Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, by Katherine Woodfine,
was published in 2015 by Egmont.
However, the story itself was a bit tepid. The
characters are not developed enough, and so though on paper the four of them
are quite interesting, in “the flesh” they lack a little oomph. Sophie is
spirited, but flat; Joe is mysterious, but flat; Billy is…something; Lil is
funny, but flat…you get the picture. And it doesn’t help that the mystery is
framed in such a way that all four characters have to do something that
stretches just beyond the bounds of believability. At least in Sophie’s case,
part of it is mentioned as part of the villain’s ultimate plan—the fact that
she was able to figure out so much stuff was solely due to the fact that she
was placed in the exact room with all of the information and the secret door
leading to the hiding place of the stolen goods, something another character
points out as suspicious for the villain to have done without an ulterior
motive (and thank goodness for that because otherwise that would have been the
epitome of plot convenience).
However, the others get no such excuse, and so we have
Lil lurking in corners and somehow never being discovered despite her lack of
ability to be nonchalant or secretive about anything, and Billy successfully
switching papers because no one even bothers to check that the envelope he
handed over was the right one, and Joe being…well, being not really anything at
all except the person who tells them about the Baron.
I mean, I’m sure for the audience that is intended, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow is
probably quite exciting and sufficiently mysterious, and the characters are interesting (if flat). But for me,
the solving of the mystery and a lot of the action relied way too much on plot
World War II remains my absolute favorite setting for historical fiction. There’s so much courage and heroism and patriotism present, even among the terrible things happenings, that’s really uplifting. I mean, it’s “The Greatest Generation” for a reason.
My Family for the War is about Ziska, a Protestant with Jewish ancestry, who leaves Germany on a kindertransport right before the outbreak of WWII and stays with a Jewish family in London, who quickly become her family. The novel chronicles the entire length of the war, separated into three sections. It’s definitely a story about family, but it’s also a story about being adrift in the world, separated from your family, your culture, and your religion, and the things people do that help you reconcile all that change.
Since this is a translated book (it was originally published in German in 2007), some of the writing is a bit clunky, a bit more like reading a report or an essay on someone’s life than an immersive novel. I am blaming the translation for this, since I have nothing else to go on. Besides the writing, my one other complaint is that the book is way too long. It starts off really interesting, but towards the middle, things start dragging on and on, and it doesn’t start picking up again until towards the end of the novel. To be honest, both the writing and the length combine to make this book 3/5 rather than 4/5, as the strength of the story was not enough to overcome those.
However, this really is a great book, and it’s an especially good WWII children’s book. It pulls no punches in the German treatment of Jews—even people who do not even claim Judaism as their religion—and Ziska’s exploration of her heritage while staying with the Shepard family is well done. I really just wish the writing had been a bit more fluid, and that things hadn’t started dragging in the middle. It would have caused My Family for the War to be more cohesive and more powerful, and less like reading a report.
The last two stories in the Dalemark Quartet are the most connected of the four, though the fourth one unites all the characters as well as the villain from the third book. In my years-prior reading of these books, I’ve always thought these last two books were the weakest. However, I’m actually much more fond of the fourth book than I remember being, though I still think it has a few problems.
The Spellcoats takes us back to early Dalemark, with Tanaqui and her four siblings: Robin, Gull, Hern, and Mallard. Their journey begins when their father dies in the war and Gull comes back changed. This book introduces Kankredin, the villain of this book and the next, and his quest to take over Dalemark. It’s nice that Jones took the time to both build and show the history of Dalemark in these four books; all five of these characters are mentioned as legendary figures in the first two books, as well as in the last one. Jones also introduces the Undying in this book, godlike people with great power. Though some showed up in Drowned Ammet, I don’t remember them actually being called the Undying in that novel. Anyway, I quite enjoyed this look at early Dalemark, and the plot is actually quite twisty, with some great reveals—though the ending, in my opinion, leaves a little to be desired. It had to be that way because of the nature of the storytelling, but still, I wasn’t fond of it.
The Crown of Dalemark was published almost 15 years after The Spellcoats, which makes me wonder if Jones planned a quartet in the first place, or if she decided to make one more book after a while. This novel takes the characters from the first, second, and, yes, the third book as well, and puts them all together in a quest to find the missing crown of Dalemark in an effort to unite the country. The cleverest bit of this book is the time-travel—I love time-travel novels, and the fact that Jones did it in her own fantasy world is neat.
