Mountain Pony series // by Henry V. Larom

  • Mountain Pony
  • Mountain Pony and the Pinto Colt
  • Mountain Pony and the Rodeo Mystery
  • Mountain Pony and the Elkhorn Mystery

//published 1946//

I’ve collected these books over the years, but had never actually sat and read all four of them together.  Elkhorn was a very recent acquisition, so I had actually never read it at all, and the other three hadn’t been read in years.  I was pleasantly surprised at how well these stories held up from my childhood memories.

// I now have the Famous Horse Stories edition, but originally I had this one, with Andy punching the villain in the face! BAM! //

Once again, these were published as Famous Horse Stories.  Larom is definitely one of my favorite authors from that collection.  While his stories are still kind of outlandish, they’re great fun and the characters are drawn well.  These books focus on Andy, a teenage boy who is from New York but has traveled to Wyoming to visit his uncle, who owns a ranch in the mountains.

While the main players are done well (Andy, Uncle Wes, Sally), the background characters are very background, and some of them don’t even exist – for instance, we never meet Andy’s parents – not in four books!  In many ways this book is more about the setting than it is the people, and there is a real sense of time and place – the wilderness of the Rockies in the 1930’s, when things were still a bit wild west-ish.

//published 1947//

Andy is quite the “dude” when he first arrives, and within a week he recklessly purchases a horse because the horse’s current owner is abusing it.  Luckily for Andy, Sunny turns out to be an excellent purchase, and the little sorrel cowpony is as important a character as any in these stories.

//published 1949//

While Sunny is quite intelligent, he is still a horse, and I liked the realistic feel of these stories.  Andy makes plenty of mistakes throughout the tales, but he grows and matures as well, and isn’t afraid to admit it when he does something stupid.  Each book covers a different summer, and by Elkhorn, Andy has actually purchased his own ranch – albeit a small, ramshackle one.

//published 1950//

Sometimes these books got a little bit ridiculous (especially Rodeo Mystery, which spiraled a bit out of control credulity-wise), but overall they actually read well, and were just enjoyable, wholesome tales that made me yearn to buy my own ramshackle ranch in Wyoming.

While these aren’t immediate classics, they are definitely books that would be enjoyed by fellow horse-lovers, or by young’uns who love cowboys.  Overall, a 4/5 for this series, and one that I’m glad to keep on the shelves.

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Kids of Appetite // by David Arnold

//published 2016//

I first read about this book over at Heart Full of Books, although rereading Bee’s review makes me wonder what exactly inspired me to add it to the TBR?  Because while it doesn’t sound like a book I would necessarily dislike, it doesn’t really sound like one that I would immediately pick up!  But I’m really glad I did, as I quite enjoyed this story.  Not only was it engaging and funny, it had a solid story, character growth, and an ending that made me fill up with happy tears.

The story starts with present tense, first person – Vic narrating.  He’s in a police interrogation room with an officer who is asking him questions about a murder.  Because we have Vic’s perspective, we know that he is stalling for some reason, but we don’t know why.

This morning’s memory is fresh, Baz’s voice ingrained in my brain.  Diversion tactics, Vic.  They will need time.  And we must give it to them.

Vic’s diversion tactic is to begin telling the story of where he’s been in the last eight days – ever since his mom reported him missing.  And he tells it in his own way.

The story is told in alternating narration between Vic and Mad, a girl he meets along the way of the story.  There are a few other kids caught up in the story (Baz, his brother Zuz, and Coco), and despite the fact that I should have been rolling my eyes at this gang of ridiculousness, I loved them all and was completely invested in their story from the very beginning.

Pacing in this book was spot-on.  It’s the kind of mixed up timeline that makes you want to immediately start the book over and reread it once you get to the end and have all the pieces.  We have the past being told by Vic and Mad, with each chapter opening at the police station in the present (Mad is being questioned in another room).

