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: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Series: The Poppy War, #1
Pages: 544
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: May 1st 2018

TW: graphic violence, rape, torture, drug use

      “A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.
      When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.
      But surprises aren’t always good.
      Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
      For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .
      Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.”

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      “Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.”

  • Rin – Rin is a special kind of character. The Poppy War takes places over the span of several years. We see Rin as a child, defined by her orphan status. Her foster family is more interested in marrying her off than providing a stable home. We see her as a teen, determined to find a way out of her circumstances and nothing will stand in her way. As a student at Sinegard Academy, Rin is forced once again to push herself, to stretch herself thin in order to succeed. And yet she never breaks. When the Nikara Empire is thrust into another war with the Federation of Mugen, Rin is again pushed to her limits. So much of who she is and who she is becoming is tied to her ability to take things like pain and use them as a means to mold herself into something stronger.
  • School setting – There are a lot of interesting settings in The Poppy War, but readers spend a substantial amount of time at the Sinegard Academy with Rin. The most prestigious academy in the Empire is meant to produce generals and future leaders within the military. It is cut-throat and students are more likely to fail than to succeed. This setting works well on many fronts. On one hand it gives us a glimpse at Rin as a student. We see her grow and face both academic and personal obstacles. It also introduces several key characters who will play important roles going forward. But one of my favorite things about Kuang’s use of this setting is we as readers learn alongside Rin. We are taught Nikara’s history and lore. This method of world-building gives the reader a broader understanding of this universe without feeling like they are getting a huge info dump.
  • History and lore collide – Speaking of history and lore, one of the most exciting things about this world is how history and mythology are so intricately woven together. Rin uncovers a power within herself that indicates that the more fantastical stories of shamans and gods are in fact real. And these folk heroes and villains are not in the past, but are major players in present day.
  • The trauma of warfare – I knew going into the novel that I shouldn’t expect a lighthearted novel, but I wasn’t prepared for how somber this one ended up being. Rin is a war orphan and has suffered many things. But her pain is only the tip of the iceberg. TWs above apply to this section. There is torture, experimentation, genocide, rape. Kuang makes it very clear that there are no victors in war, only survivors. No one is untouched by war and it has not only changed their world, but changed who they were meant to become. Soft characters are few and far between because not many can afford to be in such a harsh world.
  • Power – One of the major themes of The Poppy War is power. Who has it. Who wants it. And how far are they willing to get it. This often ties back to how certain characters experienced the trauma of war. Rin desires power because for so much of her life, she’s been powerless. There are characters who have been bred for war, who’ve been taught power is what makes them worthy of praise. When you combine this with years of pent up anger and justifiable hatred, the result is extremely volatile.

Nothing specific.

The Poppy War is appropriately horrendous and shocking, whose ending left me emotional exhausted. Kuang’s characters are flawed and broken and though you may question their choices, as a reader you understand them.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)

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)