Trials of Apollo: The Dark Prophecy

by Rick Riordan
First sentence: “When our dragon declared war on Indiana, I knew it was going to be a bad day.”
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Others in the series: The Hidden Oracle
Content: There’s some dark undercurrents (but those will probably go over the heads of younger readers) and some violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

So, Apollo is off on a quest, this time to figure out what Big Bad (really: he’s the worst) Nero is up to, and to get to it and stop it before Nero gets too much power. Tagging along with Leo and Calypso, they head to Indianapolis, where they find a huge mess involving yet another evil Roman Emperor to stop, battle ostriches, and a kidnapped oracle. Not bad, all things considered, and yet Apollo manages to make things worse.

This one definitely has the feeling of a middle book (maybe because it is…). It’s not a bad book; Riordan knows how to pace an action-packed novel, and there’s enough pop culture references to nod and wink at the reader without it being overbearing. They sassy haiku are back (my favorite: Yeah we got the skills/Fake hexes and shooting feet/Teach you ’bout pancakes), which is always fun. Apollo is much less unlikable in this one (he has his moments, but they’re getting fewer) and Riordan seamlessly weaves in ancient myths and stories. It’s much like all the others: good, fun, enjoyable, but nothing that sticks with you for long.

Still, worth reading.

Reread: The Thief

by Megan Whalen Turner
First sentence: “I don’t know how long I had been in the king’s prison.”
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Content: There’s a few minor swear words, and some violence. This is in the the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I’ve been telling people at the store that I can’t remember much of what this book is about, but that the main character has stayed with me for 10 years.  And, in rereading this (it’s been nearly 10 years), I remembered some of what happened (at least, so that the ending wasn’t a surprise this time), but it was still so delightful falling into this world again.

Turner is a fantastic world builder, and a superb storyteller. The characters are magnificent, and I loved seeing all the clues she left along the way to the end.

It really is a magnificent book.


Traitor to the Throne

traitortothethroneby Alwyn Hamilton
First sentence: “Once, in the desert kingdom of Miraji, there was a young prince who wanted his father’s throne.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Rebel of the Sands
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some almost off screen sexytimes and a lot of violence. It’ll be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It’s been a bit since Amani has joined the Rebel Prince to try and claim the throne from his father, the Sultan. Things aren’t going so great for them; they’ve had several setbacks and it’s starting to seem hopeless. Then Amani is kidnapped by her aunt and sold to the Sultan. Suddenly, it looks like things might be turning around for the rebellion.

Of course, it’s not as easy as it seems: the Sultan is crafty and conniving, and Amani finds herself more than under his control; she’s stuck in the haram trying to find a way out. And all she can hope is that she comes out on the winning side.

It took me a bit to get back into the world, to remember what I really liked about Rebel of the Sands, but once I got going, I found I couldn’t put this one down.  I loved Amani’s fierce style, her problem-solving, and the way she was able to make plans, even under the direst of circumstances. There wasn’t as much of her and Jin, and he was more in the background of this book, but I did enjoy the moments when he did show up.

Mostly what this book was about was the politics of leadership: what makes a good ruler, how firm or fierce one should be, and the reasons subjects do or don’t follow one. I found that part fascinating.

I am definitely committed to the story line, and curious about where Amani and her rebel friends will go next.

The Hammer of Thor

hammerofthorby Rick Riordan
First Sentence: “Lesson learned: If you take a Valkyrie out for coffee, you’ll get stuck with the check and a dead body.”
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Others in the series: The Sword of Summer
Content: There’s some violence, a bit of romance. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but heaven forbid you stop a Riordan fan from reading these.

It’s been a few months since we last saw Magnus, and he’s been managing okay out in Valhalla. But, Loki’s up to his old tricks again, and Thor’s hammer is still missing, and Magnus and his friends are needed to stop him. The problem: Loki has promised the giant Thrym that Sam the Valkyrie (who’s Muslim and engaged already) will marry him. In just over a week. Of course this can’t happen, except for one thing: Thrym happens to have Thor’s hammer. The trick: getting Thrym to give up the hammer, while not releasing Loki from his imprisonment AND having Sam not get married. But, of course Magnus and all his friends — including Alex, a gender fluid character — are up to the challenge. Mostly.

It took me a while to get around to reading this one, mostly because it’s just more of the same. Not that that’s bad; I love being in Riordan’s world when I’m there. But, I’m not as enthralled by Magnus’s part in the larger mythos as I hoped I’d be (I’m more interested in Apollo right now). Not that the story’s bad; it’s not. And Riordan’s fun and funny and maybe a bit too hip and contemporary, but I know (because A’s a huge fan) that the kids eat it up. It’s a good addition to the wider mythos that Riordan’s created, and I do appreciate that he’s definitely trying to be inclusive with his characters these days.

