2013 Newbery Medal: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, was published in 2012 by Harper.

Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living in a shopping mall, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all. Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen his friends Stella and Bob, and painting. Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.

Rating: 3/5

The One and Only Ivan is apparently based on a true story. The real Ivan, like the one in the story, was in a circus-themed mall for twenty-seven years before enough information circulated about it that he was transferred to Zoo Atlanta. As an animal fantasy, The One and Only Ivan crawls into the head of book-Ivan and explores a similar story from the perspective of the gorilla.

It’s a very sentimental story, and it would be especially heartwarming if you really loved animals and don’t mind good zoos. For me, I found the whole thing a little bit too sentimental for my tastes. I also had a hard time accepting the point of view of a gorilla. I get it, it’s an animal fantasy, but it still rang false in my view.

That’s not to say the story isn’t good. Applegate does raise awareness of inappropriate and unsafe conditions for animals, and she does emphasize that good zoos are beneficial for animal welfare. The story, as a story, is lovely and heartwarming and has a good happy ending. It has a good lesson about treating animals correctly. But, at times, its sappiness sours the story. I’m glad it’s not all gloom and doom like some Newbery Medals, but the overt sentimentality of this book is almost as bad, in my opinion.

The One and Only Ivan is a good story, perfect for children who love animals, and has some good things to say about taking care of animals, but I found it to be too sentimental throughout. I’m not calling for Newbery Medals to be full of darkness and sorrow, but I would prefer a balance, and this book, though it has some sorrow in it, goes too far in the sappiness category for me to really like it.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy, Realistic

When the Big Top Mall was first built, it smelled of new paint and fresh hay, and humans came to visit from morning till night. They drifted past my domain like logs on a lazy river.

Lately, a day might go by without a single visitor. Mack says he’s worried. He says I’m not cute anymore. He says, “Ivan, you’ve lost your magic, old guy. You used to be a hit.”

It’s true that some of my visitors don’t linger the way they used to. They stare through the glass, they cluck their tongues, they frown while I watch my TV.

“He looks lonely,” they say.

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

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Under a Cloudless Sky by Chris Fabry

Disclaimer: Under a Cloudless Sky, by Chris Fabry, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

1933. In the mining town of Beulah Mountain, West Virginia, two young girls form an unbreakable bond against the lush Appalachian landscape, coal dust and old hymns filling their lungs and hearts. Despite the polarizing forces of their fathers—one a mine owner, one a disgruntled miner—Ruby and Bean thrive under the tender care of Bean’s mama, blissfully unaware of the rising conflict in town and the coming tragedy that will tear them apart forever. 2004. Hollis Beasley is taking his last stand. Neighbors up and down the hollow have sold their land to Coleman Coal and Energy, but Hollis is determined to hold on to his family legacy on Beulah Mountain. In his way is Buddy Coleman, an upstart mining executive who hopes to revitalize the dying town by increasing coal production and opening the Company Store Museum. He’ll pay homage to the past—even the massacre of 1933—while positioning the company for growth at all costs. What surprises them all is how their stories will intersect with a feisty octogenarian living hundreds of miles away. When Ruby Handley Freeman’s grown children threaten her independence, she takes a stand of her own and disappears, beginning a journey to face a decades-old secret that will change everything for her and those she meets.

My rating: 5/5 

Under a Cloudless Sky is a mesmerizing, gripping read, telling the story of Hollis Beasley and his efforts to preserve his land, and the story of Ruby Freeman, who’s faced with struggles from various angles. It’s also the story of Ruby’s daughter, Frances, and Hollis’s granddaughter, Charlotte, and those stories are intermingled with the 1933 story as we learn about young Ruby and her friend Bean in the days leading up to a significant tragedy.

Fabry is a fantastic storyteller, weaving together the various points-of-view and the two different time periods effortlessly. I never felt jarred or bothered by the back-and-forth, and the switching was done effectively, creating just the right amount of tension and curiosity. His characterization is amazing, as well; even the characters that are focused on for only a small amount of time are fleshed out and interesting, with the exception of Buddy Coleman.

