Arena / Holly Jennings

Christian Library Journal – July/August/September 2017
Online: October 11, 2017

Alex Award
Arena / by Holly Jennings
Random House     ISBN 9781101988763
YA     Grades 9-12     Rating: 4 (Not Recommended)

Among virtual reality athletes, Kali Ling is the best. She glorifies in killing other gamers and putting on a bloody show for her fans. But as soon as Kali unplugs and returns to the real world, she feels out of her element. The celebrity life barely tides her over—provocative photoshoots, screaming fans, drugs, and extramarital sex—until she can return to the game.

Her handler dubs her first female captain in RAGE tournament history and life couldn’t get better…until she wakes up next to her overdosed lover/teammate.

The VR organization hides his cause of death, and Kali is traumatized by how cruel reality can be. Their new teammate seems to be nothing more than a pretty face, but Kali knows he’s hiding something.

With the pre-season ending and the fight for the RAGE championship beginning, Kali must reunite her team before she goes from the top of the gamer world to the bottom. But when you die hundreds of times like Kali, the bigger battle may be remembering which world is the real one.

Holly Jennings’s Arena paints a picture of the famous lifestyle that leads readers to understand why many celebrities turn to substance abuse and scandal to survive. Kali begins as a selfish, unlikeable character but develops into a dynamic teen who fights to overcome her addiction to the VR world by committing to a greater cause. Her teammates, though unchanging, are solid supports for Kali’s development, and the ominous pressure from her fans and the RAGE sponsors provide enough resistance for the change to seem challenging.

While this book cannot be recommended because of vivid violence, descriptive sex scenes, extreme substance abuse, and overuse of obscenities, the story arch for this Alex Award-winning novel is phenomenal. Through beautifully descriptive language, the book shares the dangers of virtual reality and great reasons behind why we should place our identity in more than the opinions of others and our jobs. Readers will feel compelled to hunt for overlooked atrocities and seek ways to correct them.



The Queen of Blood / Sarah Beth Durst

Christian Library Journal – July/August/September 2017 

Alex Award
The Queen of Blood / by Sarah Beth Durst
Harper Voyager     ISBN 9780062413345
YA     Grades 9-12     Rating: 5

Spirits have two desires: to build and to destroy. In a land where these elemental spirits hold the world in balance, the queen is the only human able to completely control their desires and bloodlust. She can’t show any weakness—especially if an ancient spirit seeks to exploit her—but even a strong queen has her limits.

Only one house stands after a village massacre. A girl with an affinity for spirits protects her family long enough for Champion Ven to arrive. Ven tells Daleina that if her affinity for the spirits had been stronger, she could have saved her whole village. As a former bodyguard, he knows the queen wouldn’t let a forest village be destroyed were it within her power to prevent the loss. If she’s losing power, he must send as many affinity-prone girls to the Academy as he can.

Years pass and Daleina is still guilt-ridden over the deaths of the villagers. Hoping to protect other villages like hers, she enters the Academy, a training school for girls with the potential to control spirits. Her classmates surpass her in every physical challenge, but no one else has seen the horrors the spirits can cause. If she can’t stop a spirit, could there be another way to control them?

Daleina’s character may at first seem like another traumatized YA protagonist, but readers attach to her when they see her path to saving others develop into a fight for survival. Her character changes drastically as the story unfolds. Readers will feel Daleina’s hope and heartache as she embraces her childhood dream and her adult nightmare: becoming queen.

It is no surprise that this novel won an Alex Award in ALA 2017. Sarah Beth Durst’s beautiful, poetic narration slows down the pace of the novel but leaves readers in awe and clinging to every detail. While there are some uses of profane language, extramarital sex (not described in detail), and moderately violent scenes (dismembered bodies, blood, violent fights leading to death, etc.), The Queen of Blood features one of the most intricately woven fantasy plots. Every element of this story fits perfectly into this epic, giving no unnecessary rabbit trails or backstory.


