Five Kingdoms 1: Sky Raiders

by Brandon Mull
First sentence: “Weaving down the hall, Cole avoided a ninja, a witch, a pirate, and a zombie bride.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy downloaded from Net Galley
Content: There’s some intense action, but it’s pretty tame, after the kidnapping scene. And there’s a lot of talk about “liking” girls, but it’s pretty innocent. It’s happily situated with the rest of Brandon Mull’s books in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Cole is your average run-of-the-mill 7th grader in your average run-of-the-mill American suburban town. He has a crush on a girl, he has friends, he gets decent grades. Nothing spectacular. Then on Halloween, he and his friends go to a haunted house and end up slaves on a different planet. (Actually, his friends get kidnapped.. Cole goes down the hole after them, hoping to save them. And ends up as a slave.) The world is the Five Kingdoms, and Cole (and his friends) are on the Outskirts. And once you’re there, they find, it’s practically impossible to leave.

One of the best things about this new series by Brandon Mull is the world. The Outskirts is a fascinating place. Part magic, part dreams, part vicious, part insane; it’s a crazy, wild ride of a world. And while this one is basically your typical first in a series, introduction to the world book, the world that Mull creates is a fantastic one.

Cole finds himself sold to the Sky Raiders: a group of pirates that go out over the Brink — an endless chasm — and raids floating castles for anything they can sell. The thing is: the floating castles are dream-like, filled with semblences — lifelike beings that are somewhat sentient, but not entirely. They’re dangerous, and it’s Cole’s job, as the bottom of the totem pole, to scope out the castle, and make sure that it’s not dangerous before the raiding crew comes in. Their parting words before Cole’s first mission? Die bravely.

Of course it’s a bit more complicated than that; there’s a girl (there always is) who turns out to be something more than you think (again, kind of predictable). And there’s more adventure than you can shake a stick at, even though the plot kind of felt like one vignette after another all strung together. There is an overarching plot, and once we get to the point where the plot of this one begins to advance the overall plot, it loses some of the vignette quality. But the thing that kept me reading was the world. It really is that imaginative and wild.

The rest of it was good, enough that I’ll keep an eye out for the sequel. Which is a good thing, I think.

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How to Catch a Bogle

by Catherine Jinks
First line: “The front door was painted black, with a shiny brass knocker that made a satisfying noise when Alfred used it.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a few mild swear words and some very intense moments. I’d put it in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore, but I’d be wary about giving it to a sensitive younger kid.

Imagine a Dickensian London, complete with orphans, pickpockets, unsavory doctors, toshers, and blackmailing landladies. And then add… bogles.

What are bogles, you might ask?

Well, it’s what our fair heroine, Birdie, and her master, Arthur, call the paranormal creatures that they get rid of for the people of  London town. Not everyone believes in them, but Arthur and Birdie know one thing: if there’s children disappearing, it’s most likely a bogle.

(I’ll let you read the book to find out how to catch them, though.)

There isn’t much plot to this one in terms of plot; Birdie and Arthur catch bogles until they meet a woman of Society who decides that bogle catching is an unsuitable occupation for a girl. (Birdie objects.) They catch more bogles until things become Sufficiently Dangerous (that’s when the unsavory doctor comes in). There’s a bit of excitement, a kidnapping, and some hauntings before it’s all over. No, this one’s mostly about atmosphere. It’s a dark book — bogles are not nice creatures — and very  much the dirty London of Dickens’ time.

I loved it.

I know: I don’t usually like atmospheric books, or Dickens for that matter. But the combination of a clever take on the paranormal and the plucky character of Birdie was enough of a combination for me to fall head over heels for this one. It’s a perfect stand alone story (though it — like many this Cybils season — says it’s a “Book one”), one that is perfect for those who love historical fiction as well as the paranormal.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Rose

by Holly Webb
First sentence: “Rose peered out the corner of the window at the street below, watching interestedly as two little girls walked past with their nursemaid.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy sent to me by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: Aside from the creepy person kidnapping orphans (but it’s really not that scary), there isn’t anything untoward in this book. It would happily sit in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

Rose lives in St. Bridget’s Home for Abandoned Girls in London, with no idea, really, where she came from or who she is. (She’s named after the rose bush that was blooming the day she was found in a fish basket in the churchyard.) She really doesn’t have much hope of ever being adopted, so she trudges on, one day after another. Then one day, a housekeeper for a wealthy alchemist/magician arrives, and Rose ends up as a maid in the house. And she discovers that she has a talent for magic. It turns out, too, that orphan children are disappearing from the London streets. No one is really concerned — they’re orphans, after all — but when a friend of hers from St. Bridget’s goes missing, Rose knows she has to do something. And with the help of the magician’s apprentice, maybe she can.

This is, in many ways, a book that’s already been written. Orphan? Check. Plucky lower class girl outsmarting the gentry? Apprentice story? Check. Check. Evil magician stealing children? Check. It should have been by-the-numbers boring.

And yet, it wasn’t. Partially because of the writing — Webb does know how to keep the pages turning — but mostly because Rose is such an endearing character. She’s neither snarky nor plucky. She just does what Needs To Be Done. She’s hardworking, but doesn’t have any desire to be Great. She’s not terribly smart — she has no idea how she’s doing what she’s doing — but she is willing to learn. And she is, above all, loyal to those she calls her friends.

She is, for all purposes, a Hufflepuff.

And that is why I loved her. The story is good, as well. I think this is a first in a series, but it doesn’t need to be. I can see a lot of kids loving it — boys too, if they can get past the title and cover — because it’s quite accessible.

A true winner. (Go Hufflepuff!)

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Ranger’s Apprentice: The Burning Bridge

by John Flanagan
ages: 10-14
First sentence: “Halt and Will had been trailing the Wargals for three days.”

When we last left our determined Hero, Will, he had just killed off a couple of Big Bad Guy Morgarath’s bad beasties, and received a hero’s welcome home. But, this being War, he is not allowed to rest. While the army and Rangers — including stodgy mentor Halt — prepare for the impending battle, Halt, his apprentice friend Horace, and Ranger Gilan head for Celtica to see if the king there will come to Aruelian’s aid.

Of course things go badly wrong, and Gilan heads back to the army to warn the king, while Gilan, Horace and a stray girl they picked up, Evelyn, follow later. Except they get sidetracked, and find out what Morgarath’s really up to. And because Will is determined, and plucky and brave and resourceful, he is able to find a way — with Horace and Evelyn’s help, of course — to stop (or at least slow down) Morgarath. Unfortunately, while his resourcefulness is no match for the Wargals, he and Evelyn are captured by the Skandians (another country, this one run by sea raiders whom Morgarath paid to help him), and at the end of the book, they are hauled off.

All that said, this is a blast to read (aloud). Next in the Ranger’s Apprentice series, it didn’t have any of the problems with exposition that the first one had. It came out with a bang, and managed to keep up the pace pretty much (go Horace!) throughout the whole novel. C lost interest, but I don’t think it was the book — she’s been heading off to her room to read by herself rather than asking me to read aloud to her. I’m sad to see the end of it, but M hit that point, too, and we still get along. 🙂 I ended up finishing this one on my own, and have every intention to keep going with the series (on occasion, when I’m in the mood for a good fantasy-war-action-hero book) on my own. Maybe C will even pick them up and then we can talk about them. I’d like that.

Ranger’s Apprentice: The Ruins of Gorlan

by John Flanagan
ages: 10+
First sentence: “Morgorath, Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night, former Baron of Gorlan in the Kingdom of Araluen, looked over his bleak, rainswept domain and, for perhaps the thousandth time, cursed.”

After C and I abandoned our last book, we were fishing around for something to read next. M, being the promoter of All Books She Loves, began pushing for us to start the series. I admit that I had little interest in beginning it, even with the buzz it gets, and M’s high recommendation, but she piqued C’s interest, and so Ranger’s Apprentice it was.

