Title: Into the Tall, Tall Grass
Author: Loriel Ryon
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Release Date: April 7th 2020
**I received an ARC of this book from the author which does not influence my review**
“A girl journeys across her family’s land to save her grandmother’s life in this captivating and magical debut that’s perfect for fans of The Thing About Jellyfish.
Yolanda Rodríguez-O’Connell has a secret. All the members of her family have a magical gift—all, that is, except for Yolanda. Still, it’s something she can never talk about, or the townsfolk will call her family brujas—witches. When her grandmother, Wela, falls into an unexplained sleep, Yolanda is scared. Her father is off fighting in a faraway war, her mother died long ago, and Yolanda has isolated herself from her best friend and twin sister. If she loses her grandmother, who will she have left?
When a strange grass emerges in the desert behind their house, Wela miraculously wakes, begging Yolanda to take her to the lone pecan tree left on their land. Determined not to lose her, Yolanda sets out on this journey with her sister, her ex-best friend, and a boy who has a crush on her. But what is the mysterious box that her grandmother needs to find? And how will going to the pecan tree make everything all right? Along the way, Yolanda discovers long-buried secrets that have made their family gift a family curse. But she also finds the healing power of the magic all around her, which just might promise a new beginning.”
- Yolanda – I found so many things about Into the Tall, Tall Grass‘s MC relatable. This twelve year old is bright, opinionated, and struggles to express her feelings. Life hasn’t felt right ever since Yolanda’s grandfather past away. Her grandmother has fallen ill, her best friend dumped her for her twin sister, Sonja, and she’s still waiting for her family gift to appear. Yolanda is prone to jealousy, is desperate for someone to truly understand her, and just wants everything to go back to the way it was before.
- Friendships tested – Yolanda and her best friend, Ghita, had a falling out and the former isn’t sure she wants to be mend this friendship. There is so much heartache on both sides of this relationship. I loved that both girls are allowed to feel resentful and angry, but also must learn where the other person is coming from before their friendship can be restored.
- Grandparent-grandchild relationships – These were my favorite relationships in the novel to read about. From Yolanda’s special bond with her grandfather, who has been the only one to truly understand her, to Sonja’s relationship with her grandmother that has taken on a mentor-mentee dynamic, these bonds run so deep and have so many different layers.
- Sister relationship – Yolanda and Sonja are at odds for much of the story, but it was so touching to see them find each other again. Much like Yolanda’s relationship with Ghita, this bond has been severed for all the wrong reasons, but at the end of the day, these two sisters will need each other going forward.
- First crushes – Yolanda has an incredibly sweet first crush on Ghita’s brother Hasik. He’s very sweet and sees Yolanda as remarkable even when she doesn’t always see it herself. I was so happy to see a sapphic first crush explored in this middle grade. Sonja and Ghita have become more than friends, but there are still plenty of issues they have to work though.
- Discussions on grief – This middle grade novel is hard hitting in the grief department. Yolanda is still grieving over her grandfather’s death and now her grandmother’s illness.
- Multi-generational story – I really appreciated that this wasn’t just Yolanda’s story, but hers was just one piece of a very long, wearsome and yet hopeful story of the entire Rodríguez clan. Also appreciated that the adult characters were not perfect and that the author did not shy away from revealing their flaws to the younger characters.
- The writing – The story felt magical from the very beginning. Not only does Ryon capture the tumulteous feelings of adolescence, but her descriptions of the pecan orchard of the past and the mysterious grassland that springs forth and which Yolander and her friends must journey through were so well illustrated that it was easy to fall both into the story.
Weaving together stories of the past and the present, Loriel Ryon’s Into the Tall, Tall Grass is an unforgettable tale of a young girl faced with the reality of loss and grief; bittersweet at its center but written with honesty and compassion.
★ ★ ★ ★
Title: This Is How You Lose the Time War
Author: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Publisher: Saga Press
Release Date: July 16th 2019
“Two time-traveling agents from warring futures, working their way through the past, begin to exchange letters—and fall in love in this thrilling and romantic book from award-winning authors Amal-El Mohtar and Max Gladstone.
Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.
Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.
Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?
