Goodreads: Ever After High: The Storybook of Legends
Series: Ever After High #1
Published: October 1, 2013
At Ever After High, an enchanting boarding school, the children of fairytale legends prepare themselves to fulfill their destinies as the next generation of Snow Whites, Prince Charmings and Evil Queens…whether they want to or not. Each year on Legacy Day, students sign the Storybook of Legends to seal their scripted fates. For generations, the Village of Book End has whispered that refusing to sign means The End-both for a story and for a life.
As the daughter of the Evil Queen, Raven Queen’s destiny is to follow in her mother’s wicked footsteps, but evil is so not Raven’s style. She’s starting to wonder, what if she rewrote her own story? The royal Apple White, daughter of the Fairest of Them All, has a happy ever after planned for herself, but it depends upon Raven feeding her a poison apple in their future.
What if Raven doesn’t sign the Storybook of Legends? It could mean a happily never after for them both.
This review has to begin by addressing the elephant in the room: The premise of The Storybook of Legends makes absolutely no sense—and the problem is not one that can be fixed, bar rewriting the entire book with a new plot. In Hale’s fairy tale world, each new generation of characters must relive their parents’ stories. Apple White will become the next Snow White, eat an apple, fall asleep, fall in love, etc. Ashlynn Ella will become the next Cinderella, work hard, go to a ball, meet her prince, lose her shoe, etc. And so on. This social structure raises a lot of questions.
For one, why are all these characters in high school together? Holly O’Hair (Rapunzel) should have been kidnapped as a baby and raised in a tower. Ashlynn (Cinderella) should have had a terrible childhood with an evil stepmother. Briar (Sleeping) Beauty should be hidden away from spinning wheels. And so on. These fairy tale characters have already missed half of their stories! Other complications arise, however. Apple White and Raven Queen are supposed to be Snow White and the Evil Queen, which means Raven should be Apple’s stepmother. She is not. This is actually mentioned in the book and the characters shrug it off, saying, “There must be slight variations in the story.”
Yet other characters have similar relationship problems. For instance, Ashlynn Ella’s parents are Cinderella and Prince Charming—yet Ashlynn is supposed to marry Prince Charming. But would not her brother, if she had one, be Prince Charming? Whom, then, does she marry? And, since her mother Cinderella is still alive, must she suddenly die so that Ashlynn’s father can remarry an evil stepmother? And then does her family suddenly lose their fortune and royal status so Ashlynn can live as a mistreated commoner girl? The questions can go on and on and on, for each and every one of the characters. Saying that the stories must change a bit with each general of fairy tale characters is far from an adequate explanation.
Nonsensical premise aside (and we must put it aside to get anywhere with this book), The Storybook of Legends is a pretty entertaining read. It is more commercial, or perhaps gimmicky, than Hale’s typical stories, filled with cheesy modern references to musicians (Taylor Quick), and brands and with silly fairy tale puns. The characters have their own fantasy slang, such as telling each other they look “fairy nice,” apparently an attempt to make the book sound hip.
The story’s strongest point, however, is probably the characters. Though Hale is working with fairy tale “types” and with somewhat predetermined personalities, she manages to make each person come alive. Even the characters truly invested in living out their well-known destinies have unique hopes, dreams, and quirks. Apple White is determined to be the best queen she can, yet experiences moments of self-doubt. Briar Beauty wants to live life to the fullest, since she is going to spend a lot of time sleeping. Dexter Charming wishes to be as brave and, well, charming as his older brother. Hale’s star character, however, is Madeline Hatter, a slightly mad girl who speaks in Riddlish yet has the world’s biggest heart and a lot of wisdom. For me, her charisma helps her outshine even protagonist Raven Queen.
The main storyline, following Raven as she decides whether or not to sign the Storybook of Legends and seal her destiny as the world’s most evil queen, is an engaging little adventure. Raven gets into a number of escapades, some related to discovering her destiny, some just to get her through the daily trials of high school. Readers spend as much time with Raven trying to navigate friendships and classes and they do navigating magical perils. In the end, the plot does not get quite as far as readers might wish, instead saving the things that I, at least, really wanted to know for future books in the series. The Storybook of Legends just gives readers a taste, introducing characters and the main problem, without really solving it. Truthfully, I would have liked to see a tighter plot, with everything answered and tied up in a standalone, rather than an entire Ever After High series.