It’s just not my favorite.

When the Sea Turned to Silver

whentheseaby Grace Lin
First sentence: “When the sea turned to silver and the cold froze the light of the sun, Pinmei knew the Black Tortoise of Winter had arrived with his usual calmness.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Starry River of the Sky
Content: It’s a slow book, with only a little action, so it’s probably not for those readers who like a fast-paced page-turner. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I feel I’ve run out of things to say about this sweet series based on Chinese mythology. It’s very much like the other two: an adventure of a main story, interspersed with old legends which blurs the line between “myth” and “reality” It has an element of the fantastical, with gods and magic, but it’s not overbearing, rather fitting seamlessly into the story of a granddaughter searching for her grandmother.

So, really, there isn’t anything more to say except if you haven’t experienced the delight that Lin’s tales are, you are really  missing out.

The Trials of Apollo: The Hidden Oracle

hiddenoracleby Rick Riordan
First sentence: “My name is Apollo.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Well, it’s the first one, but it helps if you’ve read Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus series first.
Content: There’s no swearing, and only some violence. Riordan hints at an abusive relationship, but there’s nothing graphic. I’d give it to a 10-year-old who loves the Percy world. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) with the Heroes of Olympus and Magnus Chase because it feels right there.

I think the best way to review this is to go over the arc that A — who read it before I did — expressed.

  1. Apollo is awful, I hate this book. She’s right: Apollo is awful. But: character growth. I was glad to see Apollo change from a first-class ass to a halfway decent human being by the end. That said, there were some nice touches, even if they were annoying: the “Me Cabin” and his daily affirmation (“You are beautiful, and everyone loves you.”) both made me smile.
  2. Meg is fantastic.  A new character, a daughter of Demeter, and also the person Apollo is (accidentally) pledged to serve, she’s a great character. More Meg please.
  3. Will and Nico are adorable. All the fangirl feels. Yes please.
  4. Haiku! This one’s mine. I loved the (bad) haiku at every chapter. A’s favorite:
    Practice makes perfect
    Ha, ha, ha, I don’t think so
    Ignore my sobbing
  5. As for plot, etc? It wasn’t bad. Riordan wrapped up some loose ends that I never really considered loose ends, but it’s nice to know. He did break a couple of rules (too spoilery to tell, but left me kind of meh) that he’d set up, but other than that, it was a basic hero-quest, and I liked that it took place entirely at Camp Half Blood (over a short period of time). I liked the Big Bad he’s created (no more Huge Gods being Scary); he kept this one small and simple.

Was it the best book I’ve ever read? No. But it was lots of fun. Which is all I really wanted.

Rebel of the Sands

rebelofthesandsby Alwyn Hamilton
First sentence: “They said the only folks who belonged in Deadshot after dark were the ones who were up to no good.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: March 8, 2016
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some pretty disturbing violence near the end of the book. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

The store’s Penguin children’s rep (whom I adore, and not just because she’s got an Irish accent) told me when she handed me the ARC of this book that it was Totally Brilliant and that I was going to Totally Love It. (Just imagine that in an Irish accent. She’s great.) I said okay, I’ll read it. And then it got stuck on the back burner. Things crept up, and then A stole it from me and plowed through it. And she said that it was really really good and I should totally read it. And still it was on the back burner.

(This is less a review a more of a “why didn’t I read this SOONER” post. Sorry.)

But then a day came when I was shuffling through my shelves and piles looking for something Really Good, and this finally Called to me.

And as I plowed through the first two chapters — in which our heroine, Amani Al’Hiza finds herself in a shooting contest in order to get out of her dead-end desert town and away from her lecherous uncle and demanding aunt — and was hooked. Seriously. I was reminded of Harry from The Blue Sword and of Katsa from Graceling and I was in love. I plowed through this book like I didn’t have to work or do dishes or manage four kids in the house.  (Some people are calling it East Meets West — it’s set in a Middle Eastern-like country, with djinn but there’s guns — but I disagree. Sure, it’s pulling on all influences, but I really didn’t get the whole “Western” vibe. It’s a fantasy with guns instead of swords. I can go with that.) I loved the characters (yeah, so I called the love interest from the first chapter, but I did love the twists that came), I loved the complexity of the mythology Hamilton created, I loved that she didn’t give me a clean ending. (I didn’t love that it’s probably not a stand-alone, but at least it came to a conclusion.) It definitely hit all the right buttons for me.

Which leads me to say, don’t do what I did and put this one off. It really is THAT good.

Audio book: The Buried Giant

buriedgiantby Kazuo Ishiguro
Read by: David Horovitch
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some violence and mild sexual elements. But, no worse than any Tolkein book. In fact, if you’ve made it through LOTR, you will probably really like this one.

