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!”
In the Shadow of the Lamp, by Susanne Dunlap, was published in 2011 by Bloomsbury.
It’s 1854, and Molly would give anything to change her circumstances as a lowly servant in a posh London house. So when she hears of an opportunity to join Florence Nightingale and her nurses in the Crimea, the promise of a new start—and perhaps even adventure—is too tempting to pass up. The work is grueling, the hospital conditions are deplorable, and Miss Nightingale proves to be a demanding leader. But before long, tending to sick and wounded British solders becomes more than just a mission of mercy; it becomes a mission of the heart when Molly finds that she’s falling in love with not one, but two young men. With the battle raging ever nearer, one of the men will fall victim to the great guns. Will it be the dashing young doctor who sees molly as more than just one of Nightingale’s nurses or the foot soldier who has left everything behind and joined the army to be near to her?
I should have known from the summary that In the Shadow of the Lamp would be a rough ride. It doesn’t even try to hide the love triangle romance. And it’s the worst kind of love triangle, with the unoriginal “Old Friend vs. Exciting Newcomer” (where 90% of the time the Old Friend wins) and with the protagonist thinking how much she loves her Old Friend, then when she meets the Newcomer is convinced that her Old Friend is just a friend and that she really loves the Newcomer, and then realizes at the end that the Old Friend was the one she loved the whole time, really.
And most of the time for these sorts of love triangles I always root for the Newcomer to win because they almost never do. They turn out to be cads and/or die.
So, yes, I was very unhappy with the love triangle. But the historical aspect of the novel was actually quite good. I liked the portrayal of Florence Nightingale and the realization the novel gives as to how profoundly she affected nursing during the Crimean War. And the bits on the actual nursing were good, too.
The one thing I didn’t understand was why Dunlap decided to throw in some sort of odd mysticism/fantastic element to the whole nursing thing. Was it just to stay true to the people who were present during the war or what? The whole “healing hands” thing was weird from start to finish. And it also made Maggie one of those protagonists who a.) everybody ends up liking and b.) has some sort of special insight into a topic that she beforehand knew nothing about. And her waffling between Will and Doctor Maclean was annoying, especially since I didn’t buy her romance with Will one bit.
In the Shadow of the Lamp is decent historical fiction, but has a terrible love triangle romance and the protagonist has too many flaws in terms of characterization. I liked the look at the Crimean War, but I could have done without everything else attached.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
“These are the men who were just admitted last night,” Dr. Menzies said.
As my eyes became accustomed to the half light, I could make out shapes writhing on the floor. “Shapes” was all I could think to call them. Human bodies so mixed together and covered with blood and gore it seemed I was looking at a single creature.
“The wards are above. If you’ll follow me.”
We picked our way gingerly through the men on the floor to a staircase. Maybe upstairs in a proper ward there would be more order. My hopes didn’t last long. I heard Miss Nightingale exclaim before I reached the top of the staircase, “But there are no beds! And the linens are filthy. The stink is abominable. What is that surgeon over there doing?”
Anne Shirley has left Redmond College behind to begin a new job and a new chapter of her life away from Green Gables. Now she faces a new challenge: the Pringles. They’re known as the royal family of Summerside – and they quickly let Anne know she is not the person they had wanted as principal of Summerside High School. But as she settles into the cozy tower room at Windy Poplars, Anne finds she has great allies in the widows Aunt Kate and Aunt Chatty – and in their irrepressible housekeeper, Rebecca Dew. As Anne learns Summerside’s strangest secrets, winning the support of the prickly Pringles becomes only the first of her triumphs.
Anne of Windy Poplars is definitely one of my least favorite Anne books. I think I like it even less than Anne of Avonlea. What I find most interesting is that Anne of the Island was published in 1915, and Anne’s House of Dreams, which is the sequel to Windy Poplars, was published in 1917, but Windy Poplars was published in 1936. Montgomery actually went back and filled in the three-year gap between Island and House of Dreams (probably due to popular demand) but it highlights that Windy Poplars is an entirely unnecessary book.
Absolutely nothing happens in Windy Poplars that is important to the rest of the series. Almost every single chapter is its own separate story. I’ll say one thing, Montgomery is good at “sound bytes,” at crafting little stories that are intriguing and funny and ridiculous all at the same time. Do the romantic troubles and obstacles get tiring after a while? Yes. But they’re at least always interesting, even when they start wearing thin by the third year. However, the overall “none of this matters” atmosphere of the book is incredibly telling and really shouts “filler book” for all to hear.
It also shows a side of Anne that I’m not really sure I like—the “this is a challenge but I shall strive forward with fortitude because I’m imaginative and dreamy and win over everyone eventually” side of her. It’s cute in Anne of Green Gables, but the Anne of Anne of the Island managed to grow past the worst of that stage, combining imagination with grown-up maturity and wisdom. Yet Anne of Windy Poplars tends to regress at times, and yes, I know, Anne is beloved mostly because of her winsome imagination, but I can’t help it—I like sensible, “I’m still imaginative but I’m got my head out of the clouds” Anne better. Luckily, she starts to come back in House of Dreams, which is more “sound bytes” but strung together with an actual plot rather than an “I have to waste three years so let’s string together a bunch of stories” plot.
