Review Copy: The Dragon of the Month Club

When two kids find a magical book that invites them to conjure a different dragon every month, they are sucked into another world--literally. #spon | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

On the thirteenth of every month a new dragon conjuring spell is revealed and the two friends attempt to summon the latest Dragon of the Month. The varieties are almost endless: Air Dragons, Paper Dragons, Fog Dragons, Waterfall Dragons, Rock Dragons, Tree Dragons – not to mention special bonus dragons for all the major holidays, including a particularly prickly Holly Dragon for Christmas.

But one day when a conjuring spell somehow goes wrong Ayana and Tyler find themselves unexpectedly drawn into a fantastical world of adventure based on the various books scattered all across Tyler’s messy bedroom. Travelling from one book-inspired world to the next with nothing to rely on but their wits and a cast of strange and exotic dragons at their disposal they must try to somehow find their way home again. (Summary via Amazon.com)

I’m excited to tell you about this new series from Iain Reading, author of the Kitty Hawk mystery series (see those reviews here, here, and here). In The Dragon of the Month Club, Ayana and Tyler discover a magical book that enrolls them in a special club for conjuring dragons. I love the idea of conjuring a new dragon every month! Each different dragon, from the sand dragon to the paper dragon to the fog dragon, is so creative.

But there’s more than just dragons in this book. When something goes wrong with a spell, Ayana and Tyler are suddenly transported to a different world, in which they must make their way through various stories and settings from the books scattered on Tyler’s floor. It has kind of a Wonderland feeling as the kids travel through their book world. This includes old-fashioned fairy tales, the sci-fi classic Dune, and the world of Sherlock Holmes. Any book lover will enjoy the mixture of favorite old stories and brand-new dragons. So neat!

Although I really enjoyed this book, I’m even more excited about the next in the series. I can’t wait to see what new kinds of dragons await!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ARC Roundup, Part 2

More recent ARCs--this time, ones I actually enjoyed. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received all of the following ARCs through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

As I mentioned in my last ARC roundup, I recently went on a kick of NetGalley requests. The last roundup was full of meh books, but this one consists of books I actually enjoyed. Check out these recent releases! (All of the following summaries are taken from NetGalley.)

A Thousand Nights

Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next.

And so she is taken in her sister’s place, and she believes death will soon follow. Lo-Melkhiin’s court is a dangerous palace filled with pretty things: intricate statues with wretched eyes, exquisite threads to weave the most beautiful garments. She sees everything as if for the last time.But the first sun rises and sets, and she is not dead. Night after night, Lo-Melkhiin comes to her and listens to the stories she tells, and day after day she is awoken by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong.

Far away, in their village, her sister is mourning. Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air.

Back at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to the rule of a monster.

Although I do sometimes enjoy a good fairy tale retelling, sometimes they just don’t catch my interest. This story is a retelling of the Scheherazade myth, which would seem to be a book lover’s dream come true. A thousand nights of stories, told to save a young bride from certain death? Awesome, right?

Unfortunately, in this version of the story, we don’t really get to hear a lot of stories from our main character. Instead, she begins to have magical powers that she can use to see events which are occurring in another place or time, and even the ability to influence these events. She is fighting against dark, demonic powers that she doesn’t even understand, in a desperate bid to save her own life and the lives of the girls in her land.

I found this book interesting while I was reading it, but I didn’t think much about it once I put the book down. Look into it if you’re much more into fairy tale retellings than I am.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Spinning Starlight

Sixteen-year-old heiress and paparazzi darling Liddi Jantzen hates the spotlight. But as the only daughter in the most powerful tech family in the galaxy, it’s hard to escape it. So when a group of men shows up at her house uninvited, she assumes it’s just the usual media-grubs. That is, until shots are fired.

Liddi escapes, only to be pulled into an interplanetary conspiracy more complex than she ever could have imagined. Her older brothers have been caught as well, trapped in the conduits between the planets. And when their captor implants a device in Liddi’s vocal cords to monitor her speech, their lives are in her hands: One word, and her brothers are dead.

