Wishing Will
Contemporary Fantasy

Review: Wishing Will by Daniel Harvell

Wishing Will
Image from Daniel Harvell; used by permission

Title: Wishing Will

Author: Daniel Harvell

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy

Middle schooler Will Cricket wants a new look, popular friends, cool parents, and enough coordination to dribble a basketball – but he never actually does anything about it. Instead, Will makes wishes. 

When the wishing corporation known as the Sky Castle Network and Enterprises (SCENE) agrees to grant his wish to be someone different, he must work for his reward. Becoming a super-powered wish agent, Will teams up with a shape-changing half-Genie, an agent with delusions of Hollywood stardom, and a stick-in-the-mud wish lawyer. Together, they grant the wishes of Will’s classmates and family, helping the people who pick on Will every day. As if that’s not enough, there’s more in that wish contract than he thought. Will might have to fight not only for his wish, but for the entire world!

I’m always up for a unique-sounding premise, and the idea of a wish-granting company and “wish agents” sounded fun. Plus I’d read the author’s previous novel, The Survivors, and really enjoyed it. So I decided to give Wishing Will a go.

Half the reason I liked Will so much was because I remember being a fat, awkward, and uncool middle schooler. While I was homeschooled and never had to deal with bullies like Will did, I can totally feel for him. (The other half was me having fun watching him use his powers to grant wishes – as I’ve mentioned before, I’m all about the super powers.)

The more secondary characters were delightfully zany (well, most of them). Will’s pink-haired grandmother, a semi-insane former archeologist; Hollywood, a wish agent who happens to be a star (as in the kind you see in the sky); Tang, the half-Genie and Will’s new friend; the prim and proper wish lawyer; his narcoleptic Dreamweaver assistant… They were all such a fun touch of completely outlandish, and yet completely logical.

(Then there were the more normal people, like Will’s mean sister, his workaholic mother, and really-bad-at-being-a-stay-at-home-dad father, who make it very clear why Will would want to be part of a different family.)

The story starts out pretty simple. A fat, bullied kid with a family that’s all sorts of messed up wishes to be somebody else, and a magical wish-granting company agrees to grant it, assuming he helps them grant 7 small wishes. And then it starts sliding down a slippery slope of epic complications.

There’s this huge evil force that’s trying to destroy the world. Oh, and one of Will’s friends might be helping. And his crazy grandma – she’s important for some mysterious reason.  And SCENE is going to need Will for more than the standard 7 wishes. Will definitely should have read his contract before signing.

(I called all the major twists, but then again, this book is written for middle schoolers. I doubt most 12- or 13-year-olds would predict the ending.)

I can’t write this review without saying this: Daniel Harvell can write. While I enjoyed his first book, The Survivors, it usually takes two books to prove to me that someone is a good writer. And Daniel Harvell has proved it. So don’t let his indie author status scare you away – his books are every bit as good as traditionally published ones.

I was completely delighted with Wishing Will. And after that epilogue, I’m thinking there’s a sequel in the works somewhere. At least, I hope there is. I would certainly be interested.

I received a free review copy of Wishing Will from the author. His generosity in no way influenced, or sought to influence, this review.

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WISHING WILL scored a 4.0 (A)

Fairy Tale

Review: Liberty Frye and the Witches of Hessen by J.L. McCreedy

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

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.

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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LIBERTY FRYE AND THE WITCHES OF HESSEN scored a 3.8 (A)

Fantasy

Review: The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

The Song of the Quarkbeast
Image from Jasper Fforde

Title: The Song of the Quarkbeast (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 first book. If you haven’t read The Last Dragonslayer, I recommend not reading this review.

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!

