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.”
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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.

Magic Marks the Spot

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, Book 1

by Caroline Carlson
First sentence: “Ever since the letter had arrived from Miss Pimm’s, Hilary had spent more and more time talking to the gargoyle.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils
Content: There’s a couple of swordfights where no one gets injured. For a pirate book, it’s really quite tame. It’s shelved in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.
Hilary Westfield has one dream: to become a pirate. Unfortunately the league of pirates in Augusta has one rule: no girls. Girls are sent to Miss Pimm’s finishing school, because that’s Where Girls Go. Thankfully, Hilary has Pluck and Determination and doesn’t let the Rules stop her. (This book insists you talk about Things in Capital Letters.) As soon as she gets a chance, she runs away from Miss Pimm’s and finds a pirate — Jasper, the Terror of the South Seas — who doesn’t care that she’s a girl. 
There’s more to this book — magic and treasure and an Enchantress and a Wicked Parent — but really, what I loved most about this book was that Hilary set out to be a pirate and succeeded ON HER OWN TERMS. No dressing up like a boy. No bowing to Tradition. No Resigning Oneself to her Fate and Making the Best of It. Nope. Not for Hilary. She (and her talking gargoyle, whom I really loved) decided that they wanted to be pirates, and Dang It, they became pirates. 
I liked this one an awful lot, mostly because of the above reason. But — aside from the unnecessary letters that were written in cursive, which is a real turn-off for kids These Days; the book got much better after I started skipping them — I really enjoyed all of it. There was humor (Miss Greyson, the governess/chaperone, was hilarious), sword fighting, a wee bit of romance (but not overstated; it was between the adults), and most of all Hilary being Awesome.
Yeah, it was a bit slow at the start, and I really don’t like that it’s yet another one in a series, but I thought the story wrapped up well enough, and I’d be willing to see where Hilary’s piratical adventures take her. 

(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.)

Fortunately the Milk

by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Skottie Young
First sentence: “There was only orange juice in the fridge.”
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Two things up front: First, this is a tall tale. Second, because it’s a tall tale (and because it’s meant for beginning(ish) readers), there’s not much substance to it.

That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable; it is. I enjoy Gaiman’s stuff normally, but I really do think I prefer his whimsical works for younger kids. This one is basically the tale of a dad who went out to get milk for the morning cereal, and had a wild adventure getting back home. There are hot air balloons (or rather “Professor Steg’s Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier”), pirates, piranhas, aliens, time travel, and even sparkly ponies. Of course, the kids don’t believe the dad, because he’s obviously telling a story. Or is he?

As I said, this is delightful. The illustrations are brilliantly funny, and I laughed aloud at many parts. My only problem with the book is that I would have liked it better if it had been a true middle grade novel, and one of the kids had had the adventure, rather than their father doing all the cool, fun stuff.

But that’s such a minor quibble. I’m going to hand this one to K to see what she thinks. I have an inkling that she’ll like it.

(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.)

Treasure Hunters

by James Patterson, Chris Grabenstein, and Mark Shulman; illustrated by Juliana Neufeld
ages: 8+
First sentence: “Let me tell you about the last time I saw my dad.”
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Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at work.

The Kidd family — parents and children (in order) Tommy, Storm, and twins Bick and Beck — are treasure hunters. Which means, they go around the world looking for, and mostly retrieving, sunken treasure. Think of them as the Indiana Jones of the sea. Then one fateful day, in a Perfect Storm, Dad goes missing. Mom was already missing — kidnapped in Cyprus — which left the four kids on their own. To figure out what their father was doing, and how to get their mom back. All while figuring out whom to trust. And that’s not even mentioning the ninja-surfer-pirates.

On the one hand, this was non-stop action. Starting with the storm, we get pirates, sharks, creepy underworld antiques dealers, more pirates, CIA agents, more pirates, creepy underworld antiques dealers, and the Pirate King. It’s a packed book. (It also comes in at 450 pages, but the type is big and it’s liberally littered with illustrations.) While it was fun enough, sometimes I felt like the three men who wrote this just sent texts back and forth:

JP: “I think there should be pirates.”
CG: “Yeah. But they should be surfer pirates. The kids would really go for that.”
MS: “How about NINJA surfer pirates. THAT would be AWESOME.” (Okay, so MS is about 10 in my imagination.)
JP and CG: “Yeah. Totally rad.”

It was so over the top that it felt hackneyed to me. And on some level it made me sad: this isn’t really a book. (And to be honest, I only picked it up because I loved Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library so much. I tend to avoid Mr. Patterson’s collaborations.) It’s a movie script. It a pile of events one on top of the other that tries to be a book. Sure, there’s a plot (of sorts), and characters (I did kind of like the twins, but the stereotypical “fat, but she’s smart so we don’t mind her weight” Storm grated on me). But it lacked any kind of… elegance that it needed to be a book.

Either that, or I’m just WAY too old for this.

The Runaway King

by Jennifer Nielsen
ages: 10+
First sentence: “I had arrived early for my own assassination.”
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Others in the series: The False Prince
ARC brought back from ABA Winter Institute for me by my co-workers.

Obviously, there will be spoilers for The False Prince. If you haven’t read that yet, you should. 

Sage — now King Jaron — has had a month to settle into his new life. To be frank about it: it’s not going well. His regents don’t really like or trust him (the feeling’s mutual), he’s not really getting along with the princess he’s supposed to marry, and his chief captain is not exactly helpful. Things just come to a head on the night of his family’s funeral with a (failed) assassination attempt  by the pirates.

Which leaves Jaron — who is convinced war is coming, even if his regents refuse to see it — with one option: go to the pirates and deal with them head-on.

And, because he’s Sage, that means things won’t go exactly as planned. (Not that there was a plan to begin with, mind you.)

I didn’t reread The False Prince first, so I was a little worried I wouldn’t remember enough to keep up with this story. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case: I immediately fell back into Neilsen’s world was thoroughly taken with Jaron/Sage’s story. There’s a lot of action and adventure here as Jaron tries to keep his kingdom from thoroughly collapsing, from the thief camp to the pirate camp and back again. One of the things I liked most about this was the way Nielsen kept Sage/Jaron’s personality pretty much the same (from what I remembered) as in the False Prince, enabling the book to have a sense of levity to it, while giving him the weight necessary to be a good ruler. (Yes, he still reminds me of Gen.)

On the other hand, there is also a lot of posturing by the minor characters (how many times to they have to say “Don’t do that” before they realize he’s just NOT going to listen!), not to mention all the growling of the Big Baddies. (Especially the pirate king. He was just a bit too stereotypical thuggish.) And I do have to admit that Roden’s motivations weren’t always consistent or clear, both of  which did get a wee bit annoying.

But not enough for me to dislike the book. For the most part, I found myself immersed in the book, not willing to put it down, wanting to know just how Jaron was going to make everything work for him.

Teen Boat

by Dave Roman and John Green
ages: 12+
First  sentence: “Every night it’s the same dream.”
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There are superhero stories, where a person has Great Powers and has to Save the World or Something Else Important. And everything, for the most part, is Good and Evil and Right and Wrong. 

And then there’s Teen Boat.

His superpower? Turning into a small yacht.

His life? Is pretty much the life of your ordinary, average high school boy: he’s crushing on the cute girl, his best friend thinks he’s clueless, he get detention, he has to get a job. Nothing Superheroish here.

It also doesn’t help that he turns into a boat at the most inopportune times. (Internal inconsistency alert: can he turn into a boat at will? Well, sometimes. And sometimes he can’t. But he also can turn into a boat against his will when water touches his internal nautical activation button, which happens when he gets water in his ear. It doesn’t really make sense.) What his life is, really is a balancing act between his abilities and his desires. With random pirates.

The best word for this book? Silly. Ridiculous. In the best possible way. Teen Boat (or TB for short) (that’s really his name) is a fun character, very much the awkward teen boy, put in absolutely insane situations. (I was serious about the pirates.) I do have to admit that it wore on me after a while; by the end I was rolling my eyes more than laughing. But even with that, it was still a fun — well, silly — read.

