How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell, was published in 2003 by Little, Brown and Company.

Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III is a truly extraordinary Viking hero known throughout Vikingdom as “the Dragon Whisperer”…but it wasn’t always so. Travel back to the days when the mighty warrior was just a boy, the quiet and thoughtful son of the Chief of the Hairy Hooligans. Can Hiccup capture a dragon and train it without being torn limb from limb? Join the adventure as the small boy finds a better way to train his dragon and becomes a hero!

How to Train Your Dragon is one of my favorite movies (along with its sequel), so when I saw the book I knew that I had to read it, if only to see what it was like. I can’t say I’m quite surprised at how vastly different HTTYD the book is from HTTYD the movie (the movie basically takes the characters and the setting and creates an entirely new plot), but it was a little jarring to dive into the book and see that all the things I loved about the movie were not in the book at all.

For example, Toothless is not a Night Fury in the book. He’s just a little dragon with an attitude problem. And Hiccup’s training the dragons is not what sets him apart from the others in the book; it’s the methods he uses (all those on Berk train dragons in the book). There’s also numerous other differences, and none of that means that the book (or the movie) is bad, of course—it was just jarring.

Also, the book is silly to the utmost degree. I read it and thought, “Wow, I can see 8- to 12-year-old boys really liking this book.” It was a fun book, but too silly—too childish, really—for me to enjoy completely. In fact, after I finished reading it, I had no desire to get any of the other books. I liked the book, but it was too silly for me, and the bratty dragons were annoying.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Children’s

“Let’s see what pathetic creature Hiccup has got,” said Snotlout, and took off the lid.

“Oh, this is BRILLIANT—look at it!” said Snotlout, when he finally got his breath back from laughing. “What IS it, Hiccup? A brown bunny rabbit with wings? A flower fairy? A fluffy flying frog? Gather round everybody and see the magnificent animal that Our Future Leader has caught himself!”

“Oh, Hiccup, you are useless,” crowed Speedifist. “You’re the son of a CHIEF, for Thor’s sake. Why didn’t you get one of those new Monstrous Nightmares with the six-foot wing-span and the extra-extendable claws? They’re really mean killers, they are.”

I have one,” grinned Snotlout, gesturing to the terrifying-looking, flame-red animal fast asleep in his basket. “I think I shall call her FIREWORM. What are you going to call yours, Hiccup? Sweetums? Sugarlips? Babyface?”

Hiccup’s dragon took this particular moment to give a huge yawn, opening his tiny mouth wide to reveal a flickering, forked tongue, very pink gums, and ABSOLUTELY NO TEETH AT ALL.

Snotlout laughed so hard, Speedifist had to hold him upright.

Overall Review:

My love for the film How to Train Your Dragon means that it was very jarring to read the book, where there is very little in common except for the names and the setting. I enjoyed the book, but I found the whole thing entirely too silly for me. I don’t know if I would pick up any of the other books.

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A Pocket Full of Murder by R. J. Anderson

A Pocket Full of Murder, by R. J. Anderson, was published in 2015 by Atheneum.

In the spell-powered city of Tarreton, the wealthy have all the magic they desire while the working class can barely afford a simple spell to heat their homes. Twelve-year-old Isaveth is poor, but she’s also brave, loyal, and zealous in the pursuit of justice—which is lucky, because her father has just been wrongfully arrested for murder. Isaveth is determined to prove his innocence. Quiz, the eccentric, eyepatch-wearing street boy who befriends her, swears he can’t resist a good mystery. Together, they set out to solve the magical murder of one of Tarreton’s most influential citizens and to save Isaveth’s beloved papa from execution. But each clue is more perplexing than the last. Was the victim really killed by Common Magic—the kind of crude, cheap spell that only an unschooled magician would use—or was his death merely arranged to appear that way? And is Quiz truly helping Isaveth out of friendship, or does he have hidden motives of his own?

