A Love So True by Melissa Jagears

Disclaimer: A Love So True, by Melissa Jagears, was provided by Bethany House. I received a free copy. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Evelyn Wisely loves working at the local orphanage, but her heart can’t ignore the women of Teaville who are also in need. Her boss is willing to help build a shelter for them, but only if she gains the cooperation and financial support of other local businessmen. While David Kingsman plans to stay in Teaville just long enough to get his father’s business back on solid ground, he’s intrigued by Evelyn’s cause and finds himself more invested with each passing day. Will their plans and partnership fall apart when confronted with all that is stacked against them, or can they trust in God’s plan despite it all?

A Love So True is not as immediately gripping or as deep in message as the book that came before it, A Heart Most Certain, but it has a lot of charm, a decent romance, and some good things to say.

The novel continues with the story line of the first book, with Evelyn helping at an orphanage for children of prostitutes and with Lydia and she still determined to help the prostitutes themselves. While that particular message was told much better in A Heart Most Certain, Jagears still does a good job of communicating how we should help those in need. It’s unfortunate that Heart’s message was much more impactful and prominent whereas Love’s message is much weaker and more obscure (honestly, the only thing I can think of after reading it is “Don’t keep secrets”), because even though Jagears is still a good writer, there’s a noticeable drop in quality, at least in my eyes.

The romance is good, although the ending of it is filled with too much contrivance and clichés for me to really love it. I hate that every author seems to think that they need to have one last angst-filled separation between their love interests before they can finally get together. Love’s in particular was noticeably forced—I don’t mean the reason for Evelyn and David’s separation, which I actually quite liked because Jagears subtly poked fun at what the reader was likely thinking was Evelyn’s big secret, but what came after. David, knowing his father’s ways, still decides to go along with what he says. Evelyn, knowing what David has said about his father, still actually thinks she can trust what he says. It was forced tension, incredibly contrived, and annoying. It ruined the book for me, a little.

A Love So True is not as good as its predecessor, but it’s engaging, has some good things to say (even if it’s hard to pull out an overarching theme or message), and is written well. I wish the ending hadn’t been so forced because it spoiled my enjoyment of the entirety, but if I ignore the stupid things the characters did at the end, the romance was good and the characters themselves were well-developed. At least until they were forced to act in certain ways to generate tension.

My rating: 3/5

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian

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

1928 Newbery Medal: Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon

Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, was published in 1927 by Dutton.

The heartwarming and sometimes almost heartbreaking story of the training and care of a carrier pigeon. Writing out of his own experience as a boy in India, Dhan Mukerji tells how Gay-Neck’s master, an eager, highly-sensitive lad, sent his prized pigeon to serve in World War I, and of how, because of exceptional training and his brave heart, Gay-Neck served his new masters heroically.

Rating: 3/5

I found Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon, the most interesting of the early Newbery Medal’s I’ve read so far, barring The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle. That’s not to say it enthralled me, but it was better than the dense and confusing The Dark Frigate and a much better story than any of the myths in Tales from Silver Lands. It was also a very quick read for me, which I’m citing as a positive since I was beginning to fall behind in my reading when I started Gay-Neck.

Much of the interest of Gay-Neck, for me, was not the story of a pigeon and his adventures leading up to and during World War I. It was the description of India and its culture. I always enjoy it when an author so clearly knows a culture different than the one I do, and, since Mukerji grew up in India, he’s even more qualified to describe it and make it approachable for American readers (I say American since the Newbery medal is an American award). And since this was written during a time when lots of people were traveling abroad and the British still occupied India, it’s nice to get a glimpse of the mountains, valleys, and jungles of India through the eyes of an Indian.

So, yes, the culture part of it interested me. The actual story of Gay-Neck, not so much. I’ve read better animal books before, and let’s face it, I’m more into horses than pigeons. The pages-long descriptions of Gay-Neck flying to avoid the claws of an eagle may be riveting to some, but I found myself skimming a lot of it. There’s also only so many times Gay-Neck can disappear and his owner wonder if he’s dead before all the suspense is drained out of the event entirely.

