Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle & Emily Jenkins

One of my coworkers really enjoyed the Upside-Down Magic series and recommended, as a former teacher who worked with students with unique learning needs, I would appreciate it as well, and she was right!

Synopsis

It’s never easy when your magic goes wonky. For Nory, this means that instead of being able to turn into a dragon or a kitten, she turns into both of them at the same time — a dritten. For Elliott, the simple act of conjuring fire from his fingertips turns into a fully frozen failure. For Andres, wonky magic means he’s always floating in the air, bouncing off the walls, or sitting on the ceiling. For Bax, a bad moment of magic will turn him into a… actually, he’d rather not talk about that.

Nory, Elliott, Andres, and Bax are just four of the students in Dunwiddle Magic School’s Upside-Down Magic class. In their classroom, lessons are unconventional, students are unpredictable, and magic has a tendency to turn wonky at the worst possible moments. Because it’s always amazing, the trouble a little wonky magic can cause…

A brief social commentary before my review

When looking at the kid’s literature available to me as a child, it is safe to say that the characters were not diverse, not in their skin color, gender identity, or abilities. They were pretty much all white, slightly above average, blond, white girls. And when I was a kid, I didn’t take any notice because, as my German grandmother put it, had I been alive in 1939 like her, I would have been the poster child for the Aryan race. Blond hair, blue grey eyes, ethnically German, slightly above average height and intelligence. It is something that I find I now hate about myself, especially ass I find myself listening to speeches from of the members of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, I constantly want to apologize for continuing to fuel the problem, I write characters like me, the characters that they have been rally against, because they’re just like me.

I never realized the lack of diverse books because I could relate to pretty much every main character I came across. Shortly after returning home after BookCon last year, I asked my fiance, who’s heritage is primarily Chinese and English, if he ever came across human characters he identified with as a child. His answer? His favorite books were Redwall and Watership Down. The only characters he identified with were animals, because they only had emotional descriptions and those he could relate to. He understood their feelings and with race out of the picture, he felt like he could understand their motivations because they were all inherently different than the mainstream characters, simply by being animals.

And it is because of these reasons and so many others, the Upside-Down Magic should be required reading for all elementary school students.

Review

As someone who has worked in special education and with children of multiple ethnicities, I immediately read deeper into Upside-Down Magic than most people. Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins are mad brilliant. They took a girl’s worries about being different and forced her to accept them instead of following the typical narrative of self-discovery and being mainstreamed and everyone liking her, they were much more realistic with how they handled the politics of education and the fact that all students’ needs are different, whether it be in learning math or magic. They also incorporated the fact that most minority and special needs student are often taught by a white, female teacher that the students have difficulty relating to. And while the teacher may have people in her life that have unique needs, rarely did/does the teacher.

​I recommend Upside-Down Magic to children at the store that feel like they don’t really fit in or who really like magic stories, but I also recommend it to each and every teacher that walks through the bookstore doors because, whether the authors intended or not, they have written a brilliant piece of social commentary on our education system in the United States and how imperative it is to teach every child in a manner that best fits their unique needs and style.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $5.99 • 9780545800464 • 208 pages • originally published September 2015, this edition published August 2016 by Scholastic Inc. • average Goodreads rating 4.1 out of 5 • read in October 2016

Sarah Mlynowski’s Website

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Upside-Down Magic

Fantasy, Fiction

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Knowing of our shared love of Good OmensBen picked up a copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane for me from the Strand one year for Christmas!

Synopsis

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 where she once lived, 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.

Review

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an interesting book, a difficult one to really wrap my mind around. The main character is a grown man, reliving an extended childhood memory over the course of the novel. The idea behind the book is to play on our understanding of our memories and how they are a fluid thing, evolving and changing as we do when we grow older. Our memories of our childhood may not even be actual memories, but rather fabrications of our minds to explain something that our childhood brains could not fathom or comprehend.

This is the understanding one must accept when starting to read The Ocean at the End of the Lane or else it just seems trippy. The little boy suffered traumas, that much is undeniable. But whether Ursula Monkton (the blamed source for his difficulties) was really of another world and whether Lettie Hempstock really went to Australia, well, those matters are up for debate. Neil Gaiman expertly crafts fantasy based on the real events and occurrences and delves into the childhood memories with such a careful hand it’s hard to imagine that any other explanation for the boy’s suffering is even possible.

Alas, though, fiction that twists reality, fantasy, and psychology kind of freaks me out. It’s hard for me to think too hard about thinking and I tend to prefer to not have to do so unless necessary. An understanding of Gaiman’s purpose in writing is essential in experiencing The Ocean at the End of the Lane in the fullest way possible.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Mass Market Paperback • $7.99 • 9780062459367 • 256 pages • originally published June 2013, this edition published June 2016 by William Morrow & Company • average Goodreads rating 3.99 out of 5 • read in January 2015

Neil Gaiman’s Website

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Ocean at the End of the Lane

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I finally realized why I read so many books about young women during World War II. My grandmother grew up in Nürnberg during this time and she has never spoken about her childhood. From what my father has told me about her experiences, I wouldn’t talk about it either. I read so many books because I wonder – is this her story? Liesel Meminger’s tale is probably closest I’ll get to the unknown story of my grandmother’s childhood in Germany.

Synopsis

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel Meminger’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened and closed.

Review

The Book Thief is an extraordinary book. Narrated by Death, it chronicles Liesel Meminger’s life from 1939 to 1943 – the time in which she lived with her foster family, the Hubermanns, in Molching, Germany, a suburb of Munich. Liesel is not Jewish, but an incredibly reluctant member of the Hitler Youth. Her daily life, at the start of the war, continues in much the same way as life before and after the war. She plays soccer on the streets with her friends, she attends school, she reads books, and she delivers laundry for her foster mother. But as the war progresses, her life changes in the ways one would expect a young German girl’s life to change due to war – rationing, air raids, knowing people who have been drafted into the army, etc.

However, Liesel’s story is not the typical WWII era narrative as it is, on the surface, the tale of the ordinary German, not very sensational or particularly moving. But Liesel is a literary powerhouse of a protagonist. Her brother dies, and she copes by stealing a book – a book from which she learns to read. And learning to read, that changes the course of her entire life.

It was an interesting choice, on Markus Zusak’s part, to have Death narrate the book – it adds a sense of foreboding but also a tone of almost “hyper-reality” – giving a voice to the one fact that we all know but don’t like to confront – everyone dies. Death is exhausted by World War II, between the soldiers, the Jews, and the civilians, he’s exhausted. But Death is touched by Liesel, the girl who seems to see him and a girl he encounters more times than he believes he should (I use “he” because I listened to The Book Thief and the reader is male).

Personifying Death takes away the fear, Death narrates the book like Liesel’s old friend, not as an inevitable outcome and I believe that makes Liesel’s tale more profound and moving. My words are inadequate in describing the suffering Liesel endures but Markus Zusak does so with a great love for her, for all his characters. Throughout The Book Thief, Liesel is moved herself by the power of words and though she starts as an illiterate child, she quickly becomes a voracious reader. She recognizes the power words have, the words that stay with us long after they are spoken or read, and she learns some valuable life lessons from her words and the words of others. Death reveals the outcome of the book long before the final pages but that doesn’t make the end any easier to accept. While not a direct story about the Holocaust or a novel of expected and imminent danger, the outcome is heartbreaking and completely, harshly real to Liesel and the reader.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $12.99 • 9780375842207 • 552 pages • first published March 2006, this edition published September 2007 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in May 2015

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Book Thief

Fantasy, Fiction, New Adult, Novella

Hear Me by Viv Daniels

This book is known to my family as “the reason Sarah owns a dreaded Kindle.” New Adult author Viv Daniels (aka my second favorite author in the whole wide world Diana Peterfreund), originally released this book eBook only. Two years later, I found that I could order a paperback (pictured above), but of course I had to read it as soon as it was released and therefore begged my dad to get me the device I swore I never wanted for Christmas that year. And while I’m not a big “holiday” reader, this is one of the few winter/Christmas books I read in December and it really did help get me in the holiday spirit.

Synopsis

Once upon a time, Ivy belonged to Archer, body, heart, and soul. They spent long summer days exploring the forest, and long summer nights exploring each other. But that was before dark magic grew in the depths of the wilderness, and the people of Ivy’s town raised an enchanted barrier of bells to protect themselves from the threat, even though it meant cutting off the forest people—and the forest boy Ivy loved—forever.

And there’s a naked man lying in the snow. Three years later, Ivy keeps her head down, working alone in her tea shop on the edge of town and trying to imagine a new future for herself, away from the forest and the wretched bells, and the memory of her single, perfect love. But in the icy heart of winter, a terrifying magic blooms—one that can reunite Ivy and Archer, or consume their very souls.

Review

For an eBook of not even 200 pages, Hear Me sticks with me, a good 3 years after I finished reading it. In one sitting. Viv Daniels (Diana Peterfreund) has cemented herself as an extraordinary writer and story crafter. Typically, when I go about “topic-tagging” a book, as I call, it there are usually about 10 to 15 that I assign, 5 to 10 for the books that are not at all complex or intriguing. This one? Over 30. That’s on par with a good series and, it weighs in at only 170 pages.

I had previously written off New Adult as being just “young adult with a steamy sex scene thrown in.” Does Hear Me fulfill that? Yes. If there was an R rating for books, this would have it. But Hear Me does so much more than tell the tale of loner Ivy and her aching, Archer loving heart – it explores the themes of oppression and racism, self-loathing and self-acceptance, desperation, and sacrifice, all in the name of love, and in a world, that is far from kind and frequently cruel and unjust. So, as is often the question with New Adult these days it seems, does it need the sex? No. Does the steaminess make it more enjoyable? Maybe. Does Viv Daniels do an expert job in telling an interesting, intriguing, and thought-provoking story? Absolutely.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.00 • 9781937135140 • 204 pages • published November 2014 by Word for Word • average Goodreads rating 3.26 out of 5 • read in December 2014

Viv Daniels’ Website

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Hear Me

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper

My sister told me I absolutely had to read these books, and while being told to read something is not usually a good incentive, this time I am so happy that she introduced me to these books. These are three of my favorite books I have ever read and much of that has to do with how easily I was able to relate to the narrator, Sophia.

A Brief History of Montmaray Synopsis

Sophie Fitzosborne lives in a crumbling castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray with her eccentric and impoverished royal family. When she receives a journal for her sixteenth birthday, Sophie decides to chronicle day-to-day life on the island. But this is 1936, and the news that trickles in from the mainland reveals a world on the brink of war. The politics of Europe seem far away from their remote island—until two German officers land a boat on Montmaray. And then suddenly politics become very personal indeed.

Series Review

Laura’s Review

It had been a long time since I had read a series where I cared so much about the characters and felt as though I were on their journey with them. From the very first pages of A Brief History of Montmaray when Sophie states that one of her birthday presents was a new copy of Pride & Prejudice, I knew that she and I would get along quite well. Anybody who loves Jane Austen scores points with me; but that was only the beginning. As Sophie chronicled her life on Montmaray and later in England, I was always thinking, finally, an author who wrote a character that was basically me but living in the 1930s and ’40s. Sophie’s feelings and responses to situations always made sense to me because I believe it is how I would have acted as well.

Sophie loves books and writing, and did not want to associate with the catty debutantes that she was forced to interact with – which is basically how I felt the entire way through high school. I was always wondering why I did not have friends that cared about the same activities that I did instead of having a debate about that idiotic Twilight series. Sophie has now become my favorite literary heroine of all time (sorry Elizabeth Bennet!) and I have now read these books more times than I can count in the past few years. My sister had originally lent me hers and as soon as I finished reading them, she of course wanted them back, so I bought my own copies. I believe all three books deserve a five star rating, however, if I had to choose I would say that the second in the series, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, is my favorite. I love the first one; however, it takes a little while to really dig deep into the story, but after about that it is nonstop through all of the books. The second book is the when the characters really become fleshed out and due to the horrific events at the end of the first book, everyone starts to experience the tribulations that accompany adulthood. In The FitzOsbornes in Exile Sophie experiences so many different events, meets new people, (all of whom are very different) and begins to live her life on her own terms (as long as Aunt Charlotte can be persuaded to be amenable).

Michelle Cooper blends historical events and people wonderfully into the fabric of the story – of course Sophie would become friends with Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy and partake in helping refugee children from the Basque region which was practically demolished during the Spanish Civil War. Throughout the novel the family begins to try to have the option of returning to Montmaray, and it ends with a sit-on-the-edge of your seat, cannot-put-the-book-down adventure in order to have their story heard by leaders of nations all around the world and to expose the viciousness of the Nazi Regime. The final book, The FitzOsbornes at War, captures every feeling one could possibly experience as Sophie lives through the Second World War, including the Blitz, having family serving in the armed forces, and being forced to spin a positive outlook on rationing. Overall, you cannot go wrong picking up and reading this series. I wholeheartedly recommend it and I cannot think of anything even remotely negative to say about it.

Sarah’s Review

The title of this trilogy, The Montmaray Journals, refers to the written chronicle in which the protagonist, Sophie FitzOsborne, lets the readers in on her life on the island of Montmaray and her family’s experiences during World War II while residing in London and the family house in the English countryside. Her life differs greatly in all three locations as she and her family must try to cope with being forced out of their homeland and overlooked by the European community when they fight to have their home on Montmaray restored to them. An intriguing narrative that only gets deeper and more emotional as the terrors of the war hit home for all the members of the FitzOsborne family.

Sophie shares her adventures with her older brother, Toby, younger sister, Henry (Henrietta) and cousin, Veronica, all members of the royal family of Montmaray, a tiny island in the middle of the English Channel. Each and every characters is fully and richly developed and when misfortune strikes, they band together as a family to overcome any and all adverse situations. However, no family is immune to loss when it comes to World War II in Europe and the FitzOsbornes are certainly not exempt from overwhelming heartbreak. Their loss felt like my loss, their pain was my pain, as I turned page after page to find out what happened next to the lives of those I came to love.

Michelle Cooper develops a strong and engaging world, believable in its details due to her extensive research (all consulted materials are listed at the back of each of the three books) and the way her fictional characters interact with real people from the era (such as the Kennedy children). All in all, I highly recommend all three books for anyone looking for an intriguing story from the point of view of the young adults whose lives were irreversibly changed when war was declared.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

A Brief History of Montmaray Edition: Paperback • $8.99 • 9780375851544 • 296 pages • first published October 2009, this edition published March 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 3.64 out of 5 • read summer 2014

Michelle Cooper’s Website

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Montmaray

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

I just realized I’m reviewing the Leigh Bardugo books I’ve read in the opposite order in which I read them! It you have any interest in reading any of the books in her Grisha-verse, I recommend starting with this one and reading them in the order they were published. As with many authors, Leigh’s writing only gets stronger as she goes and if you start with her later books (i.e. Six of Crows), you will invariably be disappointed by Shadow and Bone. That being said, start with this one, and you’ll love the whole series!

Synopsis

Alina Starkov doesn’t expect much from life. Orphaned by the Border Wars, the one thing she could rely on was her best friend and fellow refugee, Mal. And lately not even that seems certain. Drafted into the army of their war-torn homeland, they’re sent on a dangerous mission into the Fold, a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh.

When their convoy is attacked, all seems lost until Alina reveals a dormant power that not even she knew existed. Ripped from everything she knows, she is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. He believes she is the answer the people have been waiting for: the one person with the power to destroy the Fold.

Swept up in a world of luxury and illusion, envied as the Darkling’s favorite, Alina struggles to fit into her new life without Mal by her side. But as the threat to the kingdom mounts, Alina uncovers a secret that sets her on a collision course with the most powerful forces in the kingdom. Now only her past can save her… and only she can save the future.

Review

While I dish out book recommendations left, right and center, especially at my job at a bookstore, I’m generally very reluctant to read books others have recommended to me, mostly because I feel like they will always fail to live up to: a, my ridiculously high expectations for books and b, give me unrealistic expectations for them based on how much my friend loved it. That all being said, Shadow and Bone fell only slightly flat – and I probably would not have been so harsh on it if it hadn’t been described as very similar to Throne of Glass, which is my most favorite book ever. I did enjoy Shadow and Bone, however, just not as much as I would have liked, given the hype, and the awesome impression I got of Leigh Bardugo when I saw her play truth or dare with Marissa Meyer (author of the Lunar Chronicles) at BookCon.

Alina, central character of the trilogy, falls into a very stereotypical female archetype: girl pines for childhood friend, girl discovers she has an unknown special power, boy realizes he loves girl, girl saves lives/has some great revelation about good and evil, girl and boy run off together. While it’s not a “The End, Happily Ever After” ending for the first book, the general arc rings true to the story. And even though Alina has a little more backbone than most female fantasy lead characters and has her moments of clarity, unfortunately I’ve got a huge girl crush on Celaena/Aelin and alas, next to her, no other can compare.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 9781250027436 • 358 pages • originally published June 2012, this edition published May 2014 by Square Fish • average Goodreads rating 4.05 out of 5 • read in September 2015

Leigh Bardugo’s Website

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Shadow & Bone (2)

Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

Millennials, my generation, are defined in some small part by their relationship with Harry Potter. Almost all of us have a story about when we were first introduced the the boy wizard who changed our reading lives. I was 10 years old, in 5th grade, and it was shortly before Thanksgiving when my friend Brendan brought a book and a letter into school. He had found this book and had liked it so much, he wrote a letter to the author, and SHE WROTE BACK. He shared the letter with the class, and asked if the book could be our next classroom read aloud. Needless to say, Mrs. Kluck agreed, and when we left for Thanksgiving break, I made my mom hunt down a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for me. The rest, as they say, is history.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Synopsis

Harry Potter has never been the star of a Quidditch team, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility. All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley – a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years.

But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to an incredible place that Harry – and anyone who reads about him – will find unforgettable. For it’s there that he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, but a great destiny that’s been waiting for him… if Harry can survive the encounter.

Series Review

This is a difficult review to write as I grew up with the Harry Potter books and characters. I was 10 years old when I was introduced to 10-year-olds Harry, Hermione, and Ron. When I was 10, my life was challenging – my parents were getting divorced and I just wanted an escape and the wizarding world presented itself to me at the perfect time. I would spend hours reading and rereading the books in my bedroom, trying not to think about the challenges of my young life. Because of this association, the tales of Harry Potter and his friends’ adventures will always hold a special place in my heart, but it was only for Harry’s friends that I finished the series.

As I grew up, I wanted Harry and his friends to grow up with me. I camped out at midnight for books 5 through 7, I dressed up as Hermione for more Halloweens than I care to admit, but the moment I was waiting for never really came. Harry never convincingly grew up with me. We were both supposed to be 17 when the final book was released – I had just graduated from high school and was excited to see Harry finish school and get excited for life after the final battle with Voldemort. However, while I was ecstatic for the next chapter in my life, Harry doesn’t have goals, he doesn’t have any direction in his life. Now granted, his primary focus was survival so that pushed some other dreams and ambitions out of focus, but I would have latched on to them – I would have latched on to my hopes of the future, for a world without Voldemort.

At 10, Harry and I had so much in common. At 13, this was still the case, but at some point, during the fifteenth year of my life/the fifth book, our paths completely diverged. I quickly grew to loathe Harry and his whiny, moody tendencies. While Harry “grows,” he doesn’t ever mature and that made it exceedingly difficult to remain engaged with the stories for any length of time after I finished reading them initially. By the time the seventh movie (split into two) came out, I was so disenchanted with Harry and his misanthropic tendencies that I didn’t even want to see it in theaters. I wanted to see an older Harry, a Harry that I could relate to, instead of a character that was stuck in middle school, stuck at thirteen so that he would be more accessible for later generations. In a way, this makes sense, no other generation will be waiting for years between books – years in which they grow up and expect Harry to grow up as well. Is it fair to tell my 10-year-old step-brother he must wait until he’s 17 to finish the series? No. But I feel like it pulled my fellow millennials away from Harry. It led some of us to abandon him in the dark basement of our minds because he didn’t keep up. Like Peter Pan, he didn’t grow up.

