I devoured Haddix’s works as a middle-schooler; she and Caroline B. Cooney defined my reading as a 12-year-old. However, now that I’ve read a couple of books by her as an adult, I find her novels very underwhelming.
Full Ride is okay—much better than either The Always Waror Under Their Skin, but not as nostalgic as Just Ella—though the book is probably about a hundred pages longer than it needed to be. There is just so much of Becca having inner monologues all the time about her feelings. And crying. And running. And internally yelling at her criminal father.
The plot was decent, though it seemed highly farfetched in several areas. Not even the author’s note where Haddix talks about how carefully she researched helped. I guess it’s because the whole plot revolves around con artists, so it’s harder to swallow because some areas are just so ridiculous that you can’t help thinking that something is fishy. And, unfortunately, sometimes things seem so ridiculous because the characters do ridiculous things or react in strange ways or interact in scenarios that seem unrealistic.
The best part of this book is probably the friendship between Becca and the group of high-achieving budding scholars. That was the most realistic aspect, and the interactions seemed natural. Everything was a lot less stilted and dramatic when those characters were together, so perhaps that’s why I enjoyed that part the most.
There are a lot of authors that I read in my childhood that I adore, but Haddix is not one of them anymore. I’ve so far thought of her books as no more than mediocre. I’m tempted to read Cooney to see if I feel the same about her. Sometimes there are just certain authors that you grow out of, I suppose!
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.
It’s not a good sign for my proclaimed favorite Dear America book (One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping) that I’ve strongly disliked all of Barry Denenberg’s DA entries so far (Denenberg wrote said favorite). It’s not the setting, or the topic, that I dislike so much. It’s that Denenberg has so far failed at making any of his characters interesting.
Bess has barely any voice or personality in this novel, and what we do see of her is contrasted awkwardly with what her sister says of her. In fact, most of Bess’s character is described through her sister’s eyes, and yet we see none of what her sister mentions in Bess’s diary entries. Bess spends more time talking about the people around her and what they are like than doing anything remotely involving connection with the reader. So, while the reader might get awfully attached to Eva, or even Amanda, Bess is left as merely the speaker through which all of this information is coming.
Also, Denenberg writes terrible epilogues, and I absolutely hated how he name-dropped his other Dear America entry, When Will This Cruel War Be Over?, in this one. You can tell he thought it was so clever and funny to do so, but it just seemed self-centered to me.
I’m not rating this a 1 because a lot of the information about the Perkins School for the Blind was pretty interesting. I do like how Dear America can sometimes focus on little things like a blind school in the immensity of American history and events. And setting it in the Great Depression helps communicate some of those issues, as well, though that’s merely a backdrop. So, no problems with the setting or the topic—just with Denenberg’s writing and characterization.
I’m now nervous that One Eye Laughing won’t be as good as I remember. Here’s hoping Denenberg has a few last surprises to give me before I give up on him completely.
Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, by Lois Lowry, was published in 2011 by Scholastic.
No, not the Quakers. The Shakers, thus called because they used to “shake” and dance during worship, are a sect of Christianity founded around 1747. Today, there are only two Shakers remaining (and at Sabbathday Lake, the setting of the book).
It’s like Lowry was enthralled by the Shaker life (as
evident in the Historical Note) and wanted to write a book about it, so she
contacted Scholastic and asked, and Scholastic said, “Okay, but you have to
throw in something else relevant so it seems like a normal Dear America book”
and Lowry went with the Spanish flu.
I did learn lots of interesting things about Shakers
(like how many inventions they were responsible for: the clothespin, a type of
washing machine, and the circular saw, to name a few), and this book is a
really good way to learn about a little known religious sect, but since no
other DA book focuses so strongly on a group of people (I am not counting any
of the Native American books, since those were about events/periods in that
culture’s history with information about the group intertwined. This book
focuses on the group, and has events intertwined), it just seems odd and out of
Plus, the story itself wasn’t that interesting. Lydia
is merely a mouthpiece for and an observer of Shaker ways, so she assimilates
quickly and spends the rest of the book describing and thinking about Shaker
life. Again, if you want to know about Shakers, then Like the Willow Tree is great for that. But if you want a good
story, with interesting characters, then maybe look elsewhere.
The Runaway Princess, by Kate Coombs, was published in 2006 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
The Runaway Princess reminded me a lot of E. D. Baker’sbooks. It’s a non-serious fantasy about a rebellious princess (*shudder*) who, knowing better than all the adults around her (of course), sets off to complete the quest her father put in place for eligible suitors, thereby “winning her own hand” a la Merida from Brave.
It’s a good thing I recognized this as non-serious,
fun fantasy early on, otherwise I would’ve spent the whole book wondering how
the logistics of everything worked out. There’s no sense of scale, politics, or
even world mechanics, and everything that happens just seems a little too
unbelievable to be convincing that it would actually happen. It really starts
to delve into melodramatic territory with the “angry parents” side plot.
