1981 Newbery Medal: Jacob Have I Loved

Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson, was published in 1980 by HarperCollins.

“Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated….” With her grandmother’s taunt, Louise knew that she, like the biblical Esau, was the despised elder twin. Caroline, her selfish younger sister, was the one everyone loved. Growing up on a tiny Chesapeake Bay island in the early 1940s, angry Louise reveals how Caroline robbed her of everything: her hopes for schooling, her friends, her mother, even her name. While everyone pampered Caroline, Wheeze (her sister’s name for her) began to learn the ways of the watermen and the secrets of the island, especially of old Captain Wallace, who had mysterious returned after fifty years. The war unexpectedly gave this independent girl a change to fulfill her childish dream to work as a waterman alongside her father. But the dream did not satisfy the woman she was becoming. Alone and unsure, Louise began to fight her way to a place where Caroline could not reach.

Rating: 2/5

Jacob Have I Loved is written by the same author as Bridge to Terabithia, a book I still vividly remember and another Newbery Medal winner that I’ll be reading at some point. Another of her books, The Great Gilly Hopkins, won a Newbery Honor. So, basically, Katherine Paterson’s books are good and she won a lot of awards for them.

However, I must say, I was disappointed by Jacob Have I Loved. I think it was because the underpinning of the novel, the perceived favoritism of Caroline that affects pretty much everything Louise does, seemed more like Louise was overreacting to small things than actual favoritism. To me, Louise seemed overly melodramatic in places, such as when Caroline would say something normal and Louise would suddenly start yelling or storm out of the house. I understand that they’re teenagers, but Louise didn’t really do much to make me sympathize with her feelings of jealousy and invisibility.

It got a little better once more solid things than Louise’s perceptions were involved, such as Call and Captain Wallace, and Paterson better communicated Louise’s sense of always being overshadowed, but still, several times during the novel I thought Louise was being more ridiculous than Caroline and certainly was more unlikeable.

Perhaps that was Paterson’s point, though, that Louise was ultimately unhappy with her own life and was blaming it on whoever or whatever was in reach, such as her sister. In which case, Louise’s behavior makes more sense, I suppose.

There were also several parts of the book I found inexplicably strange, such as Louise’s infatuation with Captain Wallace (??) that had virtually no explanation and then dissipated into nothing, used only as a vehicle for Louise’s grandmother to say mean things and scare Louise, and the ending, which I sort of understood when I read it, then read someone describing how bittersweet it was, and then read the ending again only to wonder from where in the world that person was getting any of his descriptions. Either the ending communicated something that I clearly missed or the person inferred a whole lot from two pages that wasn’t actually there.

I can see why Jacob Have I Loved won the Newbery; it’s exactly the sort of adolescent coming-of-age novel that these sorts of awards seem to attract. But I didn’t quite buy Louise’s characterization and for a lot of the book I barely sympathized with her, seeing her instead as a melodramatic teenager who needed to stop blowing things out of proportion. It got a little better by the end, but overall I barely enjoyed Jacob Have I Loved. Mostly, I think it’s strange and not something I would immediately recommend.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Swearing, some nasty insinuations made by the grandmother

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

“I’d want to pay you something,” the Captain said. My ears stretched practically to the top of my head, and I opened my mouth to utter a humble thanks.

“Oh, no,” said Call. “We couldn’t think of taking money from a neighbor.”

Who couldn’t? But for once in his life Call talked faster than I could think, and the two of them snatched away my time and energy and sold me into slavery before I had breath to hint that I wouldn’t be insulted by a small tip every now and then.

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

Fairy Tale Friday: The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell

The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell, was published in 2014 by Katherine Tegen.