While I think A Pocket Full of Murder is highly inventive in some places—the whole idea of baking magic is fascinating and original (at least from what I’ve read)—it suffers from what a lot of middle grade fantasy books suffer from: its world is too big for the length of the book. As a result, a lot of the worldbuilding is dumped all at once, and then the rest comes in random patches, occasionally in places where it’s not even important or relevant. The world is also not incredibly inventive outside of its magical system; the day a middle grade fantasy world of this type doesn’t have a disparity between rich and poor and the main conflict is about the divide between them and the poor wanting equal representation and there’s lots of comments about the rich not caring at all and how evil the rich are, etc., etc. is the day I fall off my chair in shock.

A Pocket Full of Murder also has a maddeningly obvious plot to the point where I could accurately predict what each character would say and how they would react to an event. It’s beyond obvious what Quiz’s secret is; it’s beyond obvious what the villain of the novel would say to Isaveth to get her to stop snooping around; and it’s beyond obvious what the final resolution of the novel will be.

Not only is it maddeningly obvious, it’s also at times unrealistic. The fact that a housekeeper would let a twelve-year-old poke around a study where a murder happened because the twelve-year-old goes all Sherlock Holmes on her is beyond belief. Were we supposed to actually believe that the housekeeper thought a girl would be able to pick up any clues that the police didn’t? Because I didn’t. It read more like “the plot demands this should happen so it will, regardless of whether it’s believable or not.”

A Pocket Full of Murder, while imaginative and fresh in parts, has one of the most predictable plots I’ve read in a while, suffers from uneven worldbuilding and stilted writing, and has a lack of believability during its important moments. In no way did I believe a twelve-year-girl could solve a mystery like this one or come to the conclusions that Isaveth did. It’s a great little uplifting story at face value—the twelve-year-old solves a mystery the incompetent and/or corrupt adults could not—but the whole thing reeked of giant leaps in logic and coincidence and Isaveth connecting random dots correctly and jumping to conclusions that somehow always managed to be partially or fully right. Perhaps some readers might buy its believability—but not me.

Rating: 2/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Mystery, Middle Grade

“But I could help.” Quiz followed her down the steps. “I’m good at getting people to talk. I might even be able to find out who discovered the…body.” His voice wavered, but it took him only a second to recover. “Anyway, I want to.”

“Why?” asked Isaveth, turning back to him. “You don’t know my father—you barely even know me. And if you’re trying to make up for yesterday, you’ve already done that several times over. Don’t you have other things to do?”

Quiz reddened and tugged at his eyepatch. “Well, I did say I’m terribly nosy. And I can’t resist a mystery. You must have guessed that ‘Quiz’ is short for ‘inquisitive’?”

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The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, was first published in 1908.

Meet little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. Over one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they’ve become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures—in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood—continue to capture readers’ imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie.

There’s something about illustrated books that just sing to me, especially if they are color illustrations. I’ve been eyeing the illustrated A Treasury of Children’s Literature for a while now; not because of the stories it contains, but because of those magnificent full-page illustrations. And don’t get me started on the fully illustrated editions of Harry Potter being published. And the edition of The Wind in the Willows I read (the Centennial Anniversary Edition published by Atheneum, illustrated by Ernest Shepard) had both black-and-white and color illustrations, which made the book that much more special for me to read.

The Wind in the Willows is a book about the desire to leave home and discover new things—but it’s also about returning home. Mole and Rat and Toad all experience longing for something else, something new, something beyond what they already know—and all in different ways, Toad especially. Toad’s longing is more unhealthy than Mole’s and Rat’s, especially since he lets his pride carry him along. But in the end, even Toad learns the pleasure of having a home to return to after one goes adventuring. And while Mole’s longing comes along more naturally, Rat’s is almost forced upon him, as somebody else incites—enchants—longing within him. It’s amazing that a book about talking animals that often makes no sense in terms of world can be so evocative in terms of image and meaning.

