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.
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.
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.
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.”
Disclaimer: The Sisters of Sugarcreek, by Cathy Liggett, was provided by Tyndale House. I received a free copy. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Lydia Gruber, a young Amish widow, faces an uncertain future. Without support or skills, how will she survive? With the loss of her beloved aunt, Jessica Holtz inherits Rose’s Knit One Quilt Too Cottage. Though determined to keep the sop open, she doesn’t know the first thing about knitting and quilting and begins to see her aunt’s dream slip through her fingers. Liz Cannon lost not only her dear friend Rose but her partner in the Secret Stitches Society—dedicated to delivering anonymous gifts of hope to troubled folks. She and Jessica decided to keep the society going, choosing Lydia for their first mission. The three women form an unlikely friendship in the aftermath of tragedy. As they walk together though triumph and heartbreak—through grief and new chances at love—they begin to discover that with friends by your side, a stitch of hope can be found anywhere.
My rating: 2/5
The Sisters of Sugarcreek is good in places, with interesting characters, realistic conflicts, and slightly-too-heavy-handed messages poking their heads out from plodding scenes, predictable romance, and a particularly annoying writing style. It dwells too long on angst and romance and not long enough on the deeper parts of the novel, such as Lydia’s uncertainty. To be honest, if Lydia had been the only main character, and thus the only viewpoint character, in the book, I might have enjoyed it a lot better.
Lydia’s story was, to me, the most interesting, but it often was set aside for Jessica’s boring and predictable romantic angst—I am heartily sick of the “best friend from high school was The One but she hasn’t seen him in years and now he’s back and she doesn’t know what to do because she still likes him but she doesn’t want to tell him so they dance around the subject forever while she keeps thinking about how perfect he is” trope—and Liz’s less interesting side plot. Also, I definitely think the secret behind Lydia’s husband was dealt with too quickly and brushed aside almost immediately. Or perhaps, since Lydia was my favorite, I just wanted more time spent with her and less time with the more unoriginal characters of Jessica and Liz and their plots.
Also, I don’t know why any editor would let an author get away with this, but seriously, Cathy Liggett—dependent clauses are called “dependent” for a reason. Sisters of Sugarcreek was littered with sentence fragments used for description purposes and/or emphasis, but all it accomplished was break up the writing and make it choppy and disjointed. All it emphasized was that Liggett needs a copy of The Elements of Style, or maybe stop relaying on the breaking up of sentences to do her emphasizing for her.
Overall, The Sisters of Sugarcreek is good only for Lydia’s sadly underdeveloped storyline, which communicates so much about uncertainty and growing out of that into confidence. However, Jessica and Liz cut into Lydia’s story with generic, predictable plots of their own, with love interests too perfect for me to take seriously (especially Derek; Daniel at least wobbles at the end for a decent “not perfect” finish) and slightly melodramatic conversations and problems. Add to that the author’s propensity for using fragments for descriptive purposes, and for most of the book I was looking forward for it to be over.
Despite her extraordinary magical abilities and sleuthing skills, Oona Crate’s detective agency has failed to take off. Bu a new challenge captures her attention—The Magician’s Tower Contest. Held every five years, no one has completed the array of dangerous tasks (such as racing on flying carpets or defeating a horde of angry apes). As the competition commences, a case emerges. A rare punchbowl—one with unparalleled magical powers—has disappeared from the carnival surrounding the Magician’s Tower. If Oona can find the culprit, she could use the bowl to answer her questions about her mother’s and sister’s tragic deaths so many years ago—was she really at fault?
The Magician’s Tower is an underwhelming sequel to The Wizard of Dark Street. As much as I had my problems with the former, I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the latter. The main problem, to me, is that Odyssey didn’t seem to have a set goal in mind for the sequel, so he cobbled together a few random things and threw in some old villains and ridiculous capers. The thing that redeemed The Wizard of Dark Street for me was the mystery; The Magician’s Tower mystery was set aside for some strange contest and its weakness showed in the rushed and contrived way it was explained, investigated, and solved.