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

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4.0 (A) final grade

Fairy Tale, Fiction, Middle Grade

Review: The Girl and the Seven Thieves by Olivia Snowe

The Girl and the Seven Thieves book cover
Image from Capstone

Title: The Girl and the Seven Thieves (Twice Told Tales)

Author: Olivia Snowe

Genre: Fairy Tale

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…

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 Wolf
  • The Sealed-Up House
  • A Home in the Sky
  • Hansen and Gracie (releases July 1, 2014)
  • Beauty and the Basement (releases July 1, 2014)
Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade

Review: The Crimson and the Frost by John Williams and James Colletti

The Crimson and the Frost book cover
Image from John Williams; used by permission

Title: The Crimson and the Frost

Author: John Williams and James Colletti

Genre: Fantasy

Late one night, Billy Hampton investigates a strange presence in the woods behind his house. He discovers a curious transport, climbs aboard, and is whisked away to the remote winter wastelands of the far north. He finds himself in a town full of mystery and wonder, built by the legendary Crimson Wizard and his devoted followers. The residents had lived in peace for centuries, protected by a powerful jewel known as the Heart of Polaris. It is their only defense against the wicked King of Winter. Billy accidentally loses the Heart of Polaris, and without its protection, his newfound friends are vulnerable. It’s a desperate race against time as Billy and his friends must find the Heart of Polaris before the King of Winter attacks.

When I picked this book up, I thought it was something about a boy sucked into a magical world where he had to help a red wizard defeat an evil king. (That probably has something to do with the fact that the synopsis calls Santa the Crimson Wizard.) I did not realize it was a Christmas story or I would have made an effort to read it back in December.

I didn’t like Billy at first, mostly because I was expecting an older kid/waiting for said older kid to appear. But once I figured out there was no other kid coming, I more or less liked him – more when he was being a cute, curious kid, and less when he was being impulsive and disobedient. I don’t think I completely enjoyed him because I’m a seventeen-year-old girl and he was a sixth-grade boy, but I bet my twelve-year-old brother would like him a lot.

I also liked/disliked the two elves who accidentally brought Billy to Christmastown. Boomer and Noogin were funny in a not-the-brighest-light-on-the-tree way. Sometimes, though, it crossed the border from funny to idiotic. I think a younger kid would have that line set farther out than me, so I’m pretty sure that’s me and not the book.

So, what do I say about the plot…? It starts off with Billy having a problem with a girl at school, which indirectly convinces him to climb in Santa’s sleigh when it lands in the woods behind his house. Then he accidentally drops something really important overboard, but that isn’t really explained until later. The first half is Billy navigating Christmastown and Noogin and Boomer trying to keep him from being discovered.

Then things get explained, and Billy joins Santa and the elves in trying to save Christmas from the King of Winter, Jack Frost. (Having Jack Frost as the bad guy always threw me off a bit, because I pictured the fun teenager from the Rise of the Guardians movie – who was just about the opposite of this Jack Frost.) The first part of the story kept me interested in discovering the inner workings of Santa’s toy factory and the fun and creative relationships between various elves. The second half was definitely more action and higher stakes, but I enjoyed both parts almost equally.

I’m actually glad I had no idea what this book was about when I accepted it, because I probably wouldn’t have opted to read it. I’m glad I did, though. I had fun with this story, even though it isn’t exactly the Christmas season anymore. I think upper elementary or middle school kids might like it even better than I did.

I received a free review copy of The Crimson and the Frost from the authors. Their generosity in no way influenced, or sought to influence, this review.

Fairy Tale, Fiction, Middle Grade

Review: Jenny’s 1st Adventure by Anna Staniszewski

 

Jenny's 1st Adventure book cover
Image from Anna Staniszewski

Title: Jenny’s 1st Adventure (My Very UnFairy Tale Life prequel)

Author: Anna Staniszewski

Genre: Fairy Tale

Jenny is an average girl living an average life. But in the middle of an average day, a dwarf shows up to ask her to become a magical adventurer. Find out how Jenny completes her first job as an adventurer in this prequel to the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series.

I forget where I first heard of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series (probably one of the innumerable blogs I follow). But when I saw this for free, I figured what the heck. At least it’ll give me an idea of whether or not I want to read the series.

Or so I thought.