The Ballad of a Broken Nose / Arne Svingen

Christian Library Journal – July/August/September 2017 
Online: October 6, 2017

Batchelder Honor Books
The Ballad of a Broken Nose / by Arne Svingen.
Simon & Schuster     ISBN 9781419721304
YA     Grades 6-8     Rating: 4

Bart loves boxing and has a ton of friends—at least, that’s what he tells his mother. As a Norwegian middle schooler, Bart has become a compulsive liar to cope with his rough life. When his mother stumbles home from the pub each night, Bart tucks her in and reminds her that they will have a better life soon—not that he believes that. His father left before he was born, his public housing apartment is dirty, and he lets others get bullied so he won’t get hurt.

Bart has a secret: he loves singing opera music. When his cute classmate Ada finds out, she can’t keep her mouth shut. She volunteers Bart as the special closing act in the school talent show. Horrified, Bart doesn’t know how to lie himself out of this one. Stage fright may not be the only thing hindering his big break. When Bart’s mom ends up in the hospital because of her addiction, Bart must decide what is most important: making a new life for himself or pursuing his mother’s dream of a better one.

Arne Svingen excels at exposing a range of socio-economic diversity in this Batchelder Honor Book. Bart can’t afford to eat multiple meals a day, yet Ada lives without basic worries. When they cross into each other’s worlds, the awkward tension tells just how different two friends can live. Despite their differences, Ada chooses to believe in Bart and encourage him to follow his dream in his time of need.

As a first-person narrative with a journal-like style, The Ballad of a Broken Nose is sprinkled with humor and harsh revelations of childhood. Some material in this book may not be appropriate for all middle school audiences. Because Bart is a middle schooler and so close to his own story, some details are washed over (such as his mother’s drunkenness, skipping school, and swear words) and new perspectives are homed in on (such as his drug-using neighbor’s kindness). This book gives two great lessons: never judge a person based on his background and pursue your dreams despite adversity.


The Girl Who Drank the Moon / Kelly Barnhill

Christian Library Journal – July/August/September 2017 
Online: September 26, 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon / by Kelly Barnhill
Workman Publishing      ISBN 9781616205676
YA     Grades 6-8     Rating: 5

The Forest is cursed—that’s what the citizens of the Protectorate think. Once a year, the parents of the youngest baby in the village are asked to give up their child to keep the city safe. And they always have, until the “madwoman.” As the first to fight the tradition, she is locked away in the Tower.

The Elders leave the madwoman’s daughter in the Forest. Just like with every child before, forest witch Xan saves the baby and begins traveling across the Forest to give the child a new home. But the madwoman’s child is different from the others. Distracted by the girl’s unusual beauty, Xan accidentally feeds the child moonlight, enmagicking her.

Though in Xan’s care, Luna doesn’t understand how her magic affects the world. She even turns a swamp monster into a rabbit! Xan, at a loss for how to control the Luna’s magic, decides to lock the new magic away until Luna’s 13th birthday. But there are greater dangers lurking in the Forest than an enmagicked girl. With Xan’s forgotten past and an unforeseeable future, could she have made a huge mistake?

Dive into a world of magic and madness with the 2017 Newbery Medal-winning book, The Girl Who Drank the Moon. The novel tangles multiple third-person perspectives together—Xan’s, Luna’s, the madwoman’s, and more—to show that things are not always as they seem. The smooth transitions between the perspectives are impressive, leaving no gaps in the story and leaving readers on edge about what will happen next.

While this novel uses some dark themes, such as kidnapping, madness, and death, Kelly Barnhill does a wonderful job showing the seriousness in a child-friendly manner. For example, the madwoman is locked alone in the Tower, but she can create paper birds that can fly and inflict injury. Bizarre descriptions, sing-song narration, and playful repetition make this a fun, can’t-put-down read for middle schoolers to young adults.


