top ten middle grade books i recommend most

Tuesday, March 26, 2013 | | 21 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

It’s Middle Grade March, so I’m giving everything a middle grade spin.  That’s fine, because the majority of people who ask me for recommendations are looking for books for their kids or grandkids.  And usually, that means middle grade readers.  This list isn’t necessarily full of all-time favorites, but it is full of well-written crowd-pleasers that will (mostly) appeal to both sexes, and all ages.

Top Ten Middle Grade Books I Recommend Most

1. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman – This book is sharp and dangerous and beautiful (as Neil Gaiman books just are), and I recommend it to readers of all ages.

2. Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce – A poignant, funny take on family, growing up, and the possibilities of space travel.

3. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente – The magic of Fairyland will break your heart and remake it again.

4. Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede – Dragons, dangerous wizards, unusual adventures, and cherries jubilee (a recipe for fun, if there ever was one).

5. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – Classic fantasy, and still enchanting and perfect after so many years.

6. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart – Clever middle grade mystery, defined.

7. The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones – The book that introduced me to DWJ’s genius and charm.

8. Lyddie by Katherine Paterson – One of my favorite historical fiction books from childhood, it follows the life of determined, brave young Lyddie as she makes her way in the world.

9. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls – Oh, this book!  A must read.

10. The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau – One of the first post-apocalyptic books I’d ever read, and a tightly constructed one at that.

What books do you recommend most?

breadcrumbs by anne ursu - fairy tale giveaway hop

Monday, March 25, 2013 | | 0 comments
I clearly have a preference for young adult and middle grade fantasy, but there's a special place in my heart reserved for fairy tale retellings.  There's something about taking a well-worn story and turning its frayed edges into an entirely new, intricate and beautiful creation that makes my whole being happy.  Even though I haven't finished this one, I already know it's headed in the right direction.

breadcrumbs by anne ursu book cover
Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. But that was before he stopped talking to her and disappeared into a forest with a mysterious woman made of ice. Now it's up to Hazel to go in after him. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," Breadcrumbs is a stunningly original fairy tale of modern-day America, a dazzling ode to the power of fantasy, and a heartbreaking meditation on how growing up is as much a choice as it is something that happens to us.

Would you like to win a copy of Anne Ursu's middle grade fairy tale retelling of “The Snow Queen?”  Simply fill out the FORM.  Two winners will each receive a paperback (or ebook) copy of Breadcrumbs.  Giveaway open internationally, will end April 2nd at 11:59pm EST.  Winners will be selected randomly and notified via email.  Good luck!

This giveaway is a stop on the Fairy Tale Giveaway Hop, which was organized by I Am A Reader, Not a Writer, The Book Rat and A Backwards Story.  This hop is part of the 3rd annual Fairy Tale Fortnight, a celebration of all things fairy tale.  If you’d like to learn more about Fairy Tale Fortnight, check out the calendar of events.

Interested in other fairy tale giveaways?  Check out the hop links below!

thai chicken pizza

Saturday, March 23, 2013 | | 18 comments
Once a year my extended friend group gathers for a pizza-making competition.  It’s a great party idea for a large group – each guest (or couple) makes a pizza at home and brings it to the host’s house, and then you sample them all and decide on a winner.  The host doesn’t have to do a huge amount of food prep, and everyone is happy and full at the end of the night.  This year we added a blind beer tasting, too, and that was a big hit with the guys in the group. 

thai chicken pizza

I’ve participated for the last three years, and have been runner-up each time.  I really thought my pizza might win this year, but alas… I lost to a prosciutto, artichoke heart and caper concoction (which was really delicious!).  In any case, this Thai Chicken Pizza recipe is a keeper, and I plan to make this nontraditional pizza for years to come.

