The Crooked Sixpence by Jennifer Bell, Illustrated by James Mountford

Information

Goodreads: The Crooked Sixpence
Series: The Uncommoners #1
Source: Library
Published: January 2017

Summary

When Ivy and Seb’s grandmother falls and is rushed to the hospital, the two return to their home only to find police armed with toilet brushes trying to arrest them.  The two go on the run and, in the process, stumble into the secret underground world of Lundinor where ordinary objects have quite uncommon uses.  But an old evil is reemerging and Ivy and Seb will have to uncover their family’s past in order to defeat it.

Review

I wanted to love The Crooked Sixpence because it sounds like just the type of quirky middle-grade adventure I would enjoy.  Eleven-year-old Ivy and her fourteen-year-old brother Seb stumble into the secret city of Lundinor where people trade objects that have unusual uses.  Yo-yos can be used as weapons, lemon juicers as lights, and belts as levitation devices.  However, ultimately the book fell flat for me.

About the first 100 pages read like a series of info dumps, one after the other.  First, the teenage boy Ivy and Seb team up with must explain the world of Lundinor and the idea of uncommon objects.  Then Ivy conveniently walks past a store where a man is lecturing a group of children on some of the laws and traditions of Lundinor.  And so it goes.  And yet, even after 100 pages of this, I still felt a little disoriented and like I didn’t fully understand the rules of the world!

Furthermore, too much in the book relied on coincidence for me to be able to swallow the story.  Time and again Ivy and her brother simply stumble into the people and places that will further plot.  First, Ivy ends up on the doorstep of her grandmother’s old friend.  Then they foolishly reveal their circumstances to a stranger and find out she used to work for their great-grandfather and can provide pertinent information.  Then they conveniently find a place no one else could find for decades.  Then, through sheer stupidity, Seb destroys property only to reveal objects that are the answer to a question no living person can answer.  What are the odds for any of this, much less all of it?

Other problems made reading the book seem a bit of a chore.  The plot is fairly predictable.  Most will be able to identify one of the main villains upon their first appearance in the story.  And the characters never really seem to come alive or to form meaningful relationships with each other, so it’s difficult to feel invested in them or their friendships.  In the end, the part I enjoyed most were the illustrations, which are beautiful and quirky and make the book feel much more exciting than I thought it was.  The last 50 pages or so finally picked up and were full of action.  But I don’t know if 50 pages are enough to convince me to read the sequel.  I’d rather just look at Mountford’s art portfolio.

3 Stars

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The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

INFORMATION

GoodreadsThe Dragon with the Chocolate Heart
Series: Untitled #1
Source: Library
Published: May 2017

SUMMARY

Tired of her family not allowing her to leave the family cave, Aventurine, a young dragon, sneaks out to capture the most dangerous prey of them all–a human.  But the first human Aventurine encounters turns her into–horror of horrors!–a human girl!  Luckily, Aventurine has a new passion.  Chocolate.  And she’ll do whatever it takes to get one of the most coveted jobs in the land, apprentice to a chocolatier.

REVIEW

The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart is a delightful middle-grade fantasy featuring a spirited heroine and plenty of sweet treats.  From the start, Aventurine is determined to prove her worth, first to her family, and then to herself.  Though she faces plenty of challenges and setbacks, she pushes through with sheer grit and the help of loyal friends.  It’s the type of book that makes whiling away the afternoon with a story one of the most enjoyable parts of the weekend.

One of the beautiful messages in this book is the idea that other people make you stronger.  Aventurine begins by being distrustful of others and thinking she can do everything by herself.  This leads her to hurt those who care about her, to turn away help when she needs it, and to ultimately think she is a failure when she makes one mistake.  However, Aventurine’s journey is not just about embracing her spirit and the things that make her unique.  It’s also about finding the strength to be vulnerable and to allow others to carry her at times.  It’s a refreshing take on strength, one that acknowledges that it’s okay to be imperfect–because everyone is.

And, of course, there’s the chocolate.  Candies, hot chocolate, you name it.  Any lover of dessert is sure to want Aventurine to succeed in her new position as apprentice to a chocolatier!  After all, who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by chocolate all day every day?  It’s the sweetest kind of story!

4 stars

The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

INFORMATION

Goodreads: The Creeping Shadow
Series: Lockwood & Co. #4
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2016

SUMMARY

Afraid of losing control of her Talents and hurting her friends, Lucy has left Lockwood & Co. to work as a freelancer.  But now Lockwood is at her door asking for help and Lucy feels powerless to refuse.  As the team fights ghosts, however, they also begin to realize that the Problem is far bigger than they imagined.  Who is collecting powerful Sources?  And is it really possible for the living to enter the world of the dead?

Review

Jonathan Stroud has done it again.  Book three got a little tiresome since it was mostly about Holly and Lucy’s arguments.  But now the unnecessary drama is gone and the characters can go back to doing what they do best–fighting ghosts and defying authority.  Lucy may be freelancing for now, but her love for Lockwood is about to draw her back to his side.