Gay-Neck is definitely a step up from previous Newbery Medal winners, but despite its lavish and loving descriptions of India and Indian culture, it’s not particularly exciting or enthralling. It’s a good look at how carrier pigeons were used, and, of course, as I’ve already mentioned, its depiction of India is beautiful, but it falls apart a little in terms of mechanics and holding the reader’s interest.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

But this [bird] was coming straight, like an arrow. In another two minutes my doubts were dispelled. It was a hawk making for little Gay-Neck. I looked up and beheld a miraculous sight. His father was tumbling steadily down in order to reach his level, while his mother, bent on the same purpose, was making swift downward curves. Ere the terrible hawk had come within ten yards of the innocent little fellow, both his flanks were covered. Now the three flew downwards at a right angle from the path of their enemy. Undeterred by such a move, the hawk charged.

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The Maggie Bright by Tracy Groot

Disclaimer: The Maggie Bright, by Tracy Groot, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

England, 1940. Clare Childs knew life would change when she unexpectedly inherited the Maggie Bright—a noble fifty-two-foot yacht. In fact, she’s counting on it. But the boat harbors secrets. When a stranger arrives, searching for documents hidden on board, Clare is pulled into a Scotland Yard investigation that could shed light on Hitler’s darkest schemes and prompt America to action. Across the Channel, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg has the entire British Army in retreat with little hope for rescue at the shallow beaches of Dunkirk. With time running out, Churchill recruits civilian watercraft to help. Hitler is attacking from land, air, and sea, and any boat that goes may not return. Yet Clare knows the Maggie Bright must answer the call—piloted by an American who has refused to join the war effort until now and a detective with a very personal motive for exposing the truth. The fate of the war hinges on this rescue. While two men join the desperate fight, a nation prays for a miracle.

My rating: 3/5

The Maggie Bright tells the story of the historic rescue of the British army at Dunkirk. And, when it gets to that point, it’s exactly as nailbiting and tense as you might expect, with bombs falling, planes strafing, and soldiers eager to escape certain death. If you didn’t know much about Dunkirk before, this book will certainly inform you on some of the important aspects, such as the call for civilian craft and the routes the boats took to avoid mines.

However, while the Dunkirk part of the book is good, the lead-up to it is a little strange. There’s a mysterious package, which really serves as a MacGuffin device to get the characters to act, a shadowy figure who wants it, and a whole lot of convenience. Plus, once Dunkirk occurs, all of that investigation and mystery are swept under the rug and never brought up again.

So, the first half of the book I thought was heavily flawed: odd characters, a plot that shapes together slowly, resolves quickly, and then transforms into something completely different, a romance that springs out of nowhere and is completely unnecessary, and a whole lot of talk about a package and the person after it that ultimately ends up not even mattering. The second half is better, though weighed down by that first half—a tense lead-up to the rescue at Dunkirk, the rescue itself, and then the aftermath. If the novel had just been about that without the extraneous bits at the beginning, I probably would have enjoyed it a lot better.

The Maggie Bright starts out poorly, but ends more strongly, with a pretty riveting telling of the rescue at Dunkirk. I think its flaws outweigh its strengths, unfortunately, but at the very least, it’s got me interested in seeing the movie about Dunkirk that comes out later this year.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian

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

Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Paper Things, by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, was published in 2015 by Candlewick.

When Ari’s mother died four years ago, she made Ari promise that she and her older brother, Gage, would stay together always. So when Gage decides he can no longer live with their bossy guardian, Janna, Ari knows she has to go with him, even though they don’t have an apartment yet. Instead, Gage and Ari “couch surf,” crashing with friends or sneaking into shelters to escape the cold Maine nights. In all this chaos, there is one thing that gives Ari comfort: her Paper Things. She knows she’s too old to play with the paper people she’s cut out of magazines over the years, but it’s nice to pretend to have a big, happy family and a house with a room all her own. Of course, it would be better if she didn’t have to pretend.

