The Cardturner by Louis Sachar

The Cardturner, by Louis Sachar, was published in 2010 by Delacorte Press.

The summer after junior year of high school looks bleak for Alton Richards. His girlfriend has dumped him to hook up with his best friend. He has no money and no job. His parents insist that he drive his great-uncle Lester to his bridge club four times a week and be his cardturner—whatever that means. Alton’s uncle is old, blind, very sick, and very rich. But Alton’s parents aren’t the only ones trying to worm their way into Lester Trapp’s good graces. They’re in competition with his longtime housekeeper, his alluring young nurse, and the crazy Castaneda family, who seem to have a mysterious influence over him. Alton soon finds himself intrigued by his uncle, by the game of bridge, and especially by the pretty and shy Toni Castaneda. As the summer goes on, he struggles to figure out what it all means, and ultimately to figure out the meaning of his own life.

Rating: 4/5

The Cardturner is a story about bridge. That’s really the simplest way to put it. It’s a story about how to play bridge wrapped up in the story of a boy and his uncle. And Sachar manages to describe the complicated game in a perfect way, lessening its complexity, putting the rules into the voice of a teenager also learning to play bridge, and describing scenarios with helpful diagrams so that the reader knows, by the time Alton and Toni get to nationals, how important/amazing certain hands/rounds are.

I’ve read this book before, and it sucked me in for a reason I couldn’t—and still can’t—identify. I recently read Fuzzy Mud by Sachar, which was a disappointing read, and so going into this book I was a little worried that my memory of it would let me down. However, perhaps I just enjoy stories about beginners who start out with a sport or a game, not knowing how to play, and then, through practice and study, work their way up to the big leagues. Perhaps it’s the way Sachar explains the game, or the way he interweaves humor into its explanation, or the backstory given about Trapp. Whatever it is, I found The Cardturner compelling and, pun definitely intended, a page turner, exactly like I did the first time.

Now, that’s not to say there weren’t any parts I didn’t like. The entire conversation with Trapp and Alton about how ideas are the only thing that are alive was nonsensical, although I suppose Sachar did it so that he could include Alton and Toni hearing voices without going the psychological or supernatural route. Speaking of which, that part of the novel is a little hard to swallow, though it does make for a good read and emphasizes Alton’s grit and success in a way that would have been lacking without it. However, The Cardturner is best when it’s not philosophizing and sticks to describing bridge, a game I almost never play but definitely enjoy knowing more about, thanks to this book.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Some innuendo, mentions of domestic abuse.

Genre: Realistic, Young Adult

I learned what I was supposed to do if Trapp was dealt a hand with no cards in one suit. I’d say the word void. So when telling him his hand, I’d say something like “Spades: ten, nine, eight, seven, six. Hearts: king, queen, jack. Diamonds: void. Clubs: ace, nine, six, three, two.”

I also began to understand how the game was played. I learned what trump meant. I wouldn’t admit it to my uncle, but the game began to intrigue me. I would sometimes try to guess what card he’s play before he told me to play it, but don’t worry, I never asked, “Are you sure?”

Toni Castaneda must have been out of her mind.

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A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine

A Tale of Two Castles, by Gail Carson Levine, was published in 2011 by Harper.

Elodie journeys to the town of Two Castles to become a mansioner—an actress—but the master of the troupe turns her away. Brilliant dragon Meenore takes her in, then sends her on a dangerous mission within an ogre’s castle. There, disguised as a kitchen maid, she plays the role of a lifetime, pitted against a foe intent on murder. Black-and-white cats, a handsome cat trainer, a greedy king, a giddy princess, a shape-shifting ogre, a brilliant dragon…Elodie must discover which of them is kind, which is cruel, and, most of all which is the one who deserves her trust.

Rating: 4/5

A Tale of Two Castles is just the sort of simple fantasy I love—enough worldbuilding so that the reader understands what’s going on, a smart, compelling protagonist who isn’t particularly gutsy or strong but still accomplishes things, and humor. There’s also an obvious shout-out to “Puss in Boots” all throughout the novel, though I wouldn’t call this a retelling at all.

