1967 Newbery Medal: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt

Up a Road Slowly, by Irene Hunt, was published in 1966 by Modern Curriculum Press.

Rating: 3/5

Up a Road Slowly reminds me a little bit of a lesser Anne of Green Gables, but much more of Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farm, except with less moralizing and a nicer aunt. It’s the story of Julie, who at seven goes to live with her aunt after her mother dies and learns new meanings of love and family as she deals with her older sister getting married, her wild uncle, school rivalries, the death of a student, and boyfriends. However, like Rebecca, it’s much less tongue-in-cheek than Anne, and it uses a ton of plot tropes and language that is extremely reminiscent of older literature and really dates the book.

The writing style is a little old-fashioned and very mature-sounding, even when Julie is only seven (something that is a bit jarring until you get used to it). As Julie gets older, however, she grows into her voice, and I do believe the whole thing is supposed to suggest that Julie is writing this as a memoir from later on in her life. As far as plot and theme go, I thought Hunt’s messages were very good, though they were often delivered in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable today. For example, the description of Agnes, Julie’s classmate who suffered from some sort of mental disability, made me wince a bit, though that would have been an acceptable description in the 60s. However, the language as a whole really gives the book much more of an old-fashioned feel than I think the decade it was written in warrants.

There’s also quite a few dark themes hidden in the book, the most notable being Julie’s old friend Carlotta being “sent away” for the winter after scandal erupts (i.e. she was pregnant). The book as a whole is really quite mature for a children’s book, much more suited for a young adult audience (who would probably understand it and enjoy it more).

I enjoyed Up a Road Slowly, but I didn’t find it overly impressive, and I think it’s too dated to really stand out. The maturity of the themes and the writing were welcome after some of the rather more childish books I’ve read, but that limits the audience as well as alienates them. A good book, but not one I’d probably revisit.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/31I8q3i

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward, by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2018 by Delacorte

Rating: 5/5

Brandon Sanderson is always so consistently good as a writer—his plots are intricate, his characters are fleshed out, the worldbuilding is superb, and there’s always a bit of humor thrown in to mellow things out. Skyward is no exception. I don’t normally like science fiction, but Sanderson makes it interesting—and understandable. One of his trademarks as an author is complicated, but understandable worldbuilding, and in Skyward everything from the caverns to the planet, but especially the fighter ships, is meticulously explained in a way that makes sense and that flows from the world naturally.

This book was very hard for me to put down, since Sanderson is so good at pacing and tension. While perhaps not as fun as Steelheart was, with all of its superpowers, Spensa and the other members of her flight crew made the book come alive and made me enjoy every minute of it. I also enjoyed the mysteries surrounding M-Bot, Spensa’s spoiler-y ability which I won’t really talk about, and Doomslug (who may not be mysterious, but certainly seems that way). And did I mention that I normally dislike science fiction to the point where it’s hard for me to enjoy any book of that genre, regardless of writer or quality? Yet Sanderson made it as interesting and exciting for me as any book of another genre because he’s so good.

All right, I might be biased (like with Diana Wynne Jones), but I did really love the book. I found a few things problematic towards the end, especially with the big reveal about Spensa and the Krell that I thought was perhaps delivered too fast (though there’s room in the sequels to explore all that, I suppose) or not explained enough, but Skyward was an excellent, fun adventure all the way through.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Z5oXAS

Wolf Star by Tanith Lee

Wolf Star, by Tanith Lee, was published in 2000 by Dutton. It is the sequel to Wolf Tower.

Rating: 4/5

The thing that stands out the most to me in The Claidi Journals is Claidi’s voice. The parentheses, the random asides, the subtle sarcasm and wit, all combine to make Claidi distinctive, unique, and memorable as a protagonist. And Lee is so good at following old tropes, and yet somehow making them new.

For example, in Wolf Star, Claidi is kidnapped and taken to the mysterious Rise and must figure out a way to escape. Although she never actively tries to run, her reasons for why she doesn’t are relatable and make her more realistic as a protagonist. Then, as she gets to know Venn and is intrigued by the mysteries of the moving rooms and the clockwork servants, her curiosity is what makes her stay. And I love the contrasts set up in this book: the contrast between Venn and Argul, between Ustareth and Zeera, between Wolf Tower and the Rise, and even between Claidi-before and Claidi-after.

