In the Coils of the Snake by Clare B. Dunkle

In the Coils of the Snake, by Clare B. Dunkle, was published in 2005 by Henry Holt. It is the sequel to Close Kin.

Rating: 3/5

In the Coils of the Snake concludes the Hollow Kingdom trilogy, with Marak, the dry, witty, best character in the first two books dying, and his son, Catspaw, taking his place. The book mainly deals with the marriage/romantic woes of Catspaw and Miranda, who were betrothed to be married when the arrival of an elf lord ruins everyone’s plans.

In the Coils of the Snake is probably my least favorite of the Hollow Kingdom trilogy. Much like Close Kin, where the focus of the book switched halfway through, the perspective switches back and forth between Miranda, Nir, and Catspaw, with the latter two being the more interesting. Miranda is a phlegmatic protagonist. At the beginning, she seems like a good character, very similar to Kate of the first book, but halfway through the book, she turns into a limpid, bemoaning character who mopes around the elf camp and barely does anything to contribute to the story beyond being a plot device.

Catspaw and Nir embody the goblin/elf conflict and the differences between the two races. We don’t get much from the perspective of Nir, but what we do get is suitably mysterious. Despite this being my least favorite book, Dunkle does do some good plotting—there is lots of foreshadowing and a big plot reveal at the end. The majority of it I managed to guess, but it was nice to see everything buildup to the big revelation.

My two favorite characters were Tattoo and Hunter, whose scenes together were my favorites in the book. They managed to pull up an overall disappointing book a little with their bonding as friends. Hollow Kingdom remains my favorite of the trilogy. I liked how in each book we got to see more of the world, but I wish the characterization and some of the overall mechanics had been better.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2TSg6wv

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The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

The Only Road, by Alexandra Diaz, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 4/5

The Only Road was much less preachy and heavy-handed than I thought it would be Instead, Diaz tells a compelling story of two children fleeing their town in Guatemala after being targeted by the local gang. Their destination is, of course, the United States, where Jaime’s brother lives. They must travel through the security-heavy borders of Mexico and the US, hide from gangs and immigration officers, and try not to lose each other.

Diaz gives a chilling picture of what it is like to travel through Mexico in secret. Apparently, Mexico is not very fond of other Central or South American countries, and of course the US heavily patrols its borders, so Jaime and Angela must fake their way through a bus ride, almost die in a closed boxcar of a train, scrape up enough money to pay a coyote to take them across the Rio Grande, and then safely contact Jaime’s brother. And Diaz communicated all of this without ramming her ideas of immigration down the reader’s throat. Instead, she uses the story to paint the picture, a much subtler approach that I appreciate.

The only thing I struggled with in the book was the appearance and disappearance of Jaime and Angela’s traveling companions, as well as the abrupt, almost-too-happy ending. I do understand that it’s likely that traveling companions will leave, eventually, but it seems to go against the book a bit—though of course Diaz is perhaps just emphasizing the separation of friends at certain points. The ending, too, is almost too happy, where Jaime, Angela, and Tomas drive off into the sunrise and nothing else is offered regarding Jaime’s and Angela’s status as illegal immigrants. Perhaps it’s because this book is for children that Diaz decided to end it as she did.

The Only Road pleasantly surprised me, and overall, despite a few wobbles, it offers a compelling story about the reasons someone might flee their home and head for a better life in a new country. It also shows lots about Central American and South American culture, such as Mexico’s heavy security in regards to immigration and the people’s dislike of outsiders. It was interesting to read about, and I appreciated it that Diaz went for subtlety rather than outspokenness.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence, death, disturbing images

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2tmwAkI

Sunny by Jason Reynolds

Sunny, by Jason Reynolds, was published in 2018 by Atheneum. It is the sequel to Patina.

Rating: 2/5

I enjoyed the first two Track books, Ghost and Patina, but Sunny is the weakest one so far. It’s messy and all-over-the-place, and I get that it’s supposed to be inside of Sunny’s head, but half the time he’s just making random noises and talking about random things. Maybe that’s appealing to some, but not to me.

There’s a lack of depth to the book, too, that seems out of place, especially when comparing it to the previous two books. There’s some sad stuff going on, but there’s really not that much to the book at all. Half of it is just Sunny making sound effects and thinking about dancing. Yes—those parts of the book really bothered me! The scenes with Sunny and his dad were good, and the handling of all the unspoken (and spoken) expectations that Sunny is trying to fill, when he also wants to strike out on his own, were good. But I like tightly-focused, tightly-plotted books, and Sunny was just too stream-of-consciousness for me.

