Children's · Fantasy · Fiction · Teen Fiction · Urban Fantasy · YA

Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave

the empty grave
by: Jonathan Stroud

The Empty Grave is the fifth and final book in Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series. I had put a hold on it at the library but the bookstore I walk by every day was having a 20% off sale after I’d been waiting for what felt like months, so I gave in and bought it.  (This actually isn’t the cover that I have, but I like it so much better than the UK version.)

If you’re not familiar with Lockwood & Co, it’s a YA series (maybe middle school) set in an alternate reality London, where deadly ghosts have suddenly appeared, called the Problem.  Only children can see the ghosts, so children are employed as agents to combat the Problem.  Throughout the series, we follow Lucy, a teenage ghost hunter, as she works with the Lockwood & Co agency.  In this final edition, Lucy and her coworkers are following clues to figure out what the source of the Problem is, using advice from a ghost that only Lucy can hear, and venturing into some of the most dangerous places in – and out – of London.

So unlike other books in this series, there’s not a big, bad ghost to overcome.  (This actually kept me from locking myself in the bathroom to read the book.*) Instead, Lucy is looking at clues for the Source and who or what is behind the Problem.  Though there is a bad guy, this book is more about answering questions the previous four books have set up.  I really enjoyed this approach – it had enough suspense to keep my heart racing but at this point in the series I wanted my questions answered more than I wanted another epic, hair-raising battle against a Big Bad.  And the questions were answered in a slow manner – not a huge info dump at the end, but enough information for the reader to work out with the characters what’s going on as the story unfolds.

By the way, this book would work as a stand-alone but I would highly discourage it – I think the series as whole works really well and I would encourage any reader to start from the beginning for narrative satisfaction. There’s an incredible amount of world and plot building that is best enjoyed when read in the intended order.

Stroud also does a great job of fulfilling some character issues and mysteries. For example, Lockwood, the owner of Lockwood & Co, is a dashing and romantic hero with a tragic backstory. The entire series is written in first person, from Lucy’s perspective, and it’s in this book that Lucy comes to terms with Lockwood’s unusually strong attraction to, and enjoyment of, danger and what that ultimately says about him.  It’s not overdone, but the reader is forced through the discomforting realizations as Lucy processes a new perspective.

This happens for multiple characters this book and adds a good bit of depth to the series as a whole. (It also happened in the fourth book for a different character, Holly.)  These realizations are mostly driven by a captured ghost that only Lucy can hear, which I appreciate, because it means that we get an age-appropriate reaction to an adult observation.  The children never feel uncannily mature or precociously adult but the reader isn’t forced into a world without any adult perspective. (See: A Series of Unfortunate Events.) This allowed Stroud to explore some character development that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible; yet, the ghost was written so that it (he?) doesn’t come off as the wise old adult.  Rather, he’s a wry, untrustworthy, and mysterious character forced into the role of observer.

Speaking of the ghost, Stroud answers most but not all questions posed by the series.  The questions he leaves unanswered are good ones – he gives the reader plenty to go on in order to develop their own theories.  So on the one hand, I appreciate that.  On the other hand – I want to know!  In general, things are wrapped up nicely; he leaves just enough points dangling that you can’t quite let the series go when you finish it.  Crafty, Stroud.  Crafty.

I absolutely loved this book, both as a standalone and as a completion of an incredibly good series. If you’re not into middle-school/YA, if you like dashing plot-driven adventure books with a satisfying romance, or if you like your horror to be Stephen King-level terrifying, then, sadly, this might not be the book for you.  If you’re looking for an excellent mix of character development and plot line, a creepy but fun ghost story, or are looking for a great female-led adventure series, I can’t recommend Lockwood & Co enough.

*but I still stayed up until 3 am to finish it.
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Fairy Tales · Teen Fiction · YA

Enchanted

enchanted

by: Alethea Kontis

Blog note: I won a contest over at Ensis Reads, formally Don’t Read! I got this wicked awesome traveling coffee mug (LOVE IT!), and I am going to do a full post with pictures this weekend!

This is the first book in The Woodcutter Sisters series, a book based on the family of Jack and Seven Woodcutter, and featuring modern retellings of European fairy tales – quite a few of them feature in each book.

The woodcutter sisters are seven sisters born to a woodcutter and his wife (naturally).  Each of the girls is named after a different day of the week.  Sunday, our heroine, is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter – I do love that in this world, that is equally powerful as the seventh son of a seventh son.  Sunday befriends a frog in the woods and thus starts an adventure to change the life of her and her sisters forever.  And yes, this book is based mostly on The Frog Prince, one of my favorite fairy tales.

