Poison is Not Polite by Robin Stevens

Poison is Not Polite, by Robin Stevens, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster. It is the sequel to Murder is Bad Manners.

When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong visit Daisy’s sprawling countryside estate for the holidays, Daisy’s mother throws her daughter an extravagant birthday tea party. Then one of the guests falls mysteriously ill—and everything points to poison. With wild storms preventing anyone from leaving (and the police from arriving), Daisy’s home is suddenly a very dangerous place to be. Everyone is keeping secrets. When someone very close to Daisy look suspicious, the Wells and Wong Detective Society must do everything they can to reveal the truth…no matter the consequences.

Rating: 4/5

Poison is Not Polite (Arsenic for Tea in the UK) continues the fun, charming yet surprisingly deep at times story that I found so delightful about Murder is Bad Manners. Daisy and Hazel are back with another murder mystery, this one establishing a bit more character for Daisy as her family members are all suspects.

I didn’t know whether or not I liked Daisy in the first book, and although this book gave her a bit more development I still don’t know how I feel. I found her a little less annoying in Poison because I understood her character better, but she’s not a character type I’ve ever really liked so the jury’s still out on her. Hazel, however, is delightful and Kitty and Beany are great additions to the detective society as well.

I found the mystery in this one a little more obvious than Murder—as well as some of the other reveals—but I also fell into the same kind of thinking that Daisy and Hazel did, which meant the reveal was still a surprise, if only in its execution as opposed to its “whodunit” value. Stevens is a remarkably good mystery writer, not just in putting together the pieces of a puzzle but also in having her characters figure it out. Hazel and Daisy never take logical leaps or stretch the evidence more than is warranted; everything is carefully thought out and executed by Stevens, which makes for a nice, natural flow to the book as a whole.

I’m still going to hold out on a 5/5 rating for this series until one of the books completely blows me away. Poison is Not Polite is great, but not excellent, and even though I’m thoroughly enjoying the series so far, the “wow” factor is not quite there yet. Good mystery and characters aside, there’s still something missing—and I’m not quite sure what it is yet.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade

“How handsome!” Aunt Saskia was staring at the watch, and her eyes were glinting. She looked as though she wanted to lick her lips.

“Oh—this?” asked Mr. Curtis jauntily. “A memento. I do like having beautiful things around me.”

“Do you indeed?” asked Uncle Felix, in his most silky voice.

They stared at each other down across the table. Everything had suddenly become very tense.

“Goodness!” cried Lady Hastings. “What has got into you all? We ought to be celebrating. Let’s have a toast. To the party! May this weekend be absolutely perfect!”

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

The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty

The Cracks in the Kingdom, by Jaclyn Moriarty, was published in 2014 by Arthur A. Levine. It is the sequel to A Corner of White.

Princess Ko’s been bluffing about the mysterious absence of her father, desperately trying to keep the government running on her own. But if she can’t get him back in a matter of weeks, the consequence might be a devastating war. SO under the guise of a publicity stunt, she gathers a group of teens from across the country to play to the media in a series of carefully orchestrated photo ops. In reality, each of these teens has a special ability, and together they will attempt to crack the unsolvable case of the missing royals of Cello. Chief among these is farm-boy heartthrob Elliot Baranski, more determined to find his own father than ever. And with the royal family trapped in the World with no memory of their former lives, Elliot’s value to the Alliance becomes clear: He’s the only one with a connection to the World, through his forbidden communications with Madeleine Tully. Together, sharing notes, letters, and late nights, Elliot and Madeleine must find a way to travel across worlds and bring missing loved ones home.

Rating: 4/5

As with A Corner of White, I found the Madeleine sections of The Cracks in the Kingdom a bit too odd, a bit too quirky and pseudo-poetic/philosophical to be realistic or enticing. It fits with the Elliott sections because Cello is a fantasy world and it’s set up as an odd one and so all of that flows together, but when the Madeleine sections stray into that same mindset, it’s jarring. It’s also not my mindset, so perhaps that’s also where the disconnect lies–I have trouble connecting with characters who don’t sound real to me when they’re supposed to be “realistic.”

