The Blackhope Enigma by Teresa Flavin

The Blackhope Enigma, by Teresa Flavin, was published in 2011 by Candlewick Press.

For centuries, Blackhope Tower has remained an enigma. Rumors abound that skeletons have been known to mysteriously appear in the middle of a labyrinth found in the most famous of its rooms—The Mariner’s Chamber. When fourteen-year-old Sunni Forrest visits the tower and watches as her stepbrother, Dean, disappears, seemingly into the painting itself, she goes in search of him—and finds herself drawn into the heart of the Blackhope Enigma.

Rating: 2/5

I very nearly stopped reading The Blackhope Enigma about a third of the way through it. The writing is amateurish (needless descriptions and explanations, melodramatic villain lines, clunky action and lots of telling rather than showing), the characters are forgettable (also, don’t ask how many times I pronounced Sunni’s name as SOON-EE rather than SON-EE because of the spelling), and the whole thing hinges on a premise that is barely explained and not incorporated well.

However, the story does pick up a little and gets slightly more interesting once the characters make their way into the inner-inner painting (there’s the surface painting, then the inner painting where things are alive, and then apparently an inner-inner painting). Of course, then the book adds another melodramatic villain character and the obligatory mysterious handsome sorcerer, so it doesn’t really get any better in quality. But it became interesting enough for me to read it all the way through, though it never passed beyond merely bearable.

I like the idea that Flavin is trying to get across, but unfortunately, she executed it poorly. I think the concept of an enchanted painting is a good one and if Flavin was a better writer the book as a whole would have been a much better success. But Sunni, Dean and Blaise never become more than stock characters, stumbling around a world that is a good idea conceptually but poorly designed and implemented. I never get any sense of real danger from the villains or the world and the ending is clunky and contrived. The Blackhope Enigma is certainly an enigma—I still don’t know how I managed to finish reading the entire thing.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Middle Grade

“All you knew was that we had disappeared—not how we got in.”

“Well, let’s just say we looked at it from a new angle and got a result.”

“But I asked Mr. Bell about Corvo and the painting after Sunni and Dean had disappeared, and he didn’t tell my anything. Why would he do that?”

“Knowing Lorimer, it was so you wouldn’t get too curious and follow the others into the painting,” Angus said. “He was trying to protect you.”

“From what?” asked Blaise.

“From never getting out again.”

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

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers

Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers, was published in 1991 by Multnomah.

California’s gold country, 1850. A time when men sold their souls for a bag of gold and women sold their bodies for a place to sleep. Angel expects nothing from men but betrayal. Sold into prostitution as a child, she survives by keeping her hatred alive. And what she hates most are the men who use her, leaving her empty and dead inside. Then she meets Michael Hosea, a man who seeks his Father’s heart in everything. Michael obeys God’s call to marry Angel and to love her unconditionally. Slowly, day by day, he defies Angel’s every bitter expectation, until despite her resistance, her frozen heart begins to thaw. But with her unexpected softening comes overwhelming feelings of unworthiness and fear. And so Angel runs. Back to the darkness, away from her husband’s pursuing love, terrified of the truth she no longer can deny: her final healing must come from the One who loves her even more than Michael does…the One who will never let her go.

Rating: 4/5

I think people have been telling me to read Redeeming Love since college. College, at least, is when I first heard the book mentioned. Recently, a coworker of mine recommended it to me after a conversation I had with her about the Christian fiction I review. Then, as I was browsing the book selection at Goodwill, I saw a copy and decided to give it a try.

And I ended up really enjoying it.

Redeeming Love is one of the better historical romances I’ve read. It’s compelling and tense and Angel is such a complex character, developed well so that your heart breaks for her as she struggles to come to grips with the idea of love and redemption. The introduction of side characters to Michael and Angel’s lives keeps the story flowing and prevents it from being the same back-and-forth between the two for its entirety. The novel is rarely, if ever, over-the-top or contrived and, as I’ll discuss next, not overly hokey.

