When Will and his friends arrived at the White Mountains, they thought everything would be okay. They’d found a safe haven where the mechanical monsters called Tripods could not find them. But once there, they wonder about the world around them and how everyone else is faring against the machines. In order to save everyone else, Will and his friends want to take down the Tripods once and for all. That means journeying to the capital of the Tripods: the City of Gold and Lead. Although the journey will be difficult, the real danger comes once Will is inside, where Tripods roam freely and humans are even more enslaved than they are on the outside. Without anyone to help him, Will must learn the secrets of the Tripods—and how to take them down—before they figure out that he’s a spy…and he can only pretend to be brainwashed for so long.
The City of Gold and Lead delves further into the world of the Tripods, revealing the main threat of the trilogy and showing some standard science fiction fare. The question I had while reading The White Mountains of whether the Tripods themselves are the enemies or if there are aliens piloting them is answered, as Will and his friends infiltrate one of their cities. The first book was more “science fiction integrated into our world” while this one cranks it up and has the familiar replaced with the unfamiliar in the Tripod city.
I’m not sure how believable Christopher’s science is in the world he has created, but it almost doesn’t matter. The threat is real enough that the reader is swept up into the same race against time that Will and his friends are in. There’s a recurring motif of time limits in this book, from the journey that they must make in a particular time, to the strict schedule and timing inside the city, to the ultimate time limit set in the battle against the Tripods that Will discovers while in the city.
Speaking of Will, I really like him as a protagonist. He does enough stupid things to keep him from being too perfect, but he also takes initiative when he needs to. He’s brash, but can act fairly shrewdly when necessary. He makes some excuses for his lapses in action or judgment, but then acknowledges them and strives to make up for it. The development of his relationship with Fritz is done very well, too. I like that Christopher set up this trio of Will, Henry, and Beanpole in the first book, and then in this book tears it apart and gives us Fritz instead. It’s realistic, as it’s unlikely all three boys would always get picked for everything, and it gives Will more ways to develop.
The City of Gold and Lead is more interesting than The White Mountains, as it develops much more of the world and gives more incentive for the heroes, has some good character development, and, despite a long beginning, moves along quite well in terms of pace. There’s not a lot of action, but Christopher’s descriptions pull you into the book regardless. I’m eager to pick up the next book and see how everything ends.
The Dragon’s Tooth, by N. D. Wilson, was published in 2011 by Random House.
For two years, Cyrus and Antigone Smith have run a sagging roadside motel with their older brother, Daniel. Nothing ever seems to happen. Then a strange old man with bone tattoos arrives, demanding a specific room. Less than 24 hours later, the old man is dead. The motel has burned, and Daniel is missing. And Cyrus and Antigone are kneeling in a crowded hall, swearing an oath to an order of explorers who have long served as caretakers of the world’s secrets, keepers of powerful relics from lost civilizations, and jailers to unkillable criminals who have terrorized the world for millennia.
I was fairly interested in The Dragon’s Tooth when I started the book, hoping that the title would promise Actual Dragons at some point. I had liked 100 Cupboards enough to give Wilson a try again (especially if there was going to be dragons!). The beginning seemed pretty interesting, too, if fairly formulaic: unassuming young boy meets stranger, is handed a Mystical Object, and is almost immediately chased by Shadowy Figures.
It’s after that point when the book descended very swiftly into quirky fantasy territory, and my interest and excitement plunged with it.
Also, there are no dragons.
By the time Cyrus and Antigone got to Strange Base/Secret Lair/Pseudo Hogwarts, I knew that the rest of the book would be difficult for me to finish. Every person Cyrus and Antigone met sounded stilted, and the incomprehensible jargon and blather that was disjointedly thrown in to make things more mysterious and worldbuildy got annoying, fast. Cyrus makes odd decisions, overly eager at one point and overly cautious at the next. His squabbles with Antigone slow the pace of the book down and do nothing but create obstacles (as well as solidify Antigone as a useless character) for Cyrus to either obey or reject, depending on what the plot requires.
In addition, the villain is cartoonish and strange and almost too powerful, in the way where you wonder, if things are so easy for him to accomplish, why he hasn’t done anything before that particular moment in the book (like, if it’s so easy to get to Secret Base (I forgot the name), why in the world hasn’t he done it sooner?) Nothing about the world Wilson created makes sense, and things are poorly explained.
I think Wilson was trying to go for “quirky fantasy” and went way too far, taking “quirky” into “incomprehensible mess.” I actually don’t think I would have minded quite so much if there had been one less strange character, and especially if the villain hadn’t been so cartoonish. If the villain had been a serious villain, rather than what he was, I think I would have been able to stomach The Dragon’s Tooth a little bit better.
