Goodreads: House of Secrets
Series: House of Secrets #1
Published: April 23, 2013
The Walker kids had it all: loving parents, a big house in San Francisco, all the latest video games . . . but everything changed when their father lost his job as a result of an inexplicable transgression. Now the family is moving into Kristoff House, a mysterious place built nearly a century earlier by Denver Kristoff, a troubled writer with a penchant for the occult.
Suddenly the siblings find themselves launched on an epic journey into a mash-up world born of Kristoff’s dangerous imagination, to retrieve a dark book of untold power, uncover the Walker family’s secret history and save their parents . . . and maybe even the world.
House of Secrets offers a rollicking adventure for young readers, featuring wild encounters with colossi, pirates, magicians, warriors, and more—just about anything one can imagine in a fantasy novel. The focus is heavily on the plot, as events tumble (sometimes literally), one after the other, immersing the audience into an action-packed story where seemingly anything can happen.
Because the emphasis is on the action, the characters are slightly disappointing. Nonetheless, the Walker children have a fascinating dynamic. They squabble and toss mild insults, as one might expect from real siblings. When it really matters, however, they also come through for each other and band together as a family to fight the villains.
The children are also written as individuals, each possessing different talents that aid them in the course of the book. Brendan, however, still stands out for his multifaceted characterization and one cannot help but wonder if he is the authors’ personal favorite. He has a bit of a hero complex, and he always makes bad jokes at the worst possible moments, but he has also has a fierce desire to protect his family and even his annoying qualities can become endearing as readers get to know him better. He reads like a typical twelve-year-old boy, but one who was sucked into an insanely dangerous adventure and is doing his best to deal with it.
In contrast, his sisters Eleanor and Cordelia are slightly flatter and more stereotypical. Eleanor gets credit for a few remarks that are laugh out loud funny and is easily the most likeable of the siblings if one is not into twelve-year-old guy humor. She is spunky and creative, and she has her priorities in place. Cordelia is a bit of book worm, which will appeal to many readers, and she also strives to ignite a bit of romance (which will probably be explored more in book two). However, the authors do Cordelia little credit by making her easily succumb to the villain’s temptation; her desire for power is ill-written and seems out of character, clearly added to create drama.
All three children attempt to be fairly proactive (for example, striving to protect each other or offer solutions to a plethora of problems), but often the action in the novel just happens to them. They deal with one obstacle—and the next thing they know, their house is tumbling down a cliff and there is little for them to do besides ride it out. Basically, the children attempt to deal with the elements of their adventure as those elements occur, but they themselves are rarely the stimuli for those elements.
Furthermore, the book does not read as much like a quest as one would expect. The Walkers’ parents are missing and the children are stuck in a strange and dangerous land, being hunted by a witch. There are clear goals for them here: Defeat the witch, find their way home, and find their parents (not necessarily in that order). Yet the children generally fail to take any specific steps to make these things happen. Of course they get a little preoccupied fighting vicious pirates for their lives and whatnot, but the only person who regularly talks about finding their parents as if it is truly a priority is Eleanor—who, like me, accuses Brendan and Cordelia of not doing anything about it.
House of Secrets has a lot going on. For readers seeking a never-ending adventure featuring a variety of fantasy tropes, it will absolutely hit the spot. However, this means the book is superficially entertaining, but it falls apart the more one picks at it. The characters are a little flat and not apparently not interested in their own pressing quest. The main villain, the witch, is frightening (and incredibly ugly—she would look highly impressive in a film), but has a flimsy backstory to explain her actions. All the magic in the book is ill-explained. House of Secrets is fun, a good read, but not a great one.
Series Conclusion: I might read the next book if it came my way, but the series is not one I am too interested in pursuing.
Content Note: Some nudity (not graphically described). Very mild language (“freaking”). Definite violence.
