Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: The Sisters of Straygarden Place, Rival Magic, Quintessence, Horace Fox in the City, and The Clockwork Crow

December 11, 2020 Reviews 7

As my regular readers know, I’m a round one judge for the Cybils Awards in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category. Because of that, I’ve been reading LOTS of books lately! I’m not allowed to share any details about our process for choosing the finalists, but I am allowed (and encouraged) to review the books as I read, so I figured I’d share four of them with you today. I hope these bite-sized reviews will be enough to feed your fiction addiction!


Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: The Sisters of Straygarden Place, Rival Magic, Quintessence, Horace Fox in the City, and The Clockwork CrowThe Sisters of Straygarden Place by Hayley Chewins
Published by Candlewick Press on October 13, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Pages: 208
Source: Library
Cover Artist: Pam Consolazio
My content rating: MG (Spooky; Some violence; Themes of death; Missing parents)
My rating:
4 Stars

A riveting middle-grade fantasy about sibling bonds, enchanted houses, and encroaching wildness, lyrically told in eerily beautiful prose

The grass grew taller than the house itself, surrounding it on all sides. It stuffed the keyholes and scraped against the roof. It shook the walls and made paintings shiver.

Seven years ago, the Ballastian sisters' parents left them in the magical Straygarden Place, a house surrounded by tall silver grass and floating trees. They left behind a warning saying never to leave the house or go into the grass. "Wait for us," the note read. "Sleep darkly." Ever since then, the house itself has taken care of Winnow, Mayhap, and Pavonine--feeding them, clothing them, even keeping them company--while the girls have waited and grown up and played a guessing game: Think of an animal, think of a place. Think of a person, think of a face. Until one day, when the eldest, fourteen-year-old Winnow, does the unthinkable and goes outside into the grass, and everything twelve-year-old Mayhap thought she knew about her home, her family, and even herself starts to unravel. With luscious, vivid prose, poet and author Hayley Chewins transports readers to a house where beloved little dogs crawl into their owners' minds to sleep, sick girls turn silver, and anything can be stolen--even laughter and silence.

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This book is utterly and wonderfully strange. Like, Twilight Zone strange. It is chock full of inexplicable mysteries and enigmas. The story takes place in a strange house that cares for the children living there. Their parents have left (for seven years) and warned them to never go outside into the tall silver grass that surrounds the house. When Winnow disobeys that order one day, Mayhap feels she needs to save her—and the story just gets stranger and stranger from there. Mayhap discovers a slew of secrets about her home, about her parents, about her sisters, about her pets, and about herself. I’ll confess that it took me a little while to get into this book, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down because I just had to unravel all the mysteries. There were more than a few surprises!!


Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: The Sisters of Straygarden Place, Rival Magic, Quintessence, Horace Fox in the City, and The Clockwork CrowRival Magic by Deva Fagan
Published by Atheneum on April 21, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Pages: 304
Source: Library
Cover Artist: Saoirse Lou
My content rating: MG (Some violence)
My rating:
5 Stars

A young wizard's apprentice discovers that the best magic is not the biggest or the brightest, but the magic unique to you, in this cinematic middle grade fantasy in the tradition of Kiki's Delivery Service and The School for Good and Evil.

Antonia may not be the most powerful wizard the world has ever seen, but she's worked hard to win her place as apprentice to renowned sorcerer Master Betrys. Unfortunately, even her best dancing turnip charm might not be enough when Moppe the scullery maid turns out to be a magical prodigy. Now that Betrys has taken Moppe on as a second apprentice, Antonia's path to wizarding just got a bit more complicated.

But when Betrys is accused of treason, Antonia and Moppe are forced to go on the run. To prove their master's innocence--and their own--the rivals must become allies. As their island province teeters on the brink of rebellion, they'll face ancient spells, vengeful mermaids, enchanted turnips, voice-stealing forests, and one insatiable sea monster.

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This book is a quintessential fantasy, with its unique magical system, well-drawn characters, and a gripping plot that’s filled with a myriad of twists and turns. First off, I loved how rich the worldbuilding is in this story. Antonia is an apprentice wizard with middling powers—could be a story we’ve seen before, but the magical system is complex (without being overwhelming). The magic is ancient and many of the magical words have been lost to time. The way that spells are structured matters quite a bit, which is what makes Antonia an ideal student, even though her actual magic isn’t as strong as she would like it to be. And the political system of their world is highly influenced by the magic as well. All of this rich worldbuilding is doled out in ways that never feel boring or overcomplicated, a must for a middle grade book. The rivalry between Moppe and Antonia feels realistic—Moppe has pure power and no training whereas Antonia has studied for years and mastered the intricacies of spells but can’t do anything amazing with them. Antonia’s resentment of Moppe is palpable, which only makes it that much more wonderful when the two learn to work together. Their rivalry turns into a true friendship, but not one without complications. I highly recommend this book to any child who loves fantasy!!


Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: The Sisters of Straygarden Place, Rival Magic, Quintessence, Horace Fox in the City, and The Clockwork CrowQuintessence by Jess Redman
Published by Farrar on July 28, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Paranormal
Pages: 384
Source: NetGalley
Cover Artist: Matt Rockefeller
My content rating: MG (Some minor violence; Kids put themselves in perilous situations)
My rating:
4 Stars

Three months ago, twelve-year-old Alma moved to the town of Four Points. Her panic attacks started a week later, and they haven’t stopped—even though she told her parents that they did. Every day she feels less and less like herself.

