If the Magic Fits: 100 Dresses by Susan Maupin Schmid

If the Magic FitsInformation

Goodreads: If the Magic Fits
Series: 100 Dresses #1
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Official Summary

Inside an enchanted castle, there’s a closet—a closet with one hundred dresses that nobody ever wears. Dresses like those need a good trying-on, and Darling Dimple is just the girl to do it. When she tries on Dress Number Eleven, something unbelievable happens. She transforms into the castle’s Head Scrubber! It turns out that each dress can disguise her as someone else. And Darling is about to have an adventure that calls for a disguise or two…or a hundred.


If the Magic Fits is a charming, feel-good adventure that takes readers through a magical castle with a bevy of secrets.  It’s just the type of middle grade novel I enjoy, featuring an imaginative protagonist who’s always up for a challenge and some undercover exploration.

Parts of the novel didn’t entirely make sense to me on a practical level. (There’s a servant in the castle who only irons the princess’s clothes?  And a wardrobe attendant who is also the princesses’s greatest confidante and political advisor? ) However, I was willing to ignore these oddities because they help streamline the plot and make the story fun.  Also, I don’t think these would have been sticking points for me if I had read the book as a child.

However, I do still wish the magical system were a little more sophisticated.  There’s so much room for this to be more fully explored and fleshed out, and it would have strengthened the novel.  I think even as a child I would have been dissatisfied to learn that there’s essentially ONE magic word that controls all the magic in the castle.

The book is also a bit odd in that it’s both character-driven and not. Darling has a lot of grand plans about trying to save her beloved Princess from dastardly schemes, but so much of it seems to come to naught. She runs here and there about the castle, going on mini adventures, and yet she doesn’t accomplish much relating to her main objective. I guess this is realistic, in that an eleven-year-old child (and a servant) may have limited effects on the grand workings of the kingdom, but the beauty of middle grade books is often that they present children as powerful and important. Darling occasionally comes across as impotent, as weeks pass without her achieving anything.

Despite these minor gripes, however, I did find the book entertaining and charming in its simplicity.  There are magic dresses and magic animals.  There are princes and princesses and people with secrets.  There are mysteries and romances and dares.  This strikes me as a bit younger middle grade novel, I think children will love it. A lot of adults will enjoy it too.

4 stars Briana

Red Rising by Pierce Brown


Goodreads: Red Rising
Series: Red Rising #1
Source: Purchased
Published: 2014

Official Summary

Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.

Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity’s overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society’s ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies… even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.


“I would have lived in peace. But my enemies brought me war.”

Though the words “YA dystopian” now conjure up images of a washed-out fad, I believe that the strongest novels of the genre still have power to move and entertain even those readers who have read dozens of dystopians in the past several years.  Red Rising is one of those special books.  With compelling prose and an immersive plot that brings to mind elements of The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and An Ember in the Ashes, Red Rising brings readers on Darrow’s powerful journey to discover the truth and free his people from slavery.

Part of Red Rising’s enthrallment lies in its detailed world building.  The story begins in the mines of Mars, where Reds like Darrow are forced to dig for resources that can help terraform previously uninhabitable planets.  The descriptions of the mines are rich, and Brown emphasizes the Red focus on family and community, song and dance, even when times are tough. He creates culture in addition to scenery.  The book moves on, however, to places very foreign to the mines, unimaginable to the people Darrow knows, and here, too, the descriptions are detailed and enthralling.  Brown can describe glamour as well as grit.

In his quest to break the social hierarchy that forces Reds to the bottom, Darrow moves quickly through a new world to learn how to conquer it.  The plot rarely lags, and there’s a good mix of action and reflection.  I won’t say that some parts are not predictable, particularly the catalyst that starts Darrow on his journey.  However, much of the plot is truly surprising, and it is delightful to read the new turns the story takes (even when those turns are, in fact, quite gory or appalling).

Darrow himself can be a bit of a jerk, and the fact that the novel is in first person emphasizes this.  If Brown wants to inform the reader that Darrow is handsome or talented or has done something unprecedented, Darrow himself has to be the one to say it.  Nonetheless, Darrow never walks over the edge of his arrogance to become unlikable, and, frankly, his drive and his conceit are realistic.  It does take a special type of person to overcome the status quo, someone skilled and confident enough to wield that skill.  Darrow makes sense as the protagonist of this novel in a way a gentler or more modest character might not, and the novel itself tackles this problem, asking what kind of people are dreamers or martyrs or doers.  The doers here do not kid themselves that sometimes they have to make tough choices.  Whether the decisions they make or the means they use are the right ones is left up to the reader.

