The Blackhope Enigma by Teresa Flavin

The Blackhope Enigma, by Teresa Flavin, was published in 2011 by Candlewick Press.

For centuries, Blackhope Tower has remained an enigma. Rumors abound that skeletons have been known to mysteriously appear in the middle of a labyrinth found in the most famous of its rooms—The Mariner’s Chamber. When fourteen-year-old Sunni Forrest visits the tower and watches as her stepbrother, Dean, disappears, seemingly into the painting itself, she goes in search of him—and finds herself drawn into the heart of the Blackhope Enigma.

Rating: 2/5

I very nearly stopped reading The Blackhope Enigma about a third of the way through it. The writing is amateurish (needless descriptions and explanations, melodramatic villain lines, clunky action and lots of telling rather than showing), the characters are forgettable (also, don’t ask how many times I pronounced Sunni’s name as SOON-EE rather than SON-EE because of the spelling), and the whole thing hinges on a premise that is barely explained and not incorporated well.

However, the story does pick up a little and gets slightly more interesting once the characters make their way into the inner-inner painting (there’s the surface painting, then the inner painting where things are alive, and then apparently an inner-inner painting). Of course, then the book adds another melodramatic villain character and the obligatory mysterious handsome sorcerer, so it doesn’t really get any better in quality. But it became interesting enough for me to read it all the way through, though it never passed beyond merely bearable.

I like the idea that Flavin is trying to get across, but unfortunately, she executed it poorly. I think the concept of an enchanted painting is a good one and if Flavin was a better writer the book as a whole would have been a much better success. But Sunni, Dean and Blaise never become more than stock characters, stumbling around a world that is a good idea conceptually but poorly designed and implemented. I never get any sense of real danger from the villains or the world and the ending is clunky and contrived. The Blackhope Enigma is certainly an enigma—I still don’t know how I managed to finish reading the entire thing.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Middle Grade

“All you knew was that we had disappeared—not how we got in.”

“Well, let’s just say we looked at it from a new angle and got a result.”

“But I asked Mr. Bell about Corvo and the painting after Sunni and Dean had disappeared, and he didn’t tell my anything. Why would he do that?”

“Knowing Lorimer, it was so you wouldn’t get too curious and follow the others into the painting,” Angus said. “He was trying to protect you.”

“From what?” asked Blaise.

“From never getting out again.”

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

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Stolen Magic by Gail Carson Levine

Stolen Magic, by Gail Carson Levine, was published in 2015 by Harper. It is the sequel to A Tale of Two Castles.

Elodie, the dragon Masteress Meenore, and the ogre County Jonty Um are all on their way to Elodie’s home island of Lahnt. Just five weeks before, Elodie left for the town of Two Castles with nothing but a single copper in her purse, and now she is returning a professional dragon detective’s assistant and friend to a count! Elodie has barely set foot on Lahnt before she learns that it is in terrible danger. The Replica, a statue that keeps a deadly volcano from erupting, has been stolen from its mountain home. If the Replica isn’t found in three days, a mountain will be destroyed and its inhabitants will be killed. And when Elodie is left without her companions, she has to use her wits to try to unravel a tangled web of lies and save her island home.

Rating: 2/5

I didn’t think Stolen Magic was half as good as A Tale of Two Castles. It has that “tacked-on sequel due to popular demand” feel to it, where the author tries to recapture the essence of the first novel and fails. The plot tries to be a decent mystery but there are so many characters introduced all at once that it’s hard to follow and the world seems small and cramped compared to the first novel. There’s also way too many logical leaps done at the very beginning, with Elodie immediately jumping to “The Replica’s been stolen!” even though there’s really no believable way she could have reached that conclusion as quickly as she did. In addition, the entire book pretty much takes place in one area, and most of the time the characters are simply talking at a table.

Even Levine seemed to realize how inactive the plot was, and so interspersed the mystery aspect with snapshots of Jonty Um, andeventually Meenore, helping the inhabitants of Lahnt escape to safety. But those are so obviously placed there to increase the pace that it makes the book seem sloppily put together. It also makes it so that the reader knows some things before the characters, which I never like because that sort of anticipation as the reader waits for the characters to catch up is rarely done well. It tends to become more irritation than anticipation.

Stolen Magic is, in a way, aptly named, because it steals the magic found in the first book right out of existence and turns it into a trudge of a mystery that’s only slightly interesting. All the “bee” characters introduced all at once made things hard to follow, there was too much talking across tables and too many back-and-forth accusations, and the whole thing felt rushed and poorly done. Sequels written years after the first book are rarely done well, because they often tend to reek of fan service and poorly-conceived thinking and plotting. And, unfortunately, it looks like even Gail Carson Levine, as divine as some of her books are, is not immune to this sort of blunder.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Might the thief escape in your absence, Madam, now that the blizzard has ended?”