I also liked the correlation between logic and emotion, where Meenore, in the beginning, scorns feelings and relies only on “induction and deduction and logic” but towards the end of the novel clearly has become fond of Elodie and uses those feelings in making decisions along with her logic. Levine might have been trying to make the point that logic without feeling makes one cold or perhaps the natural progression of things simply makes it seem that she did it purposefully, but either way, there’s a good deal here to discuss regarding the relationship between logic and emotion.

The plot is also a fun little mystery, with too many suspects and not enough clues until everything clicks into place. And, mild spoiler here, the suspect is one that is the most unsuspicious of them all, at least in my opinion, which makes the ending reveal delightfully surprising. Levine did a great job with her red herrings and speculations, having enough to make it realistic but not enough to make it seem over-the-top and contrived.

A Tale of Two Castles is delightful, with an intriguing mystery, interesting and unique characters, and solid worldbuilding. It was much better than I initially thought it would be, and a pleasant, fun read after the messy fantasies I’ve read lately. I haven’t read any of Levine’s works since The Two Princesses of Bamarre, but I’m glad I picked this one up.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

The count approached IT. “Three skewers, if you please.”

What about everyone in line? That was no true If you please. Clearly an ogre did what he liked, no matter the inconvenience to small folk.

“It’s isn’t fair!” burst out of me.

The silence seemed to crystallize.

Enh enh enh, IT laughed, possibly in anticipation of seeing me squeezed to death in one enormous hand.

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The One True Love of Alice-Ann by Eva Marie Everson

Disclaimer: The One True Love of Alice-Ann, by Eva Marie Everson, was provided by Tyndale House. I received a free copy. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Living in rural Georgia in 1941, sixteen-year-old Alice-Ann has her heart set on her brother’s friend Mack; despite their five-year age gap, Alice-Ann knows she can make Mack see her for the woman she’ll become. But when they receive news of the attack on Pearl Harbor and Mack decides to enlist, Alice-Ann realizes she must declare her love before he leaves. Though promising to write, Mack leaves without confirmation that her love is returned. But Alice-Ann is determined to wear the wedding dress her maiden aunt never had a chance to wear—having lost her fiancé long ago. As their correspondence continues over the next three years, Mack and Alice-Ann are drawn closer together. But then Mack’s letters ease altogether, leaving Alice-Ann to fear the worst. Dreading the war will leave her with a beautiful dress and no happily ever after, Alice-Ann fills her days with work and caring for her best friend’s war-torn brother, Carlton. As time passes and their friendship develops in something more, Alice-Ann wonders if she’ll ever be prepared to say good-bye to her one true love and embrace the future God has in store with a newfound love. Or will a sudden call from overseas change everything?

My rating: 4/5

I tend to enjoy World War II-era novels, so I was looking forward to reading The One True Love of Alice-Ann. The author, Eva Marie Everson, is also the same person who wrote Five Brides, which I quite enjoyed. And, happily—this book was great.

Though Alice-Ann’s angst over who she really loves is not quite convincing enough—I knew long before she did whom she didn’t truly love—making a lot of the last third of the book a little tedious to read as she agonizes, I thought the overall message behind that was good and well-expressed. And even though the outcome is, perhaps, a little predictable, the focus is much more on Alice-Ann’s discovery of her feelings and the realizations she makes rather than on a “who is she going to pick?” love-triangle-esque romantic plot.

The biggest negative I had about the book is Alice-Ann is the type of protagonist who doesn’t think she’s beautiful and envies all the beautiful women around her. There are certainly people who think that, but it’s a little hard to read. I suppose it fits Alice-Ann as a sixteen-year-old, though, and her thoughts on this do die down a little as she grows up and realizes what’s most important. At least Everson didn’t play the “she doesn’t know she’s beautiful” card, which would have been irritating.

