The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf by Gerald Morris

The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf, by Gerald Morris, was published in 2000 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Squire, His Knight, & His Lady.

Rating: 4/5

I am enjoying this series more and more with each book that I read. At first I wasn’t sure if Morris was trying to play Arthurian legend straight or be cheeky and humorous. Now, I think I’ve finally got a grasp of his tone, which is…both, really. It’s clear he loves Arthur, but it’s also clear he’s trying to make things enjoyable for his audience, especially those who may not be as familiar with Arthurian legend. The best thing is that all of these books are based off of real stories (usually Malory), explained by Morris in an author’s note at the end.

I don’t know the exact tale that Morris based this story off of, but the novel itself was delightful. There’s a fierce, yet still ladylike protagonist, a witty dwarf, a bumbling knight, and lots and lots of adventure. Plus, Terence makes a few appearances (and is responsible for maneuvering the characters into the places they’re supposed to be).

I figured out a majority of the plot twists before they were revealed, but I think Morris wasn’t as concerned with keeping things secret as he was with making sure his story was enjoyable. Perhaps the fact that I didn’t recognize the source material meant that I was able to simply enjoy this book as a story, not as an adaptation. Arthurian legend has never been my favorite, so I love that Morris has managed to make it palatable for me.

Romance played a central role in this book, much more so than the others, Perhaps because it’s the focal point of many medieval stories. Lynet is torn between the noble knight Beaumains and the sarcastic, gruff dwarf Roger, but it’s not nearly as love-triangle-y as I’m making it sound. It’s actually a very sweet, if predictable, romance.

The more I read these books, the more I want to read. That’s great praise for a series centered around one of my least favorite topics to read about, but Morris has a great way of making everything fun and interesting—and for filling in the gaps of Arthurian legend in a reasonable and sensible way.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Archenemies by Marissa Meyer

Archenemies, by Marissa Meyer, was published in 2018 by Feiwel and Friends. It is the sequel to Renegades.

Rating: 4/5

*minor spoilers*

I keep expecting to know how Meyer will do things, but the first book surprised me and this book, though it didn’t surprise me in the same way, still didn’t end the way I expected. The plot is a little more basic in this one: for the entire book, Nova’s goal is to steal Ace Anarchy’s helmet (which somehow amplifies his powers, but we’re never told how or why). There’s some side plots that crop up along the way—Agent N, which was introduced in the first book, and the Vitality Charm—but the main action at the end is focused around the helmet. This is a long book to have such a simple plot, and it definitely shows in areas.

Once again, I expected Nova’s identity as Nightmare to be revealed, and once again, it was not, except now it’s gotten to the point where I have no idea how Meyer can possibly pull any sort of happy ending out of this. Adrian is angry at Nightmare, Nova is angry at Sentinel—how can there be anything large enough to get past that? Will there be a mysterious big villain coming out of nowhere that requires them to team up? Or is Meyer going to use the number of times Nightmare and Sentinel get associated with things that they didn’t actually do be the thing that brings them back together?

Of course, I’m assuming the series will end with their identities being revealed, but now that I think about it, that doesn’t have to be the case. It may, in fact, be more interesting if they were never revealed.

The most interesting thing about these books is that Meyer has stuck strictly to Nova’s ideas of the Renegades throughout, never once showing another side. Not even Adrian’s point of view chapters have much to do with countering Nova’s ideas, and any opposite viewpoint is interspersed with Nova’s curt questions. It’s clear, especially at the end of the book, that Meyer wants us to agree with Nova.

I hope the plot for the third book is a bit more tricky and complex than this one, but otherwise I’m surprised by how much I’ve been enjoying this series. Hopefully Meyer doesn’t pull anything outrageous or annoying in the last book.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: LGBTQ+ themes

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction/Fantasy

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

Renegades, by Marissa Meyer, was published in 2017 by Feiwel and Friends.

Rating: 4/5

*minor spoilers*

Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners series gave me a taste for superhero novels, so I decided to give Meyer’s (the author of Cinder) YA trilogy a shot. I liked her Lunar Chronicles well enough, except for Winter, so I figured I might enjoy this though it’s a different genre.