Rating: 3/5

Paper Things, though a little clumsy in execution, is a sweet book about family, love, determination, and the problems and emotions that can arise from keeping (or not keeping) secrets. The problems that Ari faces and the solutions that come about flow naturally from each other, so nothing seems contrived, forced, or too over-the-top to seem unrealistic. Enough is explained of Gage and Janna’s relationship to understand both why Gage left and why Janna didn’t pick much of a fight about Ari leaving. And, though Ari and Gage never seem to be in any real danger, there is enough hinted at that gives the vague feeling of danger for these two siblings while they are without their own home.

The book is marred by only one major thing: the author’s tendency to philosophize, moralize and explain all of Ari’s symbolic decisions through Ari’s thoughts and dialogue. This gets especially bad at the end, when, of course, everything turns out all right and Ari grows up and Learns Things and reflects back on her experiences—basically, a whole lot of telling when it’s not needed, because we’ve already been shown how Ari has changed. Having her philosophize for the last two chapters was gilding the lily and nearly ruined the entire book for me.

Paper Things is good, but it’s prevented from being great by the at-times clumsy writing and the whole lot of “let me tell you what I’ve already showed through my actions” that goes on at the end. Maybe middle grade readers need that sort of thing shoved down their throats, but I doubt it—subtle tends to be much more powerful than explicit and much longer lasting in impact. There’s very little that makes this book bad, but there’s a whole lot stopping it from being great.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

I yank the folder out of his hands and place it at the bottom of the pile of books. He’s still clutching Miles, though.

“Give,” I say, making a grab for him.

But Briggs pulls his arm back playfully. And as quick as that, Miles tears in two.

I can’t believe I’m only holding half of him in my fingers. Miles was the first person I ever cut out of a catalog. I have played with him in our apartment on Crest Street, at Sasha’s, and Janna’s, and every place we’ve stayed since.

My eyes don’t tear up. I don’t say anything. I’m more invisible than invisible.

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

Castle of Shadows by Ellen Renner

Castle of Shadows, by Ellen Renner, was published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin.

Ever since the Queen mysteriously disappeared and the King went mad five years ago, eleven-year-old Princess Charlie has lived a wild and mostly unsupervised life in the country of Quale, running amok through the castle instead of following affairs of state. Now revolution whispers through the air, and Charlie is powerless to stop it. Then she discovers a clue: a desperate, unfinished letter scribbled years before by the missing Queen. Charlie doesn’t understand the danger her mother writes of, but she does know that she absolutely must be found—together, they can surely save the King and the kingdom. So plucky Charlie embarks on a quest to track down her mother, armed with the precious scrap of paper and with Tobias, the gardener’s boy, as an unlikely ally. Putting away her tattered old clothes, she must deal with games of political intrigue, the rebels’ rough-laid schemes, and the prime minister’s sudden interest in the forgotten princess’s well-being. And every step closer to the Queen pulls Charlie deeper into an entangling web of lies and secrets, where nothing is as it seems and people are not who they say.

Rating: 3/5

I relatively enjoyed Castle of Shadows, though there were parts of it that made me sigh. The book is what you might expect from a “castle/monarch fallen into a bad state” plot, complete with a wild and untrained princess, villainous servants, and absent parents. The ambience of it does appropriately fit the name; the castle is always described in gloomy and cold terms and nothing about it brings forth the image of a bright, friendly castle, such as in Jessica Day George’s Castle Glower series. There’s enough mystery and intrigue and villainy to fit that tone, and the main villain, at least, is a complex one. You never quite know what he actually thinks or what his actual plan is, and he has that air of simple regret that makes it hard to violently hate him as one might the housekeeper, O’Dair, and her mustache-twirling ways.

I’m not overly fond of Charlie and her character type; I don’t like “wild” characters or ones that do stupid things because they think they know better than everyone else around them. But she does improve over time, and she does have a few flaws to even out all her impulsive actions that usually turn out all right for her. She’s described as being “afraid of the dark” but her fear is actually claustrophobia; she’s fine running around the castle at night, but she can’t handle enclosed spaces. Or perhaps it’s the complete absence of light she fears, rather than the ambiguous dark?