I really enjoyed The One True Love of Alice-Ann, which is full of charm, has a good romantic plot, and despite its predictability is still an engaging read because of Alice-Ann’s journey as she learns more about love as opposed to infatuation. The message behind the novel, “You can’t choose who you love but you can choose who you marry” is a good one to emphasize and overall was developed very nicely throughout the book. I would read more books by Everson.

(Please click here for a Q&A with the author)

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian

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1923 Newbery Medal: The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle by Hugh Lofting

I’m starting a new series/reading goal: reading every book awarded with the Newbery Medal! While I will not be sticking to straight chronology, I do plan to go as chronologically as possible. Each book I review will have [Year] Newbery Medal before the name in the title of the blog, and I will have a separate page just of the Newbery Medal books I review. I have read some Newbery Medals already, so I will add to their titles.

The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle, by Hugh Lofting, was first published in 1922. I read the Illustrated Junior Library version published in 1998.

Doctor Dolittle, the veterinarian who can actually talk to animals, sets sail on the high seas for new adventures with Polynesia the parrot, Jip the dog, Chee-Chee the monkey, and young Tommy Stubbins. Together they travel to Spidermonkey Island, brave a shipwreck, and meet the incredible Great Glass Sea Snail.

Rating: 4/5

Dr. Doolittle is a series that I read a lot when I was younger. For a story about a man who can talk to animals, it’s surprisingly mature and lacking in silliness. The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle is very much a seafaring adventure whose main character also happens to have the ability to speak to animals. The only thing lacking that would make this a standard adventure novel are pirates and buried treasure, and Lofting replaces those with a shipwreck, a battle, and politics, all of which make for sometimes funny, sometimes serious adventure that is much more mature in terms of language and plot than I remember it being.

Now, having been written in the 1920s, all the things you might expect an author from that time period to include that would be different from today are there. I definitely don’t think either Bumpo or the natives of Spidermonkey Island are portrayed in a negative light, but it would not surprise me at all if there was some essay or argument out there explaining perceived negative stereotypes. Bumpo is an intelligent African prince studying at Oxford, who does use language incorrectly but only for comic relief (although some people might have a problem with even that initial premise). As for the natives, Long Arrow, in particular, is described many times as a great naturalist and while the terminology to describe the natives are not terms we would use nowadays, I feel like Lofting dealt with them with a great deal of respect. Perhaps you disagree, and that’s okay.

The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle is technically the second Dr. Doolittle book, but it is absolutely not necessary to have read the first. It’s a fun little adventure about a naturalist who can talk to animals and his adventures with his assistant, his friend, and the animals who accompany him (Polynesia is the best). It also says some good things about duty and responsibility, curiosity, and helping others. It brought back a lot of fond memories for me and was an auspicious start to my Newbery Medal reads!

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Includes what some people today would probably deem “cultural insensitivity” at least.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Children’s

“From what the purple bird-of-paradise tells me, Long Arrow’s knowledge of natural history must be positively tremendous. His specialty is botany—plants and all that sort of thing. But he knows a lot about birds and animals too. He’s very good on bees and beetles. But now tell me, Stubbins, are you quite sure that you really want to be a naturalist?”

“Yes,” said I, “my mind is made up.”

“Well you know, it isn’t a very good profession for making money. Not at all, it isn’t. Most of the good naturalists don’t make any money whatever. All they do is spend money, buying butterfly nets and cases for birds’ eggs and things. It is only now, after I have been a naturalist for many years, that I am beginning to make a little money from the books I write.”

“I don’t care about money,” I said. “I want to be a naturalist.”

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Rose & Thorn by Sarah Prineas

Rose & Thorn, by Sarah Prineas, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster. It is the sequel to Ash & Bramble.

After the spell protecting her is destroyed, Rose seeks safety in the world outside the valley she had called home. She’s been kept hidden all her life to delay the three curses she was born with—curses that will put her into her own fairy tale and a century-long slumber. Accompanied by the handsome and mysterious Watcher, Griff, and his witty and warmhearted partner, Quirk, Rose tries to escape from the ties that bind her to her story. But will the path they take lead them to freedom, or will it bring them straight into the fairy tale they are trying to avoid?

