The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis, was published in 2017 by Bloomsbury.

All Aventurine wants to do is explore the world outside her family’s mountain cave. But as a young dragon, her tough scales haven’t fully developed yet, and the outside is too perilous—or so her family says. Aventurine is determined to fly on her own and prove them wrong by capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. But when that human tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, Aventurine is transformed into a puny human girl—no sharp teeth, no fire breath, no claws. Still, she’s the fiercest creature in these mountains, and she’s found her true passion: chocolate. All she has to do is get to the human city to find herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she’ll be conquering new territory in no time…won’t she?

Rating: 4/5

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is a charming story for both dragon-lovers and chocolate-lovers. I’m not a huge fan of the title, but the cover art is amazing and this book revived my interest in Burgis’s works (if you recall, I strongly disliked her Kat, Incorrigible series). Fierce girl (who is actually a dragon; hence, why she is fierce) works much better in a made-up fantasy world than in Regency England.

The plot is fairly formulaic, but Aventurine’s bumbles (and successes) as she struggles to make sense of human life rapidly endear her to the reader. Plus, there’s lots and lots of chocolate involved, which is a bonus. Perhaps some things were overdone—Aventurine wallows a little too long in self-inflicted misery, there’s one too many appearances from cruel-woman-who-sets-protagonist’s-teeth-on-edge, and it’s a little eyebrow-raising that so much drama could revolve around one little chocolate house—but the likeable protagonist, the interesting setting and the engaging plot help offset those.

I could have done without the constant reminders of Silke’s clothing, though. I really don’t understand why a girl wearing men’s clothes is supposed to be so empowering or different. I get it, in this fantasy world, women wear dresses, men wear pants, etc., so a girl wearing pants is supposed to scream forthrightness and strength and standing-up-against-the-man-ness. But all I could think about was how boring and formulaic a character Silke was, whose characterization was built on “she wears pants” and nothing else. I would much rather have a well-written female character in a dress than a boring, cliché female character in pants, but I guess the public wants the latter so that’s what authors are giving them.

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart has some flaws, but overall it’s a charming story with an interesting protagonist, a good plot, and a well-built world. I enjoyed reading it, despite my dislike of Silke, and the book has lifted my opinion of Burgis overall. I hope she writes more books like this one, and less like Kat, Incorrigible.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Chocolate houses were nothing like I’d expected.

When the scent of chocolate, growing stronger and stronger, led me to the open doorway of yet another yellow-and-white building, I stopped just outside it in disbelief.

Two humans nearly bumped into me from behind….I gave them both a narrow-eyed, accusing glance. “This building isn’t made of chocolate!”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2j35ud3

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The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck by Bethany Turner

Disclaimer: The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck, by Bethany Turner, was provided by Revell. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Note: No back cover summary on this review, as the publisher prefers that reviewers not post it.

My rating: 2/5 

I’ve never experienced a book that started out mildly interesting and then quickly devolved into incredibly annoying quite like The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck. It started out a little bit intriguing and humorous, and then, right around the time Sarah ran into her pastor and fell in insta-love with the “lean, muscular” (of course, because they all are, because apparently that’s the only body type that exists) perfect man, it quickly became frustrating.

I appreciate that Turner is willing to address some things more openly than other Christian novels have done, but the amount of cringing I did while reading this book because of the ridiculous amount of attention spent on attraction and intimacy is more than I’ve ever cringed before. It’s almost the only thing they talk about, oftentimes in cheesy, cringe-worthy ways, and the whole relationship comes across as more of a physical attraction than anything else.

To add to the ridiculous amount of time spent on talking about sex (not explicitly, of course, but way more than I’m used to a Christian novel addressing it—again, props to Turner, but perhaps a more less in-your-face approach would have been better), we have the perfect pastor and perfect man Ben, of the “lean and muscular” build, who is flawless, always says the right things, and is about as interesting as my left shoe. Then we have the melodramatic plot, complete with “who’s the father of my baby?” drama, that ends with Ben being completely unconcerned that the church he’s pastoring is going under, leaving its congregation to find new places of worship, an event that’s literally almost shrugged off by the characters, when in real life something like that would be slightly more devastating, or at least difficult to adjust to.