Desperate to save her family from a desolate future, Liddi travels to another world, where she meets the one person who might have the skills to help her bring her eight brothers home-a handsome dignitary named Tiav. But without her voice, Liddi must use every bit of her strength and wit to convince Tiav that her mission is true. With the tenuous balance of the planets deeply intertwined with her brothers’ survival, just how much is Liddi willing to sacrifice to bring them back? Haunting and mesmerizing, this retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans fuses all the heart of the classic tale with a stunning, imaginative world in which a star-crossed family fights for its very survival.

On the other hand, this is a fairy tale retelling I can get behind (even though I’m not at all familiar with the story of the Wild Swans). Set in a futuristic world full of incredible technology, this book explores the life of the most influential teenage girl in the seven realms and what happens when she is suddenly transported to a world she never even knew existed.

Torn between her need to help her brothers and her growing love for Tiav, Liddi must decide how much truth she can tell her new friends–all without the use of her voice. She has to overcome her lifelong inability to live up to her brothers’ genius and the revelation that her parents manipulated her genes, all while coping with her new and disorienting surroundings. Recommended for those who like their science fiction light on the science.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Gone but Knot Forgotten

Sorting through the estate of a wealthy recluse may sound like a fascinating task, but when the skeletons in the closets turn out to be real, Martha and her quilting pals wish they’d stuck to basting and batting. . .

Martha Rose is stunned when she hears that her best friend from high school has passed away. Her shock doubles when she learns that Harriet Oliver made her the executor of her estate. But when investigators determine that Harriet was murdered, Martha recruits her fellow quilters to help find the culprit. She’s mastered the art of piecing together blocks to create intricate quilts, but piecing together her friend’s murder will prove far more challenging. . .

I have to admit, sometimes I love a good cozy mystery. And while this mystery was nothing mind blowing, I’ve read enough terrible cozy mysteries to know that this one was very well written. Martha is an interesting, curious character, but she’s never so reckless or irritating that I had to roll my eyes at her. Her quilting buddies are likewise upbeat, fun characters who may not be fully fleshed out, but at least they aren’t stereotypes.

Martha’s investigation of her high school friend’s death held my interest until the end. Though the solution wasn’t shocking, I didn’t find it too predictable. Definitely an enjoyable read for cozy mystery fans like myself.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Joint Review: Redwall

I take my first foray into Redwall with my husband, who was a childhood fan of the series. | A book review from NewberyandBeyond.com
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What can the peace-loving mice of Redwall Abbey do to defend themselves against Cluny the Scourge and his battle-seasoned army of rats? If only they had the sword of Martin the Warrior, they might have a chance. But the legendary weapon has long been forgotten-except, that is, by the bumbling young apprentice Matthias, who becomes the unlikeliest of heroes. Teeming with riddles, humor, unforgettable characters, and high-bounding adventure. (Summary via Amazon.com)

After receiving this book in a giveaway (thanks, Reading to Distraction!), I decided to read this book aloud with my husband. It’s a childhood favorite of his, so I was excited to see how our reading experiences lined up, since I was pretty unfamiliar with the Redwall series. My husband has agreed to help me review this book (you can read his previous review here), so I’ll let him tell his story first.

Peter’s thoughts:

Redwall was a staple of my literary diet for many years during my middle and high school life. I have fond memories of being enthralled by Brian Jacques’ storytelling, amused by the characters’ antics, excited by the fantasy battles betwixt furry armies, and made ravenous by the vivid descriptions of lavish feasts. Even now, reminiscing on such thoughts elicits feelings of the happiness and simplicity of curling up in a corner and reading for hours on end without care. However, I would hazard to guess that it’s been at least seven or eight years since I’ve gone back and re-­read any of Mr. Jacques’ works.

When Monica and I sat down to read through Redwall, I did feel the need to warn her about a few things before we got started. While my memory was somewhat fuzzy, I didn’t recall enjoying Redwall as much as the later books in the series, since it did take a few books (in my opinion) for Mr. Jacques to polish his formula and establish consistency within the “rules” of his fantasy world. As we read through the first several chapters of the book, I was surprised at how often I found myself saying some variation of, “I remember this being better, he must have really improved over the next several books…” as if I needed to defend in some way the level of enjoyment that justified my nostalgia. If we have the time and inclination, I would like to read through at least one of the later books in the series and see if Mr. Jacques’ more recent works holds up better than his inaugural novel.