In 27 days / Alison Gervais

Christian Library Journal – April/May/June 2017

In 27 days / by Alison Gervais
Zondervan     ISBN 9780310759058
YA     Grades 9-12     Rating: 5

Archer killed himself. Even though Hadley barely knew him, she can’t shake the sense of loss. Feeling guilty, she attends his funeral and meets his family–and Death. Death offers Hadley a deal: she could go back in time 27 days to convince Archer not to commit suicide, but if she fails, he will be lost forever and it would be her fault.

Hadley is tossed back in time as Death promised, and she is prepared to do anything to save Archer’s life–if only he wanted to be saved. Hadley’s borderline-stalking behavior sets Archer on edge. He doesn’t want to be friends with the most popular girl in school. She was probably faking kindness anyway. Hadley is at a loss. If he won’t let her help, how can she save him?

Death left out one detail. Hadley’s life is in danger. The more she pushes Archer toward hope and life, the more Havoc tries to substitute her life for Archer’s. Is Hadley willing to give up her life if it means Archer can keep his, or would she rather break her contract with Death and let her new friend die?

Race time with Hadley as she tries to force a relationship with the school misfit. Watty Award-winning author Alison Gervais will keep readers guessing whether Hadley can complete her mission before time runs out. Hadley and Archer’s relationship is one-of-a-kind as their banter and Hadley’s pesky intrusions develop into deep conversations and deeper feelings. Facing bullies, worst fears, and family drama, readers will experience through Hadley how much dedication it takes to be friends with someone who has PTSD and depression.

In 27 Days is an extremely well-written story. Readers will be forced to stop and think if they would follow in Hadley’s footsteps to save a stranger’s life. They will giggle while watching this rich girl literally work her way into a poor boy’s heart and home. Even his family will fall in love before he will.


Out From Egypt Series / Connilyn Cossette

Christian Library Journal – April/May/June 2017

Counted with the Stars / by Connilyn Cossette. (Out of Egypt series, 1)
Bethany House     ISBN 9780764214370

Shadow of the Storm / by Connilyn Cossette. (Out of Egypt series, 2)
Bethany House     ISBN 9780764218217
Adult     Rating: 5

In Counted with the Stars, former-elite Egyptian Kiya is convinced the gods have turned their backs on her. Her father sold her into slavery, her betrothed left her, and her new mistress scolds her for everything. Kiya lives in the shadow of her mistress’s Hebrew servant, Shira, and resents her until Shira accepts blame for Kiya’s greatest mistake.

When a Hebrew man proclaims his God is mightier than Pharaoh’s, strange plagues begin tormenting Hebrews and Egyptians alike. After nine horrifying events, Mosesh says all firstborn boys will die—and Kiya believes him. What she doesn’t know is whether the God of the Hebrews would even spare his own people, let alone her Egyptian family?

In Shadow of the Storm, Shira and her family are terrified of the Levites slaying Hebrew idolaters. How could they have so little faith when Adonai has delivered them so far? The killings stress pregnant woman into giving birth. While Shira’s mother is reluctant to let her help, Shira is gifted at calming the to-be mothers. Disobeying her mother’s orders, Shira becomes an apprentice midwife.

Shira’s partner, Dvorah, wants nothing more than to escape with her son and serve her gods back in Egypt. She envies Shira’s perfect life and will do anything to make herself feel whole again. When Shira falls in love, Dvorah deceives them both to get the life she thinks she deserves. Could Adonai truly have a plan for both women when darkness appears everywhere in the desert?

Counted with the Stars is a story of accepting foreigners into a group that is not their own. Characters struggle with idolatry, holding onto their pasts, and lustful sins. Shadow of the Storm shows how God’s plan always prevails in the face of suffering. Readers should be aware of kidnapping, rape, and violent childbirth scenes.

Reading these books brings life to the great Exodus. Journey through the desert and hear the struggles and complaints of the Hebrews, even with God leading the way. Readers can explore how—despite social divisions, discrimination, and slavery—the Hebrews began to forgive the Egyptians. Connilyn Cossette tactfully creates realistic characters who struggle and fear God’s intervening hand. However, these stories have a clear message: God’s path does not waver or change–trust Him.