Did I mention that all Ben and Sarah talk about are how much they want to get married so they can get around to having babies? And you might be thinking I’m exaggerating, and I am, a little, but they literally spend pages talking about it.

The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck has insta-love (my least favorite), the typical Christian-fiction love interest (lean, muscular, perfect, always says the right things), dialogue and conversation topics that would have been refreshing if they hadn’t been so prevalent and blunt (Christian fiction tends to avoid intimate language; Turner has way too much), and a plot that’s melodramatic and cliché. If Turner had been more original in her characters and in her plot, I think the book would have been vastly improved.

Warnings: Sex is mentioned a lot. Nothing explicit or necessarily in poor taste, though.

Genre: Christian, Realistic

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2yQvhvA

Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald

Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald, was published in 1957 by Harper. It is the sequel to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

Have you ever heard of Leadership Pills? Or Crybaby Tonic? Or Whisper Sticks? You won’t find them in your corner drugstore. The only way to get these magical medicines is to call Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. When Phillip Carmody turns into a Show-off, and Nicholas Semicolon acts like a Bully, and Harbin Quadrangle becomes a Slowpoke, their desperate parents pick up the phone and consult Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. She has an old sea chest full of magic cures for children (left to her by her husband the pirate) and can supply the perfect remedy every time. Of course, although they’re very efficient, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s cures have some comical consequences, too…making these remarkable adventures of her young friends a cheerful prescription for just about anyone.

Rating: 3/5

Let me confess something here: Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is not technically the sequel to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. It’s actually the sequel to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm, the third book in the series, and thus actually the fourth book. But growing up, I read Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle as if it was the second book, not the fourth, and, to be honest, I think it makes much more sense to do so. One reason is that in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has relocated to, well, a farm, whereas in this book she is apparently back in her old house.

Of course, reading the books out of order like this does make for an odd juxtaposition. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was full of “cures” for poor behavior, but those cures were sensible things: labeling all of your selfish kid’s things, letting your messy child get away with not cleaning his room, letting your kids who don’t want to go bed to stay up as long as they want. The only cure not particularly “realistic” was the Radish Cure. Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, however, does away with sensible cures and makes the cures completely magical instead. It’s an odd switch, but I’m guessing the actual second book, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic is thus named so as to let you know that things would be taking the turn for the fantastic.

The only reason I can think of for making Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s cures magical is that Betty MacDonald was afraid parents would actually prescribe her cures to their own children, so she made them magical so as to gainsay that. Or she thought it would appeal to children more if there was magic in there. Whatever the case, I thought some of the delight and charm from the first book became a little bit lost in Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, if only because magical cures are a little more banal to me than ones that are more realistic. Of course, I could also be still affected by my childhood, where Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was my least favorite book (although I still know this book basically by heart). Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic was my favorite, though, so we’ll see if I still feel that way when I read that one next.

Even though I thought that the magical cures were an abrupt, strange departure from the first book (perhaps as a result of me purposefully reading the books out of order), Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle still carries a tremendous amount of nostalgia for me. I read these books so many times growing up that even now, after not having read them for ten or more years, I still practically know them by heart—they feel familiar and comforting to me. Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is not my favorite Piggle-Wiggle book, but it’s still a good book for children, and a dearly loved book of my childhood.

Recommended Age Range: 6+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

Phillip took the broom, held it up over his shoulders and began making loud zooming noises. “Hey, Mom,” he yelled, “watch me, I’m a jet plane. Here I go for a take-off.”

As he said “Watch me,” he began to disappear—with “take-off” he was gone.

Humming contentedly his mother took the lid off the steam and poked the brown bread.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2ihjtwe

2005 Newbery Medal: Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata, was published in 2004 by Houghton.

Glittering. That’s how Katie Takeshima’s sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason. And so are people’s eyes. When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it’s Lynn who explains to her why people stop on the street to stare. And it’s Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Kati to look beyond tomorrow. But when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family beings to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering—kira-kira—in the future.