The plot is fairly complex, though it’s ruined a bit by the actions of O’Dair and Watch, who act a little too absurdly and a little too one-dimensionally to be taken completely seriously as villains. But, of course, there must be villainous servants in these types of stories to add an extra layer of tension and another obstacle for our plucky princess to overcome before confronting the real villain.

Castle of Shadows has a fitting name, as Renner uses description quite effectively to really give the sense of a shadowy, eerie setting. The plot and Charlie herself aren’t particularly original, and the plot in particular, though complex and twisty, is marred by the presence of two-bit villains such as O’Dair. Also, I’m not sure I like the ending—everything ends a bit too neatly and perfectly. However, I enjoyed a majority of the book, and its flaws are nothing too glaring and distracting to spoil it much.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Where did you find this? Have you shown it to anyone else?”

The look in his eyes scared her. “I-I found it in a book.” Why was he so upset? “A book I took from the library. I remember my mother reading it to me just before she disappeared. And of course I haven’t shown it to anyone else.”

“Good! Do not! Promise me. Let me keep this letter for you…or, better yet, let me destroy it—” He made a movement towards the hob and its glowing fire.

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Rainbow Valley by L. M. Montgomery

Rainbow Valley, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, was first published in 1919. It is the sequel to Anne of Ingleside.

Anne Shirley is grown up, has married her beloved Gilbert and now is the mother of six mischievous children. These boys and girls discover a special place all their own, but they never dream of what will happen when the strangest family moves into an old nearby mansion. The Meredith clan is two boys and two girls, with minister father but no mother — and a runaway girl named Mary Vance. Soon the Meredith kids join Anne’s children in their private hideout to carry out their plans to save Mary from the orphanage, to help the lonely minister find happiness, and to keep a pet rooster from the soup pot. There’s always an adventure brewing in the sun-dappled world of Rainbow Valley.

Rating: 3/5

In my review of Anne of Ingleside, I mentioned how I preferred Rainbow Valley, but now having read the latter, I actually think the former is my favorite of the “Anne’s children” books—unless Rilla of Ingleside takes that honor, of course. Rainbow Valley is good, but the Meredith children are no replacement for the Blythe family. And while I do get some guilty pleasure out of pining romances, Mr. Meredith and Rosemary’s drags on a little too long. There’s also some contrived nonsense sitting in the way, of course, as Montgomery is fond of the dramatic romances.

There are some good things about the novel, of course—the build-up to World War I is patently obvious and already Montgomery foreshadows just how much this will shake up the Blythe family. This book was written before Rilla of Ingleside, but I think Montgomery had certain things in mind even during this book because the foreshadowing and telegraphing are quite strong. In addition, there were some conversations about God and theology that had me laughing out loud. Montgomery certainly has a way with phrasing things exactly how children would phrase them, which is precisely why the original Anne of Green Gables is so beloved.

However, Rainbow Valley still can’t hold a candle to Anne, and I think it’s because Montgomery is trying too hard to recapture the charm of the first book. Also, while reading, I had this nagging feeling that Anne is not actually the best mother to her children. Of course, with Montgomery’s focus on the children, and especially the Meredith children, it could be that we just don’t see enough of Anne for me to seriously make that argument. And Montgomery doesn’t help Anne out either, because once again Shirley is mentioned briefly at the beginning of the novel and then vanishes, never to be mentioned again—not by Anne nor by the narrator, who lists all the Blythe children and what they’re doing, except for Shirley. Like I did in Anne of Ingleside, I ask: why bother giving Anne this child if he’s not even going to be mentioned? It really doesn’t do any favors to how Anne looks as a mother. But perhaps I’m obsessing too much.

Rainbow Valley is good, but there are one too many shenanigans featuring the Meredith children and the book runs out of steam about 3/4s of the way through as a result. Also, I’m still not as fond of the married-with-children-Anne, due to the fact that her glib, laughing nature makes her seem like a shockingly airheaded and uncaring mother, arguably.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Well, you kids have gone and done it now,” was Mary’s greeting, as she joined them in the Valley. Miss Cornelia was up at Ingleside, holding agonized conclave with Anne and Susan, and Mary hoped that the session might be a long one, for it was all of two weeks since she had been allowed to revel with her chums in the dear valley of rainbows.

