The Dalemark Quartet, Volume I by Diana Wynne Jones

The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 1: Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet, by Diana Wynne Jones, was published in 2005 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 4/5

I haven’t read Diana Wynne Jones in such a long time, and this book has been sitting on my TBR (“to be read”) pile for quite literally years. I’ve read the Dalemark books before, so I was familiar with the story, but it was so great to experience Jones and her writing and her worlds again.

Cart and Cwidder tells the story of Moril, who has to help escort a mysterious young boy to the North. Along the way, they stumble into the path of an army and have to prevent an invasion. The basics of Dalemark are established in this book: the North and the South have been in conflict for years. The South is much less free than the North. Moril inherits a cwidder (I’m guessing like a lute) from his father, which was the cwidder of a famous hero of old, and he discovers that it’s magical. In terms of tropes, everything is very familiar, but Jones weaves everything together in her trademark way and makes things interesting. I also liked the way Moril figured out how the cwidder works: you have to sing things that are truth, not opinion. I think that’s a good message that emphasizes the different between opinion and truth. Moril is a bit of a dull character, though, since he doesn’t get a lot of development.

Drowned Ammet I thought was much better story-wise than Cart and Cwidder, and there was much better development as well. I wrote an essay in college about true names in fantasy, and I used this book as an example. The book takes place near about the same time as Cart and Cwidder, though the bulk of it takes place after the events of the latter. I found this one much more interesting, since Mitt was a more interesting character and I liked the mechanics of the magic better in this one. I’ve also always enjoyed the big reveal at the end.

Hopefully the next two books in the quartet won’t take me years to get to! I think Drowned Ammet has always been my favorite, but if I remember correctly, the last two books bring in a Big Bad Villain that ties everything together.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Assassination attempts, hints at violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2M4fvoh

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The Singer of All Songs by Kate Constable

The Singer of All Songs, by Kate Constable, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

I have an unwavering soft spot for fantasies like The Singer of All Songs. It reminded me of Juliet Marillier’s The Caller trilogy a little bit, which I loved. This book has beautiful writing, good worldbuilding, interesting magic, a female protagonist who’s strong without being rebellious or good at fighting, and a really sweet undercurrent of romance.

Maybe the explanation is that I just really like fantasies written in the 2000s. Some of the more annoying tropes hadn’t crept their way into books yet. Calwyn doesn’t do a lot of fighting, nor does she rebel against tradition. She’s understated, but still subtly strong. She’s sweet, but fierce; peaceful, but unyielding; determined, but not brash. She makes bad decisions occasionally, but it makes her feel more human. And I’m impressed that Constable went in a different direction with her than I thought would be the case.

Second to my love for Calwyn is my love for Calwyn and Darrow. Like Marillier’s The Caller, the romance is subtle, complicated, and sweet. I adore romances like this one. And even though it doesn’t end as satisfactorily or as resolvedly as I might like, there’s still the promise of the sequels. Darrow himself is just a tiny bit bland, but it’s his background and interactions with the villain, Samis, that are the most interesting (which is a bit of pity, since I like the romance so much). And he remains mysterious right to the end.

The Singer of All Songs is the sort of fantasy that I look for and long for. Absent of any sort of cultural relation or tired trope, there’s only beautiful writing, interesting magic, and a plot that is made more intriguing by the strength of the characters. The book isn’t perfect—but it’s close.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2GJe7bz

Close Kin by Clare B. Dunkle

Close Kin, by Clare B. Dunkle, was published in 2004 by Henry Holt. It is the sequel to The Hollow Kingdom.

Rating: 3/5

I adored The Hollow Kingdom, so finding out there were two more books after it made me really happy. Close Kin is about Emily, the sister of Kate (the protoganist in The Hollow Kingdom), but it’s also about Seylin and his quest to find the elves, and the elves themselves, particularly the two female elves.

I didn’t enjoy Close Kin as much as I enjoyed the first book—there’s just a few too many places where the pace drags, and the elf history is convoluted and hard to understand. And the last third of the book is almost a rehash of The Hollow Kingdom, except a little harder to take and with a greater emphasis on children. I know that many people might not like that Dunkle emphasizes children so much, but it makes sense in the world she has built. If Marak seems a bit heartless, well, his role as King is to help protect the life of his people, and having children is one of those things. So that part I didn’t mind—plus I thought the parts with Sable overcoming her fear were good, too.

