As much as I’d like to do a full-length review for all the books by Southeastern Young Adult Book Festival authors I read in anticipation of attending the fest, I know that project would die on the vine sooner rather than later. So, I’ve pulled together condensed reviews that focus mostly on my reaction to the book, and if you want the book synopsis, just click each title link. I’ve also included star ratings for comparison purposes; star ratings are not my favorite thing but I think they’re valuable here since I’m not elaborating as much on each title.

For the most part, I read these in the two months leading up to the fest. Unless otherwise noted, I had a copy signed, and since I only owned a few of these prior to the fest, my purchases were a mix of library sale, library used book corner, Amazon, and from the festival’s sponsoring bookstore. Listed alphabetical order by author.

The Stepsister’s Tale | Tracy Barrett
3 stars, didn’t enjoy enough to purchase

This reimagined Cinderella story was entertaining at the start and finish, but the middle dragged quite a bit. I liked how it wasn’t just an alternate perspective, but a variant on the story, and the Cinderella character (Isabella) isn’t the flawless heroine she is in either of the Disney movies – she is buried in grief after her father’s death, and willfully portrays her stepsisters in a negative light, though behind the aloof pride she’s just a girl trying to find a new family in a world that has cast her off. Reading about the long, famine-stricken winter and the daily grind of milking the cows and hunting for mushrooms dragged for me as much as it did for the characters, though.

On Etruscan Time | Tracy Barrett
4 stars

I picked this up at a library sale, saw it was on the 2008 William Allen White master list, figured it had to be decent, and ended up really enjoying it! It’s a wonderful middle grade book that deals with feeling powerless amidst change and making your voice heard, along with a great story about an impossible friendship that spans centuries. It gets into the idea of sacrifice by ancient civilizations (namely the Etruscans), but it’s on par with what middle schoolers already learn about the Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Plus, it managed to make archaeology sound exciting to me, which is saying something. Great quick book with opportunities to incorporate a social studies, geography, or history lesson or further research; this can easily be read in one sitting. The part of me that selected Mayan History for my college world history gen ed was left very happy.

Anna Dressed in Blood | Kendare Blake
5 stars

I was never able to get into her wildly popular Three Dark Crowns series, but I also found this at a library sale and will try just about anything for $1. Ghost stories aren’t my usual jam, but I straight up loved this book! The witchcraft and paranormal elements will appeal to general fantasy fans, particularly urban fantasy along the lines of City of Bones. I liked how the second half of the book took an unexpected angle that isn’t alluded to in the book’s synopsis. Great action, awesome integration of paranormal elements to make it believale, this is a wonderfully eerie read.

Lois Lane: Fallout | Gwenda Bond
5 stars

This story about teenage Lois Lane is Gallagher Girls meets Warcross; it was fun, fast and sharp! I feel like it finally gives us the Lois we haven’t gotten to see in the films; here, she is full of candor, wit and heart, with alternatingly blunt and sly approaches to her reporting as the situation merits. This is not a spoiler (at least I feel the publisher text indicates it adequately), but other reviews indicate that readers are expecting Superman (still Clark Kent here) to make more of an appearance. Spare yourself the suspense – it’s not going to happen. “SmallvilleGuy” is her secret online chat friend, a sounding board as she puzzles her way through the mystery that has VR spilling into reality. He never makes an in-person appearance, and I feel that distance allows Lois to really shine. It’s her ingenuity, instincts and dogged determination that get the job done.

Among the Hidden | Margaret Peterson Haddix
5 stars
This is the first of a 7 book series about an alternate America with a two-child limit, but it can be read as a standalone with no problem. The rest of the series takes more of an adventure feel as the Thirds fight for the right to exist, but Among the Hidden is rooted in reality and focuses on the value of human life. It continues to be a staple of kid lit since its 1998 publication.

Leaving Fishers | Margaret Peterson Haddix
5 stars

I’d say this is a must-read for anyone in middle school or older, and young Christians in particular. The fictional Fishers religious group brilliantly illustrate the slippery slope of using friendship and well-founded Biblical values as an entry point to a more toxic, controlling relationship that gradually veers away from accepted evangelical doctrine. Identifying the point where they first shift from true Christianity is something well worth discussing between parents and children. If the faith portion doesn’t interest you, the examination of how difficult it can be for a lonely child to relinquish a friendship, even when it’s become toxic, is potent and powerful.

Running out of Time | Margaret Peterson Haddix
5 stars, not in the header, I think it went home in The Mother Unit’s bag

This book may read as a little dated for kids today, but it’s still a rock-solid read. When a diphtheria outbreak threatens Jessie’s frontier village, she learns that she’s been raised in a historical preserve, a living museum depicting 1840, and must escape and navigate 1996 to bring modern medical aid. The presence of things like payphones may soar over the heads of younger readers, but it’s otherwise pretty timeless and worth the read to see Jessie’s determination and ingenuity.

Rebel of the Sands | Alwyn Hamilton
4 stars

UK cover (which I own), US cover

I wasn’t sure initially how the Arabian/Wild West vibe was going to play out, but I ended up really enjoying it. It reminds me of Rick Riordan’s books in how it includes an aura of mystery surrounding the children of djinn and humans, but this book strongly emphasizes that people can bring valuable talents to the board without having some sort of elevated heritage. There were several twists I wasn’t expecting, and I’m looking forward to continuing the series.