While I don’t want to give too much of this story away, a big part of it is about Vic coming to grips with his dad’s death.  Vic loved his dad and they had a great relationship.  His dad died of cancer a couple of years before this story, and now Vic’s mom is thinking about getting remarried.  Vic ends up running away and having this sort of coming-to-terms journey that could have been cheesy and cliched, but instead is done so well.  

One of the things that I really liked about this book is that Baz is a Christian.  It’s not this huge part of the story, or something that Baz goes on and on about.  Instead, it’s just an organic part of his character that influences some of his actions because it’s a part of who he is.  It doesn’t make him better or worse than any of the other characters – it’s just a layer of his essence, and I really appreciated the way that he was portrayed.

It was the same with Vic’s physical condition.  He has a condition with which he was born, but the whole thing was handled so tastefully.  Like it was a huge part of who Vic is and how he has become this person – but it wasn’t his defining characteristic.  It’s just another one of the layers.

There are a few reasons that this book can’t quite achieve a full 5-star rating for me.  There was a decent amount of swearing in this book.  And like I get that “that’s the way kids talk these days” or whatever, except I don’t really feel like it has to be the way kids talk these days, and I personally prefer to not have to read the word “fucking” a few times in every chapter.

The other thing is the murder itself – kinda unexpectedly graphic and intense.  Not a long, drawn-out thing but – just a bit of a surprise.  I wasn’t ready for it.

Finally, I was just a smidge confused by Vic’s mom.  Vic is taking this journey, following instructions that his dad had left for Vic’s mom.  It was never really clear if Vic’s mom had already done this?  Or had just… not?  I felt like her character was a little fuzzy, although I really did appreciate the scene where Vic and his mom were reunited.  Their conversation felt genuinely healing, like they were on the right track together going forward, and I loved that.

All in all, a solid 4 stars for Kids of Appetite.  There was a lot to enjoy in this book.  I loved the characters, the story, and the pacing, and if the swearing – and brief gruesome scene – don’t bother you, I definitely recommend it.  To me, this is what a coming-of-age novel should actually look like.

The Blue Sword // The Hero and the Crown // by Robin McKinley

These two books take place in the same world, although The Hero and the Crown is set many generations earlier.  I can see reading either book first, honestly.  I read them in published ordered (my default), and when I was reading The Hero and the Crown, it kind of gave me some The Magician’s Nephew kind of vibes – like yes, you get something out of it reading this one first, but to really understand the depth, you have to have read the chronologically later books before reading this one, if that makes sense.  (I hate it that the “official” order of Narnia now puts Nephew first.  Utter nonsense.  And don’t give me that line about Lewis wanting them to go in that order.  He offhandedly mentioned it to one person, and now it’s 100% the way people are supposed to read them.  Ridiculous.  Nephew is so much more magical when you read it later in the series and actually understand what’s happening.  Anyway.)

//published 1983//

Anyway, anyway, back to this actual review.  The Blue Sword focuses on Harry (female), recently orphaned, now traveling from “Homeland” (definite England vibe) to Damar (India/high desert vibe), where her only living relative, brother Richard, is serving as a soldier.  He has made arrangements for Harry to stay with Sir Charles and his wife, and older couple (Sir Charles is some kind of diplomat).  I never really understood why Harry wasn’t just allowed to stay at home, since she’s in her late teens and it seems like she should have been able to rustle up some kind of companion, but whatever.  Harry arrives in Damar, an arid and rugged country, and tries to adjust to her new life.

A while back, Damar was invaded and taken over by the Homelanders, who enslaved, employed, and displaced the natives – the Hillfolk.  Only a small part of Damar is not under Homelander rule, the northern desert.  This border region is where Richard is posted and where Harry comes to live.  Shortly after her arrival, and unheard of event occurs: the king of the Hillfolk comes to call.  But when he asks for help resisting the impending invasion of the Northerners (who live over the mountains beyond the Hillfolk’s desert), the Homelanders put him off with various diplomatic phrases that basically refuse to help him, and the king and his entourage leave in a huff.