Axl and Beatrice have had a long, good life. Or, at least as much as they can remember. They live in a cave dwelling in Britain, in the time after the Romans left and Arthur’s peace with the Saxons is waning. They’re not quite content, and so they determine that they need to head to a nearby village to see their son — whom they only can barely remember having — because he’s anxiously waiting for them.

They have no idea how their journey will go, or the people they will meet (an elder Sir Gawain among them, much to my delight), and how it will all change them.

I’m not sure how much more of the actual plot I want to divulge. Much like LOTR (which this strongly reminded me of), the plot is less important than the journey. Axl and Beatrice’s journey — though we never really got inside Beatrice’s head, which disappointed me — was a grand one, like Odysseus, or Frodo. The people the met, the friendships they made, the emotional journey they took as well as the physical one all had a mythological quality to it.

I’m sure you can find a lot of deeper meaning in the story as well. But for me, listening to it on my way to and from Dallas (the narrator was excellent, once I got used to his cadence), it was more a long oral narrative, a story to be heard by the firelight over several nights, a story to capture the imagination and to be swept up in.

Which means it’s being told by a master storyteller. And I loved every minute.

The Sword of Summer

swordofsummerby Rick Riordan
First sentence: “Yeah, I know.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s really nothing objectionable. Some violence (lots of death, mostly) and some more serious underlying issues. I’d give it to a 4/5th grader. I’m undecided about where it should go. It’s currently in middle grade (grades 3-5) with the Percy Jackson series, but I’m thinking about moving it to YA (grades 6-8).

Magnus Chase is a 16-year-old homeless kid (he’s been homeless for the past two years since his mom was murdered) when he discovers that he’s not who he thought he was. He is, in fact, the son of the Norse god, Frey, and he’s been targeted by all of Frey’s enemies. In fact, he loses his first battle and ends up dead, in Valhalla. From there he realizes that he can’t let something as insignificant as death stop him: he needs to find the sword of summer and stop the evil forces from rising. The question is, though, can he do it?

First off, plot and everything else aside, I am SO happy the sassy chapter titles are back! Seriously, I have missed those.

In fact, Magnus’s voice is eerily similar to that of Percy in the first series. No, it’s not as good as PJ and the Olympians, but it’s the closest thing to it since Riordan wrote The Last Olympian. It’s sprawling and meandering and I think that Riordan’s cramming way too much in there (but then again, doesn’t he always?). But the characters are fascinating and aside from the “deaf and dumb” moniker (which Abby called him out on) for one of the characters who was deaf, it was wonderfully, naturally diverse. Sam, the Muslim Valkyrie, is one of my favorite characters. It’s nice to see Riordan being inclusive.

Oh, and Annabeth is in it! (Yes, that Annabeth.) You don’t have to read any of Riordan’s other books to enjoy this one, but there’s always some nice asides (like how a pen turning into a sword is lame) for those of us who have.

Mark of the Thief

by Jennifer Nielsen
First sentence: “In Rome, nothing mattered more than the gods, and nothing mattered less than its slaves.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s violence, since it’s set in ancient Rome, but it’s not graphic. It’s basically on the level of the Percy Jackson books, so I put it in the middle grade (grades 3-5, though it probably skews to the upper end of that) section of the bookstore.

Nicholas Calva is a slave in the mines, digging up stones and jewels for the wealthy of Ancient Rome. This is not something he chose to do; his family was captured in one of Rome’s many invasions of other, smaller countries. Or sRomething he wants to do: he would much rather be a free man. But, because his mother was sold away, and because he needs to watch after his sister, Livia, he sticks around and is (mostly) obedient. Then, one day, his master sends him down to find and fetch Julias Ceasar’s bulla, a medallion that he carried with him that was supposedly given to him by Venus. Nic finds it, of course, and fights the griffin guarding it, and is endowed with magical powers.

Which gets him in to all sorts of trouble.

See, the current emperor is weak, and there’s a war brewing between the Praetors and the general of the army, and Nic seems to be caught in the middle. The question is, will he even survive long enough to pick a side?

I loved this one. Seriously. Nielsen knows how to create a world, and I was happy to immerse myself in an ancient Rome that had magic. (And pretty cool magic, at that.) Nic, much like Sage, is a impulsive character, one is more than willing to go out on a limb to do what he thinks he should, which makes him a lot of fun to read about. I enjoyed getting to know Aurelia — his friend/pseudo romantic interest — and thought she was a great foil for Nic impulsiveness. My only regret was that Livia was more an idea than a character; I never really felt the connection that Nic did for her, and was never really upset when her life was dangled before Nic as motivation.

But there are some nice twisty moments, especially at the end, and it’s a solid first book in a series.