When Sand wakes up alone in a long-abandoned castle, he has no idea how he got there. The stories all said the place was ruined by an earthquake, and Sand did not expect to find everything inside torn in half or smashed to bits. Nothing lives here and nothing grows, except the vicious, thorny bramble that holds Sand prisoner. Why wasn’t this in the stories? To survive, Sand does what he knows best—he fires up the castle’s forge to mend what he needs. But the things he fixes work somehow better than they ought to. Is there magic in the mending? Or have the saints who once guarded this place returned? When Sand finds the castle’s lost heir, Perrotte, they begin to untwine the dark secrets that caused the destruction. Putting together the pieces—of stone and iron, and of a broken life—is harder than Sand ever imagined, but it’s the only way to regain their freedom.

Rating: 2/5

The Castle Behind Thorns is a unique reinvention of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale (although it’s not marketed as such, it’s got Sleeping Beauty written all over it), where Sleeping Beauty wakes up not because of a kiss but because someone is fixing everything that was broken in the abandoned castle. I like adaptations of fairy tales that place the fairy tale somewhere in history, and this particular world is closely tied to the religion and the politics of medieval France.

The message of forgiveness laid out in the novel is good, although laid on a little thick by the end. The moralizing message is a bit much for an adult reader, but it might be just the thing a younger reader might need to hear. Haskell seems to have a much heavier hand here than she did in either Handbook for Dragon Slayers or The Princess Curse, so I’m not quite sure if she had a different audience in mind or if she simply thought a less subtle application of her point was needed because of the world she had built. It’s a good message of forgiveness, but it perhaps could have been communicated in a way that was less moralizing and thus less likely to turn people off from it (though, again, a younger audience may be more receptive).

However, I didn’t enjoy The Castle Behind Thorns as much as I enjoyed Haskell’s other works, and I’m not quite sure why. The lack of subtlety may have been one reason. Ultimately, though, I just didn’t find much about the book incredibly interesting. I’m not all that fond of Sleeping Beauty and Haskell wasn’t so unique in the telling of it as to make me really involved in the world and the plot. The premise was good and so was the reimagining of the fairytale as a whole, but the book wasn’t strong as a whole. I’ve read better versions of Sleeping Beauty and better books by Haskell. The Castle Behind Thorns is good, but not great; interesting, but not enticing; imaginative, but not groundbreaking. I’d much rather read The Princess Curse again.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fairy Tales, Middle Grade

He, Sand, had done all this. He had saved these things, sorted them, repurposed them, and made them work again.

With his mended broom held above his head like a sword, he shouted: “I am Sand, lord of this kitchen!”

Even though when he said it out loud, he could hear how silly it sounded, he knew that it was incomplete. There was no one here to challenge his rule, no one here to tell him otherwise.

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

Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery

Rilla of Ingleside, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, was first published in 1921. It is the sequel to Rainbow Valley.

Anne’s children were almost grown up, except for pretty, high-spirited Rilla. No one could resist her bright hazel eyes and dazzling smile. Rilla, almost fifteen, can’t think any further ahead than going to her very first dance at the Four Winds lighthouse and getting her first kiss from handsome Kenneth Ford. But undreamed-of challenges await the irrepressible Rilla when the world of Ingleside becomes endangered by a far-off war. Her brothers go off to fight, and Rilla brings home an orphaned newborn in a soup tureen. She is swept into a drama that tests her courage and leaves her changed forever.

Rating: 2/5

Rilla of Ingleside would be a wonderful tale of the effect of World War I on families if it wasn’t for its one major flaw, which is that it’s boring. The familiar Montgomery shenanigans are swept away for pages-long conversations and depictions of battles in WWI, and while some small amount of ridiculous antics are present, the mood of this book is much more gloomy and dark than previous Anne books. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the grave tone fits the setting, but the book seemed unnecessarily long and dragged on and on.

Also, I felt that Rilla and Kenneth’s relationship wasn’t nearly as well developed as, say, Anne and Gilbert’s, or even Mr. Meredith’s and Rosemary’s from the last book. It’s a background piece, really, and perhaps that’s how Montgomery meant it, but it did seem to me to fall a little flat. I do appreciate Rilla’s character growth throughout the book, however, and how she matured as she grew up and as the war required her to do things that she would not normally have had to do.

