My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
Published: June 7th 2016 by HarperTeen
Format: Paper Book
Length: 512 pages
Genre: historical fiction, fantasy, magic, shapeshifters, royal drama
Rating: 4.5 stars
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Edward (long live the king) is the King of England. He’s also dying, which is inconvenient, as he’s only sixteen and he’d much rather be planning for his first kiss than considering who will inherit his crown…
Jane (reads too many books) is Edward’s cousin, and far more interested in books than romance. Unfortunately for Jane, Edward has arranged to marry her off to secure the line of succession. And there’s something a little odd about her intended…
Gifford (call him G) is a horse. That is, he’s an Eðian (eth-y-un, for the uninitiated). Every day at dawn he becomes a noble chestnut steed—but then he wakes at dusk with a mouthful of hay. It’s all very undignified.
The plot thickens as Edward, Jane, and G are drawn into a dangerous conspiracy. With the fate of the kingdom at stake, our heroes will have to engage in some conspiring of their own. But can they pull off their plan before it’s off with their heads?
I was prepared to give My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows a pass when I first heard of it. I usually find period historical royal drama books dull and pretty cringe worthy. Then a copy of My Lady Jane arrived in the June Owl Crate subscription box and I figured since I had it, I should give it a read. I’m glad I did. I expected something stuffy and sluggish but My Lady Jane is a hilarious, clever reinventing of English history with a heavy helping of magical highjacks. It was so much better than I could have anticipated.
Ah, the Tudors. Never a more dysfunctional royal family will you find. In case you need a refresher, this is the period of time where Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church just so he could marry 6 different women. (His wives kept ending up dead, for some reason.) His son Edward VI, by Jane Seymour (wife #3), was brought up a Protestant, while his half-sister Mary, by Catherine of Aragon (wife #1), was brought up a Catholic. Both were struggling for control of the English throne. It is into this political stew pot that our story unfolds. Our authors take the religious tensions of the day and switch them over to a magical prejudice system between shapeshifters, the Edians, and those who despise them, the Verity. Our story is set in 1553, just as young King Edward was about to die from tuberculosis (as history tells us). Only Edward doesn’t die, much to everyone’s frustration. Throw in a royal coup d’état, other dastardly plots, and a horse and you have My Lady Jane in a nutshell.
For the amount of political drama that is the setting, My Lady Jane is a silly historical comedy full of puns and mockery of the sexist attitudes and ridiculous social graces of the time period. It’s funny and tongue-in-cheek. It’s entertaining. My Lady Jane is the type of easy, undemanding book that you can relax with. The romantic relationships, especially between Jane and G, are done spectacularly, with a believable evolution. The humor is clever and sarcastic. It is the exact tone I love to read. The characters are interesting. I especially like Jane. I really identify with her. She has so much book smarts but it’s hard to translate that usefully into the real world. The plot is well-written and the blending of history and fantasy is splendid.
My only real complaint is that it jumps between three POV’s, making it slightly irritating when we switch over to another person and have to backtrack to cover what was happening to them during a time period we’ve already covered from a different POV. I find changing POV’s incredibly jarring to the reading experience, making it hard to really settle into the flow of the narrative. However, I would have never guessed there were three authors. The writing style doesn’t change throughout the book and the tone never shifts. Our authors blended seamlessly together. I have to assume they wrote different parts but you could never tell. There are some portions that drag but the action picks up quickly. I was pleasantly surprised by how NOT annoying the romances were. My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows is a fun, witty rump through Tudor history turned on its head that I recommend anybody looking for a good chuckle and some sweet romance should read.
Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty
Published: Published July 14th 2015 by Disney•Hyperion
Format: Paper Book
Length: 299 pages
Genre: Fantasy, Historical, Mystery, Paranormal
Rating: 3.5 stars
Goodreads | Amazon
Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of the Biltmore estate. There’s plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate’s maintenance man, have secretly lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember.
But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of the Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity . . . before all of the children vanish one by one.
Serafina’s hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic, one that is bound to her own identity. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must seek the answers that will unlock the puzzle of her past.
