Category: A Book in Retrospect



Here, There Be Dragons (Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, #1) by James A. Owen

Ages 12 & up

Here,_There_Be_Dragons,_James_A._Owen_-_CoverAn adventure was the last thing John expected when Professor Sigurdssen summoned him to Oxford, but that’s exactly what he gets. Upon his arrival, the police greet John with the news of the good professor’s murder and John finds his lot thrown in with three strangers: Jack, Charles, and the mysterious Bert. Pursued by strange, inhuman creatures the four new friends flee to the Indigo Dragon, a magical ship capable of crossing from our world to the Archipelago of Dreams. Now the principal caretaker of The Imaginarium Geographica, John, along with his new friends must defend the Archipelago from the Winter King—a formidable foe bent on turning the entire Archipelago into Shadowlands. All the King needs to complete his plan is the Geographica.

This book. Holy guacamole. THIS. BOOK.

I’ll just start by saying that if you are a fan of the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia, just stop reading this review and do yourself the favor of finding this book and reading it. Make your family read it. Make your friends read it. Make your neighbor’s mom read it. Yes, you’re going to be slightly confused at the beginning…but there’s a reason for that. It all makes sense in the end.

While we’re on the subject…the end is by far my FAVORITE part of this book. I’m still reeling over the big twist. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but suffice it to say that it was fan-TAS-tic .

I know the book says 12 & up, but really, I think (depending on the child) you could probably go even younger. A great book for the whole family. Yeah, it gets intense and maybe a little scary, but there are Disney movies scarier than this book. (If your kid can handle Frozen, your kid can handle this book.) It has all the whimsy of Narnia (talking animals, mystical lands with grand mythologies, a grand magical journey, life-altering betrayal) and all the cleverness too. Mythology provides all the building blocks for this story, which makes sense considering that the Archipelago is supposedly a world created by human imagination. Owens takes stories that we all know, sewing them into a seamless tapestry that adds color and life to his world.

This is the classic heroes’ quest, Owens doesn’t take any particular risks with this book, but he crafted his story so well I didn’t mind too much. Instead of making the book stale and trite, the familiar archetypes turn it into something comfortable. I loved the challenge of trying to figure each character out before their name was revealed. There are probably those that disagree with me, but I enjoyed the way familiar stories were taken and spun on their heads. And trust me, there’s a good reason you’re feeling those déjà vu vibes.

The only thing I found disappointing was the dearth of female characters. Owens did give us Aven, the captain of the Indigo Dragon, but I would have liked seeing more girls participating in the action. Circumstances dictated that the three main characters be male and I’m cool with that, but I’d like to see more than the token strong female character in the sequels (fingers crossed, I’ve got a bit of time before I start the next one).

All in all, I enjoyed this book so much that I’d love to add it to my shelf (also, the cover art is REALLY pretty). If you’re looking for a great book to read with your kids—or you just like books with dragons—then I’d definitely recommend this book.

This book is a good example of:

  • Multiple POV narrative
  • Third person
  • World building
  • Middle grade
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Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Ages 16 & up

steelheart coverTen years ago, Calamity appeared in the sky and granted ordinary men and women superhuman abilities. For nearly as long, eighteen-year-old David Charleston has devoted his life to one purpose: finding a way to kill Steelheart, the epic that murdered his father. When the Reckoners—an underground group dedicated to taking down epics—finally come to Newcago, David knows this is his chance. He’s spent his whole life studying the epics and their powers and now, with the Reckoners’ support, David thinks he can finally crack the secret of Steelheart’s weakness—David knows he has one because he’s seen Steelheart bleed.

My brother—who happens to be a huge Brandon Sanderson fan—recommended this book (I know, I have excellent taste in siblings). Can’t say that I blame him. From what I’ve read of Sanderson, his world-building is intricate in a way that hasn’t resonated with me since I read Lord of the Rings. He impressed me with The Way of King and didn’t fail in Steelheart or its sequel Firefight, though I found the story more accessible in the last two. The minute my brother gave me Steelheart’s, I knew I had to read it.

Steelheart’s premise combines two of my favorite things: super powers and reversal of expectations. In this book, the super-powered beings are far from virtuous. When Calamity appeared in the sky, it didn’t create a race of benevolent protectors. Power corrupts and all that. Clearly, these epics lacked an Uncle Ben or a Pa Kent to guide them down the right path. Sanderson could have stopped right there and I would have been happy, but of course, this is a young adult novel and in young adult novels we like making people questions things. Towards the end of the book (and through all of the second) we see David question his original “down with all epics” stance—not everything is as it seems. Although it’s clear these powers can bring out the worst in a person, David begins to wonder if some epics could be saved. After all, if the Reckoners are ever going to truly stand up to the epics, they need a few who are able to use their powers without giving into the darkness.

I loved how surprisingly diverse and well-defined Sanderson’s characters are in Steelheart. David’s obsession with metaphors was hilarious—especially considering how bad he is at them—and refreshing, I haven’t seen that character quirk before. But Sanderson doesn’t stop with his point of view character, all of the characters I came across were distinct and I connected with them easily (This is really noticeable in book two, when some of David’s old friends get exchanged for new ones). Among the characters Sanderson trots out we have a female rocket scientist, a former fifth-grade teacher, a teenage assassin, and a Tennessee cop with the vocabulary of his Irish ancestors.

Of course, no book is perfect. While I love Sanderson’s world-building and how seamlessly it enhances the story, I was a bit off-put by some of his replacements for cuss words. His characters favored “sparks” and “calamity” as expletives and while the first wasn’t too distracting, I found myself hating the latter. I understand the thought process behind using the word, but I felt calamity a bad fit for this futuristic, dystopian society. It made it hard to stay in the—often serious—moment. I’m usually all for made up expletives (Big fan of D’Arvit from the Artemis Fowl series), as long as they add rather than take away from the dialogue. Perhaps “calamity” might have worked for me in a different setting, but I found myself wishing the characters had chosen silence instead—or just used a more familiar expletive (I doubt humanity would have moved away from all the familiar ones).

I also wasn’t a fan of the number of times David made a big deal about being distracted by the female lead. I understand that he’s a teenage boy, but when your narrator mentions distracting she is multiple times in just the first few pages it becomes redundant. You are straight and male, we get it, can we move on now please? (This was handled much better in Firefight).  Granted, I am not a teenage boy, I’ll take my brother’s word that this is pretty accurate, but still hitting the reader over the head with an idea often ends with their head aching.

Still, despite the few drawbacks, I really enjoyed the first two books and look forward to the release of the trilogy’s final installation, Calamity (there’s that word again). If you like dystopians, comic books, or stories that defy conventional expectations, give this series a try.

This is a good example of:

  • Plot twists
  • Character quirks
  • World-building
  • Dystopian society

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Ages 16 and up

Hazel Grace Lancaster’s final chapter was written when she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. A miracle drug has bought her time, but she is still sixteen and living with cancer. Hazel knows her time will run out. That is enough to give anyone a perpetual bad day. And so she is sent to Cancer Kid Support Group, a weekly ritual that she barely tolerates. The only high point of this ritual is her friend Isaac. Until Augustus Waters shows up. In Augustus, she finds someone who not only gets what she’s going through, but also gets her. With him, Hazel goes on what will probably be the first and only adventure of her life.

The Fault in Our Stars. The Fault in Our Stars. The Fault in Our freaking Stars.

Seriously, where can I even start with this book? It …wait…can’t say that it’s full of spoilers. That is probably the hardest part of this review. Everything I loved about this book is tied to a spoiler. But I’m going to try. So, if you’re super spoiler-sensitive, just take me at my word: Read this book.

I loved this book. I shouldn’t have loved this book. But I loved this book.