I really enjoyed this book, much more than I thought I would, and definitely much more than I remember liking it before. The time-travel is clever, and it’s nice to have all the characters come together. There are some great revelations in this book, and the ending is delightfully endearing. Mitt remains my favorite character, though Maewen is pretty great, too. As for its problems, I’ve simply always thought that Kankredin as the villain seemed too abrupt since he’s introduced in the third book and isn’t mentioned in the others at all. And, because of the gap in the publication dates, I’m guessing, some elements of this book seem to ring a little false in terms of worldbuilding, as if Jones had trouble remembering what she had already established. I’m thinking mostly of the Undying. Mostly, the problem with this book seems that Jones was trying too hard to connect this book, and the first two, with The Spellcoats. However, I now think I like this book second behind Drowned Ammet, though to be honest, all four of them are pretty solid.
I actually had a hard time deciding what rating to give this book. Ultimately, I decided to go for the higher 4 rating, as opposed to a 3, because I really did enjoy Weedflower, and also because I’ve noticed that 3 has become almost my default rating. I’m trying to change that, but a lot of the books I’ve read lately haven’t been terrible, but haven’t been great—hence the constant 3 ratings.
Anyway, onto the actual book. This is the last novel in my “Japanese internment” reading pile, but the only one I’ve reviewed here (short reviews of the others [Dust of Eden, When the Emperor was Divine, and Beneath the Blood Red Sun] can be found on Goodreads). Weedflower may very well be my favorite, though I also quite liked Dust of Eden. It’s a detailed story about a Japanese family’s journey from their flower farm in California, to a relocation camp in Colorado, and then finally to Chicago (though the novel ends with them leaving the camp). While it doesn’t go too much into the politics and issues of the day, it was interesting to see how this book matched up with the other three books I read (except for Blood Red Sun, which didn’t have the family in a relocation camp). All had similar themes and, of course, similar accounts. I like that in novels about the same topic, if only because I’ve read same-topic-novels before that contradict each other.
The one thing I probably disliked the most about the novel was that it was a bit too long, and I think Kadohata tried to tackle a little bit too much. I get that the relocation camp they went to was an actual camp, and there was conflict with the Native Americans living there, but trying to tackle Japanese internment issues and Native American issues was too much. As a result, we got very little of the Native American, and it took away from some of the Japanese internment. Not to mention it made the book too long—partly why I thought so hard about what to rate it. I enjoyed the book up until about the last third; then I was ready for it to end.
Weedflower does an excellent job of communicating important details about the Japanese internment of World War II, not to mention the various thoughts and conflicts of the people at the time. It’s also interesting to note that this book is really quite tame and unaggressive in its politics—Sumiko actually wants to stay at the camp until Frank has a talk with her about freedom—and I learned a lot about this period in history.
In the Coils of the Snake concludes the Hollow Kingdom trilogy, with Marak, the dry, witty, best character in the first two books dying, and his son, Catspaw, taking his place. The book mainly deals with the marriage/romantic woes of Catspaw and Miranda, who were betrothed to be married when the arrival of an elf lord ruins everyone’s plans.
In the Coils of the Snake is probably my least favorite of the Hollow Kingdom trilogy. Much like Close Kin, where the focus of the book switched halfway through, the perspective switches back and forth between Miranda, Nir, and Catspaw, with the latter two being the more interesting. Miranda is a phlegmatic protagonist. At the beginning, she seems like a good character, very similar to Kate of the first book, but halfway through the book, she turns into a limpid, bemoaning character who mopes around the elf camp and barely does anything to contribute to the story beyond being a plot device.
Catspaw and Nir embody the goblin/elf conflict and the differences between the two races. We don’t get much from the perspective of Nir, but what we do get is suitably mysterious. Despite this being my least favorite book, Dunkle does do some good plotting—there is lots of foreshadowing and a big plot reveal at the end. The majority of it I managed to guess, but it was nice to see everything buildup to the big revelation.