Series: Newsoul #1
Summary: In Range, there have been a million souls for 5000 years. When they die, they are reborn—until the year Ciana dies and never comes back. In her place, Ana, a newsoul, is born. Half of Range is unwilling to forgive her for it. Knowing she is blamed for Ciana’s disappearance, Ana travels to the city of Heart and the library to search for answers about her new existence. Yet someone there does not want her to find them.
Review: Meadows builds a compelling and imaginative world in Incarnate, bringing readers to a place where everyone lives multiple lives and everyone knows everyone else. Readers will be fascinated, pondering what it might be like to have infinite time to accomplish everything they have ever dreamed or how interesting it would be to meet the inventors of literally every great invention. Meadows also gives readers much to think about in their own mortality. Eighty years to her characters is a very short time; readers should learn to make the most of their own lives.
Ana, the protagonist, walks the line between souls and readers. As a newsoul, she has no idea whether she will be reincarnated like everyone else. As far she knows, she has one life to live the best she can—and as carefully as she can. She cannot risk the same heroics as the souls. It takes some time, however, before Ana comes to a point where she might consider heroics at all. For a large portion of the book, she is defensive and distrusting—understandable due to her abusive upbringing and the frequent hatred she encounters from people whom she has never even met. Some readers might find her early behavior unappealing, but it is in fact realistic considering her circumstances and may resonate with readers who have faced similar difficulties in their lives. Ana ultimately has a beautiful heart, which should endear her to a number of readers.
Helping Ana overcome her distrust is the kind and talented Sam, who of course fills the role of love interest. (This much is obvious from the scene where they first meet.) The romance in Incarnate is beautiful and caring. Sam might have the same issue as Edward Cullen, in that he is much older than the girl he would like to woo, but Meadows actually makes it work. Sam explains exactly why he has fallen in love with Ana, and it rings true.
Incarnate has a quiet and creative beauty about it, drawing readers subtly into a whole new world. The first part of the book is exploration; the second part brings in more intense plot elements considering Ana’s existence and the nature of the religion in this world. Altogether, a fascinating book that could stand well enough on its own, but is preparing to lead into an even more ambitious sequel.
Published: January 31, 2012
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Goodreads: The Spindlers
Source: ARC from Goodreads giveaway
Summary: When Liza’s brother Patrick starts behaving differently, her frazzled parents notice nothing. But Liza knows that the stories her old babysitter used to tell, the ones about the spider-like spindlers who steal children’s souls, are true, and that it is up to her to go Below and rescue Patrick’s soul before it is gone forever.
Review: The Spindlers is a cute, fun story but certainly not Oliver’s best or most original. The jacket copy mentions hints of Alice in Wonderland and Coraline in the text, but there is also clear inspiration taken from Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as from C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Though the story does have its own creative touches, it often reads like an amalgamation of repurposed fantasy elements.
Most of the story is based in the fantasy, rather than in the characters or plot. The sense is that the book is saying, “Look at this magical place with its interesting geography and its weird creatures!” more than it is saying anything else—which makes it more of a flaw that the weird creatures are not particularly fascinating or remarkable. And even after all the description, Below is still an ambiguous, poorly defined place. It is not even clear until pretty far in that Below has no sunshine. Whether this means the place is like a dark tunnel with a dirt roof is hard to say. Liza certainly experiences no claustrophobia.
The best part may be Liza’s determined bravery in wanting to rescue her brother’s soul. She carries on a like a true solider, facing danger after danger just to do what is right for someone she loves. It would have been better for the readers, however, if the “real” Patrick had been introduced before this mission. Instead, we see first the “wrong” Patrick. This makes it difficult to care very strongly about Patrick as an individual, instead of merely hoping for his soul’s safe return simply because, as decent human beings, we would hope for anyone’s soul to be safe.
Oliver’s writing does flow nicely, but it may be more “beautiful” (whatever that subjectively means) in her teen books. There are also fewer notable quotations. Only one leaped out at me: “That was what her parents did not understand—and had never understood—about stories. Liza told herself stories as though she was weaving and knotting an endless rope. Then, no matter how dark or terrible the pit she found herself in, she could pull herself out, inch by inch and hand over hand, on the long rope of stories” (ARC 108).
