Halt’s Peril by John Flanagan

Halt’s Peril, by John Flanagan, was published in 2010 by Philomel. It is the sequel to The Kings of Clonmel.

Rangers walk the line between life and death every day, but never before has that line appeared so thin or death felt so certain. Hot on the trail of the Outsiders—a cult that’s been making its way from kingdom to kingdom, connoting the innocent out of their few valuables—Will and Halt are ambushed by the cult’s deadly assassins. Pierced by a poisoned arrow, Will’s mentor is near death and in dire need of the one antidote that can save his life. Time is not on Will’s side as he journeys day and night through the harsh terrain to Grimsdell Wood in search of the one person with the power to cure Halt: Malkallam the Sorcerer.

Rating: 3/5

The Kings of Clonmel may have been, in my opinion, the best of the “Part 1’s” of Ranger’s Apprentice, but Halt’s Peril may be the worst “Part 2.” That’s not to say the book isn’t good—it’s Ranger’s Apprentice; of course it’s good. But it lacks the intensity of some of the earlier books and the relatively slow pace throughout the middle of the book—despite the fast paced events dealing with Halt being poisoned—drags the plot on a little. It’s weird to say that a book is slow-paced when it’s at its most intense, every-second-counts moment, but something was certainly off about the pacing of this book. Or maybe the problem is that I found the resolution with Tennyson to be unsatisfying and anti-climactic after the exciting parts that came before it.

Speaking of exciting parts, I haven’t read this book in ten or so years and I vividly remembered one scene dealing with Will and the Genovesan right at the tail end of the poisoning plot. As in, I remembered what happened and what the characters said almost exactly—it was such a pivotal, stand-out moment in the book that it stood out to me and remained in my memory even after ten (or so) years. That part of the book shows just how far Will has come—as well as how far he will go to protect the ones he loves. And that ice-cold statement at the end of that particular chapter. Dang. No wonder it stuck in my brain.

I wouldn’t say Ranger’s Apprentice is declining in quality, but Halt’s Peril was a bit of a misstep in several respects. While it featured a gripping, tense plot midway through the book, the lead-up to that part, and the resolution that followed it, weren’t as good, resulting in me having an oddly dissatisfied feeling when I finished. After all that tension, the ending could not stand up to the rest and felt anticlimactic and overly prolonged. I suppose it was only natural that Ranger’s Apprentice would falter a little bit, and I’m glad it happened nine books in as opposed to sooner, but it’s still a little disappointing.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

Horace swung the cloak around him delightedly. Even though it was made for Halt’s smaller frame, the Ranger cloaks were of such a capacious design that it fitted him reasonably well. It would be far too short, of course, but on horseback that didn’t matter too much.

“I’ve always wanted one of these,” Horace said, grinning at the cloak. He pulled the deep cowl up over his head, hiding his face in its shadows, and gathered the gray-brown folds around him.

“Can you still see me?” he asked.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2sOIG6M

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss, was first published in 1812. I read the 1992 Bantam Classic version.

“For many days we had been tempest-tossed…the raging storm increased in fury until on the seventh day all hope was lost.” From these dire opening lines, a delightful story of adventure begins. One family will emerge alive from this terrible storm: the Robinsons—a Swiss pastor, his wife, and four sons, plus two dogs and a shipload of livestock, hens, pigeons, and geese! Inspired by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, this heartwarming tale portrays a family’s struggle to create a new life for themselves on a strange and fantastic tropical island. There each boy must learn to control his own nature—such as Ernest’s bookishness and Fritz’s hot temper—as their adventures lead to amazing discoveries, danger, and tantalizing surprises, including a puzzling message tie to an albatross’s leg. But it is the authenticity of the boys’ behavior, the ingenuity of the family, and the natural wonders of this exotic land that have made The Swiss Family Robinson, first published in 1812-1813, one of the world’s best-loved and most enduring stories of shipwreck and survival.

Rating: 4/5

I owned the Children’s Great Illustrated Classics version of The Swiss Family Robinson and read it many times when I was young. The entire concept of an island paradise where a family has to live off the land and does so successfully (and lives in a tree house!) fascinated me. I knew as I got older that the book I owned was abridged, but I wasn’t sure of how much had actually been cut out. So, I decided to pick it up to read the full thing for the first time—and also I wanted to relive that island paradise fantasy of mine.