The Christianity aspect of the novel was done very well, especially in terms of Angel’s struggle and the end of the novel. There were very few parts that I thought were hokey and/or cheesy, mostly consisting of when God was speaking to Michael. That part was the hardest to swallow for me and it’s also very hard to pull off in a narrative. Perhaps I’m just too skeptical, but I found it hard to believe that God would have such a constant, inner dialogue with Michael. I mean, I get it, it’s a book and it’s also supposed to reflect Hosea and Gomer, but still—not only did I struggle to relate to those parts of the novel, but it was distracting and, as I said, a little hokey. What was more effective was Angel’s inner thoughts (the devil?) and the brief snatches of “God thoughts” she did get—not a full-blown conversation, but more snatches, glimpses, strong inclinations that resonate more with my experience.

Redeeming Love made me cry and it made me stay up late on a school night in order to finish reading it. That’s high praise from me, especially from a Christian fiction book. It was character-driven, compelling, heart-breaking and ultimately joyful. The whole book was a celebration of love that redeems and picks people up from the darkest, deepest areas of life and changes them forever. Not everything about it was perfect, but it definitely falls into the category of Christian fiction that I would recommend to others—and possibly even reread myself.

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: Prostitution, mentions of rape, sexual situations.

Genre: Historical Fiction

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

1930 Newbery Medal: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field, was published in 1929 by Simon & Schuster.

Hitty is a doll of great charm and real character. It is indeed a privilege to be able to publish her memoirs which, besides being full of the most thrilling adventures on land and sea, also reveal a personality which is delightful and forceful. One glance at her portrait will show that she is no ordinary doll. Hitty, or Mehitable, as she was really named, was carved from a piece of white ash by a peddler who was spending the winter in Maine. Phoebe Preble, for whom Hitty was made, was very proud of her doll and took her everywhere, even on a long sailing trip in a whaler. In this way Hitty’s horizon was broadened and she acquired ample material to make her memoirs exciting and instructive.

Rating: 4/5

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years is a charming novel, very much like a more serious The Doll People if the dolls only observed the goings-on around them. While it starts out a little outlandishly with Hitty’s adventures with the Preble family, it very quickly smooths out and becomes much more realistic in terms of Hitty getting from one place/family to another.

This may very well be my favorite Newbery Medal book so far, even surpassing The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle. Hitty’s voice, the adventures she goes through, and the observations she makes all combine to make a delightful book. There are definitely a few spots where the book’s age shows, but not very many, and once the book gets past those spots it’s very easy to immerse yourself into the book once again.

It’s amazing that a book about a doll would be so successful and lasting. I mean, The Doll People is good and all, but Hitty has a whole different sort of charm to it. I think one reason is that Hitty’s adventures certainly sound real—if an antique doll had a story to tell, it may very well be quite similar to Hitty’s own (except perhaps the whaling adventure at the beginning, the most hard-to-swallow of them all, as well as the most eyebrow-raising). It also helps that the people in the book, in the stories Hitty relates, are interesting and help keep Hitty’s story interesting. And, as vehicles for which Hitty moves, they’re nicely integrated into the story, and, as I said, make the story more believable.

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years is a promising start to the 1930s Newbery Medals. Along with Caddie Woodlawn, this decade is shaping up to be much more interesting and engaging than the 1920s boring fest of medal winners.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“There, Kate,” said the Captain, suddenly pointing with his whip, “that’s the first mountain-ash tree I’ve seen this fall.”

There, sure enough, at the edge of some woods was a slim, tallish tree loaded down with bunches of orange berries. The tree seemed to bend under their weight and they shone like burnished balls.

“That’s Hitty’s tree,” cried Phoebe, “and it’s magic!”

“Hush, child,” reproved her mother, “you mustn’t say such things.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2uAAU1u

A Tangle of Gold by Jaclyn Moriarty

A Tangle of Gold, by Jaclyn Moriarty, was published in 2016 by Arthur A. Levine. It is the sequel to The Cracks in the Kingdom.