All that said, The Storybook of Legends is still fun, creative, and cute. Shannon Hale has written better books, but for a book trying to sell a series of Mattel dolls, it really is quality stuff. I would recommend it for readers who enjoy light fairy tale retellings and fantasy books with a modern touch.
Goodreads: The Drowned Vault
Series: Ashtown Burials #2
A year ago Cyrus Smith lost the Dragon’s Tooth to the ruthless Dr. Phoenix–a man who dreams of resurrecting the dead and redefining what it means to be human. The tooth, however, while it can be used to raise the dead, is also the one thing that can kill the transmortals–men and women who would otherwise live forever. Now the transmortals, led by Gilgamesh of Uruk, are at the doors of Ashtown demanding the deaths of Cyrus and his sister Antigone, and the severing of the ancient treaties that keep their powers in check. With two enemies without and traitors within, the Smiths and their Keeper may have only one chance of staying alive–an alliance with one of the Order’s most notorious prisoners.
The Drowned Vault brings a new maturity to the Ashtown Burials series. The first book necessarily bore the weight of having to introduce readers to a new world full of new characters and new rules. Cyrus and Antigone were new, too, and though Dr. Phoenix and his monsters threatened the Order of Brendan, no one expected them to help; their job then was to pass their training and gain acceptance in the Order. Now, however, the pieces on the board have been set and the young Smiths, as full members of the O of B, have taken their place among them. They have entered an adult world and no one can shelter them from the dangers that await.
The Drowned Vault is a middle-grade book, but N. D. Wilson never uses that as an excuse to gloss over the darkness that exists in the world. The villains in this story will not stay their hands because they deal with children and they cannot be defeated by any cutesy high jinks or even by any roundabout methods that will allow the protagonists to feel some sort of mental distance from their actions. The characters engage in real, bloody battles with full knowledge that they are responsible for any attacks they make, any lives they take. The Smiths also increasingly come to realize that to triumph over darkness, they will be required to make sacrifices. Their own start out comparatively small–torn feet, bullet wounds, the costs of war that other books sometimes ignore. As they progress, however, they see the kinds of sacrifices others have made to stem the tide of evil, sacrifices that did not merely leave physical scars, but also emotional, mental, and spiritual ones. They also come to learn that even when facing obvious evil, there may be no right course to choose when combating it.
All this leads up to a finale in which the Smiths must face their own greatest sacrifice. This time at least they have no doubt about the right choice, but that does not make the choice easy and that does not mean they will choose it. Their family is at stake and there is perhaps nothing on earth more important to the Smiths than their family. The crisis comes at a moment of intense confusion–readers want action at the end of a book, right?– but Wilson inserts into the chaos a quiet image of everything the Smiths have to gain and everything they have to lose: a black hand on top of a white hand. In that image, the shared humanity of the characters comes together–all their love and hopes and dreams– contrasting with the warped sense of humanity envisioned by Dr. Phoenix. It is a moment of rare depth, at least for children’s books.
The Ashtown Burials series has continued to surprise me with its moving depictions of love, loss, and sacrifice. Other books talk about the power of love or about the importance of doing the right thing, but few so powerfully illustrate just what either of those things means. In this world, love is not simply fuzzy feelings and doing the right thing will not result in a gold star or public recognition. In this world, both love and doing right are a conscious choice to give of one’s self and to accept the bad with the good, whether or not anyone knows or cares. The Drowned Vault may be set in a world where Greek legends walk the streets and dragons are rumored to exist, but it feels more real than many a contemporary novel.
Goodreads: The Runaway King
Series: The Ascendance Trilogy #2
Published: March 1, 2013
A kingdom teetering on the brink of destruction. A king gone missing. Who will survive? Find out in the highly anticipated sequel to Jennifer A. Nielsen’s blockbuster THE FALSE PRINCE!