Recommended Age Range: 10+ (and lower!)
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
Why didn’t Lennox Carter talk? If he would, she, Anne, could talk, too, and perhaps Trix and Pringle would escape from the spell that bound them and some kind of conversation would be possible. But he simply sat there and ate. Perhaps he thought it was really the best thing to do…perhaps he was afraid of saying something that would still further enrage the evidently already enraged parent of his lady.
“Will you please start the pickles, Miss Shirley?” said Mrs. Taylor faintly.
Something wicked stirred in Anne. She started the pickles…and something else. Without letting herself stop to think she bent forward, her great, gray-green eyes glimmering limpidly, and said gently,
“Perhaps you would be surprised to hear, Dr. Carter, that Mr. Taylor went deaf very suddenly last week?”
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Tangled Webs, by Irene Hannon, from the publisher Revell. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
After a disastrous Middle East mission ends his six-year Army Ranger career, Finn McGregor needs some downtime. A peaceful month in the woods sounds like the perfect way to decompress. But peace isn’t on the agenda once he crosses paths with publishing executive Dana Lewis, a neighbor who is nursing wounds of her own. Someone seems bent on disrupting her stay in the lakeside cabin she inherited from her grandfather. As Finn and Dana work together to discover who is behind the disquieting pranks, the incidents begin to take on a menacing tone. And when it becomes apparent Dana’s foe may have deadly intent, Finn finds himself back in the thick of the action—ready or not.
Tangled Webs is a decent suspense novel, though the suspense is overshadowed by the mediocre romance. Really, this book would have been fine as a suspense novel without the predictable, boring romance—perhaps even better.
Although, the romance might have been better if Dana and Finn had been more interesting characters. But I was far more interested in the police chief than in them, and sadly, he wasn’t featured as much as those two. I found him to be an interesting character and somewhat sympathetic in that you understand why he’s doing what he’s doing and yet want to slap him over the head and wonder why he’s being so stupid. He’s relatable, which is more than I can say for cardboard Dana and Finn, Stock Characters 1 and 2, cut straight from the magazine.
Pointless romance aside, as I mentioned, the suspense was actually quite good and the whole concept of gold hiding in a lake was pretty interesting. I wish there had been a scene where everyone reads the letter the police chief left behind, but instead it’s just casually thrown out at the end—and there’s also no mention of the chief’s wife, which I found disappointing since that’s how the whole thing got started. So, overall, though the concept was good, the entire thing fell flat for me. And I’d love to read something more original than the romance portrayed in Tangled Webs, and done with more original characters. Maybe try a different magazine, Hannon.
When Will and Bet were four, tragic circumstances brought them to the same house, to be raised by a wealthy gentleman as brother and sister. Now sixteen, they appear content with the life fate has bestowed upon them. But appearances can be deceiving. Bet can experience only what society allows for a girl. Will is afforded much more freedom, but still only as society dictates. Neither is happy. So Bet comes up with a plan and persuades Will to give it a try: She’ll go to school as Will. Will can live as he chooses. But when she arrives at school, the reality doesn’t match what Bet imagined. Boys act very differently when they don’t think there’s a girl in their midst. In fact, they can be rather brutish. But brutish Bet can deal with. It’s the stirrings of attraction for her roommate that get Bet into real trouble. This is not the education Bet expected.
I can’t believe there was once a time when I thought the “girl who dresses up as a boy” trope was interesting. Bloody Jack is the only book I’ve read recently where I don’t mind it. I might have enjoyed it more in The Education of Bet if that trope wasn’t paired with the “disguised girl falls in love with roommate/best friend/person who thinks she’s a boy leading to awkward situations” as well as a completely obvious plot twist that I could see coming from the first chapter of the book.
I liked Bet well enough as a character, and the odd things she says in disguise are pretty fun, but the disguise plot with the addition of the “rebel against society” trope was enough to make me regret reading it almost as soon as I started. Luckily, the book is relatively short, and the parts at school really aren’t all that bad even if they’re a little stereotypical.
I can see some people loving The Education of Bet if they really like the premise of it. It’s a classic “girl is frustrated at lack of freedom society gives her, so she Decides To Do Something About It and disguises herself as a boy to get an “education” (although Bet is far from uneducated, so pretty much she just wants to do What The Boys Are Doing) and then falls in love with her roommate, surprise surprise” plot, and that does appeal to some people—but not me.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: Bet stuffs some socks down her pants, gets groped by prostitutes, and then canoodles with her boyfriend/love interest.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
“Can I get you something before I go?” he asked, at last tying his tie. Thank God! “Perhaps some plain toast or a cup of tea? I could ask Mrs. Smithers—”
“I’ll be fine,” I snapped, cutting him off. “Really, by second lesson, I’ll be right as rain.”
