Alex Rider: Stormbreaker (Book 1) by Anthony Horowitz

Finally, a plausible (at least semi-plausible) explanation as to why a child might be a secret agent. Plus a believable explanation as to why he’s got some skills–Alex Rider has been raised by his uncle who, unbeknown to Alex, worked as a spy and has been training Alex as a spy for years. When his uncle is killed, Alex is recruited to finish his Uncle’s mission. Specifically, to infiltrate a company led by Herod Sayle. Sayle is donating thousands of computers to schools all around the world but something doesn’t seem right about it and the government needs to know what. It becomes Alex’s job to find out if there is anything deeper going on (which of course there is).

While I was pleased to find a story that I believed in, I didn’t love this book. Not that it was bad, it just wasn’t great. Alex isn’t a particularly dynamic character. Presumably his parent’s early death will play into the larger series but that is hard to say for sure as there was no hint of it in this book. I didn’t connect to Alex either. The most I know about his character is he is curious and determined. That’s not much to go on.

It also felt like everything was sort of done for him. Alex managed such a good job largely because his uncle had done it all before. I would assume that in other books this will not be the case, but here at least, it was just him managing to escape where his uncle did not and only because too many bad guys think slow painful deaths are better than quick ones. Ok, that’s a little unfair. Alex did have skills and he did use them to save himself, but it just wasn’t enough for me.

I think the biggest problem for me was that there weren’t any other characters for Alex to really interact with and play off of. There was no friend working alongside him or even a crush. Anyone who was around was only there for short spans of time while 95% of it was with him by himself.

Clearly other people like this book, since it’s already got 8 books in the series. I have enough other books to check out that this one falls to the bottom of my list (if it makes the list at all).

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The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch (Book 1) by Joseph Delaney

I’ve seen this series so many times that it seemed only right to try it.

Tom is the seventh son of a seventh son and his father needs to find him an apprenticeship. With little options left, his mother gets him apprenticed with the Spook, whose job it is to defend the village from dangerous creatures such as witches, boggarts, and ghasts. Twenty-nine have apprenticed to the Spook before and many have not managed to complete their apprenticeship (whether they quit or were killed) and this may be the last chance to train a new one. Is Tom prepared for the journey?

At first I didn’t particularly like the book. The first couple chapters seemed to cover a lot of information but I didn’t feel invested in it. For example, we know Tom is a seventh son but hear nothing about five of his brothers, which makes it hard to really get a feel for him. It took some time for the book to hit its stride, but once it did, it was much more enjoyable.

We follow Tom through his first missteps as he gets tricked by a girl in pointed shoes and must deal with evil blood witch Mother Malkin. Some of the mistakes Tom makes bring more questions on the Spook himself than on Tom (why is Tom left alone so often without proper supervision or sent with Alice himself when she is potentially dangerous?)

The strongest element in this book is the way it deals with good and evil. Rather than as absolutes, there is an in between that must be considered as well. Life is complex and he makes it clear that these issues are treated as such.

I don’t find the training element of this as extensive and clear as in other series (such as Ranger’s Apprentice) and this isn’t my favorite series of all, but I am curious to see where it goes. It’s probably a series I will pick up a book from on occasion, as opposed to Tamora Pierce’s Tortall novels which I bought as quickly as I could to read.

Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce

It’s always a good sign when your buying a book and a cashier–not even your own but one from the counter over–spots it and tells you how much she liked it. The last of the Tortall novels (until Mastiff comes out next year), this one tells the story of Aly Cooper, daughter of George Cooper and Alanna the Lioness, taking place a few years after after the Protector of the Small series. It’s not easy to be the daughter of the one time King of Thieves and the King’s Champion. Her parents want her to find her own cause, and she knows what she wants to do: be a spy. Her parents refuse to let. When she runs away from home in a sulk after arguing with her mother, she is captured by pirates and told into slavery in the Copper Isles where slavery rules and hate between the races there rule. There she is recruited by Kyprioth, the Trickster god, to protect two noble born girls of mixed race who have an important role in the country’s future.