As a protagonist, I liked Sunday a lot.  She was thoughtful and somewhat dreamy, but she still did things and was very much an active participant in the story.  The frog prince, Rumbold, is also a good character – very flawed but likable.  He spends a lot of time in the story learning to be a man, without having it be the central theme of the story.  I very much appreciate that – I feel like too often a main male character growing into manhood automatically becomes the center of the story.  Here, though, it is an important part without overpowering the story. I didn’t necessarily think he was romantic or dashing or any of the things I like my romantic heroes to be – but I did think he was an interesting character and a good fit for Sunday.

The plot was good, though the pacing was a little weird.  There was a bit too much going on, even though it’s a fairy long YA novel.  It was partly because Kontis was fairly obviously trying to set up plotlines for all the continuing book in the series, plus introduce other characters which have already had their adventures, like her sister Thursday.  (That was pretty irritating.  Thursday runs off to sea and becomes a pirate captain.  I want to read that story!) Three of Sunday’s siblings have already found their ever after; one of them finds it as a minor side plot in this story.  The writing was quite good, but there was simply too much going on.  I feel like Kontis could have worried less about making sure we understand everything that’s happened or is happening to this family and worried more about tightening up the plot.

The book, however, was engaging and I definitely stayed up late to finish it! A great sign.  Unfortunately, it also wasn’t that memorable.  While I definitely want to read other books in the series, I did have trouble recalling what happened in this book while writing this review. I think part of that is so much happened that my brain kinda gave up on it.

The characters were, as a whole, engaging and interesting but Kontis ran into the same problem with them as she did with the plot; namely, there were too many that she was trying to give too much attention to.  That means some of the characters, like Wednesday, became “tells” and not “shows.”  Sunday tells us a lot about Wednesday but the reader never gets to see her behaving in her odd Wednesday ways, so her particular storyline isn’t very convincing or engaging, even though she’s central to what happens in the story.  On the other hand, I completely fell in love with Saturday and cannot wait to read her book.  The characters that Kontis fully fleshes out are done extremely well and absolutely perfect for a YA novel.

The flaws didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story but I do think a strong red pen could’ve turned this story from a book I really liked to a book I’d rave about.  That makes me a little sad, to be completely truthful, though I’m happy I read it anyway.

If you’re into YA novels with a strong fairy tale influence or if you like ordinary teenage characters who have extraordinary adventures, you should definitely pick this one up! If you don’t like the feeling of being plunged into the middle of a series (I know it’s billed as the first, but it doesn’t feel like it), or if you like your fairy tale retellings with a darker or socially relevant edge, than alack! this may not the book for you.

Children's · Historical Fiction · Teen Fiction · YA

The Royal Diaries

I was surfing the internet today and I came across a post about The Royal Diaries series by Scholastic, a series of fictional journals based on the lives of famous queens.  The queens – representing all parts of the world, though Europe is most heavily represented – are all represented in their formative years, generally 10 to 16 or 17.  I’ve read all but one of them – Weetamo: Heart of the Pocassets, a Native American princess from the time of the invasion of the Europeans. (I’m not sure how I missed it.)  These were some of my favorite books growing up and I was always excited to get my hands on a new one.  They also had the benefits of covering a lot of times and cultures that my world history classes didn’t. cough. anything non-European or -American. cough.

My personal favorites were Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor and Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile, closely followed by Lady of Ch’ia Kuo: Warrior of the SouthMarie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles, and Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine. I guess my penchant for bad-ass female characters goes back a lot farther than I thought!

The books vary in writing, as there were a number of different authors writing them, but they’re all fairly well researched and a very engaging way to learn about important world events.  As it’s the holiday season, if you have a child who loves to read to shop for, especially a female child, you should definitely consider this series.  Bonus: it’s easy to find them used for very cheap!

The books included historical notes about the times they grew up in and actually, at least for the queens I knew more about, captured a fairly accurate view of the characters.  Elizabeth is calculating and wise beyond her years, Marie Antoinette is young and naive, and Cleopatra is intelligent and just learning to be seductive.  (I really connected with Elizabeth as a character, by the way. Her emotionally distant way of describing events is very similar to how I tend to communicate.)

Does anyone else out there remember this series? What was your favorite one? Did any of them open you up to a whole new culture? Let me know in the comments!

Children's · Fantasy · Teen Fiction · YA

Ever

ever_scaled

by: Gail Carson Levine

I’m a huge fan of Gail Carson Levine.  Ella Enchanted was the first re-imagined fairy tale that I fell in love with and her Princess Tales series was a favorite of mine growing up.

But I didn’t like Ever.  It was cute and the premise was good – I really wanted to like it!

Ever is the story of Kezi, a girl who lives in an alternate version of Ancient Mesopotamia.  (The cover models are oddly white, considering that.)  Doomed to die young, she falls in love with Olus, the Akkan god of the wind.  To be together, they must go on an epic quest and overcome great odds.  If they survive, they stand a chance of gaining their happily ever after.