As for this book on its own, I do have several points of criticism that are a lot more glaring than I seem to remember from my younger days. Subtlety is not this book’s strongsuit. Its foreshadowing is clumsy and awkward, the puzzles and riddles (a Redwall series cliche) are simple to the point of being insulting or else entirely forgettable, the villains are a perfect caricature of pure evil, and the heroes proudly display their two or three character traits on their sleeves. Perhaps I ask for too much from a children’s book, but there were several times during this recent read through that I simply couldn’t suspend the disbelief that rational creatures would act in such one dimensional ways (though this could explain why a shockingly large amount of the Redwall series’ villains are, or become, insane).

The main character, Matthias, is not a very pleasant individual. That was probably the point in the first several chapters to allow for growth and a personal journey, but, as an adult re-­reading the book for the first time in years, it took me by surprise how self-­absorbed, whiny, and borderline abusive he was (spoiler: at one point he threatens to murder another character by throwing her from the top of a building because she was being sassy). While there was certainly growth over the course of the book, the core personality issues that made him such an unlikable character were not really addressed, but were more often glossed over as, at worst, necessary unpleasantness.

Lastly, in a similar fashion to J. R. R. Tolkien’s work, there is an inescapable ethnocentric undertone to this book that is much more offputting as an adult than I remember from my first readings. This is largely due to the lack of subtlety and the cartoonish nature of the book’s antagonists. The simple forest folk of Mossflower woods and Redwall Abbey are described in such a way that they appear to be in some sort of Anglo­saxon paradise that is interrupted by the invasion of a barbaric hoard of “vermin” (spoiler: no rat, weasel, stoat, fox, or ferret is ever good in these books). Tribes of sparrows and shrews, both of whom have cultural traits and practices that vary quite differently from “normal Abbey behavior,” are introduced later in the book, and they’re treated with, at best, patronizing inferiority by the main characters.

In spite of these criticisms, I still enjoyed this book and would certainly recommend it, especially as a gateway to the rest of the series. The story is engaging enough to get one past its shortcomings, and even if the characters are a bit one note, at least it’s a fun and exciting note. Mr. Jacques is certainly a very descriptive writer who knows how to make the world come to life as his characters trek through the forest and delve the halls and corridors of the ancient Abbey. For kids, it’s long enough to prove a challenge, but the chapters are short enough to keep it from being too daunting. I would even venture to say that it would be an excellent book to engage in serious discussions with children about adult topics, such as war, death, honor/duty, the afterlife, and ethnocentrism. It’s fast paced, it’s exciting, it’s fun. Check it out if a long YA fantasy series about anthropomorphic woodland creatures is your kind of thing.

Monica’s thoughts:

I enjoyed this book, despite my spotty track record with fantasy novels (and animal books, for that matter). I didn’t come into the reading experience with any past memories of Redwall like my husband did (I actually read part of the book as a child, but I was bored stiff by it and apparently wiped the entire experience from my mind), so I didn’t have any nostalgia associated with the story or characters. Still, I found the characters to be super cute (but occasionally annoying). My favorite character was Constance, the badger. She actually helped the war effort when Cluny attacked Redwall, unlike some other characters I could mention (*ahemMatthiasahem*).

My main frustration with this book, as you may have gathered, was the main character. Matthias is a young mouse living in Redwall Abbey. At the beginning of the book, Matthias was a lovable but bumbling goofball. But as the story goes on, he becomes irritating, pompous, and seems to not take the threat of an attack on Redwall seriously at all (like the time he falls asleep in the woods and follows a mute baby squirrel [???] back to safety). Fortunately, the story does not follow Matthias the entire time, but when he is the focus of the story, he is usually mistreating or looking down on other animals, or possibly going on a side quest that really keeps him from protecting Redwall, which is what he should be doing as the reincarnation (yep, he’s the Chosen One) of Martin the Warrior.