There are many strange stories about the Hillfolk, and some of those stories even sound… magical.  Of course the prosaic Homelanders would never believe such tales, but…!!!

But the king’s visit accomplished one thing: when he saw Harry, he knew immediately that she had a role of importance to play for his people, even though he has no idea why or what it is.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable book.  I liked Harry and the Hillfolk king (Corlath) very well, and I liked how their romance was very secondary to the more imminent issue of our country is being invaded by demons.  (So often YA fantasy has a tendency to go off on long tangents where no one has any sense of urgency and plenty of time to lounge about snogging, which makes literally zero sense.)  I liked how not everything came naturally to Harry, and that her training montage took longer than like two days.  The world building was done very well, and I loved the culture of the Hillfolk.

However, the story did drag a bit in the middle, especially when they go to visit Luthe.  The pacing just felt rather slow.  Still, I liked the ending and felt like things came together well.  While this wasn’t an instant classic for me, it was still an easy 3.5/5.

//published 1985//

The Hero and the Crown is about Aerin, the daughter of the Damarian king many generations before the invasion of the Homelanders.  There is some question about her mother’s heritage, so Aerin is somewhat the ugly duckling of the palace, as some people say that her mother was a witch who enchanted the king, etc.  I actually liked this story a lot, but it felt like it was incredibly choppy in places.  McKinley starts the story and goes a couple of chapters, then goes back a few years to give us some backstory for a couple of chapters, and then goes back a few more years for a couple of chapters to give us backstory to the backstory… and then jumps back to the original time and goes from there.  In this instance, it would have made way more sense to start with the earlier time, because I honestly didn’t understand the seriousness of some of the initial conversations and events she described because I had no context for them.  The way she wrote it left me feeling a little confused in places as to whether or not different events had happened yet or not in Aerin’s life.

Eventually, Aerin rides off to become a hero, and the pacing seemed odd there as well.  She completely loses her sense of urgency while her country is being invaded by demons.  At one point, she learns some really important information, that through one incredibly simple task could make everything so much better for her father and the people who are fighting back in the City… and she’s just like, “Oh, huh, interesting,” and we don’t hear anything else about it until chapters later.  It seems like at that point I would have been like, “Whoa, that’s crazy.  Let’s like send a messenger or something to make sure they know about this thing!”

I also didn’t really care for the sort-of love triangle, which left me feeling weird about her marrying the person she marries in the end.

Still, an overall enjoyable book and a 3/5 read.

I definitely enjoyed these stories, but they didn’t really become new favorites of mine like some of McKinley’s works have in the past – her writing is really hit or miss for me.  I do recommend these if you enjoy fantasy stories, but they aren’t the most magical books I’ve read lately.

The Burnaby Series // by Anne Emery

  • Senior Year
  • Going Steady
  • Sorority Girl
  • High Note, Low Note
  • Campus Melody

These are happy if somewhat unexciting books published back in the 1950’s by my old favorite Scholastic Book Service.  I can’t tell you how many of those 1950’s Scholastic paperbacks I have picked up for a dime at various book sales and garage sales, basically guaranteed to be good for at least one read.

And now I own even more because I only started with two of these books and ended up buying the other three on eBay.  :-D  (Because yes, my quest to read all of my own books sometimes involves needing to buy more books to accomplish this…)

//published 1949//

Senior Year focuses on Sally Burnaby, the oldest of five children, who is – you guessed it – a high school senior.  She’s excited about this final year of high school because she has a great life and figures that this grand finale will be even better.  She’s anticipating a year of fun and frolic, and also looking forward to going away to college – getting out of the house and away from the family for the first time.  Of course, not all is a bed of roses.  Sally’s best friend from childhood has received a special gift from an elderly relative and spending their senior year away at a boarding school, leaving Sally – who is something of a follower – feeling a bit adrift.  Her other best friend/long-time date/neighbor, Scotty, suddenly doesn’t seem as interested in escorting Sally on dates anymore, maybe because Sally has suddenly started thinking that going steady with Scotty might be nice.

