Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Blue Sword

Author: Robin McKinley
Number of Pages: 248
Reading Level: 6th grade and up
Series: Damar #1
Reading Time: 8 days

After the death of her parents, young Harry Crewe is sent to live in the far-off Istan at the edge of the Homeland border with her older brother. Harry has always been different, but she finds herself becoming more so as she continues to be attracted to the generally despised landscape of her new home.

Rumors abound in the Homeland border about the mysterious Hillfolk, Old Damarians who possess kelar, a kind of magic, and speak a strange language. Rumors come to life, though, when the king of the Hillfolk, Corlath, shows up in Istan wanting to meet with the General. The meeting is unsatisfactory for both parties, but Corlath leaves with more than he came with - Harry. Spurred into taking her by his uncontrollable kelar, Harry is whisked away to the Hillfolk, where she discovers more of herself than she bargained for.

Having just read Hero's Song and Fire Arrow, my expectations for The Blue Sword were low. I'd read too many fantasy novels lately that were unoriginal and played off of other writers' work. I was pleasantly surprised by Robin McKinley's novel. While the strong female protagonist is something of a stereotype today, I found myself rather enjoying Harry. Though she is much like other female protagonists, she is also different in that all she wanted was to fit in. She belonged to two places and so felt torn between the two. All the characters, actually, were very well-written and wonderfully lifelike. I especially loved Corlath, the king of the Hillfolk. He seems wise beyond his years, but you realize over the course of the novel that he is, in fact, not much older than Harry and sometimes acts thus.

More than any of the characters or individuals, though, the setting really pulled me in. I loved the different cultures of the Hillfolk and the Homelanders or Outlanders. The stark beauty of the desert was beautifully written, and the fascinating language and culture of the Hillfolk was pleasantly foreign and yet slightly relatable at the same time.

The plot itself was gripping for, though you know that good must win, you do not know how or when or who will fail to make it to the end. I read the last fifty pages with urgency, and did not stop even for dinner. I commend McKinley, though, for her ending. Not only was it satisfactory to the reader, tying up all the loose ends, she gave us a picture of what happened years after the end of the novel, for no apparent reason other than that the reader would want to know. I found myself giggling like a child, I was so pleased with the ending.

This is definitely a book that I want on my shelf to read again and again.

A Note to Parents:
In the fantasy genre today, preteens and teens are flooded with the paranormal. Vampires, werewolves, demons. I do not think these things are to be taken lightly in a spiritual sense; our culture is trying to normalize and glorify that which has been considered dark and evil for centuries. That being said, this book provides a wonderful alternative. There is magic in it, so if you object to your child reading anything with magic or sorcery than this book would obviously not be recommended. However, other than the magical element, this book had next to nothing inappropriate in it. A few mentions of d--n. A slight reference to the kings of old sleeping with many women. All in all, I'd say it was a wonderful fantasy read for any preteen.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Gone with the Wind

Author: Margaret Mitchell
Number of Pages: 1024
Reading Level: 9th grade and up
Reading Time: 1 month

Margaret Mitchell's classic novel of the decline of the Old South centers around a spoiled, selfish girl called Scarlett O'Hara. The clever and manipulative Scarlett, who grew up in the cotton-rich South, has always gotten whatever she wanted, whether it be men, jewelry, or a trip to the nearest town. However, all of that changes with the outbreak of the Civl War. Death becomes all too real, food becomes scarce, and Scarlett, determined not to be beaten by the war, takes everything she can and gives nothing back. However, she sacrifices all the ladylike teachings that have been instilled in her, and the remnant of the South doesn't like it. In fact, the only person who seems to understand her at all is the roguish, sarcastic, and dashing Rhett Butler, who cares for no one but himself. In this brilliant novel, you see an age passing into oblivion, and the Old South is "gone with the wind."

I was so surprised at the draw of this book. I truly loved it. I hated Scarlett at first and couldn't imagine living through a thousand pages of her selfish, obstinate ways. As the book progressed, though, I came to understand Scarlett a little better, and while I didn't like her, I did respect her. She had strength, passion, determination, and a will to move forward instead of looking back. You come to realize after a time that it was only people like her who survived, emotionally, the decline of the South. I also loved Rhett Butler. Like Scarlett, I thought he was a disgusting, rude man at first, but as time goes on you begin to appreciate his suavity, his sarcastic bite, and his sliver of a conscience that popped up occasionally.

The depictions of the South and the Civil War were fascinating. I, like nearly everyone else in America, learned about the Civil War from the viewpoint of the North. Slavery was bad, we all agree upon that. The South was racist; it's true. But it doesn't hurt to see both sides of a conflict, even if you know which one is right. It's always interesting to step into another man's shoes and see things the way he did. The racism was shocking, but it was true to history. And it shows you a new perspective on slavery, the new freedom of slaves, and even the Ku Klux Klan (though, let's be real, it was still horrid).

My favorite part of the book, though, was the relationship between Scarlett and Rhett. It fluctuated from like to dislike, to abhorrence to love and back again as quickly as could be. As a great lover of sass in novels, this one was especially great. Their arguments, their banter, Scarlett's indignation at nearly anything Rhett said, Rhett's brutal honesty; there were times when I laughed out loud at their conversation!

Gone with the Wind is, indeed, a masterpiece of Southern literature, one that I will be reading again and again.

A Note to Parents:
This book is definitely not for children. There's prostitution, adultery, lust, murder, possible rape, and quite a bit of language. It is, however, a brilliant novel, and I would recommend it to any high school student mature enough to read a thousand pages of classic Southern literature. My biggest complaint (and it's not even really a complaint) would be the blatant racism. However, I give this a pass because, as wrong as it is, it fits with the time period. If the book wasn't racist, it wouldn't be accurate. That being said, this book could bring up great conversations on morals and what you would be willing to do to save yourself, your family, and your home in a situation like Scarlett's.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Fire Arrow

Author: Edith Pattou
Number of Pages: 332
Reading Level: 6th grade and up
Series: The Songs of Eirren #2
Reading Time: 4 days

Fire Arrow starts off where Hero's Song ended, this time focusing on the young archer that journeyed with Collun to defeat the Firewurme.

Brie has been living happily at Cuillean's home, planting gardens with Collun, but there is still a hunger in her for revenge on her father's murderers.

Unable to let this drive rest, Brie leaves Cuillean's house to track down her father's killers and destroy them. Along the way, she discovers a magical fire arrow that is as driven and focused as she herself is, and it is perhaps making her even more so.

Family secrets and the strange pull of the fire arrow lead her to the strange and reclusive Northern country of Dungal, where she finds herself more at home than ever. Her biggest challenge, though, will be letting go of the hatred that she has grown in her heart.

I liked Fire Arrow better than Hero's Song, but it was still not the best fantasy novel I've ever read of its type. The plot was much more original in this second book, and used much less of the Lord of the Rings archetypes. Similar to Hero's Song, I liked the focus on the inner life of the main character. By the end of the novel, you've come to know Brie very well, her faults and her strengths, likes and dislikes, struggles and hopes. The culture of Dungal, especially the Sea Dyak sorcerers and the fishing villages were wonderfully interesting. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the book was when Brie attends a "binding ceremony," which is the Dungalan equivalent to a wedding. It was so intriguing to read about their traditions.

The villains were vile, the heroes took courage when it seemed their was none, friendships grew, there was even a tiny bit of romance. All in all, Fire Arrow was a fairly good book. My biggest complaint would be that I felt there were a lot of loose ends. When does Brie return to Dungal? What happens to her and Collun? Queen Medb is still out there, no doubt making devilish, evil plans; what happens? Who defeats her? Does anyone? Where does Cuillean fit into all this? Will he and Collun ever meet? This would all be acceptable if there was a third book in the making, but, alas, there is not. How very unfortunate.

A Note to Parents:
This book was very clean. Not very gory, hardly anything that could be taken as even remotely inappropriate. Characters do drink wine or mead occasionally. If you object to your children reading anything with magic or sorcerers, I would steer clear of this series.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hero's Song

Author: Edith Pattou
Number of Pages: 333
Reading Level: 6th grade and up
Series: The Songs of Eirren #1
Reading Time: 6 days

Collun has lived peacefully with his family in the kingdom of Eirren for his entire life. A shy, quiet young man, he prefers tending his garden to swordplay or fighting.

But Collun must leave his comfortable world behind when his sister Nessa is kidnapped. Joined on his journey by an aspiring bard, a mysterious archer, and a mystical Ellyl (the equivalent of an elf), Collun must traverse the kingdom, uncovering dark secrets and facing even darker forces.

When I first started reading this book, I did not like it one bit. To me, it was the stolen world of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. And, indeed, that didn't change throughout the story. There were Ellyl (elves), morgs (orcs), and the old wizard guide Crann (Gandalf). However, as I kept reading and resigned to the fact that this world was going to be uncannily similar to that of Lord of the Rings, I began to be able to appreciate the story.

Collun, himself, was actually one of my favorite parts. He strays for the normal archetype of the hero. He wasn't brave or strong, impulsive and hotheaded. Collun was shy, scared, and unsure of himself. He loved gardening and reading. One of the most fantastic journeys of the story was Collun learning how to be brave.

The writing was fair, and I enjoyed Hero's Song on the whole. I would suggest, though, that if you are to read any of Edith Pattou's books, it be East. I thought her writing and storytelling in that book was far better than in this one.

A Note to Parents:
This book was completely clean. Given the plot, it wasn't very gory or violent. The characters often drink mead or wine and get lightheaded (although, that is very common in fantasy world settings). For parents that don't like their children having anything to do with witchcraft or magic, though, I will warn that this book did have both a wizard and the equivalent of an evil sorceress.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fiddler's Green

Author: A.S. Peterson
Number of Pages: 323
Reading Level: 9th grade and up
Series: Fin's Revolution #2
Reading Time: 4 days

It is the middle of the Revolutionary War and all Fin Button wants is to go home. Unfortunately, she is wanted for piracy by the British and for mutiny by the Americans. The American congress, though, is prepared to offer her a deal: rescue a kidnapped French countess to spur the French into fighting with America, and get a full pardon for all crimes committed.

Determined to be pardoned so that she can go home, Fin and her crew set off for the Barbary Coast, where they face more dangers than ever before. And, in the midst of all this, Fin is forced to realize that she has changed drastically.

I didn't think this book could possibly be better than The Fiddler's Gun, but I was mistaken. Fiddler's Green was more exciting, more touching, more beautiful, more rollicking, and more fun to read than even the first book.

I truly loved it. Fin is a character everyone can relate to - she's sometimes scared, she doesn't like that she's changing, she sometimes lets her anger get the better of her, and she can fall prey to pride. Fin is human, and that's why she's so appealing.

There are lots of new characters in the second book. Some wonderful, some confounding, and some that you just love to hate. My personal favorite of the newcomers was Jeannot, a Frenchman Knight of Malta, sworn to protect the Mediterranean from pirates and rescue those who are slaves to them. In fact, I wish there was an entirely different book just about Jeannot's life.

I've said it before for The Fiddler's Gun and I'll say it again for Fiddler's Green - A.S. Peterson's prose is phenomenal. He has a power over words that most people only dream of. His descriptive language is mind-blowing, and the pictures he draws of characters, places, battles are so very lifelike. This book deserves to be read if only to experience the beauty of Peterson's writing.

I'm saddened that there are only two books in this series. All the easier to reread, I suppose. And I certainly will be rereading this.

A Note to Parents:
Like The Fiddler's Gun before it, Fiddler's Green is not a children's book. But, as far as teenager/young adult novels go, this one is relatively clean. There are cuss words interspersed (well, they are pirates). There is the occasional mention of whores or a brothel. The biggest standout for me, though, as far as parental guidance goes, would be the gore of it. This book is not for the weak of stomach. A man has to have his leg sawed off, another gets whipped until his back is a bloody mess, and still more are emaciated and grotesque from years of slavery. Overall, though, I would say it's one of the more appropriate books for teens these days.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Fiddler's Gun

Author: A.S. Peterson
Number of Pages: 293
Reading Level: 9th grade and up
Series: Fin's Revolution #1
Reading Time: 3 days

Seventeen-year-old Fin Button is fed up with orphanage life. She's tired of the old sisters bossing her around and telling her to act like a "lady." She's tired of the monotony. She misses her fiancée Peter, who left the orphanage to establish a home for them. In fact, the only good thing about the orphanage is her growing relationship with the old cook, Bartimaeus.

But when an incredible turn of events lands her on a privateer's ship, running from the law with a dark secret, she's scared that her life will never be how she wanted it to be.

I've been reading so many children's books lately that it was nice to get into a book that was geared toward adults. A.S. Peterson's writing is phenomenal. I found myself getting pulled along by the lull of the language. It was almost poetic. When he writes, you can feel the ocean surging underneath you, hear the clang of swords in battle, and smell the smoke from freshly shot cannons.

More than the story itself though, I loved the protagonist. Fin Button is an incredible character. She's one of those characters that feels like a friend right off the bat. In a world where feminism has taken off, I was afraid that Fin would be just another tomboyish, never-getting-married, take-care-of-myself girl that has become all to stereotypical these days. She wasn't though. Fin desperately wanted to get married. She was tough and confident without coming off as feminist.

The other characters were just as endearing. In fact, one of my favorites was Armand Defain, the Frenchman of dubious intent and even more questionable roots. You really know nothing about him, but you love how suave he is, how gentlemanly on the outside when you know from the glint in his eye that he is not all he seems.

I don't read a lot of historical fiction, but A.S. Peterson's book really pulled me in. I can't wait to read the next one.

A Note to Parents:
Most likely, by the time your kid's in high school, they can choose what they want to read, and choose wisely. This book, while it does have cussing, drinking, murder, treachery, and mention of rape, is far preferable to many of the other choices your teen has. The romance is wise and pure and beautiful. The writing is elegant and lyrical. The only iffy thing about it would be that Fin decides midway that God doesn't care about her, and is described as not being "on good terms with the Lord." All this set aside, though, I'd say this is one of the cleaner choices one can make in a book these days.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Author: Cynthia Lord
Number of Pages: 224
Reading Level: 4th grade and up
Reading Time: 2 days

Chew with your mouth closed.

If someone says "hi," you say "hi" back.

Not everything worth keeping has to be useful.

Sometimes people laugh when they like you. But sometimes they laugh to hurt you.

These are all rules that Catherine has written down for her little brother, David, who has autism. She loves her brother dearly, but sometimes she wishes he could just be normal.

As the summer starts out, Catherine makes two new potential friends. There's Kristi, the new girl who moved in next door, and Jason, the boy she sees at Occupational Therapy with David. Jason is in a wheelchair, and can't talk, so he uses cards with pictures and words on them to communicate.

Catherine, living in a world that most people will never fully understand, wrestles with how much she loves her brother and how she's embarrassed of him at the same time. She is frustrated that, in her family, it always has to be about David, never about her. And most of all, she asks herself the question: What is normal?

This book was phenomenal. As a girl who has two little siblings with special needs, one with autism, Catherine's story really resonated with me. I've felt the frustration that Catherine has felt in David never being "normal." I've experienced everyone getting invited except us. I've had times when I felt it was all about my little brother and nobody thought that I mattered. This is a brilliant book to read for anyone who knows someone with special needs or knows someone who has a family member with special needs. It gives you this tremendous sense of not being alone.

I would also recommend this book to people who have had little or no contact with special needs. Sometimes people do things as jokes or say things in passing that hurt. Maybe they didn't mean to be mean or hurtful, but they were. This book gives you a glimpse into what a family member of someone with special needs goes through and feels when someone, knowingly or unknowingly, insults their sibling or child.

This was a beautiful, touching book. One that I would say everyone needs to read.

A Note to Parents:
I found nothing remotely inappropriate in this book. In fact, I would say make your kids read it.

The Moorchild

Author: Eloise McGraw
Number of Pages: 256
Reading Level: 6th grade and up
Reading Time: 4 days

Born half-Folk and half-human, Moql was raised in the Mound on the moor with the rest of the Moorfolk. But soon, the Folk began to see that Moql was different. She couldn't do all of the things that Folk could do.

Thinking her to be a danger to their society, the Folk 'changed' Moql, stealing a human baby and putting her in its place. Because time runs different in the Mound, Moql is a baby again as soon as she's set in the cradle. And, soon, she forgets all about the Moorfolk.

Moql, now Saaski, as her human parents name her) has never been a normal child. The other children are cruel to her, and the elders in the town gossip about her, calling her a 'changeling.' In fact, the only place Saaski seems to fit in is on the moor, playing her father's bagpipes.

When bad things start happening around the town, the people blame it on Saaski. They get meaner and bolder. Saaski and her parents are terrified at what they will do...

This book was surprisingly good. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I loved it. The voice of the book pulls you into Scottish culture. I even found myself reading in a Scottish accent. You get such a beautiful picture of Scotland - its landscapes, its people, its folklore. Every day, I'd listen to the soundtracks of Brave and The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep because I was so enthralled with the Scottish influence in the book.

Besides the wonderfully rich culture, though, the story was also really good. There is hardly a person in the world who has never felt that they were different from everyone else, and not known how to "fix it." The reader easily relates to Saaski, and the story is so full of magic and superstition that it pulls you in hard.

I'm actually really sad that I never read this as a child - I think I would've loved it even more then.

A Note to Parents:
This is an excellent children's book, especially for kids who really like fantasy. So much of preteen/older child fantasy these days is laden with sappy romance and creepy, devilish creatures. This book is clever, informative, and truly magical. It would be a great introduction to learning about Scotland, and a fantastic conversation opener about superstition or inclusion. The only possibly negative aspects: in the Mound, babies are taken away from their mothers and the mother has no particular feeling toward the child (although, personally, I thought this was fascinating). Saaski's parents weren't married (I don't think the Folk marry at all...), and her human dad obviously wasn't there for her. There are numerous mentions of drinking and drunkenness.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Throne of Fire

Author: Rick Riordan
Number of Pages: 452
Reading Level: 5th grade and up
Series: Kane Chronicles #2
Reading Time: 10 days

If you've ever in your life found Egypt or Egyptian mythology remotely interesting, this series is for you.

The second book in Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles picks up about three months after The Red Pyramid ended. Carter and Sadie are running the Twenty-First Nome with their Uncle Amos, where they have recruited many kids both older and younger than themselves to follow the path of the gods. The most notable of the new recruits being:

a) Walt - An attractive young man (according to Sadie) and her new crush, since her old flame Anubis is, after all, the god of the dead.

b) Jaz - A girl following the path of Sekhmet, the goddess of causing and healing disease.

c) Felix - A young boy, only nine years old, whose main use for magic is summoning penguins from Antarctica. Alright, so he's really not that important (at least not yet), but I thought he was hilarious.

The premise of the book is Sadie and Carter's journey to find the book of Ra and then awaken the sun god. This causes much controversy within the House of Life (who are still trying to deny the path of the gods), which makes the Kanes' mission that much harder. Even the gods are unsure of it.

The danger is that Ra could be old and senile - not brilliant characteristics for the leader of the movement against Apophis, lord of chaos. Nevertheless, Sadie and Carter embark on their journey.

Meanwhile, Zia is still missing. I must say, I really missed Zia. She was sort of cold and haughty (well, she was a fake clay figure) in the last book, but I liked her all the same for it. It's sad to have your favorite character missing.

Overall, it was a pretty good book. Not as good as the first in the series. And, let's be real, not nearly as good as the Percy Jackson and the Olympians or the Heroes of Olympus series. But it was a solid second installment, and it did leave me wanting to read the third, though not with the sense of urgency that... ahem... The Son of Neptune did.

A Note to Parents:
I'd say that this book is a clean read, as long as you're okay with your child reading books in which Egyptian gods are "real." Sadie sometimes thinks about the physical attractiveness of Walt and Anubis. There is mention of a shirt coming off. There are also a few instances of God's name being taken in vain.