Dark Water Rising, by Marian Hale, was published in 2006 by Henry Holt.
You’d think every person from Lampasa to Houston wanted to go to Galveston this hot August day. Everyone but Seth. Galveston, Texas, may be the booming city of the brand-new twentieth century, filled with opportunities for all, but to Seth it is the end of a dream. He longs to be a carpenter like his father, yet Pap has moved the family to Galveston so that Seth can become a doctor. Still, the last few weeks of summer might not be so bad. Seth has landed his first real job as a builder, and there’s that girl across the street, the one with the sun-bright hair. Things seem to be looking up…until a storm warning is raised one sweltering afternoon. They say a north wind always brings change, but one could ever have imagined this. Set during the Galveston Storm of 1900, this is an unforgettable story of survival in the face of natural disaster.
About a month or so before reading Dark Water Rising, I was in Galveston and learned all about the storm of 1900, so it was interesting to see how this book described it. And, though it’s not as suspenseful or nerve-wracking as, say, Gordon Korman’s survival books, Hale does a fantastic job of conveying the shock and horror felt by the residents of Galveston when fifteen feet of water and waves tear apart the island, literally.
With so much available in terms of resources on the storm, Hale’s description is incredibly accurate (as far as I’m aware, of course). Individual stories from people who lived through the storm are woven into the tale, and her description both of the storm itself and the aftermath are chilling. The cover art contributes to Seth’s descriptions of a debris-strewn island (including a debris pile twenty feet high), and, just like Seth, the reader has a hard time visualizing the sheer immensity of the body count (official count is 8,000, though many people say something closer to 12,000 is more accurate).
The descriptions of and details given about the Galveston Storm of 1900 are the true take-aways of Dark Water Rising. Hale weaves in some family tension, especially between Seth and his father, but it’s not particularly memorable or exciting. In fact, it’s fairly predictable. She also throws in some racial tension with her two characters of Josiah and Ezra, and a mediocre budding romance. These elements are largely forgettable, especially in the face of what the book is actually about (the storm), but it’s nice to have some sort of narrative to bind everything together.
100 Cupboards, by N. D. Wilson, was published in 2007 by Random House.
Twelve-year-old Henry York is going to sleep one night when he hears a bump on the attic wall above his head. It’s an unfamiliar house—Henry is staying with his aunt, uncle, and three cousins—so he tries to ignore it. But the next night he wakes up with bits of plaster in his hair. Two knobs have broken through the wall, and one of them is slowly turning…Henry scrapes the plaster off the wall and discovers doors—ninety-nine cupboards of all different sizes and shapes. Through one he can hear the sound of falling rain. Through another he sees a glowing room—with a man strolling back and forth! Henry and his cousin Henrietta soon understand that these are not just cupboards. They are, in fact, portals to other worlds.
100 Cupboards is a quirky, almost absurdist, fantasy. The premise is that Henry, who has gone to stay with his aunt and uncle, discovers that underneath the plaster in his room are many different cupboards. He soon realizes that they are portals to other worlds and—of course—that some of the things in those worlds want to come out. When his cousin disappears into one of the worlds, Henry must go in and get her—and not let anything else back out.
His sidekick/partner is his cousin, Henrietta (not sure why there’s all this fascination with the name, or variations of, Henry), who is rather annoying most of the time. I don’t have a lot of patience for impatient, headstrong characters. I mostly end up getting annoyed that they rush in and mess things up most of the time with their rashness. Henry himself is all right. He’s got the right sort of mystery about him, and though he’s timid, he’s brave when he needs to be. However, the plot revolving around his parents seems pointless (why not just make him an orphan?), and some of the things that are revealed during the course of the book aren’t as smooth or as clear as they could be.
This is the sort of book where I started out really interested and then gradually became less so as things became weirder. I thought things were a bit rushed at the end, and some of the worlds and characters that Wilson introduces seemed out of place. I don’t really have any desire or interest to find out what happens next. I thought the premise was interesting, but I would have much preferred it if it had simply been a “crawl into cupboards and explore other worlds” type of fantasy, rather than a “you let something evil out and now must save everything” type of fantasy. The introduction of that part is where things fell apart in this book, in my opinion.
100 Cupboards has a really good premise, though Wilson doesn’t always execute it as well as he could. Some of the mysteries were interesting, and some of them fell a little flat. The book as a whole is a bit quirky and odd, and doesn’t always hit the right notes. I can see some people really enjoying this book, but for me, I’m not interested in reading any more than I have.