Rating: 4/5

Rose & Thorn is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, though perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a reimaging. Rose & Thorn is a sequel of sorts to Ash & Bramble, which set up the idea of Story forcing people to fulfill fairy tales over and over. So, the main goal of the characters is to not have the original fairy tale happen, so things go a little differently than one might expect (although saying that may be spoilery, but oh well).

It’s a beautiful retelling of Sleeping Beauty, a fairy tale I don’t actually much like, and there’s loads of originality throughout. Rose is a great protagonist, the type of female protagonist I like. She’s not all gung-ho, “I can do everything cool and awesome” warrior-esque, which can get so tiring and boring. She’s much quieter and understated, which I prefer.

The romance was a little boring, but I find most romances boring in YA since it’s so clearly designed to appeal to teenagers. Griff as a character, at least, was interesting, although I thought the ending was a little rushed—it was believable, but definitely could have been more so in terms of his change.

The main problem of Rose & Thorn, and of Prineas’s fairytale retellings in general, is the concept of Story as this malevolent force that constrains people to its will somehow (through a Godmother, but then at the end it’s revealed it can act on its own, so why does it need a Godmother?) and forces them into fairy tales over and over. But not all stories are Story, only some—if they’re “your own stories,” whatever that is (seemingly the one you want). What if the story you want is the same one that Story wants? Anyway, it’s a little hard to swallow and several times it seems a little forced in the story, as if Prineas also realizes that an idea like Story is hard to convey or accept as realistic.

However, despite the problems of its underlying concept, Rose & Thorn is an imaginative, fresh retelling of Sleeping Beauty with memorable characters (even if you haven’t read Ash & Bramble) and an interesting protagonist, and carries enough appeal to make me want to keep reading Prineas’s fairy tale retellings.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Young Adult

“Ohhhh,” I breathed. This was the Forest. It had offered the clearing as a baited trap, I realized, and it had reached out to take me as I slept. Merry had told me that the Forest was evil, and maybe I should’ve been frightened, but I suddenly felt excited. Ready to go where the Forest led me.

It was, I realized, my story beginning. “Once upon a time…,” I whispered to myself.

I ate a quick bite of breakfast, rebraided my hair, washed my face in the stream—which hadn’t disappeared, like the road—put on my cloak, slung my knapsack over my shoulders, and, ready to start, turned in a slow circle, looking for a way through the trees.

“Once upon a time,” I repeated, “there was a girl who was searching for a path through an enchanted forest.”

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Mischief in Fez by Eleanor Hoffmann

Mischief in Fez, by Eleanor Hoffmann, was first published in 1943.

Until Mousa’s father, the judge, brought a stepmother home to their palace in Fez, Mousa had always been very happy. But no sooner did Fatma arrive than trouble began. Such trouble! The beautiful fountain became clogged with date stones, thrown there by someone. The oranges disappeared from the judge’s favorite orange tree—not to mention ever so many other upsetting things, most of which were blamed on poor Mousa. Mousa felt sure that Allak, Fatma’s disagreeable gazelle, had a great deal to do with this mysterious mischief. But he never would have solved the riddle without Baha, the little desert fox, or without the magic the Toubib gave him.

Rating: 4/5

Mischief in Fez is a story I read over and over again as a child. It was featured in one of the many anthologies of children’s literature my parents had. I’ve always remembered the story, but until recently, I couldn’t remember the name—until I did a quick Google search. Then, to my delight, my library carried it. I was all set to delve once more into a beloved childhood story.

Mischief in Fez may be short, but it’s full of myth and culture in a way that I don’t feel is haphazard or disrespectful at all. It’s almost reverent, in a way, of Middle Eastern beliefs, and it reads as if Hoffman actually spent some time in the area. Perhaps other people feel differently, but I feel as if Mischief in Fez is an accurate, if a small representative sample, of Middle Eastern culture. And to be honest, that’s not seen a lot today—for various reasons.

The story/novella is quite short, so there’s not much else I feel I can say about it besides the story is good: suitably tense in places and delightfully heartwarming in others. What I remembered most is the little fennec, Baha, and he is definitely the star of the show, even more so than Mousa, who I scarcely remembered at all.

Mischief in Fez is a perfect read-aloud or read-along book for children, with plenty to discuss about myth, certain aspects of Middle Eastern culture, and, most importantly, the drive to defeat evil. It’s a fond memory of my childhood, one I’m glad I decided to return to.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

Only the bride herself remained aloof and indifferent to the new mischiefs that seemed to be occurring each day. As she passed from room to room, her beauty made all her servants forget the grave looks of the master. And Allak, the gazelle, as he frisked about the court, cheered them with something alive and graceful to look at, for, like Mousa, they missed the doves.

But Mousa, to his surprise, found no pleasure in watching his stepmother’s gazelle. In all his life this was the first animal that he had not loved,–perhaps because he had been so sharply forbidden to touch him, perhaps because of the disdainful twitching of his nostrils, the hostile glowering of his eyes. Was it possible, he wondered, that Allak had stolen and devoured the oranges?

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The Siege of Macindaw by John Flanagan

The Siege of Macindaw, by John Flanagan, was published in 2006 by Philomel. It is the sequel to The Sorcerer of the North.

The kingdom is in danger. Renegade knight Sir Keren has succeeded in overtaking Castle Macindaw and now is conspiring with the Scotti. The fate of Araluen rests in the hands of two young adventurers: the Ranger Will and his warrior friend, Horace. Yet for Will, the stakes are even higher. For inside Castle Macindaw, held hostage, is someone he loves. For this onetime apprentice, the time to grow up is now.

Rating: 4/5

Flanagan manages to continue to be inventive and new with every book he writes, even if the formula is predictable. This is something that Brian Jacques failed to do in his Redwall series, with each progressive book becoming more and more tedious, but Flanagan manages to avoid this entirely and makes each book fresh and fun.

The Siege of Macindaw isn’t quite as good as I thought The Battle for Skandia was, but I still enjoyed it immensely. Will has several moments of “I’m going to DIE” realizations, which is nice because up until now our Plucky Heroes have seemed nearly invincible. Luck (and Horace) help him out a lot, but still, it’s nice to see a protagonist miscalculate at times, especially when he’s known for his usually good strategy. In fact, the entire “the characters will never die” trope that Flanagan continuously exhibits, probably the weakest point of the series, made it so that I was shocked when the details about the last book in the series were revealed (which I’ve actually never read). But that’s a different conversation for a different time.

The added romance was done pretty well and wasn’t cheesy at all—and Horace poking fun at Will for the “I think this way and don’t realize you think the same way so it’s really awkward all the time” tension is a great tongue-in-cheek moment. The romance also makes a lot of sense, in that the characters are growing up and are starting to think more and more about things like love.

What can I say that I haven’t already said about Ranger’s Apprentice? I love this series to death, and The Siege of Macindaw is another great installment of a series that is continuously fresh and fun with every book.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Horace shrugged. “No matter. I’m sure we can manage. So, how many, exactly?”

“You mean, counting you and me?” Will asked.

… “Yes. I think we’d better count you and me. How many?”

… “Counting you and me, twenty-seven.”

“Twenty-seven,” Horace repeated, his tone devoid of any expression.

“But they’re Skandians, after all,” Will said hopefully.

His friend look at him, one eyebrow raised in disbelief. “They’d better be,” he said heavily.

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Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson

Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson was published in 2012 by Shadow Mountain.

Marianne Daventry will do anything to escape the boredom of Bath and the amorous attentions of an unwanted suitor. So when an invitation arrives from her twin sister, Cecily, to join her at a sprawling country estate, she jumps at the chance. Thinking she’ll be able to relax and enjoy her beloved English countryside while her sister snags the handsome heir of Edenbrooke, Marianne finds that even the best laid plans can go awry. From a terrifying run-in with a highwayman to a seemingly harmless flirtation, Marianne finds herself embroiled in an unexpected adventure filled with enough romance and intrigue to keep her mind racing. Will Marianne be able to rein in her traitorous heart, or will a mysterious stranger sweep her off her feet? Fate had something other than a relaxing summer in mind when it sent Marianne to Edenbrooke.

Rating: 4/5

You would think, with Blackmoore being so enjoyably bad, that I would avoid more books by the author. There’s only so much enjoyable nonsense I can take, after all. However, something compelled me to pick up another book by Donaldson (maybe because I saw that my library carried it). And, I must confess, I ate up Edenbrooke and its angsty romance even more than I love-hated Blackmoore.

Plain and simple, I enjoy romances like Edenbrooke’s. I delight in the angsty “I love him but he couldn’t possibly love me” type of self-denial that’s found in this book. I mean, it does tend to make the heroine seem a little dense at times, but there’s something about this particular romantic archetype that I enjoy every time I encounter it. And it doesn’t matter how poor the rest of the book is—I would read it simply because of that one element.

To be honest, though, Edenbrooke really isn’t all that bad. It was actually much better than I was expecting, and it lacked a lot of the contrivance that Blackmoore had, though there were some random parts that stretched the bounds of believability a little. I highly enjoyed every minute of it—I even teared up a time or two. It’s certainly not classic literature, but it’s far from the sort of trashy romance novel you’d be embarrassed to be seen reading. Edenbrooke was good enough that I might keep my eye on Donaldson to see what else she has up her sleeve.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction

I lifted my chin, feigning dignity. “I was hiding so that I would not be seen wet and muddy.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You were wet and muddy? Before you fell in the river?”

I cleared my throat. “I fell in twice.”

He pressed his lips together and looked off in the distance, as if trying to regain his composure. When he looked at me again, his eyes were brimming with laughter. “And may I ask how you came to fall in the river the first time?”

My face burned as I realized how silly I had been, how childish and inelegant. Of course, he already knew those things about me from my actions at the inn last night. Singing that song! Laughing, and then crying! And now falling into a river! I had never been more aware of my faults than I was at that moment.

“I was, er, twirling,” I said.

His lips twitched. “I cannot imagine it. You must demonstrate for me.”

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The Battle for Skandia by John Flanagan

The Battle for Skandia, by John Flanagan, was published in 2006 by Philomel. It is the sequel to The Icebound Land.

For Will and Evanlyn, freedom has never felt so fleeting. Still far from their homeland after escaping slavery in the icebound land of Skandia, the Ranger’s apprentice and the princess’s plan to return to Araluen are spoiled when Evanlyn is taken captive by a Temujai warrior. Though still weakened by warmweed’s toxic effects, Will employs his Ranger training to locate his friend, but an enemy scouting party has him fatally outnumbered. Will is certain death is close at hand until old friends make a daring, last-minute rescue. The reunion is cut short, however, when they make a horrifying discovery: Skandia’s borders have been breached by the entire Temujai army. And Araluen is next in their sights. If two kingdoms are to be saved, the unlikeliest of unions must be made. Will it hold long enough to vanquish a ruthless new enemy? Or will past tensions spell doom for all?

Rating: 4/5

The Battle for Skandia might be one of my favorite Ranger’s Apprentice books. Part of the reason might be because it comes right after the disappointing, unresolved The Icebound Land and is so action-packed that it makes up for that slow pace. Or maybe it’s just because The Battle for Skandia is a thrilling read. I never knew I could be so gripped by descriptions of a battle.

I think one thing I like about Flanagan is that he writes battle scenes well. They’re descriptive, but he doesn’t use so many terms that someone unfamiliar with weapons or fighting would be lost. They’re also not so descriptive as to be tedious or read like an action movie script. He explains the mechanics and strategy well enough that the reader is swept up in the action rather than confused by everything going on. It reminds me a little bit of how Brian Jacques wrote his fighting scenes in the Redwall series, but Flanagan does it better.

The humor is still on point and Flanagan does a good job of balancing the tense fighting with light humor scattered throughout. I also appreciate how he makes the characters interesting and fresh, and gives the ones that appear less often memorable and distinctive traits so that when they do show up again they are remembered through what they do and say.