That’s not to say I disliked The Magician’s Tower. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t want to stop reading it. But I thought Odyssey was simply rehashing a lot of things that had already been accomplished in the first book, and the villain reveal felt forced. Not to mention Oona seemed slightly less likeable in this book, or maybe I simply got more impatient with her “I know everything and only I can do things the right way and I won’t accept help” attitude.
I liked the eventual connection to the world and plot revealed in The Wizard of Dark Street, but I was hoping that Odyssey would do more with that than what he did. I wish there had been more overall setup to the contest as a whole, rather than a very rushed explanation at the beginning of the book. I wish that the entire book didn’t feel like some magical escapade meant to be funny but failing, with a weak mystery trying to thread its way through the nonsense. Most of all, I wish that The Magician’s Tower felt less like a sequel written because the first book was popular and more like a sequel that actually wants to continue the story and expand on it.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Mystery, Fantasy, Middle Grade
“Oh, now, Samuligan, look what you’ve done,” said the Wizard, who had been drenched with tea and dribbled some of his pie down his beard.
True to form, Samuligan reached into his pocket and pulled out an entire mop, which he proceeded to use to clean up the spillage.
“Is that what you are brooding about?” the Wizard asked Oona as Samuligan dabbed at his beard with the mop head. The Wizard swatted it away. “That business with the missing crystal ball?”
“It wasn’t a crystal ball,” Oona said irritably. “It was called the Punchbowl Oracle.”
Kate Worthington knows she can never marry the man she loves, so she plans to travel to India instead—if only to find peace for her restless spirit and to escape the family she abhors. But Kate’s meddlesome mother has other plans. She makes a bargain with Kate: India, yes, but only after Kate has secured—and rejected—three marriage proposals. Kate journeys to the stately manor of Blackmoore, determined to fulfill her end of the bargain. There she enlists the help of her dearest childhood friend, Henry Delafield. But when it comes to matters of love, bargains are meaningless and plans are changeable. In the wild, windswept countryside near the coast of northern England, Kate must face the truth that has kept her heart captive. Will the proposal she is determined to reject actually be the one thing that will set her heart free?
Blackmoore is a melodramatic, over-the-top historical romance, but it’s a fun melodramatic, over-the-top historical romance. It’s one of the books you read not for its literary quality or romantic appeals, but for the sheer joy you get while reading it and thinking “This makes absolutely no sense but I love it anyway.”
That’s not to say that the plot is confusing or unrealistic. It does require some stretching of the boundaries, but hey, it’s a romance. Characters are supposed to conquer all odds in order to be together at last, which calls for some situations that might seem contrived or over-the-top. And Blackmoore combines those with some high levels of chewing the scenery melodrama and an unoriginal romantic plot (combined with some poor writing that makes it seem as if something sinister is going on behind the scenes. Spoiler: there’s not). At one point I was cheering for Kate and the younger Mr. Brandon, just to relieve some of that thick romantic angst that Kate had hanging around her whenever she was around Henry.
But, oh, I had fun reading this book. Even during the times I was wincing at the excessive internal angsting and monologuing of Kate, or at all the obvious plot twists, I was still enjoying Blackmoore. And, to be honest, I’m being a little harsher than my enjoyment/opinion of the book warrants. I did like Blackmoore, and I did enjoy it–even if it was for reasons the author likely didn’t intend.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Genre: Historical Fiction
I paused at a sound. At first I thought it was the wind—the sound that came to me. Then I realized it was weaker than wind. It came in spurts and sputters, and as I cocked my head, puzzling, and concentrated on the sound, I realized I recognized it. It was voices, coming to me on the wind of whispers, raising the hairs of my neck. I pinched my candle out, the smoke rising to sting my nose, and held as still as I could while my heart raced. But though I strained to make out the whispered words, I could not discern what was being said or from whence the whispers came—from the hallway, beyond the tapestry I hid behind, or from some secret passageway on the other side of this wall. Footsteps sounded, soft and scraping, and the whispers teased me, just out of reach of my comprehension. Sylvia’s stories of ghost haunting this wing floated through my mind, and I shivered with a sudden chill.
“Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” by Lemony Snicket was published in 2015 by Little, Brown and Company.
Train travel! Murder! Librarians! A Series Finale! On all other nights, the train departs from Stain’d Station and travels to the city without stopping. But not tonight. You might ask, why is this night different from all other nights? But that’s the wrong question. Instead ask, where is this all heading? And what happens at the end of the line?
I thought it appropriate to finish this series out today since I also finished A Series of Ufortunate Events on Netflix (an excellent adaptation. They also reference this book series in it).
“Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” was a little disappointing, which perhaps I should not have found surprising considering my problems with The End. However, I enjoyed the previous two books enough that I was hoping for more than what this final book gave me.
I enjoyed the semi-tribute to Murder on the Orient Express that this book gives, and more than anything I enjoy the way Lemony Snicket is fleshed out from a shadowy, mysterious figure in A Series of Unfortunate Events to a real-live person in these prequels. The choices he has to make, particularly in this book, are not easy, and the results of those choices are not easy to deal with. I wish that the “am I a villain?” doubting path had not been taken, though, since Violet, Klaus, and Sunny wonder the same thing in ASOUE and it only reminded me how these books pale in comparison.
Above all, this book is mostly too predictable and strange to make me feel great about it. It was blindingly obvious who Hangfire was, as though Snicket had gotten tired of throwing out obscure clues and had given up even attempting to hide Hangfire’s identity in this final book. And the thing with the Bombinating Beast at the end was strange and didn’t really fit the nature of these books, at least in my opinion. Also, I’m still mad at what that implies about what happens to the Quagmires in The End.
Overall, I thought All The Wrong Questions, as a whole, starts out weak, has good parts in the middle, and ends weak, with many questions resolved but almost no satisfaction in their resolution. Also, I thought for sure that Snicket’s obsession with Ellington would mean she would be revealed to be Beatrice at the end, but maybe that was just supposed to be a precursor or a hint at Snicket’s future and how he acts around certain people.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Mystery, Children’s
“But what will you do when he’s here?” I asked, after a sip of fizzy water. “Ornette’s creation looks very much like the real statue, but once it’s in Hangfire’s hands he’ll know it’s a fake.”
“Once Hangfire comes aboard,” Moxie said, “he’ll be caught like a rat in a trap. The Thistle of the Valley won’t stop again until it reaches the city, where all the prisoners on board will be brought to trial. I have all our notes on what Hangfire’s been doing in this town. Once the authorities read my report, they’ll arrest Hangfire, and Dashiell Qwerty will go free.”
Raiders’ Ransom, by Emily Diamond, was published in 2009 by Chicken House/Scholastic.
It’s the 23rd century, and much of England—what once was England—is underwater. Poor Lilly is out fishing with her trusty first mate, Cat, when greedy raiders pillage the town—and kidnap the Prime Minister’s daughter. Her village blamed, Lilly decides to find the girl. Off she sails, in secret. And with a ransom: a mysterious talking jewel. If she saves the Prime Minister’s daughter, she might just stop a war. Little does Lilly know that it will take more than grit to outwit the tricky, treacherous pirate tribes!
Raiders’ Ransom is the type of novel where I enjoyed it enough to finish, but not enough to forgive perceived errors. To be honest, I’m not sure what compelled me to keep reading the book, but I did, even when halfway through I thought “Hmm…I’m not sure I want to keep reading.”
First of all, the world makes very little sense and Diamond doesn’t do much beyond vague mentions of floods and storms to establish how the world got the way it is. And floods would only account for part of the worldbuilding; things like the people’s view of technology, seacats, the “reset” to an eighteenth/nineteenth century world, and the odd division of power and property were never explained. I didn’t see any reason why, even if England had flooded, it would somehow make everyone forget/hate technology and set everything back a couple hundred of years.