“Done what?” demanded everybody but Walter, who was day-dreaming as usual.

“It’s you manse young ones, I mean,” said Mary. “It was just awful of you. I wouldn’t have done such a thing for the world, and I weren’t brought up in a manse— weren’t brought up ANYWHERE— just COME up.”

“What have WE done?” asked Faith blankly.

“Well, you kids have gone and done it now,” was Mary’s greeting, as she joined them in the Valley. Miss Cornelia was up at Ingleside, holding agonized conclave with Anne and Susan, and Mary hoped that the session might be a long one, for it was all of two weeks since she had been allowed to revel with her chums in the dear valley of rainbows. “Done what?” demanded everybody but Walter, who was day-dreaming as usual. “It’s you manse young ones, I mean,” said Mary. “It was just awful of you.   I   wouldn’t have done such a thing for the world, and   I   weren’t brought up in a manse— weren’t brought up ANYWHERE— just COME up.”

“What have WE done?” asked Faith blankly.

“Done! You’d BETTER ask! The talk is something terrible. I expect it’s ruined your father in this congregation. He’ll never be able to live it down, poor man! Everybody blames him for it, and that isn’t fair. But nothing IS fair in this world. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2nt85yB

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFevers

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, by R. L. LaFevers, was published in 2007 by Houghton Mifflin.

Theodosia Throckmorton has her hands full at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London. Her father may be head curator, but it is Theo—and only Theo—who is able to see all the black magic and ancient curses that still cling to the artifacts in the museum. Sneaking behind her father’s back, Theo uses old, nearly forgotten Egyptian magic to remove the curses and protect her father and the rest of the museum employees from the ancient, sinister forces lurking in the museum’s dark hallways. When Theo’s mother returns from her latest archaeological dig bearing the Heart of Egypt—a legendary amulet belonging to an ancient tomb—Theo learns that it comes inscribed with a curse so black and vile that it threatens to crumble the British Empire from within and start a war too terrible to imagine. Theo will have to call upon everything she’s ever learned in order to prevent the rising chaos from destroying her country—and herself!

Rating: 3/5

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos reminds me a little bit of a much tamer version of Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles, minus the gods, or maybe something more along the lines of Serafina and the Black Cloak combined with Withering-by-Sea. I’m not really a fan of the “young girl is more competent than the adults around her” trope, but Theodosia has some good moments with her parents and there are enough competent adults that it slightly alleviated my disgruntlement with the trope.

The plot revolving around the Heart of Egypt was a little hard to follow, especially once Theodosia gets to Egypt and the tomb, and there were one or two plot threads that seemed totally random (i.e., the whole thing with Isis getting possessed, which seemed completely unnecessary), but I do like how LaFevers wove in the tension leading up to World War I with her supernatural/fantasy plot so that amidst all the magic and cursed artifacts lies that historical thread. LaFevers also includes a lot of other little things about that time period, too, such as Britain’s occupation of Egypt and their archaeological fervor, Kaiser Wilhelm, the growing tension with Germany, and other historical facts that, again, lend a nice note of reality to the supernatural premise of the novel.

While I didn’t enjoy it so much that I’m itching to pick up the second novel, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos was enjoyable enough that I wouldn’t mind reading more, if only to find out more about the ambiguous “forces of Chaos,” the secret society that Theodosia stumbles across sworn to combat them, and how other historical details will fit in with the story as it unfolds. The main thing holding me back from immediately getting the next book is my annoyance at Theodosia as a protagonist, who is one of those smart-alecky characters who always knows what to do better than the characters around her. Theodosia, luckily, has a few flaws which makes her more endearing and less annoying, but I’m still not incredibly pleased with her.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

Luckily, everyone’s eyes were focused on the artifact so they didn’t see me shiver violently, as if I’d just caught a ghastly chill. The truth of it was, whatever was in that package was cursed with something so powerful and vile it made me feel as if my whole body were covered in stinging ants. When Mother lifted off the last bit of paper, she held a large scarab carved out of precious stone in her hand. IT had gold wings curving out of its side and they were inlaid with thousands and thousands of jewels. A large round carnelian, the size of a cherry, sat at the head, and a smaller green stone decorate the bottom of the beetle. “The Heart of Egypt,” she announced. “Straight from Amenemhab’s tomb.”