Wolf Star is strange, and not much happens—it’s much more of a character-focused novel, intent on exploring a particular backstory, than an action-packed novel. There’s less excitement and movement than the first book, yet this one has excellent pacing and worldbuilding to make up for it. The one thing that jarred me was the revelation of Argul’s age—he doesn’t seem, and has never seemed, like an eighteen-year-old. A strange thing to complain about, but it caused a disconnect for me.

I can see not everyone liking these books. Wolf Star in particular seems framed for a very specific audience; it’s a strange book in its flow and in its story. I loved it, but I enjoy books where the protagonist is witty, but not ridiculous; brave, but not aggressive; faltering, but not bemoaning. Claidi is all of that and more.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

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

The Riddle by Alison Croggon

The Riddle, by Alison Croggon, was published in 2004 by Candlewick. It is the sequel to The Naming.

Rating: 2/5

The Riddle is the book that I probably remember most of the Books of Pellinor. The ending of this book is the ending that I thought was in the first book. I remember when I read it the first time that I thought it was a very sweet and poignant scene, but this time around was more of a “shrug, meh” moment. Maybe because I remember absolutely hating the ending of the fourth book, and the ending of the second book is the precursor to that.

Anyway, The Riddle continues to be Tolkien-esque. It’s a hefty book, though to be honest, I feel like most of the first half of the book could have been left out. Maerad and Cadvan spend weeks on an island for no reason. The most interesting part of the book is the second half, when Maerad traverses the ice lands in the North and is then taken to the domain of the Winter King. Croggon does a little better with worldbuilding overall in this book, though there’s still the feeling that there’s so much she isn’t covering beyond the Bardic system. Her world feels so empty most of the time, full of no one but Bards and enemies.

The series as a whole is very female-centric, and this one in particular is full of choice and empowerment and all that jazz. Personally I found Maerad’s struggle in the Winter King’s domain too much; her actual struggle to escape was fine, but the other bit that Croggon wants to get into, well, that was developed far too quickly and resolved far too quickly to seem like anything more than another character obstacle for Maerad to overcome.

I feel like there’s so much here in the book that I would love if it was revealed or developed in a different way. If I liked Maerad more, I might enjoy the books more, but she’s too…something…for me. I can’t really put my finger on what it is about her that I don’t care for. It’s like she’s too timid, but also too fierce, and I still don’t understand the magic enough to understand why she’s so powerful. I also don’t like the clumsy way Croggon is working in all of the “Fated One” stuff.

If I remember correctly, the next book takes place from the point of view of Hem, which may or may not be a nice change from two books of Maerad. I don’t usually like viewpoint changes, though, so I don’t know if it will matter for me. I’m two books in, so I think I will finish the series, but The Riddle didn’t do much to recommend the rest of the books to me.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2M7uAcv

Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn

Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn, was published in 2001 by Ace.

Rating: 5/5

Summers at Castle Auburn has been on my reading list for quite a while—since the first Sharon Shinn book I’ve read (The Safe-Keeper’s Secret), I think. The title, plus the rating on Goodreads, plus my love for 2000s fantasy, all contributed to my desire to read the book. It took me a while to actually get it, though.

But, boy, did it not disappoint.

Now, I’ve read other books that are more immediately gripping—The King of Attolia, for one—and it’s not the type of book that I feel I could read over and over again. But I enjoyed it the way I enjoyed Juliet Marillier and Kate Constable—and Shinn’s other works. It’s slow, and meandering, but there’s so much to think about and to see develop.

The book is pretty slow up until about the middle, but once you get to the middle, you see why the first part was important. There’s a bit of odd stuff scattered around, but it all contributes to the world and to the characters. The most prominent is the aliora, which seem like a pretty useless addition—take them out of the story and everything stays the same—but they do contribute to the world in a way that perhaps wouldn’t be as effective if they had been left out.

There’s a lot of court intrigue, which I loved, but the best part is that its intrigue interpreted through the eyes of someone who isn’t really involved in all the intrigue. So we see parts of it, and only get hints at the rest. The best part of this intrigue is, of course, the slow reveal of the character Bryan’s personality and tendencies, as he goes from flirtatious, energetic teenager to smiling monster. And, of course, my favorite part of the book was the ending, where intrigue collides with tension, and there are several big character moments for all of the main characters.

Shinn does make a small error towards the end—basically, Corie tells her sister something, and then later on wonders how her sister knows about that thing—but everything is so well paced and revealed that I could ignore it. And what I mostly cared about was the romance, which was maybe not as romantic as some people might like, but it was very well-developed, and I loved what it had to say about love and about how sometimes loving someone means doing something you normally wouldn’t do.