Second, the voice was really annoying in this book, and by the end of it I was ready to scream any time someone said “Cos” or “But” or “And” at the start of a sentence because of how many times sentences were set up that way (clarification: I’m knocking the repetition, not the use of the word). I don’t particularly like novels written in dialect, so maybe that’s also why I had a problem with the voice/writing.
Finally, the convenience of the plot sometimes was a little too much. So Lilly just happens to be a descendant of the jewel’s former user and so she just happens to be the only person able to activate it fully? That’s incredibly far-fetched. I understand that Diamond needed some way to limit access to the jewel, but it could have been done in a less contrived way.
However, I did finish the book, and I did enjoy some of it, so maybe there’s some small amount of merit in Raiders’ Ransom, after all. A lot of the plot was pretty clever, even if it was contrived, Lilly was a good protagonist (even if the “I cut my hair and thus immediately look like a boy even though girls with short hair don’t really look like boys” moment was so contrived and unrealistic) and I think younger readers would probably really enjoy the book.
The Dragon’s Eye, by Kaza Kingsley, was published in 2007 by Firelight Press.
Enter Alypium, a hidden world within our own where our old knowledge of magic is kept, and strange and fantastical creatures abound. It is a beautiful and mystical place, but things are caving in. The king is hypnotized and his castle turned on its side. The very Substance that holds our planet together has gone awry…and whispers tell of evil plan to destroy everything. Twelve year old Erec Rex has been yanked out of the world as we know it and thrown unwillingly into danger here. As he learns how to get by in this strange place, he discovers some truths about himself…and must learn the power of trust and love in order to save his mother, and all of Alypium.
Erec Rex: The Dragon’s Eye has a fairly interesting concept and world, but it’s completely marred by the frequent obtuseness of the characters and the generally poor writing. There were multiple times throughout the book when I wanted to shout at Erec for not thinking things through—part of which may have been the writing—and some of the characters were written so poorly that I was convinced that something else was going on to make them act that way only to find out that no, it was just the way they were written.
The red herring villain reeked too much like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to be convincing, and Erec was so dismissive of a character’s ability to be a bad guy that it was incredibly obvious that particular character was, in fact, a bad guy. Erec’s mother was another poorly written character, this one in the “there has to be something else going on—oh, guess not” category. Erec himself vacillated between personalities and intelligence, at one minute incredibly bright and the next doing incredibly stupid things, such as the whole “I’m not supposed to tell anyone my name is Erec Rex so I’ll tell everyone my name is Erec Rex but I’d rather be called Rick Ross because that will solve everything” debacle.
It’s a shame because the world is fairly interesting, if the reader can get past the uninspired names and some other problems with the world of Alypium as a whole. And I liked the general plot, writing aside. But the writing and the characterization were so jarring and poorly done that I don’t think I will continue the series, even for the promise of dragons.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
The king’s eyes flew open. He looked at Erec in shock. Erec removed his hand, and King Piter’s eyes started to close.
“I need your help. My mother, June O’Hara, is a prisoner in King Pluto’s dungeons.”
King Piter looked confused.
“Do you remember my mother?”
King Piter tilted his head as if deep in thought. Erec held his mother’s picture out. The king looked at it and sniffed.
“Would you like a pomegranate?” Erec held one out.
The king wrinkled his nose as if it disgusted him, but Erec pushed it into the king’s hand. As their hands touched, the king said, “Erec?”
Just as Princess Annie and Prince Liam are making plans to leave Treecrest and travel the world, a witch shows up and gifts them a collection of postcards from the Magic Marketplace. She explain that by simply touching a postcard, it will transport Annie and Liam to exotic lands and far-flung kingdoms. During their adventures, they meet many new friends, but they also encounter people who want to harm them. What the witch doesn’t tell them is how to safely return, so it’ll be up to Annie—with her immunity to magic—to find a way to get Liam and herself home before they find themselves stuck in one place forever.
I wasn’t planning on reading more of Baker’s works, especially not a series that has continuously disappointed me, but I saw Princess between Worlds on the library shelves and decided to pick it up. And…it only reinforced my decision that I’m not a fan of Annie’s story anymore.
