Middle Grade Review: The Storm Keeper’s Island

The Storm Keeper’s Island
By Catherine Doyle
Published January 22, 2019 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

One of my goals for 2019 is to read more middle grade, and The Storm Keeper’s Island sounded right up my alley: set on a small island off the coast of Ireland, with family secrets and magic.

Eleven-year-old Fionn Boyle and his older sister Tara are sent to the island of Arranmore to spend the summer with their grandfather, Malachy, while their mother is hospitalized Storm Keeperfor depression. Tara’s excited to return to the island where she has friends and a boyfriend, but this is Fionn’s first visit and he’s missing his mother and apprehensive about staying with a grandfather he’s never met.

Arranmore is a magical place, and Fionn can feel the magic almost as soon as he steps off the ferry. His grandfather is a bit odd and lives in a ramshackle cottage filled with candles he makes. Tara has no time for her younger brother and ditches him as soon as she can to hang out with her boyfriend, the truly awful Bartley Beasley (Fionn refers to him as a “follically gifted Voldemort.” He’s actually much more of a Draco Malfoy type.). Left to his own devices, Fionn begins to explore the island and its secrets.

Fionn learns that his grandfather is the island’s Storm Keeper, the person who wields the island’s magic and keep it safe. Malachy’s mind is beginning to fail, and it’s time for the island to choose a new Keeper. An ancient evil may be waking up, and the Storm Keeper’s job of keeping the island safe is going to be a difficult one.

Fionn is a great character. He’s a little lost, he misses his life in Dublin, and he worries that he’s not as brave as his dead father (who died before he was born during an island rescue) and Malachy. His growing bond with his grandfather is lovely and we see him begin to find himself. The connection between Fionn and Malachy was the best part of the book for me.

I found the book’s villains a bit weak. They’re revealed to be bad the first time you meet them, so there’s not much suspense. One of them even has a resplendent mustache, which is a bit too on the nose for me. But the villains aren’t really that important to the story. It’s much more about Fionn and his family and the ways they’re trapped in the past and bound to the island.

This is a lovely book, and I think kids will really enjoy reading about Fionn. There’s going to be a sequel, and the next stage of Fionn’s tale should be very interesting.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

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My Best of 2018

2018 was a pretty good reading year. I finished approximately 114 books (it’s only December 29, so that might not be the final number), and I enjoyed most of them. Here are my favorites of 2018.

Books published in 2018:
The Cruel Prince
The Hazel Wood
Girl Made of Stars
The Astonishing Color of After
Summer of Salt
Sadie
Dance of Thieves
Sky in the Deep
Sawkill Girls
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
The Silence of the Girls
Muse of Nightmares

Books published before 2018:
Great Expectations
Wuthering Heights
Revolver
The Scorpio Races
A Tale of Two Cities
North and South
We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Review: Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen
By Val Emmich with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul
Published October 9, 2018 by Poppy/Little, Brown

I went into Dear Evan Hansen not knowing much about it. I’d heard of the hit Broadway musical, and the book sounded interesting, so I picked it up. I found the book very gripping at first, and I was quickly sucked into the story. But about halfway through, I Dear Evan Hansenbegan to feel very uncomfortable.

The premise is an intriguing one: Evan Hansen, a teen suffering from severe anxiety, gets involved with the family of a dead classmate after a (tragi-) comedy of errors leads the family to think he was their trouble late son’s secret best friend. He gets sucked into their lives and then doesn’t want to leave. He becomes a more confident person and sheds his anxiety. But everything he’s doing is a lie, and I just couldn’t get past that.

It’s a mistake that causes the Murphy family to think Evan was their son’s secret friend, but after that, Evan works hard to maintain the lie. He fakes emails, spins elaborate stories about the dead kid, and worms his way into the family’s lives, all the while telling himself he’s helping them. There were so many points at which he could have told the truth or backed away, but he doesn’t and it made me really dislike his character.

I thought the book was pretty well written, but since the whole premise really bothered me, I think this book just wasn’t for me. The concept probably works very differently on stage and maybe the issues I have with the book wouldn’t be as much of an issue.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Sadie

Sadie
By Courtney Summers
Published September 4, 2018 by Wednesday Books

Sadie is a nasty little gutpunch of a book. Part true-crime podcast, part revenge narrative, this book is compulsively readable.

Reporter West McCray is on the trail of Sadie Hunter, a missing girl. A few months Sadieearlier, Sadie’s 13-year-old sister, Mattie, was murdered. Now Sadie herself is gone, apparently of her own volition. The reporter isn’t sure about the story at first, thinking it’s just another missing girl, but he quickly finds himself sucked in.

Sadie Hunter has had a rough life. Born to a teenaged single mother, she never knew her father. She grew up in a trailer, and her mother is disinterested and neglectful. Sadie has a bad stutter, something that probably could have been ameliorated with help, but her mother just didn’t bother. Sadie’s entire life has been based around taking care of her younger sister, and when her sister is murdered, Sadie is left rudderless. But she finds a new purpose: searching for the man she believes killed her sister.

The narrative switches between Sadie’s first person narrative, and transcripts of the podcast. I think the switch between narrative styles works really well, both in terms of revealing clues to the mystery, but also to give the reader a break from the intensity of Sadie’s narrative. The transcripts are by their very nature a more detached narrative, but then all of a sudden, there will be a revelation that makes you sit up and take notice. It’s a really clever format.

This book is brutal. Because of her stutter, people tend to underestimate Sadie, but as she says:

“I’m the result of baby bottles filled with mountain dew. I have a system that doesn’t quite know how to process the finer things in life. My body is sharp enough to cut glass and in desperate need of rounding out, but sometimes I don’t mind. A body might not always be beautiful, but a body can be a beautiful deception. I’m stronger than I look.”

Sadie’s narrative is hard to read at times. She’s so single-minded, but danger lurks at every turn and it’s sort of like watching a horror movie, where you want to scream, “No, don’t go in there.” Her journey takes her to a lot of ugly places, and she meets some awful people. There’s a sense of inevitability about her quest, and even with all the dread I was feeling, I couldn’t put the book down.

West McCray is ambivalent about the story at first. As awful as it is to say, girls go missing all the time and he doesn’t think the story is that interesting. But May Beth, Sadie and Mattie’s surrogate grandmother, won’t let things go and her determination makes him decide there’s something more to the story. As he investigates Sadie’s disappearance, he finds himself emotionally involved in the mystery.

This book was so gripping, and I can’t recommend it enough. Courtney Summer has a long backlist, and I’ll be checking her earlier books.

TW: child molestation

 

 

 

Review: Dance of Thieves

Dance of Thieves
By Mary E. Pearson
Published August 7, 2018 by Henry Holt and Co.

When I heard that Mary Pearson was writing a new trilogy set in the world of the Remnant Chronicles, I was excited but also a little worried. I love the original trilogy so much, and I wasn’t sure a new one would live up to its predecessor. But I needn’t have worried. Dance of Thieves is a worthy successor.

Dance of Thieves_FINAL 9.18It’s not strictly necessary to have read the previous trilogy before you read Dance of Thieves, but I think you’ll enjoy the new book more if you’ve read the original books. We’re introduced to two new characters, Kazi and Jase. Kazi is a former street thief, who’s reformed and become a member of the Queen of Venda’s guards. Jase has just become the head of the Ballenger clan, a band of outlaws who run a large territory that’s mostly outside the authority of the other kingdoms. Kazi is on a mission to find a missing war criminal who may be hiding out somewhere in the Ballenger’s domain.

When Kazi and Jase meet, it doesn’t go well. She publicly humiliates him, not realizing he’s the head of the family, and they end up being kidnapped. The first third of the book is basically the two of them alone on a long journey. This is a trope I love: two people who can’t stand each forced into an uneasy alliance. It works really well here, and we see a lot of character development through their interactions.

I liked Kazi right from the start. She’s had a rough life, she’s tough, and she’s anxious to prove herself to the queen. I wasn’t sure about Jase at first. He comes across as a cocky jerk at first, but as we learn more about him, I liked him much better.

Their relationship is an interesting one. They’re forced to trust each other when they’re on their own in the wilderness, and they grow closer, but when they’re back in Jase’s territory, there’s a lot of tension. Each of them has secrets they can’t share with the other, and they build up walls, even as they’re developing feelings. Their cat and mouse game is highly entertaining.

I loved getting to explore a new part of this world. The Ballenger’s domain and the kingdom of Eislandia are new places. Also, just as in the original trilogy, there are bits and pieces of the early history of the Remnants, and we see briefly how the Ballengers fit into the history of Gaudrel and the other kingdoms. I love the backstory of the kingdoms and it’s interesting to get a new perspective on the history.