Chronicles of Egg: Deadweather and Sunrise

by Geoff Rodkey
ages: 9+
First sentence: “Nobody lived on Deadweather bu us and the pirates.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC pile at work.

Eggbert is the youngest child of a farmer who lives on Deadweather island. It’s not a very nice place, Deadweather, and Eggbert’s family (especially his siblings) are not very nice people. It’s a bit cartoonish how awful they are: his brother, Adonis, beats on him continuously, and his sister, Venus, is always picking on him. His father, for whatever reason, doesn’t interfere, instead adding injury to insult with frequent whippings. Needless to say: Egbert is not an especially happy 13-year-old, but he has his books (that his slacker tutor has brought) and that helps.

Then one day, his Dad comes back with some parchment and says they’re setting off for Deadweather’s sister island, Sunrise, which is a rare treat. Once there, they meet Mr. Pembroke, who, for reasons unknown, is being really nice to the family. He takes them back to his mansion, and offers them a hot air balloon ride… Egg gets out, mostly because he’s infatuated with Millicent Pembroke, and voila! Egg’s barbaric family is gone.

For a while, living with the Pembroke’s seems like a dream: they’re nice, they feed him, he has access to the library, Millicent is charming… but then everything turns sinister and sour. Egg, after someone tries to kill him, is forced to run for his life. He smuggles away on a pirate ship, and finds that things at the ol’ hometsead aren’t all roses either. So, he does what any 13-year-old would do: he makes a stand.

Sure, this is all a little (!) far-fetched, but I enjoyed it anyway. Think of it as Pirates of the Carribean with a 13-year-old Will Turner. There’s a Jack Sparrow character in Egg’s friend Guts, and Millicent could be Elizabeth Swan. It all works out. And it’s got the pacing, humor, and adventure elements that kids (well, and I) have come to expect from pirate stories. Plus, even though they’re pirates, they’re not cretins: some of the most trustworthy characters in this world are pirates.

On top of all that, Rodkey does a great job of wrapping things up in this installment while setting up the Next Big Adventure. And since Egg and Guts are quite enjoyable characters to adventure with, I’ll be sure to check on them when they go on their next one.

The False Prince

by Jennifer A. Nielsen
ages: 10+
First sentence: “If I had to do it all over again, I would not have chosen this life.”
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Sage is a 15-year-old orphan in a small Carthyan city. He’s got a reputation for mischievousness, not to mention pickpocketing and general thievery, but generally he tries to fly under the radar.

That is until a minor noble, Bevin Conner, plucks him (along with three other boys) out of the mire and decides that one of them will be the one to put his Grand Plan in motion.

What is that Grand Plan, you say? Well, it turns out that someone has murdered the entire royal family, except for the prince — Jaron — who was killed by pirates four years before. What Conner wants to do is train these boys up and the put one of them on the throne as the False Prince: a puppet to fool the regency just long enough for Conner to be named the grand regent, and essentially take over.

Mwahahahaha.

I felt like doing that a lot while reading the book. It needed a good evil laugh to accompany all of Conner’s posturing. And he postured a LOT. Not that I didn’t enjoy the book well enough; there was much that I found enjoyable. Sage was a good thief/rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold character, one who was both winning and interesting. The plot was an interesting idea, rife with politics, murder, backstabbing, and a wee bit of romance (but not enough to turn off the romance-shy boys.)

The problem is that it’s all been done before, and better. See, it’s a similar plot to Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, who did it all richer, grander, and, well, better. Sage is no Gen, and Nielsen doesn’t handle the twists and turns the plot demands nearly as elegantly as Turner does. That said, I think this will be an issue for only MWT fans, because on the surface False Prince is a lot of fun. There’s enough adventure, and the twist really is delightful (if you don’t see it coming), and there’s some nice retribution in the end. In addition, Nielsen wraps up this story quite well, while leaving things open for the sure-to-come sequels. (Which is always the best way to do a series, in my humble opinion.)

Bottom line: if you haven’t read The Thief (or didn’t like it all that much — I’m thinking of C here; she tried and just didn’t like it), then this one will be new and surprising and exciting.