I did figure out a majority of the plot before it was revealed in the book, but it was such an exciting moment for me when I did figure it out that it can hardly be considered a negative. I could hardly wait for the characters to confirm what I had discovered.

The voice of the characters was great; the mechanics and the storytelling itself were gripping and artfully delivered; the entire book was difficult to put down. There were a few things here and there that I thought were amiss (the whole kidnapping bit in the middle of the book was odd and seemed to exist solely to flesh out Frances as a character), but overall, Under a Cloudless Sky was a worthwhile, thrilling read that made me excited for more of Fabry’s works.

You can find a Q & A with the author here.

Warnings: Suggestive themes, violence.

Genre: Christian, Realistic, Historical Fiction

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2FiFG62

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.

Imagine it were possible to bring the characters from a book to life. Not like when someone reads a book with such enchantment that the characters seem to jump off the pages and into your bedroom…but for real. Imagine they could actually climb out of the pages and into our world! Then, imagine if those characters brought their world into ours. One cruel night, young Meggie’s father, Mo, reads aloud from Inkheart and an evil ruler named Capricorn escapes the boundaries of fiction and lands in their living room. Suddenly, Meggie is smack in the middle of the kind of adventure she has only read about in books. Somehow, Meggie and Mo must learn to harness the magic that conjured this nightmare. Somehow they must change the course of the story that has changed their lives forever.

Rating: 3/5

I read Inkheart way back in the day when it, and its two sequels, were incredibly popular. I remember liking it; I must have, since I own this book and its sequel, Inkspell. However, the only thing I remembered about it was that Mo had the ability to read characters out of books. I remembered nothing about the plot (and the things I thought were from Inkheart must be from Inkspell, since none of what I remember happening actually happened in Inkheart). So, in a way, it was like I was reading this book for the first time.

As with Dragon Rider, I thought this was a fairly well-written book. It’s entertaining, there’s suspense, there’s a plot with twists and turns. The characters are fine, though I wish they said “OK” less. Dustfinger tended to get slightly annoying, but we didn’t get many chapters from his point of view, so it was bearable. One thing I enjoyed the most is how very European this book is; it was translated from German and the setting shows its European roots, from villages in the mountains to the names used.

The main problem with Inkheart is that there wasn’t any “wow” factor with me. In fact, I thought the book was overly long; some cutting of extraneous materials would have been beneficial for quickening the pace, especially in the middle. It never got incredibly boring, but there were definitely parts that dragged more than others. I’m not actually sure why this book got as popular as it did, to be honest; it’s remarkably simple, for a book about someone who brings characters from books to life, and there’s nothing terribly exciting that happens for a majority of the book.

I decided to give Funke another chance after Dragon Rider, but now, after Inkheart, I’m not so sure that was a wise decision. Inkheart had all the same problems as Dragon Rider, but also suffered massive pacing problems and seemed way too long overall. If I get bored, I might read the sequel, Inkspell, but nothing else is compelling me to continue the series.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Middle Grade

“Meggie, listen to me!” Dustfinger looked at her intently. His scars were like pale lines that someone had drawn on his cheeks: two slightly curved marks on the left cheek, a third and longer line of the right cheek running from ear to nostril. “Capricorn will kill your father if he doesn’t get that book!” hissed Dustfinger. “Kill him, do you understand? Didn’t I tell you what he’s like? He wants the book, and he always gets what he wants. It’s ridiculous to believe it will be safe from him here.”

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

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, by Chris Grabenstein, was published in 2013 by Yearling (Random House).

When Kyle learns that the world’s most famous game maker has designed the town’s new library and is having an invitation-only lock-in on the first night, he is determined to be there. But the trick part isn’t getting into the library—it’s getting out. Kyle’s going to need all his smarts, because a good roll of the dice or lucky draw of the cards is not enough to win in Mr. Lemoncello’s library.

Rating: 4/5

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a puzzle-based adventure filled with as much fun and charm as you might expect from the title and the cover art. The puzzles are intricate and the whole idea of being “trapped in the library” is entertaining. Perhaps inspired by the book Help! I’m a Prisoner in the Library!, even.