Rating: 3/5

Kira-Kira is all Newbery Medal—the “slice of life” plot, the heartbreaking incidents, and the slight philosophical/poetical angle encompassed by the word “kira-kira.” It’s a good story, although I found it perhaps a little too disjointed at times. The problem with “slice of life” stories is that they jump around from event to event and sometimes do not do a good job of connecting them enough, leaving a particular scene feeling random.

Katie is a typical “Newbery” protagonist—a middle child who feels slightly out of place in her family, with the older sibling that she feels she can’t live up to. Nothing is really surprising in this book, least of all Katie’s development. I don’t want to seem that I’m putting down “slice of life” books, because many of them are done well and they are very effective at what they do when they are done well, and Kadohata does portray Katie’s life effectively—the alienation of being one of only a few Japanese people in the community, the effect on her parents of their long, hard hours at a factory, the difficulty of having an ill sister and the emotions that come with that. Some of the events described just seem haphazardly placed.

I am surprised that Kadohata did not portray anything about the aftereffects of World War II on Katie’s family. Perhaps that was supposed to be implied in the community’s treatment of the Kadohata’s, but this was a country that was fresh from having Japanese internment camps. I don’t know—perhaps things were as mild as they seemed in the novel. I obviously was not alive during that time. One comment by a girl in their classroom, however, seemed a bit of an understatement. Or, again, perhaps she meant it more to be implied in the alienation as a whole, and the factory jobs of Katie’s parents.

Kira-Kira ticks off all the “Newbery Medal” boxes: a “slice of life,” coming-of-age novel with some sort of sad plotline attached. I felt as if some of the scenes in the book were jarring and random, and nothing really stood out to me as particularly memorable, but it’s a decent enough book that does a good job of showing aspects of a different culture.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Death.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

We sat cross-legged on the floor in our room and held hands and closed our eyes while she chanted, “Mind meld, mind meld, mind meld.” That was our friendship chant.

She gazed at me solemnly. “No matter what happens, someday when we’re each married, we’ll own houses down the block from each other. We’ll live by the sea in California.”

That sounded okay with me. “If y’all are going to live by the sea, I will too,” I said. I had never seen the California sea, but I imagined it was very pretty.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2yQNQDO

Child of the Prophecy by Juliet Marillier

Child of the Prophecy, by Juliet Marillier, was published in 2002 by Tor. It is the sequel to Son of the Shadows.

Magic is fading…and the ways of Man are conspiring to drive all the Old Ones to the West, beyond the ken of humankind. The ancient groves are being destroyed, and with their loss the land will lose an essential core if nothing is done. The prophecies that were foretold so long ago say that there is a way to prevent this horror and it is the Sevenwaters clan that the spirits of Eire look to for salvation. They are a family bound into the very lifeblood of the land…and their promise to preserve the magic has been the cause of great joy—and sorrow—to them. For in truth, the ways of prophecies are never easy…and there are those who would use power for their own ends. It is left at last to Fainne, daughter of Niamh (the sister that was lost to the clan so long ago), to solve the riddles of power among the gods. A shy child of a reclusive sorcerer, she finds that her way is hard. For she is the granddaughter of the wicked sorceress Oonagh, who has emerged from the shadows of power and seeks to destroy all that the Sevenwaters have striven for…and who will use Fainne most cruelly to accomplish this fate. Will Fainne be strong enough to battle this evil and save those she has come to love?

Rating: 3/5

Child of the Prophecy is a satisfying end to the Sevenwaters trilogy, though perhaps not as enthralling or lovely as the first two. Everything is sorted out; characters from the previous two books return and have decent roles to play; we get resolution in many different quarters. Fainne is a fine protagonist; her inner turmoil gets a little hard to bear at times but at least it’s understandable considering her situation.

I think where the book fell the most flat for me was the ending, which was an “arena battle” (two or more characters face off and battle it out while the crowd looks on and gasps) and dragged on a little too long. It started to feel too melodramatic and cheesy after a while; it’s hard to keep tension like that going without the scene starting to feel like a script. I mean, it was satisfying in that it neatly resolved the book and all the plot threads, but it felt a little clumsy at times.