Any reader who has made it this far in the series does not need my review to know that the Lockwood & Co. books are gold.  Packed full of action and mystery, each one presents a series of smaller cases to solve, one large and dangerous ghost to defeat at the end, and always a tantalizing glimpse at the structure underlying the entire Problem.  Now the characters seem to be inching closer to the truth of what is raising the dead.  But, of course, there are always more layers to uncover.  Stroud likes to keep readers on their toes.

Add the characters–the dashing and reckless Lockwood, the spunky Lucy, and the cake-loving and intelligent George Cubbins–and you have a series that seems impossible to fail.  I’ve grown to care about each of the characters very much (except maybe Holly, who, since this is told from Lucy’s perspective, doesn’t get much positive attention aside from snide and jealous remarks about her perfect looks).  I can’t wait to see where the series goes from here.

5 stars

Grounded: The Adventures of Rapunzel by Megan Morrison

Grounded

INformation

Goodreads: Grounded: The Adventures of Rapunzel
Series: Tyme #1
Source: Purchased
Published: April 28, 2015

Official Summary

In all of Tyme, from the Redlands to the Grey, no one is as lucky as Rapunzel. She lives in a magic tower that obeys her every wish; she reads wonderful books starring herself as the heroine; her hair is the longest, most glorious thing in the world. And she knows this because Witch tells her so—her beloved Witch, who protects her from evil princes, the dangerous ground under the tower, even unhappy thoughts. Rapunzel can’t imagine any other life.

Then a thief named Jack climbs into her room to steal one of her enchanted roses. He’s the first person Rapunzel’s ever met who isn’t completely charmed by her (well, the first person she’s met at all, really), and he is infuriating– especially when he hints that Witch isn’t telling her the whole truth. Driven by anger at Jack and her own nameless fears, Rapunzel descends to the ground for the first time, and finds a world filled with more peril than Witch promised … and more beauty, wonder, and adventure than she could have dreamed.

Review

Grounded is an immensely imaginative take on the story of Rapunzel, exploring friendship, family, and the meaning of bravery.

In this tale, Rapunzel freely leaves her tower when she believes the witch (whom she fondly calls simply “Witch”) is in danger, and that it’s up to her to keep the only family she has ever known safe. Her journey brings her, and new acquaintance Jack the Beanstalker, clear across the land of Tyme, through places and people she never even knew existed. The journey is of one of personal realization, as much as one of action, as Rapunzel encounters people who have distinctly different thoughts about Witch than she does. She must learn to reconcile what she already knew about Witch and what she learns before she can return home.

The book takes places in a wonderfully imagined fantasy land, where Stalkers fill the land with danger, fairies grant wishes, and acorns can turn into just about anything you would ever want. However, as grand as the setting and fantasy draw of the narrative is, it really shines when it looks at the relationship between Rapunzel and Witch. This is an immensely complicated and nuanced thing, but Morrison tackles it head on, as well as some huge questions about morality, love, and life after death. Other family relationships (for example, between Jack and his sister) add to the rich tapestry of the novel.

My only annoyance with the book was the large chunk of time set aside for other characters to explain things to Rapunzel, from what a mother is to what the ocean is to what sex is (which I guess was supposed to be humorous, but it comes across more as a joke for adults than middle school readers). I understand Rapunzel has spent the entirety of her life in a single room in a tower, with only Witch for company and only books to read that were curated by Witch (and so don’t mention things like mothers, so Rapunzel will never wonder why she doesn’t have one), but the motif gets tiring. I could have done without pages upon pages of characters explaining perfectly ordinary things. Luckily, this stops after a while, and the focus returns to the plot at large.

This was a perfectly fun read, engrossing and imaginative but full of important questions and complex themes.

4 stars Briana

Long Live the Queen by Gerry Swallow

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Long Live the Queen
Series: Magnificent Tales of Misadventure #2
Source: Library
Publication Date: January 2017

SUMMARY

By holding her breath, twelve-year-old Elspeth can return to the land of New Winkieland where she recently overthrew the old ruler, met her biological parents, and left her favorite doll Farrah.  Because in New Winkieland, everything is alive, even the sticks.  Farrah now rules alongside Wee Willie Winkie as queen, but has been kidnapped.  Can Elspeth and her friends save Queen Farrah in time?

Review

Fairy tale retellings are very popular, but Gerry Swallow forges a new path with retellings of nursery rhymes.  In the land of New Winkieland, Jack and Jill (who went up the hill) are Elspeth’s parents, Wee Willie Winkie rules as king, and the Cheese (who stood alone) is a police detective.  Not only that, but everything is alive.  One of Elspeth’s friends is Gene–a stick.  With a premise this wild, surely the story must be good.

However, while the story is solid, the book ultimately lacks charm because few of the characters are very likeable.  Elspeth is a little boring, mostly concerned with how much others rely on her, a child, to be a hero.  The king lacks conviction, charisma, and strength.  Many of the characters are simply annoying and constantly bickering.  It is difficult to invest one’s self in any of their struggles when they can barely support each other.