I’ll start with the characters. Spot. On. Hazel is a teenager, but she also feels jaded and world-weary (nothing makes you feel world-weary like constantly struggling to breathe). She’s cynical without seeming dark. And she’s obssessed with a book called The Imperial Infliction, which I would totally read if it wasn’t completely made up. Augustus is fun and more. These are real kids having to live through the real consequences of a disease that can cripple families.

John Green could easily have created a novel with a sad and depressing narrative. Or written a story that was all happy and hopeful and possibly unrealistic (the usual method for cancer kid stories). But TFIOS has this great balance in its tone. It’s serious. It’s real. Hazel’s life is drastically impacted by her disease. But Green also allows moments of light-heartedness. TFIOS is neither mopey, nor sappy. It’s lifelike. Hazel goes through ups and downs, just like any teenager (just like any human, really), her ups and downs are just often dictated by her disease. One of my favorite things about these Hazel and Gus is their irreverence (the main vehicle for the book’s light-hearted moments). These two have confronted death and live. Yes, death might eventually come back to claim them, but they’ve been there. They’ve done that. And they don’t mind poking fun at the specter that terrifies them.

And can we talk about how beautifully Green covers description. The descriptions could easily have become heavy-handed and overdone. But Green shows the physical toll and complications of living with cancer with deftness and brevity. The reader is given just enough to get a picture of what is happening to Hazel, but now so much they are overwhelmed. And then it’s back to the story.

Now, this paragraph should be as spoilery as it gets, but I want to assure any people who might dismiss this book because it could end badly.

I’ll admit, I was hesitant at first. I’m good with death and destruction and general badness happening to characters, but there is a part of me that expects a happy ending. Or at least the possibility of a happy end. By all accounts I should not have loved the ending of this book. But I think it might have made my list of books with perfect endings. Currently, there are two books on that list. When it was all said and done and I turned the final page, I felt like I’d gotten exactly the ending Green had promised from the beginning of the book and it was a good ending. An ending that will stick with me for a long time. I’ve never felt such hope and sadness mix after finishing a book. And I’m a fan of Dickens.

My only issue with this book (and if you know me, you’ll have seen it coming) was how it deals with sex. Now, I know that not everyone shares my more conservative opinion. So this may not be an issue for you. But I know some of my readers are like me. So they might also be bothered by the idea that dying a virgin makes a person’s life less full. I disagree with this. However, this is a book about teenagers and death and that means it’s going to deal with sex at some point. For my more conservative readers, just know that it’s in there and make your choices accordingly. I don’t think it should be a reason not to read the book, but do know it’s in there and do be willing to talk with your kids (or parents, if you’re a kid) about it.

All in all, I am glad I read this book. It made me laugh. It made me sad. It made me think. And it made me grateful. You should read it. And then you should go sit outside and be thankful that you can breathe easily.

Also, I’m pretty sure I want to be a shorter, prettier version of John Green when I grow up. So basically, I am never going to grow up. Which sounds pretty awesome.

This is a good example of:

  • First Person POV
  • How to Handle Sad Subjects
  • Characterization
  • Endings

If you’re looking for a happier book, but still want to experience the made of awesome that is John Green, might I suggest An Abundance of Katherines.


(Way, way, way overdue I know…it’s been sitting in my comp for two months. But here you go.)

The Heroes of Olympus #2: Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

Ages 12 and up

In The Lost Hero we learned of Camp Jupiter, the Roman counterpart of Camp Half-Blood. In a desperate attempt to save Olympus, Hera had switched the leaders of the two camps, Percy Jackson and Jason Grace. Jason has been at Camp Half-Blood helping the Greeks, and now it’s time for Percy to make an appearance on the other side of the continent. Percy resurfaces with almost no memory of who he was. Of course, that doesn’t keep the usual brand of trouble from following him. Apparently, that Death has been taken hostage by the giants and until he is released, killing the monsters is going to be impossible. And it seems that the gods can find no better guy for the job than an amnesiac Greek demigod. After only a few hours at Camp Jupiter, Percy and his newfound friends set off on a journey to a land where the god’s power may not even reach.

I know, it’s short and sweet. But seriously, I’m not sure how much I trust myself to tell you. Now, I’m not saying that I have a favorite author. That’s just not a choice I’d be able to stick to for more than a few minutes. However, Rick Riordan ranks very close to the top, so naturally I was more than a little ecstatic when this book came out. And it was was almost (I’ll get to that) everything I could have hoped it would be.

Now, if you know me (or have read my blog), you would know that I have had a thing for Greek mythology since I was a little girl. That is what got me into the Percy Jackson books for the first time. (Okay, that and the movie trailer reminding me that I kept meaning to read them.) So I won’t deny that that is part of why I love these books. Riordan does more than just retell the Greek and Roman myths (and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which), he reimagines them. He takes them and changes them is a way that his readers will recognize, while still keeping them true to their original character. For example, he takes the Amazons and turns them into business moguls funding their way of life through a company even children will recognize in this day and age, Amazon.

I didn’t figure it out until about halfway through, but there are several parallels between this book and the original Percy Jackson books. Not that I will tell you what they are (or maybe this amnesia thing is clouding my view). But, considering that his missing memory is constantly on Percy’s mind, I think that making him go through trials that the readers would recognize—even if it was only subconsciously—was a beautiful touch.

The characters in Rick Riordan’s books (I’m talking about all three mythology series here) have always been some of my favorites. I love them. They bounce of the page and come alive. You feel like you know them, like they’ve been your friends (or enemies) for ages. I could totally see myself hanging out with Annabeth and talking about books for hours. His characters, even the minor ones, so often have distinct characteristics that define them and make them different from all the others around them.

That little “almost” up at the top has probably been bothering you for three whole paragraphs. It boils down to one small fact. The book was great, I loved it. I can’t wait for the next one (The Mark of Athena Fall 2012). In fact, I’m already excited about the next one, all things considered (if you know, you know). However, despite how much I love him and how great I imagine he looks in a purple t-shirt (C’mon ladies, you know you were thinking about it too), Percy Jackson is not in fact my favorite character in the books. He is hair’s breadth close, but he is not. My favorite character sadly, has a very small part in this book…though I think I can bet on seeing a lot more of [redacted] in the next book. (It’s kind of a given.)

All of this, the characters, the mythology, the settings, the crazy, twisting plot that he seems to come up with—all of these things are used to create a book that keeps moving right up to that very last page. No joke, I’m pretty sure that my heart stopped for about five seconds when I turned page 513 and realized that the twenty or so pages that were left were actually the glossary and several black pages. Had my whole family not been asleep, I probably would have yelled. It’s a brilliant ending, but it doesn’t stop you from feeling like you’ve been thrown off a cliff. (Cause obviously, with three books left, we still have the world and Olympus to save.)

This a good example of:

  • Multiple POVs
  • Raising the stakes
  • Reimagining vs. retelling
  • Characters
  • Story Movement

Tortall & Other Lands by Tamora Pierce

Ages 12 and up

I thought about coming up with something resembling a synopsis for this review, but I realized that due to the nature of this book, it would be very short (or really long). So I’ll just put it plainly. This is a book of short stories by Tamora Pierce (Song of the Lioness Quartet, The Immortals, the Beka Cooper Trilogy). Most of the stories involve Tortall or one of its neighbors. It is good. You should read it.

I’ve been reading Tamora Pierce’s books since I was a teenager. I actually picked them up because of her book Trickster’s Choice, the cover called to me. Of course then I found out that book wasn’t where the story really started, so me being me, I had to go all the way back to the beginning before I could start what I’d originally wanted to read.

It was nice to be able to interact with some of my old friends in from Tortall, as well as some of the new ones. I enjoyed that she switched up the point of view between the different stories. They weren’t all in first person, nor were they all in third. She matched the POV to the style of narration to the story and the characters.