I had a few other minor irritations with this book, such as the suspiciously ethnocentric treatment of other animals, the terrible riddles, the confusion over animal sizes (a mouse riding a horse?), and the overuse of exclamation points!, but despite its flaws, I really did enjoy my first Redwall adventure. The details of the food, the setting, and the characters give this book a cozy feeling, like a lazy late-summer day. Bad guy Cluny is over-the-top evil, and the Redwall mice and their associates are pure and good, in that simplistic good vs. evil way that, at the end of the day, we can all enjoy once in a while.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

#KellTour: Lioness of Kell Review

A review of Lioness of Kell, part of a Masquerade Tour. #spon | A book review by newberyandbeyond.com
Summary and photo via Masquerade Tours

Note: I received a free galley of this book sponsored by Masquerade Tours in exchange for an honest review.

Secure in his position as the Prince-warlock’s son, seventeen-year-old Basil is content with his solitary life of study and magic. He has a comfortable set of rooms in his father’s tower, he has his books and scrolls, and he is perfectly happy. Until the Warlockry Council summons him, and their demands sets his whole, safe existence tottering. Scared and unsure, he decides to run, and takes the first ship out of town. On board he meets Yarwan, the handsome midshipman, who awakens feelings he never knew existed.

Maud of the M’Brannoe, at eighteen already a mighty warrioress, is about to graduate as a Lioness, a special duty officer answering to the Kell Queen and no one else. The Prince-warlock asks her to fetch a certain boy from a pirate town, who could be double for his son. On their way back, someone sabotages their airship and the two find themselves marooned in an ill-reputed forest. Together, the young lioness and Jurgis the lookalike battle their way to the coast and a ship home, while finding solace in each other’s arms.

Then the four young people meet, and Basil learns of a spell that might help him. Only the spell’s creator, the infamous Arrangh Warlock, disappeared nearly a century ago. When the four young people decide to go looking for him, they start on a path leading to an old war and unsolved mysteries that will change the world. Or kill them.

A spirited fantasy story of high adventure and romantic love in a world where both magic and early modern technology flourish. (Summary via Masquerade Tours)

As someone who has incredibly mixed feelings about fantasy, I found many parts of this book refreshingly different and more interesting than your typical, run of the mill fantasy tale. On the other hand, I also had a few issues with the way the content was presented. So let’s get to the good stuff!

I loved how different this book was from all the fantasy books I’ve read before. There weren’t elves and wizards and such; instead, there were warrioresses called by the ranks of “lioness” or “tigress” or “leopardess,” along with warlocks and singers flying on carpets. Maud was a wonderful character–incredibly strong and brave, but still young and inexperienced on the battlefield. She and Jurgis, the boy she was sent to retrieve on her first mission, balance each other well, as Jurgis refuses to let Maud simply take care of him (caveats about this below). Their journey with Basil and Yarwan takes many unexpected turns to some pretty cool settings, including several sea voyages, abandoned towers, a creepy forest, and dilapidated cities.

The story does sometimes become almost video-game-esque, as the “side quests” are fairly obviously set forth. The villain was also pretty obvious, in my opinion, so the “big reveal” didn’t have too much punch. Although most of the characters were interesting and their relationships are believable (again, see caveat below), it did become a little irritating that the characters constantly referred to each other by pet names, even in the narration. [A quick side note for those who are squeamish about such things: There is a fair amount of cursing and implied sexual encounters, both heterosexual and homosexual.]

Now, for my biggest problem with this book: the gender relations. The story starts by focusing on Maud, a sexually voracious warrioress, and then only focuses on the male characters as soon as they are introduced. The only times Maud becomes the center of the story after that is when the story focuses on the gender relations in Kell, where Maud is from. Switching the male/female dichotomy (women in Kell are the fighters who run the government; men are weak, to be protected and cherished) seems a bit forced and after a while becomes rather offensive. Women talked men into a decline–really? Their success broke men’s spirits–so women should refuse to succeed at all for fear of discouraging men? Sure, writers creating their own world can create things in whatever way they choose, but at times this overt role switching seemed to demean the real struggles that real women have faced and sometimes still face. I found this book to be deeply flawed in the way the genders were approached.

On the whole, this book was a mixed bag for me. There is some good stuff here, some original ideas that keep it from being just like every other fantasy book I’ve ever read, but the book had too many flaws for me to enjoy it wholeheartedly.