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2nd2BIl

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart, was published in 2007 by Little, Brown and Company.

‘Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?’ When this peculiar ad appears in the newspaper, dozens of children enroll to take a series of mysterious, mind-bending tests. (And you, dear reader, can test your wits right alongside them.) But in the end just four very special children will succeed. Their challenge: to go on a secret mission that only the most intelligent and resourceful children could complete. To accomplish it they will have to go undercover at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, where the only rule is that there are no rules. As our heroes face physical and mental trials beyond their wildest imaginations, they have no choice but to turn to each other for support. But with their newfound friendship at stake, will they be able to pass the most important test of all?

Rating: 3/5

I read, a long time ago, the sequel to The Mysterious Benedict Society. I don’t remember anything about it; I don’t even remember if I finished it or not after I discovered it wasn’t the first book. Now, I’ve finally read the original book, after hearing quite a lot of praise about it from several people.

I must say, though, that I was a little underwhelmed. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it—I enjoyed it immensely at the beginning, when there were lots of puzzles and riddles and general quirkiness. Then, when the book got more serious and stranger, I found myself feeling considerably more lukewarm about it.

The problem, to me, is that The Mysterious Benedict Society starts out as an odd, but fun book where children solve riddles and become part of a group that will then utilize their individual strengths to do better things. Then, while still promoting the same thing (with less riddles), a convoluted, strange plot develops and the book takes an entirely different turn into something odd, but not fun, becoming a little more tedious and a little less enjoyable.

Maybe the problem is that Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance spend too much time at the school before things get moving. Maybe the problem was with the entire concept of “Messengers,” “Executives,” and the strange “Whisperer.” Maybe I’m finding it more difficult to take seriously a book that, to me, is uneven in tone and where the one thing that I enjoyed at the beginning—the riddles—is pushed to the side for a convoluted plot about mind-control.

I did enjoy the puzzles enough in The Mysterious Benedict Society to perhaps pick up the sequel and see how much I remember from that long-ago read. However, the book was underwhelming enough that I may simply forget all about it.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic (I suppose), Middle Grade

After a few more pages of questions, all of which Reynie felt confident he had answered correctly, he arrived at the test’s final question: “Are you brave?” Just reading the words quickened Reynie’s heart. Was he brave? Bravery had never been required of him, so how could he tell? Miss Perumal would say he was: she would point out how cheerful he tried to be despite feeling lonely, how patiently he withstood the teasing of other children, and how he was always eager for a challenge. But these things only showed that he was good-natured, polite, and very often bored. Did they really show that he was brave? He didn’t think so. Finally he gave up trying to decide and simply wrote, “I hope so.”

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Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale

Palace of Stone, by Shannon Hale, was published in 2012 by Bloomsbury. It is the sequel to The Princess Academy.

When Miri and a few of the girls from Mount Eskel’s princess academy travel to the capital to help the princess-to-be get ready for her wedding, they have no idea what to expect. Some are worried about leaving their beloved mountain for the first time, others are thrilled about going to the big city, and Miri is mostly just happy to see her best friend. But not everything in Asland is as perfect as the mountain girls hoped. As Miri learns more about her new home, she finds herself deep in the middle of an upheaval that affects everyone she loves. Torn between her loyalty to the princess and her belief in her new friends’ daring ideas, and between an old love and a new crush, Miri must test the strengths and skills she gained in the princess academy.

Rating: 3/5

I didn’t like Palace of Stone as much as I liked Princess Academy, if only because the “commoners rebel against the government” plot is overdone to the point of tediousness, but I still enjoyed many aspects of it. Miri is a good protagonist; when she makes mistakes, she tries to fix them, and she is loyal to her friends regardless of the different ideas they hold. I appreciate it when a protagonist doesn’t have to ruin friendships because of differing beliefs, but rather respects them.