I applaud Montgomery for the more serious nature of the book, as befitting of the time period, but she definitely does “silly nonsense” better, as Rilla of Ingleside seemed overly long, spent too much time dwelling on Susan Baker recapping battles of the war (spent too much time with Susan in general, actually), and its little intersperses of humor were sporadic and jagged. I do appreciate that Shirley, at least, got a little more limelight and wasn’t treated as a nonexistent character—a step up from my complaints from the previous two books!

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Character death.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

1925 Newbery Medal: Tales from Silver Lands

Tales from Silver Lands, by Charles J. Finger, was first published in 1924. I read the original from Doubleday.

Tales from Silver Lands is a collection of nineteen folktales, which Finger collected during his travels in South America. In them an assortment of animals, magical creatures, witches, giants, and children struggle for a life in which good overcomes evil. These fast-moving and adventuresome fantasies provide insight into the values and culture of native South American peoples. They stress the importance of close relationships, hard work, bravery, gentleness, and beauty, and contain colorful explanations of natural phenomena.

Rating: 2/5

Tales from Silver Lands is a quaint, interesting book of fairy tales and myths hailing from South America. I can see why it won a Newbery; the language echoes a story-teller/oral tradition voice, the myths are varied, and there is a discernible message that I would assume would be important to the 1920s audience, when obvious morals in literature were still in vogue.

However, the myths are not as enchanting or as memorable as other collections of myths, and after the fifth or so they start to run together and sound the same. The latter half of the book I ended up skimming, not particularly on purpose, but because my mind wandered to other things—never a good sign when reading a book. In addition, while some of the myths were connected (“sequels,” in a way), they were given a rather odd order. The first two were back-to-back, while the third was five or six stories later.

Tales of Silver Lands would be good reading if one wanted to know more about South American myths (although I wonder if there is not a better source out there). I think these in particular are best suited to reading out loud. However, the myths themselves are not particular memorable or remarkable, and although I wasn’t bored while reading, I certainly didn’t get much enjoyment out of the book as a whole. These sorts of books should ignite a curiosity to learning more about a different culture than one’s own, and unfortunately, Finger fails to do so.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy/Myth

Again old Hunbatz flew through the air to the father and tried to set him against the boys, and again that night, when the boys were home, their task was set for the next day twice as much as the day before.

It was the same the third day, and the fourth, until at last the boys came to a point where by the mightiest working they could not move a stick or a blade of grass more. And yet, because of old Hunbatz, the father set them a task still greater.

On the fifth day things looked very hopeless for the boys, and their hearts were sad as they looked at the forest and saw the task that their father had set them to do. They went to work feeling for the first time it would be impossible for the sun to go down on their finished task, and the heat of old Hunbatz was glad.

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The Forgotten Sisters by Shannon Hale

The Forgotten Sisters, by Shannon Hale, was published in 2015 by Bloomsbury. It is the sequel to Palace of Stone.

After a year at the palace, Miri and her friends are ready to return home to their beloved Mount Eskel. But when the king orders Miri to start her own princess academy in a faraway swamp for three royal cousins, she is utterly dismayed. She must go on this journey alone, away from everyone she loves and everything she knows. Miri’s new students are not at all what she expected. Astrid, Felissa, and Sus are more interested in hunting, fishing, and wrestling than learning about etiquette and history, and they know next to nothing about their royal ancestry. As Miri spends more time with the girls, she starts to suspect that they are part of a long-buried secret, and that the key to uncovering the truth rests in her and the sisters’ hands. With her new friends at her side, Miri must gather all her strength to solve the mystery—and finally make her way back home.

Rating: 2/5

The Forgotten Sisters ranks lower than Palace of Stone only because I thought the message of the latter was stronger—and because the middle of The Forgotten Sisters is a bit of a trudge to read. I’m not sure if it was quite necessary to even have this book, but clearly popular demand led Hale to write another. The plot is a little bit of a mess, although I suppose, in retrospect, you could argue that Hale does indicate something in Palace of Stone in terms of the queen’s sorrow that could potentially tie to this novel. But for me, the plot seemed a little stilted and a little thrown together, and the reasoning behind it all was tied to a brief, flimsy little story told hastily in the beginning of the novel and never dwelled on again.

However, I will say that the ending of the novel was delightful, all thanks to Sus. The entirety of the section with the girls in the Queen’s Castle was good, but Sus (and Kaspar) just made it all that much better. It was cute, funny, and exactly the sort of matter-of-fact dialogue in a tense situation that I love to see executed well (the kind that just ignores all the mean people glaring and simply carries on a conversation in a subtly brilliant way).

Princess Academy is definitely the strongest in the series, with the two sequels not entirely necessary, in my opinion. Hale manages to pull some things together for The Forgotten Sisters, but overall the plot is a little contrived and the pace drags in the middle. There’s also some flowery bits of description that fall a little flat, at least in my opinion. But the ending is charming, and at least the book ended on a high note. However, if Hale writes another one of these, I probably won’t read it, as they’ve declined in quality since the first.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Something you didn’t know, Astrid,” said Miri. “Something I was able to teach you.”

Astrid shrugged. “All you did was put a fancy name to what we can already do.”

Miri opened her mouth to answer but had nothing to say.

Astrid passed very close to Miri on her way outside and whispered, “And I’m older than you, tutor.”

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2n4vvfH

The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan

The Poison Throne, by Celine Kiernan, was published in 2008 by Orbit.

When young Wynter Moorehawke returns to court with her dying father, she finds her old home shadowed with fear. The king has become a violent despot, terrorizing those he once loved. His son and heir Alberon has fled into exile and now there are whispers everywhere of rebellion. Meanwhile, Alberon’s half-brother Razi has been elevated to the throne. He struggles to meet his King’s demands while remaining loyal to his beloved brother and to his friend Wynter. Now she must choose—her father or her dreams, her friend o her king, her duty or her love.

Rating: 2/5

What is it with me reading lackluster fantasies recently that somehow manage to compel me enough to keep reading? The Poison Throne, à la Falling Kingdoms, was the sort of book where every chapter I thought, “Okay, I’m going to stop reading” and then I kept reading for some inexplicable reason.

It definitely wasn’t the characters that kept me reading. Every other page one of them is yelling, or screaming, or kicking something, or shouting “NO!”, or crying, or doing a myriad of annoying things. Wynter was a sad, passive excuse for a character, although at the end she gets a little better. Christopher and Razi were bland and boring, and all the characters were so melodramatic that it was hard to take any of them seriously for long.

It also wasn’t the world. It reads like a fantasy at first, and then Kiernan suddenly reveals that it’s a medieval fantasy, set in the Middle Ages, but with some convoluted and inconsistent building that hints at a non-Earth setting even though it’s so desperately trying to be alternate history. Kiernan cobbles together actual places and people groups with fake ones, making it a muddled world overall.

The thing that kept me reading might have been the plot, which had glimmers of hope. The mystery of why the crown prince is reportedly rebelling was vaguely interesting, and the end of the book, with Wynter leaving to go find him (although it’s never stated why, exactly, she’s doing this), was intriguing. The rest of it was as muddled and melodramatic as the plot and the characters, but slivers of interest kept poking up amidst the muck.