The Spindlers was just nice. I gave it a solid three stars on Goodreads, but Oliver has written better books, and there are books by other middle-grade authors that have done what Oliver is trying to do here better. The story gives off the general impression that it was written too quickly, without the time necessary to develop it into a truly creative and thought-provoking book. Although it is decent, it is a disappointment in light of Oliver’s other work.
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
Goodreads: Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep
Series: The Princess Tales
Summary: Princess Sonora was cursed at her naming ceremony by the fairy Belladonna to prick herself on a spindle and die, but another fairy altered the curse so Sonora and the rest of the castle will sleep for a hundred years. Generations later, in the kingdom of Greater Kulornia, Prince Christopher has a lot of questions that no one can answer. Everyone just recites the old proverb “Princess Sonora knows, but don’t ask her.” Then, one day, a visiting shepherd tells him, “Princess Sonora knows, but don’t ask her…because she’s asleep.” Christopher sets off to find the legendary Sonora to ask if she can help solve his kingdom’s latest problems. A retelling of “Sleeping Beauty.”
Review: Gail Carson Levine brings humor to another well-loved fairytale by making Sonora a princess blessed at birth with extraordinary intelligence. From that moment on she does not coo but begins reading treatises on how to improve the everyday workings of the castle. When she begins to crawl and then walk, she sets daily distance goals and travels in straight lines and perfect circles. Sonora, however, is not as boring as all her reading and talking encourages everyone to think. She is witty and often comes to conclusions that are more imaginative than they are scientific. For example, she knows yeast makes bread rise, but when she wants to know why, she decides it is because bread is supposed to feed people and risen bread will feed more people than flat bread will.
The other characters are equally as wonderful. Her first would-be suitor is dreadfully dull and enjoys stating the obvious and enjoys listing the gifts he was given by the fairies at birth. He is Handsome. He is Tall. He is a Man of Action. (He used to be a Baby of Action.) Prince Christopher is much more delightful and enjoys asking questions, so readers know from the start that he and Sonora ought to be perfect for each other. But…after a hundred years, Princess Sonora is a bit dusty. Does Christopher really want to kiss her?
Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep combines elements of the classic tale and creative elements that are all Levine’s own. Fairytale lovers with a sense of humor and appreciation for the random will very much like this entire series.
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Goodreads: Cinderellis and the Glass Hill
Series: The Princess Tales
Summary: Ellis’s older brothers Burt and Ralph are best friends, but are uninterested in him and his inventions. When King Humphrey IV announces anyone who manages to ride a horse to the top of a glass tower will be allowed to marry Princess Marigold, Burt and Ralph decide to go and watch the fun. Ellis decides to test his new sticky powder on the glass hill. A retelling of “The Princess on the Glass Hill.”
Review: Cinderellis and the Glass Hill is fairly unique in offering a male protagonist. Readers will love the clever but lonely Ellis, who only wants his brothers to like him and to invent things that will make the kingdom a better place. Princess Marigold is equally charming and ingenious, and is also lonely because her father is always riding off on ridiculous quests for magical souvenirs. The strength of this book lies strongly on the characters, including a cat name Apricot and some beautiful horses. This will definitely be a favorite among animal lovers. It also includes all the imagination and wit found in the previous Princess Tales and is overall a delightful read.
Goodreads: Before I Fall
Summary: After Samantha Kingston dies in a car accident, she wakes up to find herself reliving the day of her death over and over again. Sometimes things happen close to how they happened the first time it was February 12. Sometimes Sam makes choices that cause them to turn out differently. To escape the cycle, she must figure out which choices are the right ones, what she was supposed to do on February 12.
Review: There are some excerpts from this book that are quite beautiful—the quote on the cover, for instance, and most of the prologue. These small pieces of the story drew me in from the very beginning because they were poignant, profound. I quickly discovered they were the exception rather than the rule.