My two favorite characters were Tattoo and Hunter, whose scenes together were my favorites in the book. They managed to pull up an overall disappointing book a little with their bonding as friends. Hollow Kingdom remains my favorite of the trilogy. I liked how in each book we got to see more of the world, but I wish the characterization and some of the overall mechanics had been better.
The Only Road, by Alexandra Diaz, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.
The Only Road was much less preachy and heavy-handed than I thought it would be Instead, Diaz tells a compelling story of two children fleeing their town in Guatemala after being targeted by the local gang. Their destination is, of course, the United States, where Jaime’s brother lives. They must travel through the security-heavy borders of Mexico and the US, hide from gangs and immigration officers, and try not to lose each other.
Diaz gives a chilling picture of what it is like to travel through Mexico in secret. Apparently, Mexico is not very fond of other Central or South American countries, and of course the US heavily patrols its borders, so Jaime and Angela must fake their way through a bus ride, almost die in a closed boxcar of a train, scrape up enough money to pay a coyote to take them across the Rio Grande, and then safely contact Jaime’s brother. And Diaz communicated all of this without ramming her ideas of immigration down the reader’s throat. Instead, she uses the story to paint the picture, a much subtler approach that I appreciate.
The only thing I struggled with in the book was the appearance and disappearance of Jaime and Angela’s traveling companions, as well as the abrupt, almost-too-happy ending. I do understand that it’s likely that traveling companions will leave, eventually, but it seems to go against the book a bit—though of course Diaz is perhaps just emphasizing the separation of friends at certain points. The ending, too, is almost too happy, where Jaime, Angela, and Tomas drive off into the sunrise and nothing else is offered regarding Jaime’s and Angela’s status as illegal immigrants. Perhaps it’s because this book is for children that Diaz decided to end it as she did.
The Only Road pleasantly surprised me, and overall, despite a few wobbles, it offers a compelling story about the reasons someone might flee their home and head for a better life in a new country. It also shows lots about Central American and South American culture, such as Mexico’s heavy security in regards to immigration and the people’s dislike of outsiders. It was interesting to read about, and I appreciated it that Diaz went for subtlety rather than outspokenness.
I enjoyed the first two Track books, Ghost and Patina, but Sunny is the weakest one so far. It’s messy and all-over-the-place, and I get that it’s supposed to be inside of Sunny’s head, but half the time he’s just making random noises and talking about random things. Maybe that’s appealing to some, but not to me.
There’s a lack of depth to the book, too, that seems out of place, especially when comparing it to the previous two books. There’s some sad stuff going on, but there’s really not that much to the book at all. Half of it is just Sunny making sound effects and thinking about dancing. Yes—those parts of the book really bothered me! The scenes with Sunny and his dad were good, and the handling of all the unspoken (and spoken) expectations that Sunny is trying to fill, when he also wants to strike out on his own, were good. But I like tightly-focused, tightly-plotted books, and Sunny was just too stream-of-consciousness for me.
I also am growing very irritated of Reynolds’s penchant to ending the books right in the middle of a track meet (and then starting the next book with the resolution of that track meet). It’s hokey, and doesn’t really accomplish much. There’s no sense of closure or growth by cutting off the book right in the character’s shining moment. Instead, we’re left to wonder “Did he do it?” and there’s no rush of victory that is so great to feel when reading a book that’s so character-focused as this one.
I think I might still get the last track book, just to finish the series, but Sunny was ultimately a disappointment. Too random, too noisy, and just not my cup of tea.
It’s always bittersweet to read the ending to books you’ve enjoyed. There’s happiness with the characters and where they are (hopefully), there’s sadness that the series is over, there’s lingering feelings of shock and tension from the plot. And, for me, there’s sometimes also a feeling of disgruntlement that the ending isn’t as perfect as it “could have been,” a vague sense that the book let me down somehow.
I got that feeling a little bit with The Tenth Power. Don’t get me wrong—I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was literally all I could think about during work for two whole days. I had to drag myself away from it in the morning. Constable’s enchanting prose, Calwyn’s struggles and triumphs, her relationship with Darrow, the twists and turns of the plot—all of these things worked together to create a great finish, one that’s satisfying and beautiful (if not bittersweet). The way this trilogy gripped me is still surprising to me. I don’t get entranced by books very often. The most recent ones I can think of are The Queen’s Thief books, which hold a different sort of enchantment to them. Yet something about Constable’s prose, the world, and especially the characters grabbed me from the get-go.
