Like a River by Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Like a River, by Kathy Cannon Wiechman, was published in 2015 by Calkins Creek.

Leander Jordan and Paul Settles need to make changes in their lives. And what bigger change is there than leaving home and going off to war? When these very different teenagers enlist in the union Army they carry not only arms and ammunition but also deep-rooted and dangerous secrets they work hard to protect. Little do they know that when they finally meet in a Union hospital those dark secrets will be exposed with unexpected consequences.

Rating: 2/5

Like a River is the story of two teenagers, Leander and “Paul,” who join the Union Army during the Civil War. However, neither of the two really experience much fighting, and instead the novel is more of a depiction of a hospital and a prisoner-of-war camp than an account of Civil War battles. Leander gets injured and sent to a hospital. “Paul” (who is really Polly) gets captured and taken to Camp Sumter, now known as the Andersonville Historical Site, one of the most notorious Civil War-era prisoner-of-war camps.

I like that Wiechman shed light on some little known aspects of the Civil War, such as the Andersonville camp and the greatest maritime disaster in American history, the explosion and sinking of the ferryboat Sultana (overshadowed by John Wilkes Booth’s death), but her use of the dreaded “girl disguised as a boy” trope ruined the book for me. I understand that there is documentation of girls disguising themselves as boys and going to fight in the Civil War, but there was virtually no reason for Wiechman to have one of her protagonists be one. She was able to get a romance out of the book by doing so, and that’s about it. Polly could easily have been replaced with a male character and the same effect would have been given. She contributed nothing to the story by being a girl, besides being a vehicle for a historical note. I like my female characters to be stand-outs; I hate it when female characters are merely stand-ins for male characters. Maybe that’s not how everyone thinks, but that’s the way I prefer my female characters to be.

I liked the history aspect of Like a River, but I didn’t much like the characters and the way they were forced into a particular type of narrative. The book didn’t have to be a romance, but a stilted, forced one was present because Polly was there. In addition, I simply don’t like the main idea of women going to war—the idea does not sit right with me. Not to mention Polly could have easily been replaced with a male character and the same exact story could have been told.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Violence, disease.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

He held his breath and headed toward the growl. Slowly. Quietly. The growl grew louder. And a snort hunt onto the end of it. Leander nearly laughed out loud at his fear. He knew this sound. He heard it every night, lying in the tent beside Given, among the tents of other men. Snoring.

He found Twig asleep, leaning against a tree trunk.

Leander gently shook the man’s shoulder. “Twig, wake up. You’re on guard duty.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2GD3faw

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The Knights of Crystallia by Brandon Sanderson

Alcatraz versus the Knights of Crystallia (republished title The Knights of Crystallia), by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2009 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Scrivener’s Bones.

When Alcatraz and Grandpa Smedry make a pilgrimage to the Free Kingdom city of Crystallia, the Smedry home base, Alcatraz is shocked to see that he is a legend. When he was a baby, he was stolen by the Evil Librarians—and his mother, a Librarian herself, was behind it. Now, with his estranged father, who is acting strange; his best friend, Bastille, who has been stripped of her armor just when they need a good knight; and Grandpa Smedry, who is, as always, late to everything, Alcatraz tries to save a city under siege. From whom? Why, the Librarians, of course! And, in particular, an especially evil Evil Librarian who has followed the Smedrys to Crystallia in hopes of shattering the city: Alcatraz’s very own mother!

Rating: 2/5

Alcatraz versus the Knights of Crystallia is as fun-filled and crazy as the first two books. Sanderson continues to build up the mystery and suspense by revealing things in small increments and hinting at bigger mysteries to come. Knowing Sanderson, everything will come to a whiz-bang finish and all the foreshadowing will make sense—after things get worse, as Alcatraz-the-narrator states in the book.

Overarching-plot-wise, I don’t really have too much negative to say. Sanderson is clearly setting things up in this book, introducing new faces and new mysteries for our heroes to solve. I know some of what is coming, so I can also tell he’s weaving in lots of foreshadowing and clues.

