Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Five Kingdoms #1: Sky Raiders by Brandon Mull

Sky Raiders (Five Kingdoms, #1)Cole and his friends visit a haunted house on Halloween, but they're quickly kidnapped and taken to another world, the Outskirts. On the way to the High King, Cole is sold as a slave to a gang that is salvaging treasures from floating castles. He becomes a scout, and his dangerous job is to explore castles to discover their possible treasures and dangers. Most scouts are expected to die, and Cole is lucky to survive his encounter with a huge scorpion-like monster. His next mission seems to be a little safer, until the gang is attacked by a cyclops, giant snake, and other creatures. Cole is left behind with a girl named Mira, and she reveals a secret about the evil High King now ruling the five kingdoms. They manage to escape the floating castle, but their lives are in even greater peril when four hundred of the High King's soldiers show up. Then there's the giant monster ravaging through the kingdom with a connection to Mira...Who is she?

The author also wrote the Fablehaven series, and I've enjoyed his work in the past. The plot includes quite a bit of adventure and enough action to keep most readers interested; there's a little bit of a lull about two-thirds of the way into the book. There's also an element of mystery surrounding Mira, and Cole has been told there's no way to get back to his real world. Cole's character shows a great compassion for others, and his bravery is realistic. There's no sense in doing something heroic for no good reason.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Five Kingdoms #2: The Rogue Knight by Brandon Mull

The Rogue Knight (Five Kingdoms, #2)Cole leaves Sambria and continues his adventure to help Princess Mira find her sister, Honor. Their father pretended to kill them and their other sisters, so he could steal their shaping powers, their ability to create illusions. Cole crosses paths with the slave trader who first brought him to the Outskirts and search parties are all over the place looking for Mira. Cole is reunited with an old friend, and they are joined by a powerful shaper, a high ranking member of the resistance. All the while, rumors abound of the Rogue Knight who is taking over cities by challenging and killing their champions. And finally, a devastating force called Morgassa is destroying cities and taking control of all who oppose her. Cole loses the powers he once had in Sambria, but there is uncommon power buried deep inside him.

This book is the second story in the Five Kingdoms series (there will be five). Illusions, magical swords and ropes, characters changing into animals all await you. Cole finding a friend completes part of his personal quest, but he won't give up until he finds Jenna. She's a classmate from school, but he never had the guts to say he liked her. The illusions of characters always leave doors open that they may not be what they seem. The characters are forced to seek help in places other characters are afraid to travel, and unusual alliances are formed. An imagination is needed in order to enjoy this series, but it's worth the effort. This author also wrote the Fablehaven series.

The Farwalker's Quest #1 by Joni Sensel

The Farwalker's QuestAriel and Zeke are looking forward to Namingfest when they'll learn their new apprenticeships. Zeke passes his test to become a Tree-Singer, but Ariel is distracted and fails her test to become a Healtouch. However, she's kidnapped by two strangers, and Ariel learns they think she might be a Farwalker;  all Farwalkers are thought to have disappeared after the Blind War and the Forgetting. Farwalkers have powers that can unite the many different villages and cities, and there are dangerous people who want Ariel dead. Zeke comes to Ariel's rescue, but the kidnappers are Finders and won't let her get away. The chase leads them across forests, mountains, and deserts, as Ariel tries to find the Vault, and its secrets from the past.

The Namingfest is much like The Giver and Divergent as children discover their roles in society, in this case when they reach the age of thirteen. The Blind War and Forgetting share the author's notion that societies can destroy themselves through fear and bad decisions. Is it better to forget about past mistakes that were made or learn valuable lessons from them? It's interesting to note that Ariel and Zeke's characters seem to be mostly defined after the Namingfest, but they become new characters as their new abilities emerge. Most of the characters are defined by their connections to nature. Despite the pessimism in the future of society, the Farwalker gives people hope.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

BreadcrumbsHazel has a wonderful imagination that she shares with her neighbor, Jack. They are best of friends until a tiny, magical bit of mirror falls from the clouds into Jack's eye. He immediately changes and starts treating Hazel rudely. One day, Jack heads to the sledding hill after school and ends up leaving into the forest with a white witch. Since he goes willingly, there is no escaping the witch. Hazel learns what happened a few days later and journeys into the forest to save her friend. The people she finds cannot be trusted, and they all tell her to leave; the witch cannot be beaten. A boy finally tells her to follow the cold, but what will she do once she finds Jack?

This book was a finalist for a Cybils award and told a tale of friendship. The setting for the first half of it was realistic but set the table the table for the setting in the magical forest. The characters in the forest added some drama as they seemed nice but had evil intentions. It was unusual when a boy told Hazel to trust the fearsome wolves, but that only added to the drama. The plot told an entertaining story and stressed a theme of not giving up hope in others.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac

Dragon CastlePrince Rashka's parents mysteriously leave the castle, and the Dark Lord arrives while they're gone. He's disguised and plans to have his daughter marry Rashka's older brother to become queen. She emits an enchanting spell that mesmerizes everyone, including the older prince. Rashka knows the castle is in danger, but he's not sure how to stop the Dark Lord as his evil magic grows more powerful. There are several attempts on Rashka's life, so he travels to his uncle for advice. He learns the story of Pavol, the first king of Dragon Castle, and the man who took away the Dark Lord's powers many years ago. Will Rashka find the power to stop the rise of the Dark Lord before it's too late?