And yes, the world does make no sense, at least to me. Animals that aren’t normally carnivores eat meat, coexist with humans, and are almost exactly like humans themselves except in appearance? Huh? I kept wondering, “But wait—how did the world get this way?” because that’s what I like to know about the world of my books. So not having that answer disgruntled me, even if this is a children’s book and the questions I want answered are not necessarily the ones that children want answered. And I can see children getting a lot of joy out of this book, especially with Mr. Toad’s adventures with the cars (heck, I got a lot of joy out of it!).

Something that crossed my mind while reading: I wonder if this book is where Brian Jacques got some of his inspiration for Redwall. The Wind in the Willows is like Redwall set in the early 20th century, sort of.

Also, the scene when Toad first encounters the motor-car (one of my favorite scenes in the book) is the only thing I remember about the Disney movie that was loosely adapted from this book. And it’s almost as silly in the book as it is in the movie.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: The word “ass” is used a couple of times (as in, “Don’t be an ass!”)

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy, Realistic

Far behind them they heard a faint warning hum, like the drone of a distant bee. Glancing back, they saw a small cloud of dust, with a dark centre of energy, advancing on them at incredible speed, while from out the dust a faint “Poop-poop” wailed like an uneasy animal in pain. Hardly regarding it, they turned to resume their conversation, when in an instant (as it seemed) the peaceful scene was change, and with a blast of wind and a whirl of sound that made them jump for the nearest ditch, it was on them! The “poop-poop” rang with a brazen shout in their ears, they had a moment’s glimpse of an interior of glittering plate-glass ad rich morocco, and the magnificent motor-car, immense, breath-snatching, passionate, with its pilot tense and hugging his wheel, possessed all earth and air for the fraction of a second, flung an enveloping cloud of dust that blinded and enwrapped them utterly, and then dwindled to a speck in the far distance, changed back into a droning bee once more.…

Toad sat straight down in the middle of the dusty road, his legs stretched out before him, and stared fixedly in the direction of the disappearing motor-car. He breathed short, his face wore a placid, satisfied expression, and at intervals he faintly murmured “Poop-poop!”

Overall Review:

The Wind in the Willows is an utterly charming book, even with the incomprehensible (to me) world and a somewhat slap-dash plot (but still a plot!). Some of my favorite scenes are the encounter with the motor-car and the taking back of Toad Hall from the stoats and weasels. It’s a book that both shows the wonders that come from leaving home and the comfort that coming back brings.

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The Magnolia Duchess by Beth White

Disclaimer: The Magnolia Duchess, by Beth White, was provided by Revell in exchange for an honest review.

Fiona can scarcely take in the news of her brother’s capture and imprisonment by the British Navy. It is almost as unbelievable as the half-drowned British sailor who is washed ashore on the beach of Navy Cove. Charlie Kincaid claims to have no memory of his life before being discovered by Fiona, but in a world that seems saturated with treachery, she cannot be sure he is telling the truth. As Charlie’s memory returns in agonizing jags and crashes, he and Fiona discover that falling in love may be as inevitable as the tide. But when political allegiances collide, they’ll have to decide where their true loyalties lie.

The Magnolia Duchess is the sequel to The Creole Princess, which I quite liked for its historicity. The Magnolia Duchess had the same historicity to it and told me a lot about the war of 1812 which I didn’t know before, which was nice. I like White’s dedication to conveying an accurate representation of the time period and of the war and conflict going on, and also showing us a closer look at how important the Gulf Coast was in wars like the War of 1812.

The romance was all right, although much heavier than I remember it being in The Creole Princess. Seriously, Fiona and Charlie spend a lot of time kissing. I think I would have liked the romance aspect better if I had liked Charlie more, but I had a very hard time liking him. He was a bit too smug and proud at too many moments for me to really want to root for Fiona and him to get together. There were a couple of other romances in the novel, too, but they were glanced over and weren’t as developed as the “main” one of Charlie and Fiona.