Will is one of Baron Arald’s wards living in the Castle Redmont. He doesn’t quite fit in with his other wardmates — Horace, Alyss, Jenny and George: he’s the smallest, he’s the least sure of his future, and (probably most importantly), he doesn’t have any idea who his parents are. (The other ones, although they are orphans, have some knowledge of where they came from.) All Will is really good at is climbing, sneaking and pilfering… not exactly things that are conducive to one of the apprenticeships in the village.

So, when the wards turn 15, and are set to be apprenticed out to the various Craftmasters, Will has no idea where he belongs. That is, until a mysterious Ranger — the super seceret guardians of the Kingdom — decides that he wants an apprentice, and that Will is it.

The beginning of the book — the choosing and training of Will with his master Halt — is actually pretty slow. C would often complain that nothing was going on. Still, we both liked Flannagan’s writing, and his detailed descriptions. That, and the story would switch back and forth between Hoarce (whose training at the battle school was really quite torturous) and Will, which kept us entertained, even if C wanted to know what was going on with Alyss and Jenny. My complaint was that for a Middle Grade book, most of the action, decisions, and plot advancements were being done by someone other than Will or Halt, and I was starting to get in a snit about that. Why bother writing a children’s book where the children aren’t even the protagonists?

But, then, the action picked up. Granted, we had to wait until the final quarter of the book (but then, it’s the first in a series, so maybe the other books won’t be so slow in starting), but we both finally got our wishes (almost): the action picked up and Will did something major. (The only thing that we didn’t get was more on Alyss and Jenny…. but M assures us that they show up in later books.) It was very intense and exciting; we couldn’t wait to get to reading those nights.

And, we’re excited to move on to the next book, which says a whole lot. At least we won’t have to wonder what we’re reading next. For a while, at least.

Ranger’s Apprentice: The Siege of Macindaw

by John Flanagan
ages: 10+
First sentence: “Gundar Hardstriker, Captain and Helmsan of the Scandian ship Wolfcloud, chewed disconsolately on a stringy piece of tough smoked beef.”
Release date: August 11, 2009

I haven’t read any of these books, but M is a die-hard fan. So, when Abby was doing an ARC giveaway, I knew I had to enter for her. And I (well, she) won! Because it was a bloggy thing, though, I felt kind of like I should put up a review, and since I wasn’t going to read the book, I thought it would be interesting for me to do a Q&A with M about it, instead.

Summarize the plot, but don’t give away the ending! In the fifth book, one of Will’s (that’s the main character) best friends, Alyss, is being held hostage by the evil Sir Keren, who is betraying the kingdom to Will’s country’s northern enemies. So, Will and his warrior friends plan a siege on the castle, Macindaw (hence the title), to save Alyss and the kingdom from their enemies.

What did you like most about the book? First of all: warriors and romance. Big, hulking, Viking-like people that are really stupid, but hilarious. Will’s mentor, Halt, makes the book really good, though you don’t see a lot of him. Will also makes the book really funny while he is seiging, with his romance problems. Hilarious.
What did you like least? That the good guys could do no wrong. Will’s ideas always worked. Horace (that’s the warrior friend) always killed his adversaries, and Alyss was a damsel in distress, which she wasn’t in the 5th book. She was resourceful in the 5th book, but, no, as soon as she’s caught and thrown in a castle, she’s a damsel in distress and Will has to go and save her.

Who is most likely to enjoy this book? Why? Well, actually, I’ve gotten three or four boys reading the Ranger’s Apprentice by saying “YOU’LL LIKE THIS BOOK.” So. Anyone with imagination who likes fighting (the romance doesn’t kick in until the sixth book).

What did you think of the main character? Will’s funny, resourceful, smart, and any other good word you can think of because he’s the main character and he has to be that way. Unfortunately. (And unlike Mr. Darcy.)

Any other particularly interesting characters? Horace — really fun guy, and a really good warrior. The Sorcerer of Mackindaw (can’t say his name). Really funny guy. I can’t say more, because it would give away a major plot point.

What did you think of the ending? I’m waiting for the next book. Hand it to me now.