His visit turned out to be ridiculously brief. Madeleine and Elliot barely talked before word came that he and his father would be bundled back to Cello. On the train platform, Elliot didn’t snap out of the distant fog he seemed to be in. And Madeleine’s nose bled—again!—just as she tried to say good-bye. Now she’s mortified, heartbroken, lost—and completely cut off from Cello. Cello, meanwhile, is in crisis. Princess Ko’s deception of her people has emerged and the kingdom is outraged. Authorities have placed the princess under arrest and ordered her execution. Color storms are rampant, more violent than ever. And nobody has heard the Cello Wind blowing in months. But Madeleine can’t let go of Cello. It gave her a tantalizing glimpse of the magic she’s always wanted—and maybe it’s the key to the person she is meant to become. She also can’t let go of Elliot, who, unbeknownst to her, is being held captive by a dangerous branch of Hostiles. What will it take to put these two on a collision course to save the Kingdom of Cello, and maybe to save each other?

Rating: 4/5

I’m going to jump right in with my absolute favorite thing about A Tangle of Gold: it has one of the best plot twists I’ve experienced in a long time. Looking back, I can see now how all the pieces line up and all the hints and clues that were scattered along the trilogy. In the moment, though, when things were happening and I was wondering what on earth was going on and starting to roll my eyes at the ridiculous/ “poetic” descriptions, Moriarty drops that piece of amazing plot reveal right in my lap. I actually gasped and said, “No way!” out loud, and not many books get me to do that. And the best thing was that it made so much sense but wasn’t so obvious that I saw it coming a mile away—because I didn’t see it coming, at all.

The biggest complaint I’ve had about the Colors of Madeleine trilogy so far is the voice of the characters. However, in A Tangle of Gold, either there was less of it jarring me out of the book or I simply noticed it less. Maybe the plot reveal made me look at the book more favorably. I will say, though, that some things happened that I had a really hard time swallowing. Like Princess Jupiter’s magical abilities manifesting because of plot convenience. And Elliott’s brainless decisions while being with the Hostiles. And that whole thing with the Circle and immortality. And, made slightly more tongue-in-cheek by Belle’s reaction, the whole thing with Jack revealed at the very end. Also, the ending was jarring because it ended so abruptly and not particularly as satisfying as I thought it could be.

However, A Tangle of Gold might be my favorite of the trilogy if only for that marvelous bit of plot weaving that Moriarty did throughout the entire trilogy leading up to that plot reveal. You’re likely not to be disappointed by this book if you enjoyed the other two, and while some things become a little convenient with our heroes and there’s still a kind of pretentious, fake voice to the teenagers, particularly Belle, it’s a good finish to the trilogy. If only the ending had given just a little more closure.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

That night, Madeleine lay on her couch-bed and felt the silence rising up from the flat downstairs. It joined the darkness in her own flat, injecting it with shots of deeper darkness.

A thread of burning colours was coiling through her veins. A hot-oil rainbow. It smelled like ink spilled from permanent markers, the high, poisoned sweetness of it.

She was going mad.

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

1936 Newbery Medal: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink

Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink, was published in 1935 by Macmillan.

Caddie Woodlawn is a real adventurer. She’d rather hunt than sew, plow than bake, and beat her brothers’ dares every chance she gets. Caddie is friends with Indians, who scare most of the neighbors—neighbors who, like her mother and sisters, don’t understand her at all. Caddie is brave, and her story is special—because it’s true, based on the life and memories of Carol Ryrie Brink’s grandmother, the real Caddie Woodlawn.

Rating: 3/5

If you were to think of a typical Newbery Medal book, you’d probably think of many of the tropes and techniques in Caddie Woodlawn, which seems to me to be the earliest of what I can only call the “Newbery Medal” formula, or perhaps, more simply, the “coming of age” formula.