I can see why a lot of people like this book. Meg is a
rebellious, unconventional princess (a very popular trope) who goes against the
status quo, befriends the lower class, and somehow knows a ton about the
workings of society outside the castle despite never going out much. She’s oh-so
understanding and friendly and remarkably capable despite, again, lack of
knowledge and training. She knows better than anyone else what the correct way
of things should be. Unluckily for me, I absolutely hate that type of
character, especially combined with the overused rebellious princess trope.
For non-serious fantasy directed at a middle-grade
audience, I suppose it’s a fine book. Again, many people would probably applaud
the protagonist (especially considering the audience and everyone’s constant
wish for strong female leads [or, at least, what they think a strong female
lead should be]). Yet I found the whole book unbelievable, Meg annoying, and
the jokes not funny. Coombs took one step too far and turned her non-serious
novel into camp.
I’ve discovered why I’ve struggled to get through
these books—there’s very little action. Perhaps that’s why The Crow, the book with the most action, was my favorite. The Singing is, as all the books are,
far too long, and there’s too much talking and introspection and not enough
danger and suspense. Even the final “showdown” at the end with Sharma was
Maerad also develops far too much power too quickly.
There is not a very good balance to her growth in magic; she goes from somehow
defeating a giant Elemental (within the range of what we know about her
strength) to a glowing person who leaks magic and can destroy bad guys with a
single breath, after merely sitting for ten minutes and thinking—or something.
I’m not sure what was happening because my eyes were glazing over.
I honestly think if the books were much shorter, and
if there were only three books instead of four, the whole effect would have
been much better. But there are whole chapters of this book that are
unnecessary, or scenes that go on for far too long, and after a while Croggon’s
writing style really starts grating. And it’s clear she doesn’t know how to
write action, so she limits it as much as she can, which is why so much of the
final confrontation is inward rather than outward—but because everything is
delivered in the same exact tone, there’s no suspense or tension to the scene.
There’s practically no struggle, either.
Hem remains the only interesting character; Maerad is
too flat and boring, especially in this book. The problem with making your
character super-powerful is that it also makes them super-boring without
conflict or struggle to make them interesting. Hem, who was more normal, seemed
more alive than Maerad, who spent most of the last half of the book in a daze that
wasn’t really all that important to developing any part of her character.
Singing, and the Pellinor series in general, tries so hard to
deliver on epic fantasy, but falls short in terms of pacing, action,
characterization, and intrigue. There’s no politics, barely any struggle, and
there wasn’t enough editing done to help mitigate that. I’m a bit sorry I spent
so much time on these books, honestly, but what’s done is done, and now I know
that I can’t stand them (except for The
Crow. That one was okay).
Something happened to these delightful Jackaby novels,
and I’m not quite sure what. The first two books were fun and charming. Ghostly Echoes, though…I struggled to
immerse myself in it. It started off promising enough, but then characters
appear simply to voice author messages and political/social stances, and the
pleasant supernatural mysteries explode into a malevolent evil plot, complete
with a trip to the Underworld.
I think what I liked about the first two Jackaby books
was that they were urban fantasy/supernatural lite. There were supernatural
elements, sure, but those were intertwined with “normal” 1800s life. Yet this
book suddenly decides to introduce immense supernatural content (such as the
aforementioned Underworld, and a sinister Dire Council) with the mystery taking
Perhaps this is simply my dislike of supernatural books talking, much like how I struggle to enjoy science fiction. I also started disliking Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys when she started ramping up the supernatural. Or perhaps it’s my dislike of authors using characters merely as mouthpieces, which is what happens in this book with the character of Lydia Lee, who serves absolutely no purpose beyond plot convenience and soapboxing. Make those characters more interesting!
Whatever it is, my enthusiasm for Jackaby has dimmed
so much that I wonder whether I’ll even read the last book. To be honest, I
have no desire to find out what happens next. That disappeared when Abigail
took a trip to visit the dead.
A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, by Nancy Willard, was published in 1981 by Harcourt.
When I first saw the title of this book, I thought it would be rewritten poetry of Blake’s, or his poems presented in a new way. But it’s not about that at all—instead, Willard starts with “Hey, let’s pretend William Blake ran an inn” and then talks about dragons and monkeys and tigers and cats. It’s not even about William Blake at all, so the little tribute that Willard includes in the beginning to William Blake makes no sense. In fact, if William Blake had been left out entirely and some random made-up person had been the innkeeper instead, the poems would have had the exact same effect.
Maybe I’m just really unaware of Blake’s poetry—maybe
Willard has actually subtly woven in parts of Blake’s poetry into her own
poetry as a nod and as a unifying theme to warrant the title. But to me it
seems like she just chose this historical person and inserted him into poems
about dragons and a fantastical inn because she liked him as a poet, not
because he actually lent himself to the material in any way.
So, basically I’m not the best audience for this sort
of book because I don’t really like reading poetry and I think characters with
no use shouldn’t be in books. However, A
Visit to William Blake’s Inn is full of magic and fantasy, with poems that would
be fun to read aloud to a child and lots of great illustrations to go with
The First Collier, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2006 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Outcast(but technically a prequel to the series).
