“Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” by Lemony Snicket was published in 2015 by Little, Brown and Company.
Train travel! Murder! Librarians! A Series Finale! On all other nights, the train departs from Stain’d Station and travels to the city without stopping. But not tonight. You might ask, why is this night different from all other nights? But that’s the wrong question. Instead ask, where is this all heading? And what happens at the end of the line?
I thought it appropriate to finish this series out today since I also finished A Series of Ufortunate Events on Netflix (an excellent adaptation. They also reference this book series in it).
“Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” was a little disappointing, which perhaps I should not have found surprising considering my problems with The End. However, I enjoyed the previous two books enough that I was hoping for more than what this final book gave me.
I enjoyed the semi-tribute to Murder on the Orient Express that this book gives, and more than anything I enjoy the way Lemony Snicket is fleshed out from a shadowy, mysterious figure in A Series of Unfortunate Events to a real-live person in these prequels. The choices he has to make, particularly in this book, are not easy, and the results of those choices are not easy to deal with. I wish that the “am I a villain?” doubting path had not been taken, though, since Violet, Klaus, and Sunny wonder the same thing in ASOUE and it only reminded me how these books pale in comparison.
Above all, this book is mostly too predictable and strange to make me feel great about it. It was blindingly obvious who Hangfire was, as though Snicket had gotten tired of throwing out obscure clues and had given up even attempting to hide Hangfire’s identity in this final book. And the thing with the Bombinating Beast at the end was strange and didn’t really fit the nature of these books, at least in my opinion. Also, I’m still mad at what that implies about what happens to the Quagmires in The End.
Overall, I thought All The Wrong Questions, as a whole, starts out weak, has good parts in the middle, and ends weak, with many questions resolved but almost no satisfaction in their resolution. Also, I thought for sure that Snicket’s obsession with Ellington would mean she would be revealed to be Beatrice at the end, but maybe that was just supposed to be a precursor or a hint at Snicket’s future and how he acts around certain people.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Mystery, Children’s
“But what will you do when he’s here?” I asked, after a sip of fizzy water. “Ornette’s creation looks very much like the real statue, but once it’s in Hangfire’s hands he’ll know it’s a fake.”
“Once Hangfire comes aboard,” Moxie said, “he’ll be caught like a rat in a trap. The Thistle of the Valley won’t stop again until it reaches the city, where all the prisoners on board will be brought to trial. I have all our notes on what Hangfire’s been doing in this town. Once the authorities read my report, they’ll arrest Hangfire, and Dashiell Qwerty will go free.”
The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley, was published in 1941 by Random House.
Published originally in 1941, this book is about a young boy, Alec Ramsay who finds a wild black stallion at a small Arabian port on the Red Sea. Between the black stallion and young boy, a strange understanding grew that you lead them through untold dangers as they journeyed to America. Nor could Alec understand that his adventures with the black stallion would capture the interest of an entire nation.
I attribute my love for horse racing when I was younger (that still lingers slightly today) completely to The Black Stallion and its sequels. I think the only series on horse racing I read more was Joanna Campbell’s Thoroughbred series. The Black Stallion is equal parts shipwreck story, animal-bonding story, and horse racing guide. It might not be as monumental or memorable as Black Beauty or other famous horse books, but this book will always hold a near and dear place in my heart.
The Black Stallion is the reason I was so moved by Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. That “wild horse that only one person can tame” aspect resonated with me when I read The Black Stallion when I was young, and it resonated again reading Stiefvater’s work. I’m not going to compare them beyond that, but they’re both special to me for that reason.
Walter Farley may not be the best writer, and stereotypes abound in the areas Farley clearly is not familiar with, but The Black Stallion is a dear book from my childhood, and I love it for that reason—and for many of its sequels, which are even more informative about horse racing and at times even more exciting and suspenseful than the original shipwreck story (and then there are the last couple of books, but we won’t talk about those). It’s not the best horse story, but it holds a special place in my heart all the same.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Realistic, Children’s
That night Alex lay wide awake, his body aching with pain, but his heart pounding with excitement. He had ridden the Black! He had conquered this wild, unbroken stallion with kindness. He felt sure that from that day on the Black was his—his alone! But for what—would they ever be rescued? Would he ever see his home again?
Baker’s Magic, by Diane Zahler, was published in 2016 by Capstone.
Bee is an orphan, alone in a poor, crumbling kingdom. In desperation, she steals a bun from a bakery, and to her surprise, the baker offers her a place at his shop. As she learns to bake, Bee discovers that she has a magical power. When a new friend desperately needs her help against an evil mage, Bee wonders what an orphan girl with only a small bit of magic can do. Bee’s journey to help her friend becomes a journey to save the kingdom, and a discovery of the meaning of family.
I wasn’t impressed by the first work of Zahler’s I read, The Thirteenth Princess, but the title of Baker’s Magic is what drew my eye. I can’t resist magic done through baking (my favorite part of the overall disappointing A Pocket Full of Murder), a so-far underused trope (at least in what I’ve read), so I decided to give Zahler another go. And, luckily, Baker’s Magic is a pleasant read, full of whimsy and charm.
Bee herself is a good protagonist, full of a balanced mix of both passive and active actions that combine to make a fairly capable character. I also like that her skill lies in baking, a traditionally female role, and how she uses that role to accomplish what she desires. I’m a big fan of female characters accomplishing things through the roles they are given rather than overcoming or subverting those roles, so I liked Bee and her baking magic.
Speaking of subverting roles, Captain Zay was clearly the character filling the “non-traditional role because we have to show that anyone can do anything,” but she was also great. Her vernacular was amusing, and she was funny enough and understated enough that it helped bring another aspect of whimsy and charm to the novel. Also bringing humor through language was the princess, another good character. Honestly, there weren’t any characters that I absolutely hated or thought were unnecessary—a nice change from recent reads.
So, overall, I was pleased by Baker’s Magic. There were a few little bobbles here and there, as with any book, and I didn’t like absolutely everything that was done in terms of plot, but I liked the characters, the world, and especially the magic. This might have redeemed Zahler in my mind, enough to read something else by her perhaps.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
The princess giggled. “That was the sorriest curtsy I’ve ever beheld,” she said. “Take care—you don’t want to drop those pastries!”
“They’re—they’re for you, Your Highness. Your Majesty. Your Ladyship.”
The princess laughed again. “Anika will suffice. And you are…?”
“Bee. I’m Bee.”
“What a superlative name! Perhaps I should be A for Anika, then?”
“Shouldn’t You Be in School?” by Lemony Snicket was published in 2014 by Little, Brown and Company. It is the sequel to “When Did You See Her Last?”.
Is Lemony Snicket a detective or a smoke detector?
Do you smell smoke? Young apprentice Lemony Snicket is investigating a case of arson but soon finds himself enveloped in the ever-increasing mystery that haunts the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea. Who is setting the fires? What secrets are hidden in the Department of Education? Why are so many schoolchildren in danger? Is it all the work of the notorious villain Hangfire? How could you even ask that? What kind of education have you had? Maybe you should be in school?
“Shouldn’t You Be in School?” is another good addition to the Wrong Questions series, a series that I’m enjoying more with each book. It almost makes me want to reread “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” because I might enjoy it more than I did the first time.
Beyond cameo appearances and explaining more about VFD, this book really cemented in my mind the fact that the Wrong Questions series is really just to show how incredibly clever and resilient Lemony Snicket is. It’s a wonder he never caught up to the Baudelaire children at all (except for possibly The Penultimate Peril, if you believe the theory that he was the taxi driver and took the sugar bowl away from Hotel Denouement) because as a thirteen-year-old he’s outsmarting, in some way, his enemies and his friends. The whole blank-book-library at the end kinda blew my mind a little, even if it didn’t really accomplish anything in terms of giving the protagonists a leg up on Hangfire.
This book also brings back some old, tried-and-true issues: who can you really trust? How far will someone go to protect/find someone they love? How incompent are the adults, anyway? I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how meaty these books have been, despite their silliness. And the mysteries in them are good, as well.
I’m still a little worried that the series will end without complete resolution in terms of the Bombinating Beast, Hangfire, Ellington Feint’s missing father, and all the other numerous little mysteries (Kit! The secret in the library! Ink! The music box! Books!), but I think at this point I’m too invested (and too aware of how these books go) to ultimately care much if it happens. I simply hope that the last book is as fun and as enticing of a mystery as I found “Shouldn’t You Be in School?”
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Mystery, Children’s
“The arsonist is a moth-hater, all right,” Sharon said, sipping limeade, “and my new best friend Theodora was telling me that she knew just who it was.”
“We saw him this morning,” Theodora said, “swatting moths as usual.”
“You can’t be serious,” I said. “Dashiell Qwerty is a fine librarian.”
“I’m as shocked as you are, Snicket,” Theodora said. “In our line of work we’ve learned to trust, honor, and flatter librarians. But Qwerty is clearly a bad apple in a bowl of cherries.”
“Dashiell Qwerty wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Moxie said.
“You’re not listening, girlie,” Sharon said. “He’s hurting moths.”
Kidnapped and taken to a frozen land after the fierce battle with Lord Morgarath, Will and Evanlyn are bound for Skandia as captives aboard a fearsome wolfship. Halt has sworn to rescue his young apprentice, and he will do anything to keep his promise—even defy his King. Expelled from the Rangers he has served so loyally, Halt is joined by Will’s friend Horace as he travels toward Skandia. On their way, they are challenged again and again by freelance knights—but Horace knows a thing or two about combat. Soon his skills begin to attract the attention of knights and warlords for miles around. But will he and halt be in time to rescue Will from a horrific life of slavery?
The Icebound Land steps away from its focus on Will slightly, but only in the sense that Will is not one of the third-person narrators. The story switches between the two groups of Halt and Horace and Evanlyn and Will, with both Horace and Will taking a bit of a backseat (Will moreso, with very good reason). It’s great to have Halt as a narrator, because even with Flanagan’s occasionally stilted or over-the-top writing, Halt is wonderfully snarky and incredibly awesome. He also takes care of one of the antagonists in an incredibly anticlimactic matter which only underscores his awesomeness.
This book is really only the first part of a plot that will continue in the next book, and towards the end Flanagan throws in some hints as to what is to come. It’s actually quite light on plot, overall, which is probably why Flanagan threw in Halt and Horace as viewpoint characters and gave them some enemies to face—it adds to the book and Evanlyn and Will’s plot is depressing enough that the book needs the humor that the Halt and Horace plot brings.
However, the fact that The Icebound Land is only Part 1 of 2 really shows, and not a lot happens in the book at all. Halt and Horace’s adventure is fluff and not necessary or important to their characters at all, while Evanlyn and Will’s adventure is entirely necessary, but so short that it could not possibly sustain the novel on its own. Flanagan combining the two helps it out a little, but not completely. The Icebound Land reads like the prologue to a bigger story, and not at all reads like it’s complete in itself, if that makes sense. I don’t want to say it feels unfinished, but it definitely feels a little unsatisfying when it ends and you’re left with a feeling of irresolution.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“We must answer his demand. Are you sure you’re not taking on too much?” the Ranger said. “After all, he is a fully qualified knight.”
“Well…yes,” said Horace awkwardly. He didn’t want Halt to think he was boasting. “But he’s not actually very good, is he?”
The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz, was published in 2014 by Tor.
Young Archie Dent knows there really are monsters in the world. His parents are members of the secret Septemberist Society, whose job it is to protect humanity from hideous giants called the Mangleborn. Trapped in underground prisons for a thousand years, the giant monsters have been all but forgotten—until now. Evil genius Thomas Alva Edison and his experiments in the forbidden science of electricity have awakened Malacar Ahasherat, the Swarm Queen, in the swamps of Florida. When the monster brainwashes Archie’s parents and the rest of the Septemberists, it is up to Archie and his loyal Tik Tok servant, Mr. Rivets, to assemble a team of seven young heroes to save the world: the League of Seven.
The League of Seven takes place in an alternate, steampunk America with a healthy dose of fantasy/horror elements thrown in as well. The worldbuilding is good; things are explained at their own pace yet the development never seems too fast or too slow. Some of the stranger things are handwaved a little, such as Fergus’s circuits, but overall it’s a rich world, with plenty of room for expansion in the following books.
The characters and plot are pretty good, too. I loved the twist involving the roles of the League of Seven and how it made the book deviate from the norm for this type of plot. I loved Hachi’s circus and Hachi, Fergus, and Archie are pretty good characters and mesh well together as a group. Sometimes group mechanics can be rushed, but this one was developed realistically, I thought.
However, despite all the praise I’ve given the book, The League of Seven just wasn’t particularly exciting enough for me. It was good, yes, but some of the writing and just the overall pace and development of the book made it trudge on in places that should have been exciting. I liked almost everything about the book, but the excitement level itself was not there for me. I didn’t find myself eager to rush out and get the next book. Instead, I’m left with an “Eh, I might get the next book if I remember” and that’s not really a good thought with which to leave a book. I can’t even pin down what, exactly, made it so difficult for me to enjoy The League of Seven. I suppose it just comes down to the things that I like in stories, and this book lacked some of those.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Steampunk, Middle Grade
Archie crept closer and closer to where the insects poured over the wall, then peeked over.
The abyss was covered with an enormous stone, like a lid. No, two stones: half circles that met in the middle, each with a huge letter X on it. XX. It was a door. A seal. An old one, with cracks in the stone. That’s wehre the bugs were going. They wiggled and pushed and scrunched odwn through the cracks to whatever was below.
THOOM. The ground trembled. Was it an earthquake?
THOOM. Dust and rubble shook loose from the ceiling.
THOOM. The stone seal on the wall shuddered, knocking insects onto their backs.
There was something inside the well. Underneath the stone seals.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi, was published in 1990 by Orchard/Scholastic.
In 1832, thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle is returning from her school in England to her family in America. Charlotte’s voyage takes place on the Seahawk, a seedy ship headed by a murderously cruel captain and sailed by a mutinous crew. When Charlotte gets caught up in the bitter feud between captain and crew, she winds up on trial for murder…and is found guilty!
I read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle once more than ten years ago and it stuck pretty well with me all these years. Though some of the details were muddled in my mind, I remembered very vividly one of the last lines in the book and the overall gist of the story.
It’s not that this book is particularly complex or amazing, which is usually the sort of book I remember well these days. It’s incredibly straightforward and simplistic, and Avi doesn’t leave a lot of time to develop much of the other characters beyond Charlotte. We don’t know much about anything about Charlotte’s family except that they’re pretty stereotypically Victorian upper-middle-class, which means they’re prim and proper and gasp in horror at their daughter’s adventures, and we don’t know or learn much about any of the crew members that Charlotte meets, except for Zechariah.
Yet somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter. There are no frills, no bells and whistles attached to this book. It is, as Charlotte herself will tell you, a detailed description of what happened to her—and it works, or at least it did for me. Though things happen quickly, they happen realistically. They make sense. Charlotte’s trust in Jaggery at the beginning of the book makes sense, as does her increasing unease, her heel-face-turn (and, subsequently, the crew’s), and her ultimate loyalty to the ship. I don’t even mind how it ends, because everything that came before it made sense.
