Rise of the Darklings: The Invisible Order (Book 1) by Paul Crilley

Emily sells watercresses on the street in order to provide for herself and her younger brother. She has been doing this for a few years now, ever since her parents mysteriously disappeared. One day, as she is walking through the city to buy the watercresses she will later sell, she witnesses a vicious battle on the streets. And all of the combatants are no taller than her knee. Emily discovers a new world, a world of fantastical creatures of all kinds–fairies and giants, witches and wizards. She is a True Seer, a regular human who can see supernaturals. And what she has seen draws her into a battle between two groups of faeries, the Seelie and the Unseelie and the Invisible Order that seeks out and destroys faeries. Emily’s world is turned upside and things only get worse when her brother William is kidnapped. But who is on Emily’s side and who is evil?

This is definitely one of the better middle grade books I have seen in a while. Emily is a strong, clever protagonist, but she cannot do it alone. I appreciate the fact that she is not suddenly capable of accomplishing every task she needs, as so many characters in other stories are. Instead, she is helped by friend Spring-Heeled Jack and Corrigan, a faerie she found injured after the battle.

I would compare this book most closely with Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven series. There are the clever twists (think of Fablehaven’s betrayal story-lines) and a mythology much deeper than expected (such as the history of the secret preserves and who runs the evil society). Emily is no random orphan embroiled in the faerie world drama, she plays a much larger role in things than she can ever guess. The story is not overly simplistic the truth of good and evil is never that simple.

Though we have yet to get to know William, I have a feeling he will become a more important character in book two and I eagerly await the second book in the series.

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Matched by Ally Condie vs Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Normally I like to write about each book I read individually, but I was strike by how similar these two books are and decided it would be best to write about them together.

In Matched, Cassie Reyes grows up in a “perfect” society carefully planned out by the government. Everything from education to work, who you marry to where you live, when you can have kids to how many, what you can eat to what you can read, listen to, and watch, is planned out for you. Even when you will die is pre-determined (deaths are meant to be on a person’s 80th birthday). She is matched to Xander, her best friend, but a glitch on the microcard meant to carry information about her match, shows her the face of another boy, Ky. She learns that Ky is an Aberration, forbidden to marry because of something in his past. This small glitch leads Cassia to discover the many cracks in what she previously thought was a perfect system.

In Delirium, Lena Haloway-Tiddle lives in the United States after it has closed its borders to the outside world and found a cure for the most dangerous disease of all: amor deliria nervosa. Love. Whenever a person turns eighteen, they undergo a procedure and are cured of this disease. They come back calmer, no more pain due to heartache, no more anxiety or unwarranted behavior. They are also given their match options (they get to choose from the 3-4 names they are given based on evaluations), careers and whether or not they attend college is decided for them. But though things look perfect, not all is at it seems. Lena’s mother committed suicide after the cure did not work on her after three attempts, which is a blight on Lena’s reputation. And not all of the country is controlled and cured. There are places, known as the Wilds, where Invalids (uncureds) are said to live. They are never spoken about publicly, but everyone knows they are there. When Lena meets a boy named Alex, everything she knew about her world come into question.

Both stories hinge on illicit loves carried out in secret, forbidden poems used for inspiration, a controlling government using Regulators (Delirium) and Officials (Matched) to carefully control and watch over the people, carefully regulated lives where choice of spouse and career are decided by others, a limitation on free expression and choice. Both are even told in first person.

But for all their similarities, there are differences too. In Matched, the government’s argument revolves around the idea that too much choice makes culture cluttered and people dangerous. It is better that they decide on the best match for a person, rather than let them choose for themselves and have high divorce rate. Better to place people in the job best suited for them than have people doing mediocre at their professions. In Delirium, the belief is that love is what ruins society because it causes people to act against their best interests, affects the functioning of their mind and body, and can even make people act restlessly or suicidal. Choice plays a part in what is regulated but the point is more to squelch wild, fanciful desires.

I enjoyed both books, but ultimately found Matched to be slightly superior. Where Lena’s struggles came out of meeting someone else who tempted her (Alex introduced her to a world where love was a good not bad thing), Cassia’s questioning came as much from her love story as from other sources (her grandfather provides her with an illegal poem before his death, her father perpetrates a small act of defiance of his own, she gets to know Ky and learns his story).

One element that both books supply as a vehicle towards free thoughts and the will for survival is poetry and books. In both governments, certain poems and books have been banned and labeled as dangerous. In Delirium, the most interesting take on literature was its portrayal of Romeo and Juliet. Where today it is considered a story about how far people will go for love, in Lena’s story, it is used as a cautionary tale for how deluded love can make a person and how disastrous the results of being in love can be. The twisting of this classic story highlighted the governments lies and sneakiness and the way removing people’s ability to love changed people’s ability to think and act and be truly happy and free. (The strongest idea in the book was that without true pain there can be no true happiness.) In Matched, there is a particular poem that symbolized the need to fight: Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night.” Cassia’s grandfather gave her this poem before her death and over the course of the book, Cassia learns what this poem meant and internalized it. It discussed the message of needing to stand up for yourself and others, the need to fight for your dreams, to “not go gently” and to “rage against the dying light.” The poem takes on almost a life of its own, an extra character in the story.

Both stories are successful and dramatic and exciting. The love stories are both compelling and depressing in their own way. Matched gave me an appreciation for poetry that I can only remember feeling once before (from the poem “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne). Delirium uses too many quotes and mantras and idea to really give one the same sort of strength, but it instills a similar but still different idea: sacrifice. The idea you come away with in the end is how much you can sacrifice for the ones you love.

Whether Lena’s experiences will lead her to fight the system is unclear (will there even be a second book?) but it is clear that Cassia will no longer “go gently.”

Both books are worth reading but if I had to choose the stronger, I would say Matched wins by a very, very small margin.

The Seven Rays by Jessica Bendinger

As a major fan of Bring It On and Stick, I saw this book and HAD to buy it. Jessica Bendinger’s screenplays were so fun (not necessarily believable teen behavior but the kind of thing teens quote after the fact) that I hoped this would be up to par. But instead I was disappointed by this over the top, too complicated book.

Beth is an ordinary straight A student until she starts seeing weird things around people (lines and dots and knots) and gets a letter that tells her she is more than she thinks she is. It turns out, those weird things she’s seeing is actually the start of her growing abilities. She makes a close connection with a guy from her college courses, her abilities develop further so that she can feel/see the past of anything and anyone she touches, she gets mysterious letters from 7RI, and her mother starts acting strangely. After a brief stint in a mental institute, she and Richie, her crush, run away to New York to learn the truth of her abilities. The trip because even more dire when Beth learns that if she doesn’t get to New York her mother will die.

The book has a few unexpected twists but it sacrificed believability and relate-ability for intrigue and fantasy. For example, Beth started seeing strange things so she got surgery. Like it is that easy. If there was something wrong with her eyes, there would be something to fix. What doctor would just arbitrarily give her surgery without checking what was wrong? [SPOILER: Beth also discovers that part of her legacy is that she is expected to have seven children with seven different men in a short span of time and that if she has sex with them more than once it will slowly kill them.]

The further into the book I read, the weirder and more uncomfortable is became. It was not for me and I have no interest in reading the sequel.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Greg Heffley begins keeping a journal at the insistence of his mother where he relays his middle school and life adventures. Greg wants to be popular, even mildly, and one particular challenge is his less than cool best friend Rowley. (Specifically, while Greg considers himself at the middle of the popularity scale, he thinks Rowley is firmly at the bottom.) While worrying about his popularity, he must also deal with his bullying brother Rodrick and some bullying older kids. Greg’s pursuit for popularity leaves him not particularly considerate of his friends, which ultimately gets him in trouble, but underneath all the troublemaking he has a good heart.

I saw the movie before I read the book but there was so little change between them that it doesn’t make much difference. What makes this book unique is that Greg could come off as completely unlikeable but thanks to some funny stick figure drawings for comic relief, he ends up being more lovable than you might expect.

This isn’t the most adult book and won’t be something I continue reading. It isn’t bad, but even for me, someone who loves kids’ books, this is too juvenile. It’s fun for a laugh (and I plan to read the hebrew versions of some of the books to work on my language skills which will be more challenging and best served with a simpler plot for now). If you have a young child though, this is a good thing to give them to get them started reading. It still has some pictures so they won’t get bored, but it has enough text for them to get used to chapter books.

Legends of the Dragonrealms: Firedrake by Richard Knaak

The realm has long been controlled by the Dragon Kings. At one point, magic users known as the Dragon Masters, attempted to free mankind from their tyrannical rule, but though Nathan Bedlam, the strongest of the Masters, managed to kill one of the Dragon kings (the Purple Dragon), they were all wiped out, thanks to a betrayal by Nathan’s son Asran. But all is not lost for mankind, as Cabe, Asran’s son is discovered. He may be the strongest human magic user in history and he could change the future, if he isn’t killed first.

Of all the adult fantasy series I have read, this is probably one of my least favorite ones. The characters and their relationships feel undeveloped and unrealistic. Cabe is sort of personality-less (in part because he has a–literal–piece of his grandfather Nathan in him) and makes little to know decisions on his own. Who wants to follow a character who is passive and constantly being captured or lucking through his magic? And what good is a character who puts no effort into being an all-powerful magician? Lady Gwen is even more problematic for me. I want her to be a strong woman, but she doesn’t really do much of anything. I find her sudden feelings for Cabe (and his feelings for her) both uncomfortable and awkward. She had a relationship with his grandfather! I am fine with her caring about him in a parental way (he is her lover’s grandson), but do you really want to kiss the woman who kissed your grandfather? There is not development in their relationship either, they have barely a conversation before they are both suddenly in love with each other.

Events rush from one big thing to another without taking any time to dwell in the moment.