This is the first book in a two-book series. The end has some closure, but also opens up a lot of other issues, so I’ll be anxiously awaiting the second book.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Storm-Wake

Storm-Wake
By Lucy Christopher
Published July 31, 2018 by Chicken House/Scholastic

Storm-Wake is an interesting book, and it’s beautifully written, but I never felt a connection to it. It’s a reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and it initially stays quite close to the plot of the play. A young girl named Moss and her father, Pa, live alone on a deserted island where they were shipwrecked some years before. Pa tells Moss that Storm-wakefloods have claimed the rest of the world and that they’re safe on their island. The island is covered in flowers that Pa tries to use for magic to cure the rest of the world.

One day, a boy comes out of the water and joins their family. They call him Callan, and he seems not quite human. He looks like a boy, but has webbed hands and feet and scale patterns on his skin. Moss and Cal grow up together, but Pa begins to not trust Cal, thinking that Cal may be stealing Moss away from him. Then when Moss and Cal are teens (their ages are never specified, but they seem to be older), two more boys come out of the sea and threaten the fragile peace of the found family.

The first half of the book meanders along. Not much happens. Pa eats flowers that seem to drug him. He may be sick. Moss and Cal explore the island. Pa gets mad at Cal. Years pass. When two boys shipwreck on the island, the pace of story picks up, and Moss begins to question her relationship with Pa. Has he been lying to her? Is he mentally ill?

I enjoyed the second half of the book more than the first, but the initially slow pace made it hard for me to feel connected to the story or the characters. Even when the story became more compelling, I was never that absorbed in it. I can’t decide whether I feel it should have been a shorter book that focused on the action in the second half, or a longer book that explored the odd family dynamics in more detail. That said, Lucy Christopher’s writing is beautiful.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Chaotic Good

Chaotic Good
By Whitney Gardner
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers on March 13, 2018

Chaotic Good is a seemingly lightweight book that deals with some serious issues in a sensitive way. It takes on sexism, toxic masculinity, online harassment, and gender roles.

Chaotic Good Comps14.inddCameron is having a rough summer. She’s just moved to a smaller town from Portland. She hasn’t made any friends yet, she’s bored, and she’s being harassed online. Cameron is a talented seamstress who makes her own cosplay costumes. She recently won a contest, and when she mentioned publicly that she doesn’t actually play the game she made a costume from, the online abuse starts. She’s called an attention whore, pathetic, and other far less printable things. She visits the local comic book store looking for some costume inspiration. Unfortunately, the guy who runs the place is a sexist jerk, who says her boyfriend won’t like the comics she’s picked out, points her to the “girl section,” and belittles her taste. But it’s the only comic book store in her town, so she decides to borrow some of her twin brother’s clothes and return disguised as a boy, hoping to avoid the sexist scrutiny.

The whole thing goes perfectly. She’s treated well at the store, and ends up being asked to join a Dungeons and Dragons group. She’s happy to make friends, and it becomes harder and harder to come clean about her true identity.

This book is really great. It takes on serious issues, but also manages to be really funny and poignant. Cameron masquerading as a boy has a very Twelfth Night vibe. There’s some romantic confusion: Her new friend Why falls for her in her boy guise, while she’s interested in another guy, Lincoln, and her brother Cooper has a thing for Why. Being a boy gives her a sense of safety and security. As she says:

“Two stoners nod at me as I leave the park. I nod back and keep walking. Normally, I’d be a little bit worried. Worried that they might follow me, or that they might have bad intentions. But I don’t feel nervous walking alone in my boy clothes, and I realize this is why I kept it up so long. This feeling of inevitability, of unquestioned acceptance. It was addicting. Comfortable. Easy. At least I thought it was.”

She’s under so much pressure in her female body, and her boy persona is a welcome relief. And even though things become very complicated, it’s really hard for her to give up the masquerade when it makes her feel safe, something she’s lacking because of the aggressive harassment.

The online harassment that Cameron endures is awful, and when she tries to defend herself online, it gets much worse. Her phone number is posted and she starts getting death threats. It’s really hard to imagine how anyone can think that death threats are a appropriate way to express your annoyance with a young woman who made a costume from a game she didn’t play, but given what happens when a woman dares to express an opinion online, this all feels unfortunately realistic. As Cameron says,

“What did I expect? I expected to post some photo ops and get stupid reaction gifs from my friends. Not hundreds of pages of abuse, not death threats growled at me through my phone.”

I wish I could say that the character of Brody, the comic store manager, is too over the top, but he’s pretty realistic. He’s a classic “nice guy” who thinks that women owe him something just because he’s polite to them. The author does a good job of making Brody three-dimensional, and ultimately, we see that his behavior is rooted in fear.

My only complaint is that the ending wraps up perhaps a little too neatly, but this is a minor quibble and didn’t affect my enjoyment overall.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.