Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Tangled Webs, by Irene Hannon, from the publisher Revell. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
After a disastrous Middle East mission ends his six-year Army Ranger career, Finn McGregor needs some downtime. A peaceful month in the woods sounds like the perfect way to decompress. But peace isn’t on the agenda once he crosses paths with publishing executive Dana Lewis, a neighbor who is nursing wounds of her own. Someone seems bent on disrupting her stay in the lakeside cabin she inherited from her grandfather. As Finn and Dana work together to discover who is behind the disquieting pranks, the incidents begin to take on a menacing tone. And when it becomes apparent Dana’s foe may have deadly intent, Finn finds himself back in the thick of the action—ready or not.
Tangled Webs is a decent suspense novel, though the suspense is overshadowed by the mediocre romance. Really, this book would have been fine as a suspense novel without the predictable, boring romance—perhaps even better.
Although, the romance might have been better if Dana and Finn had been more interesting characters. But I was far more interested in the police chief than in them, and sadly, he wasn’t featured as much as those two. I found him to be an interesting character and somewhat sympathetic in that you understand why he’s doing what he’s doing and yet want to slap him over the head and wonder why he’s being so stupid. He’s relatable, which is more than I can say for cardboard Dana and Finn, Stock Characters 1 and 2, cut straight from the magazine.
Pointless romance aside, as I mentioned, the suspense was actually quite good and the whole concept of gold hiding in a lake was pretty interesting. I wish there had been a scene where everyone reads the letter the police chief left behind, but instead it’s just casually thrown out at the end—and there’s also no mention of the chief’s wife, which I found disappointing since that’s how the whole thing got started. So, overall, though the concept was good, the entire thing fell flat for me. And I’d love to read something more original than the romance portrayed in Tangled Webs, and done with more original characters. Maybe try a different magazine, Hannon.
The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon, by S. S. Taylor, was published in 2012 by McSweeney’s McMullens.
Computers have failed, electricity is extinct, and the race to discover new lands is underway! Brilliant explorer Alexander West has just died under mysterious circumstances, but not before smuggling half of a strange map to his intrepid children—Kit the brain, M.K. the tinkerer, and Zander the brave. Why are so many government agents trying to steal the half-map? (And where is the other half?) It’s up to Alexander’s children—the Expeditioners—to get to the bottom of these questions, and fast.
Although The Expeditioners starts out by dumping a little too much information about the world at once, it evens out and becomes a delightful treasure hunt novel that brought to my mind Indiana Jones, the Uncharted video game series, and Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn. I’m a fan of steampunk lite (“The Steampunk for Kids!” TM) and Taylor does a good job with introducing the world and explaining the differences—although it is, as I said, very heavy in the beginning, and I still am confused about the “how the world got this way” part.
I did like the world and the treasure hunt aspect of the book much more than the characters themselves; Kit had this awful philosophizing first-person voice that I hate, where at any lull of the novel he dwells on something and then goes on and on about it and what it means in the Grand Scheme of Things, and the other characters alternated between flat and semi-interesting continuously. The illustrations are delightful, though, and add a little bit of depth to the treasure hunt/adventure vibe of the book.
There are better treasure hunt books out there, and better steampunk worlds, but The Expeditioners does a good job of joining the two together and getting a decent treasure hunt and a decent—but highly confusing—steampunk world that helped lessen the pain that a handful of fluctuating characters and a waxing philosophic narrator brought.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Steampunk, Middle Grade
“He never returned,” he said in a quiet voice. “It began to rain the next day. Very hard. The theory was that a flash flood tore into the remote canyon where he had seen the mine shaft and the gold. He wouldn’t have stood a chance. He is presumed drowned, though his body never washed up. The canyon near where he thought he’d found the Spanish conquistadores’ store of gold, and where he was lost, is now referred to as Drowned Man’s Canyon.
“That must have been the title of the map,” I said. “So what happened? Did anyone ever find the gold?”