Another thing that I felt was a step down from the previous two books was the romance. I adored Liadan and Bran in Son of the Shadows (and they steal the show again here), so Fianne’s romantic arc was a little disappointing.  I don’t really have anything against her love interest as a character, except that he’s much more underdeveloped than either Bran or Red were. To be honest, I thought Marillier did a better job of explaining Eamonn’s feelings than Darragh’s—not that I wanted Fainne with Eamonn, but I understood Eamonn as a character better than slightly-boring Darragh. I’m also really sick of characters denying that they like someone when they clearly do, which is what Fainne did the entire novel.

I know that there are three more books after this one, but Child of the Prophecy wrapped up the plotline of the first three books neatly. I didn’t think it was as good as Daughter of the Forest or Son of the Shadows, but it was still engaging, compelling, and satisfying despite its flaws. It’s hard for me to find adult fantasy that I like, but Marillier has crafted a beautiful world and her talents as a writer are clearly seen in her works. I may or may not pick up the other Sevenwaters books, but I’ve enjoyed the time I spent reading the first three.

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: Violence, death, sensual/sexual (non-explicit) situations.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale

I stood in the doorway, watching, as the old woman took three steps into my father’s secret room.

“He won’t be happy,” I said tightly.

“He won’t know,” she replied coolly. “Ciarán’s gone. You won’t see him again until we’re quite finished here, child; not until next summer nears its end. It’s just not possible for him to stay, not with me here. No place can hold the two of us. It’s better this way. You and I have a great deal of work to do, Fainne.”

I stood frozen, feeling the shock of what she had told me like a wound to the heart. How could Father do this? Where had he gone? How could he leave me alone with this dreadful old woman?

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2hoUwSj

Black Dove White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Black Dove White Raven, by Elizabeth Wein, was published in 2015 by Hyperion.

Emilia’s and Teo’s lives changed in a fiery, terrifying instant when a bird strike brought down the plane their stunt-pilot mothers were flying. Teo’s mother died immediately, but Em’s survived, determined to raise Teo according to his late mother’s wishes—in a place where he won’t be discriminated against because of the color of his skin. But in 1930s America, a white woman raising a black adopted son alongside a white daughter is too often seen as a threat. Seeking a home where her children won’t be held back by ethnicity or gender, Rhoda brings Em and Teo to Ethiopia, and all three fall in love with the beautiful, peaceful country. But that peace is shattered by the threat of war with Italy, and teenage Em and Teo are drawn into the conflict. Will their devotion to their country, its culture and people, and to each other be their downfall…or their salvation?

Rating: 5/5

At first I didn’t think I would like Black Dove White Raven. The beginning starts abruptly, in media res, and it took me a moment to get my bearings straight. I also didn’t know how to feel about the craziness of Rhoda/Momma’s backstory, and the odd marriage-but-non-marriage she has. But Emilia and Teo gradually won me over—mostly Emilia.

The novel takes place before and during the Italo-Ethiopian War of the 1930s. It’s funny—I’m not used to reading a book set in the 1930s that doesn’t also mention the Great Depression. But, of course, since the novel is set in Ethiopia, there wouldn’t be mention of it, regardless of the characters’ prior years in the States. What’s more, since Rhoda came from a Quaker family, it’s likely life during the Depression was not too different than life before, which is why it wasn’t mentioned. Wein has an extensive author’s note in the back of the book where she details what is historical and what is poetic license, but the whole thing melds together so well that in the midst of the book you don’t care what things are made up and what aren’t. Everything makes sense, even the crazy stuff that happens at the end, and it’s grounded in the reality of Ethiopia’s history.

I mostly liked the book throughout, but towards the end I started really loving it. I loved Emilia’s adventures at the end; I loved how we didn’t get an adventure from Teo’s more competent and certain point of view but from Emilia’s uneasy, less adept point of view. The only thing I didn’t love about the ending was the lack of resolution we got regarding Emilia’s future.