Since one of the things I liked the least about The Creole Princess were the time jumps, I was pleased to see that, while still incorporating the time jumps, White did a much better job of explaining the gaps and how characters got to certain points. And while some of the characters are treated as if the reader is supposed to know them already (since this is one of those “let’s follow the family down through the years” series), White does a pretty good job of reminding the reader who they are (although that didn’t stop me from getting hopelessly confused more than once). However, I am upset that we never got to see Sullivan reunite with his family. That was a pretty important part of the novel at the beginning and then it was brushed aside for the romance.

So, overall, I found The Magnolia Duchess a pleasant read. I didn’t like Charlie all that much, and I thought the secondary romances were unnecessary and rushed, but I did enjoy Fiona’s escapades and her determination (although I have no clue why she decided to go to New Orleans besides the fact that the plot demanded it). I also particularly enjoyed, for some reason, puzzling over why Fiona told Charlie not to tell anyone he was British when anyone could tell he was by virtue of his accent. Then I realized that a ton of people probably sounded like he did because, duh, America was full of immigrants, many of them from Britain. Don’t ask me why I found that fun to puzzle over and then figure out—I just did! Anyway, White has a nice little historical romance series going on, and I’m interested to see where it goes next.

My rating: 3/5

Warnings: War, violence, death.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian

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The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

The Sword of Summer, by Rick Riordan, was published in 2015 by Hyperion.

Magnus Chase has seen his share of trouble. Ever since that terrible night two years ago when his mother told him to run, he has lived alone on the streets of Boston, surviving by his wits, staying one step ahead of the police and truant officers. One day, Magnus learns that someone else is trying to track him down—his Uncle Randolph, a man his mother had always warned him about. When Magnus tries to outmaneuver his uncle, he falls right into his clutches. Randolph starts rambling about Norse history and Magnus’s birthright: a weapon that has been lost for thousands of years. The more Randolph talks, the more puzzle pieces fall into place. Stories about the gods for Asgard, wolves, and Doomsday bubble up from Magnus’s memory. But he doesn’t have time to consider it all before a fire giant attacks the city, forcing him to choose between this own safety and the lives of hundreds of innocents….Sometimes, the only way to start a new life is to die.

I’ve read every Percy Jackson book. I’ve read the Kane Chronicles (probably my favorite of Riordan’s works). And even though I had major problems with the Heroes of Olympus series, I decided to read at least this first book in Riordan’s new series, this one about Norse mythology.

And I was disappointed to find out that Riordan is doing pretty much exactly the same thing as he did with Percy Jackson. The Sword of Summer is exactly like Percy Jackson, except with Norse gods instead of Greek. Annabeth Chase even puts in an appearance, for no apparent reason beyond fanservice. I get it. Percy Jackson is very popular, and I liked the books when I was younger. But I’m older now, and while I was reading I was having a very hard time taking the book—and Riordan—seriously.

The problem with The Sword of Summer (and with Percy Jackson and even the Kane Chronicles at times) is that beyond the nonstop humor and shenanigans, there is very little of substance. What we get instead is Magnus reminding us over and over (and over and over) again that he’s homeless and Riordan’s writing being incredibly not-so-subtle in every way . That might be great for twelve-year-old boys, but I’m to the point where a book so clearly aimed at a particular audience does not grab me.

I’m also disappointed with Riordan’s apparent lack of imagination. What I liked most about the Kane Chronicles was that the interaction between the gods and the humans and how the protagonists got their powers was different from what we’d seen in Percy Jackson. Yet in Magnus Chase, we get exactly what we saw in Percy Jackson, which seemed like Riordan was merely recycling old material because it worked for him the first time. And that seems a little lazy to me.

There were a few things I liked about The Sword of Summer, such as Odin’s appearance at the end, but for the most part I found the humor tedious and annoying, the world unimaginative and the book as a whole a carbon copy of “the Percy Jackson formula.” I doubt I’ll pick up the next book in the series.