However, while I don’t have much to say about his plot technique, I do have quite a bit to say about the way he chose to develop it. Frankly, I found Knights of Crystallia too short of a book—the main conflict began and ended quickly, the pace was all over the place, and after reading it, I set it down and thought, “Wow, I feel like this was a waste of a book.” Even with all the plot building he’s doing in this book, it still feels like it is twenty pages long rather than almost two hundred, or at least, it feels as if the important parts only encompass twenty pages.

The book is clearly a bridge between plot points, a way to have the characters advance in knowledge without revealing too much at once. It’s too short, yet oddly long for what little happens. It’s stuffed with filler, even more filler than what the Alcatraz series is known for. There’s also no satisfying moment to make the book seem worthwhile. And the annoyance is that the book has to be read to understand some plot points; it’s not skippable, yet it begs to be skipped.

The Knights of Crystallia is basically a paradox. Too short, yet too long. Too important, yet not important enough. The whole novel is a plot device to bring the characters to a certain point, something that would take too long to do if entwined with more plot. I love Sanderson, but this book was difficult to get through.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“So…what does this have to do with me?” I asked.

“Everything, lad, everything!” Grandpa Smedry pointed at me. “We’re Smedrys. When we gave up our kingdom, we took an oath to watch over all of the Free Kingdoms. We’re the guardians of civilization!”

“But wouldn’t it be good I the kings make peace with the Librarians?”

Sing looked pained. “Alcatraz, to do so, they would give up Mokia, my homeland!”

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

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.

Imagine it were possible to bring the characters from a book to life. Not like when someone reads a book with such enchantment that the characters seem to jump off the pages and into your bedroom…but for real. Imagine they could actually climb out of the pages and into our world! Then, imagine if those characters brought their world into ours. One cruel night, young Meggie’s father, Mo, reads aloud from Inkheart and an evil ruler named Capricorn escapes the boundaries of fiction and lands in their living room. Suddenly, Meggie is smack in the middle of the kind of adventure she has only read about in books. Somehow, Meggie and Mo must learn to harness the magic that conjured this nightmare. Somehow they must change the course of the story that has changed their lives forever.

Rating: 3/5

I read Inkheart way back in the day when it, and its two sequels, were incredibly popular. I remember liking it; I must have, since I own this book and its sequel, Inkspell. However, the only thing I remembered about it was that Mo had the ability to read characters out of books. I remembered nothing about the plot (and the things I thought were from Inkheart must be from Inkspell, since none of what I remember happening actually happened in Inkheart). So, in a way, it was like I was reading this book for the first time.

As with Dragon Rider, I thought this was a fairly well-written book. It’s entertaining, there’s suspense, there’s a plot with twists and turns. The characters are fine, though I wish they said “OK” less. Dustfinger tended to get slightly annoying, but we didn’t get many chapters from his point of view, so it was bearable. One thing I enjoyed the most is how very European this book is; it was translated from German and the setting shows its European roots, from villages in the mountains to the names used.

The main problem with Inkheart is that there wasn’t any “wow” factor with me. In fact, I thought the book was overly long; some cutting of extraneous materials would have been beneficial for quickening the pace, especially in the middle. It never got incredibly boring, but there were definitely parts that dragged more than others. I’m not actually sure why this book got as popular as it did, to be honest; it’s remarkably simple, for a book about someone who brings characters from books to life, and there’s nothing terribly exciting that happens for a majority of the book.

I decided to give Funke another chance after Dragon Rider, but now, after Inkheart, I’m not so sure that was a wise decision. Inkheart had all the same problems as Dragon Rider, but also suffered massive pacing problems and seemed way too long overall. If I get bored, I might read the sequel, Inkspell, but nothing else is compelling me to continue the series.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Middle Grade

“Meggie, listen to me!” Dustfinger looked at her intently. His scars were like pale lines that someone had drawn on his cheeks: two slightly curved marks on the left cheek, a third and longer line of the right cheek running from ear to nostril. “Capricorn will kill your father if he doesn’t get that book!” hissed Dustfinger. “Kill him, do you understand? Didn’t I tell you what he’s like? He wants the book, and he always gets what he wants. It’s ridiculous to believe it will be safe from him here.”

