Dragonwatch: A Fablehaven Adventure by Brandon Mull

dragonwatchBrandon Mull’s Fablehaven series was one of the series that made me truly love middle grade books as an adult. I had read a few others, but this was the first series that I couldn’t stop reading until I finished it. When the series ended, I was sorry to have to let it go, so I was thrilled to learn of the coming sequel series.

Picking up where Fablehaven left off, Kendra and Seth Sorenson are adjusting to a calmer life on the Fablehaven reserve. Kendra is navigating the beginnings of a relationship with the son of the Fairy Queen. Seth finds himself a little bored with the adventure over and finds ways to amuse himself (READ: to get himself in trouble). But trouble is stirring. Their actions taking in Fablehaven have set off a chain reaction. The dragons are restless, tired of being trapped in Wyrmroost, the Dragon Reserve. When the wizard Agad comes to the Sorensons for help, Seth and Kendra find themselves in the midst of a dangerous game of politics in which they must use all their knowledge and experience to survive, with the world in balance.

The strength of this new addition to the Fablehaven world rests in its high stakes, tension, and the strength of its characters. Kendra and Seth have grown up a lot in the time we have known them. They were introduced to us as bickering siblings in the first Fablehaven book. Seth was immature and selfish (not in that he was mean to others but in that he was more concerned with his own amusement and entertainment than with others). He is still a risk taker and has a rebellious streak, but he is also caring and willing to do what it takes–even it means risking himself–to what’s right and save others. Kendra was naive and obedient, not nearly the confident teenager she has become.

One of my favorite things about the original series was the way it made you constantly questioning the nature of trust and friendship. How could you know who to trust? Who could betray you more devastatingly than someone you opened up to? What secrets should be kept? This series touches on those themes as well and I am excited to see what new lessons we can learn.

Finally, the series introduced some new characters: the large-for-a-nipsie Calvin and two new Sorenson family members, Seth and Kendra’s cousins, Tess and Knox. Calvin may be small in size but his contributions to the team are valuable. The cousins have only a small role in this first book, but it is safe to assume that they will grow to be more important as the series continues.

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The Hidden Oracle (The Trials of Apollo #1) by Rick Riordan

Of Gods and Demigods

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 9.46.23 PMRick Riordan has done it again. Diving right back into the modern day mythical world featuring the Greek and Roman gods and their demigod children, Riordan gives us a new treat: instead of following a demigod, we get insight into the mind of the god Apollo. What’s brilliant about this series is that until now, we have only ever gotten the perspectives of the demigods who feel abandoned and ignored by their parents, the Greek and Roman gods. Now we get a sense of what it means to be an immortal being–why don’t they spend more time and attention on their children? What does time and history mean for them if they cannot die? Does love mean something different when you have lived thousands of years and loved many people? Riordan jumps right in to all these questions and adds a few more for good measure.

Punished for his part in the events of Riordan’s previous series, The Heroes of Olympus, Zeus casts Apollo out of Olympus and turns him mortal. Apollo wakes up in a dumpster on Earth as a sixteen-year-old acne-faced boy with nowhere to go and no clear path forward. He no longer bleeds the golden ichor of the gods but instead bleeds the red of humans. He can’t eat ambrosia to heal and sustain himself and he most certainly can die. He lacks his abilities (like changing his shape and form or singing a song so emotionally that it moves people to tears) and has no real direction for how he can win back his father’s favor.

While on the streets of New York, he is rescued by the twelve-year-old demigod Meg. Together they find Percy Jackson and enlist his help in reaching Camp Half-Blood, a camp for demigods. Apollo hopes to find help there, but instead he finds the camp in need of help–all prophecy has stopped and campers are going missing. Maybe Apollo can put things to rights and prove himself to his father.

Riordan might have created his most interesting series yet. He makes Apollo arrogant and self-centered, normally traits that would make readers root against a character. But he manages to balance this arrogance with comedy and self-discovery. Apollo’s journey toward humanity makes him the type of hero you want to root for.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

A Lesson in Style and Story

night circusThis story shouldn’t work. Third person, present tense, interspersed with the occasional second person chapters, lots of exposition, very little direct character interaction. According to every writing class I have ever taken, every article on writing I have ever read, every editorial report I have ever written, this novel should be a non-starter. And yet, Morgenstern has managed to create something magical. All these elements, normally a recipe for disaster, come together to create an atmosphere of mystery and enchanting.

The circus arrives in town with no warning. It has no schedule, no itinerary. Its customary black and white tents appear unexpectedly, its gates only open at night. Its tents and performers are as mysterious as its  presence. But the wishing tree, cloud maze, and garden of ice hide something more sinister.

Celia Bowen and Marco Alistair have been raised for one purpose: to compete against one another in a game of magic that will test their skills and wills. They don’t know the rules, who their opponents are, or even how a winner is determined, but still they must prove themselves for their masters. The arena: Le Cirque des Reves, the Circus of Dreams. What’s at stake is more than either can imagine.

Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a lesson in writing. This is what it means to develop a unique style and voice. This is what it means to know the rules so you can break them. Every writer should take note.

That’s not to say the book is perfect. I’m not convinced when it comes to the love story and sometimes the cast of characters is unwieldy, but these are minor quibbles to the reading overall experience.

5 Books If You Love Norse Mythology

A Trip to Valhalla Has Never Been More Fun

Greek and Roman mythology have been popular in children’s tales for a while now, thanks in no small part to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. Other mythology, on the other hand, has been in much sparser supply. But readers who find themselves more interested in Thor and Odin than Zeus and Poseidon can have hope. Norse mythology is on the rise.

1. Valkyrie by Kate O’Hearn

valkyrie

As the youngest of the Valkyries, Freya has always been different. And not just because she was born with jet-black feathers. Where her fellow-Valkyries love their responsibilities, she is anything but thrilled to officially become one of the reapers of the valiant dead. Growing up around battlefields and reveling warriors, it’s no wonder that Freya finds humankind disdainful. But when she reaps her first soldier, he turns out to be nothing like the mead-drinking, fight-loving men she expected. Instead, he is a man desperate to get back to his family and help keep them safe. Freya agrees to find his wife and children, even though it means crossing to Midgard (Earth) without permission and losing her wings if she is discovered. What she finds there is nothing like she expected–the humans remember little about the Norse gods and the world is more than a battlefield. But can she fulfill her mission before she’s missed in Valhalla.

2. Loki’s Wolves (The Blackwell Pages, #1)  by K.L. Armstrong

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Matt has always known he’s a descendant of the god, Thor. In fact, just about everyone in the town of Blackwell, South Dakota is a descendant of Thor or Loki. But where his brothers are perfect examples of what a Thorsson should be–tough, physical, and competitive–Matt has always felt like the runt of the family. Which is why he’s so surprised to discover that he has been named Thor’s champion. Together with Loki descendants and fellow classmates Fen and Laurie Brekke, Matt must go on a quest to find Thor’s hammer and shield, build a team of god’s descendants, and find a way to prevent the coming Ragnarok–the end of the world. But to succeed, Matt must learn who his friends are, who to trust, and how to use the abilities that being Thor’s champion and descendant grants him. More importantly, he must learn to have faith in himself.

3. The Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #1) by Rick Riordan

magnus chase

Following in the vein of Riordan’s Percy Jackson and The Kane Chronicles comes Magnus Chase, a teen who has been living on streets since his mother’s mysterious murder by a pack of wolves. When he is tracked down by his uncle, a man his mother had always said was dangerous, his entire life changes. Or rather, his entire life ends. And starts again. Because it turns out that the Norse myths are very real and Magnus is the son of a Norse god. Upon his death, Magnus finds himself in (Hotel) Valhalla as an einherji, one of the noble dead. There he is in the ways of war and battle in order to fight a coming war for the gods. Magnus must find the Sword of Summer, which hasn’t been seen in generations. As a bonus to fans of his pervious series, Magnus Chase is set in the same universe as Riordan’s Greek-, Roman-, and Egyptian-inspired tales, with a special guest appearance by a key figure in the Percy Jackson series.

4. The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable FIB by Adam Shaughnessy

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Prudence “Pru” Potts is mourning the death of her father with hostility and holding everyone at arm’s length. Finding a letter–which no one else seems able to see–with the question “What is the unbelievable FIB?” may be just the distraction she needs. Only one other kid can see the card: new kid ABE. ABE shares Pru’s love of puzzles (which she inherited from her detective father). Together they manage to unravel the clue on the card and meet the mysterious Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox recruits Pru and ABE to help investigate the reason that Norse beings have been sneaking into the town, causing thunderstorms and dark skies. ABE and Pru must track down the Eye of Odin, the source of knowledge, before a dangerous enemy can destroy the realms of both the humans and the gods. But she has to uncover truth and lies about the world around her and learn who she can trust.

5. Frostborn (Thrones and Bones, #1) by Lou Anders

frostbornThe biggest difference between this series and the others on this list is that it is less overtly steeped in Norse mythology. Instead, it is a more subtle, Viking-inspired tale with frost giants, wyverns, and the undead. Karn is destined to take over the family farm in Norrøngard but he is much more interested in playing the strategy game Thrones and Bones, much to his parents’ chagrin. Thianna is a half-human, half-giantess, who at seven feet tall has always felt self-conscious about her height (she’s much too short to be a proper giant). When the two are forced to go on the run due to unexpected drama from their families’ pasts, they are lucky enough to find each other. Relying on each other’s strength, skills, and cleverness, the duo must navigate a world of dangers that includes trolls, dragons, and dwarves while uncovering the truth about their families’ pasts.

 

5 Books If You Love Fairytales

Fairytale Re-Imaginings Up the Ante

Gregory Maguire was my introduction into fairytale re-imaginings. From  The Wizard of Oz to Cinderella, those book re-envisioned how these well known stories came about while keeping the events and beats mostly the same. But where those books felt a little touch to digest, there have been a slew of middle grade and young adults books over the last few years that have gone a different route. These more approachable, fun-spirited tales keep the heart of the well-known tales and completely reimagine how they play out.

Here are the 5 fairytale re-imaginings that offer the most creative, exciting reads:

1. The Ever Afters series by Shelby BachScreen Shot 2016-04-06 at 10.31.07 PM

Rory Landon thinks she is different because she’s the daughter of movie stars, but this is nothing compared to what she discovers at her after-school program: fairytales are real and recurring. Rory will one day have to play out one of the famous fairytales she thought were fictional, and if the disasters she must survive are any clue (giants, dragons, and evil queens to name a few), her story is likely to be one of the most dangerous and life-changing of them all. The characters are real and engaging; it is easy to root for Rory and her friends. Their personal problems never feel small compared to the bigger challenges they are facing, a balance that is rarely successfully met, and the blending of fairytale and modern day is seamless.

2. Half Upon a Time trilogy by James Riley

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 10.50.50 PMJack of Jack and the Beanstalk is an often overlooked fairytale. It isn’t romantic, there are no princesses or knights in shining armor. But though this seems like a small tale compared to some of the more popular tales, there is nothing small about this story. Jack isn’t looking for action and adventure, but that is what he gets when a “princess” falls out of the sky. May, who is from our world, is searching for her grandmother and Jack gets roped into helping her. James Riley has quickly become one of my favorite middle grade authors.He’s not afraid to be fun and creative and you can feel his love of the craft in every book.

3. Fairy Tale Reform School series by Jen Calonita

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 10.53.20 PM In most fairytales, the hero is the innocent, brave victims, but Fairy Tale Reform School switches things up. Gilly is the daughter of a cobbler (the one who created Cinderella’s glass slipper). As one of six children, she knows what it means to live a life of poverty-she blames the royal princesses for not crediting her father with the glass slipper-and she is not willing to let her siblings suffer. So she steals food for them to eat and trinkets for them to have nice things. But when she is caught, she is sent to reform school, run by the reformed Evil Stepmother and other fairytale villains, in order to learn how to become a productive member of society. There she uncovers a plot to hurt the royal princesses and must decide if she can truly reform and come to their aid. It’s fun to have a character who isn’t perfectly pure of heart, even though she means well. Throughout the series, we are forced to reconsider our assumptions of good and evil, no easy fete when the base-story is so black and white.

4. A Tale of the Wide-Awake Princess by E.D. Baker

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 10.56.06 PMPrincess Annie has always been something of a social pariah. It isn’t her fault. Most princesses are blessed with beauty, charm, and talent, but Annie’s blessing was of a different nature: magic can’t touch her. When those with magical enhancements come near, the effects of their blessings fade, so everyone stays as far away from her as possible. But when her sister’s wedding day is disrupted by a sleeping curse, it is up to Annie to save the day. This tale is the ultimate triumph of the underdog. The things that has made her an outcast, shunned even by her family, is the one things that can allow her to break the curse. But while out in the world, Annie realizes that she is stronger and braver than she ever imagined.

5. The Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 10.59.02 PM.pngTwins Alex and Bailey find themselves in the land of stories when their grandmother gives them a book of fairytales. But the stories they grew up on are not quite reality-Little Red Riding Hood is the spoiled head of a kingdom, Goldilocks is a wanted fugitive, and their grandmother is the Fairy Godmother. Colfer’s Land of Stories tale was a pleasant surprise and it stands out from the pack because it delves into a theme common in fairytales but rarely explored: the loss of a parent. Alex and Bailey are dealing with the death of their father and that pain plays a central role in the twins’ journey of self-discovery.

The Stolen Chapters (Story Thieves Book #2)

A Lesson in Writing Hidden in a Mystery

Owen Connors wakes up in the library beside fictional character Kiel Gnomenfoot with no memory of how he got there. What he does know is that the library is on fire, someone has framed him and Kiel for the crime, and his half-fictional friend Bethenny has been kidnapped. Owen is told that he has two hours two find Bethenny or he will have lost her forever. But how can Owen find her when he has no clues to go on, no powers (Kiel has magic and Bethenny can jump in and out of storybooks), and police hunting him down for arson?

In book two of James Riley’s Story Thief series, the adventure is taken to a whole new level. The villain, Doyle Holmes, is out for revenge because Bethenny and Owen accidentally disgraced his grandfather Sherlock Holmes in one of their book-hopping adventures.

What makes the Story Thieves series so clever is that it uses typical storytelling techniques while also serving as a sort of instruction manual for those techniques. The story uses flashbacks as a major method of conveying information, even as Owen bemoans the technique, pointing out that there was no tension in them: obviously the main characters survived or they couldn’t be flashing back to it.” With a Holmes at the heart of the mystery, Owen thinks about the way mysteries tend to have twists within twists and builds this into his plan to save the day. There’s something very meta and clever about the way Riley does this. He manages to teach readers how to write while not seeming to.

He also manages to set up and further the bigger mysteries of the Story Thief series. While in the fictional world of Doyle Holmes’s books, they discover that someone named James Riley wrote a book about their first adventures into the fictional world. But who is James Riley and how does he know what happened to them? And who is the seemingly omniscient Nobody, who keeps showing up at mysterious times to give words of warning to our heroes?

My only real complaint about the book was that it was hard to remember what role Nobody had played in the first book, so when he showed up again in the second, I was a little confused. I would have liked maybe a little more of a refresher of the first book to fill in some of the pieces. It’s a hard thing to balance when writing books in a series—how much do you recap, at what point do you bore your returning readers by telling them what they already know? But in this case, I think it could have just a little bit more.

Even so, Owen’s journey is a compelling one. He may not be magical like his friends, but he proves that he can contribute and be a hero too. This story shows something that most fantasy books for kids don’t—you don’t need powers and you certainly don’t need to be “the chosen one” to save the day.

A Frozen Heart by Elizabeth Rudnick

A Deeper Look Into Disney’s Frozen

A_Frozen_HeartBy now most people know the story of Anna and Elsa of Arendelle. As children, the sisters are inseparable. Their favorite games involve playing in the snow generated by Elsa’s ice powers. But when a slip puts Anna’s life in danger, the sisters’ parents separate the girls. Anna’s memories of Elsa’s magic are removed, the gates of the castle are closed to visitors, and the girls grow up in isolation from everyone, including each other. At Elsa’s coronation years later, her magic is revealed, turning Arendelle’s summer into “eternal winter.” Elsa runs away to the mountains and Anna chases after her, determined to repair their relationship and bring back summer.

How interesting a book’s adaptation of a movie is depends on how much more it can tell readers beyond what they already know. While it is clear from Frozen that Anna’s isolation growing up makes her desperate to connect to other people–explaining why she fell so quickly for Hans–the rest of her thoughts are mostly hidden behind her bubbly exterior. How does she feel about Elsa keeping secrets from her? What is she really thinking when she meets Hans? Beyond Anna, a big question of the movie is how Hans became cruel and conniving. These questions and more are answered in A Frozen Heart, which tells the movie’s story with alternating chapters from Hans and Anna’s perspectives.

The book, while providing a few additional scenes and insights into Anna’s story, does not give us much more than we already know. Overall, Anna remains the cheerful, quirky character we know and love. There is one particular detail that I appreciate most: while she seems all-in with Hans in the movie, the book shows us something more complicated. There is clearly desperation behind her choice. After the coronation, the castle gates will be closed again. If she doesn’t meet the man of her dreams now, how will she ever find love? With that perspective in mind, it makes sense that she takes this chance, even if she does not know Hans well.

While we get little more about Anna than we already knew, A Frozen Heart gives Hans a backstory. As Anna grows up hidden behind the castle walls in Arendelle, Hans is stuck in the shadow of his twelve older brothers. Taking the lead from their father, the brothers bully Hans relentlessly. They insult him, throw things at him, and generally make his life miserable. Given his childhood, Hans looks for any chance he can to get away from the Southern Isles. His best chance comes in the form of Arendelle’s future queen. If he can get to Elsa’s coronation and make her fall in love with him, he can get away from his family forever. After all, his father would not deny him a pairing that would be beneficial for the kingdom. When he accidentally connects with Anna instead of her sister, he must rethink his plans a bit to get himself on the throne. While Hans’s motivation makes some sense, the level of cruelty he displays towards Anna at the end does seem out of character for this Hans. In movie we do not know him well enough to judge. Here, we see him actively trying not to be a brute like his siblings and having a soft spot for Anna.

This is not a book for those hoping to find a whole new take on Frozen, though it is a fun visit for those who are not quite ready to leave Arendelle behind. Personally, I would have liked to see Elsa’s perspective as well. How did she feel about being isolated from her sister? What must it have taken to constantly turn Anna away? Was she truly happy at the top of the mountain? What did she do all day in her room growing? Did she ever think of running away? A Frozen Heart  did not answer all my questions, but I love Frozen enough that this was good enough.

The Caretaker’s Guide to Fablehaven by Brandon Mull

fablehavenThe Caretaker’s Guide to Fablehaven is not the type of book I typically read. I generally prefer reading the book to reading the book about the book. (I never got particularly excited about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them or Quidditch Through the Ages despite loving Harry Potter and re-reading the entire series many times over.) However, The Caretaker’s Guide serves as both an excellent refresher for Mull’s upcoming Fablehaven sequel, Dragonwatch, and as a wealth of knowledge for super-fans of the existing series.

All the important characters from Fablehaven, both heroes and villains, show up in one form or another in this book: Seth and Kendra provide entertaining comments and additions (that make it feel like this is a real book being updated by each generation of caretakers). Villains/demons such as Zzyzx and Muriel the witch are featured in multiple places. The book is also a great way to expand your knowledge of the Fablehaven world and, for younger audiences, a way to imagine being a caretaker-in-training for Fablehaven. 

If you can’t get enough of Fablehaven, this is the perfect book to help you bide your time until the sequel series comes out in 2016. (Otherwise, just pick one of Mull’s series, I have yet to be disappointed.)

Fires of Invention (Mysteries of Cove #1) by J. Scott Savage

coveFires of Invention reminded me a lot of City of Ember, one of the earlier dystopian novels I read when I started my general binging of all things middle grade and YA. The two share many things in common—a city built underground, supplies dwindling, strict rules, and a history that turns may not be quite accurate. Cove is a city where tradition and “the way things have always been done” is more important than creativity and innovation. Calling someone an inventor is the worst insult you can give. It is better to stick with tradition than create something new, no matter how helpful it is or how many people’s lives it might save.

The hero of the story is Trenton, a boy whose mind is full of inventions. When he sees a machine, he can tell almost instantly how it works and how to make it better. Despite his efforts to bury these instincts deep, he cannot help but create things. One day he is sent into a narrow mining shaft where the mining belt is broken, he discovers an illegal screwdriver that sets him on a path of discovery.

The screwdriver, he learns, was that of Leo Babbage, the most infamous inventor of Cove, who is said to have killed a bunch of people, and himself, when one of his inventions backfired and exploded. It is more than a screwdriver though. It is a clue to something much bigger. With the help of Babbage’s daughter, Kallista, Trenton follows the clues, which leads him to several major discoveries that could change his life and all of Cove, forever.

One of the strengths of Cove is the way it delves into relationships. Trenton’s mother, who was injured in a mining accident, is overprotective and distant. She loves him, but doesn’t understand him. His father, on the other hand, is loving and supportive, relating to Trenton’s creativity in ways Trenton can’t even imagine. Simoni, his long-time crush, forces Trenton to examine what he wants out of a relationship. And Kallista is driven, outspoken, and angry; with her help, Trenton learns to question everything he has always believed.

I’m excited to see where book two takes Trenton, though given where this book ended, it is hard to imagine it being anything like the first.

Secrets of Neverak (A Tale of Light and Shadow #1) by Jacob Gowans

neverakWhen I read the first book in this series, I was skeptical. It was described as a fantasy book, yet did not really seem to contain, much, if any, fantasy. Instead, it felt more like a love story set in some vaguely historical time period (no computers or technology but not located anywhere familiar). It turns out that the first–which was also an enjoyable read though it didn’t really feel like my genre–was more like set up for a much bigger, more fanastical follow up.

Secrets of Never really picked up in the areas where I felt the first book was lacking. The fantasy elements were real and tangible, but not overwhelming. We learn that there is a Seer who can predict possible futures and help manipulate events (as well as perform some unique spell craft, which we have only scratched the surface on), there are magical artifacts that can curse or provide gifts to people, and there is a type of magic called “The Path of Lyrial” that can be passed down via a type of blessing. There are ghosts and other haunting beings and supernatural creatures such as dragons.

The characters were given room to grow and develop into multi-dimensional characters. The most interesting thing about many of the main characters is that they are allowed to be flawed–Henry has too much pride and holds himself accountable for ever misstep whether or not he had anything to do with it, Maggie can be cruel and lash out when hurt and tends to be critical and judge harshly, James is afraid to open up to people because of a heart break in his past that has left him distant and cold, and Ruther is addicted to gambling and drinking which often gets him into trouble. Isabelle, who spent much of book one unconscious, finally gets her own storyline where we can see her strength of character and resourcefulness and understand why Henry loves her so much. While I would like to see her be more multi-dimensional like the others (of all the characters she is the only one who is too perfect and has no identifiable character flaws as yet), it was nice to finally get to know her. Even the evil emperor and his general have distinct characters quirks that bring them to life.

As the story progresses, it is clear that there is a much bigger picture than any of the involved characters realize. They have unwittingly been drawn into the midst of a battle that goes beyond two kingdoms fighting for power and of which we have only seen the smallest inklings so far. This series has a lot more to give and if book 2 is any indication, book 3 will be even better.