Speaking of Marak, the dry humor and wit he exudes with every line is fabulous. I literally laughed out loud, or giggled, during the last third of the book, solely due to his lines. That doesn’t happen with me a lot. Basically, all the parts in the goblin kingdom I liked—it’s when the book moves away from that where it fell apart a little bit. There are simply too many characters, and the point of view switch from Emily, to Seylin, to Sable is just one too many switches, especially since by the end of the book it’s not really about Emily anymore, or Seylin, but Sable. I liked Sable’s parts, but it made for a clumsy, confusing story.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2CtGFSa

Patina by Jason Reynolds

Patina, by Jason Reynolds, was published in 2017 by Atheneum. It is the sequel to Ghost.

Rating: 3/5

Though Patina is the sequel to Ghost, it’s not really necessary to have read Ghost first, though it does give you added insight to some of the characters. I like the whole idea Reynolds is going for: a book centered on each of the four central characters. If the pattern holds, each one will take place after the one before it. Patina starts where Ghost left off, finishing the race that Reynolds ended Ghost with.

Reynolds ends this book with another race, and yet again ends the book before we see the results. I like it as much as I liked it in Ghost, which is to say, not at all, and I hope it’s not a sign of a pattern.

Anyway, I don’t think I liked Patina as much as I liked GhostGhost tugged at the heartstrings a little bit more, though I liked the sibling relationship in this book and the conversations about Patina’s white aunt. And I liked that Reynolds didn’t go for the standard bully story in school, but simply had complex characters with different motivations, with Patina trying to understand their actions. But Ghost really pulled at me, whereas Patina was good, but not as immediately connecting as I found Ghost.

I do, however, still really like this series and am eager to read the next two books about Sunny and Lu. I’ve seen enough of their characters in these two books that I want to know more about their lives—which, I guess, is part of what Reynolds is trying to do. And I love the uniqueness of each character, and how their lives are so different in so many ways, and yet they can come together with the common interesting of running. Unity in diversity is a great message to deliver.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, was published in 2009 by Little, Brown and Company.

Rating: 1/5

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has won a lot of acclaim for its portrayal of Indian culture and its subversion and denunciation of common stereotypes. However, to be honest, I didn’t really notice much of that in the book itself—I was too distracted by the vulgar and inappropriate content that left me feeling very uncomfortable.

I did notice that Junior used a lot of blanket statements and generalizations, though. So much so that it started to undermine his role as a cultural-barrier-crosser. Then again, he IS just a teenager, so that seems par for the course, unfortunately.

I also didn’t appreciate the complete lack of care that was given in describing bulimia, or the biased statements about religion.

Basically, what I’m saying is that I almost DNF (that’s “did not finish”) the book. And it’s mostly because of the gross, inappropriate teenage boy content and jokes that went on for far too long.

There were some good things about the book. I liked the theme of friendship and loyalty, as well as the potential conversations that could arise about loyalty to family, culture, and race. But I mostly wanted it to be over so I could stop reading all the sexual content.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Sexual situations, swearing, mentions of masturbation and erections, bulimia, alcoholism.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2RacvZi

Saturdays at Sea by Jessica Day George

Saturdays at Sea, by Jessica Day George, was published in 2017 by Bloomsbury. It is the sequel to Fridays with the Wizards.

Rating: 2/5

The Castle Glower series is going a little bit the way of the Wide-Awake Princess series, in my opinion. There’s definitely things that are connecting each book together, but each book feels more tired and pale than the last. Too many old formulas are used and there’s not enough variety to spice it up. As a book series for kids, I can see why George would rely on things she’s used before, but for me as an adult, I don’t find them compelling any more.

If you like the formula of the Castle Glower books, Saturdays at Sea continues in that vein: lots of griffins, some humor, and more revelations about the world and the Castle. In this book, unicorns are introduced, and I did like that George showed them in a different way than you would think of unicorns today. There’s a small amount of characterization with Celie, but not really enough to make any big character changes. These sorts of books tend to keep their characters the same way, which is probably what bothers me the most.

If you liked the other books in the series, then you will probably enjoy this one, too. For me, it was too much of the same-old, same-old, and not enough improvement in terms of writing or characterization. There’s also way too many animals—dogs and griffins and now unicorns are all jostling for position alongside a healthy cast of characters. I definitely would go back and read Tuesdays at the Castle again, but I don’t really want to re-read any of the others.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2DxeIKk

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, was published in 2015 by Dial.