There was a lot of excited chatter when Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty came out this summer. Frist of all, gorgeous cover. This is one of my favorite covers from this year. Second of all, the story is set at Biltmore Estate, in North Carolina. I love that place. I’ve only visited once when I was a little kid but I wish I could go back as an adult so I could appreciate it probably. It’s a gorgeous house and land. This isn’t a complicated story and it’s fairly predictable but it is cute and fun. There are some pacing problems and a fair amount of “special snowflake syndrome” but this might not matter to a younger reader. I do have one massive problem with Serafina and the Black Cloak but I’ll save that for last.
Serafina and the Black Cloak is a mix of fantasy and mystery. Children are disappearing at the Biltmore Estate and an evil man in a black cloak is prowling the grounds. Thankfully, the evildoer is not the only one on the prowl. Serafina’s secret was obvious and I felt like I could have stopped reading in the middle and not missed a thing. I started skimming parts and for a shorter book, this is not good. If you’ve got a short book then you want to make every single part important and gripping. Serafina gets lost in the woods in the first half and that takes up more pages than it should. Then the plot is sort of meandering after that.
I found myself growing impatient. I could see where everything was going, guessed the secrets by about the halfway point, and was pretty much done by that stage. I finished reading that book in case the author wished to surprise us with something different but no such luck. There is a haunting and ominous atmosphere to the setting that I found enjoyable. The characters fill pretty standard roles and feel a little plastic, although some of Serafina’s thoughts on good and evil are well done. Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty has a charming and nostalgic feel to it from books I read as a child but falls short of being really great as an adult.
My biggest issue with this book is the beginning. Trigger Warning! I don’t know why some proofreader or editor didn’t turn to Beatty and say “You know your beginning sounds like a pedophile rape scene, right?” Because it totally does. Serafina and the Black Cloak is published by a Disney company and you can’t tell me nobody bought a clue reading that. That scene would seriously trigger a rape survivor. It even made me uncomfortable reading it. A little blond girl being dragged through a dark basement (Please, sir, we aren’t supposed to be down here!), a man with a raspy voice (I won’t hurt you, little darling.), and just everything (The man wraps his arms around the little girl and pulls her to his chest and then shudders.). I seriously can’t believe someone didn’t Nope that hard.
Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen
Published: February 3rd 2015 by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Format: Paper Book
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade, Magic, Fairytale, Beauty and the Beast
Rating: 3.5 stars
Goodreads | Amazon
Sarah has always been on the move. Her mother hates the cold, so every few months her parents pack their bags and drag her off after the sun. She’s grown up lonely and longing for magic. She doesn’t know that it’s magic her parents are running from.
When Sarah’s mother walks out on their family, all the strange old magic they have tried to hide from comes rising into their mundane world. Her father begins to change into something wild and beastly, but before his transformation is complete, he takes Sarah to her grandparents—people she has never met, didn’t even know were still alive.
Deep in the forest, in a crumbling ruin of a castle, Sarah begins to untangle the layers of curses affecting her family bloodlines, until she discovers that the curse has carried over to her, too. The day she falls in love for the first time, Sarah will transform into a beast . . . unless she can figure out a way to break the curse forever.
Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen is a beautiful, simple read that takes the Beauty and the Beast tale and twists the characters and events into a new story that delves deeper into the nature of curses and three generations of a family caught in the snare of magic, pride, and jealousy. Beastkeeper is a small book. It barely cracks 200 pages long. While I like stories that don’t overreach themselves and become rambling and unfocused, I do feel as if Beastkeeper could have been a little bigger. There are so many interesting characters that we learn so little of, that I wish the book had been longer just so they could have been fleshed out more. It’s a tease and we end up wanting more with no hope of getting it.
I liked Sarah as a character. She feels true to her age; as in there is a lot of crying when she feels overwhelmed and moments where she wants to give up and leave but the story won’t let her and she’s forced to grow up a little and deal with everything. Beastkeeper is dark for a children’s story. The ending is less a happy ending and more a balanced ending. The dead stay dead and the characters move on and deal with their fates for the most part. This is not your everyday fairytale revision. Hellisen creates an atmosphere with her writing that perfectly matches her story. From the cold in the forest to the twisting maze of the tower, her writing is magical and sets the tone for beasts and witches alike.
I found Beastkeeper in the young adult section of my library but the story is much better suited to a middle grade genre. The age of the main character and the tone of the romance angle are better aimed toward younger audiences (and adults like me who just like middle grade books for the stories they offer). Plus, there is the absolutely gorgeous cover. I’m seriously in love with it. I spent several minutes picking the hidden creatures out of the trees. I highly recommend Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen for anyone who enjoys stories based in folklore and fairytales that have a touch of darkness to them.
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Published: October 6th 2015 by St. Martin’s Griffin
Format: Paper Book
Length: 522 pages
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, GLBT, Paranormal, Magic
Rating: 4 stars
Goodreads | Amazon
Simon Snow is the worst chosen one who’s ever been chosen.
That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right.
Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he sets something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here—it’s their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up.
Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, a mystery and a melodrama. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story—but far, far more monsters.
I am unbelievably torn with Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. On one hand, I adore fanfiction. I read fanfiction and I write it. For me, the Simon Snow fanfiction bits of Fangirl were the bright spots among what turned out to be a rather slow and boring book. So when Rainbow Rowell announced she was going to write a proper book using the Simon Snow characters and world we caught little glances of in Fangirl, I was super excited. I wasn’t even put off by the 522 page count. But then I eagerly cracked my new copy of Carry On open and my heart sank. Rainbow Rowell had committed one of my biggest peeves; the changing POV. Every chapter, and sometimes ‘chapters’ were a couple of sentences long, was told from a different character’s point of view. I almost threw the book out the window. No. Just, no.
I’m not fond of first person narrative either. Add in the changing POV and I was incredibly annoyed. Each chapter would backtrack to retell the events that had just happened from another character’s point of view. So, we were getting each scene from a different person two or three times depending on who was there. Redundant and pointless. The length of the book was starting to make sense. I was about ready to pull my hair out. But, I’m a dedicated fanfiction shipper and I pushed through and read the whole book. (I don’t know why some person, an editor or proofreader, didn’t point out how much people dislike first person narrative and changing POV. They’re the number one and two criticisms on fanfiction or books in general. Why, Rainbow!? Why!?)
Being a fangirl and shipper often means that you are willing to read utter crap as long as it has your fandom and the characters you like. You have to wade through a lot of mediocrity to find those hidden gems in fanfiction. I’m used to it but I was disappointed to find it in a proper published book. If Rainbow’s goal in writing Carry On was to keep the fanfiction feel of the story, she accomplished that. But she accomplished it by keeping the worst traits of fanfiction, the stuff I personally have to look past to be able to enjoy a story. References to events before this book, in earlier school years, are sprinkled around the book and since we have no way to read those earlier books, this is just madness inducing. The plot was a bit muddled and could be confusing in places. It is also slow and meandering in the first half and a little rushed in the second half. The magic system is very creative and the details of Simon’s past and how the Insidious Humdrum was created are fantastic. In all, I loved the story and the characters of Carry On by Rainbow Rowell but the manner it was written in was not my cup of tea.
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
I won an ARC of Uprooted by Naomi Novik from Goodreads and, to be honest, I put off reading it because of its size. It is 435 pages long. I’m the type of person that believes if you can’t tell a story in under or close to 350 pages, then you need to edit down. Longer books tend to be slow or rambling and drive me crazy. I end up losing my patience and giving up waiting for something interesting to bloody happen. But I was reading such good things from other reviewers that Uprooted piqued my interest and I gave in. And, man, am I glad I did! While Uprooted was a bit slow in places and the Dragon is a jerk without any redeemable characteristics, it wasn’t enough to completely put me off because the rest of the book is just that awesome in my opinion.
You have to understand that my taste for romance in books has soured over the years. So much so that I’d rather stab myself in the eye with a letter opener than read one more young adult book where the male is an asshole for mysterious brooding reasons and the female is a twit merely because of her gender. I’m sick of it. It’s completely put me off of YA books as a whole. But it is also very hard to find the stories that I find entertaining in the adult genre, where the romance is a little more palatable in my opinion. That’s why I was doubly pleased to find that Uprooted was being marketed as an adult genre novel. I saw the light of hope at the end of the dark, annoying romance tunnel.
Agnieszka and the Dragon are complete opposites and while a type of halting, grudging romance does develop between them, it does not take over the book or hinder Agnieszka in any way. The romance between them falls to the background and the main plot with the Wood and the history of the valley and its people takes center stage. There is more focus on the sisterly relationship and loyalty between Agnieszka and Kasia then the budding feelings between Agnieszka and the Dragon. In short, I don’t end up simmering in frustration and impatience because the main female character is so focused on the main male character being a jerk to her that the story stalls while we waste time on poorly contrived emotional angst. Agnieszka does not spend time pining for the Dragon but rather gets on with things. Thank god…
My peeves with this story are that the Dragon (who does have a name but that isn’t revealed until late in the book and so I won’t use it here) is a big old jerk. He has reasons for being a jerk but that just makes him fall into my loathed ‘asshole for mysterious brooding reasons’ category. If the Dragon was more of a driving force in the story, I probably would have liked it less. The beginning interactions between Agnieszka and the Dragon are also a little long and could be tightened up so the pace doesn’t slag. Same thing with Agnieszka and the royal palace and other mages. We all get that something fishy was happening under the surface of political intrigue and court maneuverings but that part could have sped up as well. Uprooted could have gotten a little more editing and been better off for it.
The fantasy genre has been growing by leaps and bounds the past couple of years. All you need to do is browse through a list of popular novels and TV shows to see that fantasy is becoming mainstream. And I am so thankful for that. Uprooted is firmly in the fairytale-esque tradition, playing off the whole ‘dragon kidnaps a princess for evil purposes’ story so familiar to us from childhood. But the story is so much more than that. It is so refreshing to see a capable, tenacious heroine in Agnieszka and a story rich in history, detail, and imagery. The malevolent Wood seems to have a life of its own within the story and the sense of creepy, malicious awareness reaches out to send cold chills up the reader’s spine. Everything in Uprooted is so vivid that putting down the book at the end of the day was a physical pain.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik captivated me. It was a touch slow but once the characters returned to the valley to confront the Wood and its far-reaching, evil manipulations and sorrowful past, the story picked up and I could hardly turn pages fast enough. The Wood is a character in itself in the book, much more than the flimsy creations in other fairytale novels. I was amazed by every detail and twist. The story telling in Uprooted is masterful and weaves a brilliant tale with excellent world-building and interesting characters. If you are looking for romance, you might be disappointed. But if you are looking for a fantasy fairytale novel suited toward adults, then Uprooted is definitely for you. Uprooted sinks its teeth into you and doesn’t let go until the end. Despite its failings, I completely enjoyed it.
Leo never imagined that time travel might really be possible, or that the objects in H. G. Wells’ science fiction novels might actually exist. And when a miniature time machine appears in Leo’s bedroom, he has no idea who the tiny, beautiful girl is riding it. But in the few moments before it vanishes, returning to wherever—and whenever—it came from, he recognizes the other tiny rider: himself!
His search for the time machine, the girl, and his fate leads him to the New-York Circulating Material Repository, a magical library that lends out objects instead of books. Hidden away in the Repository basement is the Wells Bequest, a secret collection of powerful objects straight out of classic science fiction novels: robots, rockets, submarines, a shrink ray—and one very famous time machine. And when Leo’s adventure of a lifetime suddenly turns deadly, he must attempt a journey to 1895 to warn real-life scientist Nikola Tesla about a dangerous invention. A race for time is on!
In this grand time-travel adventure full of paradoxes and humor, Polly Shulman gives readers a taste of how fascinating science can be, deftly blending classic science fiction elements with the contemporary fantasy world readers fell in love with in The Grimm Legacy.