That’s not to say all Newbery Medals follow along with Caddie Woodlawn—clearly they don’t—but a lot of them do have the same type of formula to them: girl/boy is in the process of growing up, has adventures, learns lessons, does brave things, etc. They’re also fairly episodic in plot, with each chapter (perhaps two) being one particular episode in the protagonist’s life. There’s usually some sort of arc connecting them all together, whether it’s plot or a particular character. All these things are present in Caddie Woodlawn and, though it makes for a disjointed pace, it’s effective at communicating the coming-of-age aspect.

I’ve actually read Caddie Woodlawn before, 15 or more years ago, and the thing I remembered most of the book was the part where Caddie gets her friend to “cross her heart” and the friend freaks out because she doesn’t think she can tell anyone where Caddie is. This event takes place much earlier in the book than I expected—there’s a whole part with the settlers being afraid that they were going to be massacred and one would expect this to be the crowning moment of the book, the place for the protagonist to truly show off her bravery and end the book in a spectacular fashion. However, it happens about halfway through and, to be honest, the rest of the book falls a little flat after that particular escapade.

In fact, it’s after the “cross your heart” and the fear of massacre part where the book starts to feel very episodic and choppy. I mean, I enjoyed it for the most part, but I got a little bit tired of Caddie’s shenanigans towards the end. Brink includes some historical events and things, which are nice, but the book feels a trifle long and gets tiring by the end.

Caddie Woodlawn reminds me of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, but much more choppy in terms of pace and a little bit less endearing and enduring. It’s definitely a step-up from much of the 1920s Newbery Medals I read, but the clear “coming of age” formula (not old when it was written, but very predictable and tired now) detracts a bit from it, and Caddie’s adventures get tiring, especially after the halfway point when the Big Event happens and the book keeps going on as if that wasn’t the biggest moment in the book.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Well, I guess we’re even, Uncle Edmund,” said Caddie, gravely smiling. She held out her small, brown hand.

Uncle Edmund shook it hearty, but he said: “No, Caddie, we’re not even yet. I promised you a silver dollar.”

“You said if I beat you to the end of the lake on the raft, or if I wouldn’t tell Mother. But I didn’t beat you and I am going to tell Mother.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2ufC6I5

Stolen Magic by Gail Carson Levine

Stolen Magic, by Gail Carson Levine, was published in 2015 by Harper. It is the sequel to A Tale of Two Castles.

Elodie, the dragon Masteress Meenore, and the ogre County Jonty Um are all on their way to Elodie’s home island of Lahnt. Just five weeks before, Elodie left for the town of Two Castles with nothing but a single copper in her purse, and now she is returning a professional dragon detective’s assistant and friend to a count! Elodie has barely set foot on Lahnt before she learns that it is in terrible danger. The Replica, a statue that keeps a deadly volcano from erupting, has been stolen from its mountain home. If the Replica isn’t found in three days, a mountain will be destroyed and its inhabitants will be killed. And when Elodie is left without her companions, she has to use her wits to try to unravel a tangled web of lies and save her island home.

Rating: 2/5

I didn’t think Stolen Magic was half as good as A Tale of Two Castles. It has that “tacked-on sequel due to popular demand” feel to it, where the author tries to recapture the essence of the first novel and fails. The plot tries to be a decent mystery but there are so many characters introduced all at once that it’s hard to follow and the world seems small and cramped compared to the first novel. There’s also way too many logical leaps done at the very beginning, with Elodie immediately jumping to “The Replica’s been stolen!” even though there’s really no believable way she could have reached that conclusion as quickly as she did. In addition, the entire book pretty much takes place in one area, and most of the time the characters are simply talking at a table.

Even Levine seemed to realize how inactive the plot was, and so interspersed the mystery aspect with snapshots of Jonty Um, andeventually Meenore, helping the inhabitants of Lahnt escape to safety. But those are so obviously placed there to increase the pace that it makes the book seem sloppily put together. It also makes it so that the reader knows some things before the characters, which I never like because that sort of anticipation as the reader waits for the characters to catch up is rarely done well. It tends to become more irritation than anticipation.

