Middle Grade Book Review: Broken Strings by Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

Synopsis:

A violin and a middle-school musical unleash a dark family secret in this moving story by an award-winning author duo. For fans of The Devil’s Arithmetic and Hana’s Suitcase.

It’s 2002. In the aftermath of the twin towers — and the death of her beloved grandmother — Shirli Berman is intent on moving forward. The best singer in her junior high, she auditions for the lead role in Fiddler on the Roof, but is crushed to learn that she’s been given the part of the old Jewish mother in the musical rather than the coveted part of the sister. But there is an upside: her “husband” is none other than Ben Morgan, the cutest and most popular boy in the school.

Deciding to throw herself into the role, she rummages in her grandfather’s attic for some props. There, she discovers an old violin in the corner — strange, since her Zayde has never seemed to like music, never even going to any of her recitals. Showing it to her grandfather unleashes an anger in him she has never seen before, and while she is frightened of what it might mean, Shirli keeps trying to connect with her Zayde and discover the awful reason behind his anger. A long-kept family secret spills out, and Shirli learns the true power of music, both terrible and wonderful.

My thoughts:

Broken Strings is a layered, thoughtful, and ultimately uplifting book about the power of family, memory, and music. Set only months after the terrible events of 9/11, the story follows Shirli and her middle school classmates, all of whom experienced some of the horror of living through 9/11, whether through images on TV, or seeing the towers fall from across the Hudson River, or having lost friends or family in the attacks.

Now, six months later, the school readies for its spring musical production, Fiddler on the Roof. Shirli is initially disappointed not to get the flashier role of Hodel, the daughter in the musical with the best solo, but she grows to appreciate her role as Golde, especially since it means spending hours working with the adorable Ben, who has the star role of Tevye, Golde’s husband.

Shirli knows from her parents that her grandfather’s parents’ families were originally from Eastern Europe and lived through some of the pogroms that took place in the time period of Fiddler, so she begins to ask him questions in hopes of better understanding the characters. And although she’s aware that Zayde survived the Holocaust and bears a concentration camp tattoo on his arm, he’s never spoken of his experiences to her or to anyone else in the family. But as she visits Zayde, little by little he begins to share the story of what happened to his family during the Holocaust, and why he has never played his violin or even listened to music in all the years since.

There’s so much to love about Broken Strings. First, it’s a sweet story about middle school friendship and crushes, about talent and hard work and ambition, and about dedication to one’s passions. At the same time, it’s about family, the power of love, and the devastation of loss and memories too painful to bring into the light of day. And finally, it’s about the healing power of sharing oneself and one’s stories, about making connections, and about rising above hatred to find common ground in even unlikely places.

The characters are all well-drawn and realistic, and it’s beautiful to see how Zayde influences those around him by reaching across divides and making friends. Shirli is a lovely main character, and I appreciated how well the authors show both her insecurities and her devotion to her friends and family.

Broken Strings is really a special book. Highly recommended for middle grade readers as well as the adults in their lives.

With special thanks to Jill of Jill’s Book Blog, whose wonderful review first brought this book to my attention. Check it out, here.

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The details:

Title: Broken Strings
Authors: Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer
Publisher: Puffin Books
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Source: Library

Take A Peek Book Review: The Agony House by Cherie Priest

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Denise Farber has just moved back to New Orleans with her mom and step-dad. They left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and have finally returned, wagering the last of their family’s money on fixing up an old, rundown house and converting it to a bed and breakfast. Nothing seems to work around the place, which doesn’t seem too weird to Denise. The unexplained noises are a little more out of the ordinary, but again, nothing too unusual. But when floors collapse, deadly objects rain down, and she hears creepy voices, it’s clear to Denise that something more sinister lurks hidden here. Answers may lie in an old comic book Denise finds concealed in the attic: the lost, final project of a famous artist who disappeared in the 1950s. Denise isn’t budging from her new home, so she must unravel the mystery-on the pages and off-if she and her family are to survive…

My Thoughts:

Similarly to her work in the terrific I Am Princess X, in The Agony House author Cherie Priest tells a gripping story with comic book illustrations mixed in to tell a piece of the tale. When Denise discovers the hidden comic book in the creepy attic of her new house (which she bluntly refers to as a “craphole” at all times), the book seems to be a clue to the unexplainable events happening to the family as they try to make the old place livable once again.