Like I said, the premise is good.  Ancient Mesopotamia, powerful gods, a doomed woman, epic quests and dangerous situations.  Levine is a good writer and I generally like her characters – strong, intelligent, relatable – as well as the world she creates.  The setting in this book actually is fairly reminiscent of Ancient Mesopotamia, without losing its ability to relate to the modern-day reader. There a lot of everyday touches that really work to put you in the time period, and the dialogue is a nice mix of modern and old-fashioned so you’ve never jolted by the characters’ speech.  (That is a pet peeve of mine.)  She also uses some of the Sumerian language (I’m assuming here) which is a nice touch.

It’s told in first person perspective, alternating between Olus and Kezi.  It’s not my favorite, but she transitions well and uses it to build tension fairly well.

Like I said, the set-up is for a fairly good novel.  But Levine keeps this novel so simple that it becomes simplistic and looses all depth.  Now, it is a young adult novel and often they’re written on a lower reading level but that doesn’t mean that the novel has to be simplistic.  Simple can include depth.  The characters seem almost stunted.  They’re not very well-developed – I mean, they have an appropriate number of different traits and virtues and flaws, it’s just that everything about them is so straightforward and lacking depth.  They are completely scared, or completely grateful, or – their emotions just seem to lack complexity.

The situations are the same – they should be more exciting but everything is linear that it takes away from the suspense.  I don’t know – on its surface this should be a great book but it just doesn’t work on anything but a surface level.  I wish it did – I really do love Levine’s work.  But this book just doesn’t have anything going on besides the plot and the plot, while not terrible, isn’t enough to make up for its shortcomings.

It’s a quick read, so if you’re interested in Levine’s work or fictional representations of Ancient Mesopotamia there’s no harm in reading the first chapter or so.  The book is pretty consistent throughout, so if you like the first chapter you’ll probably like the rest.  Otherwise, you may want to give this one a pass.

Anyway, I’m interested in seeing what others thought of this book. Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments!

Children's · Teen Fiction · YA

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase

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by: Jonathon Stroud

(gif from his US website)

Jonathon Stroud is one of my favorite children’s authors – the Bartimaeus trilogy is amazing and is the reason I am constantly irrationally excited for, and then immediately disappointed by, footnotes.  Stroud has a lot to answer for.

Stroud’s newest work is the first in a new series – yay! Told in first person point of view, it’s the tale of Lucy Carlyle, a young ghost hunter in an alternate London plagued by an epidemic of ghosts.  After a harrowing experience with her first boss in a small village, she runs off to London and joins Lockwood & Co, London’s smallest ghostbusting* agency.

Lockwood and Co is no ordinary agency.  It’s run entirely by children, with a lack of adult supervisors.  (In this London, adults can’t see ghosts, though they can be hurt by them.)  It has only three members, all of which are uniquely talented.  And they are eager for the cases that nobody else can solve.

First of all, don’t read this book right before bed if you’re a big ‘fraidy-cat like I am.  Stroud is a master of creating a dark, tense atmosphere and I ended up huddled under my covers, rationalizing away my sudden fear of the dark. (However, I am a gigantic ‘fraidy-cat.  I read Pet Sementary at 16 and for months afterwards I was scared to feed our lambs after dark.)

Secondly, it was a really excellent book. This books works both as a stand-alone and as a set-up for a longer series.  The ending wrapped up the big questions while leaving a few smaller details that can neatly lead into an overarching series plotline.  Plotwise, it was very well done.  Tight, suspenseful, well-paced enough that the reader never feels lost but is still on the edge of their seat – just amazing!

Lucy, the main character and narrator was intelligent, observant, and mature, though not eerily so. My favorite part of her was how she was beginning to really note when things were unfair; no fits, just silent, slightly puzzled observation.  Part of growing up is finding out in lots of little ways that the world isn’t fair.  Stroud does a good job of capturing this process.

Of note, Lucy comes with both traditionally feminine and masculine traits, which were treated as both strengths and weaknesses, depending on the situation.  It was nice to see a female character that was strong because of her feminine traits but who was also forced to be realistic about associated weaknesses.

George, the third partner comes off a little underdeveloped, but it works because that’s how Lucy sees him.  I think he’ll develop more as Lucy learns to appreciate him as a team member – we see a little of that, and you get glimpses of George through his actions, but I think in further books he’ll really shine.

Anthony, the leader, is bigger and louder than George, so we see a lot more of him throughout the book.  He’s much more developed, partially because Lucy is more interested in him as a person, and partially because the reader gets to interact with him more.  He’s charming, confident, and a big thinker, whereas George is quiet, flustered, and a details person.