There is no subtlety or complexity. The one remotely complex character isn’t actually complex. Shade, a redemption character if there is any in the book, has ancient evil deeds to make up for, but there is no internal struggle. He is all good or all bad depending on his incarnation. (Think of Cara from Sword of Truth or Grianne of Sword of Shannara, who take an active role in becoming better people.)

This isn’t a terrible book, it simply doesn’t stand up to some of the others I have enjoyed.

Dime Store Magic by Kelley Armstrong

Paige is a 23-year-old witch and the only daughter of the murdered coven leader who has been taking care of recently orphaned 13-year-old witch Savannah. When Savannah is pursued by a dangerous Cabal leader (the wizard equivalent of a coven) and a telekinetic half-demon, Paige does everything she can to protect the strong-willed teen. But it is not only dangerous enemies that Paige must protect her from, it is also Savannah’s darker side (learned from her mother, who liked to practice the dark arts).

With the help of a Cabal leader’s son, Lucas Cortez, Paige fights for Savannah’s life and magic (she must hold a specific ceremony at a specific time to ensure the full growth of her abilities), for her coven (which is being lead by old-fashioned women who were too spooked by the witch trials to be strong and bold), for love (not surprising that she a Cortez fall for each other), for her mother’s vision of the future (where the coven comes into their own full powers), and for the secrecy of magic from the rest of the world.

Armstrong does a strange, if bizarre, job of integrating the magical and real worlds. The magic-users fight in the legal world in an attempt to gain Savannah’s guardianship, and then resort to magical intimidation when that does not work. As a repercussion for the magic and deaths, the small town where Paige lives protests against her (because the think she is a devil-worshipper). The coven turns their backs on her in fear of being exposed and hunted. Paige acts much older than her 23 years and I almost wonder if it is worth making her so young. It doesn’t matter much, but it feels like we’re reading about a thirty year old and you forget she’s so young until it gets mentioned by someone. It is almost more distracting than anything else. Despite this minor flaw, Paige is a strong, determined heroine who is easy to root for.

Though this isn’t strictly the first book in the series (Women of Otherworld), you can easily pick it up and understand everything that is going on.

The weakest point of the book for me was the opening, which is a little slow and hard to get into. Once we actually meet Paige and start dealing with her problems, the book really comes to life.

The Looking Glass Wars (Book One) by Frank Bedor

As someone who loves fairytale retellings, I was thrilled to discover this new take on the story of Alice in Wonderland (though less thrilled to discover that there are already six books out).

In Book One of this new series, we learn that Alyss Heart is the young heir to the Wonderland throne. She is forced to run away when her Aunt Redd returns from exile to attack and kills Alyss’s mother. Alyss finds her self in out world and unable to return so she confides her story to a priest in hopes that he will get her story out to the world so she can be found by someone who can take her home. But he ends up getting all the details wrong, thinking to take creative liberties and “make the story his own.” Ultimately, Alyss must return to Wonderland to reclaim her throne.

One of the best elements to the book is the way it adjusts the characters we always knew. Mad Hatter becomes Hatter Maddigan, an agile bodyguard. The Cheshire Cat becomes deadly assassin The Cat. The White Rabbit becomes royal tutor Bibwit Harte (a good idea minus the fact that we now have two characters with the last names Heart and Harte). Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum become General Doppleganger…

The one area where the book is particularly lacking is in the actual magical aspect of it. Alyss’s basic skill is that she has the strongest “imagination” of anyone in a long time. Ideas are created in Wonderland and then sent into the real world and Alyss is particularly skilled at making things up. What are the limits to a power like this? How do you really overpower someone in battle (we saw her battle the Redd Queen but I still found myself unclear on their actual abilities–why not just imagine your enemy dead? there’s no coming back from that)?

This isn’t my favorite series. I will probably buy the next book, but it’s at the bottom of my list, which has grown too long to ever really catch up on.

No Limits: The Will to Succeed by Michael Phelps

Each chapter focusing on one of the eight races Michael Phelps competed in to win the record eight golds in the 2008 Olympics. Using these races as a frame, Phelps talks about his fight to elevate the sport of swimming in the US while giving insight into some of his struggles. We learn about his struggles with ADHD, how he got into swimming (thanks to his talented older sisters), how his coach took on the role of father figure, his drunk driving mistakes, and his “competition” with other top swimmers (I put the word competition in quotation marks because it was more of a friendly rivalry–like Ash on Pokemon! Yes, I did just reference that but if you have ever seen that kid show, you know what I mean–and because he competed more with himself than other swimmers).

The book gave a little more and a little less than I wanted from it. Part of why I love sports memoirs is for their insights into the sports themselves, the little tricks it takes to be the best, the injuries and sacrifices, the pursuit of greatness. We got some of that in the book, with the early morning practices and some talk of form, but I didn’t feel as close to the sport as I had hoped. I also didn’t feel like I got to know who Phelps was as a person. It was more like he was a spokesperson for perkiness and “life is good.”

It might have been more interesting to hear about his rise to greatness than the actual Olympics when he was already basically unbeatable.

It was fun to read, but left something to be desired.