(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.) 

Remarkable

by Lizzie K. Foley
ages: 9+
First sentence: “High on the top of a majestic mountain, in a spot where every view of the valley below was more breathtaking than the next, was a small town called Remarkable.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.

I have to admit up front that any book with the title “Remarkable” has the decks stacked up against it. Because to be remarkable, you have to be so much better than good, you have to be, well… remarkable.

And so it helps that this one, at least in my opinion, is using the word somewhat ironically. See, in a town full of remarkably talented, amazing, wondrous people, ten-year-old Jane Doe is just average. Plain, not especially talented in anything, she goes through life in the shadow of her remarkably talented architect mother, best-seller novelist father, supremely talented painter (of photorealistic portraits) brother, and math genius sister. That’s not even mentioning her grandmother, the mayor. The only person in town who even comes close to Jane in plainness is her grandpa, who people generally seem to forget is there.

From that premise, however, things get both really weird and yet never quite develop in ways that I wanted them to. There’s something about a bell tower and pirates and the sea monster in the lake and a jam feud with the next town and evil genius twins, but it all kind of just seemed like it was a hamster on a wheel: spinning in circles, but never really going anywhere.

I wanted it to be more ironic, more of a parody (it was, to an extent, but not far enough for my tastes), but most of all, I wanted Jane to do something. I wanted her to be a hero, to discover that she was remarkable, in some little way. (You know have the reverse happen: since everyone is remarkable, only those who aren’t labeled as such really are?) Or maybe for everyone else in the town to discover that being remarkable was overrated, and stop discriminating against unremarkable people. But, it just kind of petered out by the end, which I found disappointing.

That said, C really enjoyed reading this one, so maybe it’s a case of me not being the right audience for the book. Which is not really remarkable at all.

Beauty Queens

by Libba Bray
ages: 15+
First sentence: “This book begins with a plane crash.”
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I have come to the conclusion that Libba Bray is brilliant, but completely insane. (Or maybe brilliantly insane?)

Ever wonder what you’d get if you mixed Lord of the Flies with the Miss America pageant, tossed in some James Bond, and slathered with a huge helping of satire on pop culture? Me, either. But, thankfully, blessedly, Libba Bray did, and Beauty Queens is the result.

The top 20 girls for the Miss Teen Dream pageant were all on a plane, headed toward the pageant finals when the plane crashes. On a deserted island. Killing everyone, except a handful of girls. What are they — girls who are beauty queens, presumably without any practical resources — to do?

Well… survive.

From here, the plot goes all twisty and turney: the girls make their own camp on the beach, and manage to not only get along (mostly), but thrive on their own merits as they wait to be rescued. However, things are not as pretty as they seem: there’s weird stuff lurking in them thar jungle, and those who go into it don’t always come out. And if they do, they’re not quite sane. There’s also pirates (!), stupid trust fund guys, completely wacked out dictators, and vengeful past beauty queens. This book has it all.

On the surface, the book is terribly shallow and stereotypical. Bray has lumped every single cultural reference and stereotype she could think of in this book: there is a lesbian, transgender, bisexual, stupid Southerner, aggressive Texan, Indian-American, black contestant. (Sure, why not one of each?) There’s a grand poking at everyone naming their kids Caitlin. Honestly: none of the characters are likeable (Miss Texas, I wanted to throttle! And Miss Mississippi just lived up to the low expectations I have of that state.), and the plot was fairly simplistic, which almost made it hard to get through (however, the hilarious footnotes made up for that).

But, when you read it as a satire, the book works brilliantly. In one of the more brilliant moves, there are commercial breaks in the book, in which Bray lampoons every single kind of beauty product, movie, and item that corporations try to sell to women. In the end, the book is not about the characters, or plot development, it’s about girl power: rising above the stereotypes and the product placement, and not only finding one’s true self, but acting on that, embracing the differences we have as women. (And no one is better than the other.)

In fact, I think this would be a blast to deconstruct in a book group or English class; there’s so much meat under the shallow surface, that the discussion could be quite fascinating.

And I’m sure she wrote it that way on purpose.