The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

The Only Road, by Alexandra Diaz, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 4/5

The Only Road was much less preachy and heavy-handed than I thought it would be Instead, Diaz tells a compelling story of two children fleeing their town in Guatemala after being targeted by the local gang. Their destination is, of course, the United States, where Jaime’s brother lives. They must travel through the security-heavy borders of Mexico and the US, hide from gangs and immigration officers, and try not to lose each other.

Diaz gives a chilling picture of what it is like to travel through Mexico in secret. Apparently, Mexico is not very fond of other Central or South American countries, and of course the US heavily patrols its borders, so Jaime and Angela must fake their way through a bus ride, almost die in a closed boxcar of a train, scrape up enough money to pay a coyote to take them across the Rio Grande, and then safely contact Jaime’s brother. And Diaz communicated all of this without ramming her ideas of immigration down the reader’s throat. Instead, she uses the story to paint the picture, a much subtler approach that I appreciate.

The only thing I struggled with in the book was the appearance and disappearance of Jaime and Angela’s traveling companions, as well as the abrupt, almost-too-happy ending. I do understand that it’s likely that traveling companions will leave, eventually, but it seems to go against the book a bit—though of course Diaz is perhaps just emphasizing the separation of friends at certain points. The ending, too, is almost too happy, where Jaime, Angela, and Tomas drive off into the sunrise and nothing else is offered regarding Jaime’s and Angela’s status as illegal immigrants. Perhaps it’s because this book is for children that Diaz decided to end it as she did.

The Only Road pleasantly surprised me, and overall, despite a few wobbles, it offers a compelling story about the reasons someone might flee their home and head for a better life in a new country. It also shows lots about Central American and South American culture, such as Mexico’s heavy security in regards to immigration and the people’s dislike of outsiders. It was interesting to read about, and I appreciated it that Diaz went for subtlety rather than outspokenness.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence, death, disturbing images

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2tmwAkI

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The Tenth Power by Kate Constable

The Tenth Power, by Kate Constable, was published in 2005 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Waterless Sea.

Rating: 4/5

It’s always bittersweet to read the ending to books you’ve enjoyed. There’s happiness with the characters and where they are (hopefully), there’s sadness that the series is over, there’s lingering feelings of shock and tension from the plot. And, for me, there’s sometimes also a feeling of disgruntlement that the ending isn’t as perfect as it “could have been,” a vague sense that the book let me down somehow.

I got that feeling a little bit with The Tenth Power. Don’t get me wrong—I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was literally all I could think about during work for two whole days. I had to drag myself away from it in the morning. Constable’s enchanting prose, Calwyn’s struggles and triumphs, her relationship with Darrow, the twists and turns of the plot—all of these things worked together to create a great finish, one that’s satisfying and beautiful (if not bittersweet). The way this trilogy gripped me is still surprising to me. I don’t get entranced by books very often. The most recent ones I can think of are The Queen’s Thief books, which hold a different sort of enchantment to them.  Yet something about Constable’s prose, the world, and especially the characters grabbed me from the get-go.

Maybe it’s because Calwyn is such a fallible protagonist. She makes plenty of mistakes in this book. She gets angry and arrogant, and there’s a part in the middle of the book where things get almost too crazy and there’s a bewitching atmosphere to everything that happens, and despite all her power and all she accomplishes, Calwyn still reads as totally human. And I’m glad of that because the middle-to-last third of the book is so strange that without Calwyn as an anchor, I probably would have been much more dissatisfied.

The book isn’t perfect. There’s that science-fiction-y, ships-from-space bit that doesn’t quite fit in the world. There are several character revelations that don’t fit well, either, but they at least work better than what happens with Calwyn and Samis (seriously…what was that?). But I loved the idea of the Tenth Power (words! And then it hits you that no one has read or written anything in the entire series), and Calwyn and Darrow are still my favorite. Bobbles aside, I haven’t enjoyed a trilogy as much as I enjoyed Constable’s in a long time.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2tgXxqa

The Seamstress by Allison Pittman

Disclaimer: The Seamstress, by Allison Pittman, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

My rating: 4/5 

The Seamstress was inspired by the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, where a seamstress meets up with That Guy (to avoid spoilers) and talks to him briefly before they are both beheaded. The Seamstress is basically the story of that seamstress, detailing her life and circumstances leading up to and during the French Revolution.