However, despite my problems with some aspects of characterization, I did really enjoy The Cracks in the Kingdom. I especially enjoyed the Cello parts, because that’s where the plot shined–some of the Madeleine bits seemed a bit tacked on–and the plot itself was nice and twisty and intricate, just the way I like my plots. Perhaps the ending reveal was a bit too convenient, but it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

In parts, The Cracks in the Kingdom is so odd as to be jarring and Madeleine, Belle, and Jack still do not seem realistic to me. They seem like caricatures of real people, much more like Cello than the world seems to indicate, much more like the world they’re not a part of than the world they are. Luckily, though, the charm and wonder of Cello carries through, redeeming the sections of the book where Moriarty gets especially quirky, and showing off its own quirkiness in a much more natural fashion. The plot promises to be more intricate than the first book (or, at least, more obviously intricate) and it carries through on that promise. I’ll be picking up the last book to see where the story takes us and how Moriarty brings it to an end.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

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

2006 Newbery Medal: Criss Cross

Criss Cross, by Lynne Rae Perkins, was published in 2005 by Greenwillow.

She wished something would happen. Something good. To her. Looking at the bright, fuzzy picture in the magazine, she thought, Something like that. Checking her wish for loopholes, she found one. Hoping it wasn’t too late, she thought the word “soon.”

Rating: 4/5

Criss Cross was a really interesting read. It has this kind of 70s/80s feel to it and a quirky tone, which really comes across in Hector’s sections, which make it both a strange and an endearing novel. I thought it was a pretty unique Newbery Medal winner, in that nothing particularly sad happens nor is there a particularly prominent coming-of-age moment—it’s simply whimsical and laid out in a pretty unique and interesting style.

One of the things I loved most about Criss Cross was Hector and Rowanne. Many times a sibling relationship in novels is characterized by lots of fighting and complaining. However, Hector and Rowanne showed the caring, friendship side of family, where they helped each other, hung out with each other and in general were quite darling as characters. Hector was probably my favorite character and the part where he runs around with a sarong tied around his waist—that Rowanne helped him with tying without laughing at him at all—was my favorite scene of the book (following closely behind in second: Hector at the carnival with the elephant ear).

The end also doesn’t end the way you think it will, either. There’s this moment where you think Perkins is taking it somewhere and then at the last moment it changes, and it’s done in a way that makes sense with the tone of the book so that even if you were hoping one thing would happen, you’re not surprised when it doesn’t.

Criss Cross is whimsical, nostalgic and charming, a more subtle book than some other Newbery winners in terms of message but a good read all the same. The characters are endearing, the style of the book is unique and memorable, and overall I found it a delightful read, especially when it came to Hector.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Children’s

“So you were going to take this girl to a drainage ditch?” said Rowanne.

“It’s a ravine,” said Hector. “It’s more like a ravine than a drainage ditch. It’s a really pretty spot. Except for the garbage. I don’t think it’s gonna work. I don’t know where else to go, though.”

“Why don’t you just come here?” asked Rowanne. They were sitting on a bench at the Tastee-Freez, eating ice cream cones.

“I mean, for starters,” she said. “Then you could work your way up to the drainage ditch.”

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

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross

The Fog Diver, by Joel Ross, was published in 2015 by Harper.

A deadly white mist has cloaked the earth for hundreds of years. Humanity clings to the highest mountain peaks, where the wealthy Five Families rule over the crowded slums and rambling junkyards. As the ruthless Lord Kodoc patrols the skies to enforce order, thirteen-year-old Chess and his crew scavenge in the Fog-shrouded ruins for anything they can sell to survive. Hazel is the captain of their salvage raft: bold and daring. Swedish is the pilot: suspicious and strong. Bea is the mechanic: cheerful and brilliant. And Chess is the tether boy: quiet and quick…and tougher than he looks. But Chess has a secret, one he’s kept hidden his whole life. One that lord Kodoc is desperate to exploit for his own evil plans. And even as Chess unearths the crew’s biggest treasure ever, they are running out of time.