Samantha Kingston is a highly unpleasant person. She is popular, and she is someone’s worst nightmare of a mean girl. She calls people names, starts rumors, flirts with her teacher, sneaks out of school, dresses in clothing that barely covers her body. She parties, smokes, and drinks, and only feels a little bit bad about sending people horrible notes and dumping beer on their heads. In short, I could hardly believe this girl was the protagonist. She is downright nasty, and at the end of the first chapter, she defends it: “Is what I did really so much worse than what anybody else does?” she asks. “Is it really so much worse than what you’d do? Think about it.”
Yes, actually, it is. It is much worse than what I do or ever have done and worse than anything anyone I have ever known has done. Maybe this is supposed to be a thought-provoking moment for teenagers everywhere, maybe it truly makes some readers reconsider their lives. Most people probably just think Sam is crazy and wonder why they are reading about someone who, in the words of many of the characters, is a bitch. (We may take the time here to note this book does contain some unsavory language and a decent amount of talk/jokes about sex.)
Obviously the point of the book is that Sam comes to some sort of great revelation, becomes a better person. Eventually she does. She tries to make fun of people less, tries to understand them more. She never turns around completely. At the end, she is still defending some of her actions and defending those of her friends. Yes, one is an even worse person than Sam is, but this is apparently okay because she is just insecure and she will figure out her life someday. People may suffer from her cruelty in the meantime, but, hey, that’s life. Great messages clearly come from this novel.
On the good side of things, the romance is extremely touching, and I would enjoy reading another book by Oliver just to see what else she can do in the area. There is not much time for a relationship—Sam is dying, after all—but Oliver makes the short moments meaningful. It really is beautiful.
Oliver also deserves kudos for managing to make a story where the same day occurs seven times quite interesting. The second day is the most similar to the first, but readers need not worry all the days are alike. Very different things do happen, with a few unchanging bits as anchors. The plot moves quickly and is almost surprisingly engaging. Sam also becomes easier to deal with, as she begins to consider why she has been given the chance to live her last day repeatedly.
Before I Fall is a cross between chick-lit and science fiction that is intriguing, but will probably sit better with readers who normally enjoy chick-lit. In the end, it is just really catty. The philosophical questions are not exactly hidden behind this, but it can be difficult to sympathize with someone who is really mean and clearly full of herself. Oliver has obvious talents as a writer, and I am still interested in reading her other books because of the questions she raises, her beautiful prose, and her characterization. I just want to be sure her characterization skills are used on people who are little more likeable.
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Goodreads: The Princess Test
Series: The Princess Tales
Summary: Lorelei is a blacksmith’s daughter who seems to be allergic to and sensitive to everything; mostly she is good at embroidery. Prince Nicholas’s parents want him to marry, and they set up a ridiculous series of tests to find a true princess. Nicholas thinks no one is likely to pass, and hopes if they do not, he will be allowed to marry Lorelei instead. But then Lorelei shows up at the castle and is entered into the contests. Unable to help her in any way, Nicholas prays she will be able to do the impossible: feel a pea under twenty feather mattresses. A retelling of “The Princess and the Pea.”
Review: Levine’s story is delightfully fun, and as close to a “real” fairytale as retellings are likely to get. All the stories in The Princess Tales story are short (able to be read in half an hour) and function on the same bases as the originals. There is love at first sight, the good characters are generally pretty if not stunningly gorgeous, and it is perfectly obvious how everything will end. In short, they are wonderful.
The Princess Test is a witty retelling of “The Princess and the Pea.” King Humphrey is very fond of synonyms and enjoys stringing them together. Lorelei embroiders her family’s clothing with footstools instead of flowers. And there is not just the pea test for the princesses to pass, but a series of similar ones that are equally absurd. How many princesses will find a single stitch missing from a tapestry and from how far away?
In the end, Lorelei does demonstrate that she has compassion and will be a loving, not just a finicky queen. This is a nice touch that helps the reader cheer for Lorelei for more than the simple reason that Nicholas wants her to win, and it is a good lesson for children that a good character is one of the most important qualities a ruler should have.