Just weeks after Jaron has taken the throne, an assassination attempt forces him into a deadly situation. Rumors of a coming war are winding their way between the castle walls, and Jaron feels the pressure quietly mounting within Carthya. Soon, it becomes clear that deserting the kingdom may be his only hope of saving it. But the further Jaron is forced to run from his identity, the more he wonders if it is possible to go too far. Will he ever be able to return home again? Or will he have to sacrifice his own life in order to save his kingdom?
The stunning second installment of The Ascendance Trilogy takes readers on a roller-coaster ride of treason and murder, thrills and peril, as they journey with the Runaway King!
With The Runaway King, Nielsen writes a magnificent follow-up to bestseller The False Prince, reintroducing readers to all their favorite characters and intrigues. Sage passes through an initial period of anger, but once he gets a grip on his emotions, he is as clever as ever—something many writers find difficult to maintain over a series. He is joined by gutsy Imogen, old enemy Roden, and a few unexpected new friends.
In addition to creating an evolving cast, Nielsen keeps the story fresh by moving the plot out of Carthya—straight into a pirate camp. Sage and his friends have two new cultures to learn, that of rival kingdom Avenia and that of the pirates’ of Tarblade Bay. How well they can adapt and blend in will determine how long they can keep their lives. One suspects they must succeed (That’s what happens in modern children’s books, right? The good guys win?), but Nielsen still keeps readers on the edges of their seats, introducing plot twist as plot twist.
Sage’s exploits in The Runaway King are as physically demanding as they are mentally. Outwitting pirates often means backing them into a duel. Sage exhibits remarkable strength and endurance through his ordeals, demonstrating his mind and body are as quick as his tongue—characteristics that will serve him well as the king he is meant to become.
Through all the action, The Runaway King promotes some great moral messages about doing what is right, maintaining loyalty, and sacrificing oneself when necessary. The book is not preachy, however; ethical actions are simply something that permeate Sage’s worldview and thus the story. The Runaway King tells readers that doing the right thing is tough, but it is worthwhile.
The Runaway King is a fast-paced middle grade adventure that will please fans of The False Prince with its wit, charm, and thoughtfulness.
Teaser Quote: “Afraid didn’t even begin to describe the terror I felt. Pinched behind me, my hands still shook. But I was angry with myself too. Because for all my good intentions, it was obvious that I had been wrong to come here. There were so many who would pay for my mistakes” (250-251).
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Goodreads: Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things
Series: Mister Max #1
Published: September 2013
Max’s parents arranged to meet him upon the Flower of Kashmir to take the trip of a lifetime. When Max arrives at the harbor, however, the ship does not exist and his parents are missing. Luckily Max possesses a talent for finding things—lost children, lost dogs, and even lost loves. Dressed in various disguises, he roams the city solving other people’s mysteries—but will he be able to solve his own?
The Book of Lost Things was a delightful surprise. Sometimes books in a genre all seem to blur together. Sometimes middle-grade offerings all seem the same. Cynthia Voigt, however, takes a standard middle-grade plot–that of the missing parents–and transforms it into something new. Readers may not fully swallow the details of the plot, but the adventure on which Max takes them is so fun that most will probably suspend their disbelief willingly, just to continue.
This book announces its determination to do something different from the very beginning–when Max loses his parents, but is not left alone. That’s right. Max has a grandmother and she loves him and cares for him and feeds him. And she helps him solve the mystery. Max still wants to be independent. He seems to think that caring for himself will make losing his parents more bearable. But that’s okay. His grandmother is still there if he needs her; she gives him space without ever letting him do anything too stupid. And thus we have a rare example of a book in which children can rely on adults while still having fun.