Several times the kid protagonists solve puzzles that seem a bit beyond a normal person’s grasp and range of knowledge (especially some of the more obscure trivia that apparently all of these kids have studied up on beforehand), but the whole tone of the book is so wacky anyway that it really isn’t jarring in the least. When a book contains a giant library containing holograms and massive puzzles, built by a man with noise-making shoes, obscure-trivia-knowing-kids are the least of the strangeness.

The puzzles are very clever and I loved all the literary references scattered throughout. I liked that Grabenstein included classic literature references as well as more modern references. I liked less the characters of the kids, since the outcome of the contest was obvious from the start due to their one-dimensional personalities, and I kept expecting some sort of sinister turn for no apparent reason, but let’s face it, the appeal of this book isn’t the characterization. It’s the riddles.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is one of those puzzle-filled adventure books that are light and fun and nice to read after more “serious” works. I enjoyed it immensely, though the characterization wasn’t great and the entire thing had slightly too much of an unrealistic feel overall for me to really be absorbed in it. But, I can definitely see many kids loving it—and maybe seeking out all those literary references for themselves!

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Middle Grade

“So, Kyle,” said Akimi, “you want to form an alliance?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s what people do on reality shows like Survivor. We help each other until, you know, everybody else is eliminated and we have to stab each other in the back.”

“Um, I don’t remember hearing anything about ‘eliminations.’”

“Oh. Right.”

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

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, was published in 1954 by Faber and Faber.

At the dawn of the next world war, a plane crashes on an uncharted island, stranding a group of schoolboys. At first, with no adult supervision, their freedom is something to celebrate. This farm from civilization they can do anything they want. Anything. But as order collapses, as strange howls echo in the night, as terror begins its reign, the hope of adventure seems as far removed from reality as the hope of being rescued…

Rating: 4/5

Despite Lord of the Flies being one of the more popular books to assign in high school, I never actually read it until now. Of course, I knew what it was about—a group of boys are abandoned on an island and end up killing each other. But knowing about something and reading it, experiencing it, are two completely different things. I also read this book right when it was announced that there’s apparently going to be a female version of Lord of the Flies developed as a film. More on that in a minute.

I can’t say that I liked Lord of the Flies. Can anyone really enjoy reading a book about young boys resorting to savagery and vicious murder, simply because of the loss of authority and civilization? But I did like the way Golding used all of the symbolism, some subtle, most overt, to point out this descent. The decaying pig head, Piggy’s glasses, the conch shell, the fire…they’re perhaps too obvious, but perhaps that’s best in a book aimed at high-schoolers, who are still learning to decipher figurative language and symbolism.

The descent of the boys into violence is really well-done, creepy in all the right places and in all the right tones (the killing of the sow is especially cloaked in terms that could easily apply to something else, which makes the whole scene even darker). And the killing of the sow is only the beginning, as the boys give in to their bloodlust to commit even more vile acts. Even Ralph, the symbol of leadership and authority in the novel, falls prey to the mob—only Piggy (the intellect) and Simon (not sure what he is supposed to symbolize, to be honest—some suggest he is the opposite of the Lord of the Flies/Beelzebub/Satan, which would make him a Christ figure) resist.

Then, of course, there’s the ending, which demonstrates, again, Golding’s point that a loss of authority and intellect leads to barbarism, a “devolution” if you will. And he’s not wrong, to an extent, though I would like to think that some people would rise to the occasion and resist—though, I suppose, Ralph, Piggy, and Simon do resist.

After reading this book, I now think a Lord of the Flies with all females would not work at all. Let’s face it—women react differently than men. Girls in a situation like what the boys faced would react differently. You can’t make a female Lord of the Flies like the book at all. It would be something completely different. And maybe that’s what the movie will be—since it was just announced, I obviously have no idea. But trying to force it into a carbon copy of the book would not work at all.

Lord of the Flies is an excellent case study of what the lack of authority and rules can bring. The subtle increase and inclination towards violence is portrayed nicely through the use of symbolism, and gets increasingly creepy and dark as the novel goes on. I can’t say I liked it, or enjoyed it, but I can see why it’s assigned reading in many (most?) schools.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, some graphic descriptions, swearing.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic

“We used his specs,” said Simon, smearing a black cheek with his forearm. “He helped that way.”