Beyond that, this book does set up a conflict between children and adults, which is not my favorite.  (Now that I think about, that was a theme in the Bartimaeus trilogy as well.)   It does allow the children to exist as the true masters of their stories,  but all adults are portrayed with the same anti-child overtones, which gets boring.

Overall, I really enjoyed this action-adventure supernatural fantasy.  If you like ghosts, alternate yet similar Earths, or suspenseful tales, please give this one a try! (And Do Not let it being a children’s book deter you.  Adults will enjoy this book without feeling infantilized.)  If you shy away from all things scary, or if you truly dislike young teen protagonists, then this, sadly, may not be the book for you.

Did you like this better or worse than Stroud’s other works, especially the Bartimaeus trilogy? Please leave a comment letting me know what you think!

*You just can’t talk about ghosts without referencing “Ghostbusters” somewhere!

Children's · Fantasy · Teen Fiction · YA

The House of Hades

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by: Rick Riordan

Hi guys! I know I haven’t posted in a while but I’ve been busy and didn’t make time for my blog!  I also have had a base case of puttingdownitis, where I read the first couple of chapters of a book and then move on to the next one.  Then I realized House of Hades had come out.  And of course I had to get it and read it and then I stayed up until 2 a.m. finishing it, without even realizing how late it was.

House of Hades is Riordan’s latest addition to his Heroes of Olympus series, which is a sequel series to the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.  If you’re not at all familiar with Riordan’s series, they’re based on the premise that the Olympian gods are still alive and well…and reproducing.  Children of gods are heroes, of course, and Riordan draws heavily on Greek myths to give them monsters to fight and quests to complete.

This series draws from the Roman myths as well, though I won’t say how in case somebody reading this hasn’t read the series.  It’s a shorter and, plot-wise, much, much tighter series than PJATO, so starting at the beginning is really helpful for clarity.  Riordan does a great job of lightly touching on important plot points without rewriting portions of the previous books, so you don’t have to reread the first three books to get caught up with the smaller details.

As for the book itself, it’s pretty darn good.  It’s definitely an action-adventure book.  It’s fast-paced, fun, and easy to get caught up in.  We’re following seven heroes on a quest to – what else? – save the world.  Violence may abound, but clever words and tricks, Odysseus-style, save the day a time or ten.  I always love a fast-paced book that remembers violence isn’t always the answer.

The character development is actually pretty good, though occasionally they’re written a tad bit too simplistically and I wish there was a bit more of it.   One of surprisingly good things about this series is the diversity of the characters, especially as it’s set in American (where the Olympic gods have moved to), where more and more people of mixed ethnicities are being born every day. I think it’s very realistic, for instance, that a half-Greek and half-Latino demigods was born in Texas. Riordan doesn’t do a whole amount of developing the cultural background of his characters – any of his characters – but he does incorporate where he can.  Generally, though, they’re too busy trying to stay alive to allow much time for anything else.  And they’re all narrating characters, as well.

And, of course, shout out to all his amazing female characters who are smart and strong and flawed.

Riordan switches character viewpoint every few chapters and does so surprisingly well, though that’s partly because he relies on third-person limited point of view.  This book focused, more than the previous three, on the heroes finding their strength and deciding who they are.  It’s kinda cool that they do this in the book before the big finale, rather than right before or during it.   I think it will make the final battle, and there will be a final battle, more a test of strength and endurance, rather than the main character magically leveling up right when he needs to.

We don’t get to see many of the big 12 gods in this story, which is a bit sad for me.  We do get to meet quite a few new minor gods and monsters, as well as some older friends and enemies.  I love seeing how the gods adapted to our modern world!  Riordan’s writing is good but not great – but his plot lines and use of Greek myths and gods is fantastic.  I will say the writing is definitely directed at preteens and teenagers and every once in a great while the teenage voice is a bit forced.

There were one or two deus ex machina points in the story, which I saw coming and rolled my eyes at.  There were also a few unexpected twists and turns that mostly made up for it.  And I loved the handling of character-character relationships, as Riordan tries to look at nearly every possible relationship.  (I could do with a bit more emphasis on the female characters’ interactions with each other in this book, but I do seem to remember The Mark of Athena focusing more on them, so maybe in balance I’m happy.)  The book overall is smooth and you’ll quickly find yourself getting lost in it, just like the previous three.  I should mention I like this series more than the previous one and I think they’re better written, overall.

Overall, if you like exciting action-adventure books or if you love the Greek gods and myths, you should pick up Riordan.  If you’ve read him before and enjoyed it, please continue reading! The books are all fairly equal in quality, which is rare and wonderful.  If, however, a teenage voice written for a young audience doesn’t excite you or if you want a lot of deep character development and growth in your fantasy, then, alas!, this may not be the book for you.