Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Dragon King Trilogy #1: In the Hall of the Dragon King by Stephen R. Lawhead

In the Hall of the Dragon King (The Dragon King Trilogy, #1)My name is Quentin. A dying knight gave me a secret message to deliver to the queen saying the king is being held captive by a sorcerer. The king's younger brother, Prince Jaspin, has been plotting to take over the throne, and he is having the sorcerer help him. Or maybe the sorcerer is really using the prince. It's hard to tell with evil men. After delivering the message, I joined the queen and two others in making a hasty getaway from the castle. We planned to help the king escape the sorcerer, but we were attacked by ruthless bounty hunters and became separated. I fear my friends have been captured, while I follow days behind them. The evil sorcerer has powers beyond my knowledge, and I don't know how far his powers reach. However, the god who created all others spoke to me in a dream, and he will support me in my quest for wisdom and truth and will help me save the king. I know my journey will eventually lead to the sorcerer's Legion of Death, but another wizard has said there's something special about me. The quest for righteousness and justice will be dangerous, but I must not give up.

This book will appeal to more mature readers, as it's very descriptive and spiritual. Quentin makes a spiritual connection with the Maker, or Man of Light, who says "gods themselves tremble in my presence." This God Most High becomes the source of all of Quentin's future abilities. I enjoy underdog characters who rise from unimportant pasts to become heroes. The plot slows down in places due to the amount of description and reflection, but it includes enough adventure and action scenes to keep things interesting. The plot builds to an exciting climax. Frequently changing settings can become confusing, but using it in this book allowed me to see the bad guy's plans and then see how the good guys were trying to stop them. However, it bugs me a little when the story changes settings with little warning. I read the story as an eBook, and the author doesn't use any punctuation, symbols, line spacing, or font changes to show the transitions.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Otherworld Chronicles #2: The Seven Swords by Nils Johnson-Shelton

The Seven Swords (Otherworld Chronicles, #2)My name is Artie Kingfisher. I'm really mad that I lost the sword Excaliber, one of the seven swords, to Lady Morgaine, and now she's kidnapped my friend, Qwon. I need to collect all seven magical swords in the Otherworld within the next ten days, then return to Avalon, or the portals to the Otherworld will be sealed for the next thousand years. I've assembled several knights, including my sister Kay, to retrieve the swords and save Qwon. Morgaine is ruthless. Sir Bedevere lost an arm, and now he's lost a leg! I am realizing that one of my allies may be crazy and dangerous, and an enemy may actually be an ally. Many secrets are being revealed, but I am the one who must understand them and save the worlds.

You should read the first book in the series before this one. I'm enjoying how the author keeps me guessing. Hints are dropped about characters' true motives, and some characters mislead others, Merlin included. Some of the author's ideas are unusual. A character is able to summon a ghostly arm that gives him amazing strength for two minutes. Characters are able to magically travel from place to place through portals, but they communicate with each other using IPads. Artie's scabbard is able to heal wounds immediately, and the magical swords give characters vast knowledge. 

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross

The Fog Diver (The Fog Diver, #1)The winner of the 2015 Cybils Book Award in middle grade speculative fiction is The Fog Diver! Nanites, microscopic robots created to clean up the earth, turn to killing billions of humans for causing the pollution, so all humans now live in the mountainous cities of Port Oro or the Rooftop, high above the nanite fog covering the planet. While other humans are killed by the fog, Chess is the only person able to survive in it without getting sick or dying. He is lowered into the fog each day to scavenge for valuable junk in hopes of making enough money to cure Mrs. E's fogsickness. Chess is later told that he is the key to finding the Compass, a machine capable of controlling the nanites. He also learns the ruthless ruler of the Rooftop is hunting him down, so his days of freedom are dwindling.

Since the story took place in Earth's future, I enjoyed the mixed-up references to our pop culture. A saying the book shared was "May the horse be with you", and it said we had a red-caped hero named Superbowl. Chess knew his abilities were unusual, but he didn't understand the importance of them. Many characters in middle grade novels have the same conflict. The main characters in this book were a ragtag team of kids whose talents meshed together. There was a leader, an under-sized mechanic, a strong-armed pilot, and Chess, the daring tetherboy. The author kept the plot exciting by putting the crew into impossible situations where they had to survive crashes, escape capture, and cheat death. This book is the first one in a series; the sequel is called The Lost Compass.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The 39 Clues #1: The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan

This book is the first in the series, and I gave it a rating of five out of five. The grandmother of Dan and Amy Cahill dies, and invites many disconnected relatives to the reading of her will. The will offers them the choice of one million dollars each or the chance to join a race to find a hidden treasure. The treasure will make the finder the most powerful person on Earth. Several families join the contest against their relatives, and Dan and Amy find themselves in the basement of a burning house while looking for the very first clue. The clues are related to Ben Franklin, a relative of the Cahills, and the children must figure out the meanings to the cryptic messages they find along the way. The one thing they know is that they cannot trust anyone! Later in the book, they survive an explosion, poison fingernails, a dart gun, and being lost in the catacombs under Paris.

Each book in the series is written by a different author with Gordan Korman writing the second book and Margaret Peterson Haddix writing another. The book was easy to read and moved along quickly, so most readers should enjoy it. The chase for a hidden treasure always makes for an exciting plot, and the twist of making it a race between family members was creative. How many books have uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews all competing against each other? And how many of the family members are willing to kill each other? The notion that the most influential people in history are ancestors in the Cahill family tree introduces the ability to include world history into the plot. I enjoyed that angle too, because it makes history part of the clue-gathering. The challenging thing for me is the fact that the entire plot results in the finding of one major clue that will help lead to the final treasure. I'll need to read another thirty-eight books if I intend to discover what everyone is fighting to find.

The Project by Brian Falkner

Tommy and Luke are mischievous high school students who are caught vandalizing a statue of the town's founding father using a toilet seat, toilet paper, duct tape, and a copy of The Last of the Mohicans. While trying to prove to the principal that the novel is the most boring book ever written, Luke discovers an article about Leonardo's River, a book written about Leonardo da Vinci that may be the most boring book in history. It turns out the book is located in the town's library and may be worth millions of dollars. Luke and Tommy get wrapped up in the mystery surrounding the book and the kidnapping of their teacher by Nazi sympathizers. The book may be the key that changes the outcome of World War II!

The big secret about Leonardo's River involved science fiction, but it didn't come about until the end of the plot. It's hard to believe that two high school boys can get so deeply involved in a plot that affects the entire the world, but what else is new? I enjoyed the banter and imagination between the two characters, as they tried to resolve the conflict. They tried to make sensible decisions, but the situation got out of control. The idea of changing the outcomes of past events isn't something new in literature, but combining Nazis, Leonardo da Vinci, and two high school boys was interesting.

Artemis Fowl #2: The Arctic Incident by Eoin Colfer

The Arctic Incident (Artemis Fowl, #2)This book is the second one in the series, and I gave it a rating of five out of five. Artemis discovers his father is still alive, but he's been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. Meanwhile, the LEPrecon squad, the underground fairy police, suspect the goblins are working with a human to smuggle in batteries. The batteries are being used to power weapons that were supposed to have been destroyed. This means there must be an LEP officer who has gone bad. The LEP suspects Artemis is the human selling batteries, so they bring him in for questioning. They figure out that he is not involved, but they decide to help Artemis with father if Artemis will help them find the smuggler. However, the fairies do not fully understand just how serious they're problem will become. Their whole world may come falling down.