Maybe it’s because Calwyn is such a fallible protagonist. She makes plenty of mistakes in this book. She gets angry and arrogant, and there’s a part in the middle of the book where things get almost too crazy and there’s a bewitching atmosphere to everything that happens, and despite all her power and all she accomplishes, Calwyn still reads as totally human. And I’m glad of that because the middle-to-last third of the book is so strange that without Calwyn as an anchor, I probably would have been much more dissatisfied.
The book isn’t perfect. There’s that science-fiction-y, ships-from-space bit that doesn’t quite fit in the world. There are several character revelations that don’t fit well, either, but they at least work better than what happens with Calwyn and Samis (seriously…what was that?). But I loved the idea of the Tenth Power (words! And then it hits you that no one has read or written anything in the entire series), and Calwyn and Darrow are still my favorite. Bobbles aside, I haven’t enjoyed a trilogy as much as I enjoyed Constable’s in a long time.
The Waterless Sea continues the story of Calwyn and her friends after defeating Samis in his quest to learn all ten chantments. Now, Calwyn and Co. are on a quest to rescue two children from a country that enslaves chanters and uses them to keep the crumbling empire together. And that’s the part that’s probably the weakest part of the book: the motivation behind the quest. Oh, it’s established and explained at the beginning, but even knowing everything going on and knowing the characters, it seems a little thin that they would travel around the world simply for two children, when there are likely plenty of other children in other areas in similar plights that they haven’t bothered to go and rescue.
Motivation aside, Constable builds another great fantasy with the gloomy, dying country of Merithuros. Perhaps what brings the characters there is a hard sell (at least, for me it was), but once there, the unfolding of events is seamless. Constable’s prose is as haunting and beautiful as ever, and Calwyn continues to shine as the protagonist. Plus, I enjoy that her relationship with Darrow doesn’t stand in her way. Darrow gets his own bit of story in this novel, not really enough to establish more than background, but it at least fleshes him out a little bit and makes him less mysterious.
And the ending—well, I certainly wasn’t expecting it. That is, I was expecting some of what happened, but not the bittersweet note. And it makes me even more eager for the third book, to see what happens next for Calwyn. I haven’t felt this way about a fantasy series since I read Juliet Marillier’s books, and I love that middle grade fantasy books can still make me feel this way—excited, enthralled, and eager!
Winterhouse, by Ben Guterson, was published in 2018 by Henry Holt.
The cover of Winterhouse really appealed to me when I saw it in a bookstore. I really liked the cutout windows of the hotel, and I’m a sucker for “large houses filled with secrets” novels. Once I started reading it, the many puzzle references—and the reference to Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library—made me excited for a decent puzzle novel that had a plot a lot less far-fetched than said Lemoncello’s Library.
There’s lots of mystery and sinister figures once Elizabeth actually makes it to Winterhouse, and Guterson does a good job of revealing things at the right pace, so the reader stays with the book rather than get frustrated. The puzzles are a delight, though they do get a little too much eventually, especially when Elizabeth and her friend Freddy start yelling anagrams at each other. And while there’s no secret tunnels or rooms, a puzzle hidden throughout the hotel is almost as good.
However, I will say that the most disappointing aspect of this book was the aspect the entire thing hinged on: the supernatural. Not only are there puzzles to deal with, but also magic and malevolent spirits. Elizabeth and Freddy get caught up in a plot to bring back a witch who will destroy Winterhouse, and things started getting less fun for me in that moment. I’d rather have either a dedicated supernatural story, or a dedicated puzzle story, but not both. And the supernatural genre has never been my favorite, so perhaps that’s also why I was so disappointed.
The puzzles in Winterhouse are great, but the magic and the fight to prevent a spirit from reuniting with its body dragged down the book in my estimation a little. I’m just not a big fan of the supernatural genre. The characters were interesting (though the side characters were a little one-note), the puzzle aspect was fun (though I wish there was more with that; there was really only one puzzle that the characters had to solve—the rest they invented themselves as entertainment), and the cover and illustrations are gorgeous. However, I could have done without the ghostly ghouly stuff.