Max’s independence comes largely in the area of getting a job, which also makes sense since his grandmother does not make enough money to support both of them. (Her job, incidentally, is also a pretty good way of keeping her out of the way when Max goes off exploring.) The job he eventually lands will probably tax the belief of readers–he becomes some sort of detective, which means he dresses up in various outfits, pretending to be a portly middle-aged man, a university student, and more all while still a child. And people buy it. But, hey, at least Voigt tried to explain it by making his parents actors. And the job search itself was pretty realistic for these times–Max looks all over town but no one’s hiring. Usually characters seem to land the first job they walk into.
If readers can get past these amazing feats of disguise, they may very well find the rest of the plot both enchanting and amusing. It is always fun to see who Max will be next and how his clients will react to his appearance. He seems to have a pretty good idea of how people work–apparently it comes from reading Shakespeare–and his reasonings for costumes are just as fun as the outfits themselves. Some of the plot elements will be familiar (this is a middle-grade book and not all “mysteries” are that mysterious), but surprises are still in store and I think most will not predict the ending.
The only problem now is that I have to wait to get my hands on the sequel.
Goodreads: The Twistrose Key
Published: October 22, 2013
A striking middle-grade debut in the tradition of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Golden Compass
When a mysterious parcel arrives at her family’s new home, eleven-year-old Lin Rosenquist has a curious feeling she’s meant to discover what’s inside.
Much to Lin’s surprise, the ornate key contained in the parcel unlocks a spellbinding world called Sylver, hidden behind the cellar door. Sylver is an enchanting land of eternal winter, inhabited by animals that shared a special connection with children in the real world, either as beloved pets or tamed wild animals. In death, they are delivered to Sylver, where they take on a curiously human-like form and still watch over the children they cherish. While Lin is overjoyed to be reunited with her beloved pet, Rufus, she soon learns that the magic of the Petlings and Wilders is failing, and snow trolls want to claim Sylver for themselves. Lin must discover a way to stop them and save this enchanted world.
Full of charm, suspense, and heartfelt emotion, this memorable classic in the making will leave readers breathless.
The Twistrose Key promises a lot, and I was attracted the moment I heard of it. The official summary boasts, “Exhilarating suspense and unforgettable characters await the readers of this magical adventure, destined to become a classic.” A classic magical middle-grade adventure? I thought. It’s about time someone wrote a book that can stand alongside The Chronicles of Narnia. Count me in!
Unfortunately, for the first 100 pages—nearly one third of the book—I felt I was reading Narnia (see specific comparison quotes below). From the main character’s chance meeting with a talking creature in a snowy magical world to the way time works in Sylver, it is clear Almhjell is heavily inspired by Lewis. While taking some seeds from Narnia would not be amiss in a fantasy, attempting a rewrite of Lucy Pevensie’s iconic meeting with Mr. Tumnus in a frozen wood is bold—and in most cases destined for failure.
Once all the background information on the world of Sylver and Lin’s quest there is set up, the book does become more original. It also becomes more fast-paced. Protagonists Rufus and Lin travel more widely, they encounter more powerful magic, and they uncover a number of titillating secrets. They decipher prophecies, they escape from traps, and they battle a horde of trolls. It’s quite exciting, really, and made all the better by the bond between Rufus and Lin. They are fantastic traveling companions, determined to stick by each other through whatever adventures befall them.
The story also gets progressively darker, which is a major departure from Narnia in itself. Lin suffers various injuries, with appropriate gushing of blood, and seems in real danger of dying at several points. The descriptions of what happens to some of the bad guys in the tale are also pretty grisly. This edgy take on children’s fantasy will appeal immensely to modern audiences.
However, Almhjell strikes a great balance by including childlike moments and activities that lighten the tone of the novel. Lin refuses to remove the grubby old cardigan her grandmother knit her and that Rufus used to live in. She recalls her times playing troll-hunters with her friend at home when she must fight real trolls. She thinks how disappointed her parents will be if she fails in her quest and never returns home. Lin, though a Twistrose, is still a little girl—and a delightful one at that. A well-written and believable child heroine.