Speaking of which, this book was an awesome study of different characters. With only a few pages for each story, Pierce managed to connect me with her characters. She used the details extremely well.  Many of them show you something about the characters at the same time that they move the story forward. There’s also something to be said about the continuity of style that she shows throughout the book. She may change voices, but Pierce is always at the helm. Some of the stories that stood out to me were: “Testing”, “Mimic”, “Student of Ostriches” and “The Dragon’s Tale” (because Daine and Numair from The Immortals remain my favorite of her characters and because Kit is awesome).

The only sour point for me was how the stories seemed to become repetitive. They always seemed to deal with a similar problem: a young girl being oppressed by her father or society or someone else. Which is a wonderful topic and the source of a lot of fiction, but at the same time, it’s not the only problem out there and I would have like to see some of the stories deal with other issues. It kind of felt like I was being beat over the head.

Still, this is a lovely little collection of stories that are worth the read. Especially if you are a writer (or already a fan of Pierce’s work). I think that the short story format allows you to see the individual elements of what makes a story great a little bit easier than a full length novel.

This is a good example of:

  • Point of View
  • Integration of story and world
  • Continuity of style
  • Character sketches

This book is on my recommended list.


The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Ages 16 and up

Mary’s world is simple. There is the fence that separates her village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth and the masses of unconsecrated (a.k.a. zombies). There is the Sisterhood that keeps order and protects the village. And there are her mother’s stories about the outside world and the ocean. The path her life will take is simple and uncomplicated and controlled. She will either marry and raise a family or join the Sisterhood. When her mother is infected and no one has spoken for her, the Sisterhood abruptly becomes her only choice. Inside the walls that shelter the sisters, Mary starts to discover that the Sisterhood hasn’t been entirely truthful. Mary’s world begins to turn end over end as she tries to discover what exactly these women have been up to and what dark secrets are hidden in the church walls. And she begins to wonder, what if her mother spoke the truth about the ocean?

It has taken me several months to get to where I can objectively talk about this book (I finished it in July). You would think that for my maiden voyage into the zombie genre I would choose something that was comical, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but no…I chose Forest of Hands and Teeth. I’m glad I did, but it took me a long time to get there. To put it simply: I love the writing but I didn’t like the book.

Now, disclaimer: My opinion of this story is subject to change. Okay, not really, let’s rephrase. My opinion of this series has changed. I put down Forest of Hands and Teeth and had to think long and hard about whether or not I was going to pick up the next book. I did eventually decide to continue on with the series, mostly because the recommendation that made me pick up the series in the first placecame from someone a trusted (two someones actually). And I will say I’m loving the second book. My main problem stemmed from the fact that this was only the first book in a series, and that means it ended in an unhappy place. And as many of you know by now, the ending factors a good deal into whether or not I like the book as a whole (Anyone remember the Specials debacle). But I still say you should read this book. And not just because you need it to set up the second book. I think that there are also several lessons that you can learn by reading this book.

First off, the writing was superb. She was great with the descriptions, I felt the world around me. Could sense the Forest crowding in at the edges of the fence. Ryan also did very well with grabbing my attention. She opens the book with her heroine facing two simple problems: zombies and boys. And then BAM! Her mom gets infected, her brother tosses her out and the boy that was going to speak for her (though she’s actually in love with his brother) goes silent. That coupled Ryan’s spin on the whole zombie thing hooks and drags you through the first half of the book (drags as in tied behind a runaway horse).

I liked the her spin. My limited experience with zombies (Abhorsen trilogy anyone?) uses magic in the creation of the undead (or weird forms of Kryptonite). This was the first time that I remember science used. The unconsecrated were created by scientists out of the desire to do good and help people. They weren’t planning on making a horde of flesh-eating animated corpses.

Unfortunately (and this would have helped my overall impression) I felt like there was a lack of a character arc for Mary in this book. She kind of starts in one place, has an adventure, and then ends in another place that is the same as the first place. A character needs to have growth, they need to be different in a marked way. Not just in that they have had new experiences, but in the fact that they have changed as a person. I don’t feel that Mary did this.

Another thing that I suggest you watch for (and you will learn a lot from this) is the way the story kind of lulls in the middle. The tension does pick up again at the end (oh boy, does it pick up), but it does go a little limp for a chapter or two. This is a good section to maybe analyze when you’ve finished the book. Figure out why it dies down like it does and determine how you can avoid doing that in your own book.

This book is worth the read. It will entertain you and it will teach you something about writing. I had to take a long, hard look at myself to figure out why it was exactly that I didn’t like it. That exercise has made it easier for me write about a book objectively when it comes time for me to review it.

I will put out the caution that these are teenagers we’re dealing with and because of that sex is very much on Mary’s mind (especially considering that they’re expected to wed and increase the population at the age of sixteen). There is nothing gratuitous and it is all very subtle. I didn’t feel the need to skip any chunks of text as I have with some books, but I would still steer younger teens away from these books.

This is a good example of:

  • Description
  • World-building
  • Starting tension

Book Review: Behemoth


Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

Ages 12 and up

In Leviathan, we were introduced to an alternate version of World War I. One divided not just by politics, but by sciences. There are the Clankers, who excel at mechanical inventions, and the Darwinists, who have figured out how to fabricate animals into tools and weapons. Alek, an exiled Austrian prince and a Clanker, has been hiding his identity as he lives and works on board the Leviathan, a Darwinist airship. Thanks to Alek and his men, the Leviathan has narrowly avoided the German forces and is now headed towards the completion of her mission in the Ottoman Empire. On the airship, we’ve also gotten to know Deryn Sharp, a young girl masquerading as a boy so that she can serve in the British Air Service. The two started out as unlikely allies and have become friends. In Behemoth, their friendship is put to the test though, when Austria joins forces with Germany in the war. And by the growing feelings that Deryn is trying to hide from him. Of course, Alek is oblivious. He still thinks that his friend is a lad. When the Leviathan finally makes it to Istanbul, Alek and two of his men are able to sneak off of the airbeast and disappear in the Turkish city. But the Clanker influence that helps them to hide causes no end of trouble for the Darwinists’ mission. As it becomes clear that diplomacy will fail to keep the Ottomans out of the war, the Darwinists resort to less diplomatic means to maintain the upper hand and Deryn finds herself stranded in Istanbul with no one else to turn to but the prince she should consider an enemy.

You know that great feeling you get while riding a serious coaster like Montu or Kumba? That is  level of mental loop-de-loops I was doing while reading this book. My brain noise focused into one word (well, form of expression anyways): Wheeeeee!!! As much fun as Leviathan was to read, Scott Westerfeld takes it to the next level in Behemoth. (Is anyone else biting their nails waiting for Goliath?) The plot is twistier, the emotions are higher and stakes, oh boy, the stakes just keep on rising.

In Behemoth, we get to see Deryn go through a broader internal struggle. In book one, we kind of toed the water with her character. We learned a little of her past and we saw how she has to hide her true gender from the rest of her crewmates. Her biggest problem was convincing people that she had to shave. And then she falls for the Hapsburg prince who thinks she’s a guy. Whoops. Her feelings for Alek bring about hurdles for her to jump both as a young woman and as a member of the British Air Service. Her desire to be as honest with Alek as he is with her is at odds with her certainty of how he will react if (when *cough cough*) he finds out her secret. At the same time, she struggles to decide how far she can go helping a friend before she betrays her country. From the first chapter, we see her having to confront these issues. Alek is a constant source of confusion, but it’s refreshing, because the confusion he induces is not merely romantic in nature. At every turn she is confronted with choosing which is more important: her friendship with Alek or her feelings/duty/mission/safety. Despite Deryn’s masculine dress and behavior, we get to see that deep down she is still just a fifteen-year-old girl trying to figure out how she fits in the world.

Alek gets to show growth as well. In the first book, his choices were limited. Most of his actions in Leviathan were dictated by someone else. The most he does is sneak off to try and help a downed Darwinist airship (and then get taken prisoner). He’s still a kid used to taking and following orders. But, he fights back in Behemoth. Takes the reins of his own life so to say. Getting specific would give too much away, but it’s nice to see some really solid growth in Alek…and not just the typical “Oh, the other side isn’t so bad” growth that is always seen in stories where protagonists from opposite beliefs/veiwpoints/social status are thrown together. While Westerfeld does grow both Alek and Deryn by softening their preconceived ideas about the other side, he also grows them in other areas, creating a very distinct story arc for both.

All around the board we get to know the characters in Behemoth much better. And as our understanding of Alek, Deryn, Klopp, Volger and Dr. Barlow grows, our knowledge of the world that they live in grows as well. Leviathan was all about, well, the Leviathan. We spent much of the time learning about the airship and the companion airbeast that keeps it afloat. We were up in the air and in Behemoth the reader is grounded (yes, I meant to do that). Westerfeld’s vivid descriptions are now focused on the city of Istanbul and the Clanker machines. It’s only fair, after all. The first book was about the Darwinists, obviously the second would be about the Clankers. I love how he takes history and then warps it a little, throws in some killer plot and description and  makes you want to dig deeper and find out what really happened. He  creates a desire to learn and I love that.

So often, I’ll find that my attention lags in the second book. The first volume will be all new and exciting and then comes volume two. I’ll be honest, reading volume two is not really what I want to do. What I really want to do is read the last book and find out how it all ends. Do they defeat the evil villain (Of course they do)? Does the guy/girl get the girl/guy (Usually)? Do all the characters make it to happily ever after (Sometimes)? Or does the author randomly ruin everything by turning the main man into a tree (No, I’m not still bitter about that book, not at all)? The second book is normally not gripping for me. Behemoth is one exception. Westerfeld does an amazing job of setting up for Goliath while creating a book that could stand on its own. I could totally just walk up to my bookshelf and just decide to read Behemoth at random. You wouldn’t see me doing that with New Moon or Catching Fire. With them I need the build-up of the first volume. But Westerfeld’s use of pacing and storytelling make Behemoth into a masterpiece all by itself.  And of course, it got me revved up for the release of the final volume next month.

This is a good example of:

  • Character distinct POVs
  • Character growth
  • Description
  • A riveting second volume

This book is on my recommended reading list.


Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Ages 12 and up

This is World War I as you have never seen it before. The powers of Europe are not just divided into the Allied and the Central powers, but into Clankers (Germany/Austria-Hungary) and Darwinists (Britain/Russia/France). The Darwinists use the work of (surprise, surprise) Charles Darwin, who has figured out how to manipulate the life threads of creatures to create new and useful fabrications. The Clankers have advanced mechanics creating war machines that rival the Darwinist creations. These opposing sides of science are simply waiting for the chance to prove who is superior. When Austrian Archduke and his wife are assassinated close to the Serbian border the thready peace between the two alliances is shattered. Outcast by his own people because of his mother’s common ancestry, their son, Aleksander is forced to flee from the same people who killed his parents. The young prince is put to the test when the Darwinist airbeast, Leviathan, crashes near his hiding place. Soon, he meets Midshipman Dylan Sharp, a young airman who is not quite the lad that he seems to be. In fact, she is not a lad at all. She is really Deryn, a lass with a love of flying that was instilled in her by her father. She also seems to have inherited a fair bit of talent. With her da gone and her mother forcing corsets and tea parties on her, Deryn disguised herself as a boy and joined the British Air Service. These two find themselves as unlikely allies, the one putting his faith in machines and the other with a love for the fabricated beasties of her country. If they want to survive the oncoming war, then Alek and Deryn are going to have to trust each other. But with all the secrets and prejudices between them, is that even possible?

I am in love with this book (I’m talking deep, abiding Percy Jackson, Lord of the Rings, Cheney Duvall type book-love). This series has elevated Scott Westerfeld to my list of authors who can do no wrong (in my opinion, at least). I enjoyed Leviathan so thoroughly, that I still have that just-read-a-phenomenal-book glow a whole week later. I mean, it has illustrations for crying out loud! How awesome is that? Okay, obviously no book is perfect, but it had so many of the elements that I consider part of a good book. Secret identities, swashbuckling adventures, tutors with massive mustaches and just the barest hint of romance (with promise of more, eventually).

Westerfeld handles the switches in narration between Alek and Deryn beautifully. Sometimes the stories lead into each other and other times you’re left hanging while he moves to the other person (obviously, because they only spend the latter half of the book in each other’s company). Just thinking about all the planning that had to go into writing the two POVs this way gives me a headache. It’s mind-bending… And each voice is distinctive, even though it’s in third person. With Alek, the language used to narrate is a lot more sophisticated, which goes in line with his upper class upbringing. Deryn’s POV is littered with distinctively Scottish slang (even though many of the words seem to be specific to Westerfeld’s world), Air Service jargon and much looser in phrasing. Still smart, but not as…pretentious.

And speaking of slang! If you’ve read my review of either Specials or Extras, you’d know that one of my favorite things about Westerfeld’s writing is the colorful vocabulary that he invents. (Or is it discovers?) It is infectious and it is fun. Deryn’s slang has worked its way into my thought process and I find myself using some of her words in my everyday conversation. It’s kind of humorous to see the looks on people’s faces when I ask them to put away the “barking Honey Mustard sauce” or tell them that their brains are full of “clart”.

All of this is part of the world that Westerfeld creates for Leviathan. I loved how he took the WWI story and then escalated it with such a fantastical idea. It’s larger than life. I mean, the Darwinists were able to turn a barking whale into an airship! With an ecosystem! That’s totally awesome. The time before Deryn and Alek collide and all hell breaks loose, is used to solidify the difference between the mechanical Clanker mindset and the evolutionary Darwinist thinking. He’s also very good at showing the strengths and weaknesses of both. He doesn’t appear to have any bias toward one or the other. He makes the war as much about opposing beliefs as it is about politics.

I had buckets of fun reading this book. My reading list has been full of good books, but not all of them have been fun book. In Leviathan, the premise is fun (and a little crazy), the writing is fun and the characters are fun. Westerfeld has all of his strengths working for him in Leviathan, plus he has Keith Thompson’s distinctive illustrations to bring the world we’re reading about to life. It works wonderfully. This world is SO detail rich that being able to have the visual element is not only exciting, but helpful.

All in all, this is a book I would recommend to anyone, whether or not they are into the steampunk movement. I found it a very good introduction of the genre and it has me aching to delve deeper. But it goes beyond that. This is an excellent example of solid storytelling. Westerfeld builds an alternate universe without developing a case of world-builder syndrome. He creates memorable characters, both major and minor. And he knows exactly how to pace the action. It’s fast, but not so fast that you can’t absorb this alternate world in full detail..

I can’t wait until the final volume of this trilogy is released in September. Of course, I still have to finish my review of the next book Behemoth. That should distract me for one whole…day.

This is a good example of:

  • Character distinct POVs
  • Character building
  • World building
  • Rewriting history
  • First book in a series
  • Pacing

This book is on my recommended reading list.



Extras by Scott Westerfeld

Ages 13 and up

Aya Fuse lives in a world dominated by reputation. Either you have face rank or you’re a nobody. An extra. It’s the way society functions after the mind-rain brought on by Tally and her friends. With a face rank around 400,000, Aya is as good as an extra, unlike her older brother who is pushing the top thousand. Inspired by him (or aggravated by him), she’s become a kicker–someone who breaks video stories to the whole world. All her previous stories have been small fish, barely making a dent in her face rank. But she’s found a group of daredevil stunt girls that might just rocket her face rank to the top. Only problem is that these girls actually want to remain anonymous and Aya is forced to become one of them if she wants to pursue her story. And then they discover something bigger than a group of girls doing dangerous tricks. They discover something that has the potential to destroy cities. And the story Aya kicks is one big enough to send her face rank to the double digits. Problem is, with all that attention she’s bound to attract the attention of the people that’s she’s just exposed and they aren’t beyond abducting one girl and her friends to protect their mission.

