York Times–bestselling Books of Elsewhere series, draws readers into a story about friendship, magic, and the gray area between good and evil. The Collectors is for fans of Cassie Beasley’s Circus Mirandus and Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This is totally one of those books where I finish reading it and want to demand the next book be in my hands RIGHT NOW so I can find out what happens. After lots of fabulous twists and turns, and being left uncertain who to trust or believe, I just want to see where this story goes. I suspect many readers will be just as drawn in as I was.

 

11-year-old Van wears hearing aids, and while he may not always hear everything, he certainly sees everything. A keen observer, he notices little things that others overlook, like small, forgotten items that he secrets home to his model stage, where they become part of his imaginary world. His opera singer-mother is often preoccupied with other things, and while shopping one day, Van comes across a strange girl stealing pennies from a fountain. He tries to figure out what her deal is, but his mother appears and the girl disappears before he can learn much. Eventually, his quest to find out more leads him to hidden underground chambers, where he follows the girl to a room labeled The Collection. Here, he finds shelves filled with glass bottles, which turn out to be captured wishes. Van has so many questions: who would steal wishes? Why? Do they help make them come true? Or do they stop them from coming true? What does Pebble, the girl, have to do with all of this? And how come Van can talk to and understand animals? Things grow more complicated when Van meets Mr. Falborg, an Opera Guild member with vast collections of his own. When Van is kidnapped by men from the underground chambers, he’s told he’s dangerous because he knows their secrets. He’s given instructions to prove he’s not their enemy and released. Unfortunately, that proof requires him to steal something from Mr. Falborg, who also tells Van he is in danger. Suddenly, it seems impossible to know who to trust, who is good or bad. Pebble claims that the collectors keep people safe from what could happen if wishes came true, but Falborg is telling Van a different story. And when Van discovers the most secret part of Falborg’s collection, he really doesn’t know what to think or who to believe. Forced to choose a side to align himself with, Van is confused. Wishes are hard to control and could bring chaos, but who can really be trusted to carry them out in the best way? When wishes are tied up with power, control, and good/bad, how can you even make a wish? And when Van finds out Pebble’s big secret, we’re all left wondering what will happen as the book closes.

 

Great characters, interesting world-building, tons of suspense, and leaves readers wanting more. A great addition to any collection. Be careful what you wish for! 

 

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062691699
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/09/2018

Book Review: Heart of Thorns by Bree Barton

Publisher’s description

heart of thornsInventive and heart-racing, this fierce feminist teen fantasy from debut author Bree Barton explores a dark kingdom in which only women can possess magic—and every woman is suspected of having it.

Fans of Leigh Bardugo and Laini Taylor won’t want to miss this gorgeously written, bold novel, the first in the Heart of Thorns trilogy.

In the ancient river kingdom, where touch is a battlefield and bodies the instruments of war, Mia Rose has pledged her life to hunting Gwyrach: women who can manipulate flesh, bones, breath, and blood. The same women who killed her mother without a single scratch.

But when Mia’s father announces an alliance with the royal family, she is forced to trade in her knives and trousers for a sumptuous silk gown. Determined to forge her own path forward, Mia plots a daring escape, but could never predict the greatest betrayal of all: her own body. Mia possesses the very magic she has sworn to destroy.

Now, as she untangles the secrets of her past, Mia must learn to trust her heart…even if it kills her.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

The prologue to this ARC says, “Once upon a time, in a castle carved of stone, a girl plotted murder.” Talk about immediately roping you in!

 

On the eve of her marriage to Prince Quin, Mia Rose is planning to stage her murder and run away. At 17, Mia has been trained as a huntress, and wants nothing more than to track down the demonic Gwyrach that killed her mother. Mia and her sister Angie, 15, are the daughters of an assassin, the leader of the Gwyrach hunters. The Gwyrach are half god, half human, and literally any girl or woman could be one. They transmit their magic via touch, so all girls are made to wear gloves to protect everyone from potential magic. All girls and women are under suspicion of being a Gwyrach and, as such, have their lives restricted. Mia has spent the past three years studying anatomy, hoping to learn how to protect against the Gwyrach power. She wonders what would happen if one could harness their power for good (instead of using it to enthrall and to wound, as they do now). If the hunters could eliminate magic, then no one could control another person’s body, thus girls would be free and could live full lives of their own choosing. These are all the thoughts Mia is having when she thinks about running away. Things grow even more complicated when she overhears a conversation between Quin and his parents in which they say Mia is dangerous and they speak of allegiances, leverage, and blackmail. All set to flee from her wedding, she is surprised when Quin is shot by an arrow and chaos breaks out at their ceremony. But that surprise is nothing compared to a revelation: while dragging Quin to safety, she somehow manages to heal him completely; Mia is a Gwyrach. Together, Quin and Mia flee the castle, uncertain where they will go, but desperately trying to get away from whoever wants them dead.

 

For me, the story really became good when they find themselves in a land where Mia begins to learn more about the Gwyrach and about her mother (and about herself and about Quin, for that matter). Here, the Gwyrach are acknowledged as creatures of the divine, a sisterhood, as angels and descendants of goddesses. She learns a lot about magic, including why the women are magic and why men are threatened by their power. The story looks at secrets, trust, lies, treachery, safety, traps, feminism, patriarchy, rape, love, hate, anger, dark magic, and betrayal. SO MUCH BETRAYAL. This is the first book in a series and I suspect readers will be anxious to see what happens to Mia and Quin, especially as we end on such a cliffhanger. Mia, who now knows she is a Gwyrach, as was her mother, and has been deeply shocked by a betrayal she couldn’t have seen coming, has many new understandings about her world. It will be interesting to see where her story goes. Full of action and intrigue, this will have wide appeal for fantasy fans. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062447685
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/31/2018

Book Review: Grump: The (Fairly) True Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves by Liesl Shurtliff

Publisher’s description

grumpFrom the New York Times bestselling author of Rump, comes the true story behind another unlikely hero: a grumpy dwarf who gets tangled up in Snow White’s feud with the wicked queen.

Ever since he was a dwarfling, Borlen (nicknamed “Grump”) has dreamed of visiting The Surface, so when opportunity knocks, he leaves his cavern home behind.
At first, life aboveground is a dream come true. Queen Elfrieda Veronika Ingrid Lenore (E.V.I.L.) is the best friend Grump always wanted, feeding him all the rubies he can eat and allowing him to rule at her side in exchange for magic and information. But as time goes on, Grump starts to suspect that Queen E.V.I.L. may not be as nice as she seems. . . .
When the queen commands him to carry out a horrible task against her stepdaughter Snow White, Grump is in over his head. He’s bound by magic to help the queen, but also to protect Snow White. As if that wasn’t stressful enough, the queen keeps bugging him for updates through her magic mirror! He’ll have to dig deep to find a way out of this pickle, and that’s enough to make any dwarf Grumpy indeed.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Confession: I’ve never read any of Shurtliff’s books before. Rump, one of her previous books, is really popular in our library. A student noticed I was carrying Grump on the way to lunch one day and practically ripped it out of my hands. And now, having read this book, I totally get the easy appeal of these books: familiar worlds turned on their heads and great world-building. Looks like I have some backlist to read this summer.

 

Most dwarves are born deep underground, but Borlen (later nicknamed “Grump”) was born just under The Surface. As a result, he was always interested in The Surface and the ways of the mysterious world up there. What he wouldn’t give to escape to that world and not have to suffer his fate—being the Seventh in a mining crew. Mining crews have six dwarves; the Seventh is a slot reserved for those considered “a troublemaker or an idiot.” When he joins his crew, he mines his Fate Stone. It’s a rare reflecting stone that works like a magic mirror. To Borlen, it’s just another thing that makes him different. As he gets settled in his new crew, his differences really stand out. The depths make him dizzy and sick. He doesn’t sing while he works. The other dwarves peg him as a grump. There’s not much to like about his new life (or his old life, for that matter), so when he discovers a chance to escape to The Surface, he takes it. He’s quickly “befriended” by the Queen (who, of course, has no real friends and has nefarious reasons for wanting Borlen around) and is supposed to do her bidding—a command that becomes more complicated when he meets Snow White and then has to protect her and do her bidding. Their adventures together lead them to reconnecting with Grump’s mining crew, who are all forced to escape to The Surface and hide out with Grump and Snow White (whom Grump calls “Spoiled Brat”). It’s up to Grump, the allegedly useless Seventh, to figure out how to outwit the Queen and save Snow White.

 

There’s something so satisfying about reading a story where you know the characters and the world, then seeing it turned on its head. This fast-paced story will have readers mentally chiding Grump for going along with the Queen’s plans and cheering for him once he connects with Snow White. A fun look at friendship and belonging. If, like me, this book is readers’ first introduction to the author, they will surely be scrambling to go back and read her older titles. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781524717018
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 05/29/2018