Full Ride by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Full Ride, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, was published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 2/5

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 War or 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!

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall by Barry Denenberg

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5        

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Like the Willow Tree by Lois Lowry

Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, by Lois Lowry, was published in 2011 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Like the Willow Tree has a fairly unique (and odd) setting/focus. Most Dear America books focus on events, like the Great Depression or World War I, or periods of time (factory work, immigration, etc.). This book has a brief mention of the Spanish influenza epidemic, and even briefer mentions of WWI, but the main focus is a on a group of people, not an event: the Shakers.

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 place.

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

The Runaway Princess by Kate Coombs

The Runaway Princess, by Kate Coombs, was published in 2006 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Rating: 2/5        

The Runaway Princess reminded me a lot of E. D. Baker’s books. 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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

The Singing by Alison Croggon

The Singing, by Alison Croggon, was published in 2008 by Candlewick. It is the sequel to The Crow.

Rating: 2/5        

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 anticlimactic.

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.

The 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).

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Ghostly Echoes by William Ritter

Ghostly Echoes, by William Ritter, was published in 2016 by Algonquin. It is the sequel to Beastly Bones.

Rating: 2/5

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 the backseat.

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.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Urban Fantasy

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

1982 Newbery Medal: A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, by Nancy Willard, was published in 1981 by Harcourt.

Rating: 2/5

Books of poetry are always tough for me. I’m not a huge fan of poetry, and I read fast (and hate to slow myself down) so I don’t really absorb poetry the way it should be absorbed. And, if I’m going to read a book of poetry, I want it to have a good theme and unity.

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 them.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/34we1fp

The First Collier by Kathryn Lasky

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).

Rating: 2/5

The 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 hatching.

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 awkward worldbuilding.

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2U7iTmk

The String by Caleb Breakey

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

Genre: Realistic, Suspense/Thriller

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2Mt0v5I

1993 Newbery Medal: Missing May by Cynthia Rylant

Missing May, by Cynthia Rylant, was published in 1992 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Missing May is 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 single paragraph.

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 development!

Missing May will 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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Yswm93