The Twistrose Key certainly has its flaws. Its beginning is very derivative, and when it is not being derivative it can be confusing. (Lin’s quest, in particular, is not clearly defined when introduced.) However, if readers are willing to stick out the story until the point Rufus and Lin leave Sylveros, they will find a real adventure awaiting—one that has action, but also charm, one that takes readers to magical places, but also explores real questions like the nature of friendship and courage. I am not as in love with The Twistrose Key as I had sincerely hoped, but it is a pleasant read for fans of the genre.
Are you sure we’re not in Narnia?
This section includes a side-by-side comparison of quotes The Twistrose Key and The Chronicles of Narnia, in order to highlight the similarities. The quotes, of course, count as spoilers for those who prefer to go into books blind.
“There was no cellar, and no riverbank, either. Instead she looked out on a desolate, frozen mountain valley, where winter twilight painted the snow blue, and stern peaks rose into the sky. A creature crouched in the snow before her, facing away, but so close that she could smell it: a musky scent” (Twistrose 9).
“And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air…She heard a pitter patter of feet coming towards her. And soon after that a very strange person stepped out from among the trees into the light of the lamp-post” (Narnia 113-114).
“When true danger rises, when the last hope is lost, it is said in Sylver that only a child of Earth can help” (56).
“When Adam’s flesh and Adam’s bone
Sits at Cair Paravel in throne,
The evil time will be over and done” (147).
“That’s right, girl. Time flows differently in Sylver…An hour here can be a day in your world, or a day can be a week, we never know” (49).
“If, I say, she [Lucy] had got into another world, I should not be at all surprised to find that the other world had a separate time of its own; so that however long you stayed there it would never take up any of our time” (132).
“The Observatory allows us to see our human children, but only for a time….”
“You mean because they died?”
“No. Because they aren’t children anymore” (344-345).
“’Oh, you two [Lucy and Edmund] are,’ said Peter. ‘At least, from what [Aslan] said, I’m pretty sure he means you to get back [to Narnia] some day. But not Su and me. He says we’re getting too old’” (417).
Almhjell, Tone. The Twistrose Key. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.
Lewis, C. S. The Chronicles of Narnia. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Print.
Goodreads: The Dragon’s Tooth
Series: Ashtown Burials #1
Antigone and Cyrus Smith live in a dilapidated hotel with their older brother Daniel. No one ever checks in, until the night a strange man requests a specific room. By morning, the man has died, the hotel has burned to the ground, and Daniel has disappeared. Informed that the only way to save their brother is to join a mysterious order of explorers, Antigone and Cyrus find themselves racing against time to find the order and swear their loyalty. Not everyone in the order, however, welcomes the new initiates. Surrounded by enemies, the two will have to prove their skill and bravery if they want to reunite their family.
The Dragon’s Tooth is one of those rare middle grade books that constantly surprises, not only with its imagination and the vividness of its world, but also with its unexpected depth. Though the plot may sound not unfamiliar—young heroes find they belong to an ancient order—Wilson sets it apart from standard fantasy fare by grounding it in the nitty gritty of everyday life. His characters have real backgrounds, full of pain as well as mundanity, that shape who they are. They face real challenges that test not only their physical endurance but also their moral character. And when they fight, they bleed. Far from being fantasy wish fulfillment, The Dragon’s Tooth looks life in the face and admits to readers that sometimes life hurts. But that does not take away any of its wonder or enchantment.
Wilson does so much right with this book that writing a manageable review about it all seems almost impossible. Certain aspects, however, immediately stand out because they contrast with elements I often see in contemporary media. For example, I think many readers will find themselves pleased with the strong emphasis on family. The Smiths’ parents are, actually, missing, if you want to put it that way—their father died in an accident and their mother lies in a coma. However, Cyrus and Antigone are cared for by their twenty-year-old brother, who had to give up college to provide for them and who works hard to do so. All three have a special bond that they recognize as especially important as a result of losing their parents. Their actions throughout the book are dictated by their desire to remain together and to help each other. They furthermore remain devoted to their mother, whom they visit regularly.