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer | Michelle Hodkin
4 stars

This author didn’t actually make it to the fest thanks to snowstorms in the Northeast, but I read this before her travel plans were canceled. This eerie trilogy opener was dark and treacherous and mysterious, with a gloriously unreliable narrator, which I’m always a fan of. It raises a lot of intriguing questions about the main characters, and I’ll definitely be continuing this series.

Starflight by Melissa Landers
5 stars

I actually read this one in 2016 and already have a full review of it here, but the quick summary is it’s perfect for fans of Firefly and features space pirates, lots of banter and action, a lovably eclectic crew and a sugar glider.

Not a Drop to Drink | Mindy McGinnis
4 stars

I always enjoy a good post-apocalyptic story, and this is a nice addition to the genre. I like that the whole story takes place around Lynn’s fortified house; it gives it a feeling reminiscent of the Fallout video games and doesn’t result in a purely outdoor survival story, which I am less of a fan of. Lynn and her mother are focused, determined women with hard heads and hard hearts – it’s the only way they’ve maintained control of their house and pond in an era where water is practically unattainable. Author Mindy McGinnis incorporates the pair’s daily routine in a way that is interesting rather than dull, it conveys their extreme tenacity, willfulness and strength.

Defiance | C.J. Redwine
3 stars, didn’t enjoy enough to purchase

This book is standard fare for the dystopian genre, it’ll probably please fans of similar books but doesn’t offer anything outstanding. I found the setup of the city of Baalboden interesting, with Protectors and the Claiming ceremony, and Rachel is fine as a protagonist. However, I found her characterization to be a little flat and cliché – she knows how to fight, wow! And all the other girls are only obsessed with dresses and dinner parties and being perfect examples of feminine domesticity! In an effort to distinguish Rachel, it pulls a very blatant “not like every other girl” scheme, which has become less interesting as more books have come out since Defiance’s 2012 release that celebrate being feminine and fierce simultaneously. Not planning to continue the series.

The Wish Granter | C.J. Redwine
4 stars, purchased The Shadow Queen (below) instead

This is the second Ravenspire novel, but they truly can be read in any order. I enjoyed this fairy tale retelling pretty well, after a strong opening there was a brief period of time where I wondered if the action would pick up just before the second half, but then it took off again and was fast-paced to the finish. The author perfectly captures the characters’ desperation as they race to find a way out of the wish contracts before anyone’s soul is forfeit; the notion that they’re always one step behind the Wish Granter is pervasive. It speaks strongly to overcoming abuse and self-determination. I enjoyed it enough to try the book below.

The Shadow Queen | C.J. Redwine
4 stars
I read the Wish Granter first because I preferred its cover (the Ravenspire books don’t have to be read in any particular order) and gave it 4 stars as well, but I loved this story even more. It was so fast and fierce, and I appreciated how carefully heroine Lorelai worked through the ethics and responsibilities of being able to access people’s minds with her magic. Her relationship and mental bond with her bird was so funny and innocent, and it stage for her to learn more about her power. Also, the Draconi were awesome, because I mega heart dragons. I had heard that there were easter eggs for past books in Ravenspire 2 and 3 (The Wish Granter and The Traitor Prince), but having read #2 before this, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a teaser about it in The Shadow Queen. The stories are all fully independent, and it seems you’ll get little hints no matter what order you read them in!

Nemesis and Genesis | Brendan Reichs
5 stars for both

I read these in preparation for the fest, but already did a spoiler-free “Should You Start? Project Nemesis Series” post about them because they are SO DARN GOOD. Genre-defying action with a blistering pace, a tough as nails girl, an extremely vulnerable boy, and extinction-level events combine in a Lord of the Flies meets video games story full of twists you are completely unable to anticipate.

The Evaporation of Sofi Snow and Reclaiming Shilo Snow | Mary Weber
In progress

I’m actually currently reading Sophie Snow and am not far enough to know for sure how it’ll pan out, but it has many science fiction and video gaming elements that are promising. The writing style took a bit to get into; the author likes to use periods instead of commas for a more snappy tone, but it disrupts the flow a little for me. I will say that Mary Weber isn’t the only author I’ve read who likes to throw punctuation to the wind; Sarah J. Maas (Throne of Glass series, A Court of Thorns and Roses series) likes to uses periods instead of question marks to indicate super-serious-voice.

The Serpent King | Jeff Zentner
4 stars

This book made me cry a little, and I am NOT a cryer. It’s a powerful, wrenching story that delivers a strong depiction of teens trapped by circumstance, and the force of will it takes to break the cycle, especially in a small town. As a Christian, I found it fascinating to read about the signs faith church, which participates in snake handling and drinking toxic substances. Those activities take place prior to the book’s timeline, but the influence of Dill’s charismatic preacher father and extreme beliefs are still at play, and it creates a gray area where Dill’s mother demonstrates a faith that includes some mainstream points as well as things farther away from a standard evangelical doctrine.

I thought the three friends (Dill, Travis and Lydia) were an excellent representation of the “outsiders become friends” setup; they are each distinct in their tastes and interests, and have struggles within their small circle in addition to clashes with their common adversaries that denigrate anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. I adored Travis’s obsession with fantasy literature, but also found myself identifying with Lydia, particularly her balancing act of being proud of her privileged family’s accomplishments and her own self-starter nature, while taking into account how she was raised with a different set of expectations than her friends, who were born into less fortunate circumstances.

Want to read about how the actual festival went? Pop over here!