The Ranger’s Apprentice series might not be for everyone, but for me, The Battle for Skandia is a testament to what I love about the series: great action, humor, and interesting characters. It more than makes up for the disappointing book that comes before and makes me excited to read more.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“What ‘what’ are you asking me?” he said. Then, thinking how to make his question clearer, he added, “Or to put it another way, why are you asking ‘what’?”

Controlling himself with enormous restraint, and making no secret of the fact, Halt said, very precisely: “You were about to ask a question.”

Horace frowned. “I was?”

Halt nodded. “You were. I saw you take a breath to ask it.”

“I see,” said Horace. “And what was it about?”

For just a second or two, Halt was speechless. He opened his mouth, closed it again, then finally found the strength to speak.

“That is what I was asking you,” he said. “When I said ‘what,’ I was asking you what you were about to ask me.”

“I wasn’t about to ask you ‘what,’” Horace replied, and Halt glared at him suspiciously.…

“Then what, if I may use that word once more, were you about to ask me?”

Horace drew breath once more, then hesitated. “I forget,” he said. “What were we talking about?”

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Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Crooked Kingdom, by Leigh Bardugo, was published in 2016 by Henry Holt. It is the sequel to Six of Crows.

Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend to Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets—a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.

Rating: 4/5

I went into Crooked Kingdom knowing something big happens at the end, since people were screaming in Goodreads reviews about it, and I also had a fairly good idea about what that something bad would be. But before we talk about that, let me talk about my overall thoughts of the book.

I was pretty impressed with Bardugo in the Grisha trilogy, but she has clearly improved since then. Her writing is better, the plot is better, the characterization is hugely improved (except for one character, but I’ll get to that) and I thoroughly enjoyed this duology. Ruin and Rising let me down in the end, but Crooked Kingdom did not. My favorite moment of this book was the unexpected, small plot reveal made right at the end of the book, where I said “What?” out loud and then giggled in delight. I love authors who can so deftly weave a complex plot right under your nose and leave things hidden until the very end.

That being said, let’s move on to that Something Big that devastated most everyone who read the book—at least according to Goodreads. To be honest, I don’t know if the knowledge that something was going to happen ruined the moment for me, or if I would have felt as ambivalent about it even without knowing. And now I’m going to mention spoilers, so beware.

*SPOILERS BELOW*

Frankly, Matthias’s death didn’t affect me all that much because Matthias was probably my least favorite character. He was probably the blandest, most boring character of the bunch—and I know that’s an unpopular opinion, but as I said about the first book, Nina/Matthias was never my cup of tea.

Also, looking back, his death was incredibly telegraphed—there’s only so much “we’re going to be awesome and I’m going to change the minds of my people and everything will be roses and daisies” talk that can happen before you start thinking “this person is totally not going to fulfill this, probably because he’s going to die.” And Matthias also made the most sense as to which character would die; Kaz and Inej are too important and Bardugo probably would never dare to kill off either Jesper or Wylan, so it made sense that either Nina or Matthias would die. And since Nina gets a new power to struggle over, that left Matthias.  So, I’m inclined to think his death would not have surprised me even if I hadn’t been spoiled.

Bland Matthias aside, I really did enjoy Crooked Kingdom. It wasn’t quite as heist-centric as Six of Crows, but there was still a great capers plot and enough compelling and surprising twists to satisfy and surprise until the very end. Bardugo has definitely improved since the Grisha trilogy, and I would have to say that this duology is the stronger of the two series.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Homosexuality, violence, mentions of drugs and prostitution, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

“This is good for us,” said Kaz. “The Shu and the Fjerdans don’t know where to start looking for Kuwei, and all those diplos making trouble at the Stadhall are going to create some nice noise to distract Van Eck.”

“What happened at Smeet’s office?” Nina asked. “Did you find out where Van Eck is keeping her?”

“I have a pretty good idea. We strike tomorrow at midnight.”

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