The setting of The Dragon’s Tooth also stands out. The Smiths currently live in Wisconsin. That’s right—Midwestern America, where you probably thought nothing ever happened. Their lives, however, have a certain Americana charm. They live in a dilapidated motel with one of those old neon signs and they eat in one of those classic truck stop diners. It is a really beautiful choice because I do not think I have ever seen it done. Like Suzanne Collins, who evidently wrote The Underland Chronicles as a sort of urban Alice in Wonderland, Wilson takes an overlooked location and gives it the possibility of magic.
Magic, however, never comes without a price and The Dragon’s Tooth pulls no punches. From the very moment they accept the invitation to join the order of explorers, Antigone and Cyrus find themselves battling not only monsters and villains, but also the pettiness of fellow students and resentful adults. Their acceptance to the order comes with a stipulation that no one else has to meet. But the Smiths meet their challenges with grace (well, most of them). They lost their parents at a young age and they know life is seldom fair and that sometimes they have to fight.
The fighting Wilson shows is not pretty, either. While some middle grade books seem to think children cannot handle reality, The Dragon’s Tooth not only shows the real effects of violence (though not in a gruesome way—just acknowledging that people are going to have broken limbs or bruises or bloody gashes) but also introduces a villain who performs ghastly experiments on his victims in order to achieve something he perceives as greater than humanity. There are corpses in this book, as well as grieving survivors. But Wilson seems to trust his audience to handle it—like the Smiths, they may well have experienced suffering in their own lives.
Finally, I just have to note that those who wish for more diversity in contemporary media will probably see this book as a good start. For one, it is full of strong female characters—strong as in confident, skilled, compassionate, and intelligent. Some of them are fighters and some of them are not; they do not have to fit into a certain type of mold to be considered strong. Furthermore, the Smiths’ mother comes from Brazil, so the protagonists have a mixed background, one that is celebrated when another character notes that Cyrus and Antigone have inherited their mother’s darker skin and hair—he calls this a “gift.” Another important character is described as having black skin. So, if we ever get a movie of this series, we can hopefully expect a very diverse cast, one that honors the spirit of the order of explorers, which is international in character and celebrates the skills and insights its varied members can bring.
Aside from the technical notes of how family, setting, and diversity are handled, The Dragon’s Tooth is an enthralling read in its own right. The characters are likable, the premise engaging, and the plot suspenseful. Action fills nearly every page, yet the book manages to balance the need for plot advancement with moments that illustrate the emotional growth of the characters. The characters, just as much as the magic of the world they live in, drive the book, making me eager not only to continue their story but also to reread the parts of their story I already know. And a book that bears rereading is truly a good book.
After a tragic shipwreck, baby Sophie is discovered floating in a cello case. Charles Maxim, an absentminded scholar, determines to adopt her as his ward. The British government, however, disapproves of homes where dinner is served on books, the wallpaper is covered in notes, and young ladies are to be seen wearing trousers. The children’s agency wants to take Sophie away, but before she lets that happen, the now twelve-year-old girl convinces her guardian to take her on one last journey in an attempt to find the mother she knows is still alive.
Rooftoppers possesses a magical charm all its own from the delightfully comfy love between Sophia and her guardian to the breathtaking visions of beauty offered from the roofs of Paris. By turns clever, humorous, and knowing, this book stands out as one of the most original middle grade offerings of the year.
The strength of the book undoubtedly lies in its many stars. Readers have Sophia, the hopefully reckless orphan in search of her mother; Charles, the wise guardian who knows when to press his ward and when to grant her freedom; and Matteo, the orphan who finds freedom living on the roofs of Paris. Their relationships will warm and inspire; Charles here proves no absent guardian, but one firmly invested in giving Sophia the security and understanding he knows she needs. Sophia and Matteo, meanwhile, develop an unlikely friendship based on mutual trust and respect. Without ever overtly teaching a lesson, Rooftoppers demonstrates the true strength of love.
Though the characters are sure to charm, the setting and the prose prove equally important in creating the enchantment of Rooftoppers. The author takes readers on a unique journey across the roofs of Paris, introducing them to a wild freedom and a spectacular beauty through the eyes of the children who dared to imagine a different kind of life. All this comes alive through Katherine Rundell’s unique voice.
