Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas

Information

Goodreads: Dragon’s Green
Series: Worldquake Series #1
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Effie Truelove is not sure magic really exists until her grandfather ends up in the hospital.  Then, suddenly, he is bequeathing his library to her as well as an assortment of magical objects.  But her father sells the books to a man Effie is not sure she can trust.  And thus she finds herself on an adventure to reclaim her inheritance and the truth about her birthright.

Review

Dragon’s Green is a fast-paced and exciting adventure story that feels wholly original in the realm of middle-grade fantasy.  It seems based on role-playing games, requiring the protagonist Effie to collect magical items (called boons) and bequeath them to her allies, who all possess different innate abilities and thus different titles (scholar, mage, healer, etc.).  Together, they form a team that  can defeat an evil book-destroying mage.

A lot of intriguing elements come together in the story to heighten the mystery and keep readers intrigued. The story begins with Effie’s grandfather dying under strange circumstances and leaving her only vague hints about what to do with the magic she never really knew existed.  From there, she and her friends have to piece together the rules of the magical world, before they inadvertently do something terribly wrong or terribly dangerous.  Dragons, princesses, goblins, and guardians all make their appearances, making the story a very satisfying fantasy experience.

Dragon’s Green is the first in a series, but it’s the kind of first that really makes you want to read the sequel.  The characters are sympathetic, the world intriguing, and the mystery thrilling.  I, for one, am excited by the possibility of going on another adventure with Effie and her friends.

5 stars

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A Dash of Dragon by Heidi Lang and Kati Bartowski

Information

Goodreads: A Dash of Dragon
Series: Dash of Dragon #1
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Lailu is the youngest chef to graduate from the academy in three hundred years and she has a plan to revolutionize the way people think about food.  She is a mystical chef, one who hunts and serves beasts like kraken and dragons.  But her master has made a deal with a loan shark and if their restaurant does not succeed, they’ll both end up in servitude for life.  Does Lailu have what it takes to navigate the underworld, match wits with a series of spies, defeat a cooking rival, and still prepare the perfect meal?

Review

At times, A Dash of Dragon feels a little like a clunky and convoluted mess.  Lailu, a thirteen-year-old Mystical Chef (one who serves meals made of monsters), finds herself caught up in a world where a loan shark holds power over local businesses, the elf mafia terrorizes the city, the scientists may or may not be engaged in deadly schemes, and the king is…too young to be relevant as his city lives in terror?  None of this is bad.  It’s all very exciting.  It’s just confusing that Lailu is dragged into it by the opposing sides.  Who really hires a thirteen-year-old to spy on other people?  Especially when they are already doing a better job of spying themselves?

Also unclear are the motivations of Lailu’s rival, Greg.  He is roughly the same age and has opened his own restaurant, which Lailu perceives as competition–even though the average city can surely sustain two restaurants quite comfortably.  He obviously has a crush on her, but also appears to be a little mean.  Whether or not he is really mean or not is left unanswered–read the sequel if you want to figure out what this guy’s deal is.

Indeed, read the sequel if you want any of your questions answered, because this book is more concerned with drama than it is with giving anyone clear or logical motivations.  Lailu, for instance, regularly forgets about really important things just to make the plot convenient and just as regularly tends to be wrong about the characters of essentially everyone she knows–again to drive the plot.  By the end, she has done a score of ridiculous things, like protecting the identify of a group of murderer/kidnappers.  Why?  Probably so they can show up in the sequel.  There is no other explanation.

And yet.  The book is quite entertaining.  I loved Lailu’s spunk.  I was intrigued by the elf mafia.  I thought the premise of a group of chefs who hunt and cook monsters original and exciting.  In short, I enjoyed the book.  And I want to read the sequel.  Not because I want to figure anything out–I’ll be surprised if book two makes any more sense than book one–but because I love traveling through the magical world built in A Dash of Dragon.

3 Stars

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Nevermoor

Information

Goodreads: Nevermoor: The Trial of Morrigan Crow
Series: Nevermoor #1
Source: Gift
Published: October 31, 2017

Official Summary

Morrigan Crow is cursed. Having been born on Eventide, the unluckiest day for any child to be born, she’s blamed for all local misfortunes, from hailstorms to heart attacks–and, worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday.

But as Morrigan awaits her fate, a strange and remarkable man named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black-smoke hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he whisks her away into the safety of a secret, magical city called Nevermoor.

It’s then that Morrigan discovers Jupiter has chosen her to contend for a place in the city’s most prestigious organization: the Wundrous Society. In order to join, she must compete in four difficult and dangerous trials against hundreds of other children, each boasting an extraordinary talent that sets them apart–an extraordinary talent that Morrigan insists she does not have. To stay in the safety of Nevermoor for good, Morrigan will need to find a way to pass the tests–or she’ll have to leave the city to confront her deadly fate.

