Rebel Belle

by Rachel Hawkins

First sentence: “Looking back, none of this would have happened if I’d brought lip gloss the night of the Homecoming Dance.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing, and some (somewhat oblique) references to sex. Plus some violence. None of which is enough to make it “objectionable”, so it’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Harper Price is one of those annoyingly perfect people. She’s the president of everything, super involved in her school. Great grades, popular friends, the Perfect Boyfriend. She’s even going to be crowned Homecoming Queen. (Seriously: about 50 pages into the book. I’m thinking she’s the embodiment of everyone I loathed in high school.) So, the last thing she expected, when she went to the restroom the night of the homecoming dance to touch up her lip gloss, was to get superpowers. She inadvertently stumbled into a world with Mages and Paladins — who are protectors, and it’s the powers Harper ended up with — who have sworn to protect the Oracle. Who just happens to be the person Harper loathes most.

There’s a lot more going on in this novel, including boyfriend drama and a Cotillion, but that’s basically the gist of it.  Harper, the annoyingly perfect girl, gets powers and becomes awesome.

I was in the mood a while back for something completely fluffy, something that was fun, but not taxing, so I turned to an author who I knew would deliver. And Hawkins did. Yeah, there’s probably some inconsistencies in the book and it’s definitely really white. (Then again, it’s Alabama.) No, it’s not as good as Hex Hall. However, it IS fun. It’s got that delightfully quirky Southern feel to it (I loved Harper’s great-aunts), and the magic is clever and different. But mostly, it was just FUN. Which is all I really wanted out of this book.

I even enjoyed it enough to pick up the second one. 

The Vengekeep Prophecies

by Brian Farrey
First line: “Even weeks later, I heard rumors that I had ruined the Festival of the Twins.”
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Content: Aside from the fact that Jax and his family are thieves — and  I suppose adults might have a problem with their kids reading that (though I don’t know why…), and maybe some scary monsters (depending on how sensitive your kids are; they’re not that scary) there’s absolutely nothing untoward in this book. Resides quite happily in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

Jax Grimjinx is a thief. He comes from a long line of thieves. It’s the family business, and has been for centuries. There’s only one problem: Jax is a bookish nerd, a klutz, and actually is quite a terrible thief. (Yes, it is his fault — this time — that the Grimjinx family ended up in jail.) Then a suspiciously convenient prophecy turns up, putting his family at the center as the Heroes. It predicts all sorts of Dire Perils for the town of Vengekeep, which start coming true. (It wasn’t supposed to: there really is no such thing as Lava Men.) There’s seemingly no stop to it. Until Jax with his bookishness figures out there might be a Way to break the prophecy. And it’s up to him — and his new friend, Callie — to go and get what is needed.

There’s so much to love in this book. Jax is a terrific character: a bookish kid (I love that he’s wearing glasses. I know it’s a little thing, but I do love it.), an unwilling hero, and yet he finds a way to outsmart the more Savvy characters and Save the Day. I love his relationship with Callie; none of that sappy romance stuff (I’ve decided that I don’t like romance in my middle grade fanatsy), but a good solid friendship that works. I love that it’s all plausible and that the “prophecy” isn’t something that’s set in stone, which gets old after a while. And the writing is tight; it kept me reading, turning pages, wondering what is going to happen next. I’m just glad the second one, The Shadowhand Convenant, just came out. Because I don’t want to wait to see what happens next to Jax and his family.

(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.)

The Lost Heir

Wings of Fire 2
by Tui T. Sutherland
First sentence: “Underwater, Webs couldn’t hear the screams of dying dragons.:
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Others in the series: The Dragonet Prophecy
Content: There’s some dragon violence — a few battles, some one-on-one fighting, and a baby dragon egg is smashed — but other than that, it’s pretty low-key. It resides in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

Spoilers for the first book, obviously.

When we last left our dragonets — the five dragons that were taken when they were eggs and raised by the Talons of Peace to stop the war that’s been going on for too long — they had escaped their captors/guardians and were setting off to find the clans. They’d interacted with the Mud Wings, to some dissatisfying results, and been captured by the Sky Wings (and their bat-crazy queen), but got out of there. Now they’re headed to the Sea Wing palace, presumably because Tsunami, one of the dragonets, is the queen’s daughter. They figure they can find refuge and protection there.

Except — probably predictably — things aren’t what they seem. Sure, Tsunami’s mother, Queen Coral, is happy to see Tsunami. But she’s not very happy to see Tsunami’s friends, and shoves them off to a cave. It’s slowly revealed that Queen Coral’s not a little crazy. And that there are traitors in the midst. And that Tsunami doesn’t fit in as well as she thought she would.

I’ve decided — partially because books three and four are already out, but also because it just makes sense — that the purpose of each of these books is not only to tell an overall story, but to highlight a specific tribe of dragons. And in that latter purpose, Sutherland does a fantastic job of creating an individual world. The Sea Wing palace and world are fascinating — they have their own language that involves flashing stripes, which is pretty cool — and even though Tsunami starts out as a complete brat, she develops into a fairly confident leader by the end. What I found myself growing impatient with was the overarching plot of the war and the prophecy. The menacing posturing by Coral’s friend Queen Blister, the suspicion and automatic mistrust of the Talons of Peace.

I’ve not disliked this series, and it’s perfect for those who enjoyed Warriors or Guardians of Ga’hoole. But I’m probably not going to keep reading. I just don’t have much interest in the overarching storyline.

(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.)


by Ellen Oh
ages: 10+
First sentence: “People feared Kira.”
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In the seven kingdoms on this peninsula, there are two problems: first is the force of the Yamato nation to the south: greedy and powerful, they are looking to conquer the nations to the north. Second, is trickier: the demons who kill and then possess people, infiltrating armies and families in order to take over the world.

While Kira, even though she’s the daughter of the Hansong kingdom general and niece to its queen, can’t do much about the first problem, she’s the only defense the people have against the second. She can sense — through smell and sight — demons, knowing exactly whom to attack and how to kill them. Except, the only people who know truly what she does are her father and the king. The rest of the populace think she’s some sort of demon herself, ostracizing her.

Then the unthinkable happens: a traitor kills the royal family, and lets in the Yamato soldiers (and a few demons). Kira, her brother, a trusted monk, and some loyal soldiers are on the run, solely responsible for the young prince’s safety. She’s lost her parents in the attack, she’s on the run, she’s responsible for her cousin, and on top of that, there’s this Prophecy about the Dragon Musado that’s hanging over everyone’s head. What’s a girl to do.

I have to give props to Oh for creating a brilliant world. I liked the Korean influence in the world, from the land through to the various Korean words (with a glossary!) sprinkled throughout. I thought she handled the whole prophecy thing pretty well; it wasn’t a Chosen One exactly, and because the prophecy was old enough and vague enough, there wasn’t a set List of Hoops she had to jump through over the course of the story. I did like her family loyalty, and the fact that her parents believed in her capabilities. (Which is why, sadly, they had to go.)

However, the book fell flat for me. Some of it was the writing: too much telling (“Kira hid her disappointment.” “Kira was puzzled.” “She pondered her father’s words, profoundly affected by his confidence in her.”) and not nearly enough showing. Which made the book choppy. Especially choppy was the attempt at romance. Kira’s been betrothed to a horrid man, and she doesn’t like him. But he goes around preening that she will love him, and that he can’t wait to get married. All the while, she’s developing a friendship with another young man, and it’s a nice enough relationship, until Kira starts having “feelings” that she doesn’t know what to do with. It’s not enough to make this uninteresting to a MG reader, but it is enough to wonder why Oh felt it necessary to include. The story was fine without it.

So, it’s a mixed bag. While I am happy there’s a Korean-inspired fantasy out there, I’m not sure this was enough to make me interested in keeping up on the series.