Remember back in May, when I finished Specials and I said that I wasn’t sure that I like this series because of the way that book ended? Yeah, it took about two weeks to decide if it would even be possible for me to like the book and all I wanted to do was see if Westerfeld fixed it. So there was more than a little trepidation when I picked up Extras. Fool me once and all that. But I am SO glad that I did. Because he did fix it! And he did more than I was expecting. I was hoping for just a little cameo, just Tally dropping in or being mentioned and maybe a little bit about her life three years after the mind rain. Not so, I got a whole half a book of Tally-action, making Extras quite possibly my favorite book in the series (It also is partly responsible for the recent Scott Westerfeld-a-thon in my reading life–that and the fact that I was able to get Leviathan for six bucks). It brought Speicals from possible book-burning material (So far, the only book I’ve ever burned is Wuthering Heights–now that was cathartic) to just one more book in a series that I absolutely adore. Yes, I’m gushing, I know. Now, let’s get down to business (to defeat the Huns…sorry, couldn’t help myself).

It was interesting to see Westerfeld’s society after the mind rain. You get the distinct feeling that it is a society still adjusting to the downfall of the bubblehead era. They are expanding and making new discoveries. Hurrying to make up for the time lost in the pretty-time. The face rank system is what Aya’s own city has come up with to cope with the sudden demands of a society that is no longer mindless and complacent. It’s just one of the clues that labels this city as a futuristic Tokyo (I’m assuming, Tokyo, it could be another prominent Japanese city). There are references to Tally and the pretty-time, echoes of how the world was in the previous three books. It is still an active part of everyone’s memory (her own brother was a pretty for a few months) and a definite influence on the decisions made by Aya and her friends.

Speaking of Aya. I really liked her. She could be little dense, yes, but there’s something about her need to be noticed that just resonates. Westerfeld sums it up beautifully in the first chapter: “It still pretty much sucked, being fifteen.” We’ve all been through it, that span in our teens that we felt uncomfortable and unbeautiful and unpopular (for me it was actually seventeenish, but whatever). And I’d forgotten how well Westerfeld is able to capture that. Aya resonates with the reader because she is SO very fifteen. And kicking stories isn’t something that she does just to gain attention. She does it because she’d good at it and because she enjoys it. And it makes her feel like more than just an awkward teenager. How many of us wouldn’t want to be famous for doing what we loved to do.

I love how the plot of this book becomes so much more than it seems at first. I thought that the whole story was going to be about whether or not she would betray her new friends and kick their story and it ended up not being about that at all. I was pleasantly surprised. There are more layers to this book than there are in a birthday cake. Just when you think you’ve got the whole thing figured out, Westerfeld surprises you with some delicious new ingredient that sweetens the plot. Kept me on my toes.

One of my favorite things about the series actually comes back to bite me in this book though. I’ve always loved Westerfeld’s way with words. How he comes up with new phrases, like “nervous-making” and “brain-missing” (my personal favorite from Extras). However, I feel that he overdoes it a little bit in this book. And perhaps that was just a part of the new society overcompensating…but I started to get tired of all the noun-verb-ing combinations. But thankfully, that didn’t last long once we got into the real action and it was a small distraction.

Like I said earlier, I believe that this is my favorite book in the entire series (that might change when I eventually reread the series, I’ll let you know). Partly because of the way that it wraps everything up. Partly because we get to see Tally picking up the pieces and making something amazing out of what she’s been given. Also, partly because I think this book, gets to be a little more light-hearted. All the evil, overbearing powers have been stopped. There’s no one forcing people to get brain surge (although, that doesn’t stop some people from getting brain surge anyways). We get to experience a society that’s a little different, a little familiar and sometimes more than just a little confused.  For anyone who enjoys YA fiction, and especially if you like the dystopian genre, this series is a must read. And don’t discount Extras just because you think things have moved on. This is a vital piece that finishes off the puzzle and helps turn a trilogy into a masterpiece.

This is a good example of:

  • Creating a society
  • Creating a distinctive vocabulary
  • Character building
  • Plot twist
  • Writing for YA
  • Merging theme and plot

This book is on my recommended reading list.


Heist Society #2: Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter

Ages 12 and up

Kat is back. It’s been two months since she “robbed” the Henley and she is famous…among certain circles. She shouldn’t be surprised when she’s approached to steal back the world famous Cleopatra Emerald for its rightful owners. After all, who better to pull of the impossible theft of a cursed jewel that hasn’t been seen in public for thirty years than a team of teen-aged super thieves. They’ve done the impossible once already. It should be easy, right? Except just when Kat and her crew think they’ve pulled off the greatest heist since the Henley, everything blows up in her face. Now, if Kat wants to fix her mistake, she’ll have to convince her crew to pull off the impossible one more time.

If Heist Society was the intro to Kat and her world, Uncommon Criminals gets into the nitty gritty depths of the characters. This was a stunning follow-up to the first book and it also happened to be a blast to read. Ally Carter definitely delivers in this book. She’s not just continuing the story, but deepening our understanding of Kat and her friends. And she’s not afraid to get “real” with her characters either.

After reading Uncommon Criminals, I have to say that book one just scratched the surface of the characters. We get to see Kat slightly apprehensive in book one, but still determined and gung-ho. She doesn’t have the luxury of stopping to doubt herself for very long. In the second book, doubts abound. Of course, that’s typically what happens when you fall flat on your face (figuratively of course, not literally). We get to see her mess-up big time in this book–both on the professional and personal levels–and that’s nice. I like knowing that the characters I’m reading about aren’t perfect. After all, what better way to stretch a character than to make them face their own failure. Remember, perfect characters are boring characters.

Another highlight in this book for me was the growing relationship between Kat and Hale…or maybe I should say growing awkward relationship. They’re caught in that place where they’re more than friends, but they haven’t quite committed to crossing the line. (And yes, if you’re wondering, I did spend half the book yelling at them.) And we get to watch as Kat contemplates that cross and what it means. Aside from Kat, Hale does continue to be one of my favorite characters. My notes literally have a bullet point with just his name and an exclamation point. And I have no idea what I meant when Iwrote that…so I’m just gonna gcover my bases. Just like Kat struggles with her own issues, we get the impression (from what we can see through her eyes) that Hale is having to deal with his own. And surprise, surprise–they mainly involve her. Some of my favorite moments in this book are the moments between the two of them. In fact, my favorite part is centered around him and his perfect sense of timing. I cheered, just dropped the book and whooped and hollered (and that’s all I will say).

All of our favorite characters are back in this book, including more time with Uncle Eddie (sort of) and some quality time with Gabrielle. I find I like her a lot more in this book (she’s growing on me). She and Kat are less at odds. After all, there’s already enough conflict surrounding Kat with out escalating her rivalry with her cousin.

Just like with her Gallagher Girls series, this second book is nicely wrapped up at the end. Mostly. There’s enough loose ends to have something for a sequel, but were not left with anyone dangling off a cliff. All matters have been settled. I would have liked to have more revealed about what happened to her mom, but I’m assuming that that is going to develop into a greater plot point should the series continue (which it really should).

This is a good example of:

  • Character development
  • Shifts in POV
  • Character flaws
  • Character relationship
  • Plot twists (it’s a big one)

This book is on my recommended reading list.