Then Alma meets the ShopKeeper in the town's junk shop, The Fifth Point. The ShopKeeper gives her a telescope and this message:​Find the Elements.Grow the Light. Save the Starling.​That night, Alma watches as a star—a star that looks like a child—falls from the sky and into her backyard. Alma knows what it’s like to be lost and afraid, to long for home, and with the help of some unlikely new friends from the Astronomy Club, she sets out on a quest that will take a little bit of astronomy, a little bit of alchemy, and her whole self.

QUINTESSENCE is a stunning story of friendship, self-discovery, interconnectedness, and the inexplicable elements that make you you.

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This is a book about finding your voice and the true essence of who you are. Alma has felt wrong ever since her family moved to a new town. She suffers panic attacks and finds her world getting smaller and smaller as the list of places she feels comfortable going shrinks. So, when she sees a falling star turn into a girl and learns that the mysterious star girl needs to be saved, she’s not so sure she’s up to the task. Luckily, she doesn’t have to go it alone, as there are four kids who each represent one of the four elements—they’re all needed to save the star. Of course, they have to figure that out together, and they have to discover where and how they can find the essence of each of their true elements as well. It all turns into a series of strange (and dangerous!) missions. The most compelling part of this story is Alma’s personal journey toward understanding her own abilities and limitations. Themes of friendship (including unlikely friendships) and family are explored. And many kids will be drawn in by the idea of a living, breathing star—they’ll find themselves wondering how far they would go to send a star back to its rightful place in the heavens.

***Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review purposes. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***


Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: The Sisters of Straygarden Place, Rival Magic, Quintessence, Horace Fox in the City, and The Clockwork CrowHorace Fox in the City by Jacqui Hazell
Illustrator: Jacqui Hazell
Published by Nowness Books on August 27, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Pages: 174
Source: The Author
My content rating: MG (Some violence)
My rating:
3.5 Stars

Horace Fox is in the city and everyone is after him.

Young Horace finds the city confusing and why is he being followed?

Deadly hit-snake Zigzag McVitie is after him. Horace has been left a swish den in London but evil Badger Burnhard wants it.

Can Horace avoid the snake, beat the badger, and claim the den in time?

And will his stomach ever stop rumbling?

Horace Fox in the City is a fantastically funny, fast-paced action adventure.

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Perfect for fans of the Warriors Series, this book follows Horace the Fox on his journey to claim his rightful inheritance. Horace has never left his safe den, but when his mother is ready to have new kits, it’s time to head out into the world. He decides that the best thing to do is head for the city, where there is an abundance of food—and dangers. But just as his journey is underway, he finds out that he is being hunted. His father died, leaving his only living son his den, but the biggest, baddest badger in town wants to keep the property for himself. Horace has to outsmart a deadly snake and make it past the threats of the human world to find a place to call home. A fun animal adventure full of humor and heart.

***Disclosure: I received this book from the author in order to read it for the Cybils Awards. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***


Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: The Sisters of Straygarden Place, Rival Magic, Quintessence, Horace Fox in the City, and The Clockwork CrowThe Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher
Series: The Clockwork Crow #1
Published by Walker Books US on September 8, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 208
Source: The Publisher
Cover Artist: Adelina Lirius
My content rating: MG (Some minor violence; Somewhat spooky)
My rating:
4.5 Stars

Orphan Seren Rhys is on her way to a new life at the remote country mansion of Plas-y Fran when she is given a package by a stranger late at night in an empty train station. The package contains a crotchety, mechanical talking crow, which Seren reluctantly brings to her new home. But when she gets there, the happy Christmas she had hoped for turns out to be an illusion--the young son of the house, Tomos, has been missing for almost a year, rumored to have been taken by the fairies. With the Crow's reluctant help and a little winter magic, Seren sets off on a perilous journey to bring Tomos home.

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The Clockwork Crow has a very classic feel, probably because of its historical Welsh setting. It reminds me of The Secret Garden or Tom’s Midnight Garden, both of which have a special place in my heart. When Seren is sent off to live with her uncle, she’s hoping for a new life, filled with family and a home she can truly call her own. But what she gets is a drab and lonely existence—the young boy of the house has been missing for a year and everyone but a few servants has abandoned the house. The most exciting thing about her new life is the mechanical crow a mysterious man left with her at the train station. Seren won’t stop until she’s uncovered the mysteries of the magical crow and Tomos’s disappearance, and then she heads off on a quest to save him. The story is beautifully told and full of wonder, perfect to pass along to any child who likes to imagine a world just beyond their own.

***Disclosure: I received this book from the author in order to read it for the Cybils Awards. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***


That’s it for now! Have you read any of these? What did you think? Do you have any books you’re rooting for when it comes to the Cybils Awards? I wanna know!

7 Responses to “Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: The Sisters of Straygarden Place, Rival Magic, Quintessence, Horace Fox in the City, and The Clockwork Crow”

  1. Nicole @ BookWyrm Knits

    I haven’t read any of these yet, but The Clockwork Crow is one I’ve had my eye on for a while. I’ll have to check it out.

    Also, I don’t know how long you’ve been doing it, but I just noticed that you’re including the cover artist with the book’s specs. I love that! I’ve recently started trying to give cover artists more love too, and I think I’m going to try to incorporate that into my reviews. It’s a nice acknowledgement.

    Nicole @ BookWyrm Knits recently posted: Friday Reads: 3 graphic mini-reviews

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