Wings of Fire

The Dragonet Prophecy #1
by Tui T. Sutherland
ages: 10+
First sentence: “A dragon was trying to hide in the storm.”
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The dragon war — the fight between three sisters for the Sandwing crown — has been going on for years, wreaking havoc on the kingdoms. The only dragons — as far as the prophecy goes — that can change everything are the five dragonets spoken of in the prophecy. Who have, conveniently, been in hiding, guided by members of the Talons of Peace, for the past six years.

Clay, a Mudwing, is one of those dragonets, and he (for better or worse) has no desire to be a fighter, or to Change the World. He just wants to be with his clan — Tsunami (Icewing), Sunny (Sandwing), Glory (Rainwing), and Starflight (Nightwing) — and to hide from everything. Well, maybe he does want to meet the parents he was snatched from all those years ago. But when things come to a head in the underground caves, and Tsunami propels them into escape, Clay (and his clan) will find out that things are a lot more Dangerous and Ominous than they thought.

This was a lot of fun. The whole prophecy-as-a-copout thing aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the world that Sutherland created. There’s some very despicable dragons to root against, and the dragonets (collectively, though I really liked Clay) are worth rooting for. I liked the complications of politics, the throwbacks to Roman times, and just the whole dragon thing. It’s not as good a dragon book as, say, Seraphina, but then it’s aimed at an entirely different audience. And for that audience, it works immensely well.

Quite good.

(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.)

Stickman Odyssey: An Epic Doodle

by Christopher Ford
ages: 11+ (though my 8 1/2 year old read it and quite enjoyed it)
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Others in the series: The Wrath of Zozimos

Admittedly, I read these backwards, this one being the first in the series, and Zozimos’ backstory. So, if you’re going to do this right: you need to read this one first. But, even if you don’t, it’s still quite a fun read.

I’m gathering from the title and the back that this is basically the story of The Odyssey in simplified graphic novel form. In his quest to return to Sticatha, Zozimos washes up on the shore of a country where a beautiful princess is being protected by her father from a horrible prophecy. Zozimos ends up in the dungeon, before going on several adventures to prove his worth. Along the way, he meets a couple of people — the frog man, Atrukos, and the strong man, Praxis — who help him. Actually, that’s the big Lesson to be Learned: that even though Zozimos is all sorts of awesome (well, not really), he needs his friends in order to Get Things Done.

The good news: you don’t have to know the original epic in order to enjoy this one. It’s one adventure after another, with lots of sword fighting, humor, a wee bit of romance, poop jokes, and friendships. I’m sure boys will love this one, but I have to say that both C and A really found it to be all sorts of fun.

As did I. Here’s to more Stickman adventures.

The Son of Neptune

Heroes of Olympus, book 2
by Rick Riordan
ages: 10+
First sentence: “
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Others in the series: The Lost Hero

Ah, Percy. We’re glad you’re back.

We join up with him as he’s running across the California landscape, being chased by Gorgons who can’t be killed for some reason, trying to get… somewhere. See, he’s lost his memory, and doesn’t know who he is or where he’s really going. (Even though we fans haven’t; I was interested to see how Riordan would handle that, since we knew that Percy would have amnesia by the end of The Lost Hero, and I have to say that he did it well. Having the book be in third person rather than first, as the first series was, helped a lot. As did multiple points of view; I found it fascinating to see Percy from viewpoints other than his own.)

He shows up at Camp Jupiter — the Roman equivalent of Camp Half-Blood — meets Frank Zhang, a halfblood with an interesting past and a curse to carry, and Hazel Levesque, the daughter of Pluto (aka Hades) who isn’t really supposed to be alive anymore. The three of them are sent on a quest by Mars (aka Ares, though I have to admit that I like Mars a whole lot more than I liked Ares) to face the giant sons of Gaea (the new bad “guy”), unleash death, and get back before an army of monsters destroys Camp Jupiter. In four days.

Clear as mud?

As usual, Riordan tells a compelling and entertaining story, playing on his two strengths: plotting and characterization. This one is shorter than Lost Hero, but not by much, and Riordan packs in as much as he possibly can. There’s everything we’ve come to love in a Riordan book: action-packed sequences; a wee bit of sweet, innocent romance; humor (and good, quotable lines); and many, many references to mythology. (I’m not sure he’s pulling from myths anymore; I don’t know Roman mythology as well as Greek. That said, I’m not sure it matters at this point.)