Rating: 4/5

The War That Saved My Life is about Ada and her brother, Jamie, who are sent to the country to escape the threat of Hitler (well, Jamie is sent—Ada sneaks along). Ada has a clubfoot and a terrible mother, and knows almost nothing about human interaction or the outside world. The book is basically a coming-of-age story for Ada, who learns many things while staying with Susan, the woman who took her and Jamie in, as well as a story of strength and survival.

There’s a lot going on in this book to unpack. There’s the background of World War II at the beginning, leading to its outright interference towards the end, so we get stories of heroes and spies at the same time as Ada is finding her own inner strength. We have Ada’s journey, from abused to hero, and her growing reconciliation with the fact that her clubfoot doesn’t make her worthy of less love. We have Susan’s journey, from depressed lonely woman to someone who grows to care fiercely for the children. And Jamie gets a mini-journey as well, though he never felt a believable six-year-old to me.

It’s a Newbery Honor book, and deservedly so. It’s a heartwrenching, heartwarming story of love and family. The inclusion of World War II isn’t toned down; it’s brutal and scary and shows just the sort of atmosphere that must have existed at the time.  Of course, the best part of the book is Ada, though Susan’s own journey is almost as important. However, there’s a scene at the end where Ada confronts her mother that is supposed to be the strongest part of the book, but I found to be a little confusing and a little too cut-and-dry. Despite that, though, The War That Saved My Life is powerful and memorable, and one of the better stories that handles abuse and disability.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2CR9sl5

2015 Newbery Medal: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, was published in 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“A bolt of lightning on my kicks…/ The court is sizzling. / My sweat is drizzling. / Stop all that quivering. / Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” raps basketball phenom Josh Bell. Thanks to his dad, he and his twin brother, Jordan, are kings on the court, with crossovers that make even the toughest ballers cry. But Josh has more than hoops in his blood. He’s got a river of rhymes flowing through him—a sick flow that helps him find his rhythm when everything’s on the line. As their winning season unfolds, things begin to change. When Jordan meets the new girl in school, the twins’ tight-knight bond unravels. In this heartfelt novel, basketball and brotherhood intertwine to show Josh and Jordan that life doesn’t come with a playbook and, sometimes, it’s not about winning.

Rating: 4/5

I’m not a huge fan of novels written in verse, but The Crossover won me over. Alexander made the format actually fit in a way that made sense; there was a reason that’s important to the story why it was written this way, and it really would not have been the same book at all if it had been written in prose. Not many novels-in-verse are like that.

This book is remarkably sad, as befitting a Newbery Medal (I kid, but seriously, Newbery Medal winners often have some poignancy attached), and the worst part is that what makes it so sad is the unnecessariness of it all. You can see the sadness coming from a mile away, and all you want to do is scream at the characters and get them to prevent what’s coming, but of course, that’s not how books work.

Despite the sadness, The Crossover is quite funny, and there’s even a happy ending of sorts. More bittersweet than happy, perhaps. And Alexander does a great job of conveying all the various emotions of everyone, not just Josh, so that really helps give the characters more depth.

The one thing that I found confusing was simply the basketball terminology. Even after having a crossover explained to me, I still had no idea what the point of it was or why it seemed to be so important in basketball. It would have been nice to have someone explain why it’s important to have a good crossover, but perhaps that would have broken up the flow of the book.

The Crossover actually reminded me quite a bit of some my students, who I think might really enjoy this book—even if it is written in verse! It’s sad and funny and heartwarming and bittersweet in all the right places in all the right times. I’m still not a fan of novels in verse, but The Crossover is one of my favorites of the style.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2DB5zBY

Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Ghosts of Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, was published in 2017 by Clarion. It is the sequel to Greenglass House.

Milo keeps waiting for that special relief that usually settles in at the start of winter vacation. But it’s not coming. For one thing, there’s no snow, and it’s hard to get into the spirit when all you have to work with is a crust of stupid frost. For another, it’s been a tough couple of weeks at school, thanks to a teacher who doesn’t get how much Milo hates having attention called to him, and to his adoption. Then there’s the lone guest staying at his family’s inn, an art student who seems determined not to leave until he’s sketched very single stained-glass window in the place. Worst of all, Milo’s friend Meddy has been conspicuously absent for a long, long time. It’s almost enough to make him wish for a winter break like last year’s, when his house was full of secretive guests and unexpected mysterious, and Meddy had helped him unravel it all. There’s no chance of that happening again, though; Milo is certain of it. Until the bell rings.

Rating: 3/5

I loved Greenglass House, so of course I had to pick up the sequel! Ghosts of Greenglass House picks up a year after the events of the first novel. It’s been a while since I read the first book, but luckily Milford does a good job of filling in enough of the gaps that I wasn’t completely lost. The fantasy element is even stronger in this book, and the mystery is delightfully twisty as well.