Rating: Good but Forgettable (3 stars)

P.S. If you want to see which fantasy books I have enjoyed recently, check out my reviews of The Hobbit, Guardian of the Underworld, and The Book of Speculation.

The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes

In Neil Gaiman's comic series, The Sandman, I found plenty to like--but I'm still not sold on comics. | A book review by Newbery and Beyond
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I read this collection on a recent road trip for a friend’s wedding. In the bits and pieces of downtime that I had, I would sit down and read a comic or two from this book. Despite my timid forays into the world of graphic novels and comics, I’m a big Neil Gaiman fan, so I was cautiously optimistic about my success with this book.

The Sandman story line follows Dream, a powerful being who is trapped for 70 long years when an occultist attempts to trap his sibling, Death. When Dream is finally freed, he must traverse the world (and other realms as well) in order to regain his power. The story touches on both mythology and superhero lore, and I would probably have gotten more out of these comics if I knew much about either of those things.

Some stories are graphic; others are sweeping; still others are almost touching. Many left me feeling unsettled and uncomfortable, but I always wanted to continue reading and see where the story went next. I don’t know much at all about comic book and graphic novel art, so I can’t say much about it one way or the other, but I found it very fitting to the story, as it’s dark and sharply drawn.

It took me a while to decide what I thought about these comics; in fact, I didn’t really come to a conclusion until I wrote this review. These comics are unsettling (as are many things that Neil Gaiman writes), but they are entertaining and interesting. Although I’m still not fully sold on the idea of comic books and graphic novels, these held my interest enough that I think I’ll continue the series.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

ARC: The Book of Speculation

This tale of mermaids and tarot cards has mystery and fantasy combined. #spon | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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Note: I received a free ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off to join the circus six years ago.
One June day, an old book arrives on Simon’s doorstep. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things-including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of “mermaids” in Simon’s family have drowned-always on July 24, which is only weeks away.
As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon’s family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he stop it in time to save Enola? (Summary via Amazon.com)

I requested this book from NetGalley on a whim, because what book lover doesn’t want to read about an old, mysterious book that starts an adventure? I didn’t know much about the book, but the atmosphere of it sounded cool. And it was–but the plot left me feeling slightly disappointed.

In this book, Simon is a librarian living in a crumbling house by the sea. When he receives said mysterious old book, sent to him by a bookseller because it has the name of Simon’s relative written inside, he begins to learn more about his family’s past. His mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all mermaids and tarot card readers with the circus, and now Simon’s sister is too, though she refuses to do a mermaid act. All of these relatives drowned, despite their ability to hold their breath underwater for long periods of time, and when Simon sees this pattern, he begins to worry about his sister.

Along with all of this present day stuff, there is a plot set in the past, with a mute boy and a girl with a dark history. This plot line, of course, is gradually connected with Simon’s present-day research.

Although I enjoyed the story, I never felt like I needed to finish it. It wasn’t compelling enough to hold my attention for long, unfortunately. Check it out if you like fantasy and mystery and don’t mind a slow moving plot.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ARC: The Gift of the Quoxxel

#spon review of The Gift of the Quoxxel
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Note: I received a free galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

King Norr of Nibb was not content. He longed to know of the world beyond his tiny, island kingdom. Why travel elsewhere, said his people. What place could possibly be more perfect than Nibb? What frustrated Norr even more, outsiders never came to Nibb. Foreign ships approached, hesitated, then sailed away. Why was that?

And that wasn’t the only mystery. Who was the little girl who sang, but would not speak? What kind of monster lurked in waters along the shore? Had Dr Hinkus been devoured by woolly drumbkins? And most importantly, what’s for lunch? Drearily perfect Nibb was about to turn upside down. As King Norr often said, it’s enough to give one “haddocks.”

(Summary via Amazon)

For this week’s Mini Review, I’m going with bullet points.  First, the good stuff:

  • This story has some very funny moments.  There are some hilarious characters, and some truly absurd things happen to them.  I found myself laughing out loud on a few occasions.
  • The king and queen were my favorite characters.  The king, because he is so oblivious.  The queen, because she is not.  They work together so well and produce many of the previously mentioned funny moments.