Additionally, for this one especially, it helps if you know your Olympians series well. Thankfully, I’ve just finished reading them aloud to A, so they were pretty fresh in my mind. There’s references to that series all over the place, from hints about Percy’s past (in one of the more clever pulls, Reyna, one of the praetors at Camp Jupiter, was one of the people in Circe’s employ that Percy came across in The Sea of Monsters.) to references of what Percy has accomplished in the past four years. And yet, while there’s a lot to juggle in this book, it doesn’t seem crowded. In fact, there were times — especially with characters; the set up for Octavian is intriguing, but Riordan never really goes anywhere with it — when I wanted more, not less.

As I mentioned before, Percy’s back in all his lovableness, and it’s quite refreshing to see him from other points of view. And Frank and Hazel were just as awesome to get to know. The overall plot arc is coming together slowly, but Riordan leaves a lot of threads hanging, and a lot of questions unanswered. (Though perhaps the one question I have — how is he going to fit all seven the prophecy talks about together in one book? Because whomever narrates the next one, there will be characters I will miss hearing from — is going to have to wait.)

It’s fun fluff, great for those of us who are fans of the series.

The Grey King

by Susan Cooper
ages: 10+
First sentence: “‘Are you awake, Will?'”
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Things that struck me while reading this book:

1. That this really is, so far, the tightest — and best (don’t shoot me; it’s better, in many ways, than The Dark is Rising) — of the series. It definitely deserves the Newbery sticker it sports.

2. I like how, so far, each book has a season: Over Sea, Under Stone is summer; The Dark is Rising is winter (which explains its moodiness); Greenwitch is spring; this one is autumn. It has a very autumnal feel to it. That mood is not as strong as the winter one, but it’s still very palpable, and still very there.

3. I like that Merriman is not really there. Yes, he does make an appearance, but it’s Will — and the Welsh boy, Bran — that really do all the work of the plot. It’s nice, for once, to see Will in his own element, exercising his own powers, without the guidance (or interference of Merriman).

4. The Arthurian legends are implied in the previous books — if you know they’re there, you’ll see it — but it’s explicit by this one, especially by the end. I liked that.

5. It bothers me that the cover has on it figures that don’t show up until the last chapter, and even then, don’t really do much of anything. Though, since there’s really no description as to what the Grey King looks like, and a picture of a mountain would be too boring, I guess this is what the designers are left with.

6. I like how Cooper uses prophecy: she writes one out, and it’s there guiding the book, influencing the book, but it’s not heavy-handed. You usually don’t notice she’s jumped you through a hoop of the prophecy until after the fact. That’s some good writing there.

It’s a good book; I like it as much, if not more, than The Dark is Rising, and I’m kicking myself for not realizing it sooner. It would also make a good stand alone: Cooper includes the most necessary information from the previous books (but it doesn’t weigh the book down), and while it’s always nice to read the whole series, this one would work well all by itself.

The Hollow Hills

When I started this one, Hubby commented that it was his favorite of the trilogy, mostly because Merlin goes traveling across Europe. While I liked Crystal Cave because I liked the Merlin that Stewart created, I liked this one primarily because this is my favorite part of the Arthurian legend. That, and Merlin goes a-traveling, which is always fun, too.

The Hollow Hills picks up right after the fateful night of Arthur’s conception, with Merlin limping back to his home in the cave in Wales. He’s servant-less for a while (which was mildly amusing; Merlin is just incapable of taking care of himself), but eventually gains a reluctant servant in Ralf, when he’s banished from the King’s (and by now Queen’s) presence, mostly for his role in that fateful night. Eventually, the Queen (and King) call Merlin to them and ask him for his help in taking care of Arthur and making sure Arthur is safe. Merlin, of course, makes the arrangements, and then, possibly to add mystery to the tale and most definitely to misdirect his (and Arthur’s) enemies, he takes off for the mainland of Europe, traveling to all the big cities. It’s not a large part of the novel, but it is an enjoyable one.

Once he deems it safe — well, actually because King Uther is dying and Merlin is who he is — Merlin heads back to Britain. He takes up residence in the Wild Forest, near where Arthur is being fostered, and takes over the mentoring of Arthur. I love this part; basically the last third of the book when Arthur himself enters the story. It’s the stuff legends are made of (well, duh): a strong-willed, energetic boy, learning all he can from an older, wiser man and then that boy somehow making himself worthy to become what he truly is… a King.

I did have some quibbles with this one, most notably with Morgause. I think I like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s treatment of the women better (as well I should, since Mists of Avalon is a pretty feminist-slanted work). While I recognize that Stewart was trying to be as faithful to history, giving men all the “power” and shunting the women off to the side (Merlin’s mother, Ninane wasn’t terribly well portrayed, though she wasn’t as weak as Ygraine), it still grated on me how Morgause, from pretty much the get-go was portrayed as a power-hungry, evil woman. Perhaps she was. (Perhaps she didn’t even exist.) But, I prefer Bradley’s interpretation of the women.

Aside from that (and that’s really only the last chapters), it’s a thoroughly enjoyable book. I still like Merlin as a character, and I think Stewart’s aging him nicely. I like that his character feels different in this book than he did in the last one: more mature, weightier, as he comes into the power and reason for existing that he’s been waiting for his whole life. He’s still portrayed as an imperfect human, but she draws more heavily on the prophecy and Sight aspects of Merlin’s character. Because of this, he’s beginning to take on the role that he’s known for best: that of Arthur’s right-hand, as well as prophet and enchanter. Even with all this, though, Merlin’s still a sympathetic character, as well as an understandable one.

Only one more book to go.

The Crystal Cave

I first read the Mary Stewart Merlin trilogy (of which this is the first book) during my Arthurian phases back when I was in college (actually, it was right after Hubby and I got married; he came to the marriage with these, of which I had never heard of, but would have discovered eventually, I suppose). I remember being captivated, enthralled, entranced, charmed and totally engrossed by them. I haven’t picked them up in 15 years (now you know how long we’ve been married…) and I was wondering whether or not they stood the test of time.

I’m glad to say, they have. Or at least, this one has (since I haven’t read the other two, yet). Stewart takes the legend — from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain — which, from what her Author’s Note stays, is terrible history, but a really good story. But, she goes above and beyond the standard Arthur fare, to give us Merlin’s story. And that is precisely what I loved about it. The book begins when Merlin is six years old, bastard son of a Welsh princess (Niniane in this book). He doesn’t know whom his father is; his mother isn’t telling anyone. He lives an uncomfortable, if quiet, existence in his grandfather’s house. He discovers, when he’s about 11, a cave and a master, Galapas, and his gift for the Sight — for prophecy, for visions, for Seeing. From there, when his servant accidentally kills the king — and the future king is no friend of Merlin’s — escapes to Brittany and into the hands of Ambrosius and Uther, to learn, to grow, and to help Ambrosius become King of Britain. And then the standard Arthur legend picks up (with a lovely side trip with Merlin raising Stonehenge; I remembered liking that part from the first time, and I still do): Uther desires Ygraine, Merlin helps him, and thus Arthur is conceived.

The thing I really liked (both times) is the humanization of Merlin. He’s too often made mystical, super-human; a wizard, a Druid, a Mage. Here, he’s just a guy with a gift for a god to use as he will and someone with a lot of smarts. He’s a normal person, with wants and desires and hopes and fears (though he doesn’t fear death, because he’s seen his own death), and while he’s not really ambitious, he’s at least willing to support others’ ambitious. He cares for people — his servants, his friends — and he’s genuinely concerned about them, even when it seems he’s not.

The other thing is how very modern Merlin feels himself to be. It’s 500 AD, and yet Merlin’s way ahead of his time. (Which isn’t hard, considering how barbaric it was!) A lot of what is attributed to “magic”, Stewart explains with logic, chance, and good engineering. It’s quite refreshing.

Now, on to read the other two.