Fairy Tale

Review: Liberty Frye and the Witches of Hessen

Liberty Frye and the Witches of Hessen
Image from Sam McCreedy; used by permission

Title: Liberty Frye and the Witches of Hessen

Author: J.L. McCreedy

Genre: Fairy Tale

Back Cover:

This is the story of Liberty “Libby” Frye, a young girl from the American South, who finds herself lured to a foreign land where she falls into the clutches of an evil witch with sinister plans. Libby will need to rely upon her wits and courage, as well as the help of some friends, if she hopes to save not only herself, but also those dearest to her.

Review:

I’m pretty sure I had a good reason when I picked this up, but come time to write a review and I can’t remember what made me want to read this.

Libby was okay. I think the main reason I didn’t like her a lot is she was 10. She had a bold, fearless personality that I’m sure I would have loved in a teenager, but I wasn’t so crazy about her as a ten-year-old.

I think the story really should have been about Ginny. She went from shy and timid when Libby met her to brave and courageous at the end of the book. The problem was it almost felt forced, since she didn’t have as much page time as I think she deserved.

The basic idea was a good one (and I’m not going to say too much, since you find out what’s going on along with Libby). But I feel like there really needed to be more. The last quarter Libby starts figuring out what’s going on, and then it’s over. It probably wouldn’t bother an upper-elementary kid, who would just be excited for book 2, but I wanted more detail.

I didn’t love Liberty Frye and the Witches of Hessen as I thought (or wished) I would. It really had nothing to do with the book – I’m just outgrowing middle grade books. I’m disappointed, because I have loved middle grade since I discovered it. But I think it’s time I left middle grade to its target audience.

I received a free review copy of Liberty Frye and the Witches of Hessen from the author. Her generosity in no way influenced, or sought to influence, this review.

 

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Fantasy

Review: The Song of the Quarkbeast

The Song of the Quarkbeast
Image from Jasper Fforde

Title: The Song of the Quarkbeast

Series: The Chronicles of Kazam #2

Author: Jasper Fforde

Genre: Fantasy

Warning: This book is second in a series, so this review might contain spoilers of The Last Dragonslayer.

Back Cover:

Magic has been in a sad state in the Ununited Kingdom for years, but now it’s finally on the rise, and boneheaded King Snodd IV knows it. If he succeeds at his plot, the very future of magic will be at risk! Sensible sixteen-year-old Jennifer Strange, acting manager of Kazam Mystical Arts Management and its unpredictable crew of sorcerers, has little chance against the king and his cronies—but there’s no way Kazam will let go of the noble powers of magic without a fight. A suspenseful, satirical story of Quarkbeasts, trolls, and wizidrical crackle!

Review:

I was on the way out of the library when I saw this on the “new arrivals” shelf, and I made three people look by squealing and snatching it. I had so much fun with the screwball The Last Dragonslayer that I was super excited to get this one.

I still loved Jennifer, likely because she’s so much like me. She’s sensible and organized and is a fabulous manager, plus she’s brave and smart. I wouldn’t want to put Jennifer out of a job, but I seriously want to manage Kazam.

All the other characters were fabulous, too. Jennifer’s quirky semi-apprentice, Tiger; the ridiculous King Snodd and his strong-willed wife; and all the amazing and eccentric wizards at Kazam. I wish I had space to say how much I loved them all.

I described the first book as zany – it means “unconventionally amusing,” and I thought that fit perfectly. The Song of the Quarkbeast was zany, too, but it also had more serious elements, too. After all, the future of magic is in the balance. There’s also a hunter who just likes to kill things, a near-death experience, the sad history of a once-great wizard, and even a semi-death.

It was still fun and light-hearted, just not as much as The Last Dragonslayer. And I don’t want to say much more about the plot for fear of spoilers. It’s so much fun to discover for yourself.

The Song of the Quarkbeast absolutely lived up to its predecessor. And I’m sure that seeing the next book in the series, The Eye of Zoltar, will result in a similar squealing-and-grabbing episode.

The Chronicles of Kazam:

  1. The Last Dragonslayer
  2. The Song of the Quarkbeast
  3. The Eye of Zoltar
Fairy Tale

Review: The Girl and the Seven Thieves

Cover of "The Girl and the Seven Thieves," featuring a drawing of a black-haired girl walking away from an apartment building and holding her arms like she's cold; wind is blowing her dress and it's raining
Image from Goodreads

Title: The Girl and the Seven Thieves

Series: Twice Told Tales

Author: Olivia Snowe

Genre: Fairy Tale

Back Cover:

Once upon a time, Eira had it all: a fancy apartment, a rich father, people to drive her from place to place. And in this retelling of Snow White, Eira also has a stepmother who is wicked as could be. Eira’s stepmother tries to have her killed, but Eira finds seven thieves who are willing to help her …

Review:

I’m a fan of fairy tale retellings (or any kind of retelling, really), so when I discovered a new series of modern updated fairy tales, I jumped at it. There didn’t seem to be any sort of order to the series, so I just picked this one up at random.

What do I say about this book? Overall, it was disappointing.

I loved the idea. Eira has a super-mean stepmother who tries to have the chauffeur kill her, but the nice chauffeur lets her go. She runs into seven thieves who decide to help her – and it turns out her stepmother is really the Witch of Manhattan. Sounds absolutely fantastic.

But the execution left a lot to be desired. I can’t even discuss the characters because they weren’t characters – they were names on a page. It worked for minor characters like the chauffeur, but the thieves really needed something more. Especially the one Eira fell in love with.

The story started off strong, with great pacing and a strong setup. And then once Eira met the thieves, it just rushed through everything else. My thought process went something like, “oh, she’s going to stay with them. Hey, she’s cleaning up like in the original story. They said not to … evil chili! She just met him! Wait, it’s over?” If this had just been doubled in length, given a longer middle, a few subplots, and some more character development (especially for the thieves), I would be singing its praises right now.

The Girl and the Seven Thieves was actually really disappointing because the idea was so great. But it was so, so rushed and so many important things were glossed over. I wanted to love this book, and I’m really disappointed that I couldn’t.

Twice Told Tales series:

  • The Girl and the Seven Thieves
  • Cassie and the Woolf
  • The Sealed-Up House
  • A Home in the Sky
  • Hansen and Gracie
  • Beauty and the Basement
  • The Glass Voice
  • Dandelion and the Witch
Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade

Review: The Runaway King

The Runaway King book cover
Image from 365 Books in 365 Days

Title: The Runaway King

Series: Ascendance Trilogy #2

Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen

Genre: Fantasy

WARNING: The Runaway King is second in a series, so this review will probably contain spoilers of the previous book.

Back Cover:

Just weeks after Jaron has taken the throne, an assassination attempt forces him into a deadly situation. Rumors of a coming war are winding their way between the castle walls, and Jaron feels the pressure quietly mounting within Carthya. Soon, it becomes clear that deserting the kingdom may be his only hope of saving it. But the further Jaron is forced to run from his identity, the more he wonders if it is possible to go too far. Will he ever be able to return home again? Or will he have to sacrifice his own life in order to save his kingdom?

Review:

I loved the first book in the Ascendance trilogy, The False Prince, so I was thrilled to get my hands on this book. And it was as fabulous as expected and more.

Jaron was the same old Sage/Jaron – headstrong, reckless, and with an astounding gift for ticking people off. It’s seriously a good thing his closest friends were so loyal, otherwise I’m sure someone would have assassinated him already. Still, even though he didn’t seem to care much for his own safety (not always the greatest trait in a king), he really cared about other people. Which just made him exasperating his advisers super fun.

There’s so many characters I could mention! Mott, who has more patience than Jaron probably deserves; the devoted Tobias; Roden, Jaron’s now-enemy; strong-willed Imogen, Fink the talkative thief, (name) the kind nobleman…none of them major enough to warrant their own paragraph, but none of them minor enough to ignore, either.

The Runaway King started out with a political-unrest-among-regents plot. It would have been boring if anyone but Jaron had been narrating. He gave it a tense, the-idiots-won’t-listen-to-me air that made it awesome – and made me want to turn the page and see if they get their way. Plus, that plot comes back in the end, when Jaron figures out what’s really going on.

