The Lioness and Her Knight by Gerald Morris

The Lioness and Her Knight, by Gerald Morris, was published in 2005 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight.

Rating: 3/5

The Lioness and Her Knight is, I think, the longest of Morris’s books so far, retelling Chretien de Troyes’ The Knight of the Lion. It is, perhaps, too long, with the characters spending too much time in one place, but it is stuffed full of events. The protagonist is Lynet and Gaheris’s (from The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf) daughter, Luneta, who sets out on her own adventure with the fool Rhience and her cousin Ywain. The title has a double meaning: there is a literal lioness with a knight, but Luneta is also a figurative lioness.

The protagonist being the child of the main character in another book earlier in the series does raise the question of “Just how old are these characters, and is that realistic to the time period?” but I’m sure Morris didn’t intend for us to think so deeply on that subject. Instead, he uses old characters as a beacon of familiarity, anchoring the book in his established world even as he introduces new characters.

Like I said, the plot is long, and entirely too long is spent on Luneta in Laudine’s castle. There’s also some rather odd side adventures that happen that are important to the plot, but add to the length of the book, slowing the pace. There is, however, fabulous character development on all sides, with the exception of Rhience, who remains enigmatic and the source of dry wit throughout the book.

The length of the book is slightly made up by the fantastic ending, which legitimately made me laugh out loud at several points (a rarity even with humorous books). While Morris has similar humor throughout the books, making things more predictable with each entry, he is at the top of his game in the last 30 or so pages.

The Lioness and Her Knight was too long, though I can’t really say what could have been cut or trimmed since a lot of what happened functioned as important to the plot or to the development of the characters. I struggled with the pacing and the length of time spent in certain places, though by the end of the book things started picking up more. Still a consistently good entry, but not my favorite.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit

Five Children and It, by E(dith). Nesbit, was first published in 1902. I read the 1999 version with full color illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky.

Rating: 3/5

C. S. Lewis was a huge fan of Edith Nesbit’s, and I can tell from reading this book just how much she inspired him in his own writings. Now, I’ve read a Nesbit book before—two actually, The Enchanted Castle and The Railway Children. However, this book was published five years before the other two, which might explain the slight difference in narrator voice. I don’t remember the narrator in either of the latter two books being quite so pronounced as in Five Children and It.

Anyway, the book is about five children (four, really—the fifth is a baby and doesn’t feature quite as much), who discover “it” in a sandpit. “It” is a Psammead, a Sand-Fairy, who grants them wishes. This book clearly influenced Edward Eager’s Half Magic, which is very similar. The children purposefully, and occasionally accidentally, wish for things that of course never turn out quite the way they want. Pounds and pounds of money? Too bad, you can’t spend any of it because no one will accept it. Wings? Well, better hope you make it back before the wish wears off and you’re stuck at the top of a tower with no way down. Baby brother is annoying, so you wish people wanted him around so you could go off and play? Now you have to worry about people kidnapping him right from your arms.

While the premise of the book is easily translatable across years and cultures (Nesbit was British), much of the language and slang is not. The children all have nicknames and the names are used interchangeably, which could be very confusing; there’s tons of British terms scattered throughout the book; and in one excruciatingly did-not-age-well chapter, the children dress up like “Red Indians” to try to prevent some Indians they had wished into existence from scalping them to death.

It’s a good book, and there are many relevant themes and messages that the children learn. However, unless the reader was particularly interested in such a story and could get past the British terminology (fans of Lewis would probably like this book a lot), I can’t see it appealing much to those who would simply casually pick it up. It is, I think, just a little too odd.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, by Dan Gemeinhart, was published in 2019.

Rating: 3/5                                          

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise has beautiful cover art and an interesting premise: a girl and her dad, after the deaths of her mother and her two sisters, drive around the US in a school bus attempting to escape the memories of the past until the destruction of a hometown park makes the girl determined to remember, rather than forget.

The novel is an interesting look at grief and the way it manifests itself after tragedy, and how people struggle to deal with it even years afterwards. Coyote has learned to keep smiling, even when she doesn’t feel like it, because she knows her dad can’t handle anything else. Yet that means she has been incapable of expressing her own grief the way that’s best for her, and it means that her dad has merely bottled his in and hid it under name changes and avoiding the subject. And, because it’s a story about a family’s grief, it’s also a story about family and friendship, as the companions that Coyote and Rodeo pick up help teach them what it means to love and to remember. There’s maybe one too many modern messages thrown in, like Gemeinhart couldn’t resist a “Take that!” which makes some moments seem really out of place in terms of narrative, and read more like glaring authorial insertions.

