Fairy Tale Friday: The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell

The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell, was published in 2014 by Katherine Tegen.

When Sand wakes up alone in a long-abandoned castle, he has no idea how he got there. The stories all said the place was ruined by an earthquake, and Sand did not expect to find everything inside torn in half or smashed to bits. Nothing lives here and nothing grows, except the vicious, thorny bramble that holds Sand prisoner. Why wasn’t this in the stories? To survive, Sand does what he knows best—he fires up the castle’s forge to mend what he needs. But the things he fixes work somehow better than they ought to. Is there magic in the mending? Or have the saints who once guarded this place returned? When Sand finds the castle’s lost heir, Perrotte, they begin to untwine the dark secrets that caused the destruction. Putting together the pieces—of stone and iron, and of a broken life—is harder than Sand ever imagined, but it’s the only way to regain their freedom.

Rating: 2/5

The Castle Behind Thorns is a unique reinvention of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale (although it’s not marketed as such, it’s got Sleeping Beauty written all over it), where Sleeping Beauty wakes up not because of a kiss but because someone is fixing everything that was broken in the abandoned castle. I like adaptations of fairy tales that place the fairy tale somewhere in history, and this particular world is closely tied to the religion and the politics of medieval France.

The message of forgiveness laid out in the novel is good, although laid on a little thick by the end. The moralizing message is a bit much for an adult reader, but it might be just the thing a younger reader might need to hear. Haskell seems to have a much heavier hand here than she did in either Handbook for Dragon Slayers or The Princess Curse, so I’m not quite sure if she had a different audience in mind or if she simply thought a less subtle application of her point was needed because of the world she had built. It’s a good message of forgiveness, but it perhaps could have been communicated in a way that was less moralizing and thus less likely to turn people off from it (though, again, a younger audience may be more receptive).

However, I didn’t enjoy The Castle Behind Thorns as much as I enjoyed Haskell’s other works, and I’m not quite sure why. The lack of subtlety may have been one reason. Ultimately, though, I just didn’t find much about the book incredibly interesting. I’m not all that fond of Sleeping Beauty and Haskell wasn’t so unique in the telling of it as to make me really involved in the world and the plot. The premise was good and so was the reimagining of the fairytale as a whole, but the book wasn’t strong as a whole. I’ve read better versions of Sleeping Beauty and better books by Haskell. The Castle Behind Thorns is good, but not great; interesting, but not enticing; imaginative, but not groundbreaking. I’d much rather read The Princess Curse again.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fairy Tales, Middle Grade

He, Sand, had done all this. He had saved these things, sorted them, repurposed them, and made them work again.

With his mended broom held above his head like a sword, he shouted: “I am Sand, lord of this kitchen!”

Even though when he said it out loud, he could hear how silly it sounded, he knew that it was incomplete. There was no one here to challenge his rule, no one here to tell him otherwise.

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

Erak’s Ransom by John Flanagan

Erak’s Ransom, by John Flanagan, was published in 2007 by Philomel. It is the sequel (but chronologically the prequel) to The Siege of Macindaw.

What does it mean to earn the Silver Oakleaf? So few men have done so. For Will, a mere boy and apprentice to the most difficult Ranger to please, that symbol of honor has long seemed out of reach. If he is to ever earn it, he must prove himself in ways he never imagined. Now, in the wake of Araluen’s uneasy truce with the raiding Skandians comes word that the Skandian leader, Erak, has been captured by a desert tribe. The Rangers, along with a small party of warriors, are sent to free him. But the desert is like nothing else these warriors have seen before. Strangers in a strange land, they are brutalized by sandstorms, beaten by the unrelenting heat, tricked by one tribe that plays by its own rules, and surprisingly befriended by another. Like a mirage, nothing is as it seems. Yet one thing is constant: the bravery of the Rangers.

Rating: 5/5

After four books that were two sets of two-parters, it’s refreshing to read the jam-packed, stand-alone Erak’s Ransom. It actually highlights the weaknesses of the two-parter books, especially the Part 1s, which is the uneven pace and the overly long set-up. Erak’s Ransom, as a “filler” book telling the story of how Will got his silver oakleaf, a story that was skipped over between The Battle for Skandia and The Sorcerer of the North, is understandably a stand-alone—and works phenomenally well because of it.

There are only a few missteps in this book, at least in my opinion, one of them being Tug’s manipulation of another horse during a race. I suppose it’s plausible, but it didn’t quite fit the story, as impressive and heartwarming as the actual moment was. Otherwise, the book is a perfect combination of humor, tension, and action, with enough plausibility behind events that when everything comes together in the end, it’s believable. Flanagan also does quite a bit of foreshadowing, at least with regards to one character, and while it’s a bit of a Chekhov’s Gun, it’s also awesome and very fitting.