Denise is a great main character — clearly very smart, devoted to her family, but unhappy with being dragged away from her friends back in Houston and forced to live in this awful house. As she settles in and gets to know some of the teens in her neighborhood, we get a picture of the devastation left by the Storm (as they refer to it), even after so many years. The book deals with issues around economic hardship, gentrification, and privilege, not in a preachy way, but by showing the struggles and resentments of the characters and the new understandings they need to reach in order to get along. The social lessons here feel organic and important to the story, and I appreciated seeing the characters come to terms with one another in all sorts of interesting ways.

I’d place The Agony House somewhere between middle grade and young adult fiction. The main characters are high school seniors, but the events and the narrative would be fine for younger readers, middle school or above, so long as they’re okay with ghosts and spookiness. I really enjoyed the comic book pages and how they relate to the main story, and thought it was all very cleverly put together. As an adult reader, I saw the plot resolution twist coming pretty early on, but that didn’t lessen the satisfaction of seeing it all work out, and I think it’ll be a great surprise for readers in the target audience.

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The details:

Title: The Agony House
Author: Cherie Priest
Illustrator: Tara O’Connor
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication date: September 25, 2018
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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Library Reading Round-Up: A classic re-told, spooky scarecrows, and the invention of a monster

It’s been a busy week, but not so busy that I couldn’t pick up the books waiting for me on the library hold shelf! Here are the three library books I’ve read in the past few days:

 

Pride by Ibi Zoboi: A contemporary YA retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Pride is the story of Zuri Benitez, who lives in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. When the wealthy Darcy family moves into the mini-mansion across the street, it seems that gentrification has really and truly arrived, and Zuri is not at all happy. What will become of the neighborhood’s way of life? Zuri’s sister Janae falls for Ainsley Darcy, but his brother Darius is rude and stuck-up and immediately sets Zuri’s teeth on edge. Well, if you’ve read Pride and Prejudice, you know where this story is going, but it’s nice to read this take on the classic. Jane Austen’s stories don’t necessarily translate well to the 21st century, but Pride does a pretty good job of sticking to the bones of the original while infusing a new and different vibe. Will the target YA audience love it? No idea. I think Pride works well as a contemporary story about family, culture, loyalty, and teen romance, even without the context of the Austen original. As an adult who’s an Austen fan, I wasn’t 100% sold, but then again, I’m more than a little bit outside the demographic for this book!

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden: Moving on to middle grade fiction… Small Spaces is a spooky treat, perfect for the month of October, with some great scares and a memorable main character. Ollie is a sixth-grade girl in a small rural town. In the year since her mother’s death, she’s withdrawn from friends, activities, and everything that once gave her joy. When she’s forced to go on the class field trip to visit a local farm, she sneaks along a copy of an old book to keep her company. The book tells a ghostly story, and as the class explores the farm, Ollie starts to realize that the story may be true. There are sinister scarecrows, spooky fog, a creepy corn maze… and daring escapes, lots of bravery, and the forging of strong bonds of friendship. Katherine Arden is the author of the beautiful adult novels The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower. It’s fun to see her turn her writing skill to a middle grade ghost story!

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Julia Sarda: A gorgeous picture book about the life of Mary Shelley, showing her early years and the events that shaped her development into a writer. The story is told simply, and the beautiful illustrations give life to Mary’s imaginations and dreams. A lovely book.

 

Three books, three target age ranges, all quite fun — overall, a nice way to amuse myself during an otherwise crazy week. And now I can return them, and come home with even more new books to stack on my nightstand.

Thursday Quotables: Howl’s Moving Castle

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Welcome to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
(first published 1986)

How is it possible that I’ve never read this middle grade magical tale before now? Howl’s Moving Castle has some very clever, quippy use of words that makes it extra enjoyable, even for an adult reader. Here’s a bit of dialogue that’s given me my favorite new insult:

For a moment it seemed as if he he [Howl] was going to lose his temper too. His strange, pale eyes all but glared at Sophie. But he controlled himself and said, “Now trot along indoors, you overactive old thing, and find something else to play with before I get angry. I hate getting angry.”