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

The Scrivener’s Bones by Brandon Sanderson

Alcatraz versus the Scrivener’s Bones (republished title The Scrivener’s Bones), by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2008 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians.

Alcatraz Smedry has an incredible talent…for breaking things! It generally gets him into a lot of trouble, but can he use it to save the day? In this second Alcatraz adventure, Alcatraz finds himself on a mission to meet Grandpa Smedry when he gets swept up by a flying glass dragon filled with his unusual and mouthy Smedry cohorts. Their mission? A dangerous library-filled one, of course! They are on their way to the ancient and mysterious Library of Alexandria (which some silly people think was long ago destroyed!) where they must find Grandpa Smedry, look for clues leading to Alcatraz’s potentially undead dead father, and battle the creepy, dangerous soul-sucking curators who await them.

Rating: 4/5

I found Evil Librarians to be annoyingly self-indulgent, but either I was more prepared for it in Scrivener’s Bones or I didn’t notice it as much, because I enjoyed the tone much more in this book. The humor is definitely pointed at a select group of people (I think you have to enjoy a certain type of humor to really enjoy these books), but Sanderson utilizes the humor to give some important (and funny) lessons on author manipulation and other plot devices, all while selling his Alcatraz narration as someone who desperately wants everyone to know how much of a liar he is, even while telling a story he wants people to believe.

Sanderson also starts peeling back at his intricate plot in this book. Most of the book takes place in one location, the library of Alexandria, but you tend to forget that because it’s so fast-paced and interesting once the characters reach that point. There’s the overall plot being developed, as Alcatraz and Bastille wonder about and puzzle over the nature of technology and magic in general and Alcatraz’s Talent in particular. Then, there’s the “book plot” being developed, as they make their way through traps to rescue Grandpa Smedry and discover more about Alcatraz’s father along the way. Even while being funny and self-indulgent, Sanderson knows how to craft a plot.

Perhaps the one thing holding this book back from a higher rating is, well, for one, I do tend to do the gymnastics-judge thing of holding back higher scores for later books, but, for another, a few things struck me as a little odd and out-of-place that kept me from really enjoying this book.

It wasn’t so self-indulgent as before (or I didn’t notice it as much), but there were still points when Alcatraz backing away from the action to wax philosophical about bunnies and bazookas was a little annoying. However, the one thing that struck me the most at the end was Grandpa Smedry’s apparent lie that no one bothered to correct, or even appeared to think, “Why did he lie?” The only thing I can think of is that I’m misremembering details and that what I thought was a lie really wasn’t; if not, it means that Sanderson goofed up. I’m willing to guess it was my mistake, but still, that didn’t stop me from being completely and utterly thrown at the end of the book by an apparent authorial error.

I found Alcatraz versus the Scrivener’s Bones much more entertaining and much less self-indulgent than the first book. I was able to get into the tone of the book more easily and enjoy myself throughout the adventure, admiring some of the more prominent bits of foreshadowing Sanderson is throwing in (as I’ve mentioned, I’ve read this series before, up until the most recent book). Some things still threw me off a bit, but, overall, this book was an improvement over the first.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Do you really have the Talent of Breaking Things?”

I shrugged. “That’s what they tell me. What’s your Talent?”

Australia smiled. “I can wake up in the morning looking incredibly ugly!”

“Oh…how wonderful.” I still wasn’t certain how to respond to Smedry Talents. I usually couldn’t ever tell if the person telling me was excited or disappointed by the power.

Australia, it seemed, was excited by pretty much everything. She nodded perkily. “I know. It’s a fun Talent—nothing like breaking things—but I make it work for me!”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2CTNZ7q

The Shepherd of Weeds by Susannah Appelbaum

The Shepherd of Weeds, by Susannah Appelbaum, was published in 2011 by Knopf. It is the sequel to The Tasters Guild.