I think Erak’s Ransom may be my favorite Ranger’s Apprentice book so far. It’s also the one I remember the most, probably because I also really liked it when I first read it. This is the first stand-alone book since The Icebound Land (arguably the first one in the series, since the first two books connect) and it works: the pace is fast, but not too fast so as to seem rushed, the action is well distributed and the tension is executed well. Erak’s Ransom, being the story of Will becoming a fully-fledged Ranger, is, appropriately enough, also the novel that takes the series to a whole new level.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“You know the old saying: ‘one riot, one Ranger.’”

The saying stemmed from a legendary event in the past. A minor fief had risen up against their cruel and avaricious lord, with hundreds of people surrounding his manor house, threatening to burn it to the ground. The panicked nobleman’s message for help was answered by the arrival of a single Ranger. Aghast, the nobleman confronted the solitary cowled figure.

“They sent one Ranger?” he said incredulously. “One man?”

“How many riots do you have?” the Ranger replied.

On this occasion, however, Duncan was not incline to be swayed by legend. “I have a new saying,” he replied. “One daughter, two Rangers.”

“Two and a half,” Will corrected him. The king couldn’t help smiling at the eager young face before him.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” he said. “Two and three-quarters.”

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Castle of Shadows by Ellen Renner

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

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

Rating: 3/5

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

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

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

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

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

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2o7qDa5

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

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

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

Rating: 3/5

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

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

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

The Forgotten Sisters by Shannon Hale

The Forgotten Sisters, by Shannon Hale, was published in 2015 by Bloomsbury. It is the sequel to Palace of Stone.

After a year at the palace, Miri and her friends are ready to return home to their beloved Mount Eskel. But when the king orders Miri to start her own princess academy in a faraway swamp for three royal cousins, she is utterly dismayed. She must go on this journey alone, away from everyone she loves and everything she knows. Miri’s new students are not at all what she expected. Astrid, Felissa, and Sus are more interested in hunting, fishing, and wrestling than learning about etiquette and history, and they know next to nothing about their royal ancestry. As Miri spends more time with the girls, she starts to suspect that they are part of a long-buried secret, and that the key to uncovering the truth rests in her and the sisters’ hands. With her new friends at her side, Miri must gather all her strength to solve the mystery—and finally make her way back home.

Rating: 2/5

The Forgotten Sisters ranks lower than Palace of Stone only because I thought the message of the latter was stronger—and because the middle of The Forgotten Sisters is a bit of a trudge to read. I’m not sure if it was quite necessary to even have this book, but clearly popular demand led Hale to write another. The plot is a little bit of a mess, although I suppose, in retrospect, you could argue that Hale does indicate something in Palace of Stone in terms of the queen’s sorrow that could potentially tie to this novel. But for me, the plot seemed a little stilted and a little thrown together, and the reasoning behind it all was tied to a brief, flimsy little story told hastily in the beginning of the novel and never dwelled on again.

However, I will say that the ending of the novel was delightful, all thanks to Sus. The entirety of the section with the girls in the Queen’s Castle was good, but Sus (and Kaspar) just made it all that much better. It was cute, funny, and exactly the sort of matter-of-fact dialogue in a tense situation that I love to see executed well (the kind that just ignores all the mean people glaring and simply carries on a conversation in a subtly brilliant way).

Princess Academy is definitely the strongest in the series, with the two sequels not entirely necessary, in my opinion. Hale manages to pull some things together for The Forgotten Sisters, but overall the plot is a little contrived and the pace drags in the middle. There’s also some flowery bits of description that fall a little flat, at least in my opinion. But the ending is charming, and at least the book ended on a high note. However, if Hale writes another one of these, I probably won’t read it, as they’ve declined in quality since the first.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Something you didn’t know, Astrid,” said Miri. “Something I was able to teach you.”

Astrid shrugged. “All you did was put a fancy name to what we can already do.”

Miri opened her mouth to answer but had nothing to say.

Astrid passed very close to Miri on her way outside and whispered, “And I’m older than you, tutor.”

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2n4vvfH

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.

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

Fairy Tale Friday: Disenchanted: The Trials of Cinderella

Disenchanted: The Trials of Cinderella, by Megan Morrison, was published in 2016 by Arthur A. Levine. It is the sequel to Grounded: The Adventures of Rapunzel.

Ella Coach has one wish: revolution. Her mother died working in a sweatshop, and Ella wants every laborer in the blue kingdom to receive fairer treatment. But to make that happen, she’ll need some high-level support. Prince Dash Charming has one wish: evolution. The Charming Curse forced generations of Charming men to lie, cheat, and break hearts—but with the witch Envearia’s death, the curse has ended. Now Dash wants to be a better person, but he doesn’t know where to start. Serge can grant any wish—and has: As an executive fairy godfather, he’s catered to the wildest whims of spoiled brats from the richest, most entitled families in Blue. But now a new name has come up on his list, someone nobody’s ever heard of…Ella Coach. This is the story of three people who want something better, and who work together to change their worlds.

Rating: 2/5

Grounded was one of my favorite adaptations of the Rapunzel fairytale I’ve read, so I was excited to read Morrison’s latest work, this time taking on Cinderella’s fairytale—or so I thought. Instead, what I got was a preachy, “all rich people are evil” narrative without the faintest trace of Cinderella except for the main character’s name.