Sophie folded her skinny arms. She did not like being glared at by eyes like glass marbles. “Of course you hate getting angry!” she retorted. “You don’t like anything unpleasant, do you? You’re a slitherer-outer, that’s what you are! You slither away from anything you don’t like!”

Ha! Take that, you slitherer-outer!

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Add your Thursday Quotables post link in the comments section below… and I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week too.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

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Book Review: Summer of Lost and Found

Summer of Lost and FoundSynopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Nell Dare expected to spend her summer vacation hanging out with her friends in New York City. That is, until her botanist mom dragged her all the way to Roanoke Island for a research trip. To make matters worse, her father suddenly and mysteriously leaves town, leaving no explanation or clues as to where he went—or why.

While Nell misses the city—and her dad—a ton, it doesn’t take long for her to become enthralled with the mysteries of Roanoke and its lost colony. And when Nell meets Ambrose—an equally curious historical reenactor—they start exploring for clues as to what really happened to the lost colonists. As Nell and Ambrose’s discoveries of tantalizing evidence mount, mysterious things begin to happen—like artifacts disappearing. And someone—or something—is keeping watch over their quest for answers.

It looks like Nell will get the adventurous summer she was hoping for, and she will discover secrets not only about Roanoke, but about herself.

My thoughts:

Such fun! This is a perfect summer book – particularly if you’re looking for something to tuck into a middle-grade reader’s suitcase on the way to a family vacation. I picture reading this one on a blanket on the beach, in between dips in the ocean, maybe while munching on watermelon slices…

Nell Dare is a terrific main character. She’s a city girl through and through, and can’t think of anything more perfect than spending the summer in Manhattan with her best friend. When her dad takes off and her mother forces her to spend time on a weird island to help with research about an old vine, things are definitely not going as planned.

Nell becomes enthralled by the mysteries of Roanoke Island, famous for its lost colonists — the early settlers in the late 1500s who disappeared without a trace, a mystery unsolved to this day. Nell makes a “frenemy” of another girl her age, Lila, who’s also determined to get to the bottom of the lost colony. The race is on! Nell pursues clues with the help of a charming but slightly odd boy, learning her way around the island — but also learning how to get along without subways or taxis, enjoying the forests and dunes and learning the fine art of traveling by bicycle.

There’s a lot of heart in the story, as Nell’s summer is spent worrying about her father’s disappearance and what it means. Neither parent will tell her straight out, so Nell is left to guess and feel bad. She worries too that her best friend back in New York will replace her while she’s gone, and the speed at which texts are answered become talismans for the state of their friendship.

Finally, Nell learns a lot about finding a direction and charting her own path, asking for answers, and sticking things out.

But that’s true, right? Sometimes it’s the places we think we know the best that hold the most secrets: our streets, our backyards, and even our homes.

Nell’s summer adventure, investigating the mysteries of Roanoke, ultimately allows her to find out more about herself and her family. Along the way, she explores friendship and loneliness, and figures out that she needs to stand up and makes things happen herself.

Summer of Lost and Found is a charming middle-grade novel about a summer of discoveries — discoveries about the past, about things that are lost, and about commitment and family. Highly recommended for moms and daughters — this would make a great summer book to share!

Interested in this author? Check out my review of her previous novel, When Audrey Met Alice.

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The details:

Title: Summer of Lost and Found
Author: Rebecca Behrens
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: May 24, 2016
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing

Middle Grade Fiction: Woundabout

woundabout

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Welcome to Woundabout, where routine rules and change is feared. But transformation is in the wind….

In the wake of tragedy, siblings Connor and Cordelia and their pet capybara are sent to the precariously perched town of Woundabout to live with their eccentric aunt. Woundabout is a place where the mayor has declared that routine rules above all, and no one is allowed to ask questions–because they should already know the answers.

But Connor and Cordelia can’t help their curiosity when they discover a mysterious crank that fits into certain parts of the town, and by winding the crank, places are transformed into something beautiful. When the townspeople see this transformation, they don’t see beauty–they only see change. And change, the mayor says, is something to fear. With the mayor hot on their trail, can Connor and Cordelia find a way to wind Woundabout back to life?