Back in the Kingdom of Caux after her journey to its sisterland, Ivy wakes up in a dismal orphanage alongside her friend Rue. Accompanied by a strange woman named Lumpen—who looks suspiciously like a scarecrow—the girls make their way back to Templar to plan a massive battle against the Tasters Guild, where Vidal Verjouce is making ink out of the deadly Scourge Bracken weed. Rocamadour grows darker and more dangerous with every drop. With an army of scarecrows, a legion of birds, and her friends and uncle by her side, it’s up to Ivy—the true “Shepherd of Weeds”—to wage war against the Guild, defeat her own father, and restore order to the plant world. Susannah Appelbaum’s imagination soars in this stunning and utterly satisfying final volume of the Poisons of Caux trilogy.

Rating: 2/5

I’m semi-glad that I finished The Poisons of Caux trilogy, if only because I’m a completionist at heart and I like seeing story lines wrap up—plus, if I’ve invested in the first two books, I may as well read the third, no matter how I felt about the first two (a la the trainwreck The Selection).

I did enjoy seeing all the characters unite together to defeat the Big Bad(s), and I liked the slight twist at the end in the hierarchy of villainy. Each hero got his or her own little moment to shine, even the ones whose loyalties were in question until that moment. Everything was wrapped up quite neatly—more neatly than I expected, considering the sloppy ending of The Hollow Bettle.

However, my main complaint of the story is still the jumping around, the darting from scene to scene and filling in the gaps later. I’m still unsure as to why the novel started the way it did, or how Ivy got in that situation. I’m still not sure how Lumpen ended up in the city, and then in the catacombs. Characters jump around from place to place with almost no explanation as to how they got there. Ivy leaves one city before her uncle and flies to another, only to ask if her uncle has arrived—as if she expected him to magically be able to travel faster than her. Also, characters end one scene doing one thing, and then, when we catch up to them again, they are doing something completely different. Is Dumbcane at the city wall with Clothilde, or is he in the Tasters Guild making ink? Apparently he travels between both in mere minutes, being able to do Clothilde’s bidding at one scene and then sneak up on Rowan in the next one.

The Shepherd of Weeds, and the trilogy in general, is a creative fantasy, which I like, and has some interesting characters, but the whole thing is such a mish-mash of time jumps, strange characterization, and at times sloppy plot, that though I was compelled enough to finish the trilogy, I also didn’t much enjoy myself at the very end. The cover art is quite eye-catching, though, which is what drew me to the books in the first place, and I liked the use of different color ink in the books. Appelbaum is creative, but the story was a mess.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Where did you get this?” Her voice cracked.

“Dumbkin,” Lumpen Gorse confirmed. “That scoundrel paid me with it the first time he came scrounging around.”

“Hemsen Dumbcane gave you this?” Ivy asked sharply. She knew the scribe’s troves of valuable parchments were stolen from ancient, magical texts. “Are there others?”

“Lumpen Gorse shrugged.

“I’ve got to go—” Ivy was suddenly, overwhelmingly worried about the safety of her stones. “I need to show this to my uncle.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2F3Atj5

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, by Chris Grabenstein, was published in 2013 by Yearling (Random House).

When Kyle learns that the world’s most famous game maker has designed the town’s new library and is having an invitation-only lock-in on the first night, he is determined to be there. But the trick part isn’t getting into the library—it’s getting out. Kyle’s going to need all his smarts, because a good roll of the dice or lucky draw of the cards is not enough to win in Mr. Lemoncello’s library.

Rating: 4/5

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a puzzle-based adventure filled with as much fun and charm as you might expect from the title and the cover art. The puzzles are intricate and the whole idea of being “trapped in the library” is entertaining. Perhaps inspired by the book Help! I’m a Prisoner in the Library!, even.

Several times the kid protagonists solve puzzles that seem a bit beyond a normal person’s grasp and range of knowledge (especially some of the more obscure trivia that apparently all of these kids have studied up on beforehand), but the whole tone of the book is so wacky anyway that it really isn’t jarring in the least. When a book contains a giant library containing holograms and massive puzzles, built by a man with noise-making shoes, obscure-trivia-knowing-kids are the least of the strangeness.

The puzzles are very clever and I loved all the literary references scattered throughout. I liked that Grabenstein included classic literature references as well as more modern references. I liked less the characters of the kids, since the outcome of the contest was obvious from the start due to their one-dimensional personalities, and I kept expecting some sort of sinister turn for no apparent reason, but let’s face it, the appeal of this book isn’t the characterization. It’s the riddles.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is one of those puzzle-filled adventure books that are light and fun and nice to read after more “serious” works. I enjoyed it immensely, though the characterization wasn’t great and the entire thing had slightly too much of an unrealistic feel overall for me to really be absorbed in it. But, I can definitely see many kids loving it—and maybe seeking out all those literary references for themselves!

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Middle Grade

“So, Kyle,” said Akimi, “you want to form an alliance?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s what people do on reality shows like Survivor. We help each other until, you know, everybody else is eliminated and we have to stab each other in the back.”

“Um, I don’t remember hearing anything about ‘eliminations.’”

“Oh. Right.”

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

Winterling by Sarah Prineas

Winterling, by Sarah Prineas, was published in 2012 by Harper.

With her boundless curiosity and wild spirit, Fer has always felt that she doesn’t belong. Not when the forest is calling to her, when the rush of wind through branches feels more real than school or the quiet farms near her house. Then she saves an injured creature—he looks like a boy, but he’s really something else. He knows who Fer truly is, and incites her through the Way, a passage to a strange, dangerous land. Fer feels an instant attachment to this realm, where magic is real and oaths forge bonds stronger than iron. But a powerful huntress named the Mór rules here, and Fer can sense that the land is perilously out of balance. Fer must unlock the secrets about the parents she never knew and claim her true place before the worlds on both sides of the Way descend into endless winter.

Rating: 2/5

I kind of have this love-hate relationship with Sarah Prineas. On the one hand, I love her Magic Thief series. On the other hand, her fairy-tale retellings (like Ash & Bramble) have been somewhat disappointing. Winterling falls a little bit in the middle for me, or perhaps, if you go by the rating that I gave it, much further away from even Ash & Bramble.

One reason is that I’m simply not a fan of the genre of this novel. I don’t like reading fantasies involving fairies, or animal-human hybrids/melds/whatever, or really any sort of “portal” fantasy involving fairy-type lands. That’s part of the reason I had difficulty really enjoying The Evil Wizard Smallbone, because of the human-animal transformations going on. I can’t really say why I dislike this genre. I just don’t like it.

(Mild spoilers follow)

I’m also not a fan of the protagonist-type that Fer is. Fer does some really dumb things in this novel, and the dumbest ones are when she knows that the Mór is evil and is planning evil things, yet somehow thinks going along with her is a good idea. Part of that is the magic talking, but there’s a part towards the end when Fer has more or less thrown off the glamorie and still thinks, “Well, you know, I need to bring back the spring and the Mór says doing this will bring back the spring, so I should do what she says,” despite the fact that she knows the Mór is not helping things at all. Then we get this tiresome hunt scene (which is immediately followed by two others) only for Fer to figure out what she’s known all along.

Fer also makes some astounding leaps of logic, like when she reads her father’s letter again and goes from that to immediately knowing that the Mór is a usurper. That whole “revelation” paragraph was written so clumsily that I had to read it multiple times just to try and follow Fer’s logic (which was really her realizing what the reader has known all along, but with a rather impressive logical assumption that doesn’t seem to follow from what she knows).

Basically, I didn’t really like Fer in general. I rarely like female protagonists of her sort. Perhaps they’re perfect for younger readers, but I find them annoying.

There’s also no explanation as to where Grand-Jane got all her knowledge of the other world from. Presumably her son, I suppose, though it’s poorly explained if so.

To be honest, the whole reason I didn’t really enjoy Winterling is probably because of Fer. I simply found her irritating. That, and I don’t particularly like this genre of fantasy. I like Prineas as an author, but this trilogy of hers is definitely not for me.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“The Way is open,” he said. He meant it as a warning.

The old woman blinked, and then scowled. “You must close it again.”

He shrugged, feeling the sharp ache of the wolf bites. “I can’t.” He nodded at the girl, still kneeling on the rug. “It opened for her, not for me,” he said. “You know as well as I do what she is.”

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

Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson

Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians, by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2007 by Scholastic.