Only the ending marred the story for me. Though I suspected how the story would go, I did hope for fewer loose ends. I assume Rundell did not wish to ruin the moment with explanations about the inconvenient facts of life. Still, though I think Rooftoppers stands perfectly alone, my concern for the future of the characters has me wishing for some sort of epilogue, if not a sequel.
Even with my misgivings about the end, however, Rooftoppers triumphs as a beautifully artistic work about the power of hope, the power of love, and the power of friendship. I hope we can expect more magical worlds from the pen of Katherine Rundell.
Goodreads: Over Sea, Under Stone
Series: The Dark Is Rising Sequence #1
While on vacation in Cornwall, Simon, Barney, and Jane Drew discover an ancient manuscript that points to the hiding place of the Holy of Grail of Arthurian legend. At first the children think their discovery a new type of game, but as they try to decode the puzzle, they find themselves in the middle of an ancient struggle between good and evil.
The first book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence follows in the footsteps of fantasy giants like E. Nesbit and C. S Lewis, introducing readers to a to a modern-day Britain both familiar and strange. Though the village of Trewissick seems like a typical holiday spot, the Drew children soon learn that the area has an intriguing past, all bound up with King Arthur and the legendary Holy Grail. That past comes alive when the same forces that fought Arthur return to claim the Grail.
The great charm of Over Sea, Under Stone comes not only from the collision of magic with the everyday world, but also from the normality of the Drew children. None of them possesses unbelievable intelligence or athleticism; none of them possesses some arcane skill that just so happens to be the one thing that will enable them to save the day. They are relatable and believable, and readers feel that, in the place of the Drew children, they, too, would have the ability to solve the mystery.
Over Sea, Under Stone makes magic in the everyday world seem not only possible, but even probable. Its deep sense of history reveals the layers that combine to make our present, and in the process inspires surprise and wonder. Sometimes the current glut of fantasy series on the market makes finding a good one seem impossible, but it is no mistake The Dark Is Rising sequence has turned into a genre classic.
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Goodreads: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library
Published: June 25, 2013
Kyle Keeley is the class clown, popular with most kids, (if not the teachers), and an ardent fan of all games: board games, word games, and particularly video games. His hero, Luigi Lemoncello, the most notorious and creative gamemaker in the world, just so happens to be the genius behind the building of the new town library.
Lucky Kyle wins a coveted spot to be one of the first 12 kids in the library for an overnight of fun, food, and lots and lots of games. But when morning comes, the doors remain locked. Kyle and the other winners must solve every clue and every secret puzzle to find the hidden escape route. And the stakes are very high.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library has a clear audience: anyone who likes books. So it should be a great choice for anyone reading this blog (You like books, right? And libraries?). Grabenstein works to grab potentially more reluctant readers, as well, by combining this topic with the fun of board games and the cleverness of puzzles and puns. He brings readers not just into a library, but into Mr. Lemoncello’s library, which is filled not only with the latest technology (holograms, touchscreens, smartboards, etc.) but also with secrets.
The plot centers on a group of children who have been “trapped” in Mr. Lemoncello’s library and must follow a series of hidden clues in order to escape. All kinds of fun ensues as the children battle with wits and literary knowledge to be the first one out the door. In many cases, however, the puzzles are not ones that readers can figure out along with the characters. Kyle and his friends often use their knowledge of Mr. Lemoncello’s board games to solve their way through clues. While many of these games are clearly based on real versions (modified Trivial Pursuit, for example), they remain fictional and readers cannot be as immediately familiar with them, their rules, and their secret shortcuts as the characters. However, there are a few straight-up puzzles, like rebuses, and plenty of trivia questions that occasionally allow readers to get in on the game.
The plot is generally interesting, particularly if one likes books and enjoys literary allusions and puns. Things briefly slow in the middle of the novel, as the children spend several chapters tracking down a series of Dewey Decimal numbers and their corresponding books. Eventually, even the characters seem to realize they could have completed this task much more quickly, if they had formed a more efficient plan of action. After that is settled, however, the pace picks up again and the race is back on through the world’s most surprising library.