Rating: 2/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“How can this place have five hundred and forty floors?” I said. “It would be the tallest building in the world.”

“If it only existed in one world, yes. But it connects with all the Nine Worlds. You just came through the Midgard entrance. Most mortals do.”

“Midgard…” I vaguely remembered something about the Vikings believing in nine different worlds. Randoph had used the term worlds too. But it had been a long time since my mom read me those Norse bedtime stories. “You mean, like, the world of humans.”

“Aye.” Hunding took a breath and recited, “Five hundred and forty floors has Valhalla; five hundred and forty doors leading out into the Nine Worlds.”

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Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones

Dark Lord of Derkholm, by Diana Wynne Jones, was published in 1998 by Greenwillow.

What does it feel like to have your world devastated by offworld tourists? Not good. Querida, High Chancellor of Wizards’ University, has received more than one million letters from wizards, farmers, soldiers, elves, dragons, and kings, all begging her to put a stop to Mr. Chesney’s pilgrim Parties. Querida takes a small group to consult the Oracles about getting rid of Mr. Chesney for good. The first person you see, they are told, must be this year’s Dark Lord, and the second person must be the Wizard Guide. The first two people they see are Wizard Derk and his son Blade. What does it feel like to suddenly be Dark Lord? Dreadful. Wizard Derk, who has spent much of his life peacefully breeding griffin, winged horses, flying pigs, invisible cats, and intelligent geese, is horrified to find he has to rebuild his house as an evil fortress and knock down a nearby village. And what does it feel like when most of your brothers and sisters are griffins? Interesting. Blade and Shona, Derk’s human children, share their home with five griffins. When Derk has an accident with a dragon, all his children, human and griffin, are forced to do the Dark Lord’s work for their father. Things do not go well. And what does it feel like to be a Wizard Guide to a Pilgrim Party? Frantic. When Blade at last gets to conduct his party of offworld tourists around the continent, he is almost glad that Shona decides to come, too. Even so, things go from bad to worse, until it seems unlikely that even Querida can help.

Another of my favorite Diana Wynne Jones’s novels, Dark Lord of Derkholm is Jones’s proverbial wink-and-nudge at common fantasy tropes. It’s set in the world that she describes in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland, where she basically deconstructs fantasy tropes from the “tourist’s” point of view, and in Dark Lord, she sets it from Fantasyland’s world’s point of view and further deconstructs fantasy tropes. Furthermore, Dark Lord is almost like looking at fantasy tropes from a writer’s point of view, having to come up with new and improved things every time yet still trying to make them quintessentially the same. It’s a fabulously meta book.

Dark Lord, besides its deconstruction and almost satirical look at fantasy, also is pure Jones through and through—a complex plot, where many things don’t fall together until the very end, humor (although not as prevalent as in other books, or maybe just more subtle), and a fascinating world with memorable characters.

The book is certainly one of Jones’s better (and more memorable) novels, but it’s not her best. The plot rambles on in the middle and some things really do come out of left field at the end, even for Jones. And the multiple viewpoints means that there’s a lot of jumping around (even in time!) and it can be confusing at times to remember where each person’s narrative is and at what point in the story. Luckily, the charm of Dark Lord lies in its deconstruction of fantasy, not in its mechanics.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence, death, one scene with the Dark Lord’s army and Shona that would probably fly over a younger reader’s head but for an older one is legitimately terrifying and awful.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

The next part was truly difficult. Try as he might, Derk could not get the Pilgrims even to attempt to kill him. He bellowed with sinister laughter; he loomed over them uttering threats; he adopted a toneless, chilling voice and explained that he was about to toss each of them into this bottomless pit flaming with balefire. This pit. Here. Then he went and stood invitingly beside the trench. But they simply stood and stared at him. It was not for nearly a quarter of an hour, until Finn managed to cannon into the woman who happened to be in front, causing her to stumble against Derk with a scream, that Derk was able to consider the deed done. In the greatest relief he threw up his arms and toppled sideways into his trench.