Zander and M. K. and I waited for the answer.
“No,” Mr. Mountmorris said finally. “Scores of men and women have gone looking for Dan Foley’s treasure, but no one has ever found it.” His eyes gleamed with a greedy delight. “But perhaps the great explorer Alexander West knew where to find the treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon.”
Charles Magnus Ven Polypheme—known as Ven—is the youngest son of a long line of famous shipwrights. He dreams not of building ships, but of sailing them to far-off lands where magic thrives. Ven gets his chance when he is chosen to direct the Inspection of his family’s latest ship—and sets sail on the journey of a lifetime. Attacked by fire pirates, lost at sea, and near death, Ven is rescued by a passing ship on its way to the island of Serendair. Thankful to be alive, little does Ven know that the pirate attack—and his subsequent rescue—may not have been an accident. Shadowy figures are hunting for the famed Floating Island, the only source of the mystical Water of Life. They think Ven can lead them to this treasure and will stop at nothing to get it—even murder.
The thing that most upset me about The Floating Island was that there’s a dragon on the cover of the book, but there’s no dragon in the book. Publishers, you can’t taunt me with a dragon and then not give me a dragon! Why would you do such a cruel thing? On the same note, don’t taunt me with Brett Helquist illustrations and then only give me one single picture!
More seriously, The Floating Island is pretty good. It’s much more horror/mystery than it is straight fantasy, and some parts of it actually reminded me of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. Some of the plot points had me a little disgruntled and I didn’t really enjoy the “they’re good guys; no, they’re bad guys; no they’re good guys” back and forth that was going on, but despite its predictability the plot moved along quite well.
The worldbuilding was good, too, and although I’m not really that big of a fan of the “the author is going to pretend that he/she ‘restored the documents’” layout of a book, I thought it worked well here. However, the ping-ponging between journal entries in first person and Ven’s narrative in third person was a little jarring at points, and I’m confused as to why the journals even had to be there in the first place (they seem entirely unnecessary to the storytelling to me and are simply a part of the “author restored the documents” shtick).
Overall, though, The Floating Island is a pretty good fantasy—and it stands out a little more for the horror/mystery aspect of it. I’m not fond of it, and I don’t find it particularly memorable, but it was good enough that I may pick up the next book…if I can finally get that dragon they promised me on the cover of this book.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: The horror is pretty tame, so no worries there.
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
At the very bottom of the cave was a small pond filled with moving silver water, surrounded only by glowing moss. Ven thought back to the conch shell and realized that this was where the crown of the shell would be. Oliver was crouched over it, looking down into the water.
“This spring is fed by ice deep below,” he said softly. “Ice left over from the earliest days of the world.” He reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a small flask, carved from what look liked crystal. He pulled out the stopper and poured a thin stream of blue water into the moss, then dipped the flask into the silver spring. He drew it back quickly, stoppered it again, then put the flask back in his pocket, rubbing his hands together to warm them up.
Nick and Eryn’s mom is getting remarried, and the twelve-year-old twins are skeptical when she tells them their lives won’t change much. Well, yes, she says they will have to move. And they will have a new stepfather, stepbrother, and stepsister. But don’t worry, Mom assures the kids. They won’t ever have to meet their stepsiblings….For Nick and Eryn, this news begins a quest to find out who these other kids are—and why they’re being kept hidden.
I used to love Margaret Peterson Haddix, but I’ve found her most recent novels to be underwhelming. Under Their Skin is a mess from start to finish. It felt rushed and incomplete, and it breaks absolutely no new ground in any genre, let alone science fiction.