I was honestly surprised at the casual way in which Emery approached some more difficult subjects.  Modern writers and readers frequently dismiss these older books as no longer relevant, because apparently everyone in the 50’s lived in a Leave It to Beaver sort of dream world.  But despite the fact that the Burnabys are a close-knit and happy family with two parents who love each other very much, and a mother who doesn’t work outside the home, the challenges and struggles that Sally face seemed quite modern to me.  She struggles with disagreeing with her parents on how she should be living her life and spending her time, struggling with that strange moment in time where you are still under your parents’ authority but are starting to become an adult, struggles with friends who are drinking and becoming more sexually involved than Sally was comfortable with (not in an explicit way, but being explicit isn’t actually necessary).  She struggles to find her true self, to understand what is really important in a friend, and learn whether it’s worth sacrificing standards just to avoid being single.

//published 1950//

In short, I really enjoyed watching Sally’s character develop and grow, which carried over in Going Steady.  In this book, Sally and Scotty decide to become a couple during the summer after they graduated from high school.  They have been good friends their entire lives, and this feels like the natural next step.  This book got a little too much about Scotty and felt repetitive at times, but still felt honest nonetheless.  I really loved one section of the book where one of Sally’s high school friends has gotten married right away, and then got pregnant right away.  At this point in time, Sally and Scotty are feeling rebellious because their families think they are moving too fast, and they have also decided to get married.  When they go to visit Sally’s newlywed friends, however, they recognize the wisdom of a lot of what their parents have had to say about the financial struggles of getting married so soon and other difficulties that really only work if you have a genuine foundation of lasting love – which Scotty and Sally are starting to realize they don’t actually have.

This was such an intriguing book to me because, in the end, the guy doesn’t get the girl – the girl gets single and realizes how happy she can be that way.  It wasn’t in this crazy feminist “a girl never needs a man” kind of way.  Instead, this book was really about how love works best when it happens at the right time instead of being rushed.  It wasn’t the right time for Sally and Scotty, and when they realized that, they were able to look to their futures in a more healthy, happy way.  Throughout the story, Sally had clung to her relationship with Scotty because being single seemed like such a terrible fate.  But int he end I love that she decides that it’s time “to be the kind of person who could have fun without a man.”  Not because relationships are inherently bad, but because being in one with the wrong person just so you aren’t alone is.

//published 1952//

The next three book focus on Sally’s sister, Jean, who is two years younger.  I was a little sad to leave Sally behind, but Jean is also a likable individual who had shown up quite a bit during the first two books.  Sorority Girl opens during Jean’s junior year of high school, right after the ending of Going Steady.  Sally is now attending their local college (where their father is a professor), so we do see her here and there, along with her new boyfriend, who is just adorable.  Throughout the first two books, Jean began hanging out with Jeff, who is her regular escort to various events, but not her official boyfriend.  They’re very close, though.  In the background of Sally’s books, Jean was finding her feet and becoming more outgoing, and is now thoroughly involved in high school activities with a close circle of friends.

I appreciated that Jean is really quite a different character from Sally.  Sally is quieter and follower who had to learn how to make her own way.  Jean is more outgoing and fun, and also more dependent on having people like her.  She’s very musical and is starting to think that she may be able to make a career of playing the piano.

However, things change when she is approached by the members of the high school sorority.  Technically, groups and clubs that “seeks to perpetuate itself by taking on its members on the basis of personal preference of its membership, rather than upon the stated qualifications for membership.”  But some allowances are made in a sort of “we pretend we don’t notice” kind of way, for two sororities and two fraternities.  Jeans adventures with becoming and joining the Nightingales were quite interesting to me.  Watching Jean get caught up in the “honor” of becoming part of an exclusive group, and then watching her realize that this mean also excluding people she likes and admires, was insightful.  There was a lot to learn from this book, and I appreciated that Jean didn’t just magically wake up perfect, but really wrestled – not just with figuring out what was the right thing to do, but then actually doing that right thing even after she knew what it was.

