The Mysteries of Middlefield: A Summer Secret by Kathleen Fuller

Mary Beth carries a lot of responsibility in her Amish family as the oldest of four (and the only girl). All she wants is time to herself and she finds it in the old barn nearby. Her father has forbidden her from going there, but it’s the only place she can be alone so she can’t help herself. She thinks it is her place, until she discovers that somebody has been staying there.

A Summer Secret does an excellent job of getting into the heads of a child and gives a very clear picture of Amish life. It perhaps could have used a bit more talk about the Amish lifestyle (why they live the way they live for example), because it is so strange and foreign to most people, but it does serve as a good introduction.

The thing I liked least was that, though titled a mystery, the actual mystery is solved fairly quickly and easily. Not to say the rest of the story wasn’t interesting, it simply wasn’t much of a mystery.

I enjoyed reading this book but I don’t intend to read another in the series.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Middleworld by J & P Voelkel

Max spends his days playing video games while his parents excavate ancient Mayan ruins. They spend little time together, but he is looking forward to their trip to Italy together. So when their family vacation gets ruined thanks to another dig, Max is furious. They leave him behind as they go to Central America to do a dig that they suddenly get permits to. Max is summoned to join them shortly after, only to discover that his parents have gone missing, his Uncle Ted seems to hate him and is not what he seems, and ancient Mayan traditions may not be as dead and irrelevant as he believed.

Lord 6-Dog and his jealous brother Tzelek fought when they were alive, during Maya’s golden age. But their battle is about to come to a head in modern times, thanks to the five Jaguar Stones that bestow great power upon the user. Can Max find his parents and protect the world before Tzelek can gain power and destroy the world?

Like Percy Jackson and the Red Pyramid, the Voekels blend modern times with mythology, this time the Gods involved are Mayan rather than Greek or Egyptian. Though they do not write as fluid and clean a story, they do a pretty good job. Though this is a story of mythology in modern times, the story mostly takes place in such an isolated location that the only intrusion of modern times is really Max himself.

The story started a little slowly, but once it picked up (around when he meets Lola, a Mayan girl who leads him away from Uncle Ted), things moved more quickly. The names are a little ridiculous (Lord 6-Dog, for example), making it almost hard to believe that that is what they were truly called in ancient times, but I suppose that you can’t blame the writers for that.

I liked that Max felt three dimensional with real issues (anger in particular). Lola felt a little less well-rounded and perhaps a little too perfect. I don’t they did a good enough job of showing how inappropriate Max was behaving when he met the Mayan people (he may have overreacted but you could hardly blame them for most of it).

I’ve always wondered how you co-author a book. Who wrote what? Who came up with the idea? Did one person write it and the other edit it? Did one person come up with the idea and the other write it down? Either way, the Voelkel’s do a good job. It doesn’t feel like a disjointed book, written by two separate people. This isn’t the most unique of story ideas, and isn’t the best in its are of myth meets reality, but it is still enjoyable.

13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison

What if you spent your entire life able to see something that others can’t? What if that something is very real, and tormenting you in every imaginable way? This is what Tanya must deal with. She can see fairies and they are not nearly as nice as fairytales make them out to be.

Her mother, tired of what she thinks is acting out, decides that Tanya should spend a couple of weeks at her grandmother’s. Tanya doesn’t want to go there because her grandmother seems to hate and makes it abundantly clear that she is unwanted. While there, Tanya discovers that things–fairies and magic and people like her–are more complicated than she ever expected.

Harrison doesn’t waste any time. From the opening scene, she gets right into it. We see fairies for the cruel, torturous creatures that they can be. You can’t help but feel for Tanya as she tries to convince her mother not to send her away and grasps for any way to explain what has happened.

Harrison has managed to include a great deal of information and though she does break a few “show don’t tell” rules too many, it overall manages to do it in a way that feels both realistic and not like information dumping. It would have been nice to experience more of the information rather than hear it all from Red, but there is also a setup for a second book so we may get to see a lot of what we were informed about in this book.

The one thing I would like to have seen more of, was the grandmother’s supposed dislike of Tanya. We are told more about it than we actually see, so it doesn’t strike as particularly believable.

Harrison managed to surprise me and make the plot far more complicated than it seemed to be in the beginning. My guess is book two (assuming there will be a book two) will take us into the fairy realm itself and I am particularly interested in seeing where that goes.

Voices of Dragons by Carrie Vaughn

Kay Wyatt has grown up in a world that, since World War II, has lived in a tenuous truce with the dragons that were once believed to only be legends. Her father works to maintain the border, keeping the people out of dragon territory and watching for any unusual dragon activity. Maintaining the peace, he calls it. Her mother is a biologist, studying everything she can about dragons, though there isn’t much, since the dragons have remained secluded in their lands for the last sixty years.