Or maybe the thing that kept me reading The Poison Throne was the “It’s so bad it’s good” concept or the “can’t stop watching this train wreck” concept. Every page I turned, every chapter where I half-thought I would close the book, was the page or the chapter where I thought, “Well, maybe just one more, just to see what happens.” I’m certainly not a fan of The Poison Throne, nor do I consider it above a mediocre fantasy (if even that), but it’s one of those books where, if I was browsing the library shelves and had nothing else I wanted to read, I might just pick up the sequel. You know—just to see what happens.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, a small snippet of swearing.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

“Where is Alberon, Razi?” Wynter asked. She kept her voice low and only glanced sideways at him. They had had no contact for the last five years; had, until now, not even been sure if the other survived. Now, questions, if asked at all, would have to be asked gently, obliquely, for fear of opening old wounds or uncovering secrets best left hidden.

Razi cleared his throat and shook his head. “I don’t know where Albi is, little sister. He is not here. Father says…Father says that he has sent him to the coast, to inspect the fleet.” Their eyes met briefly and Wynter looked away.

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2mq5eFm

Fairy Tale Friday: Disenchanted: The Trials of Cinderella

Disenchanted: The Trials of Cinderella, by Megan Morrison, was published in 2016 by Arthur A. Levine. It is the sequel to Grounded: The Adventures of Rapunzel.

Ella Coach has one wish: revolution. Her mother died working in a sweatshop, and Ella wants every laborer in the blue kingdom to receive fairer treatment. But to make that happen, she’ll need some high-level support. Prince Dash Charming has one wish: evolution. The Charming Curse forced generations of Charming men to lie, cheat, and break hearts—but with the witch Envearia’s death, the curse has ended. Now Dash wants to be a better person, but he doesn’t know where to start. Serge can grant any wish—and has: As an executive fairy godfather, he’s catered to the wildest whims of spoiled brats from the richest, most entitled families in Blue. But now a new name has come up on his list, someone nobody’s ever heard of…Ella Coach. This is the story of three people who want something better, and who work together to change their worlds.

Rating: 2/5

Grounded was one of my favorite adaptations of the Rapunzel fairytale I’ve read, so I was excited to read Morrison’s latest work, this time taking on Cinderella’s fairytale—or so I thought. Instead, what I got was a preachy, “all rich people are evil” narrative without the faintest trace of Cinderella except for the main character’s name.

I mean, it was a good cause Ella was yelling about for the entire book, but it was the complete over-the-top descriptions and the numerous speeches (literally) that made it feel more like a pamphlet on fair labor laws and trade than a fairytale retelling. It was also completely devoid of almost everything from the Cinderella fairytale, except for miniscule aspects such as her stepmother and stepsisters. I get that Morrison is trying to be original here, but why even bother masking this as a retelling of Cinderella when it’s not? It would have been better to introduce it as an original story set in Morrison’s fairytale world.

Also, I think I would have been a little more sympathetic towards Ella if she had stopped acting like only she knew what the laborers were going through and that only she stood for what’s Good and Right in the world (not helped by the author painting every rich person as selfish, cruel, and completely devoid of compassion). Luckily, at least a few of the characters point this out to her, and by the end of the book she’s slightly better in terms of her overall attitude.

So, Disenchanted, while having an interesting world with several clever fairy tale elements woven into it, is far from a good Cinderella reimagining. I could barely recognize the original fairytale in the plot and world Morrison created. That’s not a bad thing that Morrison expanded on the world she built, but it would have been far better not to attach the Cinderella name to it at all. As a world with fairytale references, Disenchanted is clever and fun. As a Cinderella retelling, Disenchanted is irritating, preachy, and unrecognizable as such.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Fairy Tales

“Don’t tell on me,” he begged. “Please. I can explain.”

“You stole Ella’s contract. What were you thinking, Jasper?”

“The same thing you were thinking!”

“Oh? Enlighten me.”

“You thought it was wrong to ignore a child just because she couldn’t pay,” said Jasper. “You proved it by letting me come here, didn’t you?” His breath came fast. “We should do this together. We should help Ella.”

“Presumptuous.”

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

Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes

Falling Kingdoms, by Morgan Rhodes, was published in 2012 by Penguin.