I also think that Zechariah’s character is a pretty interesting one, in that he’s not the (stereo)typical portrayal of a black man in Victorian England or America. He’s the most eloquent, which I think is a good contrast for a lot of black characters we see in historical fiction that speak in dialect. It shows a different side and I like that.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a simple story, but it’s one that’s stuck with me as I grew up, and one that I expect will continue to stick with me in the years to come.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade
“Begging your pardon, miss,” the man murmured, his look more hangdog than ever. “Barlow’s the name and though it’s not my business or place to tell you, miss, some of the other’s here, Jack Tars like myself, have deputized me to say that you shouldn’t be on this ship. Not alone as you are. Not this ship. Not this voyage, miss.”
“What do you mean?” I said, frightened anew. “Why would they say that?”
“You’re being here will lead to no good, miss. No good at all. You’d be better off far from the Seahawk.”
Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. She can tread water for thirty-seven minutes. She can tie a knot faster than a fleet of sailors. She particularly enjoys defying authority, and she already owns a rather pointy sword. There’s only one problem: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates refuses to let any girl join their ranks of scourges and scallywags. Girls belong at Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies, learning to waltz, faint, and curtsy. But Hilary and her dearest friend, the gargoyle, have no use for such frivolous lessons—they are pirates! (Or very nearly.) To escape from a life of petticoats and politeness, Hilary answers a curious advertisement for a pirate crew and suddenly finds herself swept up in a seafaring adventure that may or may not involve a map with an X, a magical treasure that likely doesn’t exist, a rogue governess who insists on propriety, a crew of misfit scallywags, and the most treacherous—and unexpected—villain on the High Seas. Will Hilary find the treasure in time? Will she become a true pirate after all? And what will become of the gargoyle?
Despite the dreaded “girl defies propriety and runs away” plot trope, I really enjoyed Magic Marks the Spot. It has a tongue-in-cheek humor to it that’s quite funny (if a tad hard to swallow at times) and Carlson has a deft enough hand that I enjoyed the atmosphere of “not-quite-taking-itself-seriously” that the book displays. Sometimes those are hard to get right, but this book does it quite well.
I did find the plot a little predictable, though, and while some of the reveals may be surprising to younger readers, I doubt they would surprise older ones. I’m also disappointed at the way Hilary and Admiral Westfield’s relationship was handled—I would have liked a little more nuance and depth there rather than the ho-hum, apathetic approach we got. I doubt any girl would be able to so casually accept the things that happened as Hilary did, although maybe the tongue-in-cheek nature of the book has something to do with it.
So, even though I find the main plot trope used in this book stale and annoying, I did enjoy Magic Marks the Spot, mostly because of its humor, its cleverness (though the plot overall was predictable, there were some clever bits), and its ability to make me not care so much about the obviousness of some of the tropes used. This is a series I would like to come back to.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Miss Greyson smiled for the second time that day—the world was getting stranger and stranger by the minute—but Philomena didn’t smile back. “I’m terribly sorry,” said Philomena, “but Miss Pimm doesn’t receive visitors. You can leave Miss Westfield with me, and the porter will collect Miss Westfield’s bags.” She raised her eyebrows as the carriage driver deposited the golden traveling trunk on the doorstep. “I hope you have another pair of stockings in there.”
“I do.” Hilary met Philomena’s stare. “I have nineteen pairs, in fact. And a sword.”
Miss Greyson groaned and put her hand to her forehead.
Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo, was published in 2015 by Henry Holt.
Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone….A convict with a thirst for revenge; a sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager; a runaway with a privileged past; a spy known as the Wraith; a Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums; a thief with a gift for unlikely escapes…Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.
Six of Crows is a little bit like Ocean’s Eleven crossed with Bardugo’s Grisha universe and some romance mixed in. It’s not necessary to have read Shadow and Bone or the other two books before reading this one, but they do help to fill in some of the gaps in the worldbuilding and some of the information about Ravka in this book is easier to understand and grasp the significance of if you’ve read the Grisha trilogy.