The Returning / Rachelle Dekker

Christian Library Journal – April/May/June 2017
Online: August 7, 2017

The Returning / by Rachelle Dekker. (A Seer Novel, 3)
Tyndale     ISBN 9781496402288
YA     Grades 8-12     Rating: 5

Carrington and Remko are back for the third and final chapter of the Seer series. It has been 20 years since baby Elise was taken, and her mother still hasn’t forgiven herself. While watching her second daughter mature, Carrington blames herself for letting Elise’s kidnapper get away. To cope, she writes letters to her firstborn. Carrington’s heart breaks again as her second child, Kennedy, is chosen as one of the Seven, a group prophesized to risk their lives to retake Authority City. How could the “loving” Father take two children from her?

Kennedy never knew Elise, but now she’s on a mission to find her older sister. If it wasn’t for a friend’s gift of dreams, Kennedy wouldn’t even believe her sister could be alive. Hopefully, the dream is also right that Elise is the key to overcoming brainwashing.

Elise believes she’s always lived in Authority City. Abandoned by her parents and immune to the brainwashing serum, Elise has lived in the care of the President and the Scientist. Dreams of darkness haunt her as the Scientist grows agitated by her presence, but Aaron is always there to show her the light within herself. Can the Seven find Elise before the darkness overtakes her?

Follow the next generation of Seers on their search for Elise and for a way to return the Father’s people home. Each of the Seven will have readers laughing at how closely he resembles his parents.

As with the first two books, elements of torture and evil conspiracy continue. This finale also plays heavily on the idea of demon possession. Because there is more darkness compared to the beginning books in the series, The Returning is also more overtly Christian.

Rachelle Dekker completes this series elegantly. Her writing style and characters have matured, forcing readers to feel a wide range of emotions. This idea, along with twists in the story, makes this novel the perfect conclusion to the Seer series.

Earlier Series Titles Reviewed by CLJThe Choosing (Jul/Aug/Sep 2016); The Calling (Jul/Aug/Sep 2016).


The Princess and the Warrior: The Tale of Two Volcanoes / Duncan Tonatiuh

Christian Library Journal – July/August/September 2017 
Online: June 7, 2017

Pura Belpre (Illustrator) Honor Books
The Princess and the Warrior: The Tale of Two Volcanoes  / by Duncan Tonatiuh.
Abrams     ISBN 9781419721304
PRI     PK–Grade 3     Rating: 4

Children will love the lore that author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh shares in his Pura Belpré award-winning book, The Princess and the Warrior: The Tale of Two Volcanoes. The origin story of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, two volcanoes that overlook Mexico City, is a tragic love story.

This story begins with the Aztec princess Izta and a common warrior, Popoca. While the princess has many suitors, Popoca is the only man who understands her love for the common people. The two are supposed to be married after Popoca defeats the neighboring kingdom’s ruler. In a cruel twist of events, Izta is tricked into believing her lover is dead and drinking a sleeping potion to ease her pain. When Popoca returns, he cannot wake his princess.

Children in Mexico are still told this story today to explain why only one of these volcanoes erupts: Popocatépetl is still trying to wake his dormant lover, Iztaccíhuatl.

While the story of Izta and Popoca draws on Atzec history, Tonatiuh discusses in his author’s note that the historical events as depicted in the legend may be inaccurate. Oral tradition has influenced this story enough that Tonatiuh chose to share his own variation of the events.

Tonatiuh enhances the interest of his story by using some Nahuatl words. This language would have been the language originally spoken by the Aztec people and has influenced much Spanish today. Children can visit the glossary in the back of the book for translations and pronunciation help, or they can find context clues in the illustrations to discover the meanings for themselves. The unique and colorful illustrations were inspired by those on Mixtec codices, giving this story the feel of an authentic legend.