Rating: 1/5

I’m starting to realize that I’m not a fan of books that take place in our world hundreds of years later after some sort of natural disaster or pollution destroys/changes the earth. It lends to some really sloppy worldbuilding, where the writer throws in random references to things without rhyme or reason, simply because he or she thinks it would be funny. That’s the type of worldbuilding in The Fog Diver, where even though it’s been hundreds of years, Chess’s father somehow has a scrapbook of current pop culture that contains references to completely random things that aren’t connected in any way but are cobbled together for humor. Where did Chess’s father even get that information?

So, yes, the worldbuilding in The Fog Diver was not my cup of tea, to put it lightly. There also seemed many things wrong with it besides just random references, such as the fact that even though they live on mountaintops, not only do the mountaintops have green peaks (how high up does this fog go, and why is there never any description of snow at all?) but all the kids know what a camel is (because there are camels on the mountains, apparently), even though there’s no feasible reason as to why there would be camels. Are they in a mountain near a place where camels were? And if there’s camels, why aren’t there horses? Why aren’t there mentions of mountainous animals such as mountain goats, sheep, llamas, whatever? Why do they even know words like “coyote”? I get that people suddenly inhabiting mountaintops might dilute the animal population, but surely these animals would still be around because of the milk, wool, and food possibilities.

Basically, the world makes absolutely no sense; it’s as if Ross just ran with the idea of mountaintop living without actually thinking about what that would actually mean. I’m okay with the kids knowing what wheat is, since wheat can be grown on mountains, but I had shifty eyes throughout much of the book regarding most of what was revealed about the world.

In addition, the writing isn’t that great, and Chess’s angst about who he is is piled on a little too thickly. The book is also poorly paced; the beginning trudges on and by the time the end hits you realize the entire book was about one thing that the group talked about in the beginning and took the entire book to actually complete. I’m also left with zero curiosity about the Fog, any machine that may or may not control it, and anything else having to do with this world and the characters. The Fog Diver is poorly conceived and poorly explained and simply isn’t interesting enough to make up for its worldbuilding flaws.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Dystopian, Steam Punk, Middle Grade

What was going on? Were we running? From what?

I climbed my tether, hand over hand, swinging sideways as the raft turned in crazy angles. I reached the deck just in time to catch a glimpse of Bea vanishing into a hatch. At the wheel, Swedish handled the lumbering three-ballooned raft like a racing thopper, playing hide-and-seek behind white waves of Fog.

I climbed toward the crow’s nest. “What’s going—”

“Mutineers,” Hazel said without lowering her spyglass.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2t4GPrU

Murder is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens

Murder is Bad Manners, by Robin Stevens, was published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster.

When boarding school students Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells set up their very own secret detective agency, they struggle to find any exciting mysteries to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie. Which they don’t.) Then Hazel discovers Miss Bell lying dead on the gym floor. Before Hazel can tell anyone what she’s seen, the body mysteriously disappears, seemingly without a trace. Now Hazel and Daisy not only have a murder to solve—they have to prove a murder happened in the first place….Can the Well and Wong Detective Society get to the bottom of the crime before the killer strikes again? And can Hazel and Daisy’s friendship stand the test?

Rating: 4/5

Murder is Bad Manners, also published as Murder Most Unladylike (a title I like better, actually), is everything that I love about MG or YA mysteries. The characters are interesting, the murder is intriguingly complex (if a little obvious, but I’ll put that down to me reading lots of mysteries), there’s humor sprinkled amidst the tension, and it’s the sort of book that sucks you in right away and makes you not want to put the book down until you’re done.