As a bonus, the game the children play is not as cut-throat as many of the reality games readers may be used to. Mr. Lemoncello’s contestants are rewarded for good sportsmanship and penalized or even disqualified for breaking the rules (or people, or things). It is immensely refreshing and encouraging to find a game that is truly based on and won with brainpower, not sneakiness or force. Young readers will be reminded of the positive impact their kindness and honesty can have in their lives, while readers of any age will smile to see a situation where all good deeds go rewarded.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is not quite as quirky or clever as other middle grade novels striving for the same effect (The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart and The Name of the Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch come to mind), but it is a fun and slightly wacky read. Recommended for readers of all ages, both those looking to revel in their love of books and those seeking to discover what makes books exciting.
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Goodreads: Penelope Crumb
Series: Penelope Crumb #1
Published: August 2, 2012
Penelope Crumb is no ordinary fourth grader. And when she discovers that she *gasp* has a big nose she’s initially devastated. But when her mother lets her know that she has the same nose as her Grandpa, Penelope perks up. And then she perks up even more when she finds out that Grandpa isn’t dead like she expected–he’s just gone. And she decides that it’s her job to find him. A sweet and funny story with tons of heart and hijinx about Penelope using her big nose to bring her family together.
Penelope Crumb, I assume, is supposed to be a spunky girl out for adventures. She’s the type of child who can embrace the fact she has a large nose, just knowing it must give her super sniffing powers, and who has so much heart and good will she refuses to accept her mother’s decision to stay out of touch with her grandfather. Unfortunately, in spite of these admirable characteristics, I took a personal dislike to Penelope from the beginning of the book and never became endeared to her.
It turns out that Penelope is also someone who has gratingly bad grammar, as she says things like “real quick,” and who frequently brings out expressions like “good gravy!” Good gravy, indeed! Penelope’s speech patterns may be realistic, but I am not a fan, and reading nearly 200 pages of such narration is trying. Additionally, Penelope’s confidence and spunk lead her to take actions that could fairly be called obnoxious. It is not because I am a fuddy-duddy adult that I find Penelope irritating. She is exactly the type of classmate I would have disliked to have as a child—one who raises her hand to answer everything (even when she has no idea what she is talking about) and who fixates on the flaws of others. Penelope may frequently decide that she will not be the one to tell someone that they have an annoying voice or an overbearing attitude, but, boy, does she notice and hint.
Plot-wise, Penelope drags her friends into some fairly interesting escapades as she sneaks about—missing school, faking illness, eluding her brother—to locate her long-lost grandfather. The one she thought was dead. Graveyard dead. (Another one of her expressions.) As a fuddy-duddy adult, I do think Penelope ultimately should have gotten into some type of trouble for this (seriously, having her friend impersonate her mother so she can play hooky from school), but such adventures will obviously be tons of fun for young readers.
I also think the rift between Penelope’s mother and grandfather, and their later reconciliation (not a spoiler—this is an upbeat middle grade book!) could bear more explanation. The readers get sufficient hints about the grandfather’s reasons for disappearing, which probably offer just the right amount of detail for a young audience. However, he suddenly just comes back and Penelope’s mother, previously hurt and angry about his behavior, dandily accepts him. This is all very cheerful, but, middle grade novel or not, these two really need to talk things out. As it is, the ending is sudden and highly unrealistic.
Penelope Crumb strives to be humorous, heartfelt, and quirky with its focus on people’s noses. Personally, I found Penelope annoying rather than endearing or cute and her escapades a mix between ridiculous and weird. I would have DNF-ed, except I figured that I could be done quickly since it is a lower middle grade book, and the charming cover was calling to me to just give the book a chance.
There are few reviews (16) on Goodreads at the time of my writing (8/15/13) and a good amount are by parents or teachers looking for a read for their children. They very legitimately discuss whether children will understand the writing style and concepts presented. What I want to know is whether children enjoy Penelope Crumb as a story, whether it reaches its target audience better than it reaches me, and at the moment I have no answer to that.