This series highlights once again how much better Pierce is with the space to write out her stories. With the added pages, Pierce created a likable, deep character in Aly who is believable (her skills come from likely sources and they are explained so that we don’t just have to believe without the information to back it up) and is easy to root for. Her character arc is solid and realistic.

The tension between the luarin (whites) and raka (blacks) is palpable though it could have used some more background. It may not be the most unique plot line, but I think Pierce tackled it in a new, different way, allowing us to feel engrossed in the world of spies without losing the heart of the story. The best part of it is the realization that it is only in unity that they can take back the kingdom.

For fans of the Tortall series overall, you get glimpses of all of your favorite characters and have an idea of where their lives have gone since we last heard from them. (Would have been nice to see a bit more of Kel, but I’m glad she made an appearance and I’m always interested in more Alanna stories.)

This is one of Pierce’s most complex and intricate plots yet. You never quite knew who would be the final bad guy and who was the worst person to suspect and definitely one of my favorite books of hers yet. I can only hope we revisit Aly again.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Finally book 3 has come out! The Hunger Games proved to me that young adult books can’t be smart, emotional (without being over the top), and incredibly dark while still being appealing. Catching Fire confirmed it and showed how a talented writer could revisit a plot and have it be very similar but still keep it fresh and exciting. And now book 3 shows how to carry it through to the big, dramatic conclusion.

In case you missed it: The Hunger Games is about a divided society. The Capital rules with an iron thumb and with all the luxuries while it lives off of the districts, which provide supplies and provisions. Each district is responsible for a specific commodity and have far less than they need to live comfortably (much less decently). There used to be thirteen districts, but when thirteenth rebelled, they were supposedly eradicated. There are rumors that they survived, but no one knows for sure. As a result of the rebellion, the hunger games were created. A boy and a girl from each district are selected in a fight to the death that is televised for entertainment.

That’s the background, but the heart of the story revolves around Katniss who has been helping support her family since her father was killed in a mining accident. When she ends up in the hunger games, her behavior sparks a rebellion that she never anticipated but now must become the inspiration for.

The final book deals largely with Katniss’s struggle to fit into her new role as the Mockingjay, the symbol of the rebellion and overcome her guilt over her hunger games partner, Peeta’s capture.

This is one of the few books that has ever made me cry (I can count the number on one hand so it is saying something). Everything about the book is compelling, from the characters to the plot. You can relate to the teenage sorrow and indecisiveness as Katniss tries to decide between Peeta and Gail. And though I wish we’d seen more of Prim, you relate to the sisters’ relationship too.

One of the most brilliant aspects of this book is the way it targets television and materialism. It’s as much a commentary on society as anything else. The use of tv spots for propaganda only adds to the drama.

I’m a sucker for society gone wrong novels and this is one of the best I’ve read. My biggest concern: what’s next for Suzanne?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

My sister is absolutely obsessed with this series (as is much of America, as one book or another from the series has been on the bestseller list forever now). My stepmom hated it. My dad said it takes about 250 pages before it’s any good but the rest is great. So naturally, I had to see for myself. Conclusion: I agree with my dad, it takes about half the book before it gets interesting.

My initial reaction: how did this ever get published? I’m surprised that any manuscript reader ever read beyond the first couple chapters in order to get to the good stuff. Even more surprising is that readers enjoyed it enough to read that far into it and that it managed to garner the enthusiasm needed to make it the success it is. Had I not been reassured by my sister and had it not been one of those books that I feel like I’d be missing out on important pop culture (and my desire to get what the big deal is) I would not have read beyond chapter one.

Much of Larsson’s writing seems to show poor writing ability. There’s a lot of passive “filling in” to be endured before the story finally starts. The most interesting and title character doesn’t really play any part in the story until nearly halfway in. The passage of time is so detailed that it made me want to rip the pages out. (At 7:00 he walked to the shop and ate a bagel with a cup of coffee. At 8:00 he walked back home to read his newspaper. At 9:30 he turned on his computer and began typing…) The final twist wasn’t as surprising as it might have been, but that can be forgiven at least. My dad thinks the biggest issue is that Blomkvist is the dullest character on the planet and seems less appealing than the many women attracted to him find him. Remember how the end of the Lord of the Rings movie dragged on for an extra thirty minutes? So did this book. There are also so many characters in the Vanger family that it is nearly impossible to keep track of them all.