He studied me for a moment, as though I were a curiosity.
“Huh,” he said finally. “It must be a wonderful thing, knowing the exact moment one will be well again.”
Disclaimer: The Road We Traveled, by Jane Kirkpatrick, was provided by Revell in exchange for an honest review.
Tabitha Brown refuses to be left behind in Missouri when her son makes the decision to strike out for Oregon—even if she has to hire her own wagon to join the party. After all, family ties are stronger than fear. Along with her reluctant daughter and her ever-hopeful granddaughter, the intrepid Tabitha has her misgivings. The trials they face along the way will severely test her faith, courage, and ability to hope. With her family’s survival on the line, she must make the ultimate sacrifice, plunging deeper into the wilderness to seek aid. What she couldn’t know was how this frightening journey would impact how she understood her own life—and the greater part she had to play in history.
Jane Kirkpatrick composes a faithful, detailed account of the “Mother of Oregon” in The Road We Traveled, depicting Tabitha Moffat Brown’s journey from Missouri to Oregon on the Oregon/Applegate Trail. The attention to historical accuracy and detail is wonderful and, as with the last book by Kirkpatrick I read (The Memory Weaver), I’m impressed and pleased at the research that went into this book. You can tell the book was lovingly crafted in order to pay tribute to a woman from history that many people probably do not know about.
However, all the lovely historical detail aside, The Road We Traveled is an uneven mess of a book. Perhaps “mess” is too harsh of a word. I’ll put it this way: there were parts of the book where I went “Hmm, this is interesting,” and then there were more parts where I wondered when the book would be over—especially towards the end, where so much time passed in so few pages that I ended up confused and detached from the book. So much was crammed into the end that I had trouble following along.
I do like the characters, for the most part, though Virgilia gets the short end of the stick, in my opinion. I do like the setting. But the pace of the book ruined it for me. It started out slow, then got mildly interesting, then trudged along with the wagons on the Oregon Trail, then finished in one large rush, dumping ten or so years of time into thirty or so pages right at the end. I think, as I mentioned in my review of The Memory Weaver, that this style of book is not really my cup of tea. I don’t particularly like stories that stretch across years of a person’s life because they often feel rushed and I don’t feel as connected with the character. I’d rather read, say, the fantastic Dear America account of the Oregon Trail (Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie) than this novel.
I appreciate The Road We Traveled for its historical detail, its wealth of research apparent in the pages, and its information on a little-known (to me, anyway, and probably to a lot of people) woman in history who went on the Oregon Trail when she was in her sixties and then founded a school. However, the style of the book itself, and other aspects such as its pacing, made it less than memorable and more than a little boring, and even confusing, to read.
At almost six feet tall, twelve-year-old Truly Lovejoy stands out in a crowd where she likes it or not. (She doesn’t.) So when her family moves to teeny-tiny, super boring Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, Truly doesn’t stand a chance of blending in. But when helping out at the family bookstore one day, Truly finds a mysterious letter inside an old copy of Charlotte’s Web and soon she and her new friends are swept up in a madcap treasure hunt around town. While chasing clues that could spell danger, Truly discovers there’s more to Pumpkin Falls than meets the eye—and that blending in can be overrated.
Absolutely Truly is a decent middle grade mystery, although I prefer mysteries to be a little more complicated and less “let me tell you about all the thinking my character is doing complete with comparison to fitting pieces into a jigsaw puzzle until it all clicks together.” Frederick relies a little too much on overused mystery tropes and the entire thing stands on very shaky ground for me. I don’t believe that an envelope survived for twenty-ish years taped to a bridge, exposed to the elements as it was (and if the bridge was covered, how did Truly fall off of it anyway?).
The family aspect of the plot was okay, although I wish Truly’s dad hadn’t been the stereotypical military dad type and that Frederick had dwelt a little more on how Truly feels about her place in the family. There are several times where she feels unappreciated and invisible, but it’s never resolved or brought up again at the end. The end bit with her dad was nice, though, if a little cheesy.
Absolutely Truly isn’t that bad of a book—it just didn’t hit the right notes for me. The mystery was too simple and unoriginal, a lot of the elements of it didn’t make sense to me from the start, and overall it felt merely average. A good book for kids, but I would give them better mysteries to read.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: Some implied PTSD and mentions of IEDs.
Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade, Realistic
It was sealed shut, and as far as I could tell had never been opened. Why would someone leave a letter stuck in an old copy of Charlotte’s Web? Had they meant to mail it, and forgotten? Or had they left it there deliberately for someone to find? There wasn’t an address on the envelope, or even a real name—just the capital letter B. But the envelope had a stamp on it, like it was all ready to send.