Red Rising is a beautifully complex work that tackles questions about human nature and civilization, even as it takes readers on a wild ride through the many layers of the hierarchical society.  The story is action-packed, but it also has its pools of thoughtfulness and stillness.  YA readers will love this, even if they think they’ve read enough YA dystopians to last a lifetime.

4 stars Briana

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson


Goodreads: Firefight
Series: Reckoners #2
Source: Library
Published: January 1, 2015

Official Summary

They told David it was impossible–that even the Reckoners had never killed a High Epic. Yet, Steelheart–invincible, immortal, unconquerable–is dead. And he died by David’s hand.

Eliminating Steelheart was supposed to make life more simple. Instead, it only made David realize he has questions. Big ones. And there’s no one in Newcago who can give him the answers he needs.

Babylon Restored, the old borough of Manhattan, has possibilities, though. Ruled by the mysterious High Epic, Regalia, David is sure Babylon Restored will lead him to what he needs to find. And while entering another city oppressed by a High Epic despot is a gamble, David’s willing to risk it. Because killing Steelheart left a hole in David’s heart. A hole where his thirst for vengeance once lived. Somehow, he filled that hole with another Epic–Firefight. And he’s willing to go on a quest darker, and more dangerous even, than the fight against Steelheart to find her, and to get his answers.


Firefight is a breathtaking sequel to Steelheart.  After defeating Steelheart and achieving his lifelong dream of vengeance, Davis is unsure what he’s going to do with his life–until he’s presented with the opportunity to free Babylon Restored (old Manhattan) from a similar Epic tyrant.

Imaginative as all of Sanderson’s works, Firefight takes readers through city as unique as Newcago was in Steelheart.  One of David’s first challenges is adjusting to a life so different from the one of conformity, fear, and lifeless steel he lived in while growing up.  In Babylon Restored, David has to learn to fight Epics out in the open, blending in with the crowds instead of hiding underground.  He has to learn to channel his passion and use his brain as much as his guns.  Seeing David take on a new environment will be a pleasure for fans of Steelheart.

The ever-expanding world-building also means the creation of new Epics.  Sanderson introduces a plethora of Epics with a bewildering array of powers, limitations, and weaknesses.  While most of his inventions are fascinating, some of the Epics’ descriptions seem little too convenient for the Reckoner teams and a little too detailed for readers to take seriously.  When someone’s powers are effective within a specific range at specific times of day under specific circumstances and from specific angles but not from others…it seems a little much.

There are times Sanderson’s attention to detail is impressive–but there are also times it is tedious.  Some of the action scenes are also drawn out.  In series like Mistborn, it seems excusable that Sanderson would be very explicit about how the magic he invented would work during a fight scene.  In Firefight, Sanderson invents some technology he needs to explain, but it just isn’t as complicated as the world-building in some of his other series and doesn’t warrant the same length of description.  I ended up skimming a lot of the fight scenes to get to what I considered the “real action,” the overarching plot.

Other than these two issues, I enjoyed Firefight immensely.  It includes everything right about a Sanderson novel: action, wild twists, incredible character development.  I cannot wait to read Calamity, when it seems as if the stakes for David and the Reckoners will be higher than ever.

4 stars Briana

Squire by Tamora Pierce


Goodreads: Squire
Series: Protector of the Small #3
Source: Purchased
Published: May 1, 2001

Official Summary

When Keladry of Mindelan is chose by the legendary Lord Raoul to be his squire, the conservatives of the realm hardly think she’s up to the job.  But Kel quickly proves her mettle as a jouster, warrior, and guardian of a fiery griffin, earning respect and admiration among the men, not to mention the affection of a fellow squire.  As she deals with the challenges of a new romance and a life in the royal guard, Kel also prepares for the infamous “Ordeal,” the last challenge that stands between her and her dream of knighthood….