The Girl From the Train / Irma Joubert

Christian Library Journal – January/February/March 2017
Online: April 19, 2017

Christy Award: Historical Finalist
The Girl From the Train / by Irma Joubert.
Thomas Nelson     ISBN 9780529102379
Adult Fic     Rating: 5

Little Gretl must never cry or tell the truth. That’s what her sister and Oma said. Gretl isn’t allowed to tell anyone that she’s a German Jew, especially not in Catholic Poland. With her entire family taken from her, Gretl’s only hope lies with a young Polish rebel named Jakob.

Jakob planted the bomb that killed most of Gretl’s family. How could he have known that an unscheduled train would take those tracks before the Germans? Jakob takes the orphan in, and he knows one thing for sure: she’s not Polish. With the rebellion going on, he has little time to think of his orphan until a serious injury sends him home. He becomes dependent on her, but his family can’t afford another mouth to feed. To give Gretl her best chance, Jakob must send her away with even more lies. Will he ever see Gretl again or will time and war take their reunion from him too?

Beginning with a girl falling off a train, readers are immediately thrown into the action. Even in the slowest moments of the novel, Irma Joubert gives energy and motion to the scenes. All her characters feel real. Each new character introduces new lessons, is chased by their pasts, and begins viewing God in new ways.

This Christy Award Historic Finalist allows readers to walk in the shoes of a curious young refugee and a guilty soldier post-WWII. Gretl and Jakob mature in their narrative and develop new perspectives throughout the story. Readers will love watching these broken humans’ stories intertwine. Experience the heartbreak of a little girl as she tries to force away all the nightmares of her past. Share in her love for language and learning as she begins to heal and embrace her identity as an Afrikaner- and Polish-speaking Jewish-Christian German.

Readers will experience a range of emotions as they delve into the many themes of The Girl from the Train: love, war, learning, deception, family, mourning, and death. This piece of historic fiction focuses on the tensions between religious groups and ethnicities, including stories of the Jewish concentration camps.


The Five Times I Met Myself / James L. Rubart

Christian Library Journal – January/February/March 2017
Online: April 13, 2017

Christy Award: Book of the Year and Visionary 2016 Winner
The Five Times I Met Myself : a novel / by James L. Rubart.
Thomas Nelson     ISBN 9781401686116
Adult Fic     Rating: 5

Brock knows life isn’t perfect but hopes that his rut is just a phase. He’s lost the effort behind his relationship with his wife, Karissa; he holds a flame for his high school sweetheart; and he struggles for power against his brother in their father’s coffee company. After dreaming about his late father, Brock digs into his past. Brock takes control of his dreams and talks to his younger self to remember who he was. When Brock wakes, however, his conversations with his past-self changes his present. Brock sees an opportunity to rekindle the flame with his wife and reconnect with his family, but everything goes horribly wrong.

Young Brock is wary of the older man claiming to be him. But everything the man shares is true. He knows too much to not be Brock. But the more he follows Future Brock’s advice, the more Future Brock says goes wrong. How could his life, that’s going so well, suddenly change for the worst?

Journey with Brock as he relives the pivotal moments in his past and tries to create a brighter future–without destroying his life.

The Christy Awards’ Book of the Year and Visionary 2016 winner, The Five Times I Met Myself, is an addictive read. James L. Rubart’s use of sensory detail is impeccable and will weave readers into the book’s pages. While this story begins slowly, readers will be eating up this wellwritten story by the end. This story adds a new twist on Charles Dickenson’s A Christmas Carol as Brock goes back and forth between the past and the present to see how his actions shape his future.

While this book toys with the fantastic, it realistically depicts how the real struggles of marriage, kinship, crime, and separation destroy a person. It also shows how finding yourself starts with forgiveness and getting right with God.

While some may consider this book preachy, the use of biblical examples and Christian language packs a punch for this book’s message: prayer and surrendering all to God will lead Christians to God’s perfect plan–not always a perfect life