“I got the conch,” said Piggy indignantly. “You let me speak!”

“The conch doesn’t count on top of the mountain,” said Jack, “so you shut up.”

“I got the conch in my hand.”

“Put on green branches,” said Maurice. “That’s the best way to make smoke.”

“I got the conch—”

Jack turned fiercely.

“You shut up!”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2BIav2j

The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck by Bethany Turner

Disclaimer: The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck, by Bethany Turner, was provided by Revell. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Note: No back cover summary on this review, as the publisher prefers that reviewers not post it.

My rating: 2/5 

I’ve never experienced a book that started out mildly interesting and then quickly devolved into incredibly annoying quite like The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck. It started out a little bit intriguing and humorous, and then, right around the time Sarah ran into her pastor and fell in insta-love with the “lean, muscular” (of course, because they all are, because apparently that’s the only body type that exists) perfect man, it quickly became frustrating.

I appreciate that Turner is willing to address some things more openly than other Christian novels have done, but the amount of cringing I did while reading this book because of the ridiculous amount of attention spent on attraction and intimacy is more than I’ve ever cringed before. It’s almost the only thing they talk about, oftentimes in cheesy, cringe-worthy ways, and the whole relationship comes across as more of a physical attraction than anything else.

To add to the ridiculous amount of time spent on talking about sex (not explicitly, of course, but way more than I’m used to a Christian novel addressing it—again, props to Turner, but perhaps a more less in-your-face approach would have been better), we have the perfect pastor and perfect man Ben, of the “lean and muscular” build, who is flawless, always says the right things, and is about as interesting as my left shoe. Then we have the melodramatic plot, complete with “who’s the father of my baby?” drama, that ends with Ben being completely unconcerned that the church he’s pastoring is going under, leaving its congregation to find new places of worship, an event that’s literally almost shrugged off by the characters, when in real life something like that would be slightly more devastating, or at least difficult to adjust to.

Did I mention that all Ben and Sarah talk about are how much they want to get married so they can get around to having babies? And you might be thinking I’m exaggerating, and I am, a little, but they literally spend pages talking about it.

The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck has insta-love (my least favorite), the typical Christian-fiction love interest (lean, muscular, perfect, always says the right things), dialogue and conversation topics that would have been refreshing if they hadn’t been so prevalent and blunt (Christian fiction tends to avoid intimate language; Turner has way too much), and a plot that’s melodramatic and cliché. If Turner had been more original in her characters and in her plot, I think the book would have been vastly improved.

Warnings: Sex is mentioned a lot. Nothing explicit or necessarily in poor taste, though.

Genre: Christian, Realistic

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

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer, was published in 2001 by Hyperion.

Twelve-year-old Artemis Fowl is a millionaire, a genius, and, above all, a criminal mastermind. But even Artemis doesn’t know what he’s taken on when he kidnaps a fairy, Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon unit. These aren’t the fairies of bedtime stories; these fairies are armed and dangerous. Artemis thinks he has them right where he wants them…but then they stop playing by the rules.

Rating: 1/5

I loved Artemis Fowl when I was a kid. I read every book except for the very last one, which was published after I had moved on to other genres. So, I was excited to reread this series and relive my enjoyment of them, or at least see what had attracted them to me.

To be honest, though, I really didn’t like the book at all. I’m not sure why I liked it so much when I was younger (probably still developing my sense of what I like in books), but it absolutely irritated me now. I hate the penchant a lot of male authors have for detailing things like guns/weapons, fighting, and technology in general in absurdly minute detail (I say male authors because I’ve only seen this writing style in male authors). I really don’t care what type of gun Butler carries or what its force is when it hits an object. I really don’t care what the name of Holly’s gun is or what it can do. Sometimes I can ignore things like that, but those sorts of details were so central to the book that I couldn’t.

The humor is also profoundly kiddish, which may have been what I liked about them as a kid. Now, as an adult, I find it grating. None of the humor in the book made me laugh. I can see that Colfer thinks he was being very clever with his development of the fairy world, and maybe he is being clever, but it did not appeal to me at all. I have no interest in finding out more about the world.