To be honest, the only reason I didn’t give it a 5/5 is that I want some room for the other books in the series. Also, there were some bits in the middle that I didn’t like as much as the rest because they seemed a trifle clumsy.

Oh, and Daisy drove me a little crazy at times, so there’s that. She was arrogant and dismissive of Hazel’s talents one too many times for me to really like her, and throughout the entire middle portion of the book, I kept rooting for Hazel to dump her as a friend since Daisy was an awful one. But Stevens does a good job of redeeming Daisy, at least a little, and implying that a lot of how Daisy acts is a persona she uses to hide her true self, as young people often do. So, by the end of the book, I had thawed slightly towards Daisy, although I still think she’ll need a lot of redemption for me to truly like her as a character.

Murder is Bad Manners is the first book in what I hope will continue to be an intriguing, fun, complex mystery series. I love a good mystery, especially when the audience of the book doesn’t bring down the intricacy that a mystery plot requires at times.  Hopefully, the other books in the series are as fun, charming, and engaging as I found this one.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade

“A teacher!” I gasped, horrified. “That’s why they’re all pretending that nothing’s wrong!”

“Well, not all of them did it,” Daisy pointed out. “But the one who did—whoever it was—has managed to bamboozle the others with that note. That’s what Mamzelle meant about not ‘prying into Miss Bell’s affairs.’ This is really it, Hazel. This means that it’s up to us! If the Detective Society doesn’t do something, nobody will!”

I had a momentary un-detective-like pang. “Are you sure we shouldn’t just go to the police?” I asked.

“Don’t be stupid,” said Daisy severely. “We don’t have any evidence yet. We don’t even have a body. They’d simply laugh at us. No, we’re on our own. And anyway, this is our murder case.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2r1j5UY

1926 Newbery Medal: Shen of the Sea

Shen of the Sea, by Arthur Bowie Chrisman, was published in 1925 by Dutton.

A series of fascinating Chinese stories with the character of folk and wonder tales in which the author has caught admirably the spirit of Chinese life and thought. Not only are the tales amusing and appealing in themselves, but hidden beneath their surface is the wise and practical philosophy that has influenced Chinese life for thousands of years.

Rating: 4/5

Shen of the Sea: Chinese Stories for Children is a delightful little book of folk tales, something that I think Tales from Silver Lands tried to be and failed. Each folk tale embodies its own humor and cleverness—none of them are straightforward or predictable. There’s some sort of moral attached to each one, but not in any obtrusive way as in Aesop’s Fables.

Shen of the Sea brings a lightheartedness to these early Newbery Medals that has been absent since The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle. The folk tales are simple, but not simplistic, and the language, though crowded with Chinese terms and names, is easy to understand and fits well with the nature of the book. Though I found the characters of each tale tended to blur together, their actions and the plot of each tale did not, allowing for memorable moments from each one.

I enjoy books like these, and this one reminded me of a story I read when I was little, in some sort of story collection, that was similar in style (all I remember is that it was about 7 Chinese brothers who were identical and each had a special ability that they used to save one of their brother’s skin). Though I’m not ranking the Newbery Medals, Shen of the Sea is my second favorite of the 1920s batch I’ve read so far, behind Doctor Doolittle. Let’s hope the 1929 Medal winner will follow in Shen’s footsteps.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Children’s

Who will say that Ah Mee was disobedient? He had been told not to throw his toy dragon through the window. But had his father, Ching Chi, told him not to heave a block through the door? Not at all. Ching Chi had said nothing about blocks, and he had pointed his finger at the window. Nevertheless, Mr. Ching felt almost inclined to scold his son. He said, very sternly, “Ah Mee…”

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

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded, by Sage Blackwood, was published in 2017 by Katherine Tegen.

At Miss Ellicott’s School for Magical Maidens, girls train to become sorceresses by learning about Spells, Potions, Wards, Summonings…and, most important, Deportment. The city’s people need sorceresses to protect them, but the magical maidens are taught to behave themselves so they don’t frighten anyone. Chantel would much rather focus on her magic than on curtseying—and sometimes she just can’t help but give people a Look. Her attitude often gets her in trouble, especially with the headmistress, the terrifying Miss Ellicott. Then Miss Ellicott mysteriously vanishes, along with all the other sorceresses in the city. Without any magic protecting the city, the fearsome Marauders threaten the lives of everyone that Chantel cares about…and even though Chantel and her friends were once banned from practicing battle spells, it’s now up to them to save the Kingdom. As they embark on this dangerous journey, Chantel must cope with a crossbow-wielding boy, a dragon, and the patriarchs who want to control the new, fiery magic that burns inside her. But can she find the sorceresses and transform Lightning Pass into the city it was meant to be?

Rating: 3/5

I absolutely loved the Jinx trilogy, so I was excited to pick up this new book from Blackwood. The super cute cover also fueled my enthusiasm, as well as the idea of a magic school—because as overdone as those can be, they’re also fun to read about. And Blackwood did handle the magic school aspect well, with less emphasis on the schooling and more emphasis on the students.

I didn’t find Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded as immediately gripping and interesting as I found Jinx, however. The beginning of the book suffers from things happening much too quickly as well as an unoriginal character type and protagonist in Chantel, who luckily gets better as the book progresses. There’s also events and interactions in the first part of the book that are laid on entirely too thick, as well as a skewed sense of world—not much is built of the world, vague mentions of taxes are thrown around to incite tension, and many times “the people” or “the citizens” or such are mentioned but there is only a vague, amorphous idea attached. The city feels as if it’s inhabited only by the characters mentioned in the book by name and no others. It makes some of the final moments less tense and more vague, in my opinion. It’s nice that Chantel cares so much about her city and the people within it, but it’s harder to care with her when what she’s protecting is a faceless mass fighting another faceless mass.

The ending was also hard to swallow, particularly what happens to Chantel, but I suppose it’s believable in the sense that no one was going to argue with a girl riding a dragon. Still, I’m not particularly content—Chantel suddenly in charge seems like a little much. Perhaps the book was simply too small to get an adequate sense of development.

I enjoyed Miss Ellicott’s School, but I found too many flaws in it and had too many problems with it to be as content and happy as I was when I read Jinx. Maybe it’s just that I don’t like a majority of female protagonists; maybe because I like my fantasy worlds a little bit more developed and my plots a little less fast-paced. It’s a good book, but Blackwood has written better.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“I have to do it because I’m the Chosen One,” said Anna. “It’s what she told me.”

“She told me I was the Chosen One too,” Chantel reminded her. “But she never said anything about coming up on the roof and spinning around.”

“She told me always to remember,” said Anna. “‘At the dawning of the day/Face the sun and turn away.’”

“Why?”

“How should I know? She just did,” said Anna. “Maybe it’s some kind of spell.”

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

1927 Newbery Medal: Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James

Smoky the Cowhorse, by Will James, was published in 1926 by Buccaneer Books.

Smoky knows only one way of life: freedom. Living on the open range, he is free to go where he wants and to do what he wants. And he knows what he has to do to survive. He can beat any enemy, whether it be a rattlesnake or a hungry wolf. He is as much a part of the Wild West as it is of him, and Smoky can’t imagine anything else. But then he comes across a new enemy, one that walks on two legs and makes funny sounds. Smoky can’t beat this enemy the way he has all the others. But does he really want to? Or could giving up some of his freedom mean getting something in return that’s even more valuable?

Rating: 3/5

Smoky the Cowhorse reminded me a great deal of Black Beauty, although it comes nowhere close to Black Beauty’s lasting power and “classicness” and, of course, the point of view is not the horse but rather either various cowboys or an omniscient narrator. The novel is about the horse named Smoky and his adventures on the range in the Old West. The things you might expect to happen do: Smoky grows up, gets into trouble occasionally, narrowly escapes the claws of predators a few times, and enjoys his freedom until the cowboys come calling.

Then, you have the requisite training period, then the bonding between the horse and the human, then the times they go out together and rope cattle, and then, of course, since happy times can’t last forever, something terrible happens and for the rest of the book you’re rooting for the horse and his human to find each other again.

It’s a good horse book in terms of hitting all the notes that you might expect in a horse book, but the downside is that the vernacular of the book itself is not easily read, especially 90 years later. It’s written as if someone from that time period and from that area was telling the story, so a lot of the terminology is unfamiliar, since it deals with herding and roping and things like that, and it’s in the accent and dialect of, presumably, a cowboy, which means there’s a lot of “figgering” and verb/subject disagreement and other things to make a grammar teacher frustrated. It makes the book seem more authentic, but at the same time I can see it being very distracting and make it hard for a reader to get into the book.

Overall, I enjoyed Smoky more than some of the other 1920s Newbery Medal books I’ve read, but to be honest, I doubt I’d pick it up again. I’d rather read Black Beauty, which tells a similar story in a better and much more memorable way.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

Smoky’s mammy took the lead, and after the rest of the bunch was thru parleying with the strange horses they joined in with her and the colt and all strung out for the foothills. The next day they all was up in high country again and everything of the day before was forgotten, forgotten, all excepting with Smoky and the other little colts. They still remembered some, on account that it had all been mighty new to ‘em, and besides, the sting of the fresh brand was there on their left thigh to remind.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2st7D4J

A Love So True by Melissa Jagears

Disclaimer: A Love So True, by Melissa Jagears, was provided by Bethany House. I received a free copy. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Evelyn Wisely loves working at the local orphanage, but her heart can’t ignore the women of Teaville who are also in need. Her boss is willing to help build a shelter for them, but only if she gains the cooperation and financial support of other local businessmen. While David Kingsman plans to stay in Teaville just long enough to get his father’s business back on solid ground, he’s intrigued by Evelyn’s cause and finds himself more invested with each passing day. Will their plans and partnership fall apart when confronted with all that is stacked against them, or can they trust in God’s plan despite it all?

A Love So True is not as immediately gripping or as deep in message as the book that came before it, A Heart Most Certain, but it has a lot of charm, a decent romance, and some good things to say.

The novel continues with the story line of the first book, with Evelyn helping at an orphanage for children of prostitutes and with Lydia and she still determined to help the prostitutes themselves. While that particular message was told much better in A Heart Most Certain, Jagears still does a good job of communicating how we should help those in need. It’s unfortunate that Heart’s message was much more impactful and prominent whereas Love’s message is much weaker and more obscure (honestly, the only thing I can think of after reading it is “Don’t keep secrets”), because even though Jagears is still a good writer, there’s a noticeable drop in quality, at least in my eyes.

The romance is good, although the ending of it is filled with too much contrivance and clichés for me to really love it. I hate that every author seems to think that they need to have one last angst-filled separation between their love interests before they can finally get together. Love’s in particular was noticeably forced—I don’t mean the reason for Evelyn and David’s separation, which I actually quite liked because Jagears subtly poked fun at what the reader was likely thinking was Evelyn’s big secret, but what came after. David, knowing his father’s ways, still decides to go along with what he says. Evelyn, knowing what David has said about his father, still actually thinks she can trust what he says. It was forced tension, incredibly contrived, and annoying. It ruined the book for me, a little.

A Love So True is not as good as its predecessor, but it’s engaging, has some good things to say (even if it’s hard to pull out an overarching theme or message), and is written well. I wish the ending hadn’t been so forced because it spoiled my enjoyment of the entirety, but if I ignore the stupid things the characters did at the end, the romance was good and the characters themselves were well-developed. At least until they were forced to act in certain ways to generate tension.