Overall Review:

Dark Lord of Derkholm is a fascinating, funny, almost satirical look at fantasy tropes, taken from another book of Jones’s, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. If you’re familiar with fantasy, you’ll likely find yourself giggling with glee over what Jones does—and forgiving the book its rambling middle and sudden plot reveals.

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Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey

Deadweather and Sunrise, by Geoff Rodkey, was published in 2012 by Putnam.

It’s tough to be thirteen, especially when somebody’s trying to kill you. Not that Egg’s life was ever easy, growing up on sweaty, pirate-infested Deadweather Island with no company except an incompetent tutor and a pair of unusually violent siblings who hate his guts. But when Egg’s father hustles their family off on a mysterious errand to fabulously wealthy Sunrise Island, then disappears with the siblings in a freak accident, Egg finds himself a long-term guest at the mansion of the glamorous Pembroke family and their beautiful, sharp-tongued daughter Millicent. Finally, life seems perfect. Until someone tries to throw him off a cliff. Suddenly, Egg’s running for his life in a bewildering world of cutthroat pirates, villainous businessmen, and strange Native legends. The only people who can help him sort out the mystery of why he’s been marked for death are Millicent and a one-handed, possibly deranged cabin boy. Come along for the ride. You’ll be glad you did.

This book reminded me a little bit of Treasure Island, if only for the pirates, treasure, and the adventures of a boy. And if you like those things, you might enjoy this book as well—although, if you’re like me, you’ll find too many other things that annoy you. I will say, though, that I did like the world. It’s set in a sort of fantasy Caribbean, and the world is similar to the world of the 1800s—and yet not.

Rodkey’s humor is interesting, in that I could so easily tell that he was trying to be funny—and yet, I found his humor more tiring than funny. It felt pat and obvious and many times I found myself thinking, “Of course he said that” because Egg is the sort of Plucky, Awkward Boy Hero who would say those sorts of things. It’s formulaic and I, personally, found it boring.

I also could not stand Millicent. Possibly my least favorite iteration of Spunky Girl is the one that gives the Spunky Girl a healthy dose of “bratty to the point of annoyance.” Perhaps I’m not fond of Spunky Girl much at all because it’s so difficult to make the girl lively without also making her bratty or annoying. And Millicent was annoying from the moment she appeared to the last moment we saw her, which made me like Egg even less for having a crush on her.

Finally, I’m disappointed—and a little frustrated—at the way the plot dragged on and then resolved. The whole book is set up like a treasure hunt, but then the resolution is very unsatisfactory (at least to me) and made me feel as if all the stuff that Egg went through was pointless, especially all the stuff in the middle that was a trudge to get through.

Rating: 2/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Guns, some violence, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Millicent piped up. “The Fire King! Hutmatozal. Don’t you know the legend?”

“No. Sorry. Is he Rovian?”

Pembroke chuckled. “Oh, heavens, no. He was a savage. Ruled the Natives in this area about ah undred years ago. Your father and I—”

“You don’t know about the Fire King’s treasure? OR the Fist of Ka? It’s absolutely—”

“Millicent.” Pembroke stopped her with a little wave of his fingers. Then he turned back to me. “Your father and I were speaking. He showed me a parchment he had with him. In Native writing. Do you know where it came from?”

Overall Review:

Deadwather and Sunrise, despite the Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean vibes given off because of its world, has a slow plot, a disappointing resolution, and annoying characters. I found it interesting in the beginning, lost interest in the middle, and then just found it aggravating at the end. Good world, bad execution.

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The Inheritance by Michael Phillips

Disclaimer: The Inheritance, by Michael Phillips, was provided by Bethany House in exchange for an honest review.