I’ve enjoyed rereading a lot of the books I read when I was child, but Artemis Fowl is one I did not like revisiting and have no wish to continue with the series. The writing style, the humor aimed at children, and even the world and story itself irritated me. I suppose not every childhood favorite can be an adulthood favorite, and Artemis Fowl certainly misses the mark by a long shot.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Middle Grade

“Captain Short!” he roared, mindless of her headache. “What in the name of sanity happened here?”

Holly rose shakily to her feet. “I…That is…There was…” The sentences just wouldn’t come.

“You disobeyed a direct order. I told you to hang back! You know it’s forbidden to enter a human building without an invitation.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2x340Gk

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, by Leslie Connor, was published in 2016 by Katherine Tegen.

Eleven-year-old Perry T. Cook shouldn’t be living in a prison; he has committed no crime. Perry was born and raised at the Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility in tiny Surprise, Nebraska. His mom is a resident on Cell Block C. So far, Warden Daugherty has made it possible for them to be together. Anyone who knows about the arrangement is quietly okay with it. But when Perry is discovered by the new, ambitious district attorney, Thomas VanLeer, everything changes. Forced to foster with the VanLeer family, Perry lives on “the outside” but feels trapped. His mom’s parole hearing is just weeks away, but the rule bending that allowed Perry to stay with her could mean she’ll get more prison time. Desperate to be reunited with his mom, Perry goes on a quest to learn the whole truth behind their Blue River story. But will the facts help them or hurt them? Can he find a way to tell everyone what home truly means?

Rating: 5/5

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook has a premise that’s hard to buy, but is filled with so much heart, charm, and lovely moments that Connor (who acknowledges the lack of realism) gets away with it. Perry is sweet at the right times and strong at the right times, and although I’m not a huge fan of “kids know better than adults” trope, it works well here—because, let’s face it, sometimes the innocence of kids is exactly what makes them better able to handle and/or know certain things than adults.

Besides Perry, the adult characters in the novel are all fully fleshed-out. I was especially happy that VanLeer, the “villain” of the novel, was also three-dimensional—his motives are understandable, his failings are understandable, and Perry’s thoughts about him at the end of the novel are spot-on. Brian Morris, the other “villain,” also gets some dimension to his character, though his is not explained as well.

The only thing I’m disappointed in is that the resolution that I wanted to happen with Perry and his father didn’t happen. I suppose it’s understandable, and it’s probably more realistic this way, but I did want to see something there. However, Connor’s message running throughout that entire plot thread was a good one, showing how far someone will go to protect the ones they love and that sometimes, as time passes, the importance of setting things right/meting out proper justice is not as important as saving loved ones. Through Perry’s mother, Connor shows us that, just as Perry and his mother have no regrets, neither should we, the readers, have any regrets as to the revelations and outcomes of the novel.

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook is a charming, heartwarming novel, chock-full of interesting characters and important messages. Perry’s sweetness is nicely tempered with his bouts of anger at his and his mother’s situation, VanLeer is understandable and relatable in his role as “villain,” and the rest of the characters get their own little moments to shine in ways that minor characters often don’t have. The novel did not end as I hoped it would, but upon reflection, it ended in the way that was best for what Connor was trying to say.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Middle Grade

“You may know, I’m the Butler County district attorney,” Mr. VanLeer says. “Funny thing about that,” Big Ed says. “I always thought the DA was supposed to work for the people. And here it seems to me that you’re working against these people.” He fans his hand toward Mom and me.

“Well, I believe I’m righting a wrong in this case,” Mr. VanLeer says. He is still smiling and nodding. “Which brings me to my business. We all know why I’m here.”

“Here to take away our Morning Son,” Big Ed says.

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

Just Sayin’ by Dandi Daley Mackall

Disclaimer: Just Sayin’, by Dandi Daley Mackall, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Nick and Cassie almost had their perfect family: their parents were getting married, and that meant a best-friend brother and a sweet little sister for Cassie, and Nick would have Cassie as his partner in crime. When their parents mysteriously call off their wedding and Cassie is left in her Gram’s care, Cassie and Nick become “almost-step” pen pals. Through letters, they scheme about how to get on their favorite game show, The Last Insult Standing, and just maybe figure out how to get their parents back together.