Now, reading the original as an adult, I can see how silly that fantasy was—not because it’s wrong to imagine things like that, but because—realist that I am—I had a hard time believing that so much variety in animal and plant life would be on that island. I know there are penguins on Madagascar, so it’s not too much of a long shot to have penguins on an island in the Indian Ocean somewhere, but penguins and ostriches and lions and bears and seals and capybaras and jackals and hyenas and the myriad of other animals that are living on this apparently very large island? That’s a bit of a stretch. And yes, it makes for a great and fascinating tale, fulfilling all the “wild animal tamer” fantasies of many children (who doesn’t want to ride an ostrich?), but as an adult, it’s a bit harder to swallow.

That’s not to say I didn’t like the book. Even if the exact descriptions of planting, killing, skinning, crafting, cooking, etc. were a little wearing after a while, I still enjoyed the basic message and plot behind all the (oftentimes boring) details. Even if the tree house wasn’t as big or as majestic as I remember (thanks, Disney), I still liked the concept of a family surviving and thriving after what could have been a deadly accident.

The book gets a little preachy at times, but that’s common in a lot of 19th century literature. For the most part, Wyss devotes his time to describing how the family survives with a few interludes from the father about thankfulness and providence—not a bad thing to emphasize, just delivered a little clumsily.

The Swiss Family Robinson wasn’t as thrilling and imaginatively fantastic as I remember it being, but it still hits all the “shipwrecked on a deserted island” boxes—and then some! The emphasis on the technicalities of how the Robinson’s survived is, perhaps, a bit much at times, and it’s hard to believe that any island could be as varied in flora and fauna as the one the Robinson’s are on, but there’s still wonder and fascination to be had when reading it. However, even after reading the original, I think the Children’s Illustrated Classic edition will still be the one that has the biggest stamp on my mind and memory—it was just that fascinating to me.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

“Stop, stop, my boy!” cried I. “All will be done in good time. Tomorrow and the day after will bring work of their own. And tell me, did you see no traces of our shipmates?”

“Not a sign of them, either on land or sea, living or dead,” he replied.

“But the sucking pig,” said Jack, “where did you get it?”

“It was one of several,” said Fritz, “which I found on the shore; most curious animals they are. They hopped rather than walked, and every now and then would squat down on their legs and rub their snouts with their forepaws. Had not I been afraid of losing them all, I would have tried to catch one alive, they seemed so tame.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2rI2vtD

Poison is Not Polite by Robin Stevens

Poison is Not Polite, by Robin Stevens, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster. It is the sequel to Murder is Bad Manners.

When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong visit Daisy’s sprawling countryside estate for the holidays, Daisy’s mother throws her daughter an extravagant birthday tea party. Then one of the guests falls mysteriously ill—and everything points to poison. With wild storms preventing anyone from leaving (and the police from arriving), Daisy’s home is suddenly a very dangerous place to be. Everyone is keeping secrets. When someone very close to Daisy look suspicious, the Wells and Wong Detective Society must do everything they can to reveal the truth…no matter the consequences.

Rating: 4/5

Poison is Not Polite (Arsenic for Tea in the UK) continues the fun, charming yet surprisingly deep at times story that I found so delightful about Murder is Bad Manners. Daisy and Hazel are back with another murder mystery, this one establishing a bit more character for Daisy as her family members are all suspects.

I didn’t know whether or not I liked Daisy in the first book, and although this book gave her a bit more development I still don’t know how I feel. I found her a little less annoying in Poison because I understood her character better, but she’s not a character type I’ve ever really liked so the jury’s still out on her. Hazel, however, is delightful and Kitty and Beany are great additions to the detective society as well.

I found the mystery in this one a little more obvious than Murder—as well as some of the other reveals—but I also fell into the same kind of thinking that Daisy and Hazel did, which meant the reveal was still a surprise, if only in its execution as opposed to its “whodunit” value. Stevens is a remarkably good mystery writer, not just in putting together the pieces of a puzzle but also in having her characters figure it out. Hazel and Daisy never take logical leaps or stretch the evidence more than is warranted; everything is carefully thought out and executed by Stevens, which makes for a nice, natural flow to the book as a whole.

I’m still going to hold out on a 5/5 rating for this series until one of the books completely blows me away. Poison is Not Polite is great, but not excellent, and even though I’m thoroughly enjoying the series so far, the “wow” factor is not quite there yet. Good mystery and characters aside, there’s still something missing—and I’m not quite sure what it is yet.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade

“How handsome!” Aunt Saskia was staring at the watch, and her eyes were glinting. She looked as though she wanted to lick her lips.

“Oh—this?” asked Mr. Curtis jauntily. “A memento. I do like having beautiful things around me.”

“Do you indeed?” asked Uncle Felix, in his most silky voice.

They stared at each other down across the table. Everything had suddenly become very tense.

“Goodness!” cried Lady Hastings. “What has got into you all? We ought to be celebrating. Let’s have a toast. To the party! May this weekend be absolutely perfect!”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2sybnmL

The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty

The Cracks in the Kingdom, by Jaclyn Moriarty, was published in 2014 by Arthur A. Levine. It is the sequel to A Corner of White.

Princess Ko’s been bluffing about the mysterious absence of her father, desperately trying to keep the government running on her own. But if she can’t get him back in a matter of weeks, the consequence might be a devastating war. SO under the guise of a publicity stunt, she gathers a group of teens from across the country to play to the media in a series of carefully orchestrated photo ops. In reality, each of these teens has a special ability, and together they will attempt to crack the unsolvable case of the missing royals of Cello. Chief among these is farm-boy heartthrob Elliot Baranski, more determined to find his own father than ever. And with the royal family trapped in the World with no memory of their former lives, Elliot’s value to the Alliance becomes clear: He’s the only one with a connection to the World, through his forbidden communications with Madeleine Tully. Together, sharing notes, letters, and late nights, Elliot and Madeleine must find a way to travel across worlds and bring missing loved ones home.

Rating: 4/5

As with A Corner of White, I found the Madeleine sections of The Cracks in the Kingdom a bit too odd, a bit too quirky and pseudo-poetic/philosophical to be realistic or enticing. It fits with the Elliott sections because Cello is a fantasy world and it’s set up as an odd one and so all of that flows together, but when the Madeleine sections stray into that same mindset, it’s jarring. It’s also not my mindset, so perhaps that’s also where the disconnect lies–I have trouble connecting with characters who don’t sound real to me when they’re supposed to be “realistic.”

However, despite my problems with some aspects of characterization, I did really enjoy The Cracks in the Kingdom. I especially enjoyed the Cello parts, because that’s where the plot shined–some of the Madeleine bits seemed a bit tacked on–and the plot itself was nice and twisty and intricate, just the way I like my plots. Perhaps the ending reveal was a bit too convenient, but it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

In parts, The Cracks in the Kingdom is so odd as to be jarring and Madeleine, Belle, and Jack still do not seem realistic to me. They seem like caricatures of real people, much more like Cello than the world seems to indicate, much more like the world they’re not a part of than the world they are. Luckily, though, the charm and wonder of Cello carries through, redeeming the sections of the book where Moriarty gets especially quirky, and showing off its own quirkiness in a much more natural fashion. The plot promises to be more intricate than the first book (or, at least, more obviously intricate) and it carries through on that promise. I’ll be picking up the last book to see where the story takes us and how Moriarty brings it to an end.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2sziyNB

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross

The Fog Diver, by Joel Ross, was published in 2015 by Harper.

A deadly white mist has cloaked the earth for hundreds of years. Humanity clings to the highest mountain peaks, where the wealthy Five Families rule over the crowded slums and rambling junkyards. As the ruthless Lord Kodoc patrols the skies to enforce order, thirteen-year-old Chess and his crew scavenge in the Fog-shrouded ruins for anything they can sell to survive. Hazel is the captain of their salvage raft: bold and daring. Swedish is the pilot: suspicious and strong. Bea is the mechanic: cheerful and brilliant. And Chess is the tether boy: quiet and quick…and tougher than he looks. But Chess has a secret, one he’s kept hidden his whole life. One that lord Kodoc is desperate to exploit for his own evil plans. And even as Chess unearths the crew’s biggest treasure ever, they are running out of time.

Rating: 1/5

I’m starting to realize that I’m not a fan of books that take place in our world hundreds of years later after some sort of natural disaster or pollution destroys/changes the earth. It lends to some really sloppy worldbuilding, where the writer throws in random references to things without rhyme or reason, simply because he or she thinks it would be funny. That’s the type of worldbuilding in The Fog Diver, where even though it’s been hundreds of years, Chess’s father somehow has a scrapbook of current pop culture that contains references to completely random things that aren’t connected in any way but are cobbled together for humor. Where did Chess’s father even get that information?