My main problem with Under Their Skin was not just the incomprehensibility of the plot, but the whole idea behind it. Recently, there’s been a trend to try and justify the treatment of non-humans as human, which means you get a lot of “but robots are people too!” arguments that tend to fall flat on their faces once you look past the surface. Under Their Skin tries to tackle this idea in the same way and fails spectacularly. I understand if Nick and Eryn are hesitant about destroying something that’s close to them, but don’t say that it’s “vile and cruel and inhuman” to destroy a machine. It’s not. Maybe wasteful, maybe a poor idea considering the circumstances, but certainly not “cruel.”
I think, however, that even if that idea was not present in this novel, I would not have enjoyed it anyway. The whole book feels rushed, as if it was written in a very short amount of time, and it’s hardly high quality middle grade caliber. It wasn’t interesting, it wasn’t exciting. It was odd and stilted and annoying and boring. Under Their Skin makes me not want to pick up anything written by Haddix, which is a shame because I used to quite like her older books.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Science Fiction, Middle Grade
“At least now we’ve seen pictures of Ava and Jackson,” Nick said.
“Yeah…,” Eryn said. She thought for a moment. “But didn’t something about those pictures seem kind of weird?”
“They looked like normal kids to me,” Nick said, finally turning around to look at her.
“That’s the problem,” Eryn said. “Didn’t they look maybe too normal? Like those pictures you see in frames at stories where it’s just some actors or models trying too hard to look like normal people?”
When Will and Bet were four, tragic circumstances brought them to the same house, to be raised by a wealthy gentleman as brother and sister. Now sixteen, they appear content with the life fate has bestowed upon them. But appearances can be deceiving. Bet can experience only what society allows for a girl. Will is afforded much more freedom, but still only as society dictates. Neither is happy. So Bet comes up with a plan and persuades Will to give it a try: She’ll go to school as Will. Will can live as he chooses. But when she arrives at school, the reality doesn’t match what Bet imagined. Boys act very differently when they don’t think there’s a girl in their midst. In fact, they can be rather brutish. But brutish Bet can deal with. It’s the stirrings of attraction for her roommate that get Bet into real trouble. This is not the education Bet expected.
I can’t believe there was once a time when I thought the “girl who dresses up as a boy” trope was interesting. Bloody Jack is the only book I’ve read recently where I don’t mind it. I might have enjoyed it more in The Education of Bet if that trope wasn’t paired with the “disguised girl falls in love with roommate/best friend/person who thinks she’s a boy leading to awkward situations” as well as a completely obvious plot twist that I could see coming from the first chapter of the book.
I liked Bet well enough as a character, and the odd things she says in disguise are pretty fun, but the disguise plot with the addition of the “rebel against society” trope was enough to make me regret reading it almost as soon as I started. Luckily, the book is relatively short, and the parts at school really aren’t all that bad even if they’re a little stereotypical.
I can see some people loving The Education of Bet if they really like the premise of it. It’s a classic “girl is frustrated at lack of freedom society gives her, so she Decides To Do Something About It and disguises herself as a boy to get an “education” (although Bet is far from uneducated, so pretty much she just wants to do What The Boys Are Doing) and then falls in love with her roommate, surprise surprise” plot, and that does appeal to some people—but not me.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: Bet stuffs some socks down her pants, gets groped by prostitutes, and then canoodles with her boyfriend/love interest.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
“Can I get you something before I go?” he asked, at last tying his tie. Thank God! “Perhaps some plain toast or a cup of tea? I could ask Mrs. Smithers—”
“I’ll be fine,” I snapped, cutting him off. “Really, by second lesson, I’ll be right as rain.”
He studied me for a moment, as though I were a curiosity.
“Huh,” he said finally. “It must be a wonderful thing, knowing the exact moment one will be well again.”
The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, by Jeanne Birdsall, was published in 2008 by Alfred A Knopf. It is the sequel to The Penderwicks.
The Penderwick sisters are home on Gardam Street and ready for an adventure! But the adventure they get isn’t quite what they had in mind. Mr. Penderwick’s sister has decided it’s time for him to start dating—and the girls know that can only mean one thing: disaster. Enter the Save-Daddy Plan—a plot so brilliant, so bold, so funny, that only the Penderwick girls could have come up with it. It’s high jinks, big laughs, and loads of family warmth as the Penderwicks triumphantly return.
I didn’t like The Penderwicks on Gardam Street quite as much as I liked The Penderwicks, although there were certainly bright moments throughout the book that I thought were wonderful. I would have liked it a little bit better if it hadn’t used an obvious, cliché “single dad starts dating again and then falls in love with the next-door neighbor” plot and if the ending dialogue hadn’t been so cheesy, but even with that included, it was still a delightful read for the most part.
Some parts of it did drag, though, and I found some parts unnecessary to the book overall. I’m not sure if it was the absence of Jeffrey or the absence of summer-time joy, but Gardam Street lacks some charm and was tedious to read—although the inclusion of characters like Tommy and Nick and some of the other oddball moments helped to break up that tedious. In fact, I actually preferred the book when it wasn’t focusing so much on “real life issues” and was simply having a good time with some maybe-not-quite-realistic scenarios.
So, yes, while I did find The Penderwicks on Gardam Street to be a step down from The Penderwicks, I did still enjoy myself for the most part, though again I found the book a tad boring in places. But the crowning moment of the novel for me was Jane’s play, which was exactly the sort of sensationalized ham that a ten-year-old would write—oh, and the elaborate plot to steal their dad’s car battery. More of that, please.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Realistic, Children’s
“How did it go?”
“It was fine, I guess.”
“Fine like he liked her?”
“No, fine like he didn’t, thank goodness. Tommy, I can’t help thinking about Anna’s father, and about that boy we met this summer—”
Tommy interrupted. “Cagney.”
“What?” Rosalind hadn’t meant Cagney. And now she realized that she’d never gotten around to telling Aunt Claire about him—and love—and heartache. All of that seemed so long ago now.
“Cagney the gardener, who was older than you and so cute, blah, blah, blah.”
“What do you mean, blah, blah, blah? I’ve barely mentioned him to you.”
New adventures lie ahead as Anne Shirley packs her bags, waves good-bye to childhood, and heads for Redmond College. With old friend Prissy Grant waiting in the bustling city of Kingsport and frivolous new pal Philippa Gordon at her side, Anne tucks her memories of rural Avonlea away and discovers life on her own terms, filled with surprises…including a marriage proposal from the worst fellow imaginable, the sale of her very first story, and a tragedy that teaches her a painful lesson. But tears turn to laughter when Anne and her friends move into an old cottage and an ornery black cat steals her heart. Little does Anne know that handsome Gilbert Blythe wants to win her heart, too. Suddenly Anne must decide if she’s ready for love…
I love Anne of Green Gables for what it is, but I resonate with Anne in Anne of the Island: with her college goals, her confusion over her feelings, her feelings of loneliness and isolation as her friends fall in love and get married and move on in life, and her stick-to-itiveness. Anne of Anne of the Island is so much more relatable and sympathetic to me than the growing-up Anne of Anne of Green Gables.
I do think Anne of Green Gables is much more iconic, but Anne of the Island is probably my favorite of the series. Anne’s relatability is one reason. Some might think the romance aspect is a little contrived or goes on for too long, but I find it rings true for the most part. And the message about how doing something because it’s your idea of what it should be like or it’s how you imagined it to be is an important one. Anne still gets carried away with her imagination, but this time it’s disguised as something more “grown up”, as it were—romance.
For all my good things to say about it, I do think one or two chapters were unnecessary. The part where Anne goes off to teach, the random interlude with Mrs. Skinner and the romantic interlude with Janet and John seemed unnecessary to me and dragged the book on a teensy bit too long. But the parts that came after that were wonderful, so perhaps I can forgive Anne of the Island for not being entirely perfect.
Recommended Age Range: 10+ (and lower!)
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
“Do you like Billy?” asked Jane bluntly.