My rating: 3/5 

I really enjoyed Larger-Than-Life Lara by Mackall, so seeing another children’s/MG book pop up by her on the Tyndale website was exciting to me. And, while I didn’t enjoy Just Sayin’ quite as much as I did Lara, it was still an engaging read.

I like the whole concept of the “novel of letters”—the entire book consists of letters, texts, e-mails, and what-have-you between the characters, complete with different handwritings and paper backgrounds. It’s a nice touch, though perhaps a little distracting. Mackall does a great job of giving each character a distinct voice and communicating character development through a medium that’s rather restricting in what can be described or expanded.

The plot is a bit simple and resolves simply, too, and I don’t know whether that’s a good or a bad thing. The important part of the book, to me, was Cassie’s development, not Travis and Jen’s relationship, so perhaps the simplicity of that particular aspect of the book doesn’t matter. And, speaking of Cassie’s development, I think the lessons she learned were communicated clearly and effectively, though perhaps her actions at the end during the insult contest were not quite realistic (though the actions themselves don’t contradict her character, so perhaps the realism of it is fine, after all).

Perhaps my biggest problem with Just Sayin’ is that, after the wonderful subtlety of Larger-Than-Life Lara, the straightforwardness of it falls a little flat. I mean, I think it’s great that Cassie was so profoundly affected by what she read about words and by her letter writing to Jesus, but that also could have been communicated effectively without also alienating a large portion of readers who perhaps most need to hear the message. It wasn’t preachy—perhaps cheesy, but not preachy—but I do prefer subtlety in a lot of cases. However, with or without that, Just Sayin’ still has a good message about the power of words, as well as some good things to say about friendship and family.

Warnings: Insults.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic, Christian

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2vXs53q

The Blackhope Enigma by Teresa Flavin

The Blackhope Enigma, by Teresa Flavin, was published in 2011 by Candlewick Press.

For centuries, Blackhope Tower has remained an enigma. Rumors abound that skeletons have been known to mysteriously appear in the middle of a labyrinth found in the most famous of its rooms—The Mariner’s Chamber. When fourteen-year-old Sunni Forrest visits the tower and watches as her stepbrother, Dean, disappears, seemingly into the painting itself, she goes in search of him—and finds herself drawn into the heart of the Blackhope Enigma.

Rating: 2/5

I very nearly stopped reading The Blackhope Enigma about a third of the way through it. The writing is amateurish (needless descriptions and explanations, melodramatic villain lines, clunky action and lots of telling rather than showing), the characters are forgettable (also, don’t ask how many times I pronounced Sunni’s name as SOON-EE rather than SON-EE because of the spelling), and the whole thing hinges on a premise that is barely explained and not incorporated well.

However, the story does pick up a little and gets slightly more interesting once the characters make their way into the inner-inner painting (there’s the surface painting, then the inner painting where things are alive, and then apparently an inner-inner painting). Of course, then the book adds another melodramatic villain character and the obligatory mysterious handsome sorcerer, so it doesn’t really get any better in quality. But it became interesting enough for me to read it all the way through, though it never passed beyond merely bearable.

I like the idea that Flavin is trying to get across, but unfortunately, she executed it poorly. I think the concept of an enchanted painting is a good one and if Flavin was a better writer the book as a whole would have been a much better success. But Sunni, Dean and Blaise never become more than stock characters, stumbling around a world that is a good idea conceptually but poorly designed and implemented. I never get any sense of real danger from the villains or the world and the ending is clunky and contrived. The Blackhope Enigma is certainly an enigma—I still don’t know how I managed to finish reading the entire thing.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Middle Grade

“All you knew was that we had disappeared—not how we got in.”

“Well, let’s just say we looked at it from a new angle and got a result.”

“But I asked Mr. Bell about Corvo and the painting after Sunni and Dean had disappeared, and he didn’t tell my anything. Why would he do that?”

“Knowing Lorimer, it was so you wouldn’t get too curious and follow the others into the painting,” Angus said. “He was trying to protect you.”

“From what?” asked Blaise.

“From never getting out again.”

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