Cowritten by two beloved and award-winning sci-fi writers, This Is How You Lose the Time War is an epic love story spanning time and space.”
“Red wrote too much too fast. Her pen had a heart inside, and the nib was a wound in the vein. She stained the page with herself. She sometimes forgets what she wrote, save that it was true, and the writing hurt.”
- The writing – El-Mohtar and Gladstone have weaved together a beautiful story that is both hopeful and somber. The imagery is gorgeous and I found myself pausing just to appreciate the language
- The world-building – I don’t think I’ve ever come across a world quite like this one. Red and Blue are on different sides of a war that is waged across time. Their missions require them to travel to the past, to manipulate certain events or people in order to bring about futures that will benefit their sides.
- The romance – The progression of Red and Blue’s relationship was perfect. I love the enemies to lovers trope and bought in so fast to these two characters finding an unlikely connection. I loved how they both challenged each other, teased one another and fell so hard when they began to realize how much their feelings for one another grew.
- The letters – The letters exchanged between Red and Blue is my favorite portion of the novel. These two have in a sense met their match in one another. But it is when these letters grow more intimate, where, despite the danger, they lay out their whole selves, that this book drilled itself into this reader’s heart. These letters are vulnerable and moving and some of the most lovely pieces of writing I’ve read.
- Sometimes hard to follow – The unusual setting and unfamiliar language made the story a little hard to follow at the beginning.
- Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War is one of the most unique books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The f/f romance completely swept me off my feet and I will no doubt revisit this one.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Title: Escaping from Houdini
Author: Kerri Maniscalco
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper, #3
Publisher: Jimmy Patterson
Release Date: September 18th 2018
“Audrey Rose Wadsworth and her partner-in-crime-investigation, Thomas Cresswell, are en route to New York to help solve another blood-soaked mystery. Embarking on a week-long voyage across the Atlantic on the opulent RMS Etruria, they’re delighted to discover a traveling troupe of circus performers, fortune tellers, and a certain charismatic young escape artist entertaining the first-class passengers nightly.
But then, privileged young women begin to go missing without explanation, and a series of brutal slayings shocks the entire ship. The disturbing influence of the Moonlight Carnival pervades the decks as the murders grow ever more freakish, with nowhere to escape except the unforgiving sea.
It’s up to Audrey Rose and Thomas to piece together the gruesome investigation as even more passengers die before reaching their destination. But with clues to the next victim pointing to someone she loves, can Audrey Rose unravel the mystery before the killer’s horrifying finale?”
“Next time the victim will be revealed in a grander fashion, one that cannot simply be thought of as a performance. Wherever he is now, he’s seething. Enraged that more people weren’t afraid of his opening act. When he strikes again, every passenger aboard this ship will be imprisoned by their fear. I guarantee he means to turn this cruise into a fantastical nightmare.“
- Audrey Rose – I’ve really enjoyed this MCs journey throughout these first three books. As she works under the direction of her uncle, a forensic scientist, she’s had to deal with sexism from her classmates and society’s stifling expectations of her as a woman. One of my favorite things about Audrey Rose as a character is she never loses her vulnerable and soft side. She’s seen a lot of violence and come face to face with murderers and though a part of her thinks it might be easier to numb herself, she never gives in.
- The setting – I immediately fell in love with the setting for this third installment. The Moonlight Carnival is shrouded in mystery. It’s showy and shocking and its illusions make for an interesting backdrop for characters like Audrey Rose, who have so much faith in science. I also loved that this takes place on a ship, where there is no escape, further adding to the isolation and fear passengers begin to feel with each murder.
- Thomas – One of my favorite things about Audrey Rose’s partner in crime, her equal in many ways, is how respectful he is of her. Thomas is very much in love with her but never wants to make her feel like she is obligated to be with him. I’ve enjoyed his quick wit and playfulness so much throughout the series.
- The love triangle – My major issue with this third installment is how odd it felt for Maniscalco to introduce another love interest so late in the game. This isn’t because I think Audrey Rose shouldn’t have options should she wish it, but because it all happens so fast. Literally a week before she meets this other potential suitor, she was saying yes to marriage with Thomas. It felt like this cheapened the bond they had already developed over the course of the first two books.
- Mephistopheles – I didn’t not like the ringmaster of the traveling carnival. My issue with his character is that personality wise if you told me all his lines were said by Thomas, I would have believed you. Their personalities were far too similar.
- The epilogue – This is slightly spoilery, but I will avoid specifics. I did not like the epilogue because it felt like it erased everything that happened for the past 400 other pages. It patched together relationships far too easily and makes me wonder how certain dynamics will play out in the fourth. If none of the issues that arose in this third book are addressed in the fourth, I really don’t understand the direction this one took at all.
While Escaping from Houdini is my least favorite in Kerri Maniscalco’s Stalking Jack the Ripper series, it still offers an enjoyable and entertaining read.
★ ★ ★
Title: Sal and Gabi Break the Universe
Author: Carlos Hernandez
Series: Sal and Gabi, #1
Publisher: Rick Riordan Presents
Release Date: March 5th 2019
“How did a raw chicken get inside Yasmany’s locker?
When Sal Vidon meets Gabi Real for the first time, it isn’t under the best of circumstances. Sal is in the principal’s office for the third time in three days, and it’s still the first week of school. Gabi, student council president and editor of the school paper, is there to support her friend Yasmany, who just picked a fight with Sal. She is determined to prove that somehow, Sal planted a raw chicken in Yasmany’s locker, even though nobody saw him do it and the bloody poultry has since mysteriously disappeared.
Sal prides himself on being an excellent magician, but for this sleight of hand, he relied on a talent no one would guess . . . except maybe Gabi, whose sharp eyes never miss a trick. When Gabi learns that he’s capable of conjuring things much bigger than a chicken–including his dead mother–and she takes it all in stride, Sal knows that she is someone he can work with. There’s only one slight problem: their manipulation of time and space could put the entire universe at risk.
A sassy entropy sweeper, a documentary about wedgies, a principal who wears a Venetian bauta mask, and heaping platefuls of Cuban food are just some of the delights that await in this mind-blowing novel gift-wrapped in love and laughter.”
“The entire back of the locker had become a portal into another world. I could see across dimensions into a whole new reality. Who knew what bizarre aliens lived there, what strange lived they led, what mind-blowing powers and technology they had?”
- Sal – This kid had me laughing out loud for almost the entirety of the book. He’s mischievous, sometimes sarcastic, and has a knack for getting into trouble (then talking his way out of it). What I really loved about him was how open he was to being wrong. It was so refreshing to see a young male character not let pride get in the way when it came to apologizing.
- Diabetes – I think this is the first time I’ve read a book about a character with diabetes and I’m so glad it was a middle grade novel. There is something about this age group that is so open that you know how important such a storyline will be for readers.
- Gabi – Gabi is fierce and stubborn. She’s smart and unafraid to challenge things she doesn’t understand (like Sal). I definitely want her in my corner. Family is so important to her and I love how she embraces her judgmental side with regard to them. She will judge you based on whether you accept her family for who they are.
- Light and heavy topics – The humor in the novel made me smile more times than I can count, but the emotional aspects are what kept me reading. Sal is still dealing with the death of his mother. His ability to pull things from other universes has intersected with his grief and sometimes he accidentally brings another version of his mother into his world. There is also Gabi’s storyline about her newborn baby brother being in the ICU. Both are handle with a lot of care and I really appreciated seeing the uncertainty and fierceness of these young characters when faced with issues that would make most adults crumble.
- Different familial dynamics – There are some unconventional familial relationships in this one and some that defy stereotypes. One such relationship that really stood out to me was Sal’s relationship with his stepmother. I loved their interactions and how she was never a roadblock for Sal’s growth but just another adult in his life who was always in his corner.
- The adults – I adored so many adult characters in this one. Loved that they didn’t hold the kid characters back, but were still ever-present. They didn’t talk down to child characters, but loved them and wanted what was best.
- Conflict – As much as I adored this one, I do think it could have done with a little more conflict to drive the plot.
Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is a fun middle grade SFF novel with charming characters who always manage to get themselves in the best kind of trouble. I cannot wait to read the sequel.
★ ★ ★ ★