Pittman says she spoils about 50% of A Tale of Two Cities, but I didn’t see it. Of  course, I read Dickens’ novel in high school, so my memory of the book is not great. The Seamstress is much more like a historical fiction set during the French Revolution than a spin-off of A Tale of Two Cities, and, in fact, the ending of the novel, where Pittman most clearly references TTC, is the weakest, as Pittman clearly borrowed dialogue from Dickens’ novel, where it stands out like a sore thumb because Pittman doesn’t write like Dickens.

To be honest, I thought the story about the seamstress, Renee, was the weakest of the novel. The story involving Renee’s cousin, Laurette, was the best part. That was a story laden with forgiveness and grace, of a young woman’s desperate attempts to find love and the way she feels when those attempts give her nothing but emptiness and shame. I normally don’t like perfect men, but Gagnon is exactly the character he needed to be to temper Laurette’s wildness. Laurette’s story is the reason I gave this book such a high rating—and Renee’s story is the reason why it didn’t get higher.

Pittman utilizes the dreaded “first-person, third-person” switch: Renee’s story is in 1st person, and Laurette’s in 3rd. I see no reason why it had to be that way, and it’s jarring and frustrating to keep switching back and forth. And compared to Laurette’s beautiful story, Renee’s is timid and historically thin (Pittman admits she painted an idealistic portrait of Marie Antoinette); Renee herself is given paper-thin motivations for her actions and most of the time is simply a passive observer to what’s happening around her. And the reason Pittman gives for her arrest leading up to her death sentence is laughably unrealistic—plot convenience shines throughout that particular portion.

Yet, the power of the setting and Laurette’s story manage to offset and overshadow many of the flaws of Renee’s story, giving a lush, detailed look at the French countryside and the path leading to the French Revolution. The stark contrast between Renee’s life at court and Laurette’s life in the country helps paint the strong divide between rich and poor that was the catalyst in the Revolution’s start. And Renee’s arrest, imprisonment, and execution helps show the bloodthirsty rage that fueled the Revolution and kept the guillotine dropping.

It’s definitely not perfect, but Laurette’s story alone makes The Seamstress worth a read.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2SznyiA

The Waterless Sea by Kate Constable

The Waterless Sea, by Kate Constable, was published in 2003 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Singer of All Songs.

Rating: 4/5

The Waterless Sea continues the story of Calwyn and her friends after defeating Samis in his quest to learn all ten chantments. Now, Calwyn and Co. are on a quest to rescue two children from a country that enslaves chanters and uses them to keep the crumbling empire together. And that’s the part that’s probably the weakest part of the book: the motivation behind the quest. Oh, it’s established and explained at the beginning, but even knowing everything going on and knowing the characters, it seems a little thin that they would travel around the world simply for two children, when there are likely plenty of other children in other areas in similar plights that they haven’t bothered to go and rescue.

Motivation aside, Constable builds another great fantasy with the gloomy, dying country of Merithuros. Perhaps what brings the characters there is a hard sell (at least, for me it was), but once there, the unfolding of events is seamless. Constable’s prose is as haunting and beautiful as ever, and Calwyn continues to shine as the protagonist. Plus, I enjoy that her relationship with Darrow doesn’t stand in her way. Darrow gets his own bit of story in this novel, not really enough to establish more than background, but it at least fleshes him out a little bit and makes him less mysterious.

And the ending—well, I certainly wasn’t expecting it. That is, I was expecting some of what happened, but not the bittersweet note. And it makes me even more eager for the third book, to see what happens next for Calwyn. I haven’t felt this way about a fantasy series since I read Juliet Marillier’s books, and I love that middle grade fantasy books can still make me feel this way—excited, enthralled, and eager!

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2sG6usw

The Truth-Teller’s Tale by Sharon Shinn

The Truth-Teller’s Tale, by Sharon Shinn, was published in 2005 by Viking. It is the sequel to The Safe-Keeper’s Secret.

Rating: 4/5

The more I read 2000s fantasy, the more I become convinced that the YA and middle grade fantasy of that decade was particularly strong. Or maybe it’s just the authors I’m reading were particularly strong. Whatever the case, Sharon Shinn delivers another delightful tale in The Truth-Teller’s Tale.

Now, I read The Safe-Keeper’s Secret a very long time ago—at least a couple of years. I loved it, if I recall, and Shinn immediately jumped to the top of the “authors I must read more of” list. However, it took me a while to get this book, though I’m not sure why. I think I simply forgot about it. Once it arrived back on my radar, I didn’t hesitate in picking it up.