At first, I thought Renegades would be predictable. I mean, there’s only so many ways you can take a “girl infiltrates her enemy’s headquarters and seeks to overthrow them from the inside” plot. So, I figured that Nova would, in the course of her Renegade disguise, fall in love with Sketch/Adrian, but then discover that what she thought about the Renegades wasn’t true and/or get unmasked before she can do anything. The book would end with her true identity as a villain/Anarchist revealed.

Things looked good to be heading in that direction, until the very end when Meyer proved that she wasn’t just following a predictable, overused trope.

For one, Nova isn’t unmasked. For another, she still really and truly sticks to her Anarchist roots throughout, and while she learns a lot about the Renegades, she’s still dissatisfied with the way they run things (this whole book seems to be about Big Government Ruining Things because Nova is very into individual responsibility and not letting beaurocrats make all the decisions and solve all the problems). For a third, Meyer pulls a plot twist out of thin air at the very end of the book, a twist I didn’t see coming—and the great thing is, it didn’t come out of left field at all, AND it wasn’t particularly obvious.

So, in terms of plot, I can’t really fault Meyer. She did a much better job than I thought she would do, though the length of the book seems too long. There’s a stretch in the middle where everyone runs around a library that goes on forever. However, I can fault her for worldbuilding because it made very little sense. She’s simply too vague about the way things happened and nothing really is clear as to how things got the way they are. There’s no sense of place or time to the novel. Meyer seems to be being deliberately vague about many things like technology and other familiar things that would ground the novel, but then casually throws out words from modern day that fly in the face of a world-completely-changed narrative.

In addition, while several of the superpowers are clever (especially Sketch’s power) and most are standard ones you can think of, some are mindboggling strange. Like Ruby/Red Assassin, who swallowed some rubies and then suddenly has blood that turns into crystals??? What? And then there’s continuous mention of “bloodstone” with no reference as to what, exactly, that is…a drop of her blood that she uses as a jewel on her weapons? Or does she make weapons with her blood and then adorns each of them with this drop of blood (if so, why?)?

However, despite those things, as you can tell I still rated this a 4 out of 5, so my issues with the novel weren’t big enough to take away from my overall enjoyment of it, especially when Meyer changed things up and surprised me in a good way. The last (third) book just came out (though the end of this book seems to imply that it was originally only supposed to be 2 books), so I’m glad to read a series that’s actually finished already so I don’t have to wait too long.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Minor LGBTQ+ themes

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction/Fantasy

Laurel’s Dream by Pepper Basham

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the author. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

Laurel’s Dream, by Pepper Basham, is a cute historical fiction novel set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Caroline in 1918. Jonathan Taylor comes to help his uncle with his work (and to get away from his domineering father) and is the controversial new teacher in the community; Laurel, who’s lived on the mountain her whole life, dreams of going to college.

Like I said, the novel is really cute. Both characters are so sugary sweet that it will keep you smiling the whole time—though neither of them have much in the way of flaws. I didn’t really notice because the book was genuinely interesting, but reflecting on it now, both characters, and Laurel especially, were practically perfect in every way. Also, I’m not sure how realistic I found it that Jonathan had both a background in teaching and a background in medicine, especially since the latter seemed to come out of nowhere (why did he drop out of medical school? Did he? Was his plan to go back all along?) and the former wasn’t really explained that I remember.

The plot is pretty predictable, though I admit I wouldn’t have been able to guess what happens at the end that throws a monkey wrench into the works. I think I would have liked a little more resolution in terms of Laurel’s dream (it’s the title of the book!) instead of just the “shrug, let me just move on” ending we did get. However, I thought Basham did a good job of weaving in the Christian elements without making it too preachy, and it was really interesting to see the way she decided to portray the McAdams family, especially the father and the others’ relationship with him.

Cute, sweet (though almost too sweet in spots), with two adorable, maybe-needed-more-flaws protagonists, and a fairly interesting plot that makes up in interest what it lacks in small bits of satisfying resolution (I don’t know if I really like how Laurel gets things taken away from her at the end), Laurel’s Dream is one of those self-indulgent reads that will take your mind off other things and give you some pretty deep things to think about in the meantime.  

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

A Curse So Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer, was published in 2019 by Bloomsbury.

Rating: 4/5

A Curse So Dark and Lonely is continuing the streak of YA books that I’m pleasantly surprised with. It’s a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” involving parallel universes, curses, and a fairly decently developed world. Harper, a girl with cerebral palsy, is taken into another world in order to break the curse of the prince of that realm. The curse, of course, can only be broken by true love, but since Harper was kidnapped, she’s really not at all interested.