I did think the mystery, or parts of it, was easier to figure out than the first book. The truly shocking reveal I figured out beforehand, but there was another one I didn’t see coming, so that was delightful. There were a few aspects that I found a little confusing, but for the most part, all of the clues were integrated really well into the novel, so much so that I never picked up on them until the characters explicitly pointed them out.

The story aspect that I really enjoyed from the first book is back, as well. I love books that emphasize the power of stories, and I’m glad that Milford stuck to the same sort of thing she did with Greenglass House. That book worked well for a reason, so it was smart of Milford to call back on all those great elements and create a new story out of them.

However, a few things are holding Ghosts of Greenglass House back from being as delightful as the first one. The first is that I really didn’t buy the relationship between Georgie and Emmett. How they interacted felt more as if they knew each other for weeks as opposed to one day. Another thing was the heavy-handedness/preachiness, but that’s probably due to the fact that I’m an adult reading a book aimed for children. Even so, I wasn’t fond of Milo’s self-reflections, especially when it results in a “the people around you need to change, not you” sort of message. I also wasn’t fond of the roleplaying bit this time around, and since it’s pretty central to the novel, I tried my best to like it and ended up not enjoying it.

Ghosts of Greenglass House has a delightful, deep mystery interspersed with fantasy elements that are communicated quite well. There’s mentions of The Left-handed Fate, too! However, a lot of the aspects I remember liking about Greenglass House I didn’t like here, so I’m wondering, if I read the first book again, would I still like it as much?

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Dxxkvh

The Pool of Fire by John Christopher

The Pool of Fire, by John Christopher, was published in 1968 by Aladdin. It is the sequel to The City of Gold and Lead.

After being held captive in the city of Gold and Lead—the capital, where the creatures that control the mechanical, monstrous Tripods live—Will believes that he’s learned everything he needs to know to story them. He has discovered the source of their power, and with this new knowledge, Will and his friends plan to return to the City of Gold and Lead to take down the Masters once and for all. Although Will and his friends have planned everything down to the minute, the Masters still have surprises in store. Will enters the battle with confidence, but it might not be enough to fight against the Tripods. And with the Masters’ plan to destroy Earth completely, Will may have just started the war that will end it all.

Rating: 3/5

The Pool of Fire takes place almost right where The City of Gold and Lead left off, after Will comes back from the aforementioned city with the knowledge he gleaned about the Masters. The entirety of this book details the fight against the Masters (not the Tripods, as the back cover leads you to believe—they only show up once or twice) and what the humans must do before they can infiltrate the cities to destroy them.

I realized while reading The Pool of Fire that Christopher’s writing style is probably not for everyone. I actually enjoy it a lot, though I find it needlessly complicated at times, but it’s a nice breath of fresh air from all the present tense, flowery and trying to be poetic writing out there. I also really enjoy Will as the not-always-capable, brash, not-particularly-heroic hero. In many ways, it is the other characters who shine more so than Will: Beanpole, with his work in bringing back ancient knowledge (like electricity and hot air balloons!), Henry, with a moment in the book that I still clearly remembered even though it’s been years since I last read this book, and one other, who I won’t say because it is a spoiler. In fact, compared to those three, sometimes Will is a bit exasperating.

The one thing that I really didn’t like about this book is Christopher’s pretentious introduction, as well as all the “is the world worth saving if humans are just going to kill each other again?” talk. And what’s really ironic is that this attempt at preaching world peace is going on as the humans of this novel are about to go to war. I suppose since it’s against aliens it doesn’t count, huh? There’s also the attempt at the united world government at the end. I mean, it’s nice that in a book about an alien invasion, there is some attention given to the reconstruction done after the aliens are defeated, but I just wish Christopher had been less heavy-handed about it.

The Pool of Fire is a good conclusion to this series, continuing the tone and the characterization from the first two books and detailing a lot more than was covered in the first two books, as years pass in this one. I had some issues with the idea of world peace that’s preached throughout the novel, as I don’t think it’s realistic or feasible, and there were some problems with pacing throughout (not helped by Christopher’s dry writing style, though again, for the most part I don’t mind it). In addition, Will is honestly the most forgettable thing about the book. However, there’s some great moments in this book, ones that I remember vividly, and I’m not disappointed that I came back to this trilogy.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Science Fiction, Middle Grade.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2xIl1X3