I also am growing very irritated of Reynolds’s penchant to ending the books right in the middle of a track meet (and then starting the next book with the resolution of that track meet). It’s hokey, and doesn’t really accomplish much. There’s no sense of closure or growth by cutting off the book right in the character’s shining moment. Instead, we’re left to wonder “Did he do it?” and there’s no rush of victory that is so great to feel when reading a book that’s so character-focused as this one.

I think I might still get the last track book, just to finish the series, but Sunny was ultimately a disappointment. Too random, too noisy, and just not my cup of tea.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2GFdP43

The Tenth Power by Kate Constable

The Tenth Power, by Kate Constable, was published in 2005 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Waterless Sea.

Rating: 4/5

It’s always bittersweet to read the ending to books you’ve enjoyed. There’s happiness with the characters and where they are (hopefully), there’s sadness that the series is over, there’s lingering feelings of shock and tension from the plot. And, for me, there’s sometimes also a feeling of disgruntlement that the ending isn’t as perfect as it “could have been,” a vague sense that the book let me down somehow.

I got that feeling a little bit with The Tenth Power. Don’t get me wrong—I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was literally all I could think about during work for two whole days. I had to drag myself away from it in the morning. Constable’s enchanting prose, Calwyn’s struggles and triumphs, her relationship with Darrow, the twists and turns of the plot—all of these things worked together to create a great finish, one that’s satisfying and beautiful (if not bittersweet). The way this trilogy gripped me is still surprising to me. I don’t get entranced by books very often. The most recent ones I can think of are The Queen’s Thief books, which hold a different sort of enchantment to them.  Yet something about Constable’s prose, the world, and especially the characters grabbed me from the get-go.

Maybe it’s because Calwyn is such a fallible protagonist. She makes plenty of mistakes in this book. She gets angry and arrogant, and there’s a part in the middle of the book where things get almost too crazy and there’s a bewitching atmosphere to everything that happens, and despite all her power and all she accomplishes, Calwyn still reads as totally human. And I’m glad of that because the middle-to-last third of the book is so strange that without Calwyn as an anchor, I probably would have been much more dissatisfied.

The book isn’t perfect. There’s that science-fiction-y, ships-from-space bit that doesn’t quite fit in the world. There are several character revelations that don’t fit well, either, but they at least work better than what happens with Calwyn and Samis (seriously…what was that?). But I loved the idea of the Tenth Power (words! And then it hits you that no one has read or written anything in the entire series), and Calwyn and Darrow are still my favorite. Bobbles aside, I haven’t enjoyed a trilogy as much as I enjoyed Constable’s in a long time.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2tgXxqa

The Seamstress by Allison Pittman

Disclaimer: The Seamstress, by Allison Pittman, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

My rating: 4/5 

The Seamstress was inspired by the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, where a seamstress meets up with That Guy (to avoid spoilers) and talks to him briefly before they are both beheaded. The Seamstress is basically the story of that seamstress, detailing her life and circumstances leading up to and during the French Revolution.

Pittman says she spoils about 50% of A Tale of Two Cities, but I didn’t see it. Of  course, I read Dickens’ novel in high school, so my memory of the book is not great. The Seamstress is much more like a historical fiction set during the French Revolution than a spin-off of A Tale of Two Cities, and, in fact, the ending of the novel, where Pittman most clearly references TTC, is the weakest, as Pittman clearly borrowed dialogue from Dickens’ novel, where it stands out like a sore thumb because Pittman doesn’t write like Dickens.

To be honest, I thought the story about the seamstress, Renee, was the weakest of the novel. The story involving Renee’s cousin, Laurette, was the best part. That was a story laden with forgiveness and grace, of a young woman’s desperate attempts to find love and the way she feels when those attempts give her nothing but emptiness and shame. I normally don’t like perfect men, but Gagnon is exactly the character he needed to be to temper Laurette’s wildness. Laurette’s story is the reason I gave this book such a high rating—and Renee’s story is the reason why it didn’t get higher.

