Review: Blood Ties by Garth Nix & Sean Williams

bloodtiesBLOOD TIES (Spirit Animals Book #3)
Garth Nix & Sean Williams
Scholastic Press
Publication Date: March 25, 2014

From the back cover:

The adventure continues in this third book of the epic multiplatform fantasy series.

Erdas is a land of balance. A rare link, the spirit animal bond, bridges the human and animal worlds. Conor, Abeke, Meilin, and Rollan each have this gift-and the grave responsibility that comes with it.

But the Conquerors are trying to destroy this balance. They’re swallowing whole cities in their rush for power-including Meilin’s home. Fed up with waiting and ready to fight, Meilin has set off into enemy territory with her spirit animal, a panda named Jhi. Her friends aren’t far behind . . . but they’re not the only ones.

The enemy is everywhere.

BLOOD TIES is the third book in Scholastic’s Spirit Animals series, and like the other two, it is filled with lush description, non-stop action, and a few un-forseen twists and turns.

Garth Nix manages to eek out a little character growth between the four children, and for the first time in the books, they begin to work as a true team. As they struggle to find the third talisman, the war between the Conquerors and the Green Cloaks is growing. With the Conquerors shadowing their every move, Conor, Abeke, Meilin and Rollan race to stay one step ahead of the enemy. I enjoyed seeing the children begin to trust their bonds and start learning to rely on the spirit animals and their strength. I also really appreciate the way each spirit animal has their own personality that shines through in Garth Nix’s/Sean Williams’s writing.

While I wished for more closure from the second to the third (the second book left me with questions that really never got answered), I appreciated this book for what it was, an exciting action adventure that is sure to appeal to any reader, especially those in the 5th through 8th grades.

 

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Review: Hunted by Maggie Stiefvater

huntedHUNTED (Spirit Animals, Book 2)
Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press
Publication Date: January 7, 2014

The saga of four children who have called spirit animals and are destined to save the world continues with HUNTED, the second book in Scholastic’s interactive series. This time, author Maggie Stiefvater takes the helm, penning an adventurous tale that takes the children on their first big test.

In WILD BORN, Conor, Rollan, Meilin and Abeke, learned the basics of interacting with their spirit animals, barely managing to succeed in their quest to obtain the first talisman and outwith the Conquerors. Now, in HUNTED, their spirit animal bonds start becoming stronger, but they still have an uphill battle to achieve the second talisman from Rumfuss the boar as the strength of the Conquerors grows. New foes emerge and internal battles are waged that threaten to tear the four fallen apart.

While WILD BORN had to spend much of its storyline on set-up and world building, HUNTED is able to drop us right into the story. As a result, the second book in the Spirit Animals series is much richer, allowing for more character development and internal conflict to blossom.

Maggie Stiefvater manages to write a story that is both intelligent and accessible for younger readers. The action is fast-paced, the different view points each bring something to the table, and the cliff hanger ending is sure to both frustrate and intrigue readers. I enjoyed seeing the children starting to trust each other and work together, even when they were tested. The stakes are higher throughout this book, and readers get to spend more time getting to know Conor, who’s past and background seem to be one of the main focuses of HUNTED. I enjoyed getting this glimpse into the character of Conor, and am interested to see how the story progresses in the third installment.

This series will appeal to readers of all ages. However, as the books are all very interconnected, reading the books in order is a must.

Review: Secrets of the Book by Erin Fry

secretsofthebookSECRETS OF THE BOOK
Erin Fry
Two Lions
Publication Date: February 4, 2014

From the Back Cover:

You don’t choose the book—the book chooses you.

Sixth grader Spencer Lemon has a degenerative eye disease—and he’s rapidly losing his eyesight. So he has no idea why he was chosen to guard Pandora’s Book. When Ed, the old guy at the nursing home, hands over the book, he doesn’t get a chance to explain any of the rules to Spencer. Spencer only knows that the book contains famous dead people—people who can be brought back to life. Spencer and his autistic best friend, Gregor, soon figure out how to get people out of the book, but not how to get them back in. Then Ed disappears, and a strange man shows up on Spencer’s doorstep—and he seems to know a lot about Spencer and about Pandora’s Book. Is he one of the bad guys? Or is here to help Spencer unravel the secrets of the book? But there are others interested in Pandora’s Book, others who might use its powers to take over the world. And it’s up to Spencer, along with Gregor and Ed’s mysterious (and cute) granddaughter Mel, to protect the book—and save the world.

Erin Fry has written a fantastical middle grade adventure with SECRETS OF THE BOOK. Who knew that spending time at a nursing home could be this fun? Certainly not Spencer, who is stuck there due to his mom’s insistence that he volunteer. To him, Ed just seems like some old guy he’s stuck with, until Ed shows Spencer Pandora’s Book and he starts to realize that Ed is more than what he seems. As Spencer embarks on a quest to keep the book out of the hands of the bad guys, he learns about history, friendship, and inner strength.

I absolutely loved the way Erin Fry portrayed the friendship between Spencer and Gregor. Spencer takes Gregor’s autism in stride–it is just something that is a part of him, not something that defines him. Throughout the book, Spencer relies on Gregor’s knowledge and as the book progresses, Gregor digs deep to find the courage to step outside his comfort zone and do what is necessary to help Spencer protect the book. Their strong bond is the number one reason this book is so successful and is a must read for middle grade boys.

I also enjoyed the fact that the book manages to educate while giving readers a fast-paced adventure that never feels like a history lesson. Children learn enough about historical figures like Socrates, Teddy Roosevelt, and Al Capone to peak their interest and make them want to know more. It is not easy to make a book both entertaining and informative, but Erin Fry does it.

If you are looking for a middle grade book that is action packed, adventurous, and a whole lot of fun, look no further than SECRETS OF THE BOOK. This one will appeal to both boys and girls and parents, as well, who will love the life lessons weaved throughout.

Review: The Lost Kingdom by Matthew J. Kirby

lostkingdomTHE LOST KINGDOM
Matthew J. Kirby
Scholastic Press
Publication Date: August 27, 2013

From the back cover:

A remarkable adventure by award-winning author Matthew J. Kirby brings a fantastical American West filled with secrets and spies and terrifying creatures to vivid life.

In this extraordinary adventure story, Billy Bartram, his father, and a secret society of philosophers and scientists venture into the American wilderness in search of the lost people of the Welsh Prince Madoc, seeking aid in the coming war against the French. Traveling in a flying airship, the members of the expedition find their lives frequently endangered in the untamed American West by terrifying creatures, a party of French soldiers hot on their trail, and the constant threat of traitors and spies. Billy will face hazards greater than he can ever imagine as, together with his father, he gets caught up in the fight for the biggest prize of all: America.
THE LOST KINGDOM is an epic journey filled with marvelous exploits, courage and intrigue, and a bold reimagining of a mythical America. Matthew J. Kirby brings his signature storytelling prowess and superb craft to this astonishing story of fathers and sons, the beginnings of a nation, and wonder-filled adventure.

Matthew J. Kirby knows how to tell a compelling story. THE LOST KINGDOM is a mix of fantasy, historical fiction and steampunk. The adventure moves along at a fast pace while managing to draw characters that are realistic, and more importantly, flawed. I really enjoyed the fact that the author does not ‘dumb down’ the book. It’s a big book, clocking in at over 300 pages, but he never skimps on historical details or characterizations, choosing to trust his readers to come along on the journey he has laid out.

Each character on the expedition has their own reason for joining in, and Kirby does an excellent job of slowly revealing their motivations as the book progresses. And then, of course, there is the protagonist, Billy Bartram, who Kirby pens with an exceptional amount of depth and forethought. As Billy joins his first expedition into the American Wilderness, he realizes that the adventure is not all that he hoped, and while he’s always looked up to his father, seeing him in action makes him question some of the ideals his father holds dear. In essence, Billy grows up on this journey, learning to make his own choices while still appreciating (and loving) his father, even when he doesn’t agree with him. Beyond the fantastical, wonderfully imaginative plot, this very human, mature realization, from a boy learning to become a man is the greatest take-away of THE LOST KINGDOM.

I read this book with my two children and thoroughly enjoyed every page. The story and writing are something adults and children alike are sure to appreciate.

 

Review: Wild Born by Brandon Mull

Animals Cover_MOCKUP.inddWILD BORN (SPIRIT ANIMALS, BOOK 1)
Brandon Mull
Scholastic Books
Publication Date: September 10, 2013

From the back cover:

Four children separated by vast distances all undergo the same ritual, watched by cloaked strangers. Four flashes of light erupt, and from them emerge the unmistakable shapes of incredible beasts – a wolf, a leopard, a panda, a falcon. Suddenly the paths of these children – and the world – have been changed for ever. Enter the world of Erdas, where every child who comes of age must discover if they have a spirit animal, a rare bond between human and beast that bestows great powers to both. A dark force has risen from distant and long-forgotten lands, and has begun an onslaught that will ravage the world. Now the fate of Erdas has fallen on the shoulders of four young strangers …and on you.

When I picked this book up for review, I had no idea this was going to be a multi-author series featuring some of the biggest names in children’s fiction. My boys had read and enjoyed Brandon Mull’s writing before (especially The Candy Shop War) and they love fantasy/adventure stories, so I knew this one was sure to be a winner with them. I was not wrong!

The book centers around four children from very different parts of the world, who drink of the nectar on their 11th birthday and discover that they have each called a spirit animal. This rare gift sets them on a journey to nurture the powers their animals bring in preparation for stopping a dark force that has risen from the past. It’s up to these very special children to save the world before it is destroyed, but are they up to the task?

Much of this book is basically used as set-up for the future books in the series, and as such, it spends huge chunks of time introducing the characters and foreshadowing their role in the upcoming conflict. By the time the story really gets rolling (about 2/3 of the way through) and the adventure takes off, we get a small glimpse of the action and conflict to come and then, before we know it, the book is over.

However, the premise is fresh and exciting, and the characters are unique and likeable, which makes me invested enough to see what the next book in the series has to offer. Middle Grade readers who love fantasy and adventure are sure to love this one!

Review: Countdown by Michelle Rowen

countdownCOUNTDOWN
Michelle Rowen
Harlequin Teen
Publication Date: October 1, 2013

From the back cover:

3 seconds left to live. Once the countdown starts, it cannot be stopped. 

2 pawns thrown into a brutal underground reality game. 

Kira Jordan survived her family’s murder and months on plague-devastated city streets with hard-won savvy and a low-level psi ability. She figures she can handle anything. Until she wakes up in a barren room, chained next to the notorious Rogan Ellis. 

1 reason Kira will never, ever trust Rogan. Even though both their lives depend on it. 

Their every move is controlled and televised for a vicious exclusive audience. And as Kira’s psi skill unexpectedly grows and Rogan’s secrets prove evermore deadly, Kira’s only chance of survival is to risk trusting him as much as her instincts. Even if that means running head-on into the one trap she can’t escape.

GAME OVER

The premise of COUNTDOWN reminded me so much of THE RUNNING MAN, a 1987 film (yes, I’m dating myself!) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, where convicted criminals must compete on a television show to escape death at the hands of professional killers. (Note: This movie is loosely based on a book of the same name written by Stephen King under the name Richard Bachman). Because of the similarity, I had to step out of my normal contemporary YA comfort zone and give this book a try.

The story opens with Kira waking up in a dark, unfamiliar place. She’s handcuffed to the wall, disoriented, and also not alone. A boy has been placed in the room with her — a criminal that is said to have murdered girls in cold blood. Before she can get her bearings, the countdown begins. From that moment on, Kira and Rogan are on the run, slaves to the clock, and although they’ve learned the hard way not to trust anyone, they must rely on each other if they’re going to figure out who is behind the Countdown and how to stop it before it stops them.

I appreciated the fast pace of this book. There’s never a dull moment and the plot never suffers from stagnation. Kira and Rogan are likeable enough characters and we get just enough sense of the world they inhabit to where we can follow along without being confused.

However, there is a lot going on here, between the rules of Countdown, the technology, Kira’s psi ability, Rogan’s backstory, and a dystopian society that the story begins to have kind of a kitchen sink feel to it. Because of this, it lacks in the world building and I never fully understood how the society came to be, who the important players were and what this elusive ‘Colony’ where Kira dreamed of living out her life was all about. I would have also liked to see her psi ability as a more integral part of the plot. It seemed thrown in there at the last minute, and in all honesty, the story would have been the same without it.

Having said that, I did enjoy the book. It was fun to step out into a dystopian world for a change and I found COUNTDOWN to be a great weekend read, filled with just enough thrills, chills and romance to keep me interested to the very end.

NOTE: This book was originally published in 2008 as an adult novel under the name Michelle Maddox. COUNTDOWN is a refreshed edition, re-imagined for the young adult market.

Review: Splintered by A.G. Howard

splintered

SPLINTERED by A.G. Howard
Publication Date: January 1, 2013
Publisher: Amulet Books
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 371

RATING: 4 STARS

This stunning debut captures the grotesque madness of a mystical under-land, as well as a girl’s pangs of first love and independence. Alyssa Gardner hears the whispers of bugs and flowers—precisely the affliction that landed her mother in a mental hospital years before. This family curse stretches back to her ancestor Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alyssa might be crazy, but she manages to keep it together. For now.

When her mother’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, Alyssa learns that what she thought was fiction is based in terrifying reality. The real Wonderland is a place far darker and more twisted than Lewis Carroll ever let on. There, Alyssa must pass a series of tests, including draining an ocean of Alice’s tears, waking the slumbering tea party, and subduing a vicious bandersnatch, to fix Alice’s mistakes and save her family. She must also decide whom to trust: Jeb, her gorgeous best friend and secret crush, or the sexy but suspicious Morpheus, her guide through Wonderland, who may have dark motives of his own.

SPLINTERED is not my normal YA fare, but it just goes to show that a gorgeous cover and a compelling blurb can turn a contemporary-loving reader into a fantasy one. I was intrigued by A.G. Howard’s fresh twist on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and within a few pages into this book, I was hooked.

A.G. Howard’s lyrical writing draws you in, and her fantastic descriptions on the dark and creepy creatures in her version of Wonderland are so vivid I often felt as if I could reach out and touch them. Alyssa is a strong and clever heroine, one that is easy to identify with, and Ms. Howard does an amazing job of seating the reader firmly in Alyssa’s head for the entire, white-knuckled journey.

Though I’m not a big fan of love triangles, and could’ve done without this one, the plot is fresh and exciting, with twists and turns and betrayals throughout, the voice is compelling, and the romance is emotional and well done. I will definitely be on the lookout for future books by A.G. Howard.