Thai Chicken Pizza (modified from this A Bitchin’ Kitchen recipe)


1 thin pizza crust (pre-baked pizza crusts can usually be found near the bread or bagels in your grocery store)
1 tablespoon red curry chili paste
1/4 cup peanut sauce
1 1/2 cup cooked, shredded chicken
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
1/4 cup diced green onions
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup chopped peanuts


Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.   Remove pizza crust from packaging and place on pizza pan/stone/baking tray.  Spread red curry chili paste on the crust, followed by the peanut sauce, leaving 1/2 inch around the sides.  Next, arrange the chicken on top of the sauces and cover with mozzarella. 

Lower the oven temperature to 425 degrees F and place pizza on the bottom rack.  Bake for 8-12 minutes, until cheese is melted (but not browned).  Remove from oven and top with bell pepper, onions, cilantro and chopped peanuts.   Cut into squares and serve.

Note: I like to marinate the chicken in either peanut sauce or mayonnaise mixed with the red curry paste.  Then I grill it, shred it, and it’s ready for either this pizza or a quick pad thai!

Recommended for: a quick, colorful and delicious lunch or dinner entrée, and the perfect dish for that adventurous pizza eater in your family.

Interested in other food-related posts?  Check out Beth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking!

odd and the frost giants

One of the middle grade books I consistently see positive reviews and recommendations for is Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants.  I shouldn’t be surprised, as it is a book by Neil Gaiman.  He’s the author version of a rock star.  And I have liked all* of his books (though I love Neverwhere best).  So now it’s Middle Grade March and I’m catching up on titles I’ve meant to read for a long while, and well, what do you know… I had a copy of Odd on my Kindle app.

odd and the frost giants by neil gaiman book cover
In this inventive, short, yet perfectly formed novel inspired by traditional Norse mythology, Neil Gaiman takes readers on a wild and magical trip to the land of giants and gods and back. 

In a village in ancient Norway lives a boy named Odd, and he's had some very bad luck: His father perished in a Viking expedition; a tree fell on and shattered his leg; the endless freezing winter is making villagers dangerously grumpy. 

Out in the forest Odd encounters a bear, a fox, and an eagle--three creatures with a strange story to tell. 

Now Odd is forced on a stranger journey than he had imagined--a journey to save Asgard, city of the gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it. 

It's going to take a very special kind of twelve-year-old boy to outwit the Frost Giants, restore peace to the city of gods, and end the long winter. Someone cheerful and infuriating and clever…

Someone just like Odd.

Odd is a Viking boy with a lame leg, a clever turn of mind, and a strong sense of self.  When one of the harsh Norse winters threatens to continue unendingly, he leaves the safety of his village and sets off into the forest.  While Odd isn’t necessarily looking for adventure, it comes and finds him anyway, in the shape of a fox, an eagle and a bear.  Odd’s decision to travel with these three will change his future, and give him a place in legend.

Odd and the Frost Giants was lovely and brief and true.  At the same time, it didn’t skimp on the sorts of elements that boys and girls love: talking animals, epic adventure, riding bears and conquering giants!  At the story’s core are themes of transformation, story-telling, and discovering the secret desires of our hearts.  There’s also a strong dose of mythology and problem solving and several journeys toward home. 

What I found most intriguing was Gaiman’s use of the Norse gods as characters in the story.  Gaiman has done this (weaving deities from many traditions into an original tale) before in his adult works, particularly in American Gods and Anansi Boys.  While the gods’ inclusion works mostly to highlight Odd’s personal transformation, the hints at well-known story sagas and the mention of Thor’s hammer (which even the uninitiated will recognize from recent Avengers films) should spark interest in traditional tales and further reading in general.  And that is a marvelous thing.

Recommended for: young readers, fans of fantasy and mythology, and anyone looking for a quick read that will find its way into your heart.

*I should mention that I didn’t make it through Coraline the first time I tried it – I was creeped-the-heck-out.  Totally going back and reading it again soon!

waiting on wednesday (51)

Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

I have read some really fantastic middle grade in the last year – stuff that has made my heart break not only for the characters, but for people in general (and for my younger self!).  I’ve also read uproariously funny books, and nightmare- and shiver-inducing ones, too.  Catherynne M. Valente and Claire Legrand wrote two of my favorite books of 2012: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There and The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls.  Both authors have new middle grade books out this year, and I AM EXCITED.  In ALL CAPS.  It looks as though my middle grade obsession will continue unabated.  Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two will be released by Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan) on October 8th, and Claire Legrand’s The Year of Shadows will be released by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on August 27th.

the girl who soared over fairyland and cut the moon in two by catherynne m. valente book cover
September misses Fairyland and her friends Ell, the Wyverary, and the boy Saturday. She longs to leave the routines of home, and embark on a new adventure. Little does she know that this time, she will be spirited away to the moon, reunited with her friends, and find herself faced with saving Fairyland from a moon-Yeti with great and mysterious powers. 

Here is another rich, beautifully told, wisely humorous, and passionately layered book from New York Times-bestselling author, Catherynne M. Valente.

the year of shadows by claire legrand book cover
Olivia Stellatella is having a rough year.

Her mother left, her neglectful father -- the maestro of a failing orchestra -- has moved her and her grandmother into his dark, broken-down concert hall to save money, and her only friend is Igor, an ornery stray cat.

Just when she thinks life couldn’t get any weirder, she meets four ghosts who haunt the hall. They need Olivia’s help -- if the hall is torn down, they’ll be stuck as ghosts forever, never able to move on.

Olivia has to do the impossible for her shadowy new friends: Save the concert hall. But helping the dead has powerful consequences for the living . . . and soon it’s not just the concert hall that needs saving.

What books are you waiting on?

top ten middle grade books i had to buy…but remain unread

Tuesday, March 19, 2013 | | 16 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

I have a couple of bookshelves full of books I had to buy (at the time) but are still languishing there, unread.  It’s a problem!  Interestingly, it’s a YA and adult problem.  I had to go over my collection with a fine-tooth comb to find ten middle grade books I bought but haven’t read.  Most of them were recent purchases that live on the Kindle app on my phone.  I think that speaks pretty well for the genre.  And why middle grade, again?  Because it’s Middle Grade March, of course!

Top Ten Middle Grade Books I Had To Buy…But Remain Unread

1. Scones and Sensibility by Lindsay Eland – I bought this one for a Jane Austen reading challenge a couple of years ago, but never got around to reading it.  Baking and middle grade are totally my thing, though, so it will move to ‘read’ status soon.

2. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien – I was completely freaked out by the film version of this story as a kid, and so when I saw the paperback at a book fair I (naturally) picked it up.  It’s in the ‘I’ll get to it someday’ category (maybe when there’s someone I can read it aloud to).

3. The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen by Delia Sherman – I very much enjoyed Changeling, so I picked up its sequel as soon as I heard about it.  What’s holding me back?  I want to reread the first book before I dip into the second.

4. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia – This one won awards all around, and my roommate pushed me to pick it up.  Then there was an ebook deal, and I bought it!  And I’m just slow.

5. Ordinary Magic by Caitlen Rubino-Bradway – A couple of fellow bloggers wrote such gorgeous things about Ordinary Magic that I bought it immediately… and it’s one I’m saving for a particularly bad day (I think it’ll be the perfect antidote).

6. A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz – Another ebook deal that caught my eye because of the pretty cover art and the author’s name (I met Schlitz briefly at BEA last year, when she was promoting Splendors and Glooms).

7. Cold Cereal by Adam Rex – Rex’s name is a ubiquitous one in children’s lit.  It turns out that if I ‘know’ the author when an ebook deal comes around, I tend to buy it, sight unseen. Cold Cereal, meet Cecelia’s ebook collection.

8. Savvy by Ingrid Law – I’ve had this one in hardcover since just after its release – I was swayed by positive (ecstatic!) reviews and I have no idea why it hasn’t been a priority.  Need to fix that!

9. The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau – I read The City of Ember many years ago on a whim and enjoyed it immensely.  I thought the film didn’t do justice to it, but at least it brought my attention to the fact that there were sequels.  I thought I wanted to continue the story at the time, but I’ve been reluctant to go on (series fatigue, maybe?).

10. The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski – When I first heard about steampunk I tried to round up all of the books in children’s and YA that had a hint of it, and this was one.  I now have TWO copies on my shelf, both still unread.  Travesty!

What books have you bought but haven’t read?


Monday, March 18, 2013 | | 2 comments
Philip Reeve is a major influence in steampunk, though his books are not as well known in the US as in his native Britain.  I read and reviewed the first of his young adult steampunk trilogy, Fever Crumb, and enjoyed its unusual heroine and impressively detailed world.  I always meant to go back and read more of Reeve’s work – I’d read glimmerings here and there on the interwebs of middle grade sci-fi and steampunk books.  When Larklight turned up as an ebook deal a few months ago, I clicked ‘buy’ without a second thought.  Then Middle Grade March came along and gave me a good reason to finish what I’d started.

larklight by philip reeve book cover
Arthur (Art) Mumby and his irritating sister Myrtle live with their father in a huge and rambling house called Larklight…that just happens to be traveling through outer space. When a visitor called Mr. Webster arrives for a visit, it is far from an innocent social call. Before long Art and Myrtle are off on an adventure to the furthest reaches of space, where they will do battle with evil forces in order to save each other--and the universe.  A fantastically original Victorian tale set in an outer space world that might have come from the imaginations of Jules Verne or L. Frank Baum, but has a unique gravitational pull all its own…

Larklight is a space adventure starring the many narrow escapes of the two Mumby children, Art and Myrtle.  Myrtle is the eldest, and is a bit obsessed with Earth fashion.  Art, the typical younger brother, is fascinated by pirates and feats of courage. They live with their father in a unique home, Larklight, which orbits the moon.  Early in the narrative the Mumbys are forced to flee their house, and the resulting journey follows them to the moon, Mars, and even to the rings of Saturn.  Whether they come home safely or not will be up to themselves and to the merry band of companions that they collect along the way.

Reeve’s Larklight is written in the style of a Victorian-era first-hand account, and it is a triumphant tale of a boy’s travels to the far reaches of space.  Art is the main narrator, though his exploits are interspersed with snatches from his sister’s private diary.  The narrative is also punctuated regularly with lovely illustrations by David Byatt, which often provide a much-needed visual for some flight of imagination or curious bit of alien science.  There’s not much contemplation – this is an all-action yarn filled with dramatic venture after voyage after quest.  That said, the story doesn’t really hit its stride until a few chapters in, when the Mumby children encounter Jack Havock, known pirate and scallywag. 

This sort of rollicking sci-fi journey is long on plot and short on character development, but the adventure is too much fun for that to seriously detract from the tale.  The best bits are the descriptions of space, the hinting at a mysterious chemical alchemy that allows advanced space travel, and the ever-present danger and humor with which the characters face that danger.  Art is a boy’s boy, and he does have a way with description, as this excerpt from Chapter 12 will prove:

“I wonder if you have ever been fired out of a giant howitzer in a hollowed-out rock? The feeling is somewhat akin to being sat upon by an elephant, while traveling downhill at speed in a tin dustbin.”

Recommended for: intrepid boys (and girls!) who are on the younger side of the middle grade spectrum, along with their parents – it would make a splendid read-aloud.  Will also appeal to those who long for space adventure with a touch of nostalgia, though the tech is mostly modern marvel.

waiting on wednesday (50)

Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

Last year was a great one for me in terms of discovering terrific middle grade books, and it’s one of the reasons I’m doing Middle Grade March this month.  Two of the titles I enjoyed in 2012 were the first books in series, though I didn’t realize that at the time.  I’m excited to read more silly-funny fairy tale adventure from Christopher Healy, and traditional portal fantasy (with a pooka!) from Sarah Prineas, author of Winterling.  The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle will be released by Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins) on April 30th, and Summerkin will be released by HarperCollins on April 23rd.

the hero's guide to storming the castle by christopher healy book cover
Prince Liam. Prince Frederic. Prince Duncan. Prince Gustav. You remember them, don't you? They're the Princes Charming who finally got some credit after they stepped out of the shadows of their princesses - Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, and Briar Rose - to defeat an evil witch bent on destroying all their kingdoms. 

But alas, such fame and recognition only last so long. And when the princes discover that an object of great power might fall into any number of wrong hands, they are going to have to once again band together to stop it from happening - even if no one will ever know it was they who did it. 

Christopher Healy, author of the acclaimed The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, takes us back to the hilariously fractured fairy-tale world he created for another tale of medieval mischief. Magical gemstones, bladejaw eels, a mysterious Gray Phantom, and two maniacal warlords bent on world domination - it's all in a day's work for the League of Princes.

summerkin by sarah prineas book cover
"Down through the Way she fell, feeling the wind and the pressing darkness, the dizzy thump when she landed on the bank. She was through. The air felt softer here, the shadows deeper—and the pull of her connection to the land settled into her bones." 

In the Summerlands, time moves slowly, roots grow deeply, and change is not welcomed. But change is needed. 

After defeating the wicked Mor and freeing her kin from deadly oaths made to this false ruler, Fer is now the rightful Lady of the land. Yet her people don't know what to make of their new Lady's strange ways, and neither do the High Ones, the rulers of the magical realm, for Fer is an outsider—half human. 

To prove herself worthy of the Summerlands crown, Fer is summoned to compete in an epic contest where her strengths and skills will be tested and her loyalties challenged. Can she trust Rook, the puck she calls friend? Can she trust herself? If Fer fails, she will lose her land and the Way will be closed to her forever.

What books are you waiting on?

top ten books on my spring to-be-read list

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | | 22 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

I began participating in the Top Ten Tuesday meme this past summer, so the autumn to-be-read list was my first attempt at this seasonal topic.  I’d say I’ve done well since last fall – I’ve read five of ten, and I have plans to read two more this month.

For spring I’m taking a slightly different approach.  The following books are on my list not because they’re out this season or because I’ve been meaning to read them for ages (although that is true of a few) – they’re on the list because they’re all by Irish authors.  Now, this isn't some St. Patrick’s Day stunt (though the timing of this post is a lovely coincidence).  I’m planning to vacation in Ireland this September.  As soon as I’d made up my mind on location, I (like any good bookworm) started researching Irish authors.  After all, I want to recognize names in the local bookstores!  Bookshops are an essential part of any balanced vacation adventure (clearly).

Top Ten Books On My Spring To-Be-Read List

1. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer – I’ve been meaning to read this first in a middle grade caper/spy series for… a long time.  This is the perfect opportunity to finally follow through.

2. The Demon’s Covenant & The Demon’s Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan – I read the first book in this series (The Demon’s Lexicon) almost four years ago, right after it first came out.  It’s about time I finished the story (and had a terrific laugh, which these are sure to provide).

3. Saga by Conor Kostick – This is another second book in a series.  I’m not very good at reading sequels, it seems.  But apparently I am good at reading Irish authors!

4. A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle – I have been assured by the Lonely Planet country guide to Ireland that Doyle is a BIG DEAL, literarily speaking.  I saw reviews of this one a little while back, and it sounded sad and sweet.

5. Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd – If you search the internet for Irish YA, it is apparent that Dowd was an acknowleged master of her craft.  This title won the Carnegie Medal in 2009 (in other words, it should be spectacular).

6. The Fire Opal by Regina McBride – Historical fantasy set in Ireland.  Yes please!

7. Curse of Kings by Alex Barclay – An epic fantasy that promises adventure ‘in the tone of The Hobbit.’  Don’t mind if I do!

8. The New Policeman by Kate Thompson – Critically-acclaimed YA fantasy that promises adventures in new worlds, culture clash, and a thread of music along the journey.

9. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne – I read Boyne’s middle grade fable/gentle fantasy Noah Barleywater Runs Away and loved the subtle magic of it.  This far more famous title was an earlier effort that inspired a film of the same name.  Figured I’d better read it.

10. Saved by Cake by Marian Keyes – I’ve never read Keyes, but I was caught and held by the summary of this book and her darkly funny voice accompanying innocuous (one would think) recipes.

What books are you looking forward to this spring?

iron hearted violet

When a book has a cover and title as beautiful as Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill, it is almost impossible to resist.  Add to that a story promising dragons, adventure and the end of the world, and the lure is impossible to resist.  This title has been on my wishlist ever since a Waiting on Wednesday post last June.  Middle Grade March seemed like the perfect time to finally read about the unusual princess Violet and the myth that changes her life.

iron hearted violet by kelly barnhill book coverThe end of their world begins with a story.
This one.

In most fairy tales, princesses are beautiful, dragons are terrifying, and stories are harmless. This isn't most fairy tales. 

Princess Violet is plain, reckless, and quite possibly too clever for her own good. Particularly when it comes to telling stories. One day she and her best friend, Demetrius, stumble upon a hidden room and find a peculiar book. A 
forbidden book. It tells a story of an evil being—called the Nybbas—imprisoned in their world. The story cannot be true—not reallyBut then the whispers start. Violet and Demetrius, along with an ancient, scarred dragon, may hold the key to the Nybbas's triumph…or its demise. It all depends on how they tell the story. After all, stories make their own rules.

Iron Hearted Violet is a story of a princess unlike any other. It is a story of the last dragon in existence, deathly afraid of its own reflection. Above all, it is a story about the power of stories, our belief in them, and how one enchanted tale changed the course of an entire kingdom.

Violet is (as I said) an unusual princess.  She is preternaturally intelligent, ugly, obsessed with stories, and has exactly one friend.  She (accompanied by that friend, Demetrius) has been exploring her father’s castle top-to-bottom since she was quite young, and over time has found several curious things.  One of those things is a myth or a legend – but it’s not just any sort of myth.  It’s a story with the power to change, to destroy, and to undo everything Violet knows.  It’s a good thing that Violet has help, for surviving this challenge is beyond her.  It requires a team of feisty characters blessed with courage and cleverness and love.

Iron Hearted Violet is an attempt to turn the fairy tale genre upside down, and in some ways it succeeds marvelously.  There are hints of familiar tales throughout, but Violet herself is never the typical princess (she reminded me a bit of a mash-up of Ginny Weasley and Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series, to be honest).  Violet deals with expectations and traditions in a believable way, while making her own decisions and learning to bravely face the consequences in order to set things right. 

There’s never a sense of safety in this story – it examines loss, deception, obsession, and the danger in believing that you know what is best for everyone else.  In addition, the mythology of the mirrored world is original and well-developed.  I also appreciated the beautiful illustrations by Iacopo Bruno.  As his artwork was what brought me to the story to begin with, I was happy to see sketches throughout that added to the story’s quality.

Having said all of that, Iron Hearted Violet landed flat.  I hoped it would have charm akin to Valente’s Fairyland books or Joanne Harris’ Runemarks, but in that I was disappointed.  The book suffered from a stilted point of view perspective (the tale is narrated by the adult castle storyteller), an over-long story (tightening the plot wouldn’t have gone amiss), and a deficiency of character development in anyone except Violet (especially noticeable in regards to Demetrius and the dragon).  In sum, while Iron Hearted Violet was delightful in flashes, the overall effect was leaden and ponderous.

Recommended for: fans of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart and Mike Wilks’ Mirrorscape, those who like adventures featuring the end of the world, and anyone with a penchant for stories within stories and unique mythology.

troubled waters

Thursday, March 7, 2013 | | 4 comments
Sharon Shinn is a master storyteller.  My first introduction to her work was through the sci-fi Samaria series, and Archangel in particular.  I adored the meticulous world building, the interplay between characters, and the central romances coming to fruition amidst politics and power.  I also recently picked up Shinn’s quiet, emotionally intense paranormal fantasy, The Shape of Desire.  It only made sense to keep reading through Shinn’s backlist, so while on vacation this week I stayed up all night to read her high fantasy, Troubled Waters (no thanks to the cover art, which is... ugly. there, i said it!).

troubled waters by sharon shinn book cover
The author of the Twelve Hours series welcomes readers to a new fantasy world, where the elements rule. 

Zoe Ardelay receives astonishing and unwelcome news: she has been chosen to become the king's fifth wife. Forced to go to the royal city, she manages to slip away and hide on the shores of the mighty river. 

It's there that Zoe realizes she is a coru prime ruled by the elemental sign of water. She must return to the palace, not as an unwilling bride for the king, but a woman with power in her own right. But as Zoe unlocks more of the mysteries of her blood—and the secrets of the royal family—she must decide how to use her great power to rise above the deceptions and intrigue of the royal court.

Zoe Ardelay is a young woman living in a fog of grief.  She has just nursed her father through his final illness, and now that he is gone, there’s a void where her future should be.  She doesn’t know (or particularly care) what will happen next.  When the king’s advisor arrives bearing the unbelievable news that she will become the king’s fifth wife, she leaves quietly – but Zoe has decisions to make, a fate to face, and a life to live.  For what becomes of Zoe Ardelay is of mighty importance to her kingdom, her long-estranged family, and (she finds to her surprise) herself.

While that summary may give you an idea of the situation at the beginning of Troubled Waters, it doesn’t speak to the world-building or magical system, which was (in my opinion) the best part of the book.   Human beings in this world are governed by one of the five elements, along with the random blessings that they can draw in any temple.  There is also an interesting juxtaposition between the strong (somewhat superstitious/fate-obsessed) belief system and technological developments and advancement.  All of this mixed in with complex royal politics, trade, familial and personal alliances makes for a layered and nuanced background for a story about one woman finding her destiny.

Shinn has written convincingly before of secret-keeping, loyalty and discovering what you want for yourself and your future.  Troubled Waters is no exception.  Zoe must rediscover her past, compare it to her memories and make a way (blundering at times) for herself.  In doing so, she makes friends, negotiates class divides, finds unexpected power and unlocks dangerous knowledge that may bring change to the entire country.   Zoe’s journey encompasses not only her own destiny, but also that of her wider world, and this signature ‘broad view’ is a specialty of Shinn’s stories.

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  It should, if you like epic fantasy (and I do!).  I found my reading enjoyment tempered by one thing: Darien Serlast.  He is the king’s advisor, and a major player in Zoe’s life.  However, I perceived him as a weakness in an otherwise wholly compelling story.  He was meant to be mysterious early on, but because of that came across as an unknown for too much of the book, making it hard to connect with his character when he did begin to appear more often and reveal more of himself.  That said, I found the book unputdownable, and my love of Shinn’s writing and world-building continues unabated.  I’ll be waiting (not so) patiently for the next book set in this world of elemental power.

Recommended for: fans of Kristin Cashore and Anne Bishop, those who enjoy high fantasy with unique magical systems, and readers who prefer their science fiction and fantasy with a thread of romance.

top ten series i’d like to start but haven’t yet

Tuesday, March 5, 2013 | | 23 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

I’m convinced that this week’s Top Ten Tuesday is going to make us all look like imposters.  If we can think of ten series we’d like to read but haven’t yet, we’re all lazy readers, right?  Ha!  No.  I have dozens of books I own and haven’t read yet, just sitting on the shelf.  This a list of series I don’t own, but from everything I’ve heard, I should, and will try to get to in this lifetime… yeah.  Too many books, too little time!

Top Ten Series I’d Like to Start But Haven’t Yet 

1. Naomi Novik’s Dragons of Temeraire
2. Megan Whelan Turner’s Attolia
3. Beth Revis’ Across the Universe
4. Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness
5. Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl

6. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman
7. Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The Ascendance Trilogy
8. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence
9. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
10. Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker

What are some series you’d like to start reading but haven’t gotten around to yet?

a tangle of knots

Monday, March 4, 2013 | | 6 comments
One person I trust (and you should, too!) for middle grade recommendations is Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library.  When she reviewed Lisa Graff’s A Tangle of Knots and mentioned fantasy and baking in the same breath, I knew this would be a book for me.  And so it is – the charming story and tasty recipes included at chapter’s end are light, lovely reading.

a tangle of knots by lisa graff book cover
Told in multiple viewpoints, A Tangle of Knots is a magnificent puzzle. In a slightly magical world where everyone has a Talent, eleven-year-old Cady is an orphan with a phenomenal Talent for cake baking. But little does she know that fate has set her on a journey from the moment she was born. And her destiny leads her to a mysterious address that houses a lost luggage emporium, an old recipe, a family of children searching for their own Talents, and a Talent Thief who will alter her life forever. However, these encounters hold the key to Cady's past and how she became an orphan. If she's lucky, fate may reunite her with her long-lost parent. 

Lisa Graff adds a pinch of magic to a sharply crafted plot to create a novel that will have readers wondering about fate and the way we're all connected.

A Tangle of Knots is a gem of a story: short, sweet, magical, and full of unexpected characters and connections. It centers on Cady, a diminutive orphan with a Talent for baking.   She lives in a world where most people have Talents that allow them to do one thing superhumanly well.  Often Talents are simple things, like spitting, or whistling, but some are extremely useful, such as Miss Mallory’s (the proprietor of Cady’s orphanage) Talent for matching orphans with the perfect family. 

The trouble is that Cady has been living at the orphanage for ten whole years – which is a record, because usually Miss Mallory matches girls within days, and sometimes in an hour!  The story doesn’t encompass only these two, though.  It is told from many viewpoints, and their threads of story woven together to paint a bigger picture of choices and fate, caring for others, and following your heart.  It’s sweet without verging on stifling, and magical without losing immediacy or a contemporary setting.

The only thing that took a little getting used to was that ever-changing narrative voice.  The story jumps from character to character not only by chapter but within chapters as well, and this is a little jarring to start.  Soon, though, you become lost in everyone’s unique stories.  Part of the fun is wondering how they all fit together, and speculating about who the gentleman with the hot air balloon is, and what he wants. 

This is a gentle fantasy with a beating heart.  It explores themes of family, finding what is important to you (be it a Talent, belonging or adventure), self-worth, and righting the wrongs of the past.  It also features several generations of characters, and that element is done particularly well.  It’s all-ages reading, and lest we forget those delectable recipes… all-ages baking too.

Recommended for: fans of Lauren Oliver’s Liesl & Po, those who enjoy light fantasy, anyone with an interest in well-woven middle grade stories, and all those who love adventures and cake.

Interested in more middle grade books?  Check out Middle Grade March!

middle grade march

Friday, March 1, 2013 | | 8 comments
Happy Friday and welcome to Middle Grade March!  What’s Middle Grade March?  Last year I focused on middle grade (MG) books all throughout the month, and I really enjoyed the experience.  I also discovered a lot of lovely books.  So: I’m doing it again.  During March my reviews and content will highlight middle grade fantasy (and perhaps sci-fi, if I see anything appealing), and I’ll keep the calendar below up-to-date with links to everything.  Look out for giveaways! 


4/7 – Wrap-up

Do you have a favorite middle grade book?  Recommendations welcome!
Newer Posts Older Posts Home