//published 1954//

High Note, Low Note follows Jean through her senior year.  She and Jeff are going steady, and both are looking to the future.  However, Jean feels uncomfortable because Jeff is a lot more serious about their future being together than she is.  This one was a little too much about boys to be as enjoyable as some of the others, but still read well.

//published 1955//

Finally, Campus Melody follows Jean to her freshman year at college, where she is attending on a music scholarship.  This was a good book about that initial adjustment to living away from home – away from that support system that you almost don’t even realize is guiding you throughout your teen years.  Jean makes some rather poor decisions and learns from them, especially involving a popular senior on campus who starts dating her.

I think the only thing that disappointed me in this book was the ending, which I felt like was a bit of a cop-out and didn’t actually fit with all the lessons Jean had been learning throughout the story.  However, it did mean that everything tied together neatly, so I was willing to forgive it a bit.

All in all, this review has been a lot longer and more rambly than I anticipated, but I really did enjoy this little series.  They weren’t ground-breaking books, but they were pleasant and engaging reads.  At my age, I think what I actually enjoyed the most were the parenting techniques of Mr. and Mrs. Burnaby, who were really fantastic background characters with a lot to offer.

One note – for some reason Goodreads does not have this series listed in the proper order.  Instead, they list Sorority Girl as book #5, when, by both publishing date and chronologically to the overall story, it is obviously #3.  Reading books in their proper order is extremely important to me, so I found that bit of misinformation to be quite aggravating.

Most of these books were a 3-4/5 for me, and I think the series as a whole is a 3.5/5.  While they aren’t ground-breaking literature, and could be a bit repetitive in parts, I think they have just as much to offer in terms of life-lessons and pleasurable reading as 85% of contemporary YA – and all without the sex, swearing, and divorce!

The Giver Quartet // by Lois Lowry

  • The Giver – 4.5/5 (published 1993)
  • Gathering Blue  – 3.5/5 (published 2000)
  • Messenger – 2/5 (published 2004)
  • Son – 3/5 (published 2012)

It had been many years since I originally read The Giver (and was mind-blown by it), and until recently I didn’t even realize that there were other books that followed it.  So I was pretty excited to dive into this quartet.  However, while I found The Giver as brilliant as ever, I felt that the other books really dropped off, especially Messenger, and, to some extent, Son.  I’m not even sure that I can give this series a rating as a whole because of the wildly differing ratings between books.  I guess a 3/5 overall, but I strongly recommend reading The Giver even if you decide to give the other books a miss.  And you totally can, because while the rest of the books sometimes involve characters from the first book, none of them really build on themes from the first book – and it’s the themes that make The Giver so fantastic.

There will definitely be spoilers throughout the rest of this review, as it’s impossible to really rant without spoilers.  So if you intend to read the series, do that first and then come back and see if you agree with me…

The Giver is a brilliant book that reveals everything in perfect time.  As the reader slowly grows to understand the community where Jonas lives, it becomes more and more creepy, and it’s done just so, so well.  It’s not a very long book, or one full of lengthy descriptions or conversations, but it’s very brevity is part of what makes it so amazing.  The concept of individuality and feelings exchanged for safety is really intriguing.

For me personally, the only let down is the ending, which is rather strange and ambiguous.  First off, the plan that the Giver and Jonas hatched never really made sense to me.  The reason that the original Receiver’s memories returned to the community was because she died, and it doesn’t really make sense to me that Jonas just leaving the community would release those memories to the people.  The ending, with Jonas and the sled is also just really weird.  Like is there an actual sled?  Is Jonas just hallucinating?  Does he actually die out in the snow or does he really make it to safety?  The ending is abrupt and a little strange, which is why the book doesn’t get the full 5* for me.  However, part of that is just personal opinion.