This plot has quite a bit of action, and there are many twists. It turns out the LEP officer who went bad wants to rule over the fairies, and he has a secret helper. I enjoy characters who undergo positive changes, and Artemis seems to be a master criminal with some kindness inside. It's interesting to see how he's changed from the first book to this one. It a curious alliance between Artemis and the fairy police.

Otherworld Chronicles #1: The Invisible Tower by Nils Johnson-Shelton

The Invisible Tower (Otherworld Chronicles #1)My name is Kay Kingfisher. I am a competitive gamer, but I just found out my adopted brother is King Arthur, actually King Arthur II. Artie only discovered the truth after meeting Merlin in an amazing video game store. I was surprised when I found out about my little brother, but it's exciting to know I'm now the king's warrior! A spell was cast upon Merlin that imprisoned him in the store; he can't leave. Artie and I must retrieve Excaliber and locate a key that will free Merlin. One problem is the key is in the hand of the powerful Numinae; I mean, it's literally inside his hand! An even bigger problem is that Numinae works for Lady Morgaine, the woman who imprisoned Merlin. Morgaine has already sent a dragon to attack us, created tornadoes to destroy us, and she can see Excaliber anywhere in the Otherworld. Our world and the Otherworld must be reunited in order to survive, but Merlin is the only one who can do it. Our success rests with my little brother, King Arthur.

This book begins a series with another main character adjusting to newly-found powers. Artie's character has the added importance of being the king of two worlds. It's curious how the Otherworld mirrors our own world, although our world uses more science and the Otherworld uses more magic. However, the characters easily deal with both of them. Artie and his sister have knowledge of the setting after playing the Otherworld video game, and Artie even uses the game to explore and communicate with other characters. Excaliber magically gives him more information, so the plot doesn't spend a lot of time adjusting to the strange differences between the two worlds. Artie's dad finds out about the whole situation, and accepts it, while many/most books have kids sneaking around behind their parents' backs. I'm enjoying the smooth blend of unusual characters, and the conflict with Morgaine provides focus and tension to the series.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Storm: The Infinity Code by E.L. Young

The Infinity Code  (S.T.O.R.M. #1)This is the first book in the STORM series, and I gave it a rating of four out of five. Will is a genius kid with a number of spy-type inventions that he has created. He is recruited by another young, rich genius, Andrew, to help form a group to solve the world's problems. Gaia and Caspian are the other two members of STORM. Their first mission is to save a plane that is in danger of crashing due to a solar eruption. However, the big mission is to stop a group from destroying a secret, new space hotel using a black-hole weapon. The father of one of the team members has been kidnapped to create this new weapon, which creates an additional conflict. The STORM team travels across Europe into Russia to find the location of the black-hole weapon, which can potentially destroy the whole planet. Their intelligence and creative inventions are important in the resolution of the conflict. There are a couple of "surprises" along the way, although you'll probably be able to predict them.

I might be getting tired of genius, spy kids solving the Earth's problems, so this book may be worth a rating of five. The conflict is creative, and the internal problems facing the characters add a new dimension to the plot. Caspian is caught in a situation where he leaves STORM to help his father. He also has a conflict, because he helps to create this new invention that can cause the end of the world. Will and Gaia have family issues, and Andrew just seems lonely. All is good in the end, and the door is wide open for the sequel.

The 39 Clues #2: One False Note by Gordon Korman

This book is the second in The 39 Clues series, and I gave it a rating of four out of five. Amy and Dan continue their adventure into Austria and Italy as they follow clues involving the life of Mozart. They discover three missing lines to one of his musical pieces but don't understand the importance. They travel to museums and homes where Mozart once stayed, and they have several conflicts with other members of the Cahill family, of course. Once again, there are fires and cave-ins, and they find themselves in a boat chase through the canals of Venice. The contest to solve the mystery of the 39 clues continues, with the prize being a fortune that will make the owner the most powerful person in the world.

This book is very similar in style to the first book. The children pursue clues in foreign countries and are threatened by other members of the family seeking the hidden treasure. The plot is pretty basic and easy to read, but I fear that I need something different and challenging to keep my interest. The similarities in the first two books make the plot fairly predictable, although there are a couple of surprises. I don't think I'll be reading more of the series, but many of my students love it. Just because the style doesn't work for me doesn't mean the books can't be enjoyable to others.

The Other Side of Dark by Joan Lowery Nixon

I gave this mystery a rating of four out of five. Imagine you've gone to sleep as a thirteen-year-old girl , and you're seventeen when you awaken. Stacy is told that she's been in a four-year coma since the day she was shot by her mother's murderer. She now lives in the body of a high school junior, but her mind is that of a seventh grader. Stacy remembers that she saw the murderer right before he shot her, but she can't picture his face. She thinks it's someone she knows. The conflict heats up when news reporters spread the word that Stacy may be able to identify the killer. She starts getting threatening phone calls and doesn't know which people she's able to trust. Are boys showing an interest in her because of her looks, or is one of them the killer?

The author does a great job of building up the suspense. She introduces a number of possible suspects, and several of the threatening phone messages hint that the killer may have a friend helping him. The story is told from Stacy's point of view, so the thoughts of a teenage girl may not appeal to male readers. I thought the mystery was developed well and should be enjoyed by most readers. My biggest problem was how Stacy's family and friends weren't more protective of her when she returned home from the hospital. Leaving your daughter home alone the first day back after awakening from a four-year coma and a killer loose? Taking your friend to a party of strangers a few days later? It makes for good drama.

Stranger With My Face by Lois Duncan

Lois Duncan is one of my favorite mystery writers, and I gave this book a rating of five out of five. Laurie is confused when friends tell her that she's been seen in various places despite knowing that she wasn't there. She discovers that someone is impersonating her using astral projection. I would best explain this is as a person's soul leaving his/her body to travel somewhere else in the world while still being connected. Laurie finds out that someone from her past is trying to return, and she decides to find out more about astral projection. When Laurie chooses to try astral projection herself, she finds the consequences may be very serious, even deadly.

The conflict of the book is interesting and suspenseful; there is someone out there who seems to know quite a bit about Laurie's life and wants it. Laurie starts to delve into supernatural powers of which she knows nothing and puts herself into danger. I could have put this book into my fantasy section, but it reads as more of a mystery to me. That's one thing I enjoy about Lois Duncan's books; there's just a touch of supernatural without making them totally unbelievable.

Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan

Lois Duncan is one of my favorite mystery writers for adolescents, and I gave this book a rating of five out of five. Rachel is looking forward to the upcoming summer, sitting by the pool with her boyfriend Mike. However, her aunt and uncle are killed in a car accident, and her cousin, Julia, comes to live with them. Rachel gets some odd vibes about Julia, but she hasn't really met Julia before and her cousin is dealing with the death of her parents. However, Rachel should have been more suspicious when her sweet and loving dog, Trickle, started growling at her cousin. Julia starts to take over everything in Rachel's life. Her brothers and parents adore Julia, and her boyfriend adores Julia too. Perhaps too much. There is something spooky, strange, and evil about her cousin, but will Rachel be able to stop her before something really serious happens? Like death?

The plot slowly dropped clues that Julia might be up to no good, and it didn't take long to confirm that she had some kind of plan. Other characters wouldn't believe Rachel's suspicions, and they even got angry with her for saying bad things about the poor girl. Rachel finally discovered what was happening, although she thought it was just folklore. She also found an ally who might be able to help, but Julia found out about him too. This made the conflict even greater, since Rachel had no idea how to stop her cousin. The plot has suspense and a touch of the supernatural that most readers should enjoy.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Last Dragon Charmer #1: Villain Keeper by Laurie McKay

Villain Keeper (The Last Dragon Charmer #1)My title is Prince Caden of the Greater Realm, and I do not belong in Asheville, North Carolina. Dark magic brought me here along with my steed and a friend, the powerful, young sorceress named Brynne. Strangely, a young girl named Jane disappeared on the same day we arrived. I am currently residing with her foster mother, and I have dubbed my foster brother Sir Tito. I discovered the math teacher at school is actually Rath Dunn, an evil tyrant from my world, and I believe the vice-principal is a blue or silver dragon. All of the teachers fear her, so she must know something about Jane's disappearance from school. I hope to fulfill the quest for may father and slay one of the ice dragons in the woods, but I must first rescue Jane. I believe she is an enchantress, and I fear Rath Dunn is behind her kidnapping. I know the tyrant can't be trusted, but I suspect there is more going on here than I first suspected.

This book leaps into the start of a new series. The author didn't waste any time transporting Caden into the new world. I was a bit surprised at how easily Caden accepted things he'd never seen, like cars, computers, and telephones. He wasn't overly concerned about them, but I've never lived in a world with magic and don't know how he should behave. Who knows what I'd believe? The author added some amusing twists to Caden's character. Brynne accidentally cast a spell of obedience on him, so he had do whatever he was told for the next two days. Caden never hid his identity as a prince from anyone, so that created some interesting conversations with the police and his foster mother. Caden and the plot were very interesting, and they resulted in an exciting tale of adventure.

Tentacles by Roland Smith

This book is part of series, and I gave it a rating of four out of five. Marty and his friends, Grace and Luther, are joining an expedition to capture a giant squid and bring it back to display at an aquarium. The squid will be worth millions, since none of them are in captivity. However, Grace's grandfather tries to stop the expedition, because he's an evil man and wants to kill the expedition's leader, her father. He also wants the two dinosaur eggs that are hatching on the ship. The grandfather has a spy or two on the ship, and they are causing problems, including the attempted murder of Marty. The grandfather has assembled a force to attack the expedition ship, and the small group of security guards may not be enough to stop them.

The plot has a number of things happening that keep the action moving. The search for the giant squid becomes a minor plot due to the conflict with the grandfather and the hatching of the dinosaur eggs. There are some cool inventions used during the story such as flying robots bugs and a unique submarine that can travel deeper under the ocean than any other ship. There are several characters in disguise to keep readers guessing about who to trust. The plot builds up to an exciting climax, but the resolution leads right into the next book in the series.

The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch

This book is on our Battle of the Books list, and I gave it a rating of four out of five. The narrator reluctantly tells the story, because he's concerned about the readers safety. A girl, Cass, and a boy, Max-Ernest, become "collaborators" to try to discover the mystery surrounding the disappearance/death of a famous magician. The children find a symphony of smells and the magician's notebook, but that only leads to danger. An eerily beautiful lady and her large, male accomplice become interested in the items and eventually turn up at the children's school. When a student disappears, Cass and Max-Ernest suspect he was kidnapped by the strange couple, and Cass sneaks into The Midnight Senorium and Spa to investigate. Max-Ernest realizes it's a trap, and travels to the spa to save her. However, his appearance leads to the discovery of a secret society of evil, and may end in their doom.

The plot revolves around an idea of synesthesia; a condition where people's senses are mixed up. Smells can cause them to see colors, colors can cause them to experience taste, etc. The twin magician brothers are able to use this talent to secretly communicate messages. However, the woman and man seem to have found another use for it. And what's up with the couple and their followers constantly wearing gloves? What are they hiding? I enjoyed how the narrator occasionally reminds the reader about the peril of reading the book. The narrator also shares that "Only bad books have happy endings," and this book leads into a sequel.

Ripple by Mandy Hubbard

The novel was recommended by our school librarian, and I gave it a rating of four out of five. It's been two years since Lexi, a siren, drowned her boyfriend. She's been a loner since that day, and she controls the urge to kill by swimming every night in a secluded pond. However, she starts to like a boy in her class, and she fears she might kill him if they get too close. Is Lexi destined to live the rest of her life alone? Who is the new, cute boy who just joined their class, and why does he keep looking at her?

The author does a wonderful job of creating a suspenseful mood. Lexi's inner conflict between the need for friendship and her desire to kill made for an interesting turmoil. The author created a neat twist to the plot, and the climax was not what I was expecting. Students recommend this book too!

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardingle

Cuckoo SongThis book was a finalist for the 2015 Cybils Book Award in middle grade speculative fiction. Triss doesn't remember anything about falling into a lake, but it's changed her. She sleepwalks and starts eating strange things, including her dolls. For some reason, Pen, her younger sister, hates her. Triss follows Pen to an old movie theater and discovers a man called the Architect kidnapped the real Triss at the lake. Pen made a deal with the man to get rid of her sister, but she now wants to end the deal. A fake Triss was created at the lake, and this Not-Triss has made things worse. Not-Triss will disappear in a few days, but it wants to help rescue the real Triss and find out what really happened to their brother in the war. first. Not-Triss and Pen form an unlikely team, as they travel to the Underbelly in search of the Shriker. This man created Not-Triss and may be the only person able to help the girls uncover the mysteries and stop the Architect.

The whole conflict with Triss/Not-Triss was very creative. I don't remember reading about a character like that. The relationship between Not-Triss and Pen was dynamic. I expected it to change but not to that degree. The book's conflict was one of those where I was wondering how the author could possibly get it resolved, especially with a time limit and the antagonist having all the magical power.  Understanding the Underbelly, its inhabitants, and the deal between the father and the Architect required abstract thinking. The book will probably be most appreciated by upper middle grade readers.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Wings of Fire #6: Moon Rising by Tui T. Sutherland

Moon Rising (Wings of Fire, #6)
This book was a finalist for the 2015 Cybils Book Award in middle grade speculative fiction. Moon's mother hid her egg from the other Nightwings until Moon hatched into a beautiful black dragon. Moon has the rare abilities to read minds and see the future which makes her first day at the Jade Mountain Academy overwhelming. The school mixes different types of dragons from across the lands, and the images in their minds tell her Nightwings are not very popular. Moon hears thoughts in a dream planning a murder, but she can't identify the dragons making the threats. Moon's thoughts are interrupted by another telepathic dragon, imprisoned in rock two thousand years ago for having too much power. This dragon says he's not really that dangerous and only wants to keep other dragons from using the source of his powers for evil purposes. Moon needs the help of this mysterious dragon, but helping him may lead to disaster!