Stolen Magic is, in a way, aptly named, because it steals the magic found in the first book right out of existence and turns it into a trudge of a mystery that’s only slightly interesting. All the “bee” characters introduced all at once made things hard to follow, there was too much talking across tables and too many back-and-forth accusations, and the whole thing felt rushed and poorly done. Sequels written years after the first book are rarely done well, because they often tend to reek of fan service and poorly-conceived thinking and plotting. And, unfortunately, it looks like even Gail Carson Levine, as divine as some of her books are, is not immune to this sort of blunder.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Might the thief escape in your absence, Madam, now that the blizzard has ended?”

“He wouldn’t get far on foot in this snow. If he wanted a horse, he’d have to come here.”

“He or she wouldn’t get far. If he or she wanted…Lodie, can you forgo sleep tonight?”

She nodded. She’d done so before for IT.

“High Brunka, can you show Lodie in secret where the Replica had been kept?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2t1XQqV

With You Always by Jody Hedlund

Disclaimer: With You Always, by Jody Hedlund, was provided by Bethany House. I received a free copy. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

One of the many immigrants struggling to survive in 1850s New York, Elise Neumann knows she must take action to care for her younger sisters. She finds a glimmer of hope when the New York Children’s Aid Society starts sending skilled workers to burgeoning towns out west. But the promise of the society’s orphan trains is not all that it seems. Born into elite New York society, Thornton Quincy possesses everything except the ability to step out from his brother’s shadow. When their ailing father puts forth a unique challenge to determine who will inherit his railroad-building empire, Thornton finally sees his chance. The conditions to win? Be the first to build a sustainable community along the Illinoi Central Railroad and find a suitable wife. Thrown together against all odds, Elise and Thornton couldn’t be from more different worlds. The spark that ignites between them is undeniable, but how can they let it grow when that means forfeiting everything they’ve been working toward?

My rating: 2/5

I started out enjoying With You Always but the more I read the more disgruntled I became. But, positives first: I really enjoyed the setting, because the Western Expansion has always been one of my favorite time periods. Hedlund did a good job of highlighting how difficult it was for immigrants to find jobs, as well as the economic and social issues of that time. I wish it hadn’t been delivered in quite so preachy of a tone, or in such a moral avatar as Elise Neumann (reinforcing the image that women are icons of virtue and need to bring morality into the virtueless lives of men, who are forgiven what they do since they didn’t have a woman to guide them), but there you have it. I also liked the minor characters, who I found more interesting than Elise and Thornton.

However, With You Always centers on a romance that I didn’t like (too unoriginal) between two characters that I didn’t really connect to (Elise is bland with odd moments of choreographed outbursts, Thornton is the typical love interest and the strange, unrealistic competition between him and his brother does nothing to improve his flatness as a character) and thus, the further in I got, the less I was able to enjoy what I did like. I know I’m particular about my romance “type” and that the sort of stuff in With You Always is gobbled up by many other people and so authors keep using it, but I wish they would branch out a little and incorporate some new elements into tired, overused romantic plots.

The other thing I didn’t like about the book was the unresolved ending. It actually made me mad that so much happened at the end and the book ended with a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders and an “Oh well, the two main characters are together now,” with absolutely nothing discovered about the fate of some of the side characters. I get that this is a series and that Hedlund is probably trying to have some fodder for the next books, but it felt cheap and made me less willing to read future books, not more willing to find out what happens.

With You Always has a great setting and several interesting minor characters, but the main characters and the romance are bland and boring, and the unresolved plot threads left me more angry than curious.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2sX9LRU

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly, was published in 2009 by Henry Holt.