First Collier is an interesting installment in the
Ga’Hoole series. It’s the first book in a prequel trilogy that details the
start of the legends of Ga’Hoole: the owl king Hoole and his war with the
hagfiends (and presumably his founding of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole). This
first book deals with Grank, the titular first collier, and how he comes to
receive Hoole’s egg and cares for it. Appropriately, the book ends with Hoole
Lasky really steps up the fantastic elements in this
one, with the owl-crow hagfiends and their yellow eye magic, Grank’s own
magery, and, of course, the ember of Hoole and the egg of Hoole. It’s also the
first Ga’Hoole book to be in first person, which actually helped out a lot. It
completely changed the usual ebb and flow of Lasky’s writing and helped make
things less stiff and clunky and cheesy. Rather than everything feeling stilted
and there being an abundance of telling rather than showing, the first person
narration lessened that a lot, though there were a few instances of rather
However, despite some of the new things, I think I’m
simply getting bored of the series. Every book feels the same. Lasky does not
do enough to change things up (the first person helped, as did some of the
elements of the world, but not enough); I feel as if I am reading the same
story over and over again. It reminds me a bit of Erin Hunter’s Warriors
series, another set of books that I ultimately got tired of as they were all
too similar. The First Collier had
interesting bits to it, but overall everything was done in the same delivery
and style—there was even an Otulissa replacement! The only thing that changed
was the terminology. I’m halfway through the Ga’Hoole series, but I’m not sure
if I want to finish or not.
Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The String, by Caleb Breakey, from Revell. All opinions are my own.
My rating: 2/5
The String is like Criminal Minds mixed with a cop or spy movie. There’s a psychopathic killer who has blackmailed/coerced several people to become members of his “string” and who are forced to do his bidding. Enter plucky university cop Markus Haas, who is determined to stop him, and things start going crazy.
Look, if you like this sort of suspense novel, which is
heavy on violence, psychological horror, and the like, then this book is
definitely for you. It’s a bit long for what is a relatively simple plot, but
Breakey manages to pull a few surprising twists and turns along the way. He
also manages to accomplish the difficult task of making the villain
understandable, but not sympathetic.
There’s a couple of reasons why I rated this book so low.
One is that I simply couldn’t enjoy it. I had to stop watching Criminal Minds for a reason, and it’s
that I can’t handle large doses of darkness. And the way this book is written,
we’re meant to indulge in that darkness a bit; it’s supposed to drive our
enjoyment of a novel, and that really doesn’t sit well with me. There’s only so
much manipulation, violence, and caught-between-rock-and-hard-place moral
dilemmas I can deal with.
Another reason is that I was disappointed that this book is only superficially Christian. Okay, so Stephanie is a Christian in this book, and Haas is sort of thinking about it. Yet Stephanie barely does anything beyond a quick prayer once or twice. This book could have truly delved into the Christian response to this sort of psychopathic evil, and what people do, and all those sorts of interesting moral dilemmas, and I would have loved to see way more prayer, way more Bible reading, and way more appeals to God. Instead we get some occasional mentions and that’s it.
I don’t know, perhaps Breakey didn’t want to be preachy or something. Or maybe his goal was simply to write a suspense book, never mind the religion of the characters. But I felt that there was so much opportunity lost by not having the characters react more in ways that really demonstrated their Christian beliefs.
Warnings: Lots of violence, psychopathy, hints of child abuse
yet another Newbery Medal winner that baffles me. It’s a book about grief, and
learning to move past grief, but there’s nothing overwhelming special about it
and the book is so short that it’s hard to get a firm grasp of the characters
or even their development. The entire book hinges on a trip to some
Spiritualist Church so that Summer, Cletus, and Ob can summon the ghost of Ob’s
wife May (or something). And then everything is resolved in the space of a
Okay, so there’s a little bit more going on than that.
There’s the relationship between Cletus and Summer, Cletus and Ob, and Cletus,
Summer, and Ob. There’s Summer realizing that Cletus isn’t the person he
appears, and that other people don’t view him the way she does. And there’s a
bit of a peek into Summer and Ob’s relationship, though most of the book is
focused on May and Summer. But, again, the book is so short that there’s not
enough time for all of these dimensions to be fully explored. Rylant does a
fairly good job, but it mostly relies on cramming development into single
sentences (like with the resolution of the novel).
Plus, the whole premise is strange. Ob “sense” the
“ghost” of May, then is determined to go call up her ghost because he misses
her so much, so they plan a trip to make a séance. The exploration of grief is
interesting and needed, but the ghost stuff skews the focus, in my opinion.
And, again, the book is too short to achieve any sense of fulfillment or
go on the “How did this win?” list, as well as the “I won’t remember this in
two days” list. The theme of the story—grief and overcoming grief—is important,
but the spiritualism makes the whole book strange, and the character
development, like the plot, is rushed and poorly resolved.