I thought it only fitting that I review the sequel to one of the first books I ever reviewed on Lady with Books, The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman, during my second year blogiversary. But instead of fairy tale artifacts and relics, we get science fiction machines and contraptions in The Wells Bequest. We get to see a grown up Jaya, who you will remember as the little sister of Anjali in The Grimm Legacy, and a new host of characters who are introduced to the wonders of the New York Circulating Material Repository for the first time. Of course, you can’t mentions science fiction and H.G. Wells without recalling his famous time machine.
The Wells Bequest fits nicely as the sequel to The Grimm Legacy. Jaya is the perfect feisty heroine and ruler of the pages at the repository. She’s bossy and capable and isn’t a damsel in distress. It’s nice also to see a boy, Leo, as the character who bumbles into the adventure by accident. It’s usually a girl who plays that role. We are immediately introduced to Leo and the time machine, which is kind of jarring. There is very little lead-in to the story and it all happens very quickly. I liked how all of the artifacts in the different repositories obeyed the laws set down for them in their source books. I enjoyed the trips with the artifacts, when Jaya and Leo were disassembled to London and then the return trip across the Atlantic in the Terror, and the trip into the past with the time machine. It was interesting to meet Tesla and Mark Twain. Fans of science fiction books will enjoy seeing all their favorite machines mentioned in The Wells Bequest. It’s kind of like playing science fiction bingo.
The story can get a bit bogged down with information overload. There are several times where we have to slow down and explain things; such as how imaginary items from fiction books could possibly exist in the real world, how the items came to be at the repository, trying to explain how the oversized artifact storage area could fit into normal space. It may drive nerdy and logical Leo nuts to not understand how but it just confuses readers. Working with science fiction artifacts in The Wells Bequest ended up more unwieldy than working with fairy tale artifacts proved to be in The Grimm Legacy. Let’s talk a minute about our villain in this book, Simon, who is apparently so in love with Jaya that he feels his only course of action is to hold the world hostage with what may or may not be one of Tesla’s death rays and demand the use of H.G. Wells’ time machine in order to stop his past self being a douchebag and making Jaya hate him. This, is pathetic. Simon is the most uninspiring villain I’ve seen in some time and I agree with Leo that the world was better off with the little snot not existing. He’s cartoonish and a buffoon.
The Wells Bequest is a nice sequel. I enjoyed the refreshing way that the adults in the book treated the teens. The adults weren’t blind fools and they didn’t treat the teens like stupid inferiors. It’s nice to see the adults and teens working together when so many other books have the teens having to work around the adults to accomplish anything. Science fiction fans will enjoy the many literary nuggets sprinkled through the book. We see Captain Nemo’s submarine The Nautilus in the stacks, although see it is all that happens. Those types of tidbits are all through the book. The Well’s Bequest by Polly Shulman was an amazingly fun read. I do suggest reading The Grimm Legacy beforehand. You won’t be totally lost if you don’t but you will miss a bit of the atmosphere and some background, like the big deal with the moving windows and why Jaya keeps going on about her sister. I adored The Grimm Legacy and liked The Wells Bequest and suggest both books.
Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair. . . .
Fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily doesn’t believe in love stories or happy endings. Then she meets the alluring teenage Peter Pan in the forbidden woods of Neverland and immediately falls under his spell.
Peter is unlike anyone she’s ever known. Impetuous and brave, he both scares and enthralls her. As the leader of the Lost Boys, the most fearsome of Neverland’s inhabitants, Peter is an unthinkable match for Tiger Lily. Soon, she is risking everything—her family, her future—to be with him. When she is faced with marriage to a terrible man in her own tribe, she must choose between the life she’s always known and running away to an uncertain future with Peter.
With enemies threatening to tear them apart, the lovers seem doomed. But it’s the arrival of Wendy Darling, an English girl who’s everything Tiger Lily is not, that leads Tiger Lily to discover that the most dangerous enemies can live inside even the most loyal and loving heart.
I always enjoy retellings that focus on secondary characters. I confess I haven’t read Peter Pan but I had seen the Disney movie when I was a child and Tiger Lily was a favorite of mine. So I was curious to see what Jodi Lynn Anderson had done with the Indian princess’s story in her book Tiger Lily. On a whole, I was underwhelmed. The book was slow and uneventful. Nothing much happened. There was no tension or excitement in Tiger Lily and although I enjoyed seeing Neverland fleshed out and a new side to the familiar characters of Peter Pan and Tiger Lily, the rest of it felt very flat.
What I Liked
Tik Tok. Full stop. He’s probably the best character in the whole book. I think this is the first transgendered character I’ve ever seen in young adult fiction before. I loved how the village people just accepted Tik Tok as he was made and then it broke my heart when Phillip and the other missionaries turned their opinion against Tik Tok, after everything the medicine man had done for them. I had a little sniffle when they chopped off his hair.
Pine Sap and Moon Eye. In fact, there were a lot of awesome secondary characters in this book. It’s great to see characters that aren’t perfect physically but are still determined and steadfast. Pine Sap might have a spinal deformity but that only seems to make him an old soul. It was especially poignant when he was dealing with his abusive mother. “I don’t know what else to do but be patient with her.” As if his mother was a whining child and he the adult. I love that. I also love that delicate, shy little Moon Eye got her revenge in the end.
The story is told from the point of view of Tinkerbell, the fairy. It’s very odd but gusty move to make the narrator not one of the main characters. Tinkerbell herself professes to be unimportant and unnoticed by most of the other characters. This makes the times that characters do notice her especially powerful and those times when nothing she does changes the course of events even sadder.
It was awesome to see Neverland fleshed out and presented as an actual place. It’s a magical but logical location. I love reading all the details about the fairies and other Neverland creatures as well as the tribes and pirates.
What I Didn’t Like
The plot. Tiger Lily had all the makings of something awesome; great setting, fantastic characters, but we’re let down with a plot that never really does anything. There could have been adventure and excitement but instead we just have Tiger Lily and Peter being awkward with each other. The book seemed to drag and it’s not even that big of a book.
We really don’t learn a lot about Tiger Lily. While Tinkerbell can sort of see into the minds of other people, we don’t get much explanation for why Tiger Lily acts and feels the ways she does. We never learn where she came from besides Tik Tok finding her in the forest. Yes, we’re told Tiger Lily was bullied and that she’s not like other children but we really don’t have a lot of insight into her. The same goes for Peter. He has the strangest moods but we never get any deeper into him. We’re never given the chance to understand. We’re just left with this little boy who wants his mommy and may be more than a little insane.
Tiger Lily has some of the most diverse and powerful characters I’ve ever seen. It has a readymade setting for all sorts of mayhem and thrills. But we’re left with a flat plot and very little action. It was interesting to see Peter and Tiger Lily kind of grownup a little, into teens in this book. There are no thimble kisses here, folks. Peter smooches Tiger Lily and Wendy on the cheeks and lips several times. This is a less innocent Neverland. The more sexual aspects may upset some people and I’m hearing a few complaints about the narration. It was a little jarring to have Tinkerbell suddenly speaking up in first person in the middle of an otherwise third person narration. In all, I liked Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson but I just couldn’t bring myself to love it.
Tilda has never given much thought to dragons, attending instead to her endless duties and wishing herself free of a princess’s responsibilities.
When a greedy cousin steals Tilda’s lands, the young princess goes on the run with two would-be dragon slayers. Before long she is facing down the Wild Hunt, befriending magical horses, and battling flame-spouting dragons. On the adventure of a lifetime, and caught between dreams of freedom and the people who need her, Tilda learns more about dragons—and herself—than she ever imagined.
Merrie Haskell, author of The Princess Curse, presents a magical tale of transformation, danger, and duty, starring a remarkable princess as stubborn as she is brave.
Merrie Haskell’s first book, The Princess Curse, was an excellent middle grade book. So, I was excited when I heard she was publishing another middle grade book, Handbook for Dragon Slayers. Dragons, you say? Yes please! Haskell is known to mix myths and legends into her books and for capable and independent female characters. I was really interested in seeing what Haskell had crafted for us in her new book.