This book was a 2011 finalist for a Cybils award in middle grade speculative fiction, and I really enjoyed it. Rashka was the overlooked younger brother, but he was the protagonist. He was the thinker in the family, while his brother and parents never worried about anything. The author made two wolves Rashka's sidekicks, and he provided the character with other mentors. The story of Pavol was shared in alternate chapters, and Pavol's memories gave Rashka some guidance. The author wove a suspenseful tale of magic, family, faeries, and dragons.

The Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbet

The Cabinet of Earths (Maya and Valko, #1)Maya's family moves to Paris for a year; her mother is seriously ill with cancer. Around the corner from their apartment, she notices a strange building with a salamander decoration on the door. It seems to be watching Maya, and her little brother points out the stone figure above them that looks just like her. An uncle lives inside the building, and an elderly cousin lives nearby. However, they do not get along. As the story unfolds, Maya discovers the uncle believes in immortality, while the cousin does not and guards a magical cabinet. The cabinet allows people to live forever, and it wants Maya to be its new keeper. She becomes the center of a struggle between life and death.

This book was a 2012 finalist for a Cybils award in middle grade speculative fiction. The plot is interesting and addresses the idea of eternal life. Maya and her brother are contrasting characters. Maya blends in, but her little brother is outgoing, trusting, and quickly makes friends. The author uses them as pawns in the conflict. I had some difficulty getting into the book. I was trying to understand the concept of the cabinet, the uncle's character and intentions, and Cousin Louise. People had trouble seeing her, but I was trying to understand why. I enjoy mysteries, but I guess I had trouble understanding the background of the story enough to enjoy the plot. By the time I did, I was halfway through the book. However, the book was a Cybils finalist, so it may be worth your time to check it out.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Dead Boys by Royce Buckingham

The Dead BoysTeddy's mother moves to Washington where she's starting her new job at the nuclear power plant. Teddy immediately notices some strange things. The tree across the street creeps him out and seems to move like a living thing. He meets some boys around town, but they've all disappeared when he tries to find them later. Teddy visits the town cemetery and discovers the boys he's met are all dead. And they were all twelve years old. And they died at the end of a decade. Teddy realizes he's also twelve, and it's now the end of a decade. The mutated giant sycamore tree now wants to feed off Teddy!

This book was nominated for a Cybils award and read like a ghost story. Teddy's strange experiences couldn't be explained, and things were more dangerous in the dark. He was frightened, but he didn't know who might be able to help him. I was kind of happy when the policeman didn't dismiss Teddy when Teddy told him about the missing boys. The author was able to create suspense effectively, especially once Teddy entered the old house.  His descriptive words appealed to all the senses, so readers will able to experience Teddy's fear.

The Books of Elsewhere #1: The Shadows by Jacqueline West

The Shadows (The Books of Elsewhere, #1)Olive moves into a strange old house, and the paintings left on the walls frighten her. A cat comes in the window one night and says the house will do whatever it can to get rid of her family. After Olive finds some spectacles, she falls into a painting of a forest and discovers each painting in her new home leads to a different place and time. Cats tell Olive "He" is watching, and their job is to protect the house. But others tell her the cats are spies and can't be trusted. The cats tell Olive her life may be in danger, but the beautiful woman in a painting says there's nothing to worry about. Olive has a bad feeling about the house, but she's determined to unlock its secrets. She finds a necklace that she can't take off and later discovers the power it possesses.

This book won the 2010 Cybils award in middle grade speculative fiction. I liked how the author developed the suspense through the characters and settings. Olive wasn't sure who to trust, so I was left wondering what was actually going on. The woman in the painting seemed pretty and sweet, but why would the cats be warning Olive if they were evil spies? Olive's character was adventurous and brave. The dark, damp, chilly basement was a very frightening place for her, but she knew she could find answers down there. The tension builds to an exciting climax after Olive unknowingly releases a dangerous character.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Books of Elsewhere #2: Spellbound by Jacqueline West

Spellbound (The Books of Elsewhere, #2)Since getting rid of the McMartins in book one, Olive wants to find a way to free Morton from being stuck inside the paintings. She can't magically enter them anymore by herself after breaking the spectacles, so she must get help from one of the cats. A boy next door says the McMartins probably had a grimoire, or spell book, and Olive becomes obsessed with finding it. She wants to look under the trap door in her basement, but the cat guarding it won't let her, for her own good. However, Olive conjures a spell to get past him, and she finds Mr. McMartin's spectacles. She says she's just using the book to help, but the cats believe the book is using her. Olive won't go anywhere without the spell book, and something is slowly taking over her life.

You should read book one first. It's entitled The Shadows. This book added a little more conflict as Olive separated herself from everyone trying to help her. The neighbors became more involved in the plot, and the identity of one neighbor was a surprise. The author did a nice job of describing Olive's internal conflicts; voices in her head encouraged her to make dangerous choices. The cats are important characters, but they add a humorous element to the plot. In this book, Harvey, one of the cats, believes he's a secret spy, paints himself green as a disguise, and calls himself Agent 1-800. If you enjoyed the first book in the series, you'll like this continuation of Olive's conflict with the McMartin family.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby

IcefallSolveig, along with her older sister and younger brother, are sent away by their father, the king, to hide from the evil Gunnlaug. Gunnlaug wants to kidnap and marry the beautiful sister, and her brother is the heir to the throne. They are guarded by the king's berzerkers, but these soldiers are frightening. Everyone will be in danger if the fierce animals hidden within them are released; they become crazy, wild killers. Solveig decides to become a skald, or storyteller, and she slowly understands the power of words found in stories and legends. Her stories bring joy to the group, and they bring comfort when the situation worsens. However, when the berzerkers fall ill and start to die, it's clear there's a traitor among them.

This book was a finalist for the 2011 Cybils award in middle grade speculative fiction. I enjoyed the stories told by Solveig and her mentor and the lessons they taught. Some readers may not like the pace of the plot, since the group spends much of it trying to survive the winter. The poisoning of the crew provided tension, and Soleig was upset the only people not affected were her family and friends; one of them was a traitor. The identity of this person was a surprise. In the end, Soleig's bravery and courage were most admirable.

The Magnificent 12 #1: The Call by Michael Grant

The Call (The Magnificent 12, #1)Mack is a very ordinary boy with an extraordinary number of phobias and fears. As a matter of fact, he has a phobia of phobias! He saves the life of a school bully, and they team up after seeing a strange, magical man appear from nowhere. It seems Mack is supposed to travel the world to find eleven other kids, and they will join together to save the world. Of course, he has no idea what this is all about, but he knows there have been several attempts on his life. A golem shows up to take Mack's place while he's out of the country, so he sets off with his new bully buddy to Australia. Hopefully, he'll learn how to fall from a plane, five miles up, without dying in the middle of the ocean.

This book tells a strange story and was a 2010 finalist for a Cybils award in middle grade speculative fiction. Mack is an unlikely, reluctant hero, and he becomes partners with a school enemy. I'm pretty tolerant of weird humor, and this book is full of it. The golem tells Mack about trying pizza for the first time. He needs to spit it back out, because he doesn't have a stomach. The plot is told in two settings, as the author also shares the story of the first Magnifica's fight against the Pale Queen. Gridlock was another reluctant hero, but he became the leader of the Magnifica. The golem kept an amusing diary for Mack, sharing how he "devoured" a book at school and how he learned you can't eat cats. If you have a tolerance for unusual humor, this book may be for you.

Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve

Fever Crumb (Fever Crumb, #1)Fever travels across future London to help an archaeologist, as he digs for Scriven artifacts. Scrivens were non-human, and they were lead by a man named Godshawk. They were wiped out during an uprising by the citizens, but Godshawk's secret laboratory is still hidden under the city. Fever starts to get strange visions (memories?), as she searches the tunnels, but she's not aware that her life is in danger; the last of the Skinners is hunting her down. Members of the Movement are closing in on London, and this may spell doom for the citizens of the city. Godshawk was working on a mysterious when he was killed, but will its discovery be a blessing or a curse?

This book was a 2010 finalist for the Cybils award in middle grade speculative fiction. I liked the idea of the plot, but it didn't totally work for me. I think I had trouble connecting with Fever's character, because she was so unsure of herself. She was raised to think logically, but her feelings confused her thinking. The visions helped with the confusion. I enjoyed references to artifacts that were actually objects from our everyday lives, but I'm not sure young readers will make the connections. Overall, I enjoyed the book.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Magnificent 12 #2: The Trap by Michael Grant

The Trap (The Magnificent 12, #2)Mack, Jarrah, and Stefan head to China, looking for the third member of the Magnifica. She ends up being a small dragon with the ability to transform into a human. The group then flies to Germany, on the back of the dragon's uncle, where they find two more members of the Magnifica. However, one of  them is pompously annoying, and the other is an apprentice to an assassin. They need the apprentice, or they can't form the Magnificent 12. This team is needed to defeat the Pale Queen before she wipes out humanity. In addition, Mack's group must face Thor and Odin, two of the most powerful Norse gods.

I read an eBook version of the story. This book is the second in the series, and you should read the first book before it. The humor continues to be a little weird, but it's no different from the first book. The author again shares a flashback story, but this time it explains why the old assassin doggedly stalks the kids. I enjoyed the plot of the book, but I was bothered by the thoughts of the golem, a mud monster impersonating Mack while he gone. The golem's thoughts were stuck in the middle of the plot without any notice, although later in the book they appeared as text messages. There were scenes with chases, fights, and nasty creatures, and they were mixed the author's sense of humor.