Gathering Blue is listed as a companion novel, not a sequel.  However, I would not have even placed it as that if I had just come across it at random.  The story takes place in a completely different location with a completely different culture.  Still, it was a good story overall.  I really liked Kira, and watching her discover things about her village was intriguing, a similar self-discovery path to Jonas’s in the first book, this concept that just because things “always have been” doesn’t necessarily make them right.

However, I still had some questions about this book.  Like what is the whole thing with the Beasts?  It seems obvious that they aren’t real and are being used as a method of manipulation by the village’s leaders, but that’s never really made clear.  Overall, the village leaders’ whole purpose isn’t really explained in any way.  Apparently they are trying to control the people to… what?  They’ve made sure they have control over certain talented youth in the village, but we never find out exactly what they plan to do with them.

And again, an ambiguous ending.  So Kira is going to stay and ‘fix’ things – but how?  Just by weaving some cloth?  There aren’t really any answers, and I wasn’t particularly left with confidence in her ability to change the whole village.  Overall, I enjoyed the story, but was a bit let down by the vague ending and the complete lack of connection to The Giver.

I don’t really know what I was expecting when I opened Messenger, but what I got was… weird.  This whole book felt extremely strange, and I don’t know if I am just getting worse at understanding things, or if it really doesn’t make any sense.  First off, it got strangely… supernatural, I guess.  The first two books felt like they could be real, a future world but still our world.  But in Messenger, the gifts that people like Kira had in Gathering Blue suddenly become Gifts, and they are a strange supernatural ability that transcends understanding – it felt like this was a weird fantasy book instead of something dystopian like the first two books.  I mean, Matty can heal things just by putting his hands on them and thinking about it??

The forest, which was just a… well, forest, in Gathering Blue suddenly becomes Forest, a restless and potentially malevolent force that physically attacks people, determining whether or not they can ever reenter the woods.  Just…  ????

We find out that Jonas arrived at the village where Matty now lives (Matty was Kira’s friend in Gathering Blue, and these two villages are few days’ travel apart).  This is the first we’ve come across Jonas since The Giver, and apparently he and Gabe literally arrived on a sled?  So there really was a sled on top of the hill?  Like… why?  Why was a sled just sitting by a tree?  Did Forest put it there since apparently it just does whatever it wants?  Anyway, since then, even though Jonas is still just a teenager, he has become the leader of this village (“Leader”, because everyone receives their “true name” when they become an adult, so they are basically known by some random quality instead of a name – Mentor, Healer, Herbalist, Seer, etc. also strange).  He also has a Gift.  In The Giver it made sense that Jonas “saw beyond” because what he was actually seeing were things that the other people from his town had been genetically modified to not see, e.g. color, etc.  But in Messenger, Jonas/Leader is able to actually see things beyond his literal line of sight – so he can ‘see’ the progress Matty is making through Forest, etc.

So yeah, the Gifts become kind of weird, and suddenly the story no longer feels like it’s a future version of our world, but like it’s something entirely different, which put everything off-kilter for me.  And this doesn’t even get into the weird Trademaster thing, where this strange guy shows up and people from Village can go and trade with him, except apparently they are actually trading parts of themselves?  And in exchange they start getting mean and nasty, but then in the end Matty magically heals Forest and Village and everything and everyone just goes back to normal…  I guess?!?!  It was a really weird book and I felt confused literally the entire time I was reading it.

Finally, we get to Son.  This book started really well.  It’s about Gabe’s birthmother, Claire.  Of course, in the community where Jonas and Gabe came from, people don’t have children naturally; certain females are chosen to be inseminated and bear a Product.  Now the book already started weird to me because apparently the community had the Birthmothers have their first pregnancy at age 14??  And while this is quite possible, it doesn’t really fit in with everything else in the community, which is done at maximum efficiency.  Like age 14 is not the ideal age to have your first child, so I don’t feel like that is really when they would have impregnated the Birthmothers.  But whatever.

