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: 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)

ARC Review: The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

Title: The Moon Within
Author: Aida Salazar
Series: N/A
Pages: 240
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Release Date: February 26th 2019
**I received an ARC copy of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review**

      “Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.
      But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?
      A dazzling story told with the sensitivity, humor, and brilliant verse of debut talent Aida Salazar.”

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The Moon Within, Aida Salazar’s middle grade debut, is a novel I wish I could gift my eleven-year-old self. Celi is on the brink of turning twelve and she, along with the world around her, is changing faster than she can keep track of. Her body is already changing and with it, the promise of a period. Not something she is looking forward to, especially with her mom’s recent interest in their Mexica heritage. For Celi, this means a moon ceremony to celebrate her transition from girl to young woman, but Celi isn’t happy about having to share the things happening to her body with other people. Celi also finds herself torn between her best friend Marco, who is taking his first steps discovering what it means to be genderfluid, and her first crush Iván, who’s finally showing interest in her, but who is also less accepting of her best friend. Celi must find a way to navigate all the changing relationships in her life without sacrificing who she is and who she wants to be.

The Moon Within is an honest portrayal of how many young people feel about the changes their bodies go through. Celi’s first instinct when it comes to her first bra and her first period is to hide, to feel shame in the way her body now works. What Celi doesn’t quite understand yet is that her mother’s insistence on a moon ceremony, an Indigenous tradition meant to celebrate and honor the menstrual cycle, is her gift to her daughter. It’s a gift that says you don’t have to be ashamed. It’s one where the relationship between mother and daughter is defined by frankness and an openness that doesn’t leave Celi with all the unanswered questions her mother was left with. I loved the relationship between Celi and her mother because they clashed. They don’t always communicate well and Celi is just starting to see her mother as a person and not just her mom, but someone one who was once a scared girl herself.

Celi’s Mexica side isn’t the only cultural heritage that is celebrate in this one. Her father is Afro-Puerto Rican and Celi has grown up learning how to dance the bomba. I loved the portrayal of Celi’s relationship with this dance. She’s incredibly gifted and her connection to the music feels almost instinctual for her. Salazar also uses this dance to show Celi’s connection to her best friend Marco, whom she calls her best echo. Their friendship is incredibly sweet and even though Celi stumbles, this is the one relationship in this novel that felt like it could survive no matter what was thrown at them. I loved how Salazar’s portrayal of Marco being genderfluid is tied to his Indigenous roots. While our views on the gender binary are changing, we sometimes forget that many Indigenous cultures already had words for those who are nonbinary and in this case, specifically genderfluid. For Marco, being xochihuah and embodying both female and male genders, is what feels right. I loved that there is a beautiful reverence given to both the changes Celie and Marco go through and by embracing who they are, they were also reclaiming cultural traditions.

The Moon Within took me back to the days of first crushes, that uncertain time between childhood and adulthood, recounting that secret shame we sometimes feel when we get our first period, the shame that sometimes follows us into adulthood. This poignant novel-in-verse instead encourages celebration and acceptance, and one I wish every child on the verge of getting their first period could read.

★★★★★
(5/5)

Mini Reviews: A Dash of Trouble + Pitch Dark

MiniToday I have two immensely different mini-reviews for you, but both are by Latina authors, so it kind of makes sense that I’ve paired them together? Yeah, let’s go with that. Anna Meriano’s A Dash of Trouble was so charming that I already have plans to purchase it for my niece come Christmas and I enjoyed Courtney Alameda’s Pitch Dark so much, I might have to buy for myself soon. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: A Dash of Trouble
Author: Anna Meriano
Series: Love Sugar Magic, #1
Pages: 320
Publisher: Walden Pond Press
Release Date: January 2nd 2018 

      “Leonora Logroño’s family owns the most beloved bakery in Rose Hill, Texas, spending their days conjuring delicious cookies and cakes for any occasion. And no occasion is more important than the annual Dia de los Muertos festival.
      Leo hopes that this might be the year that she gets to help prepare for the big celebration—but, once again, she is told she’s too young. Sneaking out of school and down to the bakery, she discovers that her mother, aunt, and four older sisters have in fact been keeping a big secret: they’re brujas—witches of Mexican ancestry—who pour a little bit of sweet magic into everything that they bake.

      Leo knows that she has magical ability as well and is more determined than ever to join the family business—even if she can’t let her mama and hermanas know about it yet.
      And when her best friend, Caroline, has a problem that needs solving, Leo has the perfect opportunity to try out her craft. It’s just one little spell, after all…what could possibly go wrong?”

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“They all had sticky smiles on their faces. Leo licked cinnamon sugar off her fingers and smiled too, but her thoughts kept wandering to the recipe book under her bed. She didn’t know what was worse, the guilty feeling of a secret or the impatience of wanting to try her next spell.”

Anna Meriano’s debut middle grade novel A Dash of Trouble is sweet, magical, and an utter delight. Eleven-year-old Leonora “Leo” Lograño just wants to be treated like her older sisters. But as the youngest of five daughters, Leo is often kept out of the loop. She also struggles to feel included when she grew up without speaking Spanish and everyone else in her family is either fluent or learning. As this year’s Día de Muertos celebration is approaching, Leo is determined more than ever to not be left out, but her curiosity leads her to a family secret that changes everything. The women on her mother’s side of the family are all brujas, witches with individual gifts from conjuring objects out of thin air to communicating with the dead. Leo is ecstatic, but she must keep her new knowledge a secret because like everything else, her family thinks she’s too young to learn about magic. In secret, Leo begins working spells to help her best friend Caroline, but it all starts to fall apart when her spells don’t go quite as planned. Now Leo must figure out how to fix her out of control magic without anyone in her family finding out. Leo is such an earnest character who I could not help but love. She wants more than anything to not be treated as a child and while her decisions aren’t always wise, her motivation comes from a good place. I loved all the different dynamics between Leo and her sisters and could picture each so clearly. Meriano includes real recipes in her novel (minus the magic) that are perfect for young readers to follow (with adult supervision) and hopefully helps bring this heartfelt and funny novel to life.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★


Title: Pitch Dark
Author: Courtney Alameda
Series: N/A
Pages: 384
Publisher: Feiwel Friends
Release Date: February 20th 2018

      “Tuck has been in stasis on the USS John Muir, a ship that houses Earth’s most valued artifacts—its natural resources. Parks and mountains are preserved in space.
      Laura belongs to a shipraiding family, who are funded by a group used to getting what they want. And they want what’s on the Muir.
      Tuck and Laura didn’t bargain on working together, or battling mutant aliens who use sound to kill. But their plan is the only hope for their crews, their families, and themselves.
      In space, nobody can hear you scream . . . but on the John Muir, the screams are the last thing you’ll hear.”

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“He groans, and the weight of his voice hits my temple, physical as a fist. Pain explodes from the crown of my head to my cheekbone. My nose cracks. Blood faucets from my left nostril, splattering over my mouth and chin.”

Courtney Alameda’s Pitch Dark takes the intricacies of science-fiction and combines it with all the thrills of a horror story in a novel that grabs readers from page one and doesn’t let go. Alameda’s two leads, Laura Cruz and Tuck Morgan, are both capable characters on their own, but they also make an excellent team and I loved the fact that they both had room to shine despite this fact. I was really impressed by the amount of detail that went into this novel from the descriptions of spaceships like the John Muir to the world-building. One of the novel’s drawbacks, however, is the time-frame. The events of the novel occur very quickly making the development of a connection between characters feel a little hasty. Still, it was hard not to fall in love with Pitch Dark‘s characters and feel the excitement of the story. I also loved the fact that Pitch Dark is a multi-layered novel that also addresses humane nature, racism, and the politics of written history. I also want to say that if you get a chance, read Alameda’s Author’s Note at the end as it really resonated with me.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★