I liked Moon's character, as she felt like an outcast from the other dragons. Her telepathy gave her some power over them, but it overwhelmed her. The author's inclusion of the thoughts from so many other dragons started to overwhelm me! I wish Moon had discovered the skyfire sooner, because it blocked her from hearing the thoughts of other frequently seen characters. The plot read like a mystery, and I like mysteries. Moon was looking for suspects and motives when she still wasn't sure of the actual crime. Having a school full of dragons who had opposed each other in a recent war added to the tension. Surprisingly, I wished the plot had been more dragony. The characters flew sometimes, ate raw meat, and breathed fire sometimes, but I wanted more. The dragons acted like humans as they went to classes together, ate in a common area with their groups of friends, and enjoyed reading in the library. I sometimes forgot that I was reading about dragons.

Mars Evacuees #1 by Sophia McDougall

Mars Evacuees (Mars Evacuees #1)Aliens called Morrors settle on the polar ice caps of Earth, but now they're battling humans for other lands. Alice is chosen to attend a new battle school on Mars, since her mother is a famous combat pilot. Scientists have been changing the air, plants, and animals to prepare the planet for humans. The adults disappear from the camp, and the older students take over by attacking the younger ones. Alice and three friends steal a ship and fly toward another Mars base. However, they're attacked by strange creatures, and they're not sure if the creatures are from Mars or if they're Morror weapons. What are the kids supposed to do with Earth a million miles away?

Interesting conflict. The humans and Morrors seemed to be allies for awhile, but then war erupted between them. Scientists were preparing Mars for settlement, but it became a battleground too. There was a twist to the plot when the kids unexpectedly came upon a Morror on Mars. The antagonists totally changed toward the end of the book, but I'm sure it will be the main conflict in the sequel. The personalities of the main characters were common, but the robot teacher, called Goldfish, wanted the kids to continue their lessons even as they tried to survive. Goldfish was the character the others counted on when things got tough.

The Dungeoneers #1 by John David Anderson

The Dungeoneers (Dungeoneers Series #1)This book was a finalist for the 2015 Cybils Book Award in middle grade speculative fiction. Rather than being punished as a pickpocket, Colm travels to a faraway castle for training as a dungeoneer. Dungeoneers search for treasures that are protected by monsters, traps, and magic spells. Colm, a rogue in training, is teamed with an overzealous warrior named Lena, an incompetent mageling named Quinn, and Serene, a girl able to communicate with animals. He is tutored by a man named Finn in the art of picking locks and all of the other skills needed by rogues. Colm learns quickly, and his leadership guides his team to become the best dungeoneers at the school. They are rewarded with an opportunity to raid an actual dungeon and steal treasure from giant ogres. However, Colm learns the hard way that it's difficult to know who he can trust.

This kind of book is right up my alley, and I really enjoyed it in the end. I like the misfit characters with unusual personalities. Lena is a brave warrior but gets dizzy seeing her own blood, and Quinn stutters, which makes his spells go wacky. Colm is the character holding everyone together, and he cares about his new friends. He enjoyed learning, and he loved the challenge of picking locks. Even though I enjoyed the book, I wasn't sure where the plot was headed. The big conflict wasn't clear until later in the book, although there were small hints along the way. That being said, this book should appeal to adventure lovers, and the climax did not disappoint.

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Castle HangnailThis book was a finalist for the 2015 Cybils Book Award in middle grade speculative fiction. Castle Hangnail needs a new a Wicked Witch very soon, or it will be decommissioned by the Board of Magic. A little girl named Molly shows up, and she's a witch. She pretends to be someone else, because she's not actually a Wicked Witch. She doesn't know many spells, but she must still complete four tasks in six weeks in order to save the castle. The townspeople are used to having a witch in the castle, so Molly doesn't really want to do anything that might hurt them. The guardian of the castle, Majordomo, suspects she's not really wicked, but he's not sure what to do. Molly manages to complete most of the tasks, and everything seems to be going well until... the real master of Castle Hangnail shows up with her bodyguards. It's the Evil Sorceress who taught Molly her first spells!

I enjoyed the different conflicts presented by the author. Molly needed to complete the tasks even though she didn't know evil magic, Majordomo knew her secret, and the topic of Molly's mentor kept popping up. Something didn't seem right. The characters were entertaining, and they all worked as a team. Molly's character was a big contrast to previous masters, and her minions didn't know how to react to her kindness. Molly was actually in charge of all the adults in the house even though she was just a little kid! It was also curious how the townspeople accepted having a witch among them. I figured most people would be terrified. The book taught a lesson of kindness and caring for others.

Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Bayou MagicThis book was a finalist for the 2015 Cybils Book Award in middle grade speculative fiction. It's Maddy's turn to spend the summer with her grandmother in the Louisiana bayou, and her sisters' stories make her nervous about staying with Grandmere. They say she's a witch, but they don't understand her magic. Maddy becomes best friends with a boy named Bear whose father works on an oil rig in the gulf. She learns to summon the fireflies and searches for Mami Wata, a mermaid guardian of the water. Maddy has inherited her ancestors' magic and loves the beauty and majesty of the bayou. However, she starts to see signs that something is seriously wrong. She sees visions of shadows and fire but doesn't understand the meanings. Maddy's fears come true, and the survival of the bayou depends on her.

This book will appeal to nature lovers. The author takes Maddy through the swamps and glades to help readers appreciate the plants and creatures living there. The conflict in the plot deals with nature versus man/technology and provides a lesson about ecology. There are subplots involving friendship, family, and abuse. The author's writing style is very spiritual and emotional, so the descriptions were beautiful and moving. The downside for me was that the plot moved a bit too slowly. While Maddy's adventures in nature were interesting, the actual conflict wasn't clear until I'd read over half the book. I knew Maddy would learn the magic, but I couldn't foresee what she would do with it. I wasn't sure where the plot was headed. However, the book was well-written and full of emotions.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Secrets of Nicholas Flamel #5: The Warlock by Michael Scott

The Warlock (The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, #5)My name is John Dee. Everyone wants me dead just because I want to release monsters into the world killing millions of people and all the Elders in the Shadowrealms. I've convinced Josh, one of the twins foretold to save or destroy the world, to help me release the beasts I've trapped on Alcatraz and unleash them on the city of San Francisco. Josh believes his sister, Sophie, has been tricked by the Flamels, since it's so easy for me to control his thinking. I know some of my enemies are traveling back in time to ensure the city of Danu Talis falls, otherwise the world of humans will cease to exist. The hatred for me has even united some enemies to stop my plans. There are battles brewing in all the Shadowrealms, but I will rule them all when the war is over.

You must read the other books in the series, or this book won't make much sense to you. The main characters are around fifteen years old, so middle school readers will most enjoy it. Mature thinking is needed to understand the plot twists and character conflicts. The setting has been bouncing across the world in the last couple books, and this book now jumps to other worlds, Shadowrealms, and time-jumps back 10,000 years in history. It introduces even more new characters, so the different storylines are a little bumpy. It's hard to smoothly follow the different plots when they jump between four or five settings. I really dislike how Josh and Sophie become more minor characters in this book. Yes, they're very important to the plot, but they're constantly following orders from others. I liked it better when they were able to let their own emotions guide their decisions.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Buried Thunder by Tim Bowler

This book was written by the author of the Blade series, and I gave it a rating of four out of five. Maya's parents have just purchased the hotel in a small English town, but Maya is already having some strange experiences. She saw three dead people in the forest, but the police couldn't find any evidence. She sees a fox with yellow eyes staring at her from outside her bedroom window, and she hears scratching outside her bedroom door. Mutilated bodies of cats have been found around the forest, and then there's the strange boy who threatens to attack Maya. What happened to the dead bodies Maya saw, and who's killing the cats? Is Maya going crazy, is someone messing with her mind, or are there supernatural forces at work?

The plot held my interest and had a good deal of mysterious suspense. The strange fox seemed to lure Maya back into the forest, and she almost seemed possessed. I knew something freaky was going on when the first police officer to show up at the hotel looked just like the first dead body! The falling action lasted a bit longer than necessary, but it was a great book.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp by Rick Yancey

I gave this book a rating of four out of five. Alfred Kropp's parents are killed, and he goes to live with his uncle. His uncle is a night watchman for a large company. A stranger appears and offers the uncle one million dollars to "return" his sword from the company's owner. Turns out, the stranger is lying, and the sword is the most powerful weapon in the world. Alfred discovers that the sword once belonged King Arthur and is being protected by descendants of his knights. Most of the knights are slaughtered in an ambush, so Alfred accompanies Bennacio, the last of the knights, to try to retrieve the sword. They travel over to England, escaping several attempts to kill them, and Alfred finds out that he has some secrets in his own past. He must recover the sword and protect the world from being destroyed by its power.

An interesting mental picture for me in this book is Alfred being the biggest kid in his class, but he's the one being bullied. However, I like underdog stories, and he wins out in the end. The conflict and plot held my interest, and there were action scenes to keep things interesting. Endings aren't always happy, but you can always look forward to the sequel Alfred Kropp: The Seal of Soloman.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle

I gave this book a rating of four out of five. Adam travels to Portugal for a summer job working with a world-famous marine biologist. Dr. O'Keefe is studying the starfish's ability to regrow legs that have been lost. On his way there, Adam meets a beautiful young girl named Kali who warns him that Dr. O'Keefe is actually a very dangerous man and a traitor to his country. Adam discovers the doctor has made great strides in his research that could affect the future of the world. He also finds there are people willing to kill to discover the doctor's secrets.

The conflict and plot were interesting and remained mysterious until the end. Like Adam, I wasn't sure which characters could be trusted. Adam made up his mind fairly quickly about who he trusted, but some complications arose later in the story. I had my suspicions about different characters, and it turns out that my instincts were correct. Dr. O'Keefe's research reminded me a bit of the new Spiderman movie.

Edison's Gold by Geoff Watson

Edison's GoldIt looks like this book is probably the first in a series, and I gave it a rating of four out of five. The main character is the great, great, great grandson of Thomas Edison. His father has lost his job, they're moving to Wichita, and most of Thomas Junior's inventions manage to go wrong. Then, Thomas and his two friends discover that his namesake may have discovered a formula to change metal into gold. One hundred years ago, a group called the Sub Rosa created a mystery of clues to hide it from people who would use it for their own gains. Thomas and his friends follow the clues, try to avoid being kidnapped, and try to avoid having their parents find out. Thomas finds that a couple of his failed inventions may actually come in handy.

The plot was fun and easy to follow. There weren't any real confusing twists, and all of the kids had natural fears, unlike some adolescent stories. They were afraid of being grounded by their parents, they were afraid of heights, and were even a little panicked around rats and darkness. The plot continues as the kids and Thomas' father become the new Sub Rosa.

Eddie: The Lost Youth of Edgar Allan Poe by Scott Gustafson

Eddie: The Lost Youth of Edgar Allan PoeThis book is a quick-read with many pictures, and I gave it a rating of three out of five. Eddie's parents die, and he moves in with some childless friends of his mom. One night, young Eddie dreams about being a brave knight and battles a bird and wild cat. The next morning, Eddie is accused of hanging the neighbor's rooster in a sack, atop the barn, along with his pet cat. Eddie is given twenty-four hours to prove his innocence before he'll receive a whipping. He follows some clues and discovers that there is a magician visiting nearby, and he may be talking to the devil. Eddie follows the magician one night and discovers the secret of his magic, and he also finds out that the magician knew his mother!

The first couple of chapters were confusing as Eddie drifted in and out of sleep. I wasn't sure what was real and what was a dream, because I also didn't know the book's genre. I didn't know if it was realistic fiction or some type of fantasy. The plot became easier to follow once Eddie woke up. The mystery isn't anything major or dramatic, so I didn't give it a higher rating. The book has nice interactions between a variety of unique characters.

Scorpia by Anthony Horowitz

This book is the fifth in the Alex Rider series, and I gave it a rating of five out of five. Scorpia has created a secret weapon called the Invisible Sword, and they're threatening to use it to kill thousands of children in London. They've also convinced Alex to join their organization by showing him video of MI6 killing his father. Alex attends Scorpia's training facility, and his first mission is to kill Mrs. Jones from MI6. Alex doesn't feel he can intentionally kill anyone, but Mrs. Jones was the person who ordered the shooting of his father. Alex gets caught between the two competing groups and is the key to stopping the Invisible Sword. Niles, a ruthless assassin for Scorpia, is prepared to kill Alex if he doesn't complete his mission.

Alex is bounced back and forth like a ping pong ball as he learns new truths about his father. The plot keeps you guessing as Alex trains to become an agent for Scorpia. It doesn't seem true, but there he is at their camp, excelling at all of his classes. The reader is also constantly wondering how the Invisible Sword works, especially after it kills eighteen people, under military protection, in the middle of the afternoon. It's also a mystery as to how it can be stopped once the secret is discovered. Of course, Alex has a deadly showdown with Niles during the climax of the story. It was an entertaining book.

Alex Rider #8: Crocodile Tears by Anthony Horowitz

This book is the eighth in the Alex Rider series, and I gave it a rating of five out of five. Once again, Alex finds himself in the middle of a potential disaster that could affect the entire world. This problem involves the genetic altering of wheat crops, and thousands of African people may die as a result. Alex accidentally meets the main antagonist, the bad guy, and his second meeting is accidental too. However, leaving the group of students during a field trip in a secret research facility is not accidental. Alex narrowly escapes that situation, but eventually finds himself captured, as usual. To torture him, the antagonist puts Alex in great pain, but the pain is his only away to avoid death. This book has plenty of action, explosions, fighting, and cool, little secret weapons. You'll wish you had his pencil pouch!

Alex Rider fans will love this book, but the style is the same as the other books in the series. Repetitive formats normally lose my interest. I've read several books in the series, but I've always allowed a few months between them. Alex always gets to use some clever new weapons, and I find myself wondering when he'll pull them out to use. The books are non-stop action with huge problems, so they hold the attention of readers. And fourteen-year-old Alex Rider is always able to defeat the masterminds, armies, and professional assassins just like any normal teenager. (Sarcasm alert!)

Ark Angel by Anthony Horowitz

Ark Angel (Alex Rider, #6)This book is the sixth in the Alex Rider series, and I gave it a rating of five out of five. Alex finds himself in the hospital, recovering from a bullet wound to the chest that he received in the previous the book. He stops an attempt to kidnap the patient in the room next door, but Alex is kidnapped himself. The kidnappers are a newly-identified, eco-terrorist group that attacks rich people around the world that they think are damaging the environment. Alex escapes and is rewarded with the opportunity to recuperate at the estate of the intended kidnapping victim, the son of a multi-billionaire. Alex doesn't trust the father; he's ruthlessly competitive and doesn't think much of his son. Alex has suspicions that there's more going on with the terrorists, the billionaire father, the CIA, and MI6. And Ark Angel, a luxury space hotel, becomes the main focus of everyone involved. The climax is out of this world.