I’m also glad that the love triangle aspect wasn’t so much of a love triangle as a “country girl is dazzled by city life and city boys” and it fit very nicely with Miri being torn between Asland and Mount Eskel. I buy the quick, “new boy” romantic bedazzlement that fizzles in the face of reality more than the drawn out, prolonged love triangles prevalent in YA lit.

Palace of Stone lost some of the things that made Princess Academy special, and isn’t exactly a necessary sequel, but it does have some good things in it and the overdone plot is handled mostly well, if a trifle melodramatically at times. Miri’s inner turmoil and feelings of being torn between two worlds were the best thing about the book, in my opinion. I don’t know if the book did enough for me to pick up the next one, but it’s a solid follow-up, if a slightly weaker one.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Miri shook her head. “Whenever our academy tutor or the traders talked of the lowlands, they made it sound so perfect.”

“Nothing’s perfect,” said Katar. She picked up an orange pillow and tucked it under her arms. “I figured at the Queen’s castle you’re in the best position to meet people outside the palace and figure out the situation.”

“So it’s too dangerous for you to be a spy, but that’s exactly what you want me to do?”

“I’m a delegate,” Katar said. “The king’s officials would notice if I went slinking around commoners.”

“Fine, I’ll learn what I can.”

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

The Sorcerer of the North by John Flanagan

The Sorcerer of the North, by John Flanagan, was published in 2006 by Philomel. It is the sequel to The Battle for Skandia.

Several years have passed since the apprentice and his master, Will and Halt, led the Skandians to victory against invaders, and Will is finally a full-fledged Ranger with his own fief to look after. The fief seems sleepy—boring, even—until Lord Syron, master of a castle far in the north, is struck down by a mysterious illness. Joined by his friend Alyss, Will is suddenly thrown headfirst into an extraordinary adventure, investigating fears of sorcery and trying to determine who is loyal to Lord Syron…and who is planning to betray him. Will and Alyss must battle growing hysteria, traitors, and most of all, time. Lord Syron is fading, but when Alyss is taken hostage, Will is forced to make a desperate choice between loyalty to his mission and loyalty to his friend.

Rating: 3/5

The Sorcerer of the North, like The Icebound Land, is another Part 1 of 2 novel in the Ranger’s Apprentice series, taking place several years after The Battle for Skandia. However, I think that it’s a better Part 1 than The Icebound Land is. It has more mystery, more suspense, and, frankly, has much less “I’m stretching this plot to fit a whole book” moments.

I had actually forgotten about one of the major twists in this story, and so I got to experience it fresh all over again—and it really is quite a good twist. It seems inevitable after it’s over, but Flanagan manages to imbibe the moment with enough shock and tension that you go with the moment rather than think, “Oh, right, of course that would happen.”

The Sorcerer of the North is also interesting in that since the first two books, magic hasn’t been mentioned. Ranger’s Apprentice seems like such a realistic world (even in its fantasy elements) that magic doesn’t seem to have a place. Then along comes a book like this one, and raises all sorts of questions, such as “Is there actually magic or is it just sleight of hand and trickery?” I like the ambiguous nature of the magical aspect of the books and thought it was incorporated well in this one.

The Sorcerer of the North is clearly just the first part of a two-part story, where the second part promises to be even bigger and better, but it lacks the stiltedness and slow pace of The Icebound Land and contains a great deal of mystery and suspense to help hook the reader into the next book. It’s not perfect, but at this point, these books really don’t need to be.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“It’s not for us to say what it is. But there are strange goings-on. Strange sights.”

“Particularly in Grimsdell Wood,” said a tall farmer and, once more, others agreed. “Strange sights, and sounds—unearthly sounds they are. They’d chill your blood. I’ve heard them once and that’s enough for me.”

It seemed that once their initial reluctance was overcome, people wanted to discuss the subject, as if it held a fascination for them that they wanted to share.

“What sort of things do you see?” Will asked.

“Lights, mainly—little balls of colored light that move through the threes. And dark shapes. Shapes that move just outside your vision’s range.”

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