Alcatraz Smedry doesn’t seem destined for anything but disaster. But on his thirteenth birthday, he receives a bag of sand, and life takes a bizarre turn. This is no ordinary bag of sand…and it is quickly stolen by the cult of evil Librarians who are taking over the world by spreading misinformation and suppressing truth. The sand will give the evil Librarians the edge they need to achieve world domination. Alcatraz must stop them!…by infiltrating the local library, armed with nothing but eyeglasses and a talent for klutziness.

Rating: 3/5

I need to preface this review by stating that I love Brandon Sanderson. As an author, as a worldbuilder, he really is phenomenal. He’s incredibly prolific and has the knack for developing unique magic in all of his books. And that shows even in his books for younger audiences; The Rithmatist was wildly creative, and Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians is as well, especially the magic system.

The big draw of these books is the voice of Alcatraz-the-author, who interrupts and explains and rigmaroles his “origin” story, complete with cheeky winks and nods at Newbery Medal books and To Kill a Mockingbird. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Lemony Snicket, to be honest. And the reference at the end of the book to Harry Potter was amazing and completely on-point.

However, the one thing I discovered that I don’t like about these books (I’ve read them before, all but the most recent one) is that they are incredibly self-indulgent. You can tell Sanderson wrote these just to indulge his humorous side, the one that’s tamed a bit when he’s writing epic fantasy. And maybe I wouldn’t mind it so much if it wasn’t so obviously self-indulgent. But it is, and if there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s authors being blatantly self-indulgent.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The plot is great—did I mention how good Sanderson is?—the reveals are twisty and surprising in all the right places in all the right ways, and Alcatraz is that sort of bumbling, yet oddly competent boy hero that people love. He’s a lot like David in Steelheart, to be honest—I think Sanderson just enjoys writing those sorts of characters. Yet, the plot, when it wasn’t being funny or Snicket-esque (which is most of the time), is gratingly self-indulgent. Maybe some people are fine with that, but not me.

Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians is well-written, with a memorable protagonist and the sort of tongue-in-cheek, snide narrator that is funny most of the time. However, I found it a little too self-indulgent to be very satisfying, towards the end, and I actually began to get just a little annoyed. Different strokes for different folks, though. I honestly do like this series, because I think Sanderson is amazing, and I like most of the humor, but the tone hits me the wrong way at times.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Now,” I said, holding up a finger. “I want to make something very clear. I do not believe a word of what you have told me up to this point.”

“Understood,” Grandpa Smedry said.

“I’m only going with you because someone just tried to kill me. You see, I am a somewhat reckless boy and am not always prone to carefully considering the consequences of my actions.”

“A Smedry trait for certain,” Grandpa Smedry noted.

“In fact,” I said, “I think that you are a loon and likely not even my grandfather at all.”

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

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis, was published in 2017 by Bloomsbury.

All Aventurine wants to do is explore the world outside her family’s mountain cave. But as a young dragon, her tough scales haven’t fully developed yet, and the outside is too perilous—or so her family says. Aventurine is determined to fly on her own and prove them wrong by capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. But when that human tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, Aventurine is transformed into a puny human girl—no sharp teeth, no fire breath, no claws. Still, she’s the fiercest creature in these mountains, and she’s found her true passion: chocolate. All she has to do is get to the human city to find herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she’ll be conquering new territory in no time…won’t she?

Rating: 4/5

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is a charming story for both dragon-lovers and chocolate-lovers. I’m not a huge fan of the title, but the cover art is amazing and this book revived my interest in Burgis’s works (if you recall, I strongly disliked her Kat, Incorrigible series). Fierce girl (who is actually a dragon; hence, why she is fierce) works much better in a made-up fantasy world than in Regency England.

The plot is fairly formulaic, but Aventurine’s bumbles (and successes) as she struggles to make sense of human life rapidly endear her to the reader. Plus, there’s lots and lots of chocolate involved, which is a bonus. Perhaps some things were overdone—Aventurine wallows a little too long in self-inflicted misery, there’s one too many appearances from cruel-woman-who-sets-protagonist’s-teeth-on-edge, and it’s a little eyebrow-raising that so much drama could revolve around one little chocolate house—but the likeable protagonist, the interesting setting and the engaging plot help offset those.