It’s a powerful, deep book for a middle grade audience. Honestly, the only thing that really jarred me time and time again was the writing style. Gemeinhart has Coyote wax philosophical many times, as well as tell pretty much everything she learns. By the end of the book, I had to skim over a lot of stuff because I was so sick of Coyote preaching about everything she had learned. For the audience of the book, maybe that was needed so that the heaviness of the book didn’t overtake the author’s message. Yet the lack of subtlety meant that I started gritting my teeth halfway through.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue by Karina Yan Glaser

The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue, by Karina Yan Glaser, was published in 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It is the sequel to The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden

Rating: 3/5                                          

There are very few book series that I love more and more with each book. Usually it goes the opposite way: I love the first book, and then each successive book pales just a little bit more in comparison to the first. Some series with sequel books that I enjoyed more than the first are The Penderwicks, The Queen’s Thief, and The Squire’s Tales.

The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue falls into the former rather than the latter, unfortunately. I loved the first book and thought the second one was good, but not great. This one, I feel, is maybe on par with the second, but I suppose I came into this one expecting just a little bit more than what I got.

I think part of the reason I wasn’t very satisfied with this book was that there was very little character development. The characters act exactly the same as they have done in the previous books. There are small, small moments, but none of those moments seem momentous enough to carry over into any of the next books. Each character is stuck in their established personality. This is much more of a “stuck forever in time” series than a “slowly grows with each book” series. And it was great to have these characters in the first book, but when they’re acting the same way in the third book, it starts wearing a bit thin.

Part of the reason I didn’t quite like the second book was because there were too many neatly-wrapped-up-in-a-bow moments. The same goes for this book, too, with a remarkably cheesy ending and a bit too many perfectly convenient things happening. I like lovable, fun, chaotic books, but I also like books with realism in them, and this book completely started throwing realism out the window in favor for a feel-good atmosphere.

I’ve got nothing against feel-good atmospheres, and honestly, it’s sorely needed in children’s literature. But as an adult reader, I like nuance and complexity thrown in as well, which is what’s lacking in this book. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to throw in the Vanderbeeker towel, but the next book will have to do a lot to keep me interested.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

The Echo Room by Parker Peevyhouse

The Echo Room, by Parker Peevyhouse, was published in 2018 by Tor.

Rating: 3/5                                          

The Echo Room is kind of an interesting sort of Groundhog Day/repeating day plot. Rett wakes up in an abandoned depot with no memory of how he got there. As he works to solve the mystery of where he is, he finds himself repeating the same day over and over again—except he manages to carry some strange thread of memory across with him each time. As a result, with each “restart” he solves more and more of the mystery.

It’s an interesting book, and difficult to review without spoiling completely. It reminded me a bit of a game I recently played which had a similar premise (though not quite as similar as I thought at first due to the nature of the “restarts” in this book). It does do a lot of “magic science fiction,” where there’s mysterious technology and you’re really not quite sure how it works, but you run with it due to the nature of the book. I’m not super fond of that sort of thing, since inevitably something ends up not making much sense. And it happens here, too, especially near the end, where the characters are like “this device did this thing” and I’m thinking, “Huh? How does that work?”

Despite my problems with the worldbuilding, I did like the plot, and I think Peevyhouse did a good job of revealing everything and showing how all of the mysteries linked together. The biggest problem came near the end, when something that was supposed to be a big reveal fell super flat. It just came too close to a bunch of other things that dulled it down, I think. Until that part, I was pretty invested in the book, though mostly for the mystery. The characters didn’t really interest me too much, and something that I thought for sure would be a big reveal at the end involving their relationship ended up being nothing at all, which disappointed me a little (maybe that’s why that aforementioned plot point ending up falling flat for me).

Overall, I liked the premise and the way the author wove everything together, but Rett and Bryn didn’t really interest me as characters and I thought some of the worldbuilding was clunky and too magic sci-fi. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it. 

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

The Fountains of Silence, by Ruta Sepetys, was published in 2019 by Penguin.

Rating: 3/5                                          

I love Ruta Sepetys’s work; Salt to the Sea was one of my favorite reads a few years ago. However, I really struggled with The Fountains of Silence. Honestly, I thought about stopping it halfway through, that’s how uninvested I was in the story and characters. And it wasn’t that the history behind it wasn’t riveting—the only thing I knew about the Spanish Civil War is from Picasso (Guernica), so learning about it, especially the stolen babies, was fascinating and so, so sad.

