The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

The Only Road, by Alexandra Diaz, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 4/5

The Only Road was much less preachy and heavy-handed than I thought it would be Instead, Diaz tells a compelling story of two children fleeing their town in Guatemala after being targeted by the local gang. Their destination is, of course, the United States, where Jaime’s brother lives. They must travel through the security-heavy borders of Mexico and the US, hide from gangs and immigration officers, and try not to lose each other.

Diaz gives a chilling picture of what it is like to travel through Mexico in secret. Apparently, Mexico is not very fond of other Central or South American countries, and of course the US heavily patrols its borders, so Jaime and Angela must fake their way through a bus ride, almost die in a closed boxcar of a train, scrape up enough money to pay a coyote to take them across the Rio Grande, and then safely contact Jaime’s brother. And Diaz communicated all of this without ramming her ideas of immigration down the reader’s throat. Instead, she uses the story to paint the picture, a much subtler approach that I appreciate.

The only thing I struggled with in the book was the appearance and disappearance of Jaime and Angela’s traveling companions, as well as the abrupt, almost-too-happy ending. I do understand that it’s likely that traveling companions will leave, eventually, but it seems to go against the book a bit—though of course Diaz is perhaps just emphasizing the separation of friends at certain points. The ending, too, is almost too happy, where Jaime, Angela, and Tomas drive off into the sunrise and nothing else is offered regarding Jaime’s and Angela’s status as illegal immigrants. Perhaps it’s because this book is for children that Diaz decided to end it as she did.

The Only Road pleasantly surprised me, and overall, despite a few wobbles, it offers a compelling story about the reasons someone might flee their home and head for a better life in a new country. It also shows lots about Central American and South American culture, such as Mexico’s heavy security in regards to immigration and the people’s dislike of outsiders. It was interesting to read about, and I appreciated it that Diaz went for subtlety rather than outspokenness.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence, death, disturbing images

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

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

Sunny by Jason Reynolds

Sunny, by Jason Reynolds, was published in 2018 by Atheneum. It is the sequel to Patina.

Rating: 2/5

I enjoyed the first two Track books, Ghost and Patina, but Sunny is the weakest one so far. It’s messy and all-over-the-place, and I get that it’s supposed to be inside of Sunny’s head, but half the time he’s just making random noises and talking about random things. Maybe that’s appealing to some, but not to me.

There’s a lack of depth to the book, too, that seems out of place, especially when comparing it to the previous two books. There’s some sad stuff going on, but there’s really not that much to the book at all. Half of it is just Sunny making sound effects and thinking about dancing. Yes—those parts of the book really bothered me! The scenes with Sunny and his dad were good, and the handling of all the unspoken (and spoken) expectations that Sunny is trying to fill, when he also wants to strike out on his own, were good. But I like tightly-focused, tightly-plotted books, and Sunny was just too stream-of-consciousness for me.

I also am growing very irritated of Reynolds’s penchant to ending the books right in the middle of a track meet (and then starting the next book with the resolution of that track meet). It’s hokey, and doesn’t really accomplish much. There’s no sense of closure or growth by cutting off the book right in the character’s shining moment. Instead, we’re left to wonder “Did he do it?” and there’s no rush of victory that is so great to feel when reading a book that’s so character-focused as this one.

I think I might still get the last track book, just to finish the series, but Sunny was ultimately a disappointment. Too random, too noisy, and just not my cup of tea.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2GFdP43

The Tenth Power by Kate Constable

The Tenth Power, by Kate Constable, was published in 2005 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Waterless Sea.

Rating: 4/5

It’s always bittersweet to read the ending to books you’ve enjoyed. There’s happiness with the characters and where they are (hopefully), there’s sadness that the series is over, there’s lingering feelings of shock and tension from the plot. And, for me, there’s sometimes also a feeling of disgruntlement that the ending isn’t as perfect as it “could have been,” a vague sense that the book let me down somehow.

I got that feeling a little bit with The Tenth Power. Don’t get me wrong—I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was literally all I could think about during work for two whole days. I had to drag myself away from it in the morning. Constable’s enchanting prose, Calwyn’s struggles and triumphs, her relationship with Darrow, the twists and turns of the plot—all of these things worked together to create a great finish, one that’s satisfying and beautiful (if not bittersweet). The way this trilogy gripped me is still surprising to me. I don’t get entranced by books very often. The most recent ones I can think of are The Queen’s Thief books, which hold a different sort of enchantment to them.  Yet something about Constable’s prose, the world, and especially the characters grabbed me from the get-go.