Book Review: Wither


The Chemical Garden Trilogy #1: Wither by Lauren DeStefano

Ages 16 and up

Rhine Ellery is used to living with a death-sentence hanging over her head. She’s sixteen, which means that she has four years before the virus that now claims every female at 20 and every male at 25 comes to claim her. She and her twin brother, Rowan, have spent most of their lives surviving day by day. Until the Gatherers find Rhine. Suddenly, she finds herself a teenage bride in a polygamous marriage. She’s heard of this happening, part of a desperate effort to keep the human race from dying out completely, but she always thought that she and her brother were careful enough to keep it from happening to her. Despite the fact that she finds herself in the lap of luxury and is quickly becoming her new husband’s favorite wife, all Rhine can think about is getting out of her gilded cage and back to her brother. So she can spend whatever years she has left in freedom. But her husband’s father is a man bent on finding a cure and saving his son and Rhine starts to feel that she has perhaps been chosen for a darker purpose than being his son’s wife. A purpose that she’s not sure she likes.

This book was on my list. I was going to read it eventually, because a very reliable source told me it was good. And then I got to have a brief conversation with the author over Twitter (emphasis on brief). So if you were hoping my next review would be on Uncommon Criminals, blame it on the mouse. (And the fact that Borders forgot to call me when my book finally came in. Good thing I’m proactive.) Anyways, it got a well-deserved bump up to the A.S.A.P. part of my list, so here it is.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been on a dystopian kick recently. I am far from being an expert, but I find that I love it. I knew Wither  was categorized in that section, so I came to the book with a few preconceived notions about what I could expect. And with the big stuff I was correct. But one of my favorite nuances was how proactive Rhine felt. What I have found to be the case much of the time (and this goes for genres, I just think it’s more with this one) is that you have Protagonist. Protagonist is surviving in a less than perfect society, following the rules and acting like a good little sheep. And then something happens. Protagonist’s best friend runs away, or their sister’s name gets drawn from the cup of death. Protagonist reacts and the story begins. But through out the whole story, survival is goal (it’s a very good goal, I will give you that). The main character will do what has to be done for them to survive, but they don’t act out of the box unless they have to. They don’t try to break the mold without outside influence (be it from friends of enemies).

Rhine isn’t like that. She wants to live. She wants to be free. From almost the moment she wakes up in Linden’s house, Rhine is figuring out how she can get out. Rhine has suddenly found herself in the lap of luxury, with a guy who adores her more every day. Her needs are more than met, she could just sit back and accept that she is going to spend the rest of her life here. She could be like her sister wife, Jenna, and think that this is a better a place than most to die. But surviving isn’t good enough for her. Rhine wants freedom. Another thing that I like about Rhine is that she isn’t overly cynical. She could be. She is witty and real in her observations, but not unpleasant to a fault (actions are sometimes a different story).

This book has some of the best examples of using significant detail in a story that I have ever seen. There are some books where you can guarantee that the author is going to describe every dress or every building. Books where facial features will be stressed or actions. But in Wither, DeStefano uses her details to enhance what is happening in that moment, which means that the details with significance change constantly. One moment, she’s describing the wedding attire of Rhine and her two sister wives, giving you a glimpse into each girl’s personality. Two pages later, you see Rhine focusing on just one wall of her new home, impressing on you just how big the Ashby house is. She even manages to uses something as mundane and everyday as make-up to lead into background for a minor character. It’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

And speaking of background. This is one book where I was as happy to be reading backstory as frontstory (is that the technical term?). You get dropped right in the middle of the action. You don’t have to go through Rhine’s typical day and then she gets kidnapped. She already is kidnapped. DeStefano uses innuendo and slight of hand to deftly make you as interested in Rhine’s past as you are in her present and future. You want to know about her brother and about how her parents died. The balance between backstory and current plot is such a hard balance to strike. Too much and the reader gets bored. Too little and the reader gets lost. DeStefano does a very good job of walking that line between the two.

Of course, it’s not a perfect book. There were a few times when Rhine or the plot would make a jump and I’d be dragged out of the story to say, “Wait, what? How did you come up with that?” I’m someone who is constantly jumping in and out of the story. When it gets too intense, I’ll out the book down for about thirty seconds. Or when I’m struck by an author’s brilliance.  Or when I’m just laughing to hard to hold the book still…or breathe. Rarely do I actually have to stop because something doesn’t make sense or because I actually have to back track to figure out what the blazes is happening.  I can think of only two times that this happened and I don’t even remember where they were (not that I would tell you if I did, that would be a spoiler and I don’t give those). And I’m still not sure that I wasn’t supposed to have to stop and think at those points.

With Wither, you are in the hands of someone who knows exactly what they are doing. And they won’t tell you! I’m sure that the clues are all there. I’m sure that when I get to the end of book three (however, many years down the road that is) I’ll be able to reread the series and go, “How did I not see that?” and everything will make perfect sense. But right now, my powers of prediction are sadly baffled. And that is frustrating! (If the author is reading this, I bet she’s doing a little victory dance or at least grinning evilly.) One of my favorite parts about reading a book is to take the pieces and see where the plot is going and figure out what is going to happen before it happens.  It’s an uncanny skill that I have. And it is being pushed to the max right now. Normally, I find it painfully easy. Not this time. My brain is still turning possibilities and lines of story development and the interaction between characters and coming up with likely directions the story will take. But I can’t settle on any one thing that I know is going to happen (okay, actually there are a couple of things that I think I might know are going to happen, we’ll see). This is not a familiar feeling for me. It’s weird and foreign and…actually, kind of fun. It won’t stop me from trying of course, but I like that I wasn’t able to figure all the big stuff out in one reading. No, I don’t like it…I love it. And it’s part of why I can’t wait for Fever to come out in February (*cries* It’s SO far). Because the more pieces of the puzzle I can get, closer to seeing the whole picture I will be.

This is a book that I would recommend to people all across the board. It’s up there with The Hunger Games, I think that all my friend’s that enjoy a good book will enjoy this. Whether you are into the dystopian scene or not. Make this your introduction. At the same time, anyone who wants to write, especially if you want to write YA, this book should be on your list. I had as much fun reading how it was written as I did reading what was written. It’s one of those books you walk away from and say, “Wow…Let’s do that again!” (Kind of like you do with a good roller coaster). Parents, if you’re looking for a good, thought-provoking book for your teens to read, have at it. I would keep this one away from the younger teens. Rhine knows first hand the reality of her situation, she sees glimpses of it, and she’s honest. She doesn’t shy away from the realities of her world. Some of what she sees, or knows is happening just might be bit much for kids that are younger than fifteen or sixteen. I didn’t even come close to needing to self-censor the book while I read. It is very clean (I can’t vouch for the second and third books as they haven’t been written yet), but it is also very deep and kind of dark.

This is a good example of:

  • Significant detail
  • Character reveal
  • Backstory integration
  • A good love triangle
  • First person narrative
This book is one my recommended reading list.

Artemis Fowl #7: The Atlantis Complex by Eoin Colfer

Ages 12 and up

Artemis Fowl has just turned fifteen and he’s ready to do something that he has never done before: Save the world–willingly. It should be simple shouldn’t it? With the best of both human and fairy technology at his disposal, Artemis has discovered a workable way to slow down global warming. But unfortunately, it seems that any time that Artemis and Captain Holly Short occupy the same space trouble is bound to follow. Artemis and his friends find themselves under attack from an enemy that Holly had forgotten she had. And if that isn’t enough, Artemis seems to be suffering from Atlantis Complex, a rare fairy psychosis that couldn’t have picked a worse time to develop. As Artemis, Holly, and friends try to get to the bottom of both the attack on themselves and the subsequent attack on Atlantis (because, ofcourse, they are related) they must also contend with Artemis’ growing paranoia and a split personality that brings to light things that Holly would rather stay hidden. Will Artemis’ distrust of even his friends keep them from saving the fairy folk yet again, or can Artemis overcome his new nemesis–his mind.

The Artemis Fowl books are books that definitely deserve a permanent home on my bookshelf. And once they’ve settled on one cover design, they will have one. I discovered this series through a friend, who gave the first book to my brother. Now at that time, by baby bro was not the biggest reader. And he loved it. So of course, I had to read it. I’ve been in love with the series ever since.

One of the best things about the Artemis Fowl series is that is so much fun from beginning to end. This newest book isn’t any exception. Right off the bat you have not only a mystery (What is with Artemis’ sudden obsession with the number five?), but the usual banter. There’s really no build-up, no easing into the problems of the plot. The strange state of Artemis’ mind is disturbing in a character you love. And just when as you start to figure out what the heck is going on, BAM! The usual mayhem occurs. And maybe a few deaths. This could be really heavy, gruesome stuff, but Colfer still uses dialogue and description in such a way that even with things are exploding, you’re laughing your socks off. I mean, he has Butler pretend to be a luchador–complete with a crazy costume. The characters in The Atlantis Complex are just as much fun and witty as they have been in the last six books.

It’s nice to get to see Artemis vulnerable to what he has considered his greatest asset in the previous six books. He feels more like a normal teenager with each book (not that he ever will truly be normal) and I think this is the first time he’s ever actually wished he was. It is interesting to see how much everyone has come to rely on having Artemis to help think them out of a situation. Artemis’ crazy is well-written. It’s a smart kind of crazy. He’s not bouncing off the walls and shouting incoherent sentences, he’s simply paranoid and more than a little obsessive-compulsive. Which doesn’t work out so well when you’re leaps and bounds beyond your friends intelligence-wise.

This book feels a little more confined than those that came before. And I guess, since a majority of it is spent in a tiny submersible sub, that is expected. Still, it works. I walked away from this book feeling like I knew the main characters much better than I did before, so I didn’t mind that the cast of characters wasn’t as expansive as it has been in previous books, but I did notice. A lot of it was setting up for the next  book, I felt (which is kind of obvious after the ending). I will warn you that the ending of TAF is what could be considered a mild cliffhanger. And if the rumor that this is the penultimate Arty book is true, then I suppose to be expected.

This book was everything that I could have asked for it to be…even if we had to listen to Orion call Foaly a “noble beast” so many times it was nauseating. The more I got into the book, the more I realized that I had missed Artemis and Holly and Butler and Juliet and Foaly and yes, even Mulch. It was wonderful to be able to interact with the characters that I have grown up with. And I will be eagerly awaiting any news of the next volume in the series.

This is a good example of:

  • Description
  • Dialogue
  • Character building
  • Adventure novel
This book is on my recommended reading list.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

All ages

Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters, which, as anyone in the kingdom of Ingary knows, means that she is destined to fail if she decides to try seeking her fortune. So Sophie, remains at her father’s hat shop helping her stepmother keep the business going. That is, until she manages to offend the Witch of the Waste (though she doesn’t know how). As punishment Witch lays a curse on Sophie, turning her into an old woman. Unwilling to face her family, Sophie sets off. It isn’t long before she comes upon wicked Wizard Howl’s moving castle. Howl has made a reputation for capturing young girls and eating their hearts. But Sophie is an old woman, so she’s safe, right? In the castle, Sophie meets Calcifer, the fire demon that is responsible for most of the castle’s magic and Michael, Howl’s apprentice. Sophie strikes a bargain with Calcifer, he will free her from her curse if she can free him from his bargain with Howl. As she grows to know Howl and the two other occupants of his castle she finds that that everything is not as it seems. Not with Howl. Not with Calcifer. And most certainly, not with herself.

My first experience with Howl’s Moving Castle was actually through a friend who couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen Miyazaki’s movie. Which is an awesome movie, by the way. I highly recommend it.

The book is ten times awesomer (Yes, I said “awesomer”).

Anyways, when I found out it was a book as well, of course I had to go buy it. And I’ve gotten my money’s worth. This is my third full reread–not counting all the times I’ve picked it up to reread my favorite parts.

There are some books that just seem to transcend age range. This book is slated for ages 9-12. I was eighteen when I first read it and I enjoyed it more than I have enjoyed many books. Howl’s Moving Castle is a book that will be just as much fun for the parents to read as for the kids. It’s written in the same style as Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede (another awesome book). Full of wit, magic and mayhem. The humor is clean and timeless. Jones’ wording is chosen for the utmost impact both to the story and the enjoyment of the reader. I’ve started tweeting random sentences when I’m reading, I maybe tweeted a tenth of what I wanted to. Just reading the chapter titles is an experience in and of itself. This book will tickle your funny bone until you don’t think you can possibly laugh anymore.

There are some ways that this was definitely written for a younger audience. The plot is quick, there is no time for your attention to wander. Now don’t by any means think that it has a simple plot. This book has one of the most twisty plots that I have seen in a book for this age range. There is a lot packed into Howl’s 448 pages, so you have to pay attention or you’ll miss something. Also, the book’s short format makes every word important. The descriptions are brief. But they are also colorful and vivid. Jones establishes the world and then thoroughly immerses you in it. You can picture the streets of Kingsbury and the wharves of Porthaven in your head. Dialogue is quick and snappy, with one liners galore and each character’s voice distinct and entertaining.

The characters are constantly revealing new and different layers of themselves. When we first meet Sophie she seems quiet and timid. Used to talking her way out of situations meekly. She seems content to stay at the hat shop and determined to help her two younger sisters (who have much better chances at finding their fortunes). And then she gets cursed into her nineties and we get to see a little of Sophie’s real personality. She’s fiesty and fun and no longer afraid to speak the thoughts that have been entertaining for two chapters–even when it means standing up to a wicked wizard. Howl plays the flamboyant playboy, but (as anyone who reads Batman comics will know) there is much more to him than Sophie has heard in her little town of Market Chipping. These character’s are far from perfect (very far, in Howl’s case), but that’s part of what makes them so lovable. And what makes watching them grow so much fun.

This is one of those books that is just as great to read in bed on a rainy day (the sun will be shining inside, trust me) as it would be to listen in the car on a family trip. It’s wonderfully complicated and surprising. Even in my third read through, I was discovering new levels to both the characters and Jones’ handling of the plot. And I recommend it to anyone who wants to write. I always walk away from this book refreshed and inspired to write more.

This is a good example of:

  • Character development/story arc
  • Plot
  • Descriptions
  • Making every word count
  • Putting fun into your writing
This book is one my recommended reading list.

Magyk


Septimus Heap #1: Magyk by Angie Sage

Ages 9 and up

The beginning of young Septimus Heap’s life started out with promise. He is the seventh son of a seventh son. A child guaranteed to be very magykal. That is, until he dies only a few hours into his short life. With no time to mourn his family must take in a foundling infant girl, whom they name Jenna. Ten years pass and Jenna is revealed to be the long lost princess,  born on the same day as the Heap child’s birth and her mother, the Queen’s, death. Her life of hiding with the Heaps, is thrown into upheaval when the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, Marcia Overstrand, arrives to divulge the secrets of her birth and to whisk her away before the Supreme Custodian’s Assassin can find her. Fleeing with Marcia, her brother Nicko, her father, Maxie the wolfhound and the mysterious Boy 412, Jenna and her family find themselves in hiding from DomDaniel. DomDaniel, ex-ExtraOrdinary Wizard and practicer of Darke Magyk wants Jenna dead so that he will have no contest for the rule of the small kingdom. If she is to live, Jenna must outsmart the Assassin, the Hunter, DomDaniel’s Apprentice and even DomDaniel himself. And if that wasn’t enough to deal with, her long “dead” brother may still be alive. Is Septimus really alive? And if he is, is he really who he claims to be?

The Septimus Heap series is one that has been taunting me for ages. Every time I would go to my library I’d see book two or book three, and I knew I wanted to read them. The covers were just too much fun to pass them up (I don’t usually read a book specifically because of the cover, I believe this is a first). But try as I might, I could never find book one at my library. And then I got my Nook e-reader. Among my favorite features is Free Fridays. Guess what book was the first Free Friday book the week I go my e-reader.