Tamora Pierce’s books continue to impress me each time I read them.  I read and reread the Protector of the Small series as a child, but my return to it as an adult has not left me any less impressed.  Pierce’s ability to capture the problems of feminism while telling a fantastically engaging story set in a world of knights, mythical creatures, and magic should earn her a place among the most respected of young adult authors.

Squire is the third book about Keladry of Mindelan’s quest to become Tortall’s first female knight after the proclamation that makes doing so legal.  While the first two books explore the discrimination Kel faces from her fellow pages and the general challenges she faces as a knight-in-training, Squire sets her up to face the world at large.  Those who know her personally finally realize she has earned her place among the men—but there are a lot of conservative knights in the realm who continue to doubt her ability and would like to test her skill themselves.

Kel continues to face challenge after challenge with her characteristic perseverance.  She believes in herself, which is often more important than the faith anyone else places in her.  Pierce never trivializes the obstacles that Kel faces; she continues to her earn fair share of bruises and to make embarrassing, sometimes costly mistakes.  But Kel always picks herself back up and learns from what she does wrong, which make her an admirable heroine.

Kel also continues to differentiate herself from her heroine, the knight Alanna the Lioness (from Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet).  While Alanna often operates as a lone roaming hero, Kel shows promises as a leader, demonstrating there is not just one way to be a female knight.

Squire is an excellent installment in the Protector of the Small series.  It includes just about everything one could want from a strong fantasy novel—knights, magic, adorable animal companions, pageantry, romance, and challenges—while making all of these elements seem wonderfully new.

5 StarsBriana

First Test by Tamora Pierce

First TestInformation

Goodreads: First Test
Series: Protector of the Small #1
Source: Purchased
Published: June 7, 1999


Ten years ago the king of Tortall decreed that girls would be allowed to train as knights.  Not a single girl took advantage of the new law, until now.  Ten-year-old Keladry of Mindelan is determined to become a hero so she can protect the weak and small.  But until she can achieve her dream of becoming a lady knight, she has to make it through one year of probation as a page and prove to the training master she can be as strong and brave as the boys.


First Test is a true celebration of female power.  Keladry of Mindelan is the embodiment of a “strong female heroine.”  While not as brash or sassy as her predecessor Alanna (Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet), Kel exhbits confidence, perseverance, and an admirable determination to do what’s right.  She’s a heroine readers will be pleased to meet.

The book takes readers through Kel’s first year as a page (on probation).  While the training itself is challenge, Kel’s major difficulties come from the discrimination and harassment she fights as the only female in the training program.  Pierce does not gloss over the forms of  crassness and downright cruelty such discrimination can take, but Kel maintains a firm belief in herself that keeps the tone of the novel optimistic.

A diverse cast of likable characters, ranging from Kel’s wise-cracking sponsor to her feisty horse, also add heart and humor to the book.  Readers will enjoy meeting these characters, as well as getting glimpses of old favorites from Pierce’s other Tortall series.

First Test is basically a YA fantasy must-read.  Exciting and empowering, it will appeal to anyone who loves a good adventure story and strong female leads.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

Ophelia and the Marvelous BoyInformation

Goodreads: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: January 28, 2014

Official Summary

Unlikely heroine Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard doesn’t believe in anything that can’t be proven by science. She and her sister Alice are still grieving for their dead mother when their father takes a job in a strange museum in a city where it always snows. On her very first day in the museum Ophelia discovers a boy locked away in a long forgotten room. He is a prisoner of Her Majesty the Snow Queen. And he has been waiting for Ophelia’s help.

As Ophelia embarks on an incredible journey to rescue the boy everything that she believes will be tested. Along the way she learns more and more about the boy’s own remarkable journey to reach her and save the world.

A story within a story, this a modern day fairytale is about the power of friendship, courage and love, and never ever giving up.


Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a simplistic book–and this is both its one redeeming quality and its downfall.  The book delights in the simplicity of the idea that sometimes magic just happens and there’s no explanation needed.  But it also draws heavily on middle grade novel tropes and offers readers a quest tale that’s so incomplex it might as well not be a quest at all.

Middle grade readers will be familiar with the premise of the story: a child gets to hang out in a unique museum for a while, and it turns out there’s something strange and magical about it.  Personally, I love museum stories.  But I have also read a lot of them, and Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy does not offer me much that’s new.  Ophelia does not really get to explore the museum or exult in history or odd artifacts. She spends most of the time in rooms that are not actually displays and is only interested in artifacts directly related to her goal.  The history nerd in me is bummed at the missed opportunity.