I love the magic of the world Shinn has built—the magic of the Safe-Keepers, the Truth-Tellers, and the Dream-Makers. The Truth-Teller concept is especially intriguing—and, luckily, that’s what we get to experience the most in this book (as you might expect from the title). I’m not sure if Shinn is trying to say that all Truth-Tellers are blunt, or if Eleda’s personality simply makes her an exceptional Truth-Teller, but the development and the results that come about because of Eleda being a Truth-Teller were some of my favorite bits of magic in the book. And I like that it’s subtle magic—less flashy and more ingrained in the character.

As much as I enjoyed the book, especially the ending once Things Started Happening (despite the rather obvious reveals), the beginning and middle parts were fairly slow. I understand that the book is very concerned with developing the characters, but I wish there hadn’t been quite so much time spent on “let’s watch the characters grow up before getting to the part the book summary talks about.” By the time Part Two rolled around, I was getting just a bit exasperated with the slow pace of the book. Of course, Part Two almost immediately made me forget about Part One’s slow pace.

It’s books like The Truth-Teller’s Tale, with its sweet romance, interesting magic, compelling characters, and a plot that if easily guessable is at least interesting, that make me love the fantasy genre. Shinn has cemented herself as an author who I want to read more of, so you can expect to see more of her works on my blog.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Mentions of rape, domestic violence.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2szObVZ

The Dalemark Quartet, Volume I by Diana Wynne Jones

The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 1: Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet, by Diana Wynne Jones, was published in 2005 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 4/5

I haven’t read Diana Wynne Jones in such a long time, and this book has been sitting on my TBR (“to be read”) pile for quite literally years. I’ve read the Dalemark books before, so I was familiar with the story, but it was so great to experience Jones and her writing and her worlds again.

Cart and Cwidder tells the story of Moril, who has to help escort a mysterious young boy to the North. Along the way, they stumble into the path of an army and have to prevent an invasion. The basics of Dalemark are established in this book: the North and the South have been in conflict for years. The South is much less free than the North. Moril inherits a cwidder (I’m guessing like a lute) from his father, which was the cwidder of a famous hero of old, and he discovers that it’s magical. In terms of tropes, everything is very familiar, but Jones weaves everything together in her trademark way and makes things interesting. I also liked the way Moril figured out how the cwidder works: you have to sing things that are truth, not opinion. I think that’s a good message that emphasizes the different between opinion and truth. Moril is a bit of a dull character, though, since he doesn’t get a lot of development.

Drowned Ammet I thought was much better story-wise than Cart and Cwidder, and there was much better development as well. I wrote an essay in college about true names in fantasy, and I used this book as an example. The book takes place near about the same time as Cart and Cwidder, though the bulk of it takes place after the events of the latter. I found this one much more interesting, since Mitt was a more interesting character and I liked the mechanics of the magic better in this one. I’ve also always enjoyed the big reveal at the end.

Hopefully the next two books in the quartet won’t take me years to get to! I think Drowned Ammet has always been my favorite, but if I remember correctly, the last two books bring in a Big Bad Villain that ties everything together.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Assassination attempts, hints at violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2M4fvoh

The Singer of All Songs by Kate Constable

The Singer of All Songs, by Kate Constable, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

I have an unwavering soft spot for fantasies like The Singer of All Songs. It reminded me of Juliet Marillier’s The Caller trilogy a little bit, which I loved. This book has beautiful writing, good worldbuilding, interesting magic, a female protagonist who’s strong without being rebellious or good at fighting, and a really sweet undercurrent of romance.

Maybe the explanation is that I just really like fantasies written in the 2000s. Some of the more annoying tropes hadn’t crept their way into books yet. Calwyn doesn’t do a lot of fighting, nor does she rebel against tradition. She’s understated, but still subtly strong. She’s sweet, but fierce; peaceful, but unyielding; determined, but not brash. She makes bad decisions occasionally, but it makes her feel more human. And I’m impressed that Constable went in a different direction with her than I thought would be the case.

Second to my love for Calwyn is my love for Calwyn and Darrow. Like Marillier’s The Caller, the romance is subtle, complicated, and sweet. I adore romances like this one. And even though it doesn’t end as satisfactorily or as resolvedly as I might like, there’s still the promise of the sequels. Darrow himself is just a tiny bit bland, but it’s his background and interactions with the villain, Samis, that are the most interesting (which is a bit of pity, since I like the romance so much). And he remains mysterious right to the end.

