ARC Review: Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

Title: Ghost Squad
Author: Claribel A. Ortega
Series: N/A
Pages: 256
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: April 7th 2020
**I received a copy of this book from the publisher, which does not influence my review**

      “Coco meets Stranger Things with a hint of Ghostbusters in this action-packed supernatural fantasy.
      For Lucely Luna, ghosts are more than just the family business.
      Shortly before Halloween, Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely’s firefly spirits before it’s too late.
      With the family dynamics of Coco and action-packed adventure of Ghostbusters, Claribel A. Ortega delivers both a thrillingly spooky and delightfully sweet debut novel.”

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Claribel A. Ortega’s debut novel, Ghost Squad, is a delightful middle grade with lots of heart and a cast of character that is sure to charm readers of every age. Lucely Luna is just like any twelve-year girl, she likes hanging out with her best friend, Syd, and spending time with her family. Only most of her family are ghosts and she’s the only one who can see them. When Lucely discovers that her dad may not have the money to keep their house and something odd begins happening to her ghost family, she’s determined to help on both fronts. But her plans take a frightening turn when Lucely, along with her best friend Syd, stumble upon an evil plan by the mayor himself to take over St. Augustine and steal the townspeople’s souls! Now Lucely and Syd, along with a suspiciously shrewd cat named Chunk, must figure out a way to stop him before it’s too late.

Ghost Squad is a great reminder that middle grade novels are some of the most engaging and heartfelt reads you will ever pick up. The most important thing to Lucely is her family and it is this bond that drives the story. Her father is a single parent who works hard to provide a good home life for her. His ghost tours haven’t had the kind of buzz he was hoping for, but the last thing he wants is for Lucely to worry about their finances. The rest of Lucely’s family is a different kind of special. Inspired by Dominican folklore, family members who’ve passed appear as firelies, called cocuyos, and are tied to the magical willow tree on Lucely’s family property. They also appear as ghosts, but only to Lucely’s young eyes. From her grandmother, Mamá Teresa to her long line of cousins, Lucely’s family is unconventional but fierce and loving. When Lucely discovers that something is amiss and she may lose the connection she has with her family for good, she will stop at nothing to make sure they are safe. She’s brave and little reckless, but her heart is always in the right place. Syd is Lucely’s best friend and I immediately took a liking to her. Not only is she sassy, she is also willing to do anything for her friend. Her vast knowledge of all things paranormal ends up being a big help in their quest to defeat the nefarious spirits who plan to take over their town. It was hard not to love these two girls. I was delighted with their saucy conversations and inability to avoid getting into trouble.

My favorite character by far is Syd’s grandmother, Babette, who steals the show every moment she’s on the page. Owner of an eccentric occult shop, there have always been whispers about whether or not she could be a witch. Though the girls believe they can sneak out and wander cemeteries without any of the adults in their life noticing, Babette is much smarter than either of them realize. I love that she takes the girls under her wing and shows them you should never underestimate a grandmother. And, of course, one must not forget Chunk, one of Babette’s cats, who has some strong opinions even for a cat. She made the best reluctant animal companion.

With playful dialogue and fun characters, Claribel A. Ortega’s Ghost Squad is an unforgettable debut that will thrill and bewitch readers.

★ ★ ★ ★

(4/5)

Snapshot Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Title: This Is How You Lose the Time War
Author: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Series: N/A
Pages: 201
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.”

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“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.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(5/5)

Snapshot Review: Escaping from Houdini by Kerri Maniscalco

Title: Escaping from Houdini
Author: Kerri Maniscalco
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper, #3
Pages: 437
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?”

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      “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.

★ ★ ★
(3/5)

Snapshot Review: Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

Title: Sal and Gabi Break the Universe
Author: Carlos Hernandez
Series: Sal and Gabi, #1
Pages: 382
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.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)