Now, the not-so-good stuff:

  • Every character is quirky–there’s no way to anchor myself in what “normal” is for this world.
  • The vocabulary has tons of made-up words.  Just a personal pet peeve, but I hate this.
  • The story itself felt incomplete.  I wasn’t sure where the story was going, and I felt the ending was kind of abrupt.

So there you have it!  I was baffled by this book, honestly.  It was well-written, amusing, and whimsical, but I had no idea where the story was going or what the world and characters were supposed to be like.  Pick it up if you like quirky, out-of-left-field characters and vocabulary.

Rating: Not My Cup of Tea

Yes, I Finally Read It: The Hobbit

In which I finally read The Hobbit and compare it to Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book very much, because I wasn’t a big fan of LOTR (sorry, guys!).  But, to my surprise, I LOVED it.

This book is just charming.  It’s engaging, funny, and cheerful–and mostly devoid of the endless scenery descriptions and battle scenes that I hated in LOTR.  Gandalf is grumpy, the elves are silly; everyone is less serious and more enjoyable to read.  The book talks directly to its readers, something I truly enjoy when done well.  It makes mention of trips to the post office, and even suggests that goblins might have had a hand in making WMDs!

Bilbo is a truly unlikely hero.  He is constantly wishing for home–“not for the last time,” as our narrator tells us whenever Bilbo thinks of a hot cup of tea or a seed cake or smoking a pipe in his comfortable hobbit hole.

Basically, this book lives up to the hype, even for me, a total non-fantasy-lover.  It’s amusing, fun, and engaging.  Read it, read it, read it.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

This book is part of a book pairing in the Reading to Distraction reading challenge that I’m taking part in this year.  In this challenge, based on a BuzzFeed article, you read one favorite childhood book, and then read a similar, grown-up version.  The pairing for The Hobbit was Michael Chabon‘s Gentlemen of the Road, which I also thoroughly enjoyed.

According to the BuzzFeed article, here’s the connection:

So it doesn’t have any hobbits or wizards, but what Gentlemen of the Road lacks in fantasy it more than makes up for in action, adventure, and enthralling characters. Zelikman and Amram, physican and ex-soldier respectively, make their way through the Caucasus Mountains in the year 950, fighting and stealing and somehow getting in the middle of a full-scale revolution.

Gentlemen of the Road was, to me, not as memorable as The Hobbit.  It has Chabon’s unique writing style, but isn’t as memorable as the last book of his that I read (it’s much shorter, too).  The characters, though, are funny and likable, despite their cheating outlaw ways:

They’re an odd pair, to be sure: pale, rail-thin, black-clad Zelikman, a moody, itinerant physician fond of jaunty headgear, and ex-soldier Amram, a gray-haired giant of a man as quick with a razor-tongued witticism as he is with a sharpened battle-ax. Brothers under the skin, comrades in arms, they make their rootless way through the Caucasus Mountains, circa A.D. 950, living as they please and surviving however they can–as blades and thieves for hire and as practiced bamboozlers, cheerfully separating the gullible from their money.

None of which has necessarily prepared them to be dragooned into service as escorts and defenders to a prince of the Khazar Empire. Usurped by his brutal uncle, the callow and decidedly ill-tempered young royal burns to reclaim his rightful throne. But doing so will demand wicked cunning, outrageous daring, and foolhardy bravado . . . not to mention an army. (Summary via Amazon.com)

As you can probably tell from the Amazon summary, it’s a bit more over the top than Tolkien’s book, which is fairly subdued and gentle.  Sometimes that makes for some great moments, but sometimes it’s just… over the top.

On the whole, these two books make a pretty good pair.  Gentlemen of the Road doesn’t fare quite as well when compared with The Hobbit, but that’s mostly my personal preference.  Each book is a fun road trip/journey story, just with totally different flavors.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Newbery Sequels: Palace of Stone and Hattie Ever After

A review of two sequels to Newbery books--one lives up to its predecessor, the other... not so much. | Book reviews by Newbery and Beyond
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Palace of Stone is the sequel to the Newbery book Princess Academy, one of my favorite Newbery books ever.  When I found this sequel, I was equal parts excited and wary.  I loved Princess Academy so much, getting to know Miri and the other mountain girls and how quarry-speak carried through the linder, stone which the mountain people carved out of the mountainside for use in the lowlands, and I was afraid that this sequel wouldn’t live up to the original.