So, yes, the worldbuilding in The Fog Diver was not my cup of tea, to put it lightly. There also seemed many things wrong with it besides just random references, such as the fact that even though they live on mountaintops, not only do the mountaintops have green peaks (how high up does this fog go, and why is there never any description of snow at all?) but all the kids know what a camel is (because there are camels on the mountains, apparently), even though there’s no feasible reason as to why there would be camels. Are they in a mountain near a place where camels were? And if there’s camels, why aren’t there horses? Why aren’t there mentions of mountainous animals such as mountain goats, sheep, llamas, whatever? Why do they even know words like “coyote”? I get that people suddenly inhabiting mountaintops might dilute the animal population, but surely these animals would still be around because of the milk, wool, and food possibilities.

Basically, the world makes absolutely no sense; it’s as if Ross just ran with the idea of mountaintop living without actually thinking about what that would actually mean. I’m okay with the kids knowing what wheat is, since wheat can be grown on mountains, but I had shifty eyes throughout much of the book regarding most of what was revealed about the world.

In addition, the writing isn’t that great, and Chess’s angst about who he is is piled on a little too thickly. The book is also poorly paced; the beginning trudges on and by the time the end hits you realize the entire book was about one thing that the group talked about in the beginning and took the entire book to actually complete. I’m also left with zero curiosity about the Fog, any machine that may or may not control it, and anything else having to do with this world and the characters. The Fog Diver is poorly conceived and poorly explained and simply isn’t interesting enough to make up for its worldbuilding flaws.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Dystopian, Steam Punk, Middle Grade

What was going on? Were we running? From what?

I climbed my tether, hand over hand, swinging sideways as the raft turned in crazy angles. I reached the deck just in time to catch a glimpse of Bea vanishing into a hatch. At the wheel, Swedish handled the lumbering three-ballooned raft like a racing thopper, playing hide-and-seek behind white waves of Fog.

I climbed toward the crow’s nest. “What’s going—”

“Mutineers,” Hazel said without lowering her spyglass.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2t4GPrU

Murder is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens

Murder is Bad Manners, by Robin Stevens, was published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster.

When boarding school students Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells set up their very own secret detective agency, they struggle to find any exciting mysteries to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie. Which they don’t.) Then Hazel discovers Miss Bell lying dead on the gym floor. Before Hazel can tell anyone what she’s seen, the body mysteriously disappears, seemingly without a trace. Now Hazel and Daisy not only have a murder to solve—they have to prove a murder happened in the first place….Can the Well and Wong Detective Society get to the bottom of the crime before the killer strikes again? And can Hazel and Daisy’s friendship stand the test?

Rating: 4/5

Murder is Bad Manners, also published as Murder Most Unladylike (a title I like better, actually), is everything that I love about MG or YA mysteries. The characters are interesting, the murder is intriguingly complex (if a little obvious, but I’ll put that down to me reading lots of mysteries), there’s humor sprinkled amidst the tension, and it’s the sort of book that sucks you in right away and makes you not want to put the book down until you’re done.

To be honest, the only reason I didn’t give it a 5/5 is that I want some room for the other books in the series. Also, there were some bits in the middle that I didn’t like as much as the rest because they seemed a trifle clumsy.

Oh, and Daisy drove me a little crazy at times, so there’s that. She was arrogant and dismissive of Hazel’s talents one too many times for me to really like her, and throughout the entire middle portion of the book, I kept rooting for Hazel to dump her as a friend since Daisy was an awful one. But Stevens does a good job of redeeming Daisy, at least a little, and implying that a lot of how Daisy acts is a persona she uses to hide her true self, as young people often do. So, by the end of the book, I had thawed slightly towards Daisy, although I still think she’ll need a lot of redemption for me to truly like her as a character.

Murder is Bad Manners is the first book in what I hope will continue to be an intriguing, fun, complex mystery series. I love a good mystery, especially when the audience of the book doesn’t bring down the intricacy that a mystery plot requires at times.  Hopefully, the other books in the series are as fun, charming, and engaging as I found this one.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade

“A teacher!” I gasped, horrified. “That’s why they’re all pretending that nothing’s wrong!”

“Well, not all of them did it,” Daisy pointed out. “But the one who did—whoever it was—has managed to bamboozle the others with that note. That’s what Mamzelle meant about not ‘prying into Miss Bell’s affairs.’ This is really it, Hazel. This means that it’s up to us! If the Detective Society doesn’t do something, nobody will!”

I had a momentary un-detective-like pang. “Are you sure we shouldn’t just go to the police?” I asked.

“Don’t be stupid,” said Daisy severely. “We don’t have any evidence yet. We don’t even have a body. They’d simply laugh at us. No, we’re on our own. And anyway, this is our murder case.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2r1j5UY

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded, by Sage Blackwood, was published in 2017 by Katherine Tegen.

At Miss Ellicott’s School for Magical Maidens, girls train to become sorceresses by learning about Spells, Potions, Wards, Summonings…and, most important, Deportment. The city’s people need sorceresses to protect them, but the magical maidens are taught to behave themselves so they don’t frighten anyone. Chantel would much rather focus on her magic than on curtseying—and sometimes she just can’t help but give people a Look. Her attitude often gets her in trouble, especially with the headmistress, the terrifying Miss Ellicott. Then Miss Ellicott mysteriously vanishes, along with all the other sorceresses in the city. Without any magic protecting the city, the fearsome Marauders threaten the lives of everyone that Chantel cares about…and even though Chantel and her friends were once banned from practicing battle spells, it’s now up to them to save the Kingdom. As they embark on this dangerous journey, Chantel must cope with a crossbow-wielding boy, a dragon, and the patriarchs who want to control the new, fiery magic that burns inside her. But can she find the sorceresses and transform Lightning Pass into the city it was meant to be?

Rating: 3/5

I absolutely loved the Jinx trilogy, so I was excited to pick up this new book from Blackwood. The super cute cover also fueled my enthusiasm, as well as the idea of a magic school—because as overdone as those can be, they’re also fun to read about. And Blackwood did handle the magic school aspect well, with less emphasis on the schooling and more emphasis on the students.

I didn’t find Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded as immediately gripping and interesting as I found Jinx, however. The beginning of the book suffers from things happening much too quickly as well as an unoriginal character type and protagonist in Chantel, who luckily gets better as the book progresses. There’s also events and interactions in the first part of the book that are laid on entirely too thick, as well as a skewed sense of world—not much is built of the world, vague mentions of taxes are thrown around to incite tension, and many times “the people” or “the citizens” or such are mentioned but there is only a vague, amorphous idea attached. The city feels as if it’s inhabited only by the characters mentioned in the book by name and no others. It makes some of the final moments less tense and more vague, in my opinion. It’s nice that Chantel cares so much about her city and the people within it, but it’s harder to care with her when what she’s protecting is a faceless mass fighting another faceless mass.

The ending was also hard to swallow, particularly what happens to Chantel, but I suppose it’s believable in the sense that no one was going to argue with a girl riding a dragon. Still, I’m not particularly content—Chantel suddenly in charge seems like a little much. Perhaps the book was simply too small to get an adequate sense of development.

I enjoyed Miss Ellicott’s School, but I found too many flaws in it and had too many problems with it to be as content and happy as I was when I read Jinx. Maybe it’s just that I don’t like a majority of female protagonists; maybe because I like my fantasy worlds a little bit more developed and my plots a little less fast-paced. It’s a good book, but Blackwood has written better.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“I have to do it because I’m the Chosen One,” said Anna. “It’s what she told me.”

“She told me I was the Chosen One too,” Chantel reminded her. “But she never said anything about coming up on the roof and spinning around.”

“She told me always to remember,” said Anna. “‘At the dawning of the day/Face the sun and turn away.’”

“Why?”

“How should I know? She just did,” said Anna. “Maybe it’s some kind of spell.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2qJPjUr

The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford

The Left-Handed Fate, by Kate Milford, was published in 2016 by Henry Holt.

Lucy Bluecrowne and Maxwell Ault are on a mission: find the three pieces of a strange and arcane engine they believe can stop the endless war raging between their home country of England and Napoleon Bonaparte’s France. During the search, however, their ship, the famous privateer the Left-Handed Fate, is taken by the Americans, who have just declared war on England, too. The Fate (and, with it, Lucy and Max) is put under the command of new midshipman Oliver Dexter…who’s only just turned twelve. But Lucy and Max aren’t the only ones trying to assemble the engine; the French are after it, as well as the crew of a mysterious vessel that seems able to appear out of thin air. When Oliver discovers what his prisoners are really up to—and how dangerous the device could be if it falls into the wrong hands—he is faced with a choice: Help Lucy and Max even if it makes him a traitor to his own country? Or follow orders and risk endangering countless lives, including those of the enemies who have somehow become his friends?

Rating: 5/5

Kate Milford has done it again. I loved her book Greenglass House and The Left-Handed Fate is—nearly—as perfect. It’s a well-written, intriguing, fascinating historical fiction with hints (and more than hints) of fantasy woven through it. It gives a great deal of information about the War of 1812 and seamanship in general. Every character is interesting and they interact in ways that are believable in each circumstance they run into.

Apparently this book is a continuation/companion of other books Milford has written about Nagspeake, but it’s not necessary to have read them. I had no trouble at all understanding the world and I have only read Greenglass House before this one. There is enough explained with the characters that nothing seems missing; backstory is given when necessary and when not, small details are given that fill in possible gaps. Milford does a great job of bringing in an audience who may not be familiar with her other books.

I said The Left-Handed Fate was nearly perfect, so now here’s the ways I felt it faltered a bit—not enough to drop its rating, ultimately, but enough for me to comment on.

First, there’s a conversation between Liao and Max that is really odd, or maybe teeth-clenching irritating, or simply nonsensical. Basically, Liao believes that weapons have feelings and that they like it better if they’re used for good rather than evil, which makes absolutely no sense but he’s nine, so whatever. Then Max starts thinking about cannons/gunpowder being chemical reactions and then thinks about how people are exactly like that. Yes, people are exactly like cannons. Just chemical reactions. That explains why we have thoughts and emotions. You know, just like cannons. *eyeroll*

Second, the whole Copley thing is very hard to believe. Even harder to believe than a black ship that appears out of nowhere. I mean, the latter is clearly magic. The former is…some combination of magic and science fiction? An artificial intelligence brought to life by a golden elixir? I don’t know—for some reason, I had a hard time accepting that part of the book. I can do ghostly black ships and blue lights appearing out of nowhere. I can’t do a computer that functions on magical juice.

However, those flaws are not serious enough to significantly affect my liking of The Left-Handed Fate. Overall, I thought it was well written, engaging, and a wonderful historical fiction novel.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

“I had that piece for years,” Jeton said. “It was brought to me damaged and the repairs were complicated, but they only took as long as they did because I made them take that long. I strung the work out as long as I possibly could, in hopes that your father would answer my letter or turn up. If either he or you had managed to get here before war had been declared, you could have had it, and welcome. I would have lied to the owner, claimed the shop had been robbed—I had the whole story worked out. But you didn’t arrive in time.”

“My father couldn’t come because he was dead,” Max retorted. “It made traveling difficult for him, you understand.”

Jeton’s eyes hardened at the sarcasm. “It was more than a year and a half ago that your father passed, may he rest in peace.”

“I came as soon as I could!” Max said wretchedly. “And then we were attacked twice in the Chesapeake. If not for that, we should have been here before—”

“But you weren’t here, and we are at war, and I will not turn traitor. There are those who might do it, but I am not one of them.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2pUH2k5

The Kings of Clonmel by John Flanagan

The Kings of Clonmel, by John Flanagan, was published in 2010 by Philomel. It is the sequel to Erak’s Ransom.

When mankind seeks protection from the world’s many dangers, they put their faith in warriors, kings, gods, and even money. In the neighboring kingdom of Clonmel, a mysterious cult has sprung up, promising defense against lawless marauders in exchange for people’s riches. Their sermons are attracting audiences from mils around, but there’s a dark side to this seemingly charitable group, prompting Halt, Will and Horace to investigate. What the trio uncovers could threaten the safety of not only Clonmel, but their homeland of Araluen as well.

Rating: 4/5

The Kings of Clonmel is yet another Part 1 of 2 book, but it’s the best of the Part 1’s, in my opinion. A lot of the intrigue is this book is resolved, but there are still loose threads that will carry over to the next book—which is what makes The Kings of Clonmel a better Part 1 than those that came before it (The Icebound Land and The Sorcerer of the North).