I didn’t expect pirates. Or thieves. But both of them ended up being a huge part of the plot. In fact, they mostly were the plot. Once Jaron left the palace, the whole story was thieves and pirates and watching Jaron be Sage again. It was completely unexpected, but absolutely awesome.

The Runaway King isn’t what I’d call a fairy tale. But the writing had an awesome lyrical, almost-but-not-quite old-fashioned style that sometimes gave it a fairy tale vibe and sometimes seemed more medieval. Whatever it was, I loved it.

The number of times I used “awesome” in this review should get my point across. I loved this book. The title (release date?) of book three isn’t released yet, but the sooner I can get my hands on it, the better.

The Ascendance Trilogy:

  1. The False Prince
  2. The Runaway King
  3. The Shadow Throne
Fantasy

Review: The False Prince

The False Prince book cover
Image from Ms. Martin Teaches Media

Title: The False Prince

Series: Ascendance Trilogy #1

Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen

Genre: Fantasy

Back Cover:

With civil war is brewing in Carthya, a nobleman named Conner devises a plan to unify the kingdom’s divided people. Sage, along with three other orphan boys, is bought to compete for the pivotal role—impersonating the king’s long-lost younger son. Sage knows Conner’s motives are more than questionable, but his life balances on a sword’s point. If he doesn’t beat his rivals and bet chosen to play the prince, he will most certainly be killed.

Review:

I read The False Prince when it first came out. Then I found the second book in the series, The Runaway King, and realized I remembered nothing of book one. So I had to reread it.

Sage was an interesting personality. He was abrasive and had a knack for getting people angry with him. He was also reckless, defiant, manipulative, and extraordinarily smart. But he cared about people, too, which just made him an awesome character.

Tobias and Roden were two of the other orphans, but they weren’t nearly as interesting as Sage. Tobias was the smart one with a mean streak. Roden was quiet, mild, and unassuming. Tobias had more personality than Roden, but next to Sage, they both seemed bland.

Conner’s motives are called into question through the whole book. He’s heartless and willing to do whatever necessary to make his plot succeed, but is it because he doesn’t want Carthya to be destroyed, or because he wants to be the master behind a puppet king? Up until the very end, it could go either way.

The whole story is brilliant. The boys are competing in a life-or-death situation – the winner gets to be the prince, the losers die. Nobody trusts anybody, and Sage doesn’t like following anybody’s orders. Personality clashes between Sage and everybody else, vast amounts of secrets, life-or-death stakes, and political intrigue combine into a brilliantly engrossing story.

There are so many secrets in The False Prince. Conner has secrets – why he’s sure he can get away with this, what his real motives are, and a bunch of little details concerning the royal family. Tobias has secrets that he’s not very good at hiding. Even Sage has secrets, which aren’t revealed until the end (even though I probably should have seen them coming).

My final verdict: I remember why I wanted to read book two so bad. This is one of those books you almost want to forget because it’s so much fun to discover it all over again. I officially can’t wait to read The Runaway King.

The Ascendance Trilogy:

  1. The False Prince
  2. The Runaway King
  3. The Shadow Throne
Fantasy

Review: The Last Dragonslayer

The Last Dragonslayer book cover
Image from Tumblr

Title: The Last Dragonslayer

Series: The Chronicles of Kazam #1

Author: Jasper Fforde

Genre: Fantasy

Back Cover:

In the good old days, magic was indispensable – it could both save a kingdom and clear a clogged drain. But now magic is fading. Drain cleaner is cheaper than a spell, and magic carpets are reduced to pizza delivery. Fifteen-year-old foundling Jennifer Strange runs the Kazam Mystical Arts Management, an employment agency for magicians, but it’s hard to stay in business when magic is drying up. Then the visions start, predicting the death of the world’s last dragon at the hands of an unnamed Dragonslayer. If that’s true, everything will change for Kazam and Jennifer. Because something is coming. Something known as … Big Magic.

Review:

To be honest, I hadn’t planned on reading this book. I saw it mentioned on the internet somewhere, judged it by its cover (I know, bad me), and thought it looked like an adult fantasy. But then I saw it in the middle grade section of the library and read the back cover. Foundlings, dragons, magical employment agency…I decided to give it a try.

And I’m glad I did.