I did find the idea of a crossover appealing, and Princess between Worlds has characters from Baker’s Tales of the Frog Princess in it, although I hadn’t gotten far enough in the series to meet those particular characters. Now, since Baker essentially reveals everything that occurs in those books, I no longer have to read them—yes, be warned that Baker spoils the events of the later books in the Frog Princess series with this book. The crossover was clearly fan service, but it was a reasonably good idea, and it was probably the part of the book I found most interesting.
Other than that, Princess between Worlds is same old, same old—Annie and Liam go on an adventure, get into trouble because of Annie’s magic, have stilted conversations with each other and with other people, and are attacked by enemies for no apparent reason other than to create conflict. Baker also gets around Annie’s magical immunity by introducing a new, special magic that is not affected by her gift, and I supposed it makes sense in a way even if it is hand-waving and obviously contrived. These series would be good for children who enjoy these sorts of fairy-tale-esque adventures, but if they want something with more depth and memorability, they should look elsewhere.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“So you think we should use these postcards?” said Liam. “And all we have to do is touch them?”
Moonbeam nodded. “You have to touch the middle of the card showing the place you want to visit while thinking about how much you want to go there. While you’re on your grand tour, I’ll find Rotan and lock him away for good. With my fair friends helping me, we should find him long before you come home.”
Liam examined the card on the top of the pile. “We could go to this one first. The views from that mountain are amazing! Look, Annie, the picture looks so real, almost as if you could feel the sow.”
“Liam, no!” Annie shouted, grabbing his free hand as he touched the middle of the postcard with the other.
An instant later they were gone, leaving Moonbeam staring at the spot where they’d been standing.
Museum of Thieves, by Lian Tanner, was published in 2010 by Delacorte Press.
Welcome to the tyrannical city of Jewel, where impatience is a sin and boldness is a crime. Goldie Roth has lived in Jewel all her life. Like every child in the city, she wears a silver guard chain and is forced to obey the dreaded Blessed Guardians. She has never done anything by herself and won’t be allowed out on the streets unchained until Separation Day. When Separation Day is canceled, Goldie, who has always been both impatient and bold, runs away, risking not only her own life but also the lives of those she has left behind. In the chaos that follows, she is lured to the mysterious Musuem of Dunt, where she meets the boy Toadspit and discovers terrible secrets. Only the cunning mind of ta thief can understand the museum’s strange, shifting rooms. Fortunately, Goldie has a talent for thieving. Which is just as well, because the leader of the Blessed Guardians has his own plans for the museum—plans that threaten the lives of everyone Goldie loves. And it will take a daring thief to stop him…
Museum of Thieves is a decent, if incredibly generic, middle grade fantasy. Goldie is the standard “impetuous female protagonist,” Toadspit is the standard “strange boy protagonist befriends,” and the villain is the standard “wants control over everything and is incredibly obvious from the beginning.” There are the standard mysterious mentors, the standard mysterious force the protagonist must help protect, the standard thought-legend-but-actually-real beasts, and other standard plot and plot resolutions.
Nothing surprised me in Museum of Thieves and nothing really disappointed me, either. It wasn’t a book I disliked reading, but I didn’t love reading it, either. It is an average, run-of-the-mill novel and the only thing wrong with it is that it’s too generic. Nothing stands out, nothing screams “read more!”, nothing compels me to want to know more about Goldie and Toadspit. And that’s probably the most disappointing thing about the book.
Recommended Age Range: 16+
Warnings: Some violence.
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
The man’s face was as forbidding as stone. “You’ve stolen something,” he said. “What was it?”
“Nothing!” said Goldie quickly.
Above the doorway the slaughterbird shifted on its perch. Goldie flinched. The man looked up. “Morg,” he said. “Come here.”
The slaughterbird peered down at him. Then, with a great clumsy hope, it dropped onto his shoulder.
Goldie gasped. The man called out, “Olga Ciavolga, if you please!”