Pax and Peter have been inseparable ever since Peter rescued him as a kit. But one day the unimaginable happens: Peter’s dad enlists in the military and makes him return the fox to the wild. At his grandfather’s house three hundred miles away from home, Peter knows he isn’t where he should be—with Pax. He strikes out on his own despite the encroaching war, spurred by love, loyalty, and grief, to be reunited with his fox. Meanwhile Pax, steadfastly waiting for his boy, embarks on adventures and discoveries of his own.
As you might expect from the summary, Pax is one of those animal separation stories that is meant to be heartbreaking and full of “I have to find my animal who’s like my friend/family!” moments, complete with tears and angst. It reminded me a lot of The Fox and the Hound, except if the hound was a boy and there weren’t years between their separation. I’m not a huge fan of animal stories that have animals with their own point of view, but I must admit that Pax has a very tolerable fox point of view, much more focused on accurate animal behavior and language than on making the animals seem like humans.
Pennypacker writes beautifully, so it’s a shame that the story has an obvious, predictable plot as well as some subtle-as-a-brick-in-your-face messages about war. The entire middle portion has Peter talking with Vola for pages and pages while Vola gives the message of the book over and over again in increasingly sentimental, nonsubtle ways. We get it, Pennypacker. War Is Bad. The name “Pax” for the fox told us that. I also noticed that while the perils of war were mentioned over and over (and over and over) again, Pennypacker offer no suggestions about how to bring about peace besides not fighting. It’s the same problem that plagued Margaret Peterson Haddix’s The Always War—the message was encompassed completely into “Don’t fight because fighting is bad and destroys people/nature/animals. If you don’t fight, everyone will get along.” Sure…okay.
Pennypacker’s message also hangs on a poorly developed setting. What war is going on during the book? Where does the story take place? It obviously takes place in the US (coyotes), but where and when? The future? Also, why is it so easy for Peter to get access to a war zone? What kind of explosion severs a fox’s leg from its body so neatly that later the leg of the fox can be found, rather than it being mangled beyond recognition if it’s still there at all? Part of getting absorbed into a good book is knowing where the characters are and what sort of obstacle they’re facing so that it solidifies the story into your mind. Pennypacker clearly just wanted to write an anti-war novel featuring animals, so she didn’t seem to put much thought into setting beyond “let’s have some sort of vague war and the cute animals will distract from the utter nonsense of the setting.”
For a book about cute foxes, Pax was an annoying read, what with its over-the-top antiwar message (with no reasonable alternative given), its unbelievable and vague setting, and its too lengthy middle portion with Vola the Philosopher and Moral Voice. The actual animal point of view was well done, and the writing was beautiful, but the delivery, pace, and mechanics of the world were poorly done and poorly conceived.
The Thickety: A Path Begins, by J. A. White, was published in 2014 by Katherine Tegen.
When Kara Westfall was six years old, her mother was convicted of the worst of all crimes: witchcraft. Years later, Kara and her little brother, Taff, are still shunned by the people of their village, who believe that nothing is more evil than magic, except, perhaps, the mysterious forest that covers nearly the entire island. It has many names, this place. Sometimes it is called the Dark Wood, or Sordyr’s Realm. But mostly it’s called the Thickety. The villagers live in fear of the Thickety and the terrible creatures that live there. But when an unusual bird lures Kara into the forbidden forest, she discovers a strange book with unspeakable powers. A book that might have belonged to her mother. And that is just the beginning of the story.
I very nearly stopped reading The Thickety: A Path Begins about halfway through, and then through the last half of the book wished I had stopped reading. A Path Begins is a tale about Kara, the daughter of a witch, who finds a book in the Thickety and is swept up into the seductive realm of magic. Only her brother, Taff, keeps her from being totally lost, and along the way she faces more immediate threats than the mysterious forest demon Sordyr.
The worst part about A Path Begins was the writing, in my opinion. Full of melodramatic dialogue, stilted description, and forced tension, it was a bad omen from the start. And it shaded everything in this book with a terrible light—the writing was so bothersome to me that I found it hard to find anything that I liked about the book. Even the setting is over-the-top, with a too-fanatical leader and a world that is so exaggerated in its extremes that it’s farcical. There are too many villains and Kara herself does too many stupid things for me to want to cheer for her.
The plot is also riddled with inconsistencies, like how Kara sprains her ankle and five minutes later is running on it with apparently no pain or problems whatsoever. There’s also the strange flip-flopping between “magic is good” and “magic is bad,” with the final decision between “good witch” and “bad witch” a completely arbitrary one, delivered clumsily, and ignoring the fact that such black and white pronouncements only lead to problems, mostly for the authors writing the characters who then have to explain away their character’s actions in order to fit them into their defined roles.