“Why—why—yes, I like him of course,” gasped Anne, wondering if she were telling the literal truth. Certainly she did not dislike Billy. But could the indifferent tolerance with which she regarded him when he happened to be in her range of vision, be considered positive enough for liking? What was Jane trying to elucidate?
“Would you like him for a husband?” asked Jane calmly.
Disclaimer: When Love Arrives, by Johnnie Alexander, was provided by Revell in exchange for an honest review.
Dani Prescott can’t believe the lie Brett Somers is trying to sell to the media. During an interview about the plane crash that killed his parents, he blamed Dani’s mother. But the crash killed her as well. Vowing to restore her mother’s reputation, Dani has been following Brett and taking photos, hoping to find something she can use to discredit him. But when she catches his eye instead, she quickly finds herself agreeing to a date. Brett knows this mystery girl is hiding something—but he’s got his own secrets to keep. What will happen when he discovers who she really is?
When reading Where She Belongs, the novel before this one, Brett was the most interesting character to me. I expressed interest in reading the next book if it was about him. And, yes, When Love Arrives focuses on Brett and I enjoyed it much more than I did Where She Belongs.
I think what I most enjoyed is Brett’s redemption story. I love redemption stories—stories where a character messes up, or made bad decisions in his or her lives, etc., and then changes due to something that happened to them or an encounter with someone (or Someone). Brett fits that, and he spends a lot of the novel commiserating over his past mistakes. And I love what Alexander did with his character and the choices she had him make, such as apologizing to his first female “conquest” and to his last.
Dani was an okay protagonist; probably the main problem I had with her was that her arc wasn’t as interesting as Brett’s. I did think Alexander handled her confusion well, and at least she and Brett didn’t have a love at first sight moment. I’ll buy a “love in the first week” plot, but I’m still my same jaded self when it comes to love at first sight.
Another highlight of the novel was Brett’s reaction to Dani’s secret, which I thought was very well done and exactly the way someone like Brett would have reacted.
The only reason I’m not rating this book higher is that, despite all the good parts, there were areas where the novel dragged a little, and the romance seemed a little cheesy in parts. Or maybe it’s just not the sort of romance I like—I do tend to prefer 1800s romance to contemporary romance. But I will say this: Where She Belongs made me want to read the next book about Brett, and now When Love Arrives made me want to read the next book about Amy, so that’s a plus for Alexander no matter what I thought about the book.
Charmain Baker is in over her head. Looking after Great-Uncle Williams’ tiny cottage while he’s ill should have been easy. But Great-Uncle William is better known as the Royal Wizard Norland, and his house bends space and time. Its single door leads to any number of places—the bedrooms, the kitchen, the caves under the mountains, the past, and the Royal Mansion, to name just a few. By opening that door, Charmain has become responsible for not only the house, but for an extremely magical stray dog, a muddled young apprentice wizards, and a box of the king’s most treasured documents. She has encountered a terrifying beast called a Lubbock, irritated a clan of small blue creatures, and wound up smack in the middle of an urgent search. The king and his daughter are desperate to find the lost, fabled Elfgift—so desperate that they’ve even called in an intimidating sorceress named Sophie to help. And where Sophie is, can the Wizard Howl and fire demon Calcifer be far behind? Of course, with that magical family involved, there’s bound to be chaos—and unexpected revelations. No one will be more surprised than Charmain by what Howl and Sophie discover.
House of Many Ways is, in my opinion, more fun than Castle in the Air, but sacrifices some plot intricacies and worldbuilding in the process. The plot is just one step shy of being fully developed; some revelations feel too fast and too out-of-nowhere to feel like a tightly-crafted plot. I felt it a bit strange and contrived that a lot of the conflict revolved around one solitary creature that was revealed to have his fingers in many of the character’s pies, but I suppose for a short fantasy novel for middle graders it’s an acceptable plot to use.