I mean, it was a good cause Ella was yelling about for the entire book, but it was the complete over-the-top descriptions and the numerous speeches (literally) that made it feel more like a pamphlet on fair labor laws and trade than a fairytale retelling. It was also completely devoid of almost everything from the Cinderella fairytale, except for miniscule aspects such as her stepmother and stepsisters. I get that Morrison is trying to be original here, but why even bother masking this as a retelling of Cinderella when it’s not? It would have been better to introduce it as an original story set in Morrison’s fairytale world.

Also, I think I would have been a little more sympathetic towards Ella if she had stopped acting like only she knew what the laborers were going through and that only she stood for what’s Good and Right in the world (not helped by the author painting every rich person as selfish, cruel, and completely devoid of compassion). Luckily, at least a few of the characters point this out to her, and by the end of the book she’s slightly better in terms of her overall attitude.

So, Disenchanted, while having an interesting world with several clever fairy tale elements woven into it, is far from a good Cinderella reimagining. I could barely recognize the original fairytale in the plot and world Morrison created. That’s not a bad thing that Morrison expanded on the world she built, but it would have been far better not to attach the Cinderella name to it at all. As a world with fairytale references, Disenchanted is clever and fun. As a Cinderella retelling, Disenchanted is irritating, preachy, and unrecognizable as such.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Fairy Tales

“Don’t tell on me,” he begged. “Please. I can explain.”

“You stole Ella’s contract. What were you thinking, Jasper?”

“The same thing you were thinking!”

“Oh? Enlighten me.”

“You thought it was wrong to ignore a child just because she couldn’t pay,” said Jasper. “You proved it by letting me come here, didn’t you?” His breath came fast. “We should do this together. We should help Ella.”

“Presumptuous.”

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

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

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

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

Rating: 3/5

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic (I suppose), Middle Grade

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

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2m1LSXF

Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

Our Only May Amelia, by Jennifer L. Holm, was published in 1999 by HarperCollins.

May Amelia Jackson is the only girl ever born on the Nasel River—A Real Miracle, her family says. And with seven brothers she believes it. Most of the time she forgets that she’s a girl, like when she wears her overalls to go fishing with Wilbert or helps Uncle Aarno and the boys make the fishing nets. Bu sometimes her family does treat her like A Miracle, and it’s just plain maddening, like when Pappa yells at her for running around the logging camp or orders her to stay in the house because there’s a real live murderer on the loose. Once in a while, though, it’s good to be treated like a Miracle and have a whole family looking after their only May Amelia. Still, what May thinks would be the greatest Miracle of all is if the baby in her mamma’s belly turned out to be a girl. Will May always be their only Miracle, or will the new baby be the little sister she’s been hoping for?

Rating: 5/5

I read Our Only May Amelia a long time ago, and even though I didn’t remember specific aspects of the plot, I still remembered the sense of it, if that makes sense (ha). I remembered that there was something sad, and I remembered that at the end of the book May’s family gathers around her for some reason, and I remembered that there were lots of “Our Only May Amelia’s” in the dialogue. But other than that, I didn’t much remember anything else, so it was almost as if I was reading the book for the first time.

It took me a little bit to get used to the fact that there are no quotation marks in the book, but once I got into the flow of it I stopped noticing their absence. I can see why Our Only May Amelia received a Newbery Honor—it’s sweet, it’s poignant, it’s alive, it’s sad and funny and bittersweet in all the right places. It captures both the freedom of living and the hardships that go along with that freedom. It captures the rough and the smooth sides of families and how people show their love in different ways (or not at all). It shows the hospitality of neighbors and the close-knit community of cultures. In short, it’s a perfect little snapshot of life.

While I think the book might deal with too many complicated issues for a younger reader (I teach 4th grade and I don’t think it would be well suited for that age), Our Only May Amelia would be a great book to give to a middle-grade reader. It’s serious enough for discussion, but light enough for laughs and the genuine pleasure of reading. Maybe the nostalgia increased the quality factor in my eyes, but Our Only May Amelia is a lovely book about family, loss, and love that encompasses timeless qualities even as it describes a specific time in history.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

Outside the window the sky is black and the stars are winking at me. I watch the fireflies dancing in the field and realize my birthday is nearly over, and I haven’t made my secret birthday wish yet. Mamma says that a wish made on a birthday always comes true. I don’t know about that, though. Last year I wished for Kaarlo to stop being so mean to me all the time, but he’s still the same mean old Kaarlo.

Still, it can’t hurt to try. I think hard but it’s an easy wish. I can’t tell anyone, not even Wilbert and he is my very best brother. I can’t tell him because he’ll never understand what it is like to be me, May Amelia Jackson, the only Jackson girl, and the only girl in Nasel.

I squeeze my eyes tight and wish hard with my heart that Mamma has a little baby girl so that I can have a sister.

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2lOGid4