Really, the story just reads like a man wrote it. That’s not a bad thing, but I oftentimes have more problems with men’s style of writing than women’s. They just have ways of describing things that I can’t wrap my head around, and they also focus on things that I don’t understand why they would focus on.
I regret finishing A Path Begins because it took up a lot of time to read and now I can never get that time back. It was too melodramatic, too stilted, too forced. None of the characters appealed to me and I have no interest in seeing more of the world or finding out what happens next.
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, by Karina Yan Glaser, was published in 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
It’s five days before Christmas, and the Vanderbeeker children should be dreaming about sugar plums and presents. But when their curmudgeonly landlord mysteriously refuses to renew their lease, the five siblings must find a way to change his mind before New Year’s. All they have to do is show him how wonderful they are, right? But as every well-intentioned plan goes comically awry, their shenanigans only exasperate their landlord more. What the Vanderbeekers need now is a Christmas miracle. Funny, heartfelt, and as lively as any street in Harlem, this cozy family novel is about the connections we make and the unexpected twists and turns life can take.
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street has all the charm of Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy family or of Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks. The Vanderbeeker family stole my heart almost immediately—each character was distinctive and unique, their plight was realistic and their efforts to save their home fit their characters and made sense in both effort and result.
There’s animal-loving Laney, creative Hyacinth, bookworm Oliver, scientist Jesse, and musician Isa (Yan Glaser checks all the hobby and personality boxes), who team up to get Mr. Beiderman, their reclusive landlord, to renew their lease. Along the way, they learn a lot about themselves and a whole lot more about Mr. Beiderman, a story which is honestly one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. Yan Glaser pulls no punches in filling in Mr. Beiderman’s background, but she’s also not afraid to have characters talk through and explain their emotions, something which tends to get overlooked a little in children’s and MG fiction at times.
However, Yan Glaser still has some wrinkles to iron out before I think I could really place this book on level with Birdsall or Enright. Some things were a touch too dramatic: Jesse and Isa’s fight, while meant to instill tension and stall the siblings’ efforts, was executed poorly, in my opinion—not what led to the fight, but rather the moment they actually fought about it—and some of the writing, especially when focusing that tension, felt stilted. I also felt the ending was rushed, since Yan Glaser had to fit a lot into the timeframe she had set for the novel. But those were all little things, really.
I’m really glad I picked up this book, and I’m glad the review on the back of the book—boasting of the Vanderbeekers joining the likes of the Melendy family—didn’t let me down. While Enright and Birdsall are still my reigning “family unit” authors, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, and Yan Glaser, crept up right behind them.
The White Mountains, by John Christopher, was published in 1967 by Simon & Schuster.
Long ago, the Tripods–huge, three-legged machines–descended upon Earth and took control. Now people unquestioningly accept the Tripods’ power. They have no control over their thoughts or their lives. But for a brief time in each person’s life–in childhood–he is not a slave. For Will, his time of freedom is about to end–unless he can escape to the White Mountains, where the possibility of freedom still exists.
The White Mountains describes a world where, after an alien (machine?) invasion, society has reverted back to medieval times and are now under the dominion of the Tripods. The Tripods, giant three-legged metal things, control the humans with Caps, given to them at a coming-of-age ceremony. However, some people have managed to hide from the Tripods and are Capless, and they seek out boys (but not girls, apparently) who are brave enough to escape society and flee to the White Mountains. That’s what the protagonist, Will, ends up doing, of course, with some comrades of his.
The worldbuilding is actually quite good, at least in terms of describing the way the world reverted back a few hundred years. Will’s fascination with the Watch and the way the boys explore the ruined city (Paris?) and find unexplained, strange things, like cars and subway trains, is quite well done. Yet, Beanpole’s interest with such things shows that the way back to those times is still possible, if humans have a chance to get there.
Less well done is the concept of the Tripods. It’s never quite clear whether they are machines or controlled by something else—although, granted, no one in the world Christopher has shown us knows the answer to that, either. And I understand that the other books will answer that, as the Rebellion seeks to destroy the Tripods and free the humans. However, in this book, the vague threat of the Tripods, however ominous they are, is too unknown to really sell the book as solid science fiction. They’re metal tripods with strange advanced technology that can control people with silver Caps. That’s all we know. It’s all the characters know, too, but I was itching for more to be revealed.
My other complaint is that the ending is a little too abrupt, and reads too much like a voice-over done at the end of the first movie of a trilogy. I suppose actually showing the boys reaching the White Mountains, learning more about the Resistance, and other things isn’t particularly necessary, since the book is about their escape, and is something that can be explored in the other books, but I would have liked to see a little bit of that in this book.