Hermione, on the other hand, was always the brains of the operation, the logically minded one keeping Harry and Ron on track and explaining the ways of the world, and girls, to them, as they remained stuck in their world of perpetual early adolescence. Hermione and her books and knowledge and love of school helped me express my own love of intelligence and learning. Hermione ensured that the stories of Harry Potter would be relatable for boys and girls. And that is, to me, the real magic of the wizarding world of Harry Potter. He brought so many kids into the magical world of reading and books and that, regardless of the quality of the books being read, is always a good thing. Reading the adventures of Harry will always be a rite of passage. If I ever have kids of my own, I will read them the stories of Harry Potter as my mother and teacher did for me. And I will be incredibly offended if they dislike them, but will be equally offended if they obsess over them blindly and refuse to read anything else as I had done.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780590353427 • 312 pages • originally published 1997, this edition published 1999 by Arthur A. Levine Books • average Goodreads rating 4.45 out of 5 • read in January 2000

J. K. Rowling’s Website

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Harry Potter (2)

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

There aren’t many books that I can say I jumped on when they were first released in hardcover, but I’m very proud to own a first edition of Seraphina. It is one of my favorite books (I know, I say that a lot), but this one I love specifically to recommend to people. Seraphina, the character, is the perfect character for anyone who feels like the world doesn’t completely “get them,” and I believe all humans fall into the description at one point or another in life.

Synopsis

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend the court as ambassadors and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, pairing with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift – one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

Review

Seraphina is a very interesting character. She reminds me a lot of the characters that I heard about at all the Diverse Books panels I attended during Book Con. As a half-dragon, half-human, she has many difficulties that she must deal with and overcome, as well as secrets society pressures her to hide, something that I’m sure many young women and men can relate to.

I think Rachel Hartman and I could have lots of awesome conversations about music, dragons, and just growing up in general. A lot of what Seraphina must deal with runs true to the challenges of most young people’s lives and the awesome thing about her story is that, even though things go terribly wrong, she has a strong and supportive group of family and friends to back her up and stand by her.

One of the best parts about writing fantasy is that you can write about so many themes that can seem untouchable or insurmountable in realistic fiction. Seraphina’s story would be heartbreaking in the modern world. In the context of Goredd, her home country, she’s not supposed to be able to exist – I can’t imagine reading a story about a child whose very existence is supposedly impossible and if that child did exist, multiple factions would actively try to kill her. It’s so much easier to make dragons the bad guys, it’s plausible and believable, and its what fairy tales have led us to believe for quite some time.

But it’s the humans of Goredd who are much harsher on Seraphina, it is the humans who fear different people and fear change. This is true in the real world as well, but seems much less critical through the lens of a fantasy world. Fantasy is one of the perfect genres for social commentary and anyone who misses it in Seraphina is in denial. Seraphina’s story is a great one and an enjoyable tale of dragons and fantasy as well.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780375866227 • 528 pages • originally published July 2012, this edition published December 2014 by Ember • average Goodreads rating 3.98 out of 5 • read in June 2015

Rachel Hartman’s Website

Seraphina on Goodreads

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Seraphina

Classics, Fiction, Mystery

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Review Previously Published, Updated November 6th with Laura’s Review!

Just like A Study in ScarletMurder on the Orient Express was one of the Modern Readers’ Magical Mystery Tour books from last summer. Every since I saw The Mousetrap, one of Agatha Christie’s plays, and watched the Doctor Who episode that includes Agatha as part of the storyline, I’ve wanted to read one of her famed mysteries.

8 - July 2016 - Murder on the Orient Express

Synopsis

Just after midnight, a snowdrift stopped the Orient Express in its tracks. The luxurious train was surprising full for the time of the year. But by the morning there was one passenger fewer. A passenger lay dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside.

Review

Laura’s Review

Mysteries are not usually my first choice to read, but I definitely enjoyed my first Agatha Christie novel! I was not sure entirely what to expect but when I told people I was reading it they said that it would be pretty easy to figure out the conclusion. However, I consciously tried to not obsess over who the murderer was because I wanted to enjoy the thrill of the book. Therefore, I enjoyed the suspense and being surprised with each red herring and revelation.

Murder on the Orient Express is definitely a classic kind of mystery. While I don’t usually read mysteries, I have watched my fair share of crime shows (favorites being NCIS and Law & Order). The TV shows are always trying to be bigger, bolder, and better than the last season, but this book was just a straight-up whodunit. It presented the facts of the crime, the evidence of the passengers, and the detective’s analysis of the all aspects of the crime. And it was fascinating.

The story was never dull and I was reading through it quite rapidly, occasionally trying to work out who was responsible, but never quite getting it right. Which was actually the most fun part of reading it. Of course it seemed so obvious after I finished it, and it was a similar feeling to anytime I read Sherlock Holmes stories and Sherlock points out everything Watson or the reader missed as if it truly is the most obvious thing in the world. If you want to start reading mysteries or have been wanting to read your first Agatha Christie novel, I definitely recommend Murder on the Orient Express as a great one with which to start!

Sarah’s Review

For years I wondered why Agatha Christie had such an appeal, until my father-in-law gave my husband and I tickets to see the stage production The Mousetrap in Philadelphia one weekend. And I now know why she is the queen of mystery writing. Her plot and pacing are superb – it is easy enough to follow along, the writing in her books and the dialogue in the play made you feel like you were in the hotel/on the train with the inspector as they attempt to solve the mystery.

Christie reveals enough details and suspicious that the reader can attempt to solve the mystery themselves, but she also allows for enough wiggle room for you to eventually be surprised by the final twist without feeling completely blindsided. While I have not been a mystery reader for a terribly long time (this could probably be considered my first true mystery novel, save for a Patterson novel I read shortly after college), I have quickly come to appreciate the differences in storytelling required for a good mystery versus a good novel.

Suspense is key, but in moderation. If the crime is committed at the start, then there should be enough background build up for each character that it doesn’t feel procedural. If crimes are continuing to be committed, it should feel like at least one character’s life is still under threat.

After reading Murder on the Orient Express, I immediately went out and purchased more Agatha Christie books – they make for a delightful, quick, beach or summer read and I have enjoyed them immensely.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780062072495 • 265 pages • originally published in 1934, this edition published January 2011 by Harper Paperbacks • average Goodreads rating 4.15 out of 5 • read in June 2016

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Fantasy, Fiction

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Prachett

My now husband picked this book out to read shortly after we started dating, and when we were looking for a book to listen to while driving from Pennsylvania to South Carolina, he recommended it. It has been one of my favorite books ever since.

Synopsis

According to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (the world’s only completely accurate book of prophecies, written in 1655, before she exploded), the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just before dinner. So the armies of Good and Evil are amazing, Atlantis is rising, frogs are falling, tempers are flaring. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon – both of whom have lived amongst Earth’s mortals since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of the lifestyle – are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture. And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist…

Review

The best books to listen to are the ones that make you laugh, the absurd and ridiculous ones that you don’t have to pay complete attention to understand them. Good Omens, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, fits the bill quite nicely when you must do a great deal of traveling by car for work. The first time I listened to Good Omens, I loved it, and the second time was no different. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are a literary pairing made in heaven and there’s no better way to describe their writing than just pure magic. It’s wonderful to see the two of them create an exquisite story together.

Good Omens tells the tale of two immortals, Aziraphale, the angel with the flaming sword who stood watch over the garden of Eden, and Crowley, the snake who tempted Eve with the apple. Flash forward thousands of years and Crowley is tasked with bringing the Antichrist into the world as part of Hell’s effort to bring about the end of days and start a war with Heaven above. Crowley and Aziraphale make a bet to see if they can sway the Antichrist to be good or evil but 11 years later, they realize that due to an insipid nurse’s screw up, they’ve been attempting to influence the wrong child and have lost the actual Antichrist. And they have just a few days to find him before the arrival of the apocalypse.

Along the way, Crowley and Aziraphale realize that they really like the world and don’t want to see it come to a fiery end. Adam, the Antichrist, arrives at the same conclusion, and separately, but simultaneously, they try to stop the inevitable with the help of some very colorful side characters that they pick up as they make their way to Lower Tadfield, foretold site of the battle that will bring about the end of the world.

Good Omens is a treat to listen to and Martin Jarvis (the reader) is engaging and does a variety of marvelous voices for all the different characters. If you’re looking for a book for a long road trip that will keep you awake, Good Omens is your ticket to an entertaining and delightful drive.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Mass Market Paperback • $7.99 • 9780060853983 • 412 pages • originally published in 1990, this edition published November 2006 by William Morrow & Company • average Goodreads rating 4.25 out of 5 • read in March 2011 & March 2015

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