The summer of 1899 is hot in Calpurnia’s sleepy Texas town, and there aren’t a lot of good ways to stay cool. Her mother has a new wind machine from town, but Callie might just have to resort to stealthily cutting off her hair, one sneaky inch at a time. She also spends a lot of time at the river with her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist. It turns out that every drop of river water is teeming with life—all you have to do is look through a microscope! As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and learns just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.

Rating: 4/5

For some reason, I wasn’t expecting The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate to be as good or as engaging as I found it to be. It was humorous, interesting, and surprisingly much lighter in tone and material than I expected it to be. I kept expecting something sad or dangerous to happen throughout (perhaps because of its Newbery Honor status) and—spoiler?—nothing did.

I was worried going in that the book was going to be very heavy on Darwinian evolution and I had no interest in reading a book that very clearly pushed an agenda (*cough*ScottWesterfeld*cough*). However, the book focuses mainly on natural selection and general observation and scientific method, and while some mentions of the clash between Genesis and Darwin’s theory are in the book, they’re dealt with much more matter-of-factly and historically, and less politically, which I liked.

What I didn’t like is the whole “girl hates what girls did back then and tries to be more progressive and feels stifled by her unprogressive society” trope. I’m thinking it’s because I’m an adult and so this sort of thing doesn’t really jive with me anymore. I’m past the point where I need to be told that I can be a naturalist if I want to. I’m past the point where I need to be told that it’s fine if I don’t know how to cook (but, seriously, housekeeping skills are dead useful. Where are the books where boys learn how to sew?). At least the grandfather states how he had to learn to knit during the war. That redeemed the trope for me a little.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is surprisingly (at least, for me) light-hearted, which actually made it a little disjointed for me. I kept expecting something bad to happen and kept seeing hints of things cropping up, only to find out that I was completely wrong. However, I still enjoyed the novel, despite the prominent archetype/trope present, which, to give credit where it’s due, is at least historically rooted and it make sense for Kelly to include it. I just wish it wasn’t also combined with “wild child” at the same time. I don’t see why Callie couldn’t have sewed well and also wanted to be a naturalist, but perhaps the uneven balance is necessary for a book aimed at middle-grade readers.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

“Anyway, as a thank-you, the great man sent me the bottled beast you see on the shelf next to the armadillo. It is my most prized possession.”

“Excuse me?” I said, looking up from the trilobite.

“The bottled beast you see there on the shelf.”

I looked at the monster in the thick glass carboy, with its freakish eyes and multiple limbs.

“It is a Sepia officinalis he collected near the Cape of Good Hope.”

“Who collected it?”

“We are speaking of Mr. Darwin.”

“We are?” I couldn’t believe it. “He sent you that?”

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

Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke

Dragon Rider, by Cornelia Funke, was published in 2004 by Chicken House.

Firedrake, Ben, and their furry friend, Sorrel, are in search of the mythical place where dragons can live in peace forever. Together they embark on a journey that takes them to magical lands where they meet marvelous creatures—and one ruthless villain. Along the way, they will discover allies in odd places, courage they didn’t know they had, and a hidden destiny that changes everything.

Rating: 3/5

Dragon Rider is not a bad book by any means. It is a fairly entertaining, suspense-filled tale of a dragon’s search for a home and the people, animals, and magical creatures that help him along the way. There’s a villain who is suitably villainous, a spy, a djinn, and lots and lots of travel. There’s nothing remarkably wrong with it nor are there any large flaws beyond character likeability (a subjective area, anyway).

However, Dragon Rider lacks something which makes it truly great. I’m not sure if it’s wonder, charm, imagination, or what, but there is a flatness that runs throughout the book that makes it one step short of enticing. It never goes beyond; it always stays comfortable and safe. I’m not sure if it’s because this is one of Funke’s first books (okay, more like fifth, but it’s still one of her early ones), if it’s the translation barrier (this was first written in German), or if this is just how Funke writes, but there is definitely some depth or something missing that is noticeable to someone who reads as many books as I do.