Kay likes to spend her time hiking but when one of her hikes takes her to the edge of Dragon territory, she meets a dragon and all her ideas about these mythical creatures changes. For one thing, they can speak English! And they are not the bloodthirsty beasts that she’s been led to believe they are.

Not all people are happy with the peace. Some think the dragons should be exterminated and are determined to find a way to start a new war. Can the dragons survive? Can Kay show people that they can happily co-exist?

Vaughn does an excellent job of balancing the issues of being a teenager–finding a boyfriend, peer pressure, being the child of the sheriff–with the fantastical elements. Neither set of problems overwhelms the other.

She manages to weave a comprehensible, believable alternate history for the United States (and the world) post World War II. It may not be the most unique story ever written, but there is something about the way it is told that is particularly appealing. There’s great description, solid characters, and enough heart-wrenching moments to keep you engaged and curious for more.

How to Train Your Dragon: How to be a Pirate by Cressida Cowell

In book 2 in the series, Hiccup learns that the popularity he earned from saving Berk from the Sea Dragon is shot lived. He and his fellow Vikings are being taught how to be pirates (it involves things like fighting at sea, spitting, and basic burglary) when they discover a coffin containing a man named Alvin the Poor-but-Honest Farmer and a riddle to the treasure of Grimbeard the Ghastly, an ancestor of Hiccup’s who is viewed as the world’s greatest pirate. Yet another person Hiccup can’t quite seem to live up to.

When the tribe decides to search out the treasure, they get more than they bargain for. For one thing, the treasure is supposedly located on Skull Island, where dragons that are considered some of the most fearsome hunters troll. For another, only the true heir and his dragon can find Grimbeard’s treasure, and Toothless shows no talent for finding treasure.

Hiccup discovers many things about himself and once again becomes a sort of accidental sort of on purpose hero. But can he deal with being double crossed? And can he save everyone from the biggest threat they’ve faced (since the Sea Dragon) when he can hardly swing a sword without falling over?

I don’t know if they plan to make the second movie (which is planned for 2013) but I can’t help but wonder how they would change this one to the big screen.

Erec Rex and the Search for the Truth by Kaza Kingsley

In the most recent book in the series, Erec must once again complete the tasks set out for him in his journey to claim the throne. But there’s more. Erec discovers that should he fail, all of Upper Earth will disappear.

The task Erec receives is torn–thanks to yet another interruption by Baskania–and he must seek out the Fates in order to receive the full task. If only he can get something simple for a change. Instead, he is tasked with finding something that no one believes exists.

But there’s more. Erec must deal with betrayal from the people he trusts most. And can he put a close friend at risk if it means saving the world?

Kingsley has done an excellent job of finding new twists and revealing new information. I like that the tasks are always surprising and unpredictable. The way the tasks test more than accomplishment, but also character, is always interesting. You can feel the moral dilemmas with every trial and can’t help but wonder what you would do in his place.

Though the secret Erec discovers about his past is hardly surprising, it does open a whole new storyline that should make things even more interesting, and will allow us to learn more about how Bethany and Erec have come to where they are now.

There was a moment of real vivid, gruesome detail that surprised me, because I didn’t expect such descriptive violence in a children’s book, but it revealed just how awful Baskania truly is. You can’t help but wonder how people have missed this little detail and almost have to admire how charismatic and skilled he is at tricking people.

Kingsley handles her magical world skillfully and leaves you on the edge of your seat.

Leven Thumps: Books 2-5 by Obert Skye

Leven ThumpsWhile many series tend to take the turn for the over-the-top, I was pleased to find that Leven Thumps did not fall prey to this (at least not much).

Sabine seems to have been destroyed but things are more complicated than they appear. Sabine, it turns out, is only a pawn. Greater evil is afoot. And it seems that the plan to blend Foo and Reality cannot be stopped.

Foo continues to grow in complicated detail, with ever more exciting areas and creatures. We meet the Waves, the Want, and the Dearth. We go to new cities and see new types of magic. Winter will meet her “mother” Janet yet again and Leven will face various members of his family.

My biggest complaint about Obert Skye is that he has a tendency to drone on about things that are fairly obvious. For example: “There are so many impatient people in the world. It seems everyone wants something right this second…” These rants tend to be a little long-winded and somewhat unnecessary. I suppose you might chalk it up to a unique writing style, but I found these sections to be cumbersome. They didn’t move the story forward but slowed it down even when things were getting exciting.