I do love Howl, though, and he’s in top form for this book. Sophie, however, is nagging and irritated at Howl every time we see her, so that’s a disappointment. Yes, I do realize that she spends most of her time in Howl’s Moving Castle doing that, but we’re in her head then and we get to see other “faces” of Sophie at the same time. In House, there’s only the one and it’s disappointing to see Sophie reduced to a “Howl! Stop doing that!” broken record.
Charmain is also a decent protagonist and I like that she’s the lazy sort who has some flaws to overcome. It gives her something else to do besides “figure out the mystery” and it’s fun to see her and Peter struggle to figure out the house’s magic.
House of Many Ways is still nowhere near as good as Howl’s Moving Castle, and though it’s a fun, decently-developed book, it nowhere reaches the height of intricacy and development that earlier Jones’ books have. I felt that some things came a bit out of nowhere and I was sad to see some great characters sidelined to one-dimensional sidekicks. The problems I had with the plot are probably why I prefer her older books to her newer ones, actually. But in any case, House of Many Ways is a decent sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, as was Castle in the Air before it. The only real problem with it is that it’s not nearly as good.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Charmain jumped to her feet and smiled terrifically, so broadly and welcomingly that she thought she might have sprained her face. “Oh, hallo!” she said. “I didn’t hear the door.”
“You never do,” said Aunt Sempronia.
Mrs. Baker peered at Charmain, full of anxiety. “Are you all right, my love? Quite all right? Why haven’t you put your hair up properly?”
“I like it like this,” Charmain said, shuffling across so that she was between the two ladies and the kitchen door. ‘Don’t you think it suits me, Aunt Sempronia?”
Aunt Sempronia leaned on her parasol and looked at her judiciously. “Yes,” she said. “It does. It makes you look younger and plumper. Is that how you want to look?”
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk was published in 2016 by Dutton.
Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby’s strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. Soon, she will need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.
I am always wary of books compared to To Kill a Mockingbird, but for the first time, I think Wolf Hollow actually deserves it. The story did remind me of a much tamer version of the classic, and while it’s not as startlingly honest or as foundational as Harper Lee’s classic, Wolf Hollow still communicates much of the same message that can be found in To Kill a Mockingbird, and in a way that’s more suitable for children.
I think the choice of a veteran as the target for another’s malice was a good one. Too often, veterans are forgotten or ignored, and highlighting the awfulness of World War I and how that affected many soldiers who went home only to be shunned because of their inability to cope made a good focus for the novel. Annabelle was also a great protagonist: indignant when she should be, kind when she should be, and conflicted when she should be. Her feelings about Betty were done extremely well; Wolk could have easily went too far in either the “she’s terrible” category or the “let’s completely excuse everything she’s done” category, but she doesn’t. Annabelle’s feelings are exactly what a conflicted young girl’s might be if she doesn’t like someone, but is also aware of how awful that person’s situation is and feels bad for her.
I think Wolf Hollow would be a great precursor to To Kill a Mockingbird, a way to introduce some of the ideas and messages raised in Lee’s novel without also having to deal with the more serious content. It’s not anywhere close to becoming as foundational a classic, but Wolf Hollow strikes all the right notes, gets across some very important messages, and would be a great book to discuss with a younger reader.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: Some graphic imagery, death.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade
“This is the only thing I’m going to give you,” I said, holding the penny out on a tight palm, the way I knew to feed a dog. “Don’t ask me for anything more. I don’t have anything else.”
Betty looked at the penny, picked it up with her fingertips, peered into my face. “A penny?”
“You can get two pieces of hard candy for that,” I said.
“I don’t want two pieces of hard candy,” she said. She tossed the penny into the undergrowth. “Tomorrow you bring me something better than a penny.”
“I don’t have anything else to bring you, Betty. And I think it’s just mean of you to be like this. We could be friends, you know,” I said, quite aware that I sounded pretty dubious as I said it. “If you would stop being so mean.”