The thing that I was most impressed with was how Kemmerer resolved the curse. Honestly, overall, I thought she did a fantastic job with building the relationship between Harper and Rhen, and then to make it even better, she doesn’t rush the ending or force the characters into something that doesn’t make sense—instead, there’s a question raised, and a resolution to just try and figure things out. It was done really well, in my opinion, and it was a great way to “modernize” the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale.

My biggest criticism is probably the parallel universe aspect of it. Harper being a character in the fantasy world makes no sense and would not have worked in the book at all, so I understand the idea behind having Harper be from Washington, D.C., but the parts involving her family back in D.C. were the weakest in the book. Kemmerer’s decision to give Harper’s family a loan shark background really didn’t work very well and seemed only to be used to generate drama, especially since nothing came of that side story, anyway. Scrap Jacob’s role as loan shark muscle and you still have all the incentive Harper needs to miss home and to want to return home later (i.e., her sick mother). So, that part fell a little flat because it didn’t really seem to contribute anything besides more drama that wasn’t needed.

Despite that, however, I really enjoyed A Curse So Dark and Lonely. It was not a traditional “Beauty and the Beast” retelling and I thought Kemmerer did a great job of making things new and original, and especially in changing certain things about the fairy tale that are more problematic and making them more realistic. There’s a sequel coming out eventually, so I might pick that up when it does!

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Fairy Tale, Young Adult

Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George

Speak Easy, Speak Love, by McKelle George, was published in 2017 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 4/5

Speak Easy, Speak Love is a retelling/reimagining of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a play I’ve never read and only know vaguely from the one time I watched 10 Things I Hate About You. The setting is the Prohibition Era/Roaring Twenties/Jazz Age, and it has speakeasies, mobsters, jazz singers, female pursuit of advanced degrees, and lots of other fun (and not so fun) period references.

The characters and relationships are great. George does change things from Shakespeare’s original, but she develops the characters so that it makes sense. The stars of the show are, of course, Beatrice and Benedick, whose relationship grows slowly amidst insults, harsh truths, and mistaken beliefs based on well-meaning friends. The side relationships were all right, too, though sometimes following the convoluted mobster plots was really difficult. I understood almost nothing of what Prince was trying to do to help the speakeasy, nor what John was doing, and all the talk of routes and mobsters and rum runners was something I ended up just skipping over and trying not to figure out. I think the change George made to Hero’s relationship made sense in the context of her story, and everything was beautifully written and developed anyway so even if I was a hardcore Much Ado About Nothing fan, I think I still wouldn’t have minded (but you never know).

I’ve really been enjoying the YA I’ve been reading lately…I got Speak Easy, Speak Love on a whim, not sure if I would enjoy it, but I really did. The character development, setting, and writing were all great. I liked how developed the relationships were, even the non-romantic ones (like Benedick with his father). Overall, I was very pleasantly surprised.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Kissing, drinking.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult

House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

House of Salt and Sorrows, by Erin A. Craig, was published in 2019 by Delacorte.

Rating: 4/5

House of Salt and Sorrows is a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”—kind of. In this version, there’s only 8 “princesses” alive at the beginning, and Craig really uses the fairy tale as more inspiration to weave her own ghostly, mythical story. I actually really enjoyed this book, despite the presence of tropes I don’t like such as insta-love/lust, based solely on the world, the story, and Craig’s wonderful writing.

Like I said, the story is inspired by “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but Craig interprets and creates so many new and interesting things from it. I loved the plot and the whole mythology/supernatural vibe, and I especially liked how Craig managed to make each character stand out and, in the case of solving the mystery, not too suspicious. There wasn’t any one character that stood out as “oh, that’s the villain obviously” and the main plot twist was cleverly hidden and deftly revealed. Things get a little spooky, a little gory, and a little wacky at the end, but it fits Craig’s spooky, mythical setting perfectly.

Mainly the one thing I didn’t like was the insta-love between Cassius and Annaleigh. At least it’s sort of explained through his origins, but still—not my favorite. However, at least Craig made me forget about it for most of the book, and the ending was fine. I’ve gotten away from YA for a little bit, but I’m coming back to it slowly, and books like this remind me why.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Kissing, gruesome scenes.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Young Adult

Lovely War by Julie Berry

Lovely War, by Julie Berry, was published in 2019 by Viking.