Maybe it’s because Calwyn is such a fallible protagonist. She makes plenty of mistakes in this book. She gets angry and arrogant, and there’s a part in the middle of the book where things get almost too crazy and there’s a bewitching atmosphere to everything that happens, and despite all her power and all she accomplishes, Calwyn still reads as totally human. And I’m glad of that because the middle-to-last third of the book is so strange that without Calwyn as an anchor, I probably would have been much more dissatisfied.

The book isn’t perfect. There’s that science-fiction-y, ships-from-space bit that doesn’t quite fit in the world. There are several character revelations that don’t fit well, either, but they at least work better than what happens with Calwyn and Samis (seriously…what was that?). But I loved the idea of the Tenth Power (words! And then it hits you that no one has read or written anything in the entire series), and Calwyn and Darrow are still my favorite. Bobbles aside, I haven’t enjoyed a trilogy as much as I enjoyed Constable’s in a long time.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

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

The Waterless Sea by Kate Constable

The Waterless Sea, by Kate Constable, was published in 2003 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Singer of All Songs.

Rating: 4/5

The Waterless Sea continues the story of Calwyn and her friends after defeating Samis in his quest to learn all ten chantments. Now, Calwyn and Co. are on a quest to rescue two children from a country that enslaves chanters and uses them to keep the crumbling empire together. And that’s the part that’s probably the weakest part of the book: the motivation behind the quest. Oh, it’s established and explained at the beginning, but even knowing everything going on and knowing the characters, it seems a little thin that they would travel around the world simply for two children, when there are likely plenty of other children in other areas in similar plights that they haven’t bothered to go and rescue.

Motivation aside, Constable builds another great fantasy with the gloomy, dying country of Merithuros. Perhaps what brings the characters there is a hard sell (at least, for me it was), but once there, the unfolding of events is seamless. Constable’s prose is as haunting and beautiful as ever, and Calwyn continues to shine as the protagonist. Plus, I enjoy that her relationship with Darrow doesn’t stand in her way. Darrow gets his own bit of story in this novel, not really enough to establish more than background, but it at least fleshes him out a little bit and makes him less mysterious.

And the ending—well, I certainly wasn’t expecting it. That is, I was expecting some of what happened, but not the bittersweet note. And it makes me even more eager for the third book, to see what happens next for Calwyn. I haven’t felt this way about a fantasy series since I read Juliet Marillier’s books, and I love that middle grade fantasy books can still make me feel this way—excited, enthralled, and eager!

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2sG6usw

Winterhouse by Ben Guterson

Winterhouse, by Ben Guterson, was published in 2018 by Henry Holt.

Rating: 3/5

The cover of Winterhouse really appealed to me when I saw it in a bookstore. I really liked the cutout windows of the hotel, and I’m a sucker for “large houses filled with secrets” novels. Once I started reading it, the many puzzle references—and the reference to Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library—made me excited for a decent puzzle novel that had a plot a lot less far-fetched than said Lemoncello’s Library.

There’s lots of mystery and sinister figures once Elizabeth actually makes it to Winterhouse, and Guterson does a good job of revealing things at the right pace, so the reader stays with the book rather than get frustrated. The puzzles are a delight, though they do get a little too much eventually, especially when Elizabeth and her friend Freddy start yelling anagrams at each other. And while there’s no secret tunnels or rooms, a puzzle hidden throughout the hotel is almost as good.

However, I will say that the most disappointing aspect of this book was the aspect the entire thing hinged on: the supernatural. Not only are there puzzles to deal with, but also magic and malevolent spirits. Elizabeth and Freddy get caught up in a plot to bring back a witch who will destroy Winterhouse, and things started getting less fun for me in that moment. I’d rather have either a dedicated supernatural story, or a dedicated puzzle story, but not both. And the supernatural genre has never been my favorite, so perhaps that’s also why I was so disappointed.

The puzzles in Winterhouse are great, but the magic and the fight to prevent a spirit from reuniting with its body dragged down the book in my estimation a little. I’m just not a big fan of the supernatural genre. The characters were interesting (though the side characters were a little one-note), the puzzle aspect was fun (though I wish there was more with that; there was really only one puzzle that the characters had to solve—the rest they invented themselves as entertainment), and the cover and illustrations are gorgeous. However, I could have done without the ghostly ghouly stuff.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Supernatural

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

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

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