I’m going to start with things Jenny’s First Adventure did right. First of all, like any good prequel this short (33 pages on my Nook), it read a lot like a beginning. It introduced the main characters and enough of the world that I’m pretty sure it’s going to a whole lot crazier than a standard fairy tale world. Plus, it was its own interesting, self-contained adventure that gives me an idea of what kinds of things Jenny will be doing in the actual series. And the whole story had its own fun, crazy brand of uniqueness that I loved.

But things it could have done better…. Believe it or not, there was nothing about book one at the end of Jenny’s First Adventure. Absolutely nothing. Not even a title. And I did not appreciate this, because Jenny was nine in this book. There’s nothing wrong with nine-year-old kids, but I’m seventeen. I don’t really feel like spending an entire novel in the head of an average nine-year-old. Now, it’s very possible that this is a prequel set far before book one – but I wouldn’t know, because there was nothing about book one in this book.

So, did this prequel make me want to read the series? Um…it didn’t not make me want to read it. My excitement level over the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series is exactly the same after reading the prequel as it was before. I’ll still probably read the series if it falls into my hands. I just won’t be going out of my way for it.

My Very UnFairy Tale Life series:
Jenny’s First Adventure
My Very UnFairy Tale Life
My Epic Fairy Tale Fail
My Sort Of Fairy Tale Ending

Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade

Review: Through the Portal by Justin Dennis

Through the Portal book cover
Image from Justin Dennis; used by permission

Title: Through the Portal (Portal #1)

Author: Justin Dennis

Genre: Fantasy

When Jem and Oliver accidentally fall through a portal to another world, they quickly discover that all is not well here. The first person they meet almost gets them killed. They’re only narrowly saved when Sierra, a shy farm girl from a nearby town, uses illegal magic to help them escape. Allowed to stay with her family while they try to figure out a way back home, Jem and Oliver begin to learn of magic and the Regime that is oppressing it. It isn’t until the Regime kills a woman that the three kids realize they have to do something to stop the Regime from taking over completely. After being framed for a crime they didn’t commit and banished from the town, Jem, Oliver, and Sierra take off on an adventure across this strange world in an attempt to defeat the Regime. New creatures and new kinds of magic are around every corner, but so are dangers that could have them wishing they were back safe at home.

I seem to be on a high fantasy kick lately. (In other words, I read two books of the same genre in a row.) And strangely enough, I’m not really sure what enticed me to pick this book up. I guess it just generally sounded good.

I liked Jem. He was the non-adventurous best friend who got dragged along – but he was the main character. He wasn’t really bold or adventurous, but he was loyal, and once he committed to something, he wasn’t going to give up (or let other people give up).

Sierra is the exact opposite of the brave and dangerous rebel woman that goes along with this type of high fantasy – that was her sister. She was the timid, indoctrinated one who questioned, but didn’t dare voice her dissent. I didn’t like her as much as I could have – she came across as wimpy sometimes – but she wasn’t bad.

For such a rebellion-style plot, there was surprisingly little traditional rebelling. I think there were a grand total of two scenes where any of the main characters actually confronted a Regime guard. It was a more subtle form of rebellion: slowly breaking through the lies, doing what the Regime said not to do in order to prove that the consequences were just lies.

The magic was fun. A little simplistic by high fantasy standards, sure. But it’s exactly the kind of magic I’ve imagined for real life. It wasn’t exactly integral to the plot, but it was enjoyable.

This is frustrating. All the best parts would be spoilers!

I could barely tell this was an indie book – the key word there being barely. For the most part, the writing was good, but every once in a while the emotional description would be slightly corny. Strangely enough, it was less of a problem later on in the story.

I enjoyed Through the Portal. It had its own originality by taking the traditional adventurous hero and reluctant hero’s friend and turning it on its head by making the friend the main character. Even though I enjoyed it, though, I’m not sure if I want to read the next book in the series. I think this one satisfied me.

I received a free review copy of Through the Portal from the author. His generosity in no way influenced, or sought to influence, this review.

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