In the three kingdoms of Mytica, magic has long been forgotten. And while hard-won peace has reigned for centuries, a deadly unrest now simmers below the surface. As the rulers of each kingdom grapple for power, the lives of their subjects are brutally transformed…and four key players, royals and rebels alike, find their fates forever intertwined. Cleo, Jonas, Lucia, and Magnus are caught in a dizzying world of treacherous betrayals, shocking murders, secret alliances, and even unforeseen love. The only outcome that’s certain is that kingdoms will fall. Who will emerge triumphant when all they know has collapsed?

Rating: 2/5

Reading Falling Kingdoms was like driving down a one-way street, knowing that there’s no way through but still wondering what the end will look like. I briefly considered putting it down about a third of the way through, but I kept reading.

Why did I keep reading, you ask? Well, it wasn’t because of the characters. Stock, predictable characters who do stupid things for the sake of the plot don’t really interest me. My favorite was probably Magnus, even though the “forbidden love” aspect was gross and annoying. And then we have Lucia, who is supposed to be a main, viewpoint character but is usually pushed aside in favor of Magnus. And Jonas, who is annoying. And Cleo, who’s exactly like every single female protagonist I’ve read in YA, which means the majority of readers probably love her. Oh, and her love story, which is so predictable you can see it coming before the book even starts.

I also didn’t keep reading because of the plot and world. The “this kingdom is oppressing this one and so it decides to fight back, oh and there are some evil kings who want to take over the world and some type of magic and a prophecy and some mystical items to find” plot isn’t developed nearly well enough to make up for its unoriginality, and the world is the standard magical kingdom variety, complete with dead goddesses and The One Sorcerer to Rule Them All.

So, what was it about Falling Kingdoms that made me finish the book and go, “Hmm, I could read the next one”? Since I didn’t enjoy any of the characters, the plot, or the world itself, I can’t honestly say. Maybe it was the simple feel of the book itself, that “you know I’ll be terrible but you want to read me anyway” atmosphere that exudes from books like these. Maybe I just like driving down one-way streets, because they might, somehow, end up somewhere interesting.

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: Incestual thoughts, violence, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

“I need to see him,” Jonas murmured. “I need to do what Tomas wanted to do. Things need to change.”

Brion looked at him with surprise. “So in two minutes you’ve gone from single-minded vengeance to potentially seeking audience with the chief.”

“You could put it that way.” Killing the royals, Jonas was realizing soberly, would have been a glorious moment of vengeance—a blaze of glory. But it would do nothing to help his people chart a new course for a brighter future. That was what Tomas would have wanted above all else.

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

The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs

The Curse of the Blue Figurine, by John Bellairs, was published in 1983 by Dial Books.

Whoever removes these things from the church does so at his own peril….Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the lord. Remigius Baart. Little does Johnny Dixon know when he takes a scroll inscribed with these words—along with a seemingly harmless figurine—from the town church that his life will be changed forever. On a bleak and stormy night his friend Professor Childermass relates the tale of mad Father Baart, whose ghost is said to haunt the church. And when Johnny unthinkingly returns there and accepts a magic ring from a mysterious stranger, he is plunged into a terrifying adventure—realizing too late that the tale of Father Baart is not just a legend, but the horrifying truth.

Rating: 2/5

The first book I ever read by John Bellairs was The House with a Clock in its Walls, which I tried to find at my library but, sadly, they didn’t have. I had to settle for The Curse of the Blue Figurine, which I’d read when I was a child (along with most of Bellairs’ other works). From what I remember about The House, I do think I prefer that book to this one, but I think if I reread The House I might have a similar opinion of it as I do The Curse of the Blue Figurine.

The horror element is done very well; it’s creepy and dark and there’s appropriate sights and smells and all those things that go into a good horror book. Professor Childermass is quite a funny character, and his grumpiness is the comic relief in what would be an otherwise dark novel.