Rating: 4/5

Lovely War is one of those romance-centric war novels that make great indulgent reads and great sappy movies. Everything’s just so wholesome and sweet and lovely, and Berry pours in enough realism to make everything that much more grounded in something other than indulgence.

There’s Hazel and James, whose story line follows a fairly conventional plot, made more endearing by the beauty of Berry’s writing and the stark reality of World War I warfare. Then there’s Colette and Aubrey, who also have a fairly conventional romantic plot made more gritty and dark with racism. Really, nothing here is unique, but Berry does such a good job of weaving character, situation, and history together that the conventional romances are lifted and made more interesting and relevant.

Even more interesting is Berry’s decision of narrator to tell the story. There’s mythology mixed in with the World War I romance, as the goddess Aphrodite gives the tale of love to an audience consisting of Hephaestus, Apollo, Ares, and Hades. Berry manages to make the fickle, uncaring Greek gods sympathetic, and even gives them a sweet little romance of their own—words I’d never thought I would ever associate with Greek mythology. The inclusion of Aphrodite as narrator elevates the book and helps everything else become something much greater than merely the standard.

Lovely War’s plot is conventional, but its characters and style are anything but. The prose is just the right mix of beauty and clarity, the setting combined with the characters and the narrator is enthralling, and the history and research is comprehensive and illuminating. It falls just short of a perfect rating for me, but that’s only because I had no problems putting it down at night and it lacked the sort of pull that other books have had on me. Still, it’s one of the better young adult books I’ve read in quite a while.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Sexual implications/innuendo/suggestions, swearing, violence, death, racial slurs

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady by Gerald Morris

The Squire, His Knight, & His Lady, by Gerald Morris, was published in 1999 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Squire’s Tale.

Rating: 4/5

The Squire, His Knight, & His Lady is basically a retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with the established characters from The Squire’s Tale making appearances (or starring, in the case of Terence). It’s easy to tell, as an adult, how much Morris loves Arthurian legend and especially Gawain. I’ve read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight before, so reading this book was fun because I was able to piece what I remembered of that book with what was happening in this one.

There are more books in this series, but this book really seems like a last hurrah for Terence and Gawain—especially Terence, who accomplishes a lot in this book and ends up in a pretty triumphant place at the end. Though occasionally Terence seems more like an observer, there are plenty of times, especially towards the end, where he is able to step up and shine—and even outshine Gawain.

Morris’s humor is what really steps the book up. There’s an ever-present dry wit running throughout that makes the whole book fun to read. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, perhaps, but the humor keeps the book enjoyable and the characters interesting.

Though not, perhaps, a series I would return to, I enjoyed my foray into Morris’s loving retellings of Arthurian legend. I may continue on with the series, I may not—but I know if I do, I’m bound to have a pretty good time.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden, by Karina Yan Glaser, was published in 2018 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street.

Rating: 4/5        

I described the first Vanderbeeker book as akin to the vibe I get from Elizabeth Enright or Jean Birdsall’s books. The second Vanderbeeker book is almost as good as the first one. It actually does something very similar to The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, which is sidelining one of the characters and spending more time on the others, but I felt as if both were done for very different reasons. Birdsall’s, I feel, was more specifically for character development, whereas Yan Glaser seems to have done it purely for realism (that doesn’t mean there wasn’t character development).

Perhaps it’s because I haven’t read the first book in a while, but I didn’t find this book quite as charming as the first one. Maybe it’s because I spent the first third of the book trying to remember if Miss Josie and Mr. Jeet were in the first book. Maybe it’s because Yan Glaser pulls some awfully clumsy characterization halfway through. In any case, though it’s not as charming as the first, I still enjoyed it.

Yan Glaser continues to strike a good balance between sadness, closure, and growth. The kids are hit with the reality of life several times through the novel, but they never let it dim their spirits for too long. The variety of characters means that all sorts of different personalities are represented, as well as different family situations and choices. It’s also great that Glaser chose to not go with a shallow, stereotypical bully, and instead gave a more nuanced approach that showed how people can be mean in response to meanness.

The book is maybe a little too bright and sparkling in places, especially concerning the years-old seeds that spontaneously bloom at the end of the novel, but it does capture the sort of joy and charm that I feel Glaser is trying to go for.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic