The 39 Clues: The Emperor’s Code (Book 8) by Gordon Korman

When their grandmother Grace dies, orphans Amy and Dan accept a challenge to search for 39 clues that could make them the most powerful people in the world. But they aren’t the only ones looking. Other Cahills, more ruthless, wealthy, and powerful than them, have taken the challenge too and they are not willing to let a pair of poor kids beat them. In book 8, still reeling from what they have learned, Amy begins doubting her parents. She and Dan get into a fight and, for the first time since the series began, they are separated for the vast majority of the book. can they find each other in China, the most crowded country in the world?

For the first time in a while, we see Jonah Wizard again (and meet his mother) and for the first time, we get a little depth and growth to his character. We even have a moment of sympathy for his father, who is rarely seen doing anything but typing on his blackberry and catering to his famous popstar son. Even with these new insights, this is not my favorite family of the Cahill clan. It seems like a preposterous plan to have only a popstar searching for the clues rather than another person from the branch (he comes from the Janus branch of the Cahill family) who would be less conspicuous to break into places when needed.

We learn more about everyone’s characters in this book, from Dan and Amy’s relationship, to the truth about Nellie, to Jonah and his family. This isn’t my favorite book of the series (mostly because the Mount Everest sequence seemed completely unbelievable) but it was nice to really focus on characterization and growth, which was greatly lacking in the last book.

39 Clues: The Viper’s Nest (Book 7) by Peter Lerangis

When their grandmother Grace dies, orphans Amy and Dan accept a challenge to search for 39 clues that could make them the most powerful people in the world. But they aren’t the only ones looking. Other Cahills, more ruthless, wealthy, and powerful than them, have taken the challenge too and they are not willing to let a pair of poor kids beat them. In The Viper’s Nest, Amy and Dan follow a clue from Irina Spasky that leads them to Pretoria as they try to come to terms with the events in Australia.

Unlike the earlier books, this book felt informative but not particularly engaging. Not that it was a bad book, it just didn’t feel like we had as much character growth from the characters as we have in previous books. This is more about having Amy and Dan reacting to the events of the last book [if you haven’t already read book six then this is a SPOILER: Irina Spasky died saving them in a fire–I don’t know if I really believe she was gone, but it does seem likely] than about really delving into who they are. They come off as a little flatter and even perhaps slightly regressed, from the Dan and Amy we have come to know.

We do get a new surprise as Dan and Amy learn more about their ancestry and Amy remembers more about the night their parents died, but this is not really much in the way of character growth.

Ultimately, this book feels more like it bridges books six and eight than it does feel like a solid book on its own (sort of like the filler episodes on shows between episodes that are about the bigger mythology). It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great beyond the surprise at the end.

39 Clues: In Too Deep (Book 6) by Jude Watson

When their grandmother Grace dies, orphans Amy and Dan accept a challenge to search for 39 clues that could make them the most powerful people in the world. But they aren’t the only ones looking. Other Cahills, more ruthless, wealthy, and powerful than them, have taken the challenge too and they are not willing to let a pair of poor kids beat them. In this book, Amy and Dan have followed a lead to Australia (specifically, with no idea where to go, they get a hint that their parents may have gone to Australia at some point). Isabel Kabra, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly frustrated by her children and Irina Spasky’s inability to stop or surpass the Cahill siblings and is ready to take drastic action (sharks, poisonous snakes, and spiders anyone?). Amy gets some unexpected–and slightly unwanted–that forces her to confront memories of the day her parents died.

The strongest element to this book was the full-circle growth of Irina, a character who started as a definite enemy of Dan and Amy but slowly becomes…something of an ally. Finally we got the back story we needed to understand why her character behaves the way she does and what it is that makes her start second-guessing her life.

Amy and Dan have also begun to suspect Nellie, their au pair, who has turned out to be surprisingly more capable than expected. She can speak foreign languages, fly planes, and displays some other unusual skills. But with so few people that they can trust, do they really have to worry about the one person who has made their journey for the clues possible?

We get more history, this time with Amelia Earhart and Mark Twain, but where the historical figures in earlier books took center stage, in this book they were sort of background. They helped push things along and hint to the Cahills where they should look, but they weren’t as big a deal as before.

This wasn’t my favorite book of the season but it definitely helped move the mystery along further.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

As a fan of 30 Rock (and Mean Girls!), I was excited when I heard that Tina Fey had written a book. And just from a look at the back cover, it seemed like it would be funny. (“Totally worth it.” ~Trees) Not to mention the very positive review from Entertainment Weekly.

I started reading the book and though at first I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I expected, there were still good moments and funny and even a little illuminating. Despite the slow start (particularly the chapter about her father Don Fey), the book got funnier as it got into more familiar territory (specifically, her time on Saturday Night Live and how that transitioned into 30 Rock).

There is more in here than just a bunch of self-deprecating humor. Mixed in between her humorous anecdotes (her makeup tops, for example) are an interesting look into the male dominated world that is comedy writing. (I have a friend trying to break into this world and she is finding much of what Fey described.) We also get some good tips about how best to manage people (using examples of how she runs the show). Fey shows a sarcastic, determined, funny persona that has helped her become the successful, if quirky woman that she is. She is clearly hardworking and has earned her way.

At the same time, this isn’t a tell-all. We don’t delve deeply into any particular experience (for example she talks about being slashed in the face as a child but discusses how other people bring up her scar more than the actual incident, we get only a cursory look at her time on SNL, etc). There are times when I would have liked to hear more, such as a look into her work on Mean Girls or some more about the people she has worked with (we get a decent amount about Amy Poehler and Alec Baldwin, but few others). Even with that, it was enjoyable and insightful. (This would probably be hysterical as an audiobook read by Fey.) It was nice getting to know a little more about Fey, who seems to be a slightly higher functioning version of Liz Lemon and I would definitely not be opposed to reading more form her in a few years.

Glee: Foreign Exchange by Sophia Lowell

In the second Glee book, Mr. Schu has decided to take Multicultural Week to the next level by inviting a French Glee Club (run by a childhood pen pal) to come and perform with the New Directions. Rachel is faced with competition (this was before Sunshine Corazon and her behavior was much less appalling here), Puck is not as much of a ladies-man as he thought, Finn has a new crush, Artie shows he has some moves (post Tina, pre-Brittany), and Santana was, sadly, all but absent. How did this book measure up to the series and the other book?

Because there is no actual singing, the books automatically cannot compare to the series itself. The incredible rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing” is the reason I started watching this show in the first place (I initially hated the pilot but gave it a second chance after someone posted the video on my wall).

The first book, The Beginning, was unquestionably stronger than this one, Foreign Exchange. For one thing, there were simply far too many people involved that we didn’t get much of a chance to really be invested in any of them. It felt like whenever we settled into one storyline, we suddenly jumped to another.

On top of the already large New Directions, we have the French glee club to get to know. Brittani and Santana, who have finally become real members of the cast on the show, were relegated to the background, Mercedes was just the same as always (boy obsessed and insecure), and Quinn was about as deep as a puddle. Kurt was all pretty lame (I mean nice that he had fun and no bullying, but otherwise…). Rachel was fun and her usual neurotic, as always but I would have liked to spend a little more time with her (and much as I disliked Quinn overall, I enjoyed the way she played Rachel).

Not that the story wasn’t fun. It’s Glee and Glee is always fun. Fun enough that I want to check out Summer Break, the upcoming book, but not so much so that it’s a must-read.

Beyonders: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

I loved Mull’s Fablehaven series, so when I heard that he had another book, I pre-ordered a copy immediately. It’s always strange when starting a new series from an author you love because you can’t help but compare the two and look for the elements that you loved about the previous story.

Beyonders follows Jason when he finds himself suddenly in a strange world run by a tyrant of a wizard, Maldor. Together with Rachel, a girl also from his world, he sets out to save the people by collecting syllables that, when put together, form a magic word that will destroy the wizard.

Where Fablehaven was a bit more of a light fairytale, this tale is darker. If you were to draw a picture, Fablehaven would have bright pinks and purples and greens while Beyonders would be more dark blues and greys and blacks. (I know it’s a strange thing to say, but that’s really what pops into my mind when I compare them.) They both deal with issues of trust and betrayal, but the Beyonders is much more complicated. It isn’t a simple matters of characters being under cover, but a complex mind game played by Maldor.

At first I wasn’t loving the new book. The idea of a single word being able to destroy someone seemed a little too convenient and strange a concept. Of course, this was explained better later in the book, making it less frustrating to think about it. It also took me a little while to warm up to Jason as a character. But as he began to grow and became more self-aware (seeing that stubbornness has value but not in every situation, for example), he became more interesting. Rachel, meanwhile, was in the frustrating position of being a girl in a medieval type world where girls were considered less able. Therefore, there were a number of instances where she was forced to take a back seat or sit out altogether. While I understood this from a technical, realistic standpoint, it was still frustrating. I would have much preferred to see her step up and prove them wrong about her strength and abilities.

Some of the magical creatures, known as “wizardborn” were particularly interesting. There are the seed people, who die and are reborn with all their memories, thanks to a seed that they carry around during their life that, upon death, detaches and regrows. There are also the displacers, who can detach and reattach their limbs at will without any permanent damage and with the ability to maintain control of those detached limbs. Some other creatures, such as the manglers, are less clearly defined and could have used a bit more description. Even without it, we were able to get the sense of terror they induced, which was the most important thing about them.

One of the strengths with this series is the random twists and turns he manages to bring in. Just when you think you’ve figured everything and everyone out, he manages to surprise you. The twists are even stronger than in Fablehaven, where the main issue came down to who do you trust. With Beyonders, there is even more to keep you guessing.

While I missed the whimsy of Fablehaven, I found that Mull’s new series stood up just as well. I can’t wait to read book two when it is ready.

Towers of Midnight by Brandon Sanderson (and Robert Jordan)

Having finally gotten through the mammoth book that is the Towers of Midnight (part 2 of the twelfth book of the twelve book series which is really fourteen books making this book thirteen), I had a few thoughts. Still loving Sanderson’s style over Jordan’s (sacrilege! but truth too). It feels faster and cleaner and less tiresome to get through. We’ve finally touched on some of the things we’ve all been waiting for and are building up for what will be (had better be) an epic final battle.

First thing we finally got to was the return of Morainne. When she went through the “doorway” terangreal, I couldn’t help but think she was bound to be back. After all, if you don’t see the character dead, they likely aren’t and even then… (Then again, Harry was sure Sirius was coming back after suffering much the same death but he was, sadly, gone for good). Anyway, when Mat and Thom set off to rescue her, I wasn’t all that surprised. Most surprising was how slowly they actually went after her. They seemed to take their time considering she was being held captive by people (creature?) that basically terrified Mat. But never mind that. There was also a certain surprising relationship revealed there…The actual rescue was a lot faster than expected which was a little unfortunate, but considering how much there was to cover I understand. Either way, I’m starting to like Mat a lot more and I kind of can’t wait for Rand and Morainne’s reunion. Finally some good news for our “hero.”

Rand has finally laughed and thus he has “changed” as everyone around him keeps insisting on telling us. And maybe he has, in some ways. But then again, he sort of hasn’t. He has a plan that he KNOWS will make Egwene and everyone upset. His reasoning also makes perfect sense. So, instead of explaining his reasoning to her, he says he will be doing it and she has no say in the matter and leaves. So naturally, instead of looking to help him, she chooses to build up opposition. That seems like something the people really need as the Dark One is breaking free of his prison.

Nice to finally see a return of Elayne and Birgitte though Elayne is getting a bit frustrating in her hardheadedness. Notice that every character in this series is stubborn? (Lan anyone?) On the other hand, we got only one scene from Birgitte’s perspective (more than last book so moving up in the world), which left me wanting more. (Spin off book just about her anyone?)

I find myself caring less and less about Perrin (and by extension Hopper and Faile and in a weird way Galad) and Min (and by extension Rand and some of the others surrounding him) but hope their stories can be a little more interseting in the future. Min in particular has lost her appeal. She went from a strong, interesting but mysterious character to a lovesick girl whose soul purpose is to love and support Rand. Occasionally she sees things around him that don’t really tell her anything informative.

Despite the issues, I can’t wait for the last book in the series (and then I will finally read New Spring, the prequel featuring Morainne and Siuan, two if my favorite Aes Sedais). What did you think of book thirteen?

The Chemical Garden Trilogy: Wither (Book 1) by Lauren Destefano

I recently started watching the HBO show Big Love, which has made me interested in the concept of plural marriage. Not as something for myself, but seeing the dynamics and oddities that come out of a plural marriage are fascinating. So when I saw Wither I was particularly excited: a dystopian novel about polygamy! It seemed to be too good to be true, and in some ways, it was.

America has closed its borders after disaster has struck. A generation of perfect children was born, thanks to genetic engineering. Unfortunately, no one thought about the side effects, which were that those perfect children would grow up and have children who, instead of being perfect, would have limited lifespans due to some sort of virus. Girls die at age 20, boys die at age 25. What this leads to, among other things, is a world of orphans and rich people marrying many wives in an attempt to have many kids and experiment on curing the virus. How do they get these wives? Gatherers find them on the street, kidnap them, and bring them to buyers. The girls who are not wanted either get shot or made slaves. Rhine has had a better upbringing than some. She had parents for part of her life (they were part of the perfect generation) and a twin brother for company. But when she is taken, she is forced into a plural marriage with two other girls and must find a way to escape and find her brother again.

The idea in this story was a very interesting one and I really wanted to like it. Rhine and her sister-wives have very different reactions to their imprisonment. Cecily, at thirteen, is anxious to please and seems thrilled to be married. Jenna, the oldest at eighteen, is repulsed and mostly goes quietly along with things but does not share much of herself. Rhine attempts to gain their husbands favor in hopes of getting more rights and freedom and perhaps the chance at escape. Their relationship to each other is also diverse. Jenna and Rhine become fairly close while they look at Cecily as the kid sister who is annoying, naive, and in need of protection.

My problem is that Rhine and Jenna felt like poorly developed characters. Rhine in particular, as the narrator, behaved in a way that didn’t seem all that believable to me. Her repulsion and upset was never quite as strong as it felt like it should be. Her transition into cooperative wife came too quickly and easily. And when the opportunity to reveal the truth about her situation came, she did not take it, even though it likely would have gotten her free. The fact that she accepted her marriage (in the first person marriage she always referred too Linden as her Husband despite not actually exchanging vows and never sarcastically or halfheartedly like “my ‘husband'”) seemed particularly unrealistic. Cecily felt the most real and the most developed over the course of the series.

The story is interesting in some ways but I hoped it would go further. I’m still interested in seeing where the second book goes, but at the same time I feel like this series could have been much better than it was.

How to Train Your Dragon: How to Ride a Dragon’s Storm (Book 7) by Cressida Cowell

I haven’t read a book in this series in a while (I was waiting for the book to come out in paperback, but finally I got impatient), but unlike some other series that end up a little disappointing after some time away, this book is as strong as any in the How to Train Your Dragon series.

It follows the same formula as all the other books–Hiccup and his comrades fall in on some life-threatening bad luck against one of their many archenemies and he must not only help them escape but also return to Burke to save his father in time. What I like about this book in particular is it broadens the world we have already come to know. We meet the Wanderers (specifically, American Natives) who have been captured as slaves, giving larger life to the size of the world we’ve gotten to know. We learn that there is a place where the Vikings sacrifice people to the Sky Dragons.

The book remains just as clever and funny as always. I am continuously impressed by the continued funniness of the series (Norbert the Nutjob wants to found Nutjobland for example) while also keeping to the heart. I like that Hiccup has really embraced his fate as the future leader but that he intends to change things when he does. Toothless had a rather small part in this book as compared to others (though he was still essential to helping them escape) and that was perhaps the only thing I might have liked changed. It might soon be time for Hiccup to have a love interest (maybe Camicazi, maybe someone else). Not something deep and intense, just a tiny crush or something. I can only imagine how funny Hiccup would mess things up trying to impress her.