Jennifer Strange made a great manager for Kazam. Actually, I think she would have made a great manager anywhere. Organized, logical, not overly emotional, mature, and very in-control, I absolutely loved her – probably because she’s a lot like me.

The Last Dragonslayer had an ensemble cast of minor characters.  Various wizards, a king, a duke, a dragonslayer, a nun, a dragonslayer’s apprentice, a moose, another foundling…the list goes on. But most of them were in only a scene or three.

The setting was absolutely amazing. It’s officially called the Kingdom of Hereford, but it’s a bit like medieval times and a bit like modern times but somehow had a distinctly British feel. Details like cars and land development corporations and merchandising rights gave it a familiar vibe, but the prevalence and universal acceptance of magic (with some sciency terms to explain it) also made it utterly, brilliantly foreign.

The plot is full of crazy twists and developments that shouldn’t work, but do. Looking back on it, there are some moments that in any other book would feel fake or contrived, but fit perfectly into the screwball storytelling of The Last Dragonslayer. The story is a perfect blend of smart and silly, realistic and ridiculous, ordinary and oddball.  “Zany” is the perfect adjective for this book – amusingly unconventional, entertainingly strange, and enjoyably unusual.

I didn’t know this when I picked it up, but The Last Dragonslayer is first in a series.  And I plan to read the second book, The Song of the Quarkbeast, as soon as I can get my hands on it.

The Chronicles of Kazam:

  1. The Last Dragonslayer
  2. The Song of the Quarkbeast
  3. The Eye of Zoltar
Fantasy

Review: A World Without Heroes

A World Without Heroes book cover
Image from The Underground Bookclub

Title:  A World Without Heroes

Series: Beyonders #1

Author:  Brandon Mull

Genre:  Fantasy

Back Cover:

Jason Walker’s predictable life is turned upside down when a routine trip to the zoo ends with Jason transporting from the hippo tank to the world of Lyrian.  In Lyrian, the people live in fear of their malicious wizard emperor, Maldor.  Those who oppose him have been destroyed.  While searching for a way home, Jason meets a girl from his world, Rachel, and accidentally gets on Maldor’s bad side.  Their only way home now is to piece together the magic word that will destroy Maldor.

Review:

I’d enjoyed Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven books years ago, so when I learned he wrote a middle grade novel, I figured what the heck, I’d try it.

Right off, though, I had a huge problem with how Jason ended up in Lyrian.  He got swallowed by a hippo, for goodness’ sakes!  I realized it was a fantasy story, but come on.  It was so implausible, I almost gave up on the book.

But I’m glad I didn’t, because once I got over how ridiculous the beginning was, the rest of A World Without Heroes was great.

Jason didn’t have an awful lot of personality.  He was brave, definitely, and he usually had a witty reply, but his personality didn’t really come through.  I didn’t mind too much while I was reading the story, but I wouldn’t call him a memorable character, either.

Even though Rachel was traveling with Jason for almost the whole book, she seemed like a more minor character.  This could be because her personality was fleshed out even less than Jason’s, but I felt like she was just kind of there and not really doing anything important.  I’m hoping this will change in future books, because I feel she could be an interesting character if given the chance.

Once I got past the beginning, I enjoyed the plot.  I liked the idea of a magic word to destroy the bad guy, although it seemed somewhat strange to me that even though Maldor was a wizard, the only evidence of magic was left over from long-dead wizards.  Despite that, the whole world had a distinctly magical feel – although that could just be the quirkiness of the people Jason and Rachel came across in their journey.

There was some danger, but it wasn’t constant.  And even when Jason and Rachel were in danger, it didn’t feel very dangerous, if you know what I mean.  I never got really worried that something bad might happen.   It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, the story just didn’t have an element of mortal danger.

One thing that stuck me as odd, though, was how little reaction people had to the fact that Jason and Rachel were two kids traveling alone on some big important quest.  Either two kids traveling alone isn’t such a big deal (which I doubt, considering the fact that Maldor discourages traveling of any kind), or it was just glossed over for some purpose.

Overall, I’m glad I gave A World Without Heroes a chance, because it was an interesting middle grade fantasy.  And I do plan to read the second Beyonders book, Seeds of Rebellion.