The Alex Rider books usually have fun, adventurous stories to read. A fifteen-year-old saving the world is unrealistic, but the plot contains a great deal of action. Alex gets to use some cool spy inventions too. Alex manages to get himself into and out of trouble quite frequently, so readers should be able to stay engrossed. The climax is very unrealistic, but that's why it's called fiction! I haven't found that it makes a big difference if you read the series in order. I've skipped around and haven't had any trouble understanding the plots.

The Assault by Brian Falkner

AssaultI found this book on the New Releases shelf at my local library, and I gave it a rating of four out of five. The story takes place in the future, and Earth is at war with invaders from space. Earth is currently losing the war, since the aliens control all of the continents except for the Americas. Lieutenant Chisnall leads a small team of soldiers behind enemy lines in Australia. Their mission is to find out what the Bzadians have going on inside Uluru, a huge rock/mountain in the middle of the desert. It's heavily guarded and top secret, so it must be important. The team is disguised as the enemy, but they must "skydive" without parachutes, trek across the desert, get past Uluru's defenses, and somehow get inside the mountain. Oh yeah, and one member of the team is a traitor.

I didn't put this book in my fantasy/science fiction blog, because it's non-stop action from the first page to the last. The author shared a general idea about the mission, but even the team didn't know the details until they got inside the mountain. The addition of a traitor added an extra amount of mystery and suspense to the plot. Readers who enjoy war stories should like this book, because it describes military strategies and weapons throughout the book. The team of soldiers offered an interesting blend of characters, especially since one of them was trying to kill the others.

Grooves: A Kind of Mystery by Kevin Brockmeier

Grooves: A Kind of MysteryI gave it a rating of three out of five. Dwayne Ruggles discovers a mystery in the grooves of his blue jeans and a potato chip. You'll need to read the book to find out how. Dwayne receives a message from someone saying, "Please. You must help us. He's stealing the light from our eyes." Dwayne and his friend, Kevin, decide to investigate this clue, and it leads them to the factories of a local millionaire. They're almost caught trespassing several times, but their luck may run out.

The conflict is not overly dramatic, but the plot is entertaining. Dwayne and Kevin are worried about getting into trouble with their parents, but their third partner, Emily, has a mother who encourages her to cause problems for companies that harm nature. Dwayne's first-period teacher is supercool, while his physical education teacher doesn't know the names for half the class. The boys skip school for the first time to investigate, while Emily takes a day off from school every Wednesday. Again, this is not great literature, but it's fun to read.

The Last Musketeer #1 by Stuart Gibbs

The Last Musketeer (The Last Musketeer, #1)This book is very adventurous, and I gave it a rating of five out of five. Greg and has parents are transported back four-hundred years in time when an evil official, Michel Dinicoeur, from King Louis XIII's court steals his mother's magical necklace. The parents are captured, sent to prison, and sentenced to die in three days. Greg manages to escape and meets Aramis, Athos, and finally Porthos, The Three Musketeers; only they aren't Musketeers yet. The boys agree to help Greg rescue his parents, but the problem is bigger than they imagined. The prison seems impenetrable, but there are some confusing things happening. It's almost like Michel Dinicoeur has a twin, and he seems to know what they're going to do before it happens.

I found this book at my local library, and I enjoyed it more than I expected. The plot has a great deal of action and mystery, and it also teaches a little bit about the history of Paris. Despite the fact that Greg came from the future, he uses almost none of his knowledge to help solve his problems. That was very unexpected. I am interested to see how the second book continues the story.

The Last Musketeer #2: Traitor's Chase by Stuart Gibbs

Traitor's Chase (The Last Musketeer, #2)This book is the second in the series, and I gave it a rating of four out of five. Greg Rich, D'Artagnan, fears that Michel Dinicoeur has traveled to Spain to retrieve the Devil's Stone and to lead a Spanish army against King Louis in Paris. The Musketeers head to Spain to find out what's actually going on, but their teamwork starts to suffer during the long trip through the forests and down the river. Milady is actually making things worse, and Greg suspects she's trying to break them apart. He's not sure what Milady is planning. but she's also managed to get the Musketeers to question Greg's trust. When the Musketeers finally discover Michel's and Milady's plans, there may be no way to stop them from conquering France.

I enjoyed reading about the adventures of the Musketeers, although this plot had less action than the first book. The characters' have unique personalities and strengths which is why King Louis decided to make them a team. Greg's strength is in getting people to work together, and the conflicts in this plot challenge all of his abilities. I enjoy the mystery in the series, and it's more adventurous than regular fiction books.

The Last Musketeer #3: Double Cross by Stuart Gibbs

Double Cross (The Last Musketeer, #3)This book is the third in the series, and I gave it a rating of five out of five. The Musketeers manage to escape from their captors and meet up with the French army coming from Paris. However, they realize that Milady sent a false message to King Louis in order to get the army to leave Paris undefended. The enemy forces had a head start, so the city is under attack when the Musketeers return. In addition, Milady also returned to Paris and filled the king with more lies. The Musketeers are accused of treason, and King Louis wants them arrested. And all along, Dinicoeur is after the Devil's Stone, and he has a diabolical and cruel plan to stop Greg and the Musketeers from ever existing. Milady has also discovered that the pendant has powers, so she is after the stone too. The second half of the book is especially full of action.

This plot is back to the adventure of the first book, and the Musketeers get themselves into more impossible situations. Catherine becomes another main character, and Greg reveals his secrets to her. The plot flowed smoothly, with nice spots of unexpected suspense, and it kept me guessing and anticipating the next events. It looks like this book is the last one in the series.

Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits by Michael D. Bell

Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak BanditsThis book is a 2014 release, and I gave it a rating of four out of five. Lantern Sam is a talking cat who can only be heard by two people, the conductor on the train and Henry, a young passenger. Henry meets a young heiress who is later kidnapped and held for ransom. Sam happens to be the train's detective, and he secretly sets out to solve the crime with the help of Henry and the conductor. There are plenty of suspects on the train, and the clues lead Sam and Henry in many directions. A retired judge joins the investigation, and it's not clear if he's actually helping or hurting the search. Henry starts to close in on the kidnappers, but things become more dangerous. The kidnappers have guns, and they're not afraid to use them.

If you don't like the idea of a cat with the ability to talk to humans, don't even start the book. Sam is a cool cat, and his character mixes the mind of a detective with the urges of a feline. He likes his milk and sardines, and he needs constant thinking time, or is he napping? The plot includes Sam's retelling of his life story, but I don't think it's needed. I skimmed those chapters to keep my mind on the kidnapping plot. Sam's story is funny and interesting, and other readers may love it. The mystery is fairly easy to follow, but it includes some twists and turns. There is a false climax when the kidnappers are caught, so the ending is little surprising.

The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse by Bruce Hale

The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse: A Chet Gecko MysteryThis book is the first in the Chet Gecko series, and I gave it a rating of three out of five. Chet Gecko is a chameleon in elementary school, but he also happens to be a detective. For his first case, a classmate hires him to find her missing kindergarten brother, and he must be found by the end of the day. A stink-bug pie will be Chet's reward if he can solve the case. He discovers that a dangerous Gila Monster and his rat buddies are involved, and the clues are hard to find. Chet gets help from a mockingbird, and the solution to the student's disappearance is a surprise.

The book is very easy to read, and Chet is a funny character. He's a pretty lousy detective, but he manages to solve his cases. He gets himself into funny situations to help find clues. For example, he wants to go to the office to check out a lead. He asks his teacher to go see the principal, but the teacher repeatedly refuses to let Chet go. Finally, the teacher gets fed up and sends Chet to the office. Silly. The plot is fun to read, but it's not classic literature.

School for S.P.I.E.S #1: Playing With Fire by Bruce Hale

Playing with Fire (SCHOOL FOR S.P.I.E.S. Book#1)This book is the first in a new series, and I gave it a rating of four out of five. Max has been in and out of foster homes for years, but he's finally sent to the Merry Sunshine Orphanage. He quickly realizes this is not an ordinary orphanage as he takes classes in picking locks, decoding messages, and tailing suspects. It's a school for spies. However, someone slips Max a coded message informing him that his father is still alive. Max breaks a number of rules and challenges the limits of the orphanage's director as he tries to locate his father. A man approaches Max with the promise of information if Max will help him spy on the school. Max takes the bait, but he may soon regret that decision.

The plot reminds me of some other books where children are sent to a place to learn special skills. H.I.V.E. is the most recent series that comes to mind. I know this is a fictional novel, but the number of chances Max was given to break rules was pretty unbelievable. I like how Max's character makes a couple of close friends, but I would have liked to have seen more depth to their relationships. I thought Wyatt was going to be his close buddy, so I was surprised when the author chose to separate them during some of Max's adventures. Cinnabar was a girl friend, but I didn't feel their relationship was developed as much as it could have been. The interactions weren't bad or anything, but I expected a bit more.

School for S.P.I.E.S # 2: Thicker Than Water by Bruce Hale

School for SPIES Book 2 Thicker Than WaterThis sequel to Playing With Fire is a 2014 release, and I gave it a rating of four out of five. The orphanage/school may need to close, but Max is not going to let that happen. The spy students have an important mission to steal a mind-controlling device before the evil members of LOTUS get their hands on it. However, there may be a mole within the school, Max's father (a rogue spy) has reappeared, a pretty new girl has Max confused, and LOTUS wants Max to join their organization. To confuse things more, a billionaire may be willing to save the school, but an inspector may be ready to shut it down. It may be impossible to stop LOTUS without closing the orphanage.

Even though Max was trained to be a spy in his foster homes, his character still behaves like a confused teenager. The addition of the new, cute girl adds a conflict to Max's relationship with Cinnabar, another student. I always enjoy Wyatt's inventions, because they often have unexpected results.

Moribito #1: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (Moribito, #1)I came across this book by chance and gave it a rating of four out of five. The second son of the Mikado, Chagum, has a water spirit growing inside him. Eggs are laid every one-hundred years to provide water for the farmers' crops. The egg must survive to end a terrible drought, but an egg-eating monster is searching for it. Balsa, a professional bodyguard, is hired to protect the prince. She has many skills, and she must use them all to fight off assassins and the monster. She enlists the help of magic weavers, but their stories of the egg and the monster differ from the stories told by the Star Reader, the Mikado's main advisor. The monster has been defeated before, but no one knows how. Balsa will need to discover the secret, or Chagum and the citizens of the land are doomed.

The plot was more adventurous than fantasy to me. The setting is somewhere in Japan, so it describes a culture that probably differs from most readers. Brief tales of the Mikado and the egg spirit are told throughout the plot, and they add information to the conflict. There is a good deal of action and adventure. A big part of the conflict is due to differences between politics and the culture of the people. It was a big deal for the magic weaver and Star Reader to work together. I enjoyed the growing maturity of Chagum and the closeness that developed with Balsa. It was the first sense of family that he had ever experienced.

The Nerdy Dozen by Jeff Miller

The Nerdy Dozen #1This 2014 release is the first book in a new series. Neil is a master at playing video games, especially one called Chameleon. It's a simulation game where he flies a fighter jet against on-line enemies. Rumor has it the game was hacked from our military's practice simulation for pilots, and the rumors are true! Neil is grabbed by the Air Force in the middle of the night, because they need gamers to fly the actual airplanes. It seems these kids fly twice as well as military pilots in the simulations, and their talents are needed to rescue the pilots of a crashed Chameleon. The day after being "recruited", Neil and eleven other kids find themselves flying toward islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When an unidentified jet fires a missile at them, they know it's not a game.

Neil is a nerdish character, picked on by bullies, but he's able to show leadership skills too. The plot is obviously unbelievable, but it was fun and had some action. Each character came with his/her own quirks, and the author provided another bully to hassle Neil during the mission. Neil's character had some uncomfortable moments when he discovered his best, on-line gaming friend, Sam, was actually a girl.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Shipwreck Island by S.A. Bodeen

Shipwreck Island (Shipwreck Island, #1)Sarah's father marries a flight attendant from Texas, and now she has a stepmom and two stepbrothers. Her dad decides the new family will get to know each other better by taking a trip to Fiji  and sailing in the Pacific Ocean for a few days. However, Sarah misses her deceased mother, and she has no plans to like these strangers trying to join her family. The long plane ride is boring, the little hotel is disgusting, and the sailboat looks like it might sink. The crew of the boat consists of a gray-haired skipper and his huge pet dog. When the wind and rain start blowing, Sarah knows they're in big trouble. But the real danger awaits them on Shipwreck Island.

The conflict is familiar with a young girl battling her feelings for a dead parent and her reluctance to accept a stepfamily. Being shipwrecked on a small island isn't an unusual plot. However, the strange things found on the island are very unexpected. I always told my students that authors set ground rules for what will be allowed in their books (magic, etc.), but this book doesn't do that. The plot is realistic fiction for the first three-fourths of the book, but then the author starts throwing in unreal creatures. That kind of bugs me. Be prepared to read the second book if you read this one.

The Limit by Kristen Landon

The LimitMatt's family spends more money than they have in the bank, so they're over The Limit. There are consequences for this, so Matt, the oldest child in his family, is sent to a government work camp. His efforts will help the family solve its financial problems, and he will return home once things are worked out. Matt works on computer projects and is able to buy anything he wants. Life in the workhouse seems good. However, he becomes upset when he can't send or receive emails from his family, and he realizes he's cut-off from the world. He's also curious about the huge, dangerous-looking Reginald who doesn't leave his room, working away on his computer. Matt decides it's time to do something when he discovers his little sister has been sent to the workhouse. How is that possible? He discovers there's something scary and illegal going on, but what can he do to stop it?

The conflict is a unique twist on government controlling people without them knowing about it in order to make money. Matt's not overly ambitious, but he seems to be more aware of his situation than the other kids on the Top Floor. He's an intelligent, unlikely hero, and he gets motivated to discover the truth when his sister arrives. The book reads like an adventure, and there are moments of action once Matt decides he needs to do something. The disturbing thing is that this situation, or something like it, could possibly happen in the real world.

The Magnificent Lizzie Brown and the Mysterious Phantom by Vicki Lockwood

The Magnificent Lizzie Brown and the Mysterious PhantomThis book is the first in a new series. Lizzie escapes from her drunken father in the slums of London and finds work in a circus. She does odd jobs around the camp until she becomes the assistant for the fortune teller. Lizzie accidentally discovers she has real psychic powers, unlike her "boss", and she's able to see images of the future. Her angry father is still on the loose, and the visions frighten Lizzie as she sees the mysterious phantom terrorizing the city. The police don't like the circus being in town, so Lizzie and her fiends decide they are the only ones who can stop the phantom before he seriously hurts someone.

Lizzie is a fun character as she mixes her poor past with the excitement of the circus and her new-found psychic powers. The dangerous father, the fired fortune teller, and the phantom provided constant suspense throughout the plot. Lizzie struggled to find a safe place to live, but the circus offered a caring family. This book is a mystery, but I found Lizzie's discovering of her new life more interesting.

The Ascendance Trilogy #1: The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The False Prince (The Ascendance Trilogy, #1)Sage and two other boys are bought from orphanages by a man named Connor. Connor informs them that the king, queen, and prince of Carthya have been murdered, and the country may fall into civil war. He has a plan to announce one of them as the lost Prince Jaron, thought to have died four years ago, and that boy will become king. The boys are trained in reading, horseback riding, swordsmanship, and manners, but Sage is uncooperative. He is stubborn and defiant, even though he knows the two boys not chosen will be killed. Sage refuses to be controlled by the man, but he knows that he is the only boy who can pull off this scheme. Connor's motives are questionable; he's already murdered a fourth boy taken from an orphanage. Secrets will be revealed, but will Sage and Carthya be able to survive?

This book was nominated for a 2011 Cybils award in middle grade speculative fiction, although it seemed like realistic fiction to me. It couldn't have happened in today's world, but there was nothing magical or fantasy about it. I really enjoyed Sage's character. He was the belligerent boy described above, but he cared about others. It was strange to see other characters start caring for him, because he was such a pain in the butt. Connor was an effective protagonist, as he created a dangerous element to the plot and kept his true plans secret. The author dropped hints throughout the book, but she still left some surprises for the end. Overall, I loved the book and am anxious to read the sequel.

The Ascendance Trilogy #2: The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The Runaway King (The Ascendance Trilogy, #2)King Jaron is only a few weeks into his reign, and trouble is already brewing. As he expected, the regents and surrounding countries are leery of a young boy ruling Carthya. Followers doubt his ability to lead, and other rulers think his country is weak. Then, he's attacked in the castle's garden by a former friend. He's told an army of pirates will soon invade Carthya, and he figures out that Avenia forces will follow to take over the country. With few options left, Jaron decides he must secretly join the pirates. He hopes to make them allies against the Avenian threat, otherwise he'll need to kill the pirate king. Once again, Jaron takes on his identity of the orphan Sage, and he enters the dangerous world of pirates. A few surprises await, and Jaron will face a battle for his life.

This book is the sequel to The False Prince, and you need to read it first. The Runaway King has much more action and suspense. Jaron secretly joins the pirates and can be killed at any moment. He's on his own; the regents plan to remove him as king and won't support a war against their enemies. The author manages to add some twists to the plot, as Jaron faces unexpected problems. There are dangerous characters along the way who know his true identity, and Jaron's caring for others may cost him his life. The characteristics of Jaron's personality make the story. He's brave, cocky, intelligent, and belligerent. These qualities help him solve problems, but they also create new ones.

The Ascendance Trilogy #3: The Shadow Throne by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The Shadow Throne (The Ascendance Trilogy, #3)This book is the third and final tale in the trilogy. Carthya is at war with three powerful countries surrounding its borders. Imogen, a very special girl in King Jaron's life, is captured by the Avenians, and they hope to use her to bring Carthya down. Jaron knows this is a trap, and his armies are greatly outnumbered. Mott is sent to rescue Imogen, while Jaron sets out to support his troops. However, Imogen is shot in the chest with an arrow while trying to escape, carried away by a death wagon, and Jaron is devastated. He is captured by the Avenians and tortured for information. He's starved, beaten, and tormented until his spirits are broken, and it looks like the efforts of the Carthyan armies will not be enough to save the country. A hangman's noose awaits King Jaron.

The author always manages to get Jaron into impossible situations; his defiant attitude always makes people angry and complicates his problems. In this book, Jaron is forced to deal with the emotion of love, and he is almost overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being king. Friends become enemies, but help arrives from unexpected characters. The climax of the trilogy didn't disappoint, as Jaron still had tricks up his sleeve, even as he faced death. Again, Jaron's character is the key to enjoying the book. Cocky and confident, his followers never lose faith, and the author provides him with tremendous leadership skills and a crafty mind. I enjoyed trying to figure out how the author would get him out of impossible problems. I mean, Jaron's armies were outnumbered ten to one, the enemy has a cannon, and Jaron is chained to a wall. And that's only the beginning!

Red Hand Adventures #1: Rebels of the Kasbah by Joe O'Neill

Rebels of the Kasbah (The Red Hand Adventures, #1)Tariq is kidnapped from an orphanage and sold into slavery. He immediately becomes friends with Aseem, and they pledge to always have each other's backs.  The pair are joined by Fez and Margaret, and Tariq promises to help them all escape. Their slave caravan slowly travels across desert and into the mountains, and the group's plan to escape is halted when they're attacked by bandits. Tariq is whipped by a merciless guard, Zahir, for stealing food and water, and he may not survive to become a camel rider for the ruthless warlord, Caid. Many riders die after only a few weeks, and Tariq has angered the guard into torturing him. His hopes of fulfilling the pledge to his friends seem to be dwindling.

I could only get my hands on this title as an eBook in Net Galley. I actually read the sequel to this book first; it was a nominee for a 2013 Cybils award. This book provided background stories to explain how the friends became slaves. I was surprised to read a background story about Zahir's childhood, although it helped explain how he came to be such a dangerous man. The author created several layers of suspense as dangers were found in Caid, Zahir, bullies, and the harsh environment. Tariq was a faithful leader and never gave up on his friends.

Red Hand Adventures #2: Wrath of the Caid by Joe O'Neill

Wrath of the Caid (The Red Hand Adventures #2)Malik is the leader of a rebel band that is fighting against Caid, an evil tyrant. He rescued several kidnapped kids in book one, and and he makes Tariq an apprentice. Margaret returns to England, but she faces new problems when she arrives. Her father is still missing, possibly dead, but she receives news that the British consider him a pirate. Aseem, Fez, and Tariq try to sneak into a village to get information about Caid, but they don't know it's a trap. Malik kills Caid's son, and now Caid has hired an assassin, the Black Mamba, to kill all of them. Malik tries to intercept a shipment of weapons headed to Caid, but he discovers, too late, that he's leading his rebels into an ambush. With all of Caid's spies and his joining forces with the French, Malik and his rebels may not be alive much longer.

I could only get my hands on this title as an eBook in Net Galley. I enjoyed the obvious conflict between Caid and Malik, and I liked the mystery created by the spies and characters in disguise. The chases and fights added action and suspense to the plot. I didn't like the number of different settings used, because the plot continually jumped all over the place. That being said, I enjoyed the overall book. Tariq and the other boys were resourceful as they got themselves into, and out of, several sticky situations. The resolution left me hanging, and I'm anxious to read Legends of the Rif.