Black Dove White Raven started out a little shaky for me, but towards the end really solidified into a gripping, exciting read. Emilia is a female character that I actually enjoy; Teo had his moments, too, though I liked him less (too perfect). Rhoda was a bit wild, but I suppose it fit her established character. I learned a lot about the Italo-Ethopian War, as well as about Ethiopia and that time period in general. Overall, I thought Black Dove White Raven was a solid book and I will seek out more Wein books to read.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult

“Teo’s not here to learn to fly,” Momma said flatly.

There was an awkward silence.

But Colonel Augustus didn’t give up easily. “Teodros Gedeyon was born to be a pilot! Wasn’t his mother one of the earliest licensed fliers of her sex and race in the world? Wasn’t his father one of the earliest African men to take to the skies before his untimely death far from home—?”

(He really did talk like that.)

“—And does the new emperor not dream of an Imperial Air Force of young Ethiopian men born to the skies? The Black Dove’s son is destined to follow his mother into the air and fly for Ethiopia!”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2ygP0Et

I Walk in Dread by Lisa Rowe Fraustino

I Walk in Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembly, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials, by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, was published in 2004 by Scholastic.

Deliverance Trembley lives in Salem Village, where she must take care of her sickly sister, Mem, and where she does her daily chores in fear of her cruel uncle’s angry temper. But when four young girls from the village accuse some of the local women of being witches, Deliverance finds herself caught up in the ensuing drama of the trials. And life in Salem is never the same

Rating: 4/5

One of the last Dear America books (before the reboot), I Walk in Dread is a fair, historical coverage of the Salem Witch Trials, a period in history that is still fraught with controversy today. Fraustino certainly did her homework while writing this story; most of the people in the book are historical figures and Fraustino lays out what she researched and read at the end of the novel.

Many people today believe that the accusers were actually suffering from ergot poisoning (although that has been contested, as theories generally are), but, of course, Deliverance would have no idea what that was. Instead, a combination of mob hysteria, “sport,” and family feuds are the possibilities explored by Deliverance and her family as a cause for the witchcraft accusations. And, indeed, the Puritans themselves were later so embarrassed by their actions that they destroyed documents pertaining to the trials—showing that, despite their beliefs in witchcraft and the Devil, they realized that the extent to which it went was unacceptable.

Fraustino might have instilled perhaps a bit too much “modern thinking” into the story, but she does present the Trials as nothing more than a tragedy, a group of people caught up in mob hysteria and/or trying to avenge past wrongs by getting rid of people assumed to be responsible. It is, in fact, an excellent example of the way mob hysteria can work in a small town, the paranoia that ensues and the disasters that follow. Fraustino deals very fairly with the subject, which I found refreshing.

I Walk in Dread is perhaps much better to be assigned to read than a book such as The Crucible, which is a common book assigned to read in American Literature, which only perpetuates stereotypes and historical inaccuracies. Some of the Dear America books tend to drift a bit from accuracy themselves, but I’m glad to see that I Walk in Dread deals with the Trials according to the evidence as we know it, and that Fraustino did not push any particular ideological or political idea through the book (except for, maybe, the idea that modern people are more intelligent and progressive than their ancestors).

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

The four afflicted girls…were brought in to the front of the room, screeching and crying out as they laid their eyes on the prisoner. Their fear flooded the room….When it was quiet again, Mr. Hawthorne asked them to look upon Sarah Goode, and see if she were the person that hurt them. They all said yes, yes!….Sarah Goode looked shocked and confused. She denied that she had…even been near the children. At that, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam twisted and cried out that the witch was pinching and biting them….It was terrifying to witness, and I felt a hot passion against Sarah Goode. Someone behind me muttered, “The woman should hang for this.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2h9PxVo

1959 Newbery Medal: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare, was published in 1958 by Houghton.

Kit Tyler knows, as she gazes for the first time at the cold, bleak shores of Connecticut Colony, that her new home will never be like the shimmering Caribbean islands she has left behind. She is like a tropical bird that has flown to the wrong part of the world. And in the stern Puritan community of her relatives, she soon feels caged as well, and lonely. In the meadows, the only place where she can feel completely free, she meets another lone and mysterious figure, the old woman known as the Witch of Blackbird Pond. But when their friendship is discovered, Kit faces suspicion, fear, and anger. She herself is accused of witchcraft!

Rating: 3/5

The Witch of Blackbird Pond was an interesting book to read. I thought, with all the talk of witches on the back cover, that it would be connected to the Salem Witch Trials, but it’s not—Speare merely runs with the old idea of “Puritans thought there were such a thing as witches and accused women of witchcraft all the time” and builds a story around it. And, I get that, the Salem Witch Trials were obviously A Thing That Happened, but it’s a really cliché plot device to use and a little bit lazy, in my opinion.

Speare does deal quite fairly with Kit’s family members, though. She never shows us enough of the village to get an idea of the community, beyond the Reverend and the bitter woman who dislikes Kit from the beginning, but Judith, Mercy, and Kit’s aunt and uncle are all well-developed, particularly the uncle. She also shows a lot of difference in characters, which is something that some authors can forget when they are trying to portray certain people certain ways (The Scarlet Letter, for example, which has zero redeemable or relatable characters and every Puritan in that book is gray and stern). She doesn’t paint everyone with the same brush, basically.

For a children’s book, Kit is rather an old protagonist, and the book reads much more like a young adult novel, in my opinion, with the romance plot lines. I’m not a huge fan of “outsider comes in and shakes up community with new, “scandalous” ways” plots, and Kit did one too many stupid things for me to really like her, but I didn’t completely hate her, and I enjoyed seeing her grow throughout the novel. I liked what Speare did at the end, too, with her character because it matched what we know of Kit. She’s not one to be tied down, nor is her life with her Puritan relatives ever quite believable as a life for her.

I didn’t think The Witch of Blackbird Pond was a great book, but I didn’t think it was terrible, either. I liked the development of the characters, and even though Kit was annoying most of the time, she had her moments, and I liked that Speare was true to her character throughout. The plot aspect was underwhelming and I thought the overall tone of the book was slightly too old to really be a children’s book. A bit of a mixed reaction all around, but I went into it expecting to hate it and I didn’t, so there’s that.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: There’s some intense scenes at the end of the novel.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s (though it’s really more Middle Grade)

“Don’t the servants do that?” [Kit] inquired.

“We have no servants,” said her aunt quietly.

Surprise and chagrin left Kit speechless. “I can help with the work,” she offered finally, realizing that she sounded like an overeager child.

“In that dress!” Judith protested.

“I’ll find something else. Here, this calico will do, won’t it?”

“To work in?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2zsZN2w

The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman

The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman, was published in 2016 by Candlewick.

All Nick wants is a place to shelter from the blizzard that hits after he runs away from his uncle’s. What he gets is someplace warm to live, plenty of hot food, and the company of two dogs, two cats, four goats, one pig, a flock of chickens, and a grumpy old man who won’t let him leave. Evil Wizard Books may be cozy and Smallbone Cove idyllic, but the wolf is at the door—literally. The Evil Wizard Fidelou and his pack of biker coyotes are howling at the village border, and its magical Sentries are slowly failing. For a three-hundred-year-old self-proclaimed evil wizard, Zachariah Smallbone seems strangely at a loss. It’s a good thing Nick was lying about not being able to read. Smallbone may not be willing to teach him magic, but the bookstore is. And Nick is more than willing to learn. Even if the bookstore is awfully bossy.

Rating: 4/5

The Evil Wizard Smallbone is the story of two wizards, who are pretty much destined to fight each other, and the events that lead to their confrontation, prominently featuring a boy apprentice who (of course) significantly assists in the defeat of the villain. It features an interesting take on magic that I really enjoyed; elemental magic is certainly not anything new but the way Nick learns it was entertaining and were my favorite parts of the book.