Will continues to grow, but also continues to prove that he is a fully-fledged Ranger who can stand on his own and solve his own problems. Halt is Halt—awesome, but not so awesome that he seems inhuman. He does step in and solve a lot of the other characters’ problems, including Will’s and Horace’s, but it’s much less noticeable and invasive than it seemed at the beginning of the series, especially since Will and Horace can hold their own now. And Flanagan is clearly prepping for what will happen in the next book and the character development that will come about because of it, things that are a little more noticeable if you’ve read the series before. There’s not obvious clues, but there is a little bit of telegraphing, which I think is pretty neat.

The one thing that seems the most out of place or unrealistic in the series, something I noticed most prominently in Erak’s Ransom, is the horses. I’m definitely not an expert on horse training, so I could be way off base, but to me it seemed that the Ranger horses are stretching it a bit in terms of believability. But perhaps horses can actually be trained to react to noises and whatever else the Ranger horses do—it is plausible, but for some reason, in the story I’m not buying it so much.

The Kings of Clonmel is yet another enjoyable, awesome book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series. These books are just plain fun to read and it helps that the plot and other details are quite good, as is the world building. This book was the best “Part 1 of 2” in the series, a good sign that Flanagan is continuously improving in his writing—which means better books to come.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

“You can swim, I assume?”

“Yes, I can swim,” Colly said. “But I’m not going jumping off some bluff just because you say so!”

“No, no. Of course not. That’d be asking far too much of you. You’ll jump off because if you don’t, I’ll shoot you. It’ll be the same effect, really. If I have to shoot you, you’ll fall off. But I thought I’d give you a chance to survive.” Halt paused, then added, “Oh, and if you decide to run downhill, I’ll also shoot you with an arrow. Uphill and off is really your only chance of survival.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2q0liBH

The Healing Spell by Kimberly Griffiths Little

The Healing Spell, by Kimberly Griffiths Little, was published in 2010 by Scholastic.

Eleven-year-old Livie is keeping a secret, and it’s crushing her. She knows she is responsible for her mother’s coma, but she can’t tell anyone. And it’s up to her to find a way to wake her mamma before anyone uncovers the truth of what really happened. Added to the list of Livie’s problems are being stuck in the middle of three sisters, trying to hide a forbidden pet alligator, and possibly disappointing her daddy, whom she loves more than anyone else. Livie feels like an outsider and prefers the solitude of the wild bayou to her ever-crowded home. But she can’t run away from her troubles, and as she struggles to find her place within her family, Livie learns a lot about the powers of faith and redemption. Is her heat big enough to heal her mamma and bring her family back together?

Rating: 4/5

The Healing Spell is a charming, heartwarming story about a young girl who both longs for and dreads her mother waking up from a coma and the lessons she learns about love, her family, and herself along the way. It’s got a nice balance of “this is what this means” and “this might be what this means but I’m not going to say it straight out” and it never crosses the line into triteness.

While the plot, and especially its ending, is predictable, it’s not so predictable that you don’t enjoy the journey along the way. Books like this one tend to make me cry, and while The Healing Spell didn’t quite get there, Livie’s moments of sadness and loneliness are well-executed and never seem over-the-top or melodramatic. Similarly, her moments of learning and realization are also well-done and, as I mentioned above, the message is delivered in a good balance of subtle, but not so subtle as to be nearly invisible.

The book itself is a beautiful example of faith amidst sorrow and hope amidst despair. I know some people would probably hate this book for its ending, but I think the ending was appropriate; it fit the situation and what the author was trying to say. It wasn’t preachy, but there was definitely a message there to be delivered. The Healing Spell is a lovely book and I’m glad I picked it up.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

“And you got yourself a baby gator!”

I nodded. “Isn’t he beautiful?”

Jeannie leaned over to touch the top of his head. “I think he likes you.”

I held him up and looked him in the eye. He opened his mouth and showed off his tiny pearly teeth. “I think I’ll call you T-Baby.” The tiny gator was staring up at me as if I was his mamma. It was the funniest thing.

“What are you gonna do with him? You aren’t taking him home, are you?”

I shrugged. “No, just keeping my eye on him.”

“My daddy would tan my hide if he saw me with a baby alligator.”

“My daddy, too,” I admitted, but a longing rose in my heart. I wanted that baby gator to be mine.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2pW7olF