Things I Liked
Secondly, kudos for another capable and independent main female character and this time one that has a physical handicap. Tilda overcomes at lot of obstacles in this book; physical obstacles in the form of her foot, then breaking out of the prison that was her status and truly understanding what she wants. Haskell has a way of writing girls with spirit and determination that I really enjoy. Tilda won’t let anything stand in her way and she fights for what she wants, even if what she wants changes and matures through the book. Even Judith was amazing. She’s strong willed and I love that she snuck off for secret dragon slaying lessons with Parz.
I thought Tilda’s disability was well handled. Her clubfoot constantly pains her and separates her from others, so much so that her own people scorn her, but Tilda chooses to not let her deformity control her. It does have an influence on her, as she sees herself and how she thinks other people see her, but she strives to not let it define her. I also like how there was no magical fix for her at the end and how she accepts herself just as she is and realizes how important she is to Alder Brook and her friends. It took the loss of their princess to realize how much they really value her and Tilda the same for Alder Brook. There was no magical hand wave to get rid of the unpleasant bits to make Tilda ‘perfect’ and that really made me enjoy the character more.
Handbook for Dragon Slayers is just the type of adventurous, original middle grade book I adore. The slight love triangle is background to the main plot that includes dragons, evil knights, and magical horses. It’s exciting and you don’t want to put the book down.
Things I Didn’t Like
I didn’t recognize the myths Haskell used in Handbook for Dragon Slayers. The metal horses are obviously from some myth but it’s one I’m not readily familiar with the way The Twelve Dancing Princesses and the Persephone myths were in The Princess Curse. It took away some of the shine. I also can’t help but think that the target audience, young children, would be even more confused. They’re not going to have the first clue of what The Wild Hunt is and will probably just think it’s made-up, which is a shame.
Speaking of The Wild Hunt, Haskell goes through the trouble of making the lead horsewoman intimidating and scary and then does very little with them. The main villain is a power hungry delusional knight who really should know better than to try and entrap the Fey. It never ends well for the human. I was a little disappointed at the end when The Wild Hunt returned and then everything is hand waved away and is now hunky-dory.
The elements of Handbook for Dragon Slayers are practically tailor fit to make me gush. It’s the type of adventure that makes me feel like a kid again, rushing around the backyard with a princess crown and a plastic sword I’d stolen from my older brother. (Yes, I was one of those little girls. I was determined to be both a princess and a knight and no amount of teasing from my brother and his friends would change my mind.) Tilda was the perfect unconventional hero and her journey to self-acceptance was smart and fun. Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell was a good second book and I very much enjoyed it.
In the darkest places, even love is deadly.
Sixteen-year-old Juliet Moreau has built a life for herself in London—working as a maid, attending church on Sundays, and trying not to think about the scandal that ruined her life. After all, no one ever proved the rumors about her father’s gruesome experiments. But when she learns he is alive and continuing his work on a remote tropical island, she is determined to find out if the accusations are true.
Accompanied by her father’s handsome young assistant, Montgomery, and an enigmatic castaway, Edward—both of whom she is deeply drawn to—Juliet travels to the island, only to discover the depths of her father’s madness: He has experimented on animals so that they resemble, speak, and behave as humans. And worse, one of the creatures has turned violent and is killing the island’s inhabitants. Torn between horror and scientific curiosity, Juliet knows she must end her father’s dangerous experiments and escape her jungle prison before it’s too late. Yet as the island falls into chaos, she discovers the extent of her father’s genius—and madness—in her own blood.
I assume that you have a least heard of the story of The Island of Doctor Moreau, if not seen the movie or read the original book by H.G. Wells. At this point, the “island full of monsters” plot is a familiar cliché. It’s been pretty well assimilated into our culture. The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd is a retelling of that story only now with added hormonal teenage girl. There is a supernatural twist to the story at the end that was surprising and the characters are well formed and not too annoying but I still found myself with some disappointed feelings as a whole. It comes from my basic annoyance with the main female character in young adult books. I loved The Island of Doctor Moreau and I can’t accept that story being diluted by, I’m sorry to say, some dumb girl running around.
What I Liked
It’s very well written. There were times where I was on the edge of my seat with suspense and I couldn’t flip the pages fast enough. The tension on the island could have been cut by a knife and the reader really feels that. The horror and gore has quite a punch. When the story gets going, it really goes and it’s intense. (Of course, the problem is when it stops going.)
We have some truly awesome secondary characters in this book. My favorites are Alice, who Montgomery sees as a kind-of daughter but whom Alice loves romantically, and Ajax/Jaguar, who personifies the dual nature of human and animal and the nature of humanity and self-awareness.
What I Didn’t Like
The book is a little overlong. Most notably, the chapters on the boat sailing to the island and then when Juliet and Edward are running willy-nilly around the island in the dark after Juliet saw her father and Montgomery preforming their experiments in the red shed. The middle part of the book felt a little wandering. Juliet’s inner rambling does not help. The pacing is too slow.
I normally love retellings but I felt the introduction of Juliet into The Island of Doctor Moreau was a disservice to the story. In the original book, there is no female main character on the island, let alone the daughter of the infamous doctor. Frankly, the most interesting part to the book was the beginning when Juliet was still in London. The London chapters had a great macabre atmosphere that really pulled me in. Perhaps I just like gothic historical fiction better. It started out great but then got bogged down with a slow plot and being too focused on the romance rather than the action. It takes a lot of skill to write a retelling of a popular story correctly and while I think The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd was a good result, I don’t think it was an improvement.
I’ve taken a glance at the sequel, Her Dark Curiosity, and it looks to be even better than The Madman’s Daughter. I hope that since it looks like the sequel is set in London that we can recapture the macabre and darkly gothic feel that the first few chapters of The Madman’s Daughter had.
Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
I can safely say that Neil Gaiman is my favorite living author. His writing is fantastic. His novels always have a wonderful turn of phrase and wit about them and are always somehow deeply magical. Gaiman’s novels are set in this world but it’s this world only if you kind of step a little to the left and squint. Because you can only see magic and the fantastical if you go a little out of focus. So, needless to say, I was very excited when news of a new book from him came out. (And completely bummed that his US signing tour wasn’t coming anywhere near me. Dang it.)
Honestly, I was a bit disappointed when I picked up The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s tiny. At only 178 pages long I was dubious of the book. There was no way a proper story could be told in such a small book, let alone one of Gaiman’s artful and whimsical creations. I was proven wrong. While The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not like most of Gaiman’s other books, it is still a complete story with excellent setting and characters. Gaiman’s greatest skill, I think, is in the creation of his characters. He writes children very well. He writes odd and weird very well. The Hempstock ladies are an example of that. Their oddness is so subtle that you’re not even sure you’re seeing it.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not the type of story I am used to seeing from Gaiman. This story is small and personal but the more I read the more the book became, not bigger, but denser. It had weight and is undeniably a story for adults and older teens. Gaiman has created something strange and peculiar and lovely here. It is childhood and how a child experiences and deals with several situations. (The loss of family wealth, his Father’s cheating and abuse, the childhood curse of being ‘different’ from other children.) He is a child and doesn’t understand but he has to deal with it just the same. To a seven year old little boy, magic is real and an eleven year old girl is powerful and wise. I was utterly fascinated.
Could a younger person read this? Well, yes. The story is exciting and scary fun. I’d have reservations about a kid reading this because of the scene where the main character’s Father tries to kill him (let’s not mince words here, the Father was trying to drown him no matter how our young narrator sees it). There is also one, tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sexual moment. But I also think that a young teen might not understand some of the underlying meaning. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about a child’s world and how that world is so different from an adult’s but at the same time it has this deeper tragedy and creepiness that can make a reader uncomfortable. I think that is where the true greatness of this book comes from, along with being a really great story on the surface, and if you can’t understand that then you kind of lose something.
At the end of reading a Gaiman book I always feel this sense of nostalgia and longing for the world he created and the characters I’ve been introduced to. I miss them because it was a world we used to live in, long ago, when we ourselves were children and before we made that horrible decision to grow up. It’s part of the reason why I adore his books so much. My one gripe is that this small book costs $26. I’m sure the fancy paper edging was worth that much. (That was sarcasm.) The Ocean at the End of the Lane joins the host of other Neil Gaiman books that are my favorite.