 

My Thoughts:

I can’t say enough about this wonderful middle grade novel! Woundabout is the touching — yet not heavy — story of orphaned siblings Connor and Cordelia, who go to live with their aunt Marigold in the very weird town of Woundabout after the death of their parents. Woundabout is a strange, strange place, under the firm control of a dictatorial mayor who hates questions and any deviation from routine. The park is brown and dried up, the river barely flows, and wind constantly buffets the cliffs of the town. Connor and Cordelia, still reeling from their loss, have to adjust to their new lives, and decide to figure out the mysteries of Woundabout, both as diversion and to see if they can somehow find a place for themselves.

The writing is wonderful. There’s humor and a light touch, even on the darkest of subjects. I love the portrayal of Connor and Cordelia (ages 11 and 9), who are tightly bonded, yet each have their own personality and interests. There’s a recurring theme in the writing that takes shared moments and shows how each child sees it:

When the meal was finished, as she had promised, Aunt Marigold took the children into the living room, where they sat on either side of her on a big green sofa and looked at the photos in the album on her lap. It was weird seeing their dad at their age. Connor would have said it was like X-ray vision you couldn’t turn off — seeing through buildings to the beams and metal holding them up; Cordelia would have said it was like uploading your photos to your computer and finding a whole group of pictures you didn’t take. But they both knew it was the same thing.

The author and illustrator, who are brothers, are clearly in sync. The marvelous black and white illustrations throughout the book are wonderfully detailed and expressive, and perfectly capture the personalities of the characters and the town.

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Cordelia and Connor — and Kip, the capybara.

I picked up Woundabout because the author, Lev AC Rosen, has written two excellent books for adults, All Men of Genius and Depth (review), both of which I love and always end up recommending to people. How could I not read his fiction for kids as well?

Woundabout is a terrific read — whether you’re an adult who enjoys reading good children’s books for your own enjoyment, or you’re looking for a book to share with the younger folks in your life, or you want a book to give to a young reader. Woundabout strikes me as a good choice for an adult/child read-aloud, or a great book for an independent reader in the 8 – 12 age range (or so — I hate pinning a label on a book that older and younger kids would enjoy too.)

Check it out… for yourself, or for a kid you’d like to treat to a great read.

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The details:

Title: Woundabout
Author: Lev Rosen
Illustrator: Ellis Rosen
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: June 23, 2015
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Source: Library

Thursday Quotables: Woundabout

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Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

woundabout

Woundabout by Lev AC Rosen
(published June 23, 2015)

When one of your favorite authors writes a children’s book, you read it! Woundabout is charming and a tad eccentric right from the start:

Many stories have happy beginnings. Cordelia King, age nine, and her brother, Connor King, age eleven, knew this because they had often been read those stories by their parents before bed. Stories where little girls run through fields chasing butterflies and stumble on portals to wondrous places. Stories where boys and their fathers go camping in verdant forests. Stories where everyone is happy except that they haven’t fallen in love yet, which never seemed like much to complain about to Connor and Cordelia.

Sadly, this is not one of those stories.

And just to make a good book even better… there are capybaras! It’s a proven fact that anything is better with capybaras in it.

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What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Book Review: The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair

expedBefore I actually talk about this book, can I just say how exciting it is to finally win a Goodreads First Reads giveaway? Thank you, Goodreads, and thank you, McSweeney’s McMullens! It’s quite a treat to win a book that I would have been eager to read no matter what.

The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair is the 2nd book in the terrific Expeditioners series, and frankly, I can’t wait for more! Back in 2013, I reviewed the first book, The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon, and I was so happy to get book #2 without too huge a wait in between volumes.

The Expeditioners books are set in a steampunk-ish world, where computers have been proven to be failures, travel is steam-driven, and the world that we know turns out to be missing quite a bit — such as all the previously unknown, secret lands. The Bureau of Newly Discovered Lands (BNDL) controls the discoveries and plunders their resources, and the most important people in the new economy may be Explorers of the Realm, who set out on expeditions of all sorts to discover the planet’s secrets, often risking life and limb.