I don’t have many problems with the plot; it’s simple but effective, and it makes for a simple, effective horror story. Some of the things that Johnny does that are probably more on the “why would you ever do that?” side of things are covered very well—like why in the world he carried the book out of the basement at all, or took it home with him.

The main problem I had was the writing (surprise), which I found clumsy and simplistic. I guess I should have been prepared for that, and I do realize that I am most picky on writing style, but different strokes for different folks, I guess.

Also, there is quite a glaring error in the book, where several times the characters say things like, “In the Bible, it says that Moses’s body was carried away by angels.” Not sure if that was a common belief in the 80s or if Bellairs was using some Jewish tradition and conflating it with the Bible, but either way, I laughed when I read it.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Horror elements.

Genre: Supernatural, Horror, Middle Grade

The inside of the book had been hollowed out. Only the outer part of each page was left. And in the hole that had been made were two things: a small rolled-up piece of yellowish paper tied with a faded red ribbon, and a strange little blue ceramic statue. The statue was shaped like an Egyptian mummy case. It had staring eyes and a tiny beaked nose and a smiling mouth and a scrolled goatee. The figure’s arms were crossed over its breast in the Egyptian style. Apparently the mummy was supposed to be the mummy of a pharaoh, because it held in its hands the crook and the flail, the symbols of kingly power in ancient Egypt.

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2kX8zu5

Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud

Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud was published in 2009 by Hyperion.

Halli Sveinsson has grown up in the House of Svein, hearing the legends of the heroes as all his forefathers did. Theirs is a peaceful society, where the violence of the past has been outlawed and disputes are settled by the Council. But young Halli has never quite seemed to fit in with the others. For starters, he is neither handsome nor tall, like his siblings. He’s stumpy and swarthy, with a quick mind and an aptitude for getting into trouble. Bored with everyday chores and sheepherding, he can’t help playing practical jokes on everyone, from Eyjolf, the old servant, to his brother and sister. But when he plays a trick on Ragnar of the House of Hakon, he goes too far, setting in motion a chain of events that will forever alter his destiny. Because of it, Halli will have to leave home and go on a hero’s quest. Along the way, he will encounter highway robbers, terrifying monsters, and a girl who may be as fearless as he is. In the end he will discover the truth about the legends, his family, and himself.

Rating: 2/5

In between his Bartimaeus trilogy and his Lockwood & Co. series, Stroud wrote this little Norse fantasy. Heroes of the Valley is, unfortunately, not a good representation of Stroud as an author, in my opinion. It’s not particularly funny, the main character is unlikeable for a good three quarters of the book, and the ending reveal is so random and strange that it falls flat on its face.

Halli is probably one of the most aggravating protagonists to read because he’s selfish, oafish, and unlikeable up to about the culmination of the plot, which happens close to the end of the book. Then he becomes fairly awesome, but it’s a sudden change, one that you can accept because of what he’s been through but still squint sideways at and wonder how, exactly, he changed so suddenly. I did like Aud, though. I don’t usually like female characters like her, but Aud was great.

Reading Heroes of the Valley after reading something like The Screaming Staircase is disappointing. It’s disappointing because I know Stroud is a better author than what this book shows. Heroes of the Valley is so generic, so absent of any of Stroud’s usual plot tricks and characterization that it almost feels as if it was written by a completely different person. To be honest, if this was the first book of Stroud’s I had picked up, I likely would not have picked up anything else of his. I’d recommend Stroud’s other works—but not this. There are better books to read.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, death, rude humor.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

“Are there roads beyond the cairns?”

The old woman blinked. “Roads? Whatever do you mean?”

“Old ones that the settlers took. To get to this valley in the days before Svein. To other valleys, other people.”

Slowly, bemusedly, she shook her head. ‘If there were trails they will be lost. The settlement was long ago. Besides, there are no other valleys, no other people.”

“How do you know that?”

“How can there be roads, where the Trows are? They devour all who go there.”

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