I loved the action and the complexity of Six of Crows, though it did get a bit tiresome at the end when Bardugo pulls the “here’s what a character did but oh, wait, you don’t know the full story and the ingenious thing they just pulled off until a little bit later.” I do like a limited narrator, so it was only the repetitiveness that grated at me a little, not the concept itself. The ending of the plot was a little obvious, but the reveals were good and even the parts that were obvious were gripping and suspenseful.
I do wish the romance would have been a little bit better, and I say that knowing that many people (according to reviews on Goodreads) loved it. I felt that it was a little predictable (six characters=an obvious three pairs of couples) and though the fan-favorite couple seems to be Nina and Matthias, I must admit that theirs was the most cliché, overused romance in the book, in my opinion. I’ve read maybe thirty different variants of the “I hate her but I love her” romance in various young adult novels. I much preferred the romance of Kaz and Inej, which is, if not less overused, at least less obvious about it.
I really enjoyed Six of Crows, flaws of predictability in romance and in some aspects of the plot aside, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else is in store for Kaz and his crew. Maybe an appearance by another character from the Grisha trilogy? One can only hope!
Recommended Age Range: 16+
Warnings: Violence, mentions of drugs and prostitution, death.
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Twenty million kruge. What kind of job would this be? Kaz didn’t know anything about espionage or government squabbles, but why should stealing Bo Yul-Bayur from the Ice Court be any different form liberating valuables from a mercher’s safe? The most well-protected safe in the world, he reminded himself. He’d need a very specialized team, a desperate team that wouldn’t balk at the real possibility that they’d never come back from this job.
Raiders’ Ransom, by Emily Diamond, was published in 2009 by Chicken House/Scholastic.
It’s the 23rd century, and much of England—what once was England—is underwater. Poor Lilly is out fishing with her trusty first mate, Cat, when greedy raiders pillage the town—and kidnap the Prime Minister’s daughter. Her village blamed, Lilly decides to find the girl. Off she sails, in secret. And with a ransom: a mysterious talking jewel. If she saves the Prime Minister’s daughter, she might just stop a war. Little does Lilly know that it will take more than grit to outwit the tricky, treacherous pirate tribes!
Raiders’ Ransom is the type of novel where I enjoyed it enough to finish, but not enough to forgive perceived errors. To be honest, I’m not sure what compelled me to keep reading the book, but I did, even when halfway through I thought “Hmm…I’m not sure I want to keep reading.”
First of all, the world makes very little sense and Diamond doesn’t do much beyond vague mentions of floods and storms to establish how the world got the way it is. And floods would only account for part of the worldbuilding; things like the people’s view of technology, seacats, the “reset” to an eighteenth/nineteenth century world, and the odd division of power and property were never explained. I didn’t see any reason why, even if England had flooded, it would somehow make everyone forget/hate technology and set everything back a couple hundred of years.
Second, the voice was really annoying in this book, and by the end of it I was ready to scream any time someone said “Cos” or “But” or “And” at the start of a sentence because of how many times sentences were set up that way (clarification: I’m knocking the repetition, not the use of the word). I don’t particularly like novels written in dialect, so maybe that’s also why I had a problem with the voice/writing.
Finally, the convenience of the plot sometimes was a little too much. So Lilly just happens to be a descendant of the jewel’s former user and so she just happens to be the only person able to activate it fully? That’s incredibly far-fetched. I understand that Diamond needed some way to limit access to the jewel, but it could have been done in a less contrived way.
However, I did finish the book, and I did enjoy some of it, so maybe there’s some small amount of merit in Raiders’ Ransom, after all. A lot of the plot was pretty clever, even if it was contrived, Lilly was a good protagonist (even if the “I cut my hair and thus immediately look like a boy even though girls with short hair don’t really look like boys” moment was so contrived and unrealistic) and I think younger readers would probably really enjoy the book.