Also, where are all the girls? Just saying.
The White Mountains does a really good job with some of its worldbuilding, but not so well with the rest, having a threat that’s too vague to really stand out as interesting. The concept is great, and it has enough appeal to hook people into the next books, if only to discover more about the mysterious Tripods, but the ending was too abrupt for my liking, and there’s a lack of female presence. I’ll pick up the next book because I’m interested in finding out more, but I hope some of the flaws are improved.
Running. That’s all that Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But never for a track team. Nope, his game has always been ball. But when Ghost impulsively challenges an elite sprinter to a race—and wins—the Olympic medalist track coach sees he has something: crazy natural talent. Thing is, Ghost has something else: a lot of anger, and a past that he tries to outrun. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed and meld with the team, or will his past finally catch up to him?
Ghost is a book I wasn’t sure I would enjoy, but ended up loving. Ghost has a great voice as the first-person narrator, and it’s easy to get swept up in the book. It’s a fast read, but the pacing is good and the balance of light and dark is perfect: there’s angst, but there’s enough healing and light-heartedness to cut through it.
Ghost is the main character, but it’s Coach who’s the real star of the show: he pretty much becomes Ghost’s much-needed father-figure, helping him own up to his mistakes, but also showing compassion when necessary. He’s also not afraid to share weakness or past hardships, which makes him the best sort of adult character. Ghost himself, as I said, has a great voice, and everything he does is completely believable, to the point where I’m so caught up that I can’t even get annoyed at the dumb teenage things he does sometimes. And I love how all the chapter titles mention world records until the last one, to especially highlight how important it is.
Speaking of the last chapter, I do wish that there had been more resolution to the ending. And I know that it’s not really important who won the race, and that the point is that Ghost got there and he’s ready to put the past behind him, but…I kinda wanted to see the race unfold! That’s pretty much my only complaint about the novel: the ending could have been better, in my opinion.
Ghost stars an endearing protagonist, a fantastic adult figure in Coach, and several other fleshed-out side characters (who, I believe, will star in their own books). It’s a fast-paced, fast-read of a book and it’s mostly perfect, except for the ending. Still, I’m ready and willing for the next books to fall into my lap.
Five months after the events in The Creeping Shadow, we join Lockwood, Lucy, George, Holly, and their associate Quill Kipps on a perilous night mission. They have broken into the booby-trapped Fittes mausoleum, where the body of the legendary psychic heroine Marissa Fittes lies. Or does it? This is just one of many questions to be answered in Book Five of the Lockwood & Co. series. Will Lockwood ever reveal more about his family’s past to Lucy? Has their trip to the Other Side left the two of them changed forever? Will Penelope Fittes succeed in shutting down their agency—and does she threaten something deeper still? The young operative smut survive attacks from foes both spectral and human before they can take on their greatest enemy in a climactic and chaotic battle .And to prevail they will have to rely on some surprising—and shadowy—allies.
The Empty Grave is a satisfying, suitably big ending for the Lockwood & Co. series, delivering on character development and the usual mix of action, tension, and downtime that is especially distinctive in this series with its formulaic sequencing that manages to avoid being repetitive.
I loved the double meaning of the title in The Hollow Boy, and this title, too, has a double meaning, one which manages to communicate both essential plot elements and character development. Speaking of plot, while nothing in this book totally surprised me, I can’t say anything negative about the buildup or delivery or anything. Perhaps some of the details at the end could have been made clearer—who, exactly, was Ezekiel?—and the final battle was almost anticlimactic in its ending (though there’s no reason why it should have been, knowing what we know about ghosts in these books), but it was also satisfying and thrilling and lots of other good things. The resolution between Lucy and the skull was fantastic—in fact, the entire development of the relationship between the two of them was great, and far more interesting than Lucy’s other significant relationship with Lockwood—and the ending, though not as clear-cut as it possibly could have been, made sense and fit with the overall “feel” of the books.
I really enjoyed these books, so much so that I want to reread the Bartimaeus trilogy again (though I do feel that Lockwood & Co. is a superior series). The balance between horror and levity was spot-on, and Stroud’s writing made me enjoy a story about ghosts, a genre I usually stay away from. The Red Room scene from the first book still stands out in my mind as one of the creepiest scenes in any book I’ve read, yet it hooked me rather than scared me away.
The Empty Grave is a fitting end to the series, with resolution from all corners (no dangling plot threads! Yay!), the satisfaction of knowing that the characters grew and changed throughout the series and weren’t just cardboard throughout, and a slightly ambiguous, but ultimately hopeful ending that was a fitting end. I’m going to miss this series, but I’ll be looking forward to whatever Stroud puts out next.