At the beginning of this book, Miri and a few of the other girls from the academy are invited to visit Britta at the palace as she prepares for her wedding.  But a letter from Katar, now a delegate for Mount Eskel, sends a cryptic letter that makes Miri think that their visit might be more than just a pleasure trip.  As the girls acclimate to life in Asland, Miri begins to see the injustices that the nobles have carried out against the “shoeless,” the poor of the country.  She works hard at her studies, as the other girls pursue their own interests, but she finds herself increasingly drawn to the revolution that may soon be taking place. But when Miri finds that the spark for the revolution may hurt her friend Britta, she doesn’t know what to do.  Can Miri stay the girl from Mount Eskel, or does she need to find a new path?

The best part about this book was that the quarry-speak from the first book was used and expounded upon.  I loved the girls’ ability to communicate without anyone else knowing, and I loved the power of the linder as it carried the power of the mountain.  This book wasn’t quite as good as the original, but I truly enjoyed it.  Hale’s writing style stayed consistent in both books, and the simplicity of the writing was beautiful.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Hattie Ever After was not nearly as good a sequel, sadly.  I loved, loved, loved Hattie Big Sky, the Newbery winner that was the original.  But this sequel did not stack up.  Hattie, after failing to claim her uncle’s land, decides to move to San Francisco to pursue her dream of being a journalist, much to her boyfriend Charlie’s chagrin.  She fights her way into a newspaper job, where she encounters scammers and backstabbing, along with adventure and plenty of questions about her future.

There just wasn’t as much substance or emotional resonance here as in the original book, and though I still liked Hattie, I felt like she could have been any 1900s female character looking to break into a male-dominated field.  Just not as interesting as the original.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Wednesdays in the Tower/Thursdays with the Crown

The sequels to the adorable Tuesdays at the Castle. | A book review by Newbery and Beyond
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These two books follow the further adventures of Celie, Rolf, Lilah, and their friend Pogue, along with the Grathian prince Lulath, as they discover more secrets about Castle Glower, the magical castle that can add or subtract rooms and even interact with its occupants, as seen in Tuesdays at the Castle.  (Spoilers abound, as it’s difficult to explain the plots of these books without referring to events in earlier books.)

In Wednesdays, Castle Glower keeps adding rooms and doesn’t take any away, and when the holiday feasting room appears out of season, Celie knows something is really wrong.  Plus, she finds an egg in a brand-new tower–when it hatches, she finds a griffin, a creature that everyone thought was only a myth.  When the mysterious Wizard Arkwright appears and attempts to keep Celie and Rolf from finding out more about griffins, Celie has to discover the truth without telling anyone other than her brother, Bran, about her griffin, Rufus.  I loved the dynamics in this book of Celie’s relationship with her older brother, Bran, who wasn’t much involved in the first or third books.  Eventually, the rest of Celie’s family finds out about her griffin, and Celie and her siblings are thrown into the events of the next book.

In Thursdays, the siblings and their friends have been sent to the original home of the Castle, the Glorious Arkower.  They find wizards who are not all they seem to be and more griffins, but they have to find a way to get back home to Sleyne.  This book focuses a lot on Lulath and how, despite his silly accent and love of fancy clothes and small dogs, he’s actually a really intelligent, wise man.  I love that guy!  He’s one of my favorite characters, and he really gets to shine in this book.

Both of these books followed the same pattern as the original–interesting magical happenings, evil people trying to take control of the Castle, oddball friends who turn out to have unexpected skills, and siblings pulling together to save their beloved home.  I was a tad disappointed with the big reveal of the secrets of the Castle.  I guess I wanted more mystery, more magic; but still, it wasn’t a bad explanation.  The characters were fun, and the griffins were a great addition.  If you’re looking for a fantasy-flavored kids’ book, definitely check out this series.  There’s not a lot of depth to the books, but there is an awful lot of fun.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

(Side note: Apologies for the odd timing of this post.  I’ve had a cold for the past week and got thrown off my normal blogging schedule.  Regular posts will resume this Friday!)

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