The Beyonders series:

  1. A World Without Heroes
  2. Seeds of Rebellion
  3. Chasing the Prophecy
Fantasy

Review: The Girl with the Silver Eyes

The Girl with the Silver Eyes book cover
Image from HumbleIndigo

Title:  The Girl with the Silver Eyes

Author:  Willo Davis Roberts

Genre:  Science Fiction

Back Cover:

Most people found Katie strange because of her silver eyes.  But she knows that’s not the only way she’s different – she can move things just by thinking about it, a gift she’s done her best to hide.  When her grandmother dies, Katie is sent to live with her mother, who doesn’t understand her at all.  Then Mr. Cooper moves into the apartment building, asking all sorts of questions about Katie.  Katie is afraid of what Mr. Cooper might do, so when she finds out that there might be more children with gifts like hers, she decides to find them.

Review:

I first read The Girl with the Silver Eyes when I was eight, and I had read it five times by the time I turned ten.  I picked it up again purely to see if it still held the same appeal six years later.

And while it didn’t hold the same magical possibility as it did for me as a child, I still enjoyed the story.

I remember connecting very well with Katie when I was younger – we were both loners, not very social, loved to read and read at a level far above our age. And while I didn’t have the same connection as a sixteen-year-old reader, I still felt for her and enjoyed following her around. And even though Katie’s only nine, she’s old for her age, if you get what I mean, and didn’t come across as childish.

I originally picked up this book on the premise of telekinesis. That wasn’t a huge focus of the story, though. It was more of Katie’s journey to find friends and acceptance, and her powers were mentioned in the same way a person with fantastic piano-playing skills’ gift might be mentioned – in a “hey, this character has this skill” kind of way. And, honestly, I enjoyed her search for the other gifted kids more than her use of her powers. (Although, I admit it, watching Katie scare the babysitter was hilarious.)

The story was definitely written in an older style, with long paragraphs and a lot of straight-out telling instead of showing through action and dialogue. The narration was more distant, too, not up-close and emotion-rife like I’m used to in modern fiction. I didn’t mind, though, either as a kid or a teen.

The Girl with the Silver Eyes was published in 1980, so it’s basically a middle grade book written before middle grade was a genre. I liked the story as a teen (although some of that might be due to nostalgia), but loved it as a kid. It’s a sweet, quick read with a theme that transcends age. I invite you to read it for yourself, and if you know a bibliophile in the 8-10 years old range, you might recommend it to them, too.

Fantasy

Review: Over Sea, Under Stone

Image from Powells

Title: Over Sea, Under Stone

Series: The Dark Is Rising Sequence #1

Author: Susan Cooper

Genre: Fantasy

Back Cover:

While on holiday in Cornwall, Jane, Simon, and Barney Drew discover an ancient map. The map is the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the Dark, a force of great evil. And in searching for it, they put their very lives in danger…

Review:

I picked up this book for two reasons. One was I bought a copy of Susan Cooper’s Green Boy at a used bookstore, and the woman who rang up my order recommended her The Dark is Rising books. The other was that I vaguely remember watching movie called “The Dark is Rising” years ago and liking it.

Even if this series is what the movie was based on (which I doubt, because the movie main character’s name was Will), I didn’t like it nearly as much as the movie.

I tried to give it the fifty-page rule (it was too short for the hundred-page rule) but I only got to page forty. What plot I got through wasn’t bad. The characters weren’t the best I’d ever read, but they weren’t horrible, either. What really turned me off was the writing style.

The book is set in England (Susan Cooper was born there), and it was written with a lot of British words. But that wasn’t what bothered me. What made me stop reading was all the extra words.

Susan Cooper wrote this book like I wrote essays for government class – with as many extra words as possible. By page forty, when I stopped reading, the three kids had found a map. That’s it. The font was tiny, and the lines close together, and it still took forty pages for the story to start.

I felt like the most likely good story was drowned in an ocean of excess words. I honestly think this book could have benefited greatly from a liberal application of the red pen.

I think Susan Cooper had a good idea here, but it could use some help. I do not intend to read the rest of the series.

The Dark is Rising Sequence:

  1. Over Sea, Under Stone
  2. The Dark is Rising
  3. Greenwitch
  4. The Grey King
  5. Silver On the Tree