Here’s what I didn’t like: the short, short chapters that continually jumped to different characters’ point of view. It was extremely frustrating to have all of these different characters think, do, or say things for a short while, only to switch to another character who thinks, does, or says something else for a short while. The chapters end abruptly, but do nothing to help the reader understand what’s happening. Sepetys also hints—and hints and hints and hints—at things, but the short chapters mean that hints are only ever given—the readers are not given enough time, space, or information, to figure out anything for themselves; instead, we have to wait nearly 200 pages before one of the characters finally reveals something. No clever ways to hide plot twists here—just brevity and point of view switches.

I also found the book a little bit too sappy. It’s sweet and cute that Dan waited 18 years, but how realistic is it that he would really wait that long for a girl he knew for two months?? The whole thing just screamed “bad YA romance.” It felt cheap and disappointing that an author I’ve always associated with nuanced, deep novels relied on cheap writing tricks and a really cliché romance in this otherwise deeply rich historical novel.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Hadley Beckett’s Next Dish by Bethany Turner

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Hadley Beckett’s Next Dish, by Bethany Turner, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 3/5

I was not a fan of the other Bethany Turner book I read (The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck), but this one turned out to be a much more pleasant and interesting read, though not without its bobbles along the way.

The premise is that Hadley Beckett, a TV personality chef, after being insulted and belittled by another celebrity chef, Max, then has to deal with his return to her life when they’re both stars of a TV show. Now, I’ve watched a ton of food shows, so I could see how Turner was using the general public’s love of both celebrity chefs and cooking shows (both casual and competitive) and building off of that. And she leaves just enough out so that there’s never anything blatantly untrue or unrealistic in there, though I did notice that she seems to have no knowledge of pre-prepared food dishes that are used frequently in cooking shows (they’re called something specific, but I can’t remember). But everything is described just vaguely enough that she manages to get away without an intimate knowledge of TV.

Bethany Turner writes very much for a younger audience, or perhaps one that’s familiar with pop culture, because she has tons of references and jokes that, while making things genuinely funny, can get a little bit too much after a while. That being said, the book is quite charming and the characterization is good. Max’s change from jerk (for reasons explained, but not given as an excuse) to nice guy is realistic and well-developed. Hadley more or less is there to roll her eyes, shout, smile…whatever the plot calls for, but she also undergoes some changes.

The one big issue I had with this book is one that I also think might be a bit unfair. Basically, though this book is published by a Christian publisher, there is only one religious reference in the whole book. And, while it makes this book much more marketable to other audiences, and the story itself has a good message regardless, I couldn’t help but think about all the things Turner could have done. Rather than having Max overcome his problems strictly through Love and his own power, there was so much opportunity to include the heart of repentance and forgiveness. However, I also know that I’ve been critical of Christian books being too preachy, hence why I said my criticism may be a bit unfair.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic

Marie Antoinette by Kathryn Lasky

Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versaille, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5                                          

Kathryn Lasky has the difficult job of creating the young adult journal of Marie Antoinette, one of the most infamous queens in history, on her way to the throne of France, starting from the beginning in Austria, with stirrings of interest from the French, all the way to her arrival and entrenchment at Versailles. One of the most interesting things about this Royal Diaries series is that a lot of the times authors have to think of the question, “How do I make controversial or unlikeable rulers likeable to a young audience?”

Lasky does an admirable job with this book, though of course every one of these books needs to be taken with the grain of salt that we have no idea what the “voice” of these characters, and in this case, the young Marie Antoinette, was like. Despite that, Lasky details the Austrian’s court obsession with getting then-Antonia married to the Dauphin of France. Antonia’s voice is authentic, sounding exactly like a young girl would who’s getting married to someone she doesn’t know, who hates some of the formalities being thrust upon her, and who doesn’t really want to leave her family behind. Absent from all of her preparations is actual education, one of the factors cited in the historical notes as the reason why Marie Antoinette and her husband were so terrible at ruling. Instead, Antonia plays cards, rides horses, and complains about elaborate hairstyles, but never learns much about economics, politics, or the like. This continues even when she gets to Versailles, where time is taking up with detailing the ridiculous customs of the French elite, as well as Marie Antoinette’s feud with the King’s mistress. Lasky even briefly throws in a mention of Marie’s desire to live on a farm, foreshadowing, though not mentioned in the book at all, the hamlet she builds in the gardens of Versailles (which I’ve seen, and wow, it really puts into perspective Marie Antoinette’s views and her extravagance).