The death of clan patriarch Macgregor Tulloch has thrown the tiny Shetland Islands community of Whales Reef into turmoil. Everyone assumed Tulloch’s heir to be his much-loved grandnephew David. But when no will is discovered, David’s calculating cousin Hardy submits his own claim to the inheritance, an estate that controls most of the island’s land. And Hardy knows a North Sea oil investor who will pay dearly for that control. While the competing claims are investigated, the courts have frozen the estate’s assets, leaving many of the locals in dire financial straits. The future of the island—and its traditional way of life—hangs in the balance. Meanwhile, Loni Ford enjoys a rising career in a large investment firm in Washington, D. C. Yet, in spite of outward success, she is privately plagued by questions of identity. Orphaned as a young child, she was raised by her grandparents, and while she loves them dearly, she feels completely detached from her roots. That is, until a mysterious letter arrives from a Scottish solicitor…

I was so intrigued by the blurb of The Inheritance that I was excited when I received it in the mail. At last, I thought. A book that promises to be different from the run-of-the-mill Christian historical fiction novels. An inheritance up for grabs? An unknown heiress? An old country town? I was ready to dive in and see what the book held in store for me.

I was hoping for something like The Lost Heiress. What I got was a dense, incomprehensible story that meandered to and fro between David’s walks around the island and Loni’s continual refusal to acknowledge the past. I was lost by the second chapter, where some boy and some man sit and look at a dead bird and wax philosophical about it.

I hung on for a little bit, hoping that Loni would get her letter and things would pick up. But, eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. I stopped reading about 1/3 of the way through. Loni still hadn’t gotten her letter. Skimming ahead, I noticed she doesn’t even get into until about 3/4s of the way through the book, at which point I felt so immensely cheated by the blurb and the book as a whole that my decision to put it down unfinished solidified.

So, yes, I didn’t finish The Inheritance. It badly needed an editor to cut out all those chapters of incomprehensible material, and I am displeased that what made me so excited about the book in the first place, the concept of a “lost heiress” and a woman going to a tiny island without knowing the customs, etc. and having to earn the respect of the people she must take care of, wasn’t even present. The Inheritance simply didn’t deliver.

My rating: 1/5

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Christian

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Talking to Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Talking to Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede, was first published in 1985 by Harcourt. It is the sequel to Calling on Dragons.

Always be polite to dragons! That’s what Daystar’s mother taught him…and it’s a very wise lesson—one that might just help him after his mom hands him a magic sword and kicks him out of the house. Especially because his house sits on the edge of the Enchanted Forest and his mother is Queen Cimorene. But the tricky part is figuring out what he’s supposed to do with the magic sword. Where is he supposed to go? And why does everyone he meets seem to know who he is? It’s going to take a particularly hotheaded fire-witch, a very verbose lizard, and a badly behaved baby dragon to help him figure it all out. And those good manners certainly won’t hurt!

The most fascinating thing about Talking to Dragons is that although it is book four in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, it was actually written first. So, basically, Wrede wrote this book, then five or so years later she decided to write three prequels, and Talking was edited to fit—things like Telemain’s technobabble weren’t in the first edition (and this is also probably why Talking has a lack of fairy tale references as opposed to the first three). Wrede worked backward off of this book to give us the material in the first three, which I find fascinating, personally.

Talking is much more Hero Quest-oriented than the other three books: Daystar is given a sword and is sent off on a quest, only he doesn’t know anything about it. But even though it’s more of a familiar trope than the other books, Wrede still manages to make it her own. I love the lizard, Suz, and the dragon that accompanies Daystar and Shiara on their quest. The part with the princess and the knight is especially funny.

And, yes, since this was written first, there is some slight plot discontinuity with the other three books, such as some things dealing with the sword, the number of Morwen’s cats (although I suppose that a couple could have died, or she could have given kittens away as she did with Nightwitch), and some of the mechanics behind the imprisonment of Mendanbar. But I really enjoy Talking all the same, even if it is a little different from the others.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“It sounds a lot like Antorell,” I said finally.

“Antorell?” Shiara asked.

‘The wizard that Mother melted. She said he might try to make trouble for me in a day or two.”