Pittman utilizes the dreaded “first-person, third-person” switch: Renee’s story is in 1st person, and Laurette’s in 3rd. I see no reason why it had to be that way, and it’s jarring and frustrating to keep switching back and forth. And compared to Laurette’s beautiful story, Renee’s is timid and historically thin (Pittman admits she painted an idealistic portrait of Marie Antoinette); Renee herself is given paper-thin motivations for her actions and most of the time is simply a passive observer to what’s happening around her. And the reason Pittman gives for her arrest leading up to her death sentence is laughably unrealistic—plot convenience shines throughout that particular portion.

Yet, the power of the setting and Laurette’s story manage to offset and overshadow many of the flaws of Renee’s story, giving a lush, detailed look at the French countryside and the path leading to the French Revolution. The stark contrast between Renee’s life at court and Laurette’s life in the country helps paint the strong divide between rich and poor that was the catalyst in the Revolution’s start. And Renee’s arrest, imprisonment, and execution helps show the bloodthirsty rage that fueled the Revolution and kept the guillotine dropping.

It’s definitely not perfect, but Laurette’s story alone makes The Seamstress worth a read.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2SznyiA

The Burning by Kathryn Lasky

The Burning, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2004 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Shattering.

Rating: 3/5

The Burning is the last of the six-book fleck/Pure Ones/St. Aggie’s arc before Lasky takes the series into a different direction. As a last book, it wraps everything up as it’s supposed to: there’s tension and uncertainty to ramp the tension up before the final battle, the villains are defeated, and great acts of bravery are performed by multiple characters.

Yet there is still much left to be desired with this “closing” of the first Soren arc (for he comes back later on in the series). The time jumps are bothersome, leaving great swathes of character’s actions to be explained in commentary or as an afterthought later on. This includes Gylfie and Otulissa leaving the Glauxian Brother’s Retreat, Soren’s insistence on not teaching the St. Aggie’s owls to fight, and Gylfie’s appeal to the Northern owls parliament. In fact, Gylfie’s entire courageous arc, where she escapes from pirates and brings an army to help out the Guardians at just the right moment, is entirely overshadowed by a brand-new viewpoint character, and her most amazing moment is never even seen, though we get some of its effect later on when she meets back up with Soren at the battle.

In addition to those odd jumps, Lasky decides to have the battle between Kludd and Soren end in a rather strange way, though at least that decision makes more sense than the random jumps in time. We get a fight between Soren and his brother, but the end result is strangely anticlimactic and unsatisfying. In fact, it seems to have been done purposefully to preserve Soren’s purity than for any other reason.  Or perhaps it was to show how different Soren is from his brother—though that, of course, isn’t a necessary distinction to make since we already know that Soren is far and away the better owl.

Anyway, despite my grumblings, I still thought The Burning was a good end. It wraps up the Pure Ones arc very neatly, and it leaves room for some more growth to the series with the very brief reveal at the end with Nyra. The missteps and the strange choices are probably due to the fact that the last couple of books were published in the same year, so Lasky likely didn’t have a lot of time to really think about the choices she was making.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2BlVDst

January 2019 Books

Around the beginning of each month, I’ll take a look back at the books I read from last month. Since most of the book reviews I post on this blog are from books I read months ago, this gives all my readers a good opportunity to see what I’ve been recently reading, as well as how my reading goals are going!

As a side note, you can see every book I am currently reading on both the Goodreads sidebar on this blog as well as on my Goodreads profile.

Books read in January: 20

Sometimes I really don’t know how I manage to read so many books per month.

Reading Goals

               

Newbery Medal Winners: 4 (80/96 total)

    

Dear America: 2

Other Reading Stats:

*These stats are separate from goals (so, for example, even though Newbery Medal winners count as children’s books, I do not include them in my children’s stats) and from each category (rereads will not count in their respective genres)

Non-fiction: 1

     

Adult fantasy: 2 (I am counting the volume as 1 book, despite the fact that it contained 2 books)

Adult fiction: 3

Rereads: 3

Children’s: 1

Middle Grade: 2

Young Adult: 2

Publisher Copies (or Christian fiction): 0

Favorites:

              

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson, was published in 2018 by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Rating: 3/5

The Parker Inheritance namedrops The Westing Game a lot, and with good reason. The mystery in this book is very similar to the one in Raskin’s novel, with similar stakes. I enjoyed the puzzle/riddle aspect a lot, though occasionally I had to raise my eyebrow at some of the more difficult logical leaps that the characters took. Perhaps I’m simply underestimating a child’s ability to solve puzzles, but sometimes things seemed just too much of a stretch.

Embedded within the puzzle story is a story of a black family during segregation. The story does a fantastic job of portraying the 1950s and the many injustices that occurred—as well as what the black community had to do to overcome them, if that was possible. The puzzle aspect is based off of this rich, story-within-a-story aspect of the novel that is the best part about the book.

Johnson also gets pretty political and preachy in this novel, which ruined the effect for me. He was clearly writing for a certain kind of audience, which isn’t a problem—but that audience doesn’t include me. I found it interesting, and was even delighted, when Johnson included a glimpse into a Southern church, but was severely disappointed when nothing else was mentioned about it outside of two churchgoers, who are hardly reflective of their religion. Christianity extends far more than just going to church on Sundays. But perhaps that was all it was for Candice and Brandon, so maybe I shouldn’t be so disappointed that Johnson forgot that spiritual conversation isn’t simply limited to a couple of hours on a Sunday morning.

The puzzle part of The Parker Inheritance is what pulled up its rating; otherwise, the rest of it was disappointing, frustrating, and preachy. If you like books that push particular political agendas and are concerned with the current social justice issues, then this book is right up your alley. I don’t like those sorts of books, however, regardless of whether or not I agree with them (one need only view my consistently negative feedback of Christian novels to recognize this).

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Wyx98o

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, was published in 1959 by Dutton.

Rating: 3/5

My Side of the Mountain is a survival novel a lá Hatchet, though Sam willingly chooses to live off the land in this book, as opposed to the protagonist of Hatchet, who is forced to do so after a plane crash. I found it amusing that the author’s note to this book states that the publisher was originally unwilling to publish a book that featured a boy running away and living off the land, lest kids also want to do so—reading this book almost 60 years later, it’s hard to imagine any teenage boy today doing what Sam in this book does.

The survival aspect of this book is the most interesting part, as George details what Sam does to survive a summer and winter on the side of a mountain. It almost seems too good to be true—Sam is so knowledgeable about vegetation and the wilderness that the novel almost has a fantastical, or at least exaggerated, atmosphere to it. The conflict in the book is of the natural variety, as the adults and other children he runs into are always curious and pleasant, rather than hostile. This poses a problem to the realism, though perhaps that’s modern culture speaking—I can’t imagine all of the adults being so nonchalant about Sam’s living on his own. Even his father exudes more awe at his son’s abilities than relief that his son is alive.

The ending is definitely of the fantastic variety, a sappy, feel-good ending that smacks perhaps too much of the glory of the country/wilderness as opposed to the darkness of the city. That’s really the main problem of this book—everything is just a little too pat, people react just a little too nonchalantly. There is a blissful, “I’m right to live in the wilderness” undertone that eats a little at the survival aspect. My Side of the Mountain is not as frantic nor as tense and dangerous as a book like Hatchet, which makes it perhaps better suited for certain ages, but it’s too light and fluffy to be a compelling survival novel.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic, Survival

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2RYT762

1960 Newbery Medal: Onion John by Joseph Krumgold

Onion John, by Joseph Krumgold, was published in 1959 by HarperTrophy.

Rating: 3/5

Onion John joins the ranks of mediocre, not-terrible-but-not-amazing Newbery Medal winners. It is a coming-of-age story; Andy, through his friendship with Onion John, discovers new things about himself, his family, and life in general as the town strives to help Onion John through building him a house.

While the book is detailing Andy’s transition from unquestionable belief to skeptical uncertainty, Krumgold is fairly gentle with Onion John’s ways and culture. While Andy’s father, and eventually Andy himself, question Onion John’s methods and beliefs, Krumgold adds just enough detail for the reader to wonder, “Was Onion John right after all?”

Besides exploring interaction with people from different cultures, Krumgold also explores how it’s possible to help someone too much, as demonstrated by the town building Onion John a house. While this was unquestionably a good thing to do, there were, perhaps, better ways to help him than give him a house he didn’t understand or want. While Andy buys too much into Onion John’s beliefs, a reflection of his culture, the town doesn’t consider his culture enough. Onion John is really an exploration of balance, of not going so far in one direction that you leave the person behind. This is also explored in Andy’s relationship with his father.

In the moment, I enjoyed Onion John, but I doubt I’ll remember much of it a week from now. My desire right now is for books that pull me in immediately; Onion John didn’t do that. It’s a good exploration of coming-of-age and what that might mean, but it’s tame and bland and ultimately unsatisfying.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2G2FJGQ