Right off the bat, things were interesting. I mean, the main character was pronounced dead by page 12. Which meant one of two things: this was a ghost story (unlikely because ghosts don’t age and a story about an infant doesn’t promise to be interesting) or not everything was as it seemed. And then there is the death of the queen and the (quickly solved) mystery surrounding Jenna’s real parentage. All-in-all there were the makings of a good story. And it was a good story.

Sage tells the story using a host of characters. All of whom have at least one or two traits that define them. The multitude of the characters doesn’t get confusing, which is the tendency in books with a lot of minor characters. And part of that is because she uses her minor characters just as well as she uses her main characters. They get integrated into the plot. They get reused at least once. And some of them, like Boy 412 and Stanley the Message Rat, end up becoming major characters (okay, maybe Stanley wasn’t a major character, but he was important).

The world of the book and the way the book is written are also tied together. Of course it’s a world with magic–I mean, “Magyk”. But that magic is ornery and doesn’t always do what you think it will do. So too with the plot. You kind of know where the story is going, but it doesn’t take you straight there. It’s more like the wizards described in the book. It like to go on tangents. It kind of reminds me of me telling a story to a friend. I’m constantly stopping to explain important things. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because you it’s fun to learn about this little world. It’s a bad thing because the story tends to ramble, heading every which way until it sort of focuses for the climax.

There was, unfortunately, a lack of urgency for me when I read the book. Don’t get me wrong, it was good and never boring, but it never grabbed me. I never got to that point where putting the book down was painful. Part of that might have to do with the fact that I am an adult reading a book written for middle-schoolers (actually, now that I think about it, it probably has a lot to do with it). The expected reveal of Sepitmus’ identity was probably the most compelling reason to read (cause I wanted to see if I was right…I was). The way each big bad was taken care was also slightly anti-climactic, something  I hope changes with the next five books. It kind gave Magyk the feeling of  being an intro book, with the real action to come in subsequent books.

By far, my favorite part of the book was how the narrative was handled. It was unabashedly an omniscient narrator. A great deal of the book was from Jenna’s point of view, however, it often broke off to another person’s viewpoint. We get a sense of the whole story. We’re shown all the pieces that we need to understand exactly what the stakes are. One minute we’re with Jenna in her aunt’s cottage, the next we’re watching the Supreme Custodian or DomDaniel as they plot how to get their hands on her. Usually changing viewpoint in the way that Sage does (sometimes in the middle of the chapter) is a big no-no, but in this book it just works. It flows.  And it’s clear. You are always aware of when the character focus shifts, but it’s not jarring.

This is definitely a book aimed at preteens. The way the book is written, the constant shift in point of view, the myriad of absurdly quirky characters, and the comical bad guys all land Magyk in the 9-12 age range. It’s good, clean fun that would a make a great read-aloud book with the whole family (hey, the younger you start, the more likely they are to become book addicts). It’s even suitable for the younger children in the family if they have someone who will read it to/with them. I look forward to discovering the next few books.

This is a good example of:

  • Omniscient narrative
  • Use of minor characters
  • Middle school fiction
  • World building
  • Tying world’s history into the plot

Heist Society


Heist Society #1: Heist Society by Ally Carter

Ages 12 and up

What Kat Bishop wants is a normal life. A life where visits to the Louvre don’t involve casing it. Where trips to Austria don’t involve stealing the crown jewels. And she almost manages to get it. Then her best friend gets her kicked out of her prestigious boarding school, because a very dangerous man is missing five priceless paintings. And her father is the suspect. Thing is, Kat is pretty sure that her father didn’t steal the paintings. Not that anyone believes her. With a deadline of two weeks, Kat sets out with her best friend Hale and her cousin Gabrielle to figure out just who stole those paintings…and steal them back.

Despite my deep and abiding love for Ally Carter’s writing, I refused to read this book for a while. On principle. Because the book I really wanted to read was the next book in her Gallagher Girls series. Of course, in the end, that only hurt me and with the next Heist book in the series coming out in nine days and a four dollar price tag at Borders (yeah, I totally took advantage of the four stores that had to close in my area) I decided that is was time to stop acting like a spoiled kid and just read the darn book already. Because I knew I would love it. Which I did, because Heist Society might possibly be better than all the Gallagher Girls books put together (and they are basically four books full of awesome).

Kat is a complicated character. She is a good thief. Good as in, wicked skilled. Everyone she loves is a master thief and this is something that she’s been trained for since the age of three. But it’s not the life she wants. Not since her mom died. She is painfully aware of how much her skills have suffered during her brief hiatus. It’s rather interesting to see her mourn over the loss of skills that she no longer wants to use. Of course, with  her father’s life on the line, she doesn’t let rusty skills stop her. She enjoys the rush of the game, while being painfully aware of just how much one wrong move will cost.

And then there’s Hale.

The only thing that rivals Carter’s masterful female protagonists are her male protagonists. In GG, we had Josh. And then Zach (who I’m in love with, by the way). In Heist we get W.W. Hale. Carter does really well with the tough guy who is really a softee with a little bit of damage. Hale is everything that he needs to be. He’s protective, without being overbearing or getting in the way. Really good with witty dialogue. Just a little bit mysterious (Hale is his last name, he refuses to tell Kat his first) and really, really hot. Yes, it is possible for a character in a book to be hot. Hale is the honorary inductee into the Bishop family. He doesn’t have any ties to “the life”. He just caught Kat breaking into his home one night and took advantage of the opportunity knowing a teenage super thief to find a different life from the one his parents planned for him…and to become said teenage super thief’s not-boyfriend. Just like Kat, Hale has so many more levels than you see at first glance. But where we get a good look into Kat’s thought process, we only get a peek at Hale’s inner self. We just kind have to make an educated guess. I’m hoping we get to see more of Hale’s vulnerable side in the next book (which comes out in nine days, did I mention that?).

Carter has always been really good with her characterization. She has just enough characters in the story to keep things interesting, but she doesn’t over load you. She takes her time, making each of the characters that you spend time with separate and distinct and fleshed out. I can’t wait to see more of Kat and Hale’s teenage crew of thieves in Uncommon Criminals. Especially her cousin, Gabrielle. The tension between Kat and Gabrielle (partly centered around Hale) is very telling of both of their characters. They like each other more than they’ll admit, but sometimes they feel like two cats about to launch into a clawing, yowling, spitting fight.

I’ve read a lot of books. And many authors that I’ve read don’t really change from book to book. If you’ve read one Redwall book, you have the basics of every other Redwall book. How the author treats point of view, the kinds of story they tell, the kinds of characters they like to focus on don’t usually change. Not so here. While Gallagher Girls was a first person narrative with a protagonist decidedly on the right side of the law, Heist Society is in third-person and about characters who are more likely to cause a headache for the law. Granted, there is still a lot of Carter’s style in the book. It’s still about teenagers that spend a good deal of time having to look over their shoulders. And her humor is just as skillful, but the characters are a little more mature than in previous books. The scene on page 283 had me in stitches for a good five minutes. And then, of course, that was so much fun that I have to reread the scene.

The point of view in Heist Society is unique. It’s limited omniscient, I believe. For the most part we’re reading from Kat’s POV, but every now and then the lens zooms out and we get to glimpse a moment or an impression. Almost like we’re voyeurs, stealing  in to watch the story unfold. It gives the book a movie-like quality.

The premise of the story, a master thief being forced to steal against her will isn’t anything new. But the way Carter treats it is refreshing. the struggle between Kat and her family to accept her leaving is real and touching. And the solution that she comes up with at the end of the book is both surprising and expected. One of those, should-have-seen-it-coming kind of things.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was the reading of an afternoon and an enjoyable use of my time. I can’t wait to get my hands on book two next week.

This is a good example of:

  • Author versatility
  • Limited POV
  • Character crafting
  • Handling a moderate cast of characters
  • Humor

This book is on my recommended reading list.

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