There are plus sides of course. Lisbeth is an interesting character and the moment she becomes more prominent the story picks up. Even Berger is more interesting. While I could have liked a smaller amount of family members, the family drama was interesting and even compelling at times.

I know there are more negatives than positives listed, but the second half really did make up for the first and I will be reading book 2, which I hear is infinitely better.

Random note: it’s so funny how clear it is to see when this is written, because of the line “After discussions with her mother, they had agreed to give Pernilla an iPod, an MP3 player hardly bigger than a matchbox…” Presumably they’re talking about the iPod mini, since the original iPods were certainly not that small, but the fact that he needed to explain what an iPod was just goes to show you how new they were to the market. He died in 2004 with all three books in the trilogy complete, so it must have been written some time in the early 2000s.

It is interesting how the book was titled Men Who Hate Women in Sweden, since while that’s clearly part of the book, I wouldn’t say it’s THE book. (Especially considering that Blomkvist is anything but a woman hater.)

Oracles of Delphi Keep: The Curse of Deadman’s Forest by Victoria Laurie

I’ve been waiting for this book to come out for almost a year now (the first book was one of the first ones I read when I started reading children’s/YA books). Finally it’s here and I’m a little torn. It isn’t as awesome as I had hoped for and makes me think that perhaps the first one wasn’t as awesome as I initially thought. Not to say I don’t like it, but just that now I have read a lot more books in the same category so I have a better comparison base.

Theo and Ian discovered a silver treasure box that reveals a prophecy made by the last great oracle: they must find six gifted children (in addition to Theo) in order to fight a great evil that is coming. Ian is meant to be Theo’s guardian throughout this journey, but what if it means his death? The prophecy certainly seems to indicate that he will die if he goes to Morocco to help them find a child with the ability to heal. What good is a guardian who cannot be there to protect his charge? Nonetheless, no one wants to risk it, but circumstances leave them no choice. Can they find this child before disaster strikes and can Ian escape his doom?

My two biggest issues with this series are the slightly awkward dialogue (maybe that’s just how British people speak?) and the overwhelming number of characters. There’s Ian, Theo, Carl, Jaaved, the Earl, Professor Nutley, Thatcher and Perry Goodwin, Demagorgon and his four children, the other children with abilities, plus a list of allies and enemies along the way. It’s hard to keep track of everyone and really get to know them. It feels like just as we’re getting to know something about the people, they are left behind in favor of introducing new characters. I think that in some ways, Laurie has simply tried to do too much.

Even with these issues, the story remains intricate and exciting. You never quite know what will happen next and I for one am looking forward to the next book in the series, whenever it comes out.

Beka Cooper: Bloodhound by Tamora Pierce

Now that I have figured out where Beka fits into the Tortall world’s history, I am much happier. Taking place sometime before Song of the Lioness, when Lady Knights were still allowed, Beka is the ancestor of George Cooper, Alanna’s husband.

We’ve learned about Beka’s first adventures while training to become a Dog (police officer) in the Lower City. Now we rejoin her, once she’s become a full Dog but has yet to find her permanent partner. She rescues and abused scent hound and is sent, together with Clary Goodwin (her former Dog trainer and now sometime partner) up to Port Caynn to uncover a plot of counterfeit coins that threatens to destroy the economy.

It’s hard to really see the relation between this book and the other Tortall series, besides some common places and terms.The magic seems different and odd and the king and knights are more a side note than part of the story, but still the world is engrossing. Beka is a character who will never give up, no matter the danger or the hopelessness. She still struggles with her family, intimacy, and shyness, but she must learn to navigate a new city and dig to figure out just how deep the scam–and corruption–runs.

The thing I love most about these books is that they are more fleshed out than her other books. As Pierce said herself “Publishers discovered with Harry [Potter] that kids will read a lot of fantasy, and they’ll read big books.” I’m glad about that. What I always felt her other books were missing were the space they needed to fully develop. They always felt a little too rushed for me, but the Beka Cooper books are longer and seem to envelop the world more completely.

My only regret is that we didn’t get to see more of Beka’s time as a Puppy, but there are certainly worse things to be sorry about. There are also some characters from Book 1 that I would have liked to see more of (Aniki and Kora and the Rogue), but I think we can expect their return in Book 3. I missed Pounce a great deal (and wonder if he is related to Alanna’s kitten, Faithful).

What surprises me most about Pierce’s different books is that I enjoy them so much despite not building up to one big finale. I usually prefer a series to have an overarching story, in the way that Harry Potter did, but Pierce makes her books about the main character and brings them to life.

The Immortals: Wild Magic, Wolf Speaker, Emperor Mage, and The Realms of the Gods by Tamora Pierce

Yet another book series I wish I had read before reading the Protector of the Small series, this tells us about Veralidaine Sarrasri, known as Daine. She too has a peripheral role in Kel’s story, but takes front and center here. We learn about how Daine comes to Tortall, discovers her magic, and finds love, just in time too, because Immortals that have not been seen in centuries have suddenly begun appearing again.

Book 1: Daine has always had a way with animals. More than a way, really. Running away from Snowsdale, the only home she’s ever known, she gets a job as a horse handler’s assistant for the Queen’s Riders. She finds Tortall much more welcoming than the home she escaped and meets Numair, a great mage who realizes that her skill with animals is actual a little known form of magic called Wild Magic. He takes it upon himself to teach her how to use her magic. But she has a secret, one which makes her hesitant to use her magic. Meanwhile, the kingdom is on the brink of war with Carthak–a kingdom that has the biggest army and navy around–and Immortals have returned to threaten them.

Book 2: Daine is called on to help by the wolf pack that saved her life. She and Numair go to Dunlath to find out what they need and uncover a much bigger danger, one not only to the wolves and the other forest creatures in the area but also to King Jonathan himself. New Immortals show up and not all of them are dangers to the kingdom as she thought. Daine also learns that perhaps her life and her destiny is meant to impact something bigger than she ever expected.

Book 3: Daine, Numair, and a small delegation from the king are sent to Carthak in hopes of forging a peace and preventing war. Daine is sent to heal the Emperor’s birds, which he seems to care about more than his own people. She’s not allowed to insult or anger him, even though he keeps Immortals in cages and keeps slaves. Numair must be careful, as the Emperor (his one-time friend) holds a grudge against him since their days in the mage university. But does Carthak’s Emperor really intend to make peace? Daine must figure it out, as well as learn to use the new power that the badger bestowed upon her–the power to raise the dead. It seems that her destiny–and the Gods–are not done with her yet.

Book 4: Daine and Numair are helping fight the growing number of Immortals besieging the kingdom when they are sucked into the Divine Realms. There she discovers the truth about her father and reunites with her mother, but they desperately need to return to Tortall where they are needed. The situation, they discover, is much worse than they first thought, as Chaos threatens to overrun the Greater Gods. Daine must also deal with an old enemy and new feelings.

I like this series too, as I have liked all of Pierce’s work so far, but there is one message that worries me a bit: the not surprising relationship that develops between Numair and Daine. The thing that bothers me about it is that it romanticizes a relationship between teacher and student (which nowadays is more than a little frowned upon and usually results in dismissal if not legal action). It’s true that in those types of time periods girls grew up and married earlier, but it still bothers me (even knowing–thanks to Kel’s story–that their relationship lasts and it isn’t just something born out of being around each other all the time).

This series gives us a while new insight into the Gods and Goddesses that we hear so much about in the other books. We again get glimpses of the characters that we learned to love in the other books.

There is one more set of books I need to read (about Aly Cooper, Alanna’s daughter and the descendant of Beka Cooper) plus the coming books from Beka Cooper’s series, but I hope to see even more from Tortall and the characters we’ve all met.

Song of the Lioness: Alanna the First Adventure, In the Hand of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce

So once I realized, after reading Protector of the Small and Beka Cooper, that there were other books in the Tortall world (and that I had not read it in order–a big no no for me) I of course had to go back and read the others. As an added bonus, the actual first series was about Alanna the Lioness who, despite so little actual time in the books was one of my favorite character in Kel’s story.

Book 1: Alanna and her brother Thom have been all but ignored by their father the scholar are about to be shipped off. Thom, as the son, is to be sent to train as a knight and Alanna, as the daughter, is to be sent to the convent. But Alanna has no interest in being trained as a lady and she has a skill with weapons, while Thom is more interested in developing his magic (both siblings have a very strong magical Gift) and has zero coordination. They come up with the perfect plan: switch places! Can Alanna make it through training without anyone discover her secret? (Girls are not allowed to be knights.) She is tested in more ways than one when she must use the magic she fears to protect the Prince and heir.

Book 2: Done with her page years (which look nothing like Kel’s–they seem to have restructured things after Alanna’s time, largely because of her), Alanna becomes the squire for none other than Prince Jonathan. Her biggest challenge: reconciling her dislike for the Prince’s cousin, a powerful mage and next in line for the throne, Duke Roger, with the fact that everyone, but her, loves him. Including Prince Jonathan, who will not hear a word against him. Plus, though she wishes to escape her magic, that becomes increasingly impossible when a Goddess reveals that she has plans for Alanna.

Book 3: Finally a knight, Alanna has revealed that she is a girl to the court and decides to put some distance between herself and the capital while everyone gets used to the idea. Besides, all she’s ever wanted was to be a knight and have adventures. Alanna finds herself in the south where she is forced into a duel to the death in order to be accepted by the Bazhir, but this is the least of the troubles she must face. The Bazhir have their own prejudices against girls, which Alanna has no patience for. She brings with her a whirlwind of change and with it, she helps forge a new alliance for Prince Jonathan’s rule.

Book 4: Alanna decides once and for all to prove herself as a worthy knight (despite having already becoming famous for some of her deeds) by recovering the long lost Dominion Jewel, a powerful jewel that can do enormous good in the right hands. She plans to get it for King Jonathan’s use in order to secure the kingdom of Tortall. She must also make peace with herself, accept love that she’s been hiding from, bring a Princess to Tortall, and defeat an old enemy. Things never are easy for the God’s chosen.

While I don’t really see much evidence of the “famous temper” that Alanna the Lioness has, I found myself enjoying this story just as much as Pierce’s other books. It’s interesting to look at Alanna and Kel together (the only female knights of their time), both incredibly determined and strong. The two must overcome very different challenges–Alanna’s stemming from her fear of magic and love and hiding her gender, Kel’s stemming from her fear of heights and the fact that everyone knows she’s a girl and many don’t want her to succeed.

It’s nice to finally know all of Alanna’s story and I definitely find her to be my favorite Tortall world character. Through all the other serieses (how do you pluralize that?), I look forward to the small glimpses we get of her and wish for more.

How to Train Your Dragon: A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons (Book 6) by Cressida Cowell

I am continually impressed by the How to Train Your Dragon series, in large part because Cowell manages to weave in an amusing, fun tone that I have never been able to master in my own writing. She’s just clever without trying too hard.

In this adventure of Hiccup’s (not sure why the format of the title changed but this is the only one that doesn’t begin with “how to…”) it is Hiccup’s birthday but nothing goes the way he wants it to. All he wants is a quiet day, but things quickly devolve as the Hooligans compete with the Bog Burglars to prove who is the better thief. True to their name, the Bog Burglars seem to be winning this one when Hiccup’s dad challenges Big Boobied Bertha to a winner takes all competition. The result: Hiccup must sneak into the not-at-all Public Library to steal a copy of How to Train Your Dragon because Toothless destroyed the copy that the Hooligans had.

We get another adventure with Camicazi, the pint-sized Bog Burglar who Hiccup befriended earlier in the series, and Fishlegs (his less able comrade) as well as new dragons, new villains, and new tribes. Although the characters aren’t the most well-developed (only Hiccup has real motivations, fears, and weaknesses that he actually works on), there are other things to hold onto. The world itself is much more fleshed out than the people though can’t help but wonder why everyone things Hiccup is so incompetent after all that he has managed so far.

Perhaps the best part of this particular book in the series is what we learn about Hiccup’s ancestors. Maybe Hiccup isn’t as unusual and out of place as he first appears.