“He wouldn’t get far on foot in this snow. If he wanted a horse, he’d have to come here.”

“He or she wouldn’t get far. If he or she wanted…Lodie, can you forgo sleep tonight?”

She nodded. She’d done so before for IT.

“High Brunka, can you show Lodie in secret where the Replica had been kept?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2t1XQqV

With You Always by Jody Hedlund

Disclaimer: With You Always, by Jody Hedlund, was provided by Bethany House. I received a free copy. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

One of the many immigrants struggling to survive in 1850s New York, Elise Neumann knows she must take action to care for her younger sisters. She finds a glimmer of hope when the New York Children’s Aid Society starts sending skilled workers to burgeoning towns out west. But the promise of the society’s orphan trains is not all that it seems. Born into elite New York society, Thornton Quincy possesses everything except the ability to step out from his brother’s shadow. When their ailing father puts forth a unique challenge to determine who will inherit his railroad-building empire, Thornton finally sees his chance. The conditions to win? Be the first to build a sustainable community along the Illinoi Central Railroad and find a suitable wife. Thrown together against all odds, Elise and Thornton couldn’t be from more different worlds. The spark that ignites between them is undeniable, but how can they let it grow when that means forfeiting everything they’ve been working toward?

My rating: 2/5

I started out enjoying With You Always but the more I read the more disgruntled I became. But, positives first: I really enjoyed the setting, because the Western Expansion has always been one of my favorite time periods. Hedlund did a good job of highlighting how difficult it was for immigrants to find jobs, as well as the economic and social issues of that time. I wish it hadn’t been delivered in quite so preachy of a tone, or in such a moral avatar as Elise Neumann (reinforcing the image that women are icons of virtue and need to bring morality into the virtueless lives of men, who are forgiven what they do since they didn’t have a woman to guide them), but there you have it. I also liked the minor characters, who I found more interesting than Elise and Thornton.

However, With You Always centers on a romance that I didn’t like (too unoriginal) between two characters that I didn’t really connect to (Elise is bland with odd moments of choreographed outbursts, Thornton is the typical love interest and the strange, unrealistic competition between him and his brother does nothing to improve his flatness as a character) and thus, the further in I got, the less I was able to enjoy what I did like. I know I’m particular about my romance “type” and that the sort of stuff in With You Always is gobbled up by many other people and so authors keep using it, but I wish they would branch out a little and incorporate some new elements into tired, overused romantic plots.

The other thing I didn’t like about the book was the unresolved ending. It actually made me mad that so much happened at the end and the book ended with a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders and an “Oh well, the two main characters are together now,” with absolutely nothing discovered about the fate of some of the side characters. I get that this is a series and that Hedlund is probably trying to have some fodder for the next books, but it felt cheap and made me less willing to read future books, not more willing to find out what happens.

With You Always has a great setting and several interesting minor characters, but the main characters and the romance are bland and boring, and the unresolved plot threads left me more angry than curious.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2sX9LRU

Just Look Up by Courtney Walsh

Disclaimer: Just Look Up, by Courtney Walsh, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

After tirelessly climbing the ranks of her Chicago-based interior design firm, Lane Kelley is about to land her dream promotion when devastating news about her brother draws her back home to a quaint tourist town full of memories she’d just as soon forget. With her cell phone and laptop always within reach, Lane aims to check on her brother while staying focused on work—something her eclectic family doesn’t understand. Ryan Brooks never expected to settle down in Harbor Pointe, Michigan, but after his final tour of duty, it was the only place that felt like home. Now knee-deep in a renovation project that could boost tourism for the struggling town, he is thrilled to see Lane, the girl he secretly once loved, even if the circumstances of her homecoming aren’t ideal. Their reunion gets off to a rocky start, however, when Ryan can’t find a trace of the girl he once knew in the woman she is today. As he slowly chips away the walls Lane has built, secrets from his past collide with a truth even he is reluctant to believe, putting Ryan at a crossroads that could not only alter his relationship with the Kelly family but jeopardize his future with the girl of his dreams.