The Singer of All Songs is the sort of fantasy that I look for and long for. Absent of any sort of cultural relation or tired trope, there’s only beautiful writing, interesting magic, and a plot that is made more intriguing by the strength of the characters. The book isn’t perfect—but it’s close.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2GJe7bz

Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

Death Sworn, by Leah Cypess, was published in 2014 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 4/5

I really wasn’t expecting to like Death Sworn as much as I did. In fact, about halfway through I lamented about how the entire plot was basically an unimaginative romance thinly veiled as something actually interesting. But then, something happened towards the end of the book—I became irrevocably hooked.

Death Sworn is full of political intrigue, though you aren’t necessarily able to tell at first glance. Cypess is doing some pretty shallow worldbuilding: all important details are given through conversation or casual asides and thoughts. Since Ileni never leaves the cave, that’s the whole world the reader knows, so the rest of it is pretty flimsy. Yet, somehow, Cypess manages to sell some parts of it, enough for the reader to actually care. Looking back, I can see how thin the worldbuilding is, but in the moment, I didn’t notice. That “in the moment” matters a lot.

The plot itself is part murder mystery, part romance. Well, mostly romance, and a pretty basic, obvious one at that. I’ve never liked the “girl falls in love with dangerous boy” romances, and I’ve also never liked the “boy falls in love with the only girl around” romances. So, since this romance is made up of both of those traits, I pretty much thought that part of the book was pretty boring. However, the parts of the plot that are murder mystery are pretty superb and interesting. I wish Cypess had done more worldbuilding so that I was more aware of all the different details going on, and so that things felt more connected to me as the reader, but despite that, the explosion of plot at the end really hooked me, so much so that I immediately went out to get the second book.

And, despite the unoriginal aspect of the romance, it didn’t end how I thought it would—though, looking back at it, it ends pretty unoriginally as well. But again, in the moment, Cypess exceeded my expectations, and that’s important.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2S9UlqW

2012 Newbery Medal: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, was published in 2011 by Farrar Straus Giroux.

Rating: 4/5

Dead End in Norvelt is a really quaint story about a boy growing up in a dying town that was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt. While many of the townspeople are convinced that it’s time to move on from the town, Jack, through his friendship with the town historian/medical examiner, learns about the history surrounding the town and its inhabitants.

The book is funny, from Jack’s attempts to stay on the good side of his parents, to his nose bleeding at the slightest provocation, to the strange Miss Volker who lives next door and has to put her hands in wax constantly. The history is great, too, from the “This Day in History” to the obituaries to Jack’s books to his thoughts on events. It’s part historical, part humor, even part murder mystery.

It’s a small-town narrative, but one with a great deal of character and charm. And, apparently, it’s based off of a true story—Jack Gantos is the author, as well as the name of the main character. Maybe that’s why this book is so vibrant and full of life. It’s a great story, and I especially loved the history bits, the obituaries, and Jack’s internal monologues. And it’s interesting how a book that’s so full of death can be as entertaining as it is. “Gothic comedy” is the way one person put it on one of those promotional quotes on the back of the book, and that’s a good way to describe Dead End in Norvelt.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LfonqJ

2009 Newbery Medal: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, was published in 2008 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 4/5

I’m not sure why it took me so long to read The Graveyard Book. I’ve read a bit of Neil Gaiman and like him, though not as much as I like other fantasy writers. The book was delightful; I loved how each chapter told a different story in the life of Bod, and I loved the rich world of the graveyard, with its ghosts, ghouls, and the not-living, but not-dead Silas. Most of all I loved Bod, who went from a young boy struggling to understand and use his powers, to a quiet, confident young man who suffers from a lot of heartache, but still manages to move forward.

I’m perhaps most displeased with what happens to Scarlett, though I suppose what happens with her fit the story. A quiet part of me, probably the romantic part of me, wanted a different ending, but the ending with Bod striking out on his own to see the world is quite fitting.

The villain, Jack, starts out being mysterious and foreboding, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about his appearance at the end of the book. What happens to him is something I guessed almost from the beginning, but there were other revelations that had me scratching my head a little. In addition, the incentive for killing Bod’s family seemed thin, though I suppose, with the way Gaiman built the world, it made sense.

I enjoyed The Graveyard Book, with its lengthy, story-building chapters, rich ghost world, and likeable protagonist. I’m not sure if it compelled me enough to pick up some of Gaiman’s other works for children, but I know now where I can turn if I want a good fantasy.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Supernatural

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2KHhA8U