I remember quite liking this book as a kid, and I think I read it a couple of times, but, strangely, I barely remembered it—it didn’t have nearly as powerful an impression on me as some of the other books I read when I was younger. Maybe it has something to do with the flatness of the whole book, the rote-ness of it, the imaginative aspect of it that is so formulaic it loses its imaginativeness, if that makes sense.

Also, Sorrel was annoying.

I enjoyed Dragon Rider, but it didn’t grab me. It did nothing to make me remember it and, sadly, it did nothing to make me want to grab another book by Funke and dive in. I’ve actually read The Thief Lord, Inkheart, and Inkspell, many years ago, but I don’t have an inclination to reminisce; I didn’t before reading Dragon Rider and I don’t now. That doesn’t mean I won’t read another Funke book; it just means I’ll be hard-pressed before I pick one up.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Gilbert leaned slightly forward and whispered, “You’re not the only ones looking for the Rim of Heaven.”

“What?” gasped Sorrel, taken aback.

“Ravens have been turning up here for years,” Gilbert went on, still in a whisper. “Very peculiar ravens, if you ask me. They ask questions about the Rim of Heaven, but what they’re really interested in is the dragons said to be hiding there. Naturally I haven’t told them anything about the dragons in my dear cousin Rosa’s part of the world.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2sn4qE3

Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal, was published in 2014 by Tor. It is the sequel to Without a Summer.

After Melody’s wedding, the Ellsworths and Vincents accompany the young couple on their tour of the continent. Jane and Vincent plan to separate from the party and travel to Murano to study with glassblowers there, but their ship is set upon by Barbary corsairs. It is their good fortune that they are not enslaved, but they lose everything to the pirates and arrive in Murano destitute. Jane and Vincent are helped by a kind local they meet en route, but Vincent is determined to become self-reliant and get their money back and hatches a plan to do so. But when so many things are not what they seem, even the best laid plans conceal a few pitfalls. The ensuing adventures is a combination of the best parts of magical fantasy and heist novels, set against a glorious Regency backdrop.

Rating: 4/5

Valour and Vanity is much better than I remember Without a Summer being, though, granted, it’s been a while since I’ve read the latter. It’s a delightful heist novel, though the heist itself does not take place until the last third of the book, and the build-up to the heist is slow, yet never a trudge, and filled with appropriate tension and mystery. While the reason Jane and Vincent need to pull off a heist seems overly elaborate, it’s acknowledged by the characters and seems warranted due to the circumstances.

I prefer fantasy novels that, if they have complicated magic, it makes sense and is explained well. I don’t understand the glamour aspect of Kowal’s world and I don’t think I ever have or ever will. Kowal explains it often enough, but I’ve never been able to grasp the concept. I’m not sure if that’s a flaw in the design or simply a flaw in my understanding. It does make things a little hard to understand, and read, when it gets to the technicalities, such as the glass glamour spheres the Vincents are working on and all that complicated glamour stuff they do for the heist. Kowal at least makes it to the side of “understandable enough to pass muster,” though the system still seems confusing overall.

The previous two books in the series seemed a little more complicated and far-reaching than this one, and I really enjoyed the more simple nature of Valour and Vanity. Odd to say of a heist novel, I know. It further developed and resolved some storylines from the previous books, but the scope did not seem as large, nor did there seem to be so many interacting characters and storylines. There was much more of a focus on the development of Jane and Vincent’s characterization and relationship, done wonderfully well. This was probably my favorite book after the original, and it’s not even because of the heist, though that was well done. The characterization is delightful and that, above all, is what made me enjoy Valour and Vanity so much.

Recommended Age Range: 15+

Warnings: Implied sex within marriage.

Genre: Fantasy

“What is it you wish to make.”

“A sphere of cristallo.”

“That’s it? Just a ball?”

“A perfect sphere.” Vincent rolled his shoulders. “I shall need you to hold it quite steady as we cast glamour into it. The glassmaker we used in Binché—”

“I know what I am about, sir. You do not need to instruct me.”

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