I could have done without the constant reminders of Silke’s clothing, though. I really don’t understand why a girl wearing men’s clothes is supposed to be so empowering or different. I get it, in this fantasy world, women wear dresses, men wear pants, etc., so a girl wearing pants is supposed to scream forthrightness and strength and standing-up-against-the-man-ness. But all I could think about was how boring and formulaic a character Silke was, whose characterization was built on “she wears pants” and nothing else. I would much rather have a well-written female character in a dress than a boring, cliché female character in pants, but I guess the public wants the latter so that’s what authors are giving them.

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart has some flaws, but overall it’s a charming story with an interesting protagonist, a good plot, and a well-built world. I enjoyed reading it, despite my dislike of Silke, and the book has lifted my opinion of Burgis overall. I hope she writes more books like this one, and less like Kat, Incorrigible.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Chocolate houses were nothing like I’d expected.

When the scent of chocolate, growing stronger and stronger, led me to the open doorway of yet another yellow-and-white building, I stopped just outside it in disbelief.

Two humans nearly bumped into me from behind….I gave them both a narrow-eyed, accusing glance. “This building isn’t made of chocolate!”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2j35ud3

1959 Newbery Medal: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare, was published in 1958 by Houghton.

Kit Tyler knows, as she gazes for the first time at the cold, bleak shores of Connecticut Colony, that her new home will never be like the shimmering Caribbean islands she has left behind. She is like a tropical bird that has flown to the wrong part of the world. And in the stern Puritan community of her relatives, she soon feels caged as well, and lonely. In the meadows, the only place where she can feel completely free, she meets another lone and mysterious figure, the old woman known as the Witch of Blackbird Pond. But when their friendship is discovered, Kit faces suspicion, fear, and anger. She herself is accused of witchcraft!

Rating: 3/5

The Witch of Blackbird Pond was an interesting book to read. I thought, with all the talk of witches on the back cover, that it would be connected to the Salem Witch Trials, but it’s not—Speare merely runs with the old idea of “Puritans thought there were such a thing as witches and accused women of witchcraft all the time” and builds a story around it. And, I get that, the Salem Witch Trials were obviously A Thing That Happened, but it’s a really cliché plot device to use and a little bit lazy, in my opinion.

Speare does deal quite fairly with Kit’s family members, though. She never shows us enough of the village to get an idea of the community, beyond the Reverend and the bitter woman who dislikes Kit from the beginning, but Judith, Mercy, and Kit’s aunt and uncle are all well-developed, particularly the uncle. She also shows a lot of difference in characters, which is something that some authors can forget when they are trying to portray certain people certain ways (The Scarlet Letter, for example, which has zero redeemable or relatable characters and every Puritan in that book is gray and stern). She doesn’t paint everyone with the same brush, basically.

For a children’s book, Kit is rather an old protagonist, and the book reads much more like a young adult novel, in my opinion, with the romance plot lines. I’m not a huge fan of “outsider comes in and shakes up community with new, “scandalous” ways” plots, and Kit did one too many stupid things for me to really like her, but I didn’t completely hate her, and I enjoyed seeing her grow throughout the novel. I liked what Speare did at the end, too, with her character because it matched what we know of Kit. She’s not one to be tied down, nor is her life with her Puritan relatives ever quite believable as a life for her.

I didn’t think The Witch of Blackbird Pond was a great book, but I didn’t think it was terrible, either. I liked the development of the characters, and even though Kit was annoying most of the time, she had her moments, and I liked that Speare was true to her character throughout. The plot aspect was underwhelming and I thought the overall tone of the book was slightly too old to really be a children’s book. A bit of a mixed reaction all around, but I went into it expecting to hate it and I didn’t, so there’s that.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: There’s some intense scenes at the end of the novel.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s (though it’s really more Middle Grade)

“Don’t the servants do that?” [Kit] inquired.

“We have no servants,” said her aunt quietly.

Surprise and chagrin left Kit speechless. “I can help with the work,” she offered finally, realizing that she sounded like an overeager child.

“In that dress!” Judith protested.

“I’ll find something else. Here, this calico will do, won’t it?”

“To work in?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2zsZN2w