And I have another gripe–the lack of real commentary on some issues with the major plot point (spoilers ahead.)  To rescue the queen, the king and Co. decide to release the old tyrant in return for half of his hidden loot.  They will use this to pay the ransom for the queen.  Of course, there are problems with this.  One can’t simply release a terrible  villain upon the world in return for money.  I don’t really care that the queen has been kidnapped.  Surely the king ought to have people who can deal with this in a more intelligent matter.  But the issues with this are contained in a single complaint from a villager–a complaint that the rules never apply to the rich.  This is an excellent point, and one that should have gotten more play.

On the whole, the book is solid and I enjoyed it.   It is a sequel but manages to stand on its own.  Still, I don’t anticipate reading the first book anytime soon.

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine (Review 2)

INFORMATION

Goodreads: The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre
Series: The Two Princesses of Bamarre 0.5
Source: Gift
Published: May 2, 2017

Summary

Perry has believed her entire life that she is one of the Lakti, a fearless and proud people who value military strength and glory in war.  Then she learns that she is really one of the Bamarre, the people who now serve the Lakti.  A fairy appears to Perry informing her that she must free her people.  But can Perry leave all she has ever known and join a people she has always thought inferior?

Review (with Spoiilers Galore!)

Like Briana, I have always considered The Two Princesses of Bamarre my favorite Gail Carson Levine book.  So I awaited the release of the prequel with great excitement.  However, though I enjoyed the book, I could not help but laugh a little at the story.  It simply makes no sense!

This is a middle-grade, so apparently Levine wants to keep the violence to a minimum even though the Lakti are at war and Perry wants to start a Bamarre revolt.   I do not agree that middle school children cannot handle pain or sadness in their stories–I am sure many experience it in their own lives.  Authors such as N. D. Wilson have written stories that balance the reality of balance with the knowledge that they are writing for children.  However, Levine follows the strategy of Jessica Day George (see Tuesdays in the Castle) by having her revolt start out small, with actions that are more akin to pranks than anything else.  Too much salt in the porridge.  Sewing a dress too tight.  Only in one village, mind you, not even the entire country.  But the protagonists hope that they can get other villages to pull some pranks, too.

In time, these pranks grow more serious.  Some Bamarre begin, for instance, to pull up the crops instead of the weeds (no word on whether that will cause the Bamarre to starve, too).  By the end, houses are being burned.  However, the end goal of all these measures is also a little…unrealistic.  The Bamarre, tired of being enslaved in their own country, wish for permission to go to the country their Lakti overlords left.  Because of the monsters.  No, no Bamarre can fight these.  The enslaved Bamarre are hardly trained to be warriors.  But will that stop them from dreaming of freedom amongst the ogres and dragons?  No.  Does the knowledge that a handful of trained warriors had two deaths in their party and saw just about everyone else wounded in the space of a few hours, when they dared to cross into monster territory give any of the Bamarre pause?  No again.

And why should it, really? They’re being lead by a fifteen-year-old stronger and faster than anyone else.  She can shoot, fight with a sword, do anything you want her to, it would seem.  At one point she even possesses four magical items!  And her sister can chop off an ogre’s head with no training at all!  And her ten-year-old brother is just mowing monsters down!   He has no weapons training, either, unless he got a few weeks’  once he was drafted into the Lakti army.  I suppose if an untrained woman, a teenager, and a child can fight monsters with such ease, the rest of the Bamarre will be fine fighting monsters with no weapons?

The rest of the ending is just as bizarre.  The Lakti lose two monarchs in one day, with only a handful of witnesses, only two of whom who will presumably count as witnesses at all–the new monarch and a knight.  No one questions this, just as no one questions that the new princess ran away from home to live with monsters after being imprisoned for reasons that were never explained.  No one questions the new princess wanting to leave her throne to go back to live with monsters.  Lead by a ten-year-old and a child who is supposed to be king.  (It’s unclear if he’s going to rule or if someone will just declare themselves regent or what.)  In short, the politics are messy and confused, and I think Levine is just hoping middle school children won’t question it.

However, if you are willing to overlook how strange the plot is, the story really is very engrossing.  I read the book in one day, eager to learn how things would turn out and eager to learn more about the past of a country that always enchanted me.  Seeing characters and items mentioned in The Two Princesses of Bamarre was also fun.

In the end, however, I had to wonder why, if this was the story of Perry (and a little bit of her sister), the book ends with a celebratory poem in honor of Drualt.  It feels like the women are already being written out of history.  With a poem they made up themselves!  Drualt may be important to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, but that doesn’t meant that Perry’s fight should be overshadowed by Drualt’s future fame, all for the fun of an allusion.

I enjoyed reading this book a lot.  It’s entertaining and fun and the characters are delightful.  I want to go back to Bamarre again in another story.  But I do have to remember that sometimes middle-grade authors don’t seem overly concerned with the logic of politics!