Our main character is Kit West, a teen-aged boy whose father went missing under mysterious circumstances, leaving Kit, older brother Zander, and younger sister M.K. orphans. In the first book, Kit is given a clue left by their father, which propels the siblings on a cross-country adventure to solve the puzzles and cryptic maps strategically hidden by their father.

In the 2nd book, Kit, Zander, and M.K. are students at the Academy, a training ground for the next generation of Explorers. (Think Hogwarts, minus magic, plus gadgets and missions.) Kit is still puzzling over a new map which they found at the end of their first adventure, sure that it contains yet another lead from their father, one that may bring them closer to understanding his secrets and his disappearance. A competition to design and lead the school’s annual expedition leads the three, along with best friend Sukey and arch-nemesis Leo Nackley, to a sea voyage to the equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. There, Kit believes the unexplainable ocean phenomenon that has led to countless shipwrecks will also reveal their father’s next clue — but Leo Nackley and his powerful father think they’ll discover oil, which in turn will allow the Realm to wage war against other empires by fueling more deadly weapons of destruction.

The Wests and Sukey end up shipwrecked, and that’s not all. The book includes submersibles, pirates, constrictor eels, telepathic turtles, Caribbean islands, and intrigues and conspiracies galore. There’s also a smattering (but not too much) of teen angst, as Kit’s crush on his close friend Sukey turns to hurt and anger when she seems to fall for Zander instead.

One thing I love about the Expeditioners books is how smart and gifted the characters are. Kit is a cartography expert, Zander studies biology and wildlife, M.K., the youngest of the family, is a marvel when it comes to engineering, and Sukey is a talented aviator. Girls are just as strong and competent as the boys, and just as likely to wield a sword against dangerous pirates or fight off a new enemy with an amazing piece of technology. Kit and the gang use their wits to survive and outsmart their opponents, but they never have it easy and nothing comes without new risk.

Black and white illustrations by Katherine Roy enhance the story’s flow and add greatly to the sense of the characters and their world. The inside of the dust cover includes schematics for M.K.’s submersible, and there are maps and old journal pages sprinkled throughout as well.

The action never stops, and while it’s occasionally a chore to keep straight the various government agencies and the geopolitical factions, the main thrust of the story is the West kids and their quest to follow their father’s clues. By the end of this book, there are cracks forming in the siblings’ unwavering commitment to their quest, however, and Kit and his family seem about to be heading off in different directions, scattered by their new assignments and moving forward separately instead of as a team.

Expeditioners #2 (sorry, that’s a lot easier than typing out the full title) has an open-ended conclusion, clearly laying the groundwork for more to come. From what I’ve seen mentioned on a few websites, The Expeditioners is expected to be a six-part series, which means there’s plenty of excitement ahead.

I highly recommend this series for anyone who enjoys kids’ adventure tales — and that includes grown-ups too! My 12-year-old and I made this a joint reading project, and we both loved it. I can see The Expeditioners appealing to Harry Potter fans as well as fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy… and as a fan of both, I don’t say that lightly. The Expeditioners has a rich and unusual world for its super-smart and super-engaging characters to explore. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

Want to know more? Check out my review of the first book in the series, and also this great Q&A with author S. S. Taylor.

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The details:

Title: The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair
Author: S. S. Taylor; illustrated by Katherine Roy
Publisher: McSweeney’s McMullens
Publication date: September 23, 2014
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Children’s fiction (upper middle grade; per Amazon, ages 10 and up)
Source: Goodreads First Reads (I finally won something!)

Series Wrap-Up: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede

Enchanted Forest collage

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede encompasses four novels set in one world — and be warned ahead of time: Your enjoyment of this series is by no means guaranteed just because you liked the first book. Each book is quite different, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

First things first: If we were only talking about book #1, Dealing with Dragons, my enthusiasm would be much higher. In Dealing with Dragons, we meet Cimorene, a princess who doesn’t want the typical Happily Ever After with a handsome prince, fine gowns, and a kingdom to be pampered in. So Cimorene runs away and finds herself a large dragon, Kazul, who just so happens to need a princess of her own. In this world, princesses serve dragons — some willingly, some not so much — usually until they are rescued by a brave knight who comes to free them from “captivity”. Cimorene has no patience for such nonsense, and soon finds herself an indispensable assistant to Kazul, keeping house, observing dragon politics, learning about magic, and warding off dangerous wizards who want to steal the dragon’s magic. The book breaks gender roles in all sorts of interesting and unusual ways; my favorite is that the leader of the dragons is called King, which denotes a position, not a person. Kazul is a female dragon, but is still able to vie for the position of King…. and woe to anyone who mistakenly refers to her as the Queen.

Unfortunately, in my view, the focus shifts from book to book. Dealing with Dragons is the only book of the series I rated as 5 stars on Goodreads. I loved Cimorene’s courage and brains, the clever wordplay, and the way Cimorene defies expectations to become the person she wants to be. But suddenly, in book #2 (Searching for Dragons), Cimorene is a supporting player, and instead, the story is told from the point of view of Mendanbar, the reluctant king of the Enchanted Forest. Mendanbar’s story intersects with Cimorene’s as they go on a quest together to find out who is draining magic out of the Enchanted Forest and to rescue the kidnapped Kazul. Mendanbar and Cimorene have good chemistry, and Mendanbar is a fine leading man, but unfortunately, the zippiness of Cimorene’s grrrl power is a bit more subdued here.

In Book #3 (Calling on Dragons), we barely see our familiar characters at all, as the focus shifts once again, this time to the witch Morwen, a supporting player in the earlier books. I came close to abandoning the series altogether early on in this book. True confession: I have a dislike for talking animals, particularly when there’s an overabundance of them — and this book has more than enough to go around. Within the first few chapters, we meet all twelve of Morwen’s cats, each of whom has a name and a distinct personality and contributes to conversation, as well as a bewitched bunny named Killer who transforms first into a six-foot-tall bunny and eventually into a blue, winged, flying donkey. Killer is meant to be the comic relief, but is more annoying than funny most of the time. There’s a quest and an adventure that ends up involving Cimorene and Mendanbar, but they’re quite peripheral. The magical adventure aspects of the book become more enjoyable by the end, but there’s a lot of space taken up by new characters, odd magical rules, and never-ending journeying.

And then we come to the final book, Talking to Dragons, in which there’s a brand-new main character, Daystar, who must travel into the Enchanted Forest and figure out for himself what the purpose of his quest is. There he meets a temperamental young fire-witch named Shiara — clearly there as his love interest — and encounters talking lizards, elves, dragons, and dwarves before arriving at a climactic battle scene. I won’t tell you how Daystar’s story intersects with the characters from the earlier books (spoilers!), but they are all connected and come together for an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

As a series, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles feels a bit disjointed. The shift in main characters from book to book didn’t really appeal to  me. I suppose the intent is to broaden the scope of the world of the Enchanted Forest, but in my opinion, Cimorene and Kazul are the most interesting characters — and once they leave center stage, the story loses some of its charm. I was never bored exactly (although I was awfully close during the talking cat chapters), but I did find my attention wandering from time to time, and I found it a challenge to get into each new book, where we readers are required to leave behind the characters we’ve become fond of and start fresh with with a whole bunch of new ones.

All that said, let me now point out that I read this series in partnership with my 12-year-old son — and from that regard, I’d say the series was a success. My kiddo is a very reluctant reader, and so to encourage him, we read these books in tandem. He enjoyed the stories quite a bit, liked the action sequences involving dragons and wizards especially, and liked that there were plenty of funny scenes, humorous dialogue, and even some hints of danger (nothing too life-threatening, but still risky business).

Bottom line: While the Enchanted Forest Chronicles doesn’t strike me as strong enough to really hold adult attention, I do think it’s a great choice for middle grade readers, either to read on their own or as a very fun parent-kiddo reading partnership. And as an alternative for those who aren’t looking for a multi-book series or don’t like the sound of the focus changing from book to book, I think Dealing with Dragons would work perfectly well as a stand-alone. As the best of the bunch, it’s certainly a great read — and maybe if I’d stopped there, I’d have avoided the frustrations I had with the subsequent books.