My rating: 3/5

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian

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

The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford

The Left-Handed Fate, by Kate Milford, was published in 2016 by Henry Holt.

Lucy Bluecrowne and Maxwell Ault are on a mission: find the three pieces of a strange and arcane engine they believe can stop the endless war raging between their home country of England and Napoleon Bonaparte’s France. During the search, however, their ship, the famous privateer the Left-Handed Fate, is taken by the Americans, who have just declared war on England, too. The Fate (and, with it, Lucy and Max) is put under the command of new midshipman Oliver Dexter…who’s only just turned twelve. But Lucy and Max aren’t the only ones trying to assemble the engine; the French are after it, as well as the crew of a mysterious vessel that seems able to appear out of thin air. When Oliver discovers what his prisoners are really up to—and how dangerous the device could be if it falls into the wrong hands—he is faced with a choice: Help Lucy and Max even if it makes him a traitor to his own country? Or follow orders and risk endangering countless lives, including those of the enemies who have somehow become his friends?

Rating: 5/5

Kate Milford has done it again. I loved her book Greenglass House and The Left-Handed Fate is—nearly—as perfect. It’s a well-written, intriguing, fascinating historical fiction with hints (and more than hints) of fantasy woven through it. It gives a great deal of information about the War of 1812 and seamanship in general. Every character is interesting and they interact in ways that are believable in each circumstance they run into.

Apparently this book is a continuation/companion of other books Milford has written about Nagspeake, but it’s not necessary to have read them. I had no trouble at all understanding the world and I have only read Greenglass House before this one. There is enough explained with the characters that nothing seems missing; backstory is given when necessary and when not, small details are given that fill in possible gaps. Milford does a great job of bringing in an audience who may not be familiar with her other books.

I said The Left-Handed Fate was nearly perfect, so now here’s the ways I felt it faltered a bit—not enough to drop its rating, ultimately, but enough for me to comment on.

First, there’s a conversation between Liao and Max that is really odd, or maybe teeth-clenching irritating, or simply nonsensical. Basically, Liao believes that weapons have feelings and that they like it better if they’re used for good rather than evil, which makes absolutely no sense but he’s nine, so whatever. Then Max starts thinking about cannons/gunpowder being chemical reactions and then thinks about how people are exactly like that. Yes, people are exactly like cannons. Just chemical reactions. That explains why we have thoughts and emotions. You know, just like cannons. *eyeroll*

Second, the whole Copley thing is very hard to believe. Even harder to believe than a black ship that appears out of nowhere. I mean, the latter is clearly magic. The former is…some combination of magic and science fiction? An artificial intelligence brought to life by a golden elixir? I don’t know—for some reason, I had a hard time accepting that part of the book. I can do ghostly black ships and blue lights appearing out of nowhere. I can’t do a computer that functions on magical juice.

However, those flaws are not serious enough to significantly affect my liking of The Left-Handed Fate. Overall, I thought it was well written, engaging, and a wonderful historical fiction novel.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

“I had that piece for years,” Jeton said. “It was brought to me damaged and the repairs were complicated, but they only took as long as they did because I made them take that long. I strung the work out as long as I possibly could, in hopes that your father would answer my letter or turn up. If either he or you had managed to get here before war had been declared, you could have had it, and welcome. I would have lied to the owner, claimed the shop had been robbed—I had the whole story worked out. But you didn’t arrive in time.”

“My father couldn’t come because he was dead,” Max retorted. “It made traveling difficult for him, you understand.”

Jeton’s eyes hardened at the sarcasm. “It was more than a year and a half ago that your father passed, may he rest in peace.”

“I came as soon as I could!” Max said wretchedly. “And then we were attacked twice in the Chesapeake. If not for that, we should have been here before—”

“But you weren’t here, and we are at war, and I will not turn traitor. There are those who might do it, but I am not one of them.”

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