I’m not sure Summers at Castle Auburn will be on my “Could Read Again” list, but I thoroughly enjoyed almost every page of it—even the slow beginning. Shinn and 2000s fantasy prove their worth again!

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Dark themes (murder is the most prominent, subtle hints at rape)

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Vp8qBy

Beastly Bones by William Ritter

Beastly Bones, by William Ritter, was published in 2015 by Algonquin. It is the sequel to Jackaby.

Rating: 4/5

Beastly Bones continues the oddball, eclectic fun that I loved so much about the first novel. Central to that fun is, of course, Jackaby, who’s basically a nicer Sherlock Holmes (at least in the Sherlock iteration), but various side characters also contribute. Abigail Rook, though portrayed as the serious, “let’s bring this back down to earth” type of partner, also has her moments, especially in her awkward moments with Charlie Barker.

This book has a much better mystery than Jackaby did, though once the revelation came, I realized that I probably should have figured it out sooner. I didn’t, though, so I was delightfully surprised. And I liked the introduction of a Shadowy Figure, as it gives a united goal and an arc for the books, though I honestly wouldn’t mind if each book was separate and only united in characters and other minor details (like Jenny’s backstory).

These books have been really fun so far, and I’m hoping the quality of mystery improves without ruining the fun of the characters and the quirky nature in general. I like mysteries just a little more detailed and involved, but that might mean not having as much fun in general. And these books were clearly written to be fun.

Also, the covers of these books! To be honest, if it was just the silhouette and the title, it would be perfection. The picture in the middle kind of ruins it a little, but they’re still very pretty. I don’t gush about pretty cover art enough, in my opinion.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Urban Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2GPCr8s

The Novice by Taran Matharu

The Novice, by Taran Matharu, was published in 2015 by Feiwel and Friends.

Rating: 1/5

I really wanted to enjoy The Novice. The cover art is eye-catching, the premise seemed intriguing, and the summoning aspect of the novel was interesting. I could ignore some of the other worldbuilding flaws as long as the summoning continued to be interesting, and for a book that started on Wattpad (*shudder*), some of it seemed pretty decent, if plagued by mistakes that first-time writers often make.

But, eventually, I couldn’t get past the characters, their terrible characterization, and the stilted, clunky dialogue.

There is no nuance in any of the characters. The main character, Fletcher, is pretty much perfect: he has a rare demon, his flaws in magic are made up for in his innovation and outside-the-box thinking, and he’s perfectly good and true and just. The lack of nuance means emotion is expressed too strongly, and gray areas are never addressed. There’s “Fletcher (and his friends and the commoners)—good” and “Nobles—bad” type conflict, and the characters act as if they’re ten years old, shouting at each other, screaming, and making melodramatic statements at every turn.

The world also falls apart once you even start considering the mechanics of the summoning school. Apparently the rules are able to change at a whim—no one bats an eye when the tournament format is changed last minute to suit the evil teacher’s desires (and this teacher is one of about three teachers at this so-called famous school), and this teacher apparently didn’t even have to fill out any forms or discuss it with a council or anything. In addition, there seems to be no sense of structure or discipline—students go or don’t go to class, are allowed to leave the school apparently at any time and come back at any time, and don’t seem to be on any sort of schedule or regimen (despite the reference to timetables).

Then again, there’s only three teachers, so how are they supposed to keep an eye on all of these wandering students, anyway?

Plus, Matharu’s stark, black-and-white, all rich people are corrupt worldbuilding grows tiresome after the –nth instance of telling rather than showing.

And don’t even get me started on the number of comma splices in every single dialogue.

I wanted to like The Novice, but its Wattpad beginnings are too obvious, and its worldbuilding and character flaws too numerous, for me.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Psky3o

Broken Things by Lauren Oliver

Broken Things, by Lauren Oliver, was published in 2018 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Lauren Oliver and her books. Some, I liked. Some, I hated. I enjoy her writing a lot, but occasionally her plots leave a lot to be desired. Panic was a jumbled mess of unrealistic garbage. Vanishing Girls was interesting and compelling.

Luckily, Broken Things is more like Vanishing Girls. The plot, which may have been inspired (but I’m just guessing) by the real-life Slender Man murder, is intriguing and a fairly decent suspense novel. The characters are interesting, too, if generic and too teenager-y for me. I liked the inclusion of the Narnia-esque fantasy book and the nod to fanfiction, though I’m not a fan of the “end a book mid-sentence” aspect.