My rating: 2/5

I really am not a fan of the “bitter female” protagonist because so often it is completely overdone. It’s hard to get readers to sympathize with someone whom they feel is overreacting and/or being irrational. Luckily, Courtney Walsh manages to avoid most of the pitfalls in Just Look Up, although the longer I read, the sicker I got of Lane’s angst and bitterness (it’s a long book, so by the end Lane continually feeling sorry for herself wears thin). Lane has some legitimate reasons for being so closed-off, though some of them I thought were expressed a little melodramatically by Walsh, and at least her behavior makes sense in light of her past and emotions.

Ryan, unfortunately, falls into every pitfall and cliché of a love interest and of a character with his particular background. My kingdom for a love interest who doesn’t have “muscles rippling under his shirt” that the female protagonist admires and then pretends she doesn’t feel attracted to him.  Nothing of Ryan’s story surprised me and he was about as interesting as a paper bag.

I do think Walsh overexaggerated the extent that people rely on their cellphones, although I don’t doubt there are workaholics like Lane in the world and that people are too attached to their screens. I also am upset that there was never a scene in the novel where Lane talks with her family about her work, her stress, and the physical effects it had on her. There’s actually never really a scene where Lane gets her thoughts out, at all, or any sense of resolution or fulfillment besides a short chat with her sister. The Lane the story ends with is virtually the same Lane the story begins with, which seems counterproductive to the point Walsh is making.

Just Look Up starts off well with a character type that is usually annoying, then falls flat when the length of the novel means that Lane’s bitterness starts to grate after 300+ pages with almost no progress. Maybe I’m just not very sympathetic to a character’s seemingly (and actually) irrational thoughts and behavior, especially when it’s dwelt on for the entire book and never truly resolved. I was also not a fan of Ryan, who breaks out of no “male love interest” boxes and whose story is check-box predictable, right down to his rippling muscles. I think a lot of the book is good and/or has potential, but I think a shorter book with a better sense of resolution would have made it better.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Christian

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2rOLA8y

1922 Newbery Medal: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon

The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik Willem van Loon, was published in 1921 by Liveright. I read the updated version that was published in 1972.

Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s renowned classic charms us once against with its warmth, simplicity, and wisdom as it unfolds its tale of the history of man for both adults and children. Reaching back into the beginnings of man and sweeping forward to illuminate all of history, van Loon’s enthusiasm breathes life into the characters and events of other ages.

Rating: 2/5

There’s no surprise that The Story of Mankind won the first Newbery Medal ever awarded. It’s history retold almost as a story, in a fairly simple manner and covering a great deal of time in relatively few pages. However, unlike many Newbery Medal winners, this book does not age well—no wonder, considering its nature as a history book first and foremost.

The original edition of The Story of Mankind stops after World War I, while the updated version tells of history up until the Korean War (actually, I’m not sure how far it goes—my edition was missing about 20 pages or so at the end, so it could also have covered the Vietnam War). While van Loon gets many things correct about history, there are many other things he gets extraordinarily wrong, owing both to the time the book was written and what his voice as the “narrator” of history reveals.

It’s not surprising that someone in the 1920s would get some aspects of previous history wrong, since today we’ve had 90+ extra years to study and get things right, and van Loon got more things right than I expected. But he does get some things wrong, such as the birth of modern science and his hilariously incorrect story of “Joshua, whom the Greeks called Jesus.” Van Loon seems to be highly contemptuous of all religion, for even his story of the beginnings of Islam is brief and told in an irritatingly patronizing tone.

This patronizing tone is present throughout the entire novel, really, but particularly worse in areas where religion or archaic ways of doing things are concerned. He tells of particular moments in history in a pretentious, “those silly, ignorant peasants” tone that is almost unnoticeable at first but starts to build and build as the book progresses. In addition, The Story of Mankind is, in actuality, The Story of Western Mankind, as Eastern thought and culture gets only a handful of pages devoted to it, and no history of China or Japan is given until it relates to a war or a particularly global moment in history. Perhaps I’m expecting too much of van Loon, however, or perhaps it’s only natural that someone who seems as contemptuous of certain cultures and times in history as he is would leave out a few things here and there.

The only reason I’m not giving The Story of Mankind a lower rating is that, as fed-up as I was with his pretentious tone, van Loon does get some aspects of history correct that I wasn’t expecting, such as the emphasis on the Middle Ages as a time of great development rather than being “Dark” (although, according to van Loon, they were still ignorant peasants who weren’t nearly as intelligent as the people who came after them) and the fact that no one during Columbus’s time actually thought the world was flat. But despite van Loon’s accuracy in some areas, he is wildly inaccurate in others, especially in the ones he clearly thinks are beneath him. This condescension of tone made The Story of Mankind, ultimately, an unpleasant read.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

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

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.

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

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