Otherwise, I quite like the way Skye writes. He does generally keep a steady pace and he’s created a world so complete that you can imagine it. The sycophants, for me, were the best part. You felt for Lilly, forced to give up her burn (the person she helped) when Winter was taken into Reality. You are sad for them when the things they so desperately treasured and protected are desecrated and destroyed.

While the final battle is perhaps not as exciting as I might have hoped, things are at least fully resolved. All questions are answered, all plot lines are tied up. There are a few moments where things seem a little too quick (like the entire path to the old tree), but there’s certainly a lot of surprise.

What I like best are some of the more complex characters. Ezra for example, is a complicated little toothpick, the part of Geth that was anger, which got separated in Reality. His relationship with Dennis, his faithful but not so intelligent companion, is particularly interesting. Though it seems like he’s only using Dennis, it’s clear that his feelings (what feelings he can manage beyond anger) change.

Overall, it’s a great series and from what I understand there is another book coming, though it follows Geth rather than Leven. (SPOILER: How do you follow a tree I wonder?)

Guardians of Ga’Hoole: The Capture by Kathryn Lasky

(I’ve read so many books lately but haven’t had the chance to write about it them, so I guess today I’m trying to play a bit of catch up…)

Reading books that have been made into movies has always been one of my favorite things so naturally, when I saw commercials for the Guardians of Ga’Hoole, I had to read the first book. (An important note: I am generally not a fan of things that involve talking animals because they rarely look anything but silly onscreen.)

The Capture is about a young owl named Soren who finds himself knocked out of his nest and taken away from his family before he’s gained the ability to fly. He is taken, along with many other young owls, to St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls (St. Aggie’s for short). He meets another young owl, Gylfie and together they fight to retain their individuality and their love of the sky, for those are things St. Aggie’s tries to steal away. But there is an even bigger scheme afoot. Can Soren escape, find his family, and stop St. Aggie’s from its larger goals of controlling all the owls.

I was impressed with the way Lasky can really make you feel like you understand what it’s like to be an owl. You understand how they develop, how they live, what marks important moments in their lives. I like that it wasn’t a detail that was mostly sidestepped. They didn’t feel like humans. They felt like intelligent, emotional owls.

There’s also a lot of psychology mixed into the book. The process of brainwashing is particularly interesting. Despite being nocturnal, the owls of St. Aggie’s are required to sleep in during the nighttime and work during the day. This is only the first step in the process. I don’t want to give anything away so I won’t go into further detail, but the whole process is a fascinating one, as is the process of resisting it. The legends of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole play an important role, but only in a background sort of way (in book one at least).

But the best part of the book, is the complex emotions and characteristics that are examined. Loneliness, jealousy, arrogance, determination, the desire for power, heroism.

I was hesitant about the book, but I was surprised to find myself really enjoying it,. I definitely plan to get book 2 and see where Soren’s adventures take him.

The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan (Book One of the Kane Chronicles)

You don’t even realize you’re missing something in Percy Jackson until you read this book and discover how much better it was. Don’t get my wrong, Percy Jackson was excellent, but in his newest series we got an even deeper connection and depth to the depth.

Sadie and Carter are siblings. You wouldn’t know it though. Not only have they not grown up together but Carter takes after their father (who is black) and Sadie takes after their mother (who is white). Sadie has a British accent from growing up with her grandparents in England while Carter sounds American (he’s grown up backpacking around the world with his dad). They aren’t very close because they don’t know each other very well, but all that changes.

Their mother’s death happened under mysterious circumstances and their father has been keeping secrets from them. And when he blows up the Rosetta Stone, everything changes. For one thing, he releases five Egyptian gods, including Set who intends to destroy the world. They discover a royal heritage, magic abilities, and how to host Gods.

As always, Riordan manages to mix mythology and reality to create a seamless story. There’s so much going on, but he manages to keep the it all straight, make all the details add up, and leave you guessing.

Best of all, Riordan really delves into Sadie and Carter’s minds. You feel like you know them, understand their fears and sorrows, you relate to each one for different things. Like Percy, these kids have a difficult relationship with their parents, but unlike Percy, the relationship feels complex. You are as torn as they are about how they should relate to their parents. Should Sadie be furious with her father for not raising her? Should Carter be furious for never growing up with friends and a home? Can they learn to relate to each other?

To my delight, this book is even longer than the Percy series, giving you even more time to enjoy it.

Also like Percy, you get a sense of something much bigger happening than what you see. And that mystery only adds to the excitement. The story has more intricate detail than Percy, but it is just as comprehensive.

Ultimately, you come away feeling satisfied with what you’ve read and excited to continue on the journey and see where it takes you.