The world was tightly crafted, though a little confusing at times. Sherman is a good storyteller, which helped to smooth out some of the more awkward bits of world building, though I still raised my eyebrows a few times. For example, there’s really no explanation as to why Nick already believes magic is real even before he goes to Smallbone’s—and if he doesn’t think it’s real, he’s awfully calm when things get strange. Furthermore, Nick’s cousin seems to take it in stride that there’s a magical shape-shifter who can change him into a coyote with a pelt; in fact, he doesn’t even seem surprised by the fact that he can change into a coyote at all. There’s a few other things that are rough around the edges that Sherman hand waves away, but the latter are the most prominent examples that I can think of. Let’s just say that I found the characters’ reactions to things suspect.

However, I did really enjoy the plot aspect even if I found Fidelou to be an annoying villain. I liked that the focus was mainly on Nick and learning magic, rather than on Smallbone and his confrontation with Fidelou, and even though the lead-up to the confrontation was a little abrupt, it came to a satisfying, if not wholly unexpected conclusion.

The Evil Wizard Smallbone has a few problems in worldbuilding, but overall it’s satisfying, entertaining, and interesting in a lot of its magical elements. Nick is a good protagonist; Smallbone is the quintessential grumpy old wizard but it’s a trope I love so I liked his character. The other characters were memorable as well, though I could have done without the mundane biker gang. Sherman is a solid writer, though some of her skills need a little work.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Very good indeed. You’re an inspired liar, Foxkin. You don’t embroider unnecessarily, you give just the right details, and you know when to stop.”

Nick put on his best innocent look. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Fox by name, fox by nature.” Smallbone stared at him through curls of foul-smelling smoke. “You can’t fool me, you know. So you’d better not try. Now,” he went on, “it just so happens that I could use an apprentice.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2gR8GYo

Why I Believe by Chip Ingram

Disclaimer: Why I Believe: Straight Answers to Honest Questions about God, the Bible, and Christianity, by Chip Ingram, was provided by Baker Books. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Responding to the perception that Christians are prejudiced, anti-intellectual, and bigoted has become a greater challenge than ever before. The result is often intimidation, withdrawal, and even doubts among God’s people about what we really believe. Chip Ingram wants to change that. In Why I Believe, he gives compelling answers to questions about

  • the resurrection of Christ

  • the evidence of an afterlife

  • the accuracy and intellectual feasibility of the Bible

  • the debate between creation and evolution

  • the historicity of Jesus

  • and more

His solid, biblical, logical answers will satisfy the honest doubts that every believer experiences, and will provide thoughtful arguments for those who are struggling with their faith, are curious about Christianity, or who honestly want to follow Jesus without checking their brains at the door.

My rating: 2/5 

I struggled for a long time as to what rating to give this book.

Finally, I decided to rate it how I normally rate books, which is roughly 40% related to the content of the book and 60% related to how I feel about the book while reading it.

Why I Believe’s content is great, for the most part. Ingram discusses basic reasons for the historicity of Jesus, the resurrection, and the reliability of the Bible, while also briefly touching on the creation/evolution debate. It’s incredibly condensed, which I feel is a pity, because he only dedicates a few paragraphs to each point, whereas whole books can be, and have been, written about each of those points. As a result, it seems a little rushed. Ingram is hitting the highlights, but there’s not a lot of meat to the book.

I do wonder if this book adds anything to the apologetics table. It rehashes common apologetic arguments, arguments that have whole books dedicated to them as I mentioned above, and contributes nothing new or foundational. Ingram does make the book a little more personal, but it’s less of a “let me tell you my story” and more of an “I’m going to give you these points and then also give you a sermon.” As an intellectual, rational person, those parts of the books didn’t appeal to me. The juxtaposition between “here’s the evidence” and “here’s the sermon” was jarring, as well.

Why I Believe may appeal to people who want a more personal, sermon-y feel to a basic apologetics book, but it treads no new ground and condenses everything so much that it’s shockingly shallow in depth. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone interested in apologetics. I’d go with classics such as The Case for Christ or Mere Christianity instead, which deal with the subject much better.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2hgykGK