Review

Nevermoor is one of those magical middle grade fantasies that draw you in from the first pages and never let you go. There’s a bit of darkness to the story, as Morrigan is a cursed child—both for herself because she’s doomed to die at the age of twelve and for her community because a simple look from her can bring bad luck down upon others. Sadly, a lot of people, perhaps including her own family, are not going to be overly distressed by her death. However, the book nicely balances this darkness with whimsy and laughter, and Morrigan eventually finds a place where she belongs.

Morrigan herself is a spunky, determined protagonist whom readers will love to root for as she attempts to earn a coveted place in the exclusive Wundrous Society, a group of intrepid adventurers with unusual talents. Her good points are nicely balanced by some realistic character flaws, such as occasionally doubting her own abilities or getting into spats with other children.

The plot is engaging and ties together several threads, including Morrigan’s quest to pass the tests to enter the Wundrous Society and her attempts to fit into her new home, as well as a more overarching plot about good vs. evil. I couldn’t help but keep turning the pages to see what would happen next, as well as to keep exploring Townsend’s imaginative world.

Nevermoor delighted me the entire time I was reading it. It’s only January (at the time I’m writing the review, not when I’m publishing it!), but I already think this is going to be a contender for one of my favorite reads of 2018, and I can’t wait for the sequel.

5 stars Briana

A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano (with Spoilers)

Information

Goodreads: A Dash of Trouble
Series: Love Sugar Magic #1
Source: Library
Published: Jan. 2018

Summary

The Day of the Dead is approaching and Leo is bitter that her four older sisters get to help out at her parents’ bakery while she goes to school.  Then she discovers a family secret that really makes her mad: her family is a family of brujas with cooking magic–and no one was going to tell her until she turned fifteen!  Now eleven-year-old Leo is sneaking around, stealing recipe books and ingredients, determined to do magic by herself.  But magic does not always go as expected and soon Leo creates a mess she may not be able to clean up on her own.

Review

A Dash of Trouble is a fairly standard MG fantasy featuring magic and baking.  The women in Leo’s family are all brujas, but she is not allowed to do magic until she turns fifteen.  She therefore decides to practice behind her family’s back, imagining that she can help her friends at school with some enchanted baked goods.  Of course, love spells and the like typically backfire and, the more Leo tries to hide her magical tracks, the more damage she does.  The book is a typical finding-your-place-in-your-family tale, with Leo eventually learning that lies and theft are wrong and that she should have turned to her family for support from the start.

So far the other reviews I have seen seem to be fairly stellar.  And I have to admit that it is very exciting to see a Spanish-speaking family represented in this story.  Anna Meriano even cleverly inserts dialogue and recipes in Spanish, so that readers unfamiliar with the language can feel some of Leo’s disorientation as she tries to figure out her family’s secret (Leo knows only a handful of words).  But, personally, I did not connect with the story and finished it more out of obligation than because I was excited to pick up the book each night.

I had a few major problems with the story: I did not like Leo, I did not find the plot convincing, and I did not find the magic well-developed.  Leo spends most of the book whining that her sisters get to do things she does not and it is not fair they can do magic–even though they all waited until they were of age and did not get any special privileges.  She also consistently lies and steals, making her friends’ lives increasingly worse because she will not admit she was wrong.  I did not sympathize with her; I wanted someone to scold her and make her see how annoying she is.

But this never happened and that is why I could not buy into the plot.  Instead, all four of her sisters find Leo out and then blithely ignore her, even though they are aware she is meddling in magic she does not understand and cannot control.  They lie for her to cover up her lies and theft, enabling her to do a lot of damage.  Typically in these types of books, the protagonist has to be clever to find things out and not get caught.  But Leo gets hand fed secret information from her irresponsible older sisters and then is saved by them repeatedly when she makes major errors.

Finally, the magic seems overly random, even for magic.  First we learn that Leo comes from a family of cooking brujas.  Then we learn that each cooking bruja has a special skill–influencing, making things appear, or speaking to the dead.  (None of this is related to cooking?)  Then we learn that spells, conveniently for the plot, can only be undone by another bruja if the spell caster is initiated into the family of brujas.  So basically the rules of magic ensure that any bruja who wants to go rogue and have unstoppable spells just needs to not join her magic with her family’s.  That seems…dangerous. But, of course, that’s not the point.  The point is that this rule was made up last minute to add drama to the conclusion of the story–oh no, Leo has made a spell that no one can undo!

I had been looking forward to this book since I saw it was going to be released, so I am disappointed I did not love it as I expected.  Still, I imagine that others will love it enough for the sequel to be published.

3 Stars

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

Information

Goodreads: The Explorer
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: Sept. 2017

Summary

Fred has always wanted to be an explorer.  But perhaps not this soon.  When their plane crashes in the Amazon, Fred and three other children will have to fight to find their way back to the city.  As they face the possibility of returning to their old lives, however, eating tarantulas does not seem that bad after all.

Review

Katherine Rundell’s stories are always works of beauty.  They shimmer with life and vibrancy, daring readers to imagine new worlds and to take the plunge into adventure. The Explorer continues Rundell’s tradition of writing novels that feature characters who dream big and live loudly.  It’s the kind of book that simultaneously makes you feel glad inside and as if it’s about time to do something that will scandalize the neighbors.