“Oh, great. All we need is another wizard looking for us.”

The Princess didn’t seem to be following the conversation at all. “Alas!” she said finally. “There is nothing left for me but grief. I have no means now to save my love, so I shall die with him. I shall fling myself in yonder stream and make an end.”

“You are even dumber than Daystar,” Shiara informed her. “That stream isn’t deep enough to drown in.”

Overall Review:

Talking to Dragons is the fourth and last book in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, but was actually written first, and if read first reads as a fun little story about a Hero’s Quest to save the Forest from evil wizards. Read last, of course, it’s the resolution to a three-book-long problem and feud. Either way, it’s delightful, even with its plot discontinuity.

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The Book of Wonders by Jasmine Richards

The Book of Wonders, by Jasmine Richards, was published in 2012 by Harper.

Thirteen-year-old Zardi loves to hear stories about fantastical beings long banned from the kingdom of Arribitha. But anyone who is caught whispering of their powers will feel the rage of the sultan—a terrifying tyrant who, even with his eyes closed, can see all. When her own beloved sister is captured by the evil ruler, Zardi knows that she must risk everything to rescue her. Along with Rhidan, who is her best friend, and an unlikely crew of sailors led by the infamous Captain Sinbad, Zardi ventures forth into strange and wondrous territory with a seemingly impossible mission: to bring magic back to Arribitha and defeat the sultan once and for all.

As with all the books that I feel have potential, I tried to like The Book of Wonders—but in the end, I just couldn’t. It’s clearly a debut novel and the sort where the world dazzles and hides the fact that the rest of the novel is weak and messy. And the world in this book is dazzling—I like the Arabian Nights feel and the inclusion of Sinbad, Aladdin, and even Scheherazade. I like the nudge it makes at those legendary and mythological characters while forging ahead and creating new things out of them. And I liked, initially, the creepy and oppressive presence of the Sultan and the subversion of the “evil vizier manipulating the sultan” trope.

But the dazzling, pretty world hides many not so pretty things, like the groan-inducing moments where Richards is so obviously trying to be clever but failing (like the “Open, Sesame” bit. I’ve never rolled my eyes so hard in my life) and the moments where Zardi solves everything, beats everything, and is The Best at everything she does. It annoyed me to no end that a group of adults were noticeably more cowardly and incompetent than a thirteen-year-old girl and that even Rhidan got pushed aside to make room for Zardi Being Amazing At Everything.

Also, the Sultan was creepy at the beginning but then his character just falls flat at the end, and Zardi spends so much time on Desolation Island that I forgot completely that she was trying to rescue her sister from the Sultan (which she did in about two pages, because Zardi is The Best).

It’s a pretty novel, but so many things could have been better and the good things about it aren’t good enough to redeem it.

Rating: 2/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Zardi gasped as an image of a barren strip of land edged with high cliffs of black onyx appeared on the silver tabletop. An imposing fortress made out of the same shiny black stone rose out of the center of the isle and slashed the stormy sky like a blade. The fortress was all angles and sharp edges and had no apparent entrance. Surrounded by dark and torrid water the color of steel, this strange island was awesomely cold and dismal.

“What is this place?” Rhidan questioned.

“Your home,” Sula replied. “The Black Isle.”

Rhidan’s violet eyes seemed to fill his whole face. “B-but…Sinbad said that this place didn’t exist,” he stammered.

“My son thinks of my stories as fables and fairy tales.” Sula leaned in close, her face soft with kindness. “His instincts were right when he identified you as an Ilian. He just didn’t know it.”

Overall Review:

The Book of Wonders has an interesting world at first, but I quickly lost interest when the mechanics began going downhill. The writing is mediocre at best, groan-inducing at worst, and Zardi’s bravery/accomplishments/determination becomes tiring and Mary-Sueish when she never falters and makes everyone else seem incompetent, including the battle-hardened, adventuring adults around her. Not my cup of tea.

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