Series Wrap-Up: Frontier Magic by Patricia C. Wrede

Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magic, #1)Across the Great Barrier (Frontier Magic, #2)The Far West (Frontier Magic, #3)

The Frontier Magic trilogy by Patricia C. Wrede presents a puzzling dilemma for me as a reviewer:

On the one hand, I never doubted that I wanted to finish reading the trilogy — and even more importantly, my son remained engaged throughout, which is no small accomplishment.

On the other hand, these books contain certain problematic pieces that remain consistent across all three books.

Is it contradictory to say that I wouldn’t rate this series any higher than three stars, and at the same time state that I mostly enjoyed it all?

In Frontier Magic, we view an alternate America (known here as Columbia) through the eyes of Eff. Eff is one of twins, and is the family’s thirteenth child, in a society which believes that the 13th child will be full of bad magic. Because, yes, in the world of Frontier Magic, magic is part of the every day fabric of life. Magic is an advanced scientific field of study in the academic world, and even mundane tasks are routinely done by means of magic. In this tale of westward exploration and discovery, the civilized world stops at the Mammoth River (think Mississippi), and all land east of the river is protected by the Great Barrier Spell, which keeps out dangerous creatures like steam dragons and medusa lizards. Yet exploration of the West beckons, and expeditions regularly set out across the river, some never to return.

I wrote quite a bit about my reaction to the first book in the series, Thirteenth Child, in my review here. And the same issues that I had with the first book continue into the second. As I wrote on Goodreads about Across the Great Barrier:

Book #2 in the Frontier Magic series continues — for good and for not-so-good — along the same path as the first book, Thirteenth Child.

On the plus side, we continue to explore this alternate history of the United States, in which magic is commonplace and an actual necessity. The challenges and adventure of living life on the frontier are still here, and main character Eff is still pursuing her own non-standard magical skills.

On the negative side, the same problems that detract from the overall success of the first book are still present. The magical systems are overly complicated, so that it’s never quite clear what’s happening, and the solutions and big confrontations are so full of this jargon-heavy magical hoo-ha that it’s hard to tell who did what or why. Eff should be a powerful character, but she never really comes into her own. That is, she clearly has talents that are rare, but she doesn’t get to do a whole lot with them. She’s always just a part of, not the lead actor — she assists a professor, she participates in expeditions, she’s on the team when danger strikes — but she never is out in front, making decisions and standing out. Finally, the plot suffers from odd pacing. Many of the chapters (as in the first book) have time jumps that basically say, well, for the rest of that year, not much happened, or for the next few months, I kept doing my job. There’s a lot of summarizing, with action sequences popping up occasionally, but overall there’s a static feeling, as if the whole plot was being described in synopsis rather than actually taking place.

The Frontier Magic series thus far strikes me as a very interesting idea without the execution to fully back it up.

As for book #3, my feelings are pretty much the same. There’s further adventure, and Eff, now in her early 20s, finally comes into own in terms of flexing her magical powers and being recognized as having unique talents. She’s invited to participate in the most far-reaching expedition yet, and the group’s travels are full of danger and excitement. And yet, the same issues that plague the earlier books show up here as well. Nothing ever feels terribly urgent, despite the fact that a lot does actually happen. Events are described in a way that feels very episodic, and the point-of-view has a distant to feel to it. Eff narrates all that happens, and her voice simply isn’t particularly distinct. We never do really get a full picture of what Eff is capable of, although we do see her pretty much save the day.

The most serious problem, for me, is that the magical systems are fairly incomprehensible. We get long passages describing how Eff uses her magic to save the expedition (and perhaps civilization as a whole) — but it’s practically impossible to envision what she and the others are actually doing or how any of their magic truly works.

There’s quite a bit of outrage expressed in the reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere over the absence of a native population in the world of Frontier Magic. Others have gone into great detail on this issue; I don’t need to repeat them. Suffice it to say that the books are controversial because of this omission, and if you want to know more, there’s quite a lot written elsewhere on the topic.

Approaching these books, then, purely as an adventure tale and leaving aside the social commentary, I find myself back where I started. Unmitigated success? No. But enjoyable and engaging? Yes.

Even when my own attention wandered from time to time, my son remained interested throughout. Neither of us was exactly on the edge of our seats… but we still wanted to see it through and find out more. So all in all, not a bad choice for advanced middle grade readers or for adults who enjoy middle grade fiction featuring magical world-building.