Also well described is the whole court scene of both Austria and France, and the ridiculousness of the French elite comes across clearly. Marie Antoinette is horrified by the lack of privacy at Versailles, and the splendor and decadence and underlying decay is shown very well. Done less well is, in general, the whole idea of Marie Antoinette as a spend-thrift, reveling in pretty things and clothes. She doesn’t really do much of that in the book, and Lasky spends most of her time just describing the political scene.

Marie Antoinette is an interesting book, and though it’s a bit long and doesn’t really establish very well the real character of the Queen as we know it in history, I think Lasky did an admirable job of communicating may other things, like royal life in France with its elaborate etiquette and extravagant styles, and the feelings a young girl might have from being transported from one country to another.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Aurora Rising, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, was published in 2019 by Knopf.

Rating: 3/5                                          

I really wasn’t planning on reading Kaufman and Kristoff’s next trilogy. I mean, I enjoyed Illuminae to an extent (until the trilogy got repetitive and annoying), but I wasn’t super interested in reading more of the same by these two authors.

But the cover art kept pulling me in. I am a sucker for cover art, and this one is gorgeous. Plus, the cover art for the sequel is also amazing, so I shrugged my shoulders and got the book.

I’m not a fan of the rotating viewpoints, and this book has 6 characters to consider, though at least one of them keeps it short and sweet. By far the most interesting is Aurora. The others are more or less boring. There’s Tyler, the leader, who’s apparently both super hot and super smart, according to all the characters; there’s Scarlett, his sister, who’s had a million boyfriends and we’re supposed to admire her for that and for her acceptance of blatant objectification, I guess; there’s Cat, the pilot, who’s got some past with Tyler and keeps referring to him as “her Alpha” because all the characters call each other creepy things like “my Ace,” “my Alpha,” etc. There’s Zila, who’s my second favorite because she’s the quietest; there’s Finian, Alien #1, who really creepily objectifies everyone, and then there’s Legolas/elf clone Kal, Alien #2, who is literally called Legolas by Aurora (because apparently Lord of the Rings survived in pop culture though to the twenty-second century, which is…actually plausible, I suppose) and has this really cliché soulmate bond with her.

The plot is pretty interesting, though it definitely recycles some of the things that Kaufman and Kristoff did in Illuminae, most notably the dangerous plague/hive mind that’s going to take over the world if not checked. This first book is mainly set-up and worldbuilding, establishing the characters and the world and what’s at stake. There’s no real explanation as to why Aurora suddenly has special powers, beyond “an ancient species gave them to her somehow” handwave, but we might see some more development in that area in other books.

Criticisms aside, I did legitimately enjoy about 75% of the book. I just had serious problems with character interactions, the characterization itself, and a lot of stuff that happened at the end, like the soulbond and the weird ending with the stream of consciousness writing. But, it was fun and fairly tricky and I’ll probably read the sequel.

Recommended Age Range: 15+

Warnings: Tons of objectification, sexual innuendos, violence.

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, by Jonathan Auxier, was published in 2011 by Amulet.

Rating: 3/5

My favorite part of Peter Nimble was the extremely clever and cheeky narration. Forget Peter, forget Peg, forget Sir Tode…the narrator was the real star of the show. From sly hints about big plot reveals to calm descriptions of otherwise strange and fantastic concepts, the narrator became a character in his own right. He revealed just enough to get the reader to say, “Oh, you sly dog,” but not enough that everything felt spoiled.

Other than that, the book as a whole was okay. The plot had an interesting concept and I enjoyed the world and characters. Auxier has the sort of humor that I like to see, since it elevates mediocre to better-than-average, which is precisely the case here. My one complaint was how much of the plot hinged on adults being incompetent and dumber than children, but at least Auxier kind of explains that in a decent way. But it’s clear he had a blast writing this book, and a lot of the side characters have very memorable voices, like Frederick the dogfish, and some of the detail and description were light and humorous as well.

I can’t say this book blew me away, but I appreciated the narrator, Auxier’s voice apart from that, and most of the characters. Though Peter was the hero, I felt the true stars of the show were the side characters. I can definitely see this book delighting younger readers—it’s non-stop fun with some cool magical concepts and a plucky young hero and his odd sidekick. What’s not to like about that?

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy