‘The Burning Maze (Trials of Apollo 3)’ – Rick Riordan

The formerly glorious god Apollo, cast down to earth in punishment by Zeus, is now an awkward mortal teenager named Lester Papadopoulos. In order to regain his place on Mount Olympus, Lester must restore five Oracles that have gone dark. But he has to achieve this impossible task without having any godly powers and while being duty-bound to a confounding young daughter of Demeter named Meg. Thanks a lot, Dad.

With the help of some demigod friends, Lester managed to survive his first two trials, one at Camp Half-Blood, and one in Indianapolis, where Meg received the Dark Prophecy. The words she uttered while seated on the Throne of Memory revealed that an evil triumvirate of Roman emperors plans to attack Camp Jupiter. While Leo flies ahead on Festus to warn the Roman camp, Lester and Meg must go through the Labyrinth to find the third emperor—and an Oracle who speaks in word puzzles—somewhere in the American Southwest. There is one glimmer of hope in the gloom-filled prophecy: The cloven guide alone the way does know. They will have a satyr companion, and Meg knows just who to call upon. . . .

Accompanied by Meg and the amazing Grover – and a few more friendly faces – Lester is continuing his quest.
Without giving away too many details, our intrepid characters find themselves facing a lot of mythical creatures, tangling with gods, challenged by a labyrinth and desperately trying to avoid being killed by a particularly unpleasant Roman emperor and those working for him.
From the beginning we have what we’ve come to expect. While I laughed out loud at moments, there was a growing awareness from Apollo of humanity and what it means.
Can’t wait for the next instalment!

‘Select Few’ by Marit Weisenberg

After rejecting the cult-like influence of her father’s family, Julia moves into a fancy hotel in downtown Austin. But she finds herself alone except for her boyfriend, John–and her fears. Once again she’s suppressing her abilities, afraid her family will come for John when they find out he’s been developing abilities of his own in her presence. The FBI is also keeping a close eye on Julia hoping she can lead them to her father, Novak, as he’s wanted for questioning in his former assistant’s death.

With tensions high, Julia and John agree to go separate ways for the summer, paving the way for Julia to reunite with Angus, fellow outcast. Together they set out on a road trip to California to find Julia’s mom and a way into Novak’s secret underground world. Along the way Julia will learn the Puri perhaps aren’t the only humans evolving into something different. . . and that maybe she’s the leader her people have needed all along.

This book has to be read after ‘Select’ but we pick up events quickly and are soon reminded of the situation Julia has placed herself in.

Having chosen to leave her family, life is difficult for Julia. Hiding out in a hotel, with people hunting her father, Julia is desperate for answers but also needs to avoid doing things that could mean any of Novak’s visions come true.

Though she loves John, her worries for what could happen to an outsider dominate the early stages of the novel. This becomes more concerning as John seems to be developing his own special talents.

Initially a little slow, there’s a lot of focus on Julia trying to get answers to questions about herself, her family and what might happen in the future. There’s a rather dramatic closing section, but the possibilities for the future are exciting and I’m intrigued to see where this goes next.

Scheduled for release in October 2018, I have to thank the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read an advance copy of this.

‘Dead Girls’ by Abigail Tarttelin

When her best friend Billie is found murdered, eleven-year-old Thera – fearless and forthright – considers it her duty to find the killer. 
Aided by a Ouija board, Billie’s ghost, and the spirits of four other dead girls, she’s determined to succeed. The trouble with Thera, though, is that she doesn’t always know when to stop – and sometimes there’s a fine line between doing the right thing and doing something very, very bad indeed.

I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of this, and it is definitely a book to recommend. I was rather stunned to get comment on my Goodreads feedback from the author, and can’t resist posting her comment below.

This is a book that really should come with some kind of trigger warning as it explores topics that are hard to read about (sexuality, mental health, paedophilia, rape and murder) and I’d hate for someone to pick this up without some fore-knowledge of the content. However, it also forces us to confront some of our assumptions about children, sexuality and gender issues in a way that cannot – and really should not – be ignored.

Our narrator, Thera, is eleven when her best friend, Billie, is murdered.
We are placed firmly in Thera’s head and we follow the girls on their last night together as they play in their seemingly idyllic rural home. But Billie never makes it home and we watch as Thera learns of her friend’s disappearance.

For reasons that she reveals as we follow her story, Thera blames herself and comes to believe that she has to avenge her best friend’s murder. The girls have experimented with a ouija board, and Thera has a fierce intelligence that is cultivated by her family but which is feared by her peers (though they can’t articulate it). When Thera becomes convinced that dead girls are talking to her and Billie’s spirit is guiding her to find the murderer, it’s hard to decide the extent to which we trust this narrator.

This is a character that is firmly straddling the adult and child worlds: with a wide vocabulary and very adult turn of phrase one moment, and then very innocent and naive the next. While I think this is deliberate, and it forces us to consider how we treat children of this age and the way they are influenced by events around them, it occasionally grates. Like many adult readers will probably be, I was not entirely comfortable hearing the characters’ views on sex and sexuality (though I found it realistically presented). However, I do think that the novel raises some crucial issues surrounding how we talk to our children about how they present themselves and the potential harm we may be doing to our children in trying to shield them from some of the less pleasant aspects of life.

There was a rather confusing element to the story that does become clear towards the end, but I was stunned by the direction in which this went. Dark, utterly gripping and very very scary.

In response to my feedback on Goodreads, Tarttelin posted: I was so pleased to see an early reader “getting” where I was going…Although I appreciate it can be tough reading, I wanted to try talking about this!

‘The Smoke Thieves’ – Sally Green

A princess, a traitor, a hunter and a thief. Four teenagers with the fate of the world in their hands. Four nations destined for conflict.

Four key characters, and we switch perspectives so it can seem slow on occasion. However, the story puts in place a promising idea for the next part in the series.
We are introduced in turn to Tash (a young demon-hunter who risks her life every time she goes out), princess Catherine (a young girl forced to marry someone she’s never met), March (a servant who is determined to avenge the suffering of his people) and the bastard son of the prince, Edyon (a common thief).

It takes some time for us to work out what’s going on, and the crux of the story isn’t revealed until very near the end so it could leave some readers a little disappointed. I felt it took time to establish the voices of the different characters, and the mix of viewpoints inevitably left me feeling they weren’t as fleshed out as I’d have liked.

That said, the world is reasonably presented and there is plenty here to get your attention. The rather obvious love triangle seems unnecessary – I’d hope Catherine will come into her own as the series continues – and I remain unconvinced by the attempts to depict a relationship that is not heterosexual. However, the premise of the story and some of the secondary characters more than make up for the areas that don’t seem so successful.

‘Wicked Deep’ – Shea Earnshaw

A slow-build which thoughtfully explores love and relationships in a magical setting.

Over two hundred years ago the Swan sisters were accused of witchcraft and killed. In the modern day the town of Sparrow has little going for it, until the start of Swan season when the locals brace themselves for the annual attempt by these spirits to get revenge against the town that killed them.

Each year the spirits of the three wronged sisters take a life. Each year the tourists flock to Sparrow to witness these macabre events. Each year the locals brace themselves for the unease they feel necessary to atone for their ancestor’s past choices.

This year is different. Penny Thompson is determined that things need to change. When mysterious Bo arrives in Sparrow she has a difficult decision to make…save him, or save herself.

This was a magical read, and the interweaving of past and present kept me hooked in the events and keen to see how they would resolve themselves.

‘The Dollmaker of Krakow’ – R.M. Romero

Karolina is a very special doll. Once a seamstress in the Land of Dolls she had to leave her country behind when rats invaded and started to destroy the once peaceful land simply because they could. She and her friend, Fritz, journey across their land to a place where they have been told a spirit resides who can send them to a place where their heart will be safe. A dangerous journey, but one they feel compelled to make.

We first meet Karolina when she awakens in the toy shop owned by Cyril Brzezick, the Dollmaker of Krakow. A private man, Cyril is shocked to discover that he has brought this doll to life. Slowly, they learn to trust each other.

Set against the backdrop of events in Poland in 1940 it is inevitable that we have to read about intense hatred and prejudice. We watch as Cyril befriends Josef and his daughter, Rena, only to have their friendship taken away because they are Jews. Throughout these events Karolina is by Cyril’s side…right until the end.