The book begins with four children crashing into the Amazon.  Despite being woefully unprepared, grumpy, and more than a little frightened, they take on the challenge of learning to survive in the wild.  They draw on their shared stored knowledge, but also closely observe the world around them.  They learn to take risks.  And, surprisingly, they do not immediately die.

I welcomed a story about these children finding their way home by trekking or rafting for a month through the Amazon.  However, the titular explorer makes his appearance and the book soon turns to him.  What made him who he is today?  How does he feel differently about exploration now?  Can fame come at too high a cost?  They are interesting questions and the explorer is lovably gruff and devastatingly witty with his dry sense of humor.  Still, I wanted more about the children.  I almost felt a little cheated out of the story I had expected.

Even so, The Explorer is a bright, sparkling book.  It possesses Rundell’s typical deft characterization as well as her beautifully vivid prose.  It welcomes readers into a magical world where things too strange to be true, really are.  It reminds us that adventure can be found anywhere, if we are prepared to look.

4 stars

Finding Mighty by Sheela Chari

Information

Goodreads: Finding Mighty
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Peter’s brother Randall threw their father’s old tag on a wall a couple weeks ago.  Now, he’s disappeared.  Peter hopes to find him again, but soon is in more trouble than he anticipated.  Rumors of smuggled diamonds are floating throughout the neighborhood.  And somehow a gang seems to be after his neighbor Myra, who wears a necklace that matches the one he found in his father’s old bag.  Together, Myra and Peter will have to race against time to uncover the truth about the diamonds and find Randall–before someone else does.

Review

Finding Mighty seems like a surprising mixture of elements for a middle-grade story.  Parkour, graffiti, gangs–it’s a twist on the classic treasure hunting story, set now, not in the idyllic countryside, but in Dobbs Ferry, New  York.  It is an update that feels refreshingly new and one that is certainly fun.  Middle grade readers will find a lot to love, of course,  but those who dislike middle grade may also find themselves surprised by how deftly the book pulls together original elements to create the kind of book YA audiences have been clamoring for.

Finding Mighty is that book–the book that takes characters not often written about (though they are more prevalent in MG than in YA) and gives them a story. Twelve-year-olds Myra and Peter come from, respectively, an Indian family and a mixed family.  They live in the city.  And they are about to have the type of adventure we might typically associate with the English countryside–an adventure that allows them to uncover clues about their past to find long-lost diamonds. Their clues, however, lie in graffiti and their ability to outrun the bad guys might just rely on their knowledge of parkour.  The concept is incredibly cool.

Even if you do not normally read middle-grade, Finding Mighty is worth a try.  The characters are sympathetic.  The setting is one that the author seems to love–and makes you want to love to.  And the action is thrilling.  If this is the future of middle grade, I am in.

4 stars

Mini Reviews (1)

mini reviews 1

Courage to Soar: A Life in Motion, A Body in Balance by Simone Biles with Michelle Burford

Simone Biles captivated the world in the 2016 Olympics, so I was excited to pick up her biography.  I enjoyed learning more about her fairly ordinary childhood (she and her friends liked to pretend to be the Cheetah Girls), her introduction to gymnastics, and her very supportive family.  Biles shows strength and grace as she transitions from living with her mother to living with her grandparents, struggles to determine if she values gymnastics or a normal high school experience more, and honestly admits that some years she was a complaining teenager just like the rest of us.  The narrative is sometimes choppy and jumps around, but overall I can see many readers enjoying this book and being inspired by it. (Source: Library) Four stars.

The Scourge by Jennifer Nielsen

At times this book feels a little trope-y, with the “feisty” heroine who can’t keep her mouth shut, her lock-picking best friend, the snotty rich girl who is not really as bad as she seems, and the “mystery” surrounding the scourge–a deadly disease that readers know early on is probably manufactured by the villainous government.  In short, I loved it.  It’s engrossing and has a great cast of characters as well as a sweet romance.  What’s not to love? (Source: Library) Four stars.

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

This book has been describe as “magical realism” as it features nine children living on an idyllic island that provides all they need and prevents them from getting hurt.  However, a mystery surrounds the island as it seems clear someone–maybe even their parents–are sending them there.  I was disappointed, then, that the mystery of the island is never revealed.  Perhaps it was to keep the book from turning into yet another dystopian novel, but it is a letdown to read a story with a mystery that is never resolved. (Source:  Library) Three stars.

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 6: Civil War II by G. Willow Wilson

Maybe you have to read the other comic books to understand the full scope of Civil War II.  As it was, I found myself disappointed that Kamala and the other characters do not really seem to grapple with the moral issues surrounding the idea of preventative justice.  Still, I love Ms. Marvel and I was glad to spend more time with her.  Especially welcome was her trip to visit her extended family in Pakistan. (Source: Library) Three stars.