I was ultimately going to give this book a 4 out of 5, but when I figured things out a hundred pages before the characters did, and when I realized how much of the book was clues and how much was just Brynn and Mia thinking about how terrible Summer was to them, I knocked its rating down. I mean, they really should have figured things out with the wildly obvious clue that was mentioned and then immediately forgotten because Oliver didn’t want her characters to figure it out for another two hundred pages, so she had them deliberately bypass it.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be a superfan, or even a fan, of Lauren Oliver. Her writing is beautiful, but her books never appeal to me beyond the interesting plots that they sometimes have. There’s always something about her books that set my teeth on edge, that make me want to hurry up and finish so I can be done with the teenage angst and the attitudes and the catty behavior. Broken Things has a decent, compelling plot, marred by the actions of the characters, but it’s character-driven and I’m not that big of a fan of character-driven books, especially when the characters are forced to forget things in order that they don’t figure things out too quickly.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: LGBTQ themes, sexual situations, swearing, drinking, drug abuse.

Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2V8fjbh

Wolf Tower by Tanith Lee

Wolf Tower, by Tanith Lee, was published in 1998 by Dutton.

Rating: 4/5

I first read Tanith Lee’s Claidi Journals around ten years ago. Though my memories of the last three books have faded, except for the odd bits and pieces (including what’s probably an important plot point of the second book which has stuck with me), the first book has always been the one I remembered the most. Perhaps it’s because it’s one of the first books I read with a proper twist ending. Or maybe the fantasy was strong enough, memorable enough, to stay with me.

That being said, I did forget quite a bit. Claidi’s voice, for one.  I love her character: brave, yearning for adventure and freedom, yet at times doubtful, hesitant, unsure. I love my characters with a dash of uncertainty—it makes them feel more realistic. And while for most of the book she’s more of an observer, soaking in all the new sights and sounds, she never feels passive. And towards the end, she becomes pretty fierce.

I also forgot various sights, sounds, and plot points. Though I’m not a huge fan of the world—big, empty, waste-y, with scattered villages and cities with different governing systems and no sense of scale—I did enjoy seeing it as Claidi saw it—as she is experiencing it for the first time just as we, the readers, are.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but I remember the plot twist blowing my teenage mind a bit when I read it. Now, of course, I spotted it much more easily and was able to enjoy the lead-up more. I also really like the idea of Claidi being torn between the dazzling stranger who rescued her and the stranger who takes his time to get to know her, as it seems pretty close to human nature: we feel indebted to the people who rescue us (I know Claidi rescued him, technically, but I don’t really mean “rescue” in the “saving” sense. More in the “opened up the world” sense), but we come across people who are more genuine and heartfelt, we feel torn because of our sense of loyalty to the first set of people.

Anyway, I enjoyed re-reading Wolf Tower very much. I’m looking forward to seeing how much of the other three books I actually remember, and how many plot points I know, and how surprised I will be if I don’t know them.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

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

Jackaby by William Ritter

Jackaby, by William Ritter, was published in 2014 by Algonquin.

Rating: 4/5

Jackaby was all over Goodreads the year it was published, and I noticed it at the time, but didn’t really put much stock into it (most books that are popular on Goodreads don’t reflect my tastes). But even back then, the cover and title font intrigued me, so when I saw it on the library shelf, I thought, “Why not?”

The blurb for this book says it’s a “Doctor Who meets Sherlock Holmes” story, but to be honest, it reminded me a lot more of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series. Jackaby is a more eccentric Lockwood, while Abigail is a less adventurous, more normal Lucy. The tone of the book and the characters are great: quirky, fun, interesting. I’m not a big fan of fairy elements, but the inclusion in this book was smooth and I didn’t mind it so much.

I loved the characters and the atmosphere, but the mystery itself was simply all right. It was fairly simple, with most of the attention focused on building up the world rather than the mystery itself. The red herrings Ritter threw in were so obviously red herrings that there was no shock or tension in the unraveling of the plot. And, though the book is decently long, it feels quite short, mainly because the majority of it does deal with establishing characters and not so much on action. And for a first book, that’s okay—it’s important to do that. I was just hoping for something with a bit more punch and intrigue that would really make me want to go out and get the next book.

I think I liked Jackaby just enough for me to get the next book in the series, but if the mysteries remain as tepid and obvious as in this first book, I might have to call it quits. Or maybe the delightful characters will keep me reading—we’ll see!

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Urban Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2UAm1q9