For readers of 9 upwards I think this will be a great book to introduce some of the issues linked to WWII. Inevitably, it’s upsetting to see the hatred experienced by Josef and Cyril because of their religion or refusal to follow Nazi orders. I think the blending of historical and magical is a perfect mix. What happens to these characters is awful, but there’s glimpses of humanity that reduced me to tears.

A beautifully presented book, with wonderfully depicted characters (even the nasty ones) and I can’t wait to see how others feel about it.

‘Zeroes’ – Scott Westerfeld

Having a superpower must have been high on everyone’s wish-list as a kid. But what do you do if you actually have a superpower…and don’t really know how to control it?

In Zeroes – the first in a new trilogy – we meet a group of teens who each have their own power. They’re not always in control of their power, and the after effects of them using their power can be catastrophic.

We open meeting Ethan, Scam, a boy who has two voices; one of which always knows just what to say. Unfortunately this voice doesn’t always think about the consequences that come into play. When he is caught up in a bank robbery and becomes an internet sensation, he has little choice but to contact the friends he hasn’t really seen for the last year. The Zeroes.

There’s nothing particularly new here, but this story of a group learning to use their powers is a thrilling story. It introduces us to a very varied cast and makes us intrigued by all of them, which is no mean feat. Of course, you’ll have a favourite but it’s fascinating to watch them go about their business. There’s also some explosive action, some serious villains and a real need to see what happens next.

‘The Girl in the Tower’ – Katherine Arden

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingalecontinues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

After a very slow start (the first part I’m afraid was a slog), we catch up with Vasya and follow her on her reckless journey.

Having run from home Vasya is disguised as a boy and travelling the country. She gets caught up in all manner of political intrigue, but from the moment she reappeared in the story I couldn’t put the book down.

There’s a wonderful blend of political and fairy-tale, and Arden’s focus on the supernatural lends a real charm to the story even when she is focusing on deeply unpleasant elements. There was something magical about the characters Vasya encounters with her willingness to see beyond the confines placed on people by society.

From part two onwards this story zipped along and built to a dramatic climax. I didn’t want it to end.

‘The Toymakers’ – Robert Dinsdale

A captivating read from start to finish. A truly magical tale that will appeal to the child we all hold within us.

Enter the world of Papa Jack’s Toy Emporium and nothing is what we expect. From toys that seem to be alive to toys that defy our expectations everything to be found within this store is a wonder.

We learn about the story of Papa Jack’s when young Cathy Wray runs away from home upon learning she is pregnant. Like so many other lost souls, the doors of the Emporium open to her. And so begins a relationship with the extraordinary that sees her through to old age.

We pass through some awful years, watching how the effects of war tarnish the innocence that Jakebs Goldman and his two sons, Kaspar and Emil, try to keep alive. Throughout, the presence of the magical Emporium is a constant.

While I was captivated by the delights and wonders presented to us in the opening part of the book, it came into its own when we began to explore the concerns of adulthood and the impact family rivalry can have (even years on).

I must thank NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication, and now need to order my own copy to pass onto others who need that little bit of magic in their lives.

‘The Last Samsara’ – Kristen Ciccarelli

In the beginning, there was the Namsara: the child of sky and spirit, who carried love and laughter wherever he went. But where there is light, there must be darkness—and so there was also the Iskari. The child of blood and moonlight. The destroyer. The death-bringer.

From its opening lines where Asha lures the dragon by telling it a story, we are in fantasy territory and it is compelling stuff.

From childhood Asha has lived with the old tales about the Namsara and the Iskari. They cost her mother her life, and Asha knows she cannot ever let anyone know she continues to tell them in spite of her father’s edict banning them. Yet, as her country’s Iskari, Asha is forced to hunt dragons and do what she can to prove herself good.

As the opening in a series we know there’s a much grander scope to this tale. However, for the first instalment we are given plenty to entertain us.

We watch Asha struggle with her sense of duty; we have the background of the country’s turmoil; there’s the callous Jarek, to whom Asha has been pledged; we have a developing romance, some truly inspiring relationships and…dragons.

I wasn’t totally convinced when I saw the cover that I would like this. Thankfully, it entranced me from the start and I cannot wait to see how Ciccarelli continues this tale.