Unfortunately, the quest that takes her away from the wonders of history is not always that interesting either. Her first set of tasks are repetitive; she basically has to do the same thing while facing difficult obstacles.  While I can appreciate the experiences would be pretty intense to live through (facing a man-eating creature isn’t boring just because you’ve done it before!), that intensity does not necessarily translate to readers who have already seen the character perform a very similar set of actions.  Twice.

The Marvelous Boy’s journey makes up for this a bit.  His tale is interwoven with Ophelia’s, and it is here where the real magic happens.  Foxlee’s imagination shines brightly in these scenes, and the sparse yet lyrical prose really fits the Boy’s story.  I wish I felt the same sense of magic while reading the museum scenes.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a cute story.  I think younger readers would enjoy it, particularly if they have not read a lot of stories in this vein before.  For me, it just wasn’t original enough to capture my attention.


Millhouse by Natale Ghent (ARC Review)


Goodreads: Millhouse
Series: None
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: May 13, 2014

Official Summary

Fans of the I, Freddy series and Charlotte’s Web will be won over by this charming, delightfully told and illustrated story of a petshop misfit — a hairless guinea pig with a penchant for Shakespeare.

Millhouse is a faint-hearted, hairless guinea pig. A great lover of all things theatrical, most especially the work of William Shakespeare, Milly longs for the limelight and someone to love. However, after the death of his beloved owner, the great actor Sir Roderick Lord Kingswagger, Millhouse is abandoned to a neglected and dusty pet shop filled with other rodents — some rude, some odd, some cute and some downright frightening. Finding himself a reviled outcast and a target of the nasty Pepper Brown ferret, Millhouse sets about trying to find a way back to the theater and a happy home, and in doing so experiences more drama than he could ever have imagined.


Natale Ghent’s Millhouse will be a hit with young readers who love a good animal tale.  Ghent builds a realistic society within Millhouse’s pet shop, one with a hierarchy and cliques.  Animals aren’t just all cuteness and cuddles in this book; they’re real and a little bit dark.  This predatory aspect will ring true to young readers who have witnessed animal interactions in the real world and will resonate with readers who have experienced the type of bullying that Millhouse does.

Notably, a good 45% of the book focuses on Millhouse’s being mocked, particularly by the other guinea pigs (he doesn’t look like them), and on his struggle with feeling like a misfit.  Millhouse ruminates on his life, attempts to cheer himself up by practicing theatre scenes, and dreams about getting out of the pet shop.  The real adventures, however, only start halfway through the book, when Millhouse finally breaks out of his own mind—his first real step to breaking out of his cage.

His adventures, too, are a little bit frightening.  There’s a ferret who’s out to eat him from page one, but Millhouse encounters various other dangers as he finally takes a chance at returning to his beloved theatre.  I stress, again, that this book is dark, and young readers may respond to the psychological meanness and the physical danger that Millhouse encounters in various ways.  I don’t think the story is necessarily “charming,” as the Goodreads page claims, but I do think it is compelling and real—which is not always something one expects to find in a children’s book with adorable talking animals.  (Side note: The illustrations are charming and cute!)

Thematically, the book is really about second chances—for Millhouse, for the animals that tease him, even for the humans who run the pet shop.  In spite of some mean dialogue and dark scenes, the message of the book is very positive and uplifting, and the ending is truly a happy one for Millhouse and some new friends.

One flaw:  Millhouse’s love for Shakespeare hooked my attention and prompted me to request an e-galley of the book from Netgalley.  There are great quotes from Shakespeare’s work, and other plays, scattered throughout the book that will have drama fans gleefully clapping every chapter.  However, I think these allusions will probably be over the heads of the target audience (I mean, I was precocious, but I didn’t read Shakespeare at the age of ten).  These quotes must just be little treats for any parents reading along.

Millhouse is a great pick for any child who loves animal stories and a touch of drama.  It will capture reader’s imaginations and their hearts as it invites them to treat everyone they meet with kindness and dares them to stay brave in the face of adversity and pursue their dreams.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's LibraryInformation

Goodreads: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: June 25, 2013

Official Summary

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.

You Might Also Like

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict   The Borrower   The Inquisitor's Apprentice