Anyway, basically Son starts as a kind of prequel/parallel to The Giver, except from Claire’s perspective.  Something goes wrong during her birthing process and they have to surgically remove her baby.  However, during pregnancy, Birthmothers are exempt from taking the Pills that keep people from having feelings.  Claire is declared unfit to give birth again, and reassigned to the Fish Hatchery… but no one remembers to have her start taking the Pills.  So Claire is left with actual real feelings, and, like a natural mother, yearns to find/see/hold/have her own baby again.  She manages to locate him, and is able to visit him (without anyone knowing that she is his Birthmother, of course), and this is the whole first part of the book and is done really well.

Then.  Then the part comes where Jonas and Gabe run away.  Lowry conveniently has Claire escape from the community, but does it without really telling us how –

Years later – many years later – when Claire tried to piece together memories of her last days in the community, the last things she could see whole and clear were the bicycle moving away and the back of the child’s head.  The rest of the hours that followed were fragments, like bits of shattered glass.

So somehow Claire manages to get on a supply boat, ride out to the ocean, get shipwrecked, and then get washed up on a beach, all in about two pages with no real explanations.  This really felt like cheating.

Next, Claire ends up in a remote fishing village, that apparently has no way in or out??  Like they have this horrific path that no one can climb that goes straight up a cliff, or they can try to leave by boat except the currents are too dangerous.  I don’t mean to be weird here, but Lowry specifically says that no one could remember the last time a stranger arrived in their village… doesn’t it seem like this place would be horrifically inbred?  It felt extremely strange, again.

Eventually Clarie regains her memory and is determined to find her son.  A crippled guy helps her train to climb the cliff path.  He did it this one time, years and years ago, but conveniently remembers every single step of the way, down to the exact distances she is going to have to jump between rocks at certain places, so he makes her train FOR LITERAL ACTUAL YEARS and then she leaves.  Of course, she gets to the top, and guess who is there??  Trademaster!

By this point, I was so aggravated with this entire book that I almost didn’t finish it, and basically skimmed the rest.  Blah blah blah Claire trades her youth.  Oh surprise, she never bothers to tell Gabe that she’s his mother.  Instead, she just hangs out like a creeper in Village and watches him from afar.  Eventually Gabe has to go do a final battle with Trademaster because he has a Gift, of course.

It just.  It didn’t make sense.  None of it really made any sense.

So this review has gotten regrettably long and rambly, but the point is that I was really intrigued by these books, but then they just kept making less and less sense as they went along.  The Giver had a very tight, poignant narrative that was thought-provoking and eye-opening.  The rest of the books were just kind of weird fairy tales that didn’t seem to have much of a point.  I don’t regret reading them, but I don’t really see myself returning to them, either.

The Jackaby Quartet // by William Ritter

//published 2017//

So in August the fourth (and final, as far as I can tell) Jackaby book hit the shelves.  Having thoroughly enjoyed the first three books, I was eager to reread them and then get the grand finale.  So this is mostly going to be a review of The Dire King, with some thoughts about the series as a whole.  The links go back to earlier reviews of the series (not this time around).  When reviewing the final book of a series, it’s virtually impossible to avoid some spoilers, so the brief review is: 3/5 for Dire King and 4/5 for the series as a whole.  I personally didn’t like the way a bunch of things concluded in Dire King, but that’s kind of a matter of personal opinion, as it technically worked.  But in the end I was left with a lot more questions than answers, and felt like the plotting in the final book was rather sloppy, like Ritter was hoping that as long as there was enough action, the readers wouldn’t notice gaping holes in the logic.

I really wish that Ritter had stuck with episodic stories for this series.  I still think the first book was the best of the bunch, and it was because it was a self-contained story.  The further into The Grand Scheme that Ritter got, the sloppier the stories got, and the more it felt like he was only really interested in getting us to the final book.  The Grand Scheme got really involved and complicated, while the concept of just writing paranormal mysteries with these characters would have been fantastic.

More thoughts below with mild spoilers…

I really enjoyed reading back through the three earlier books, and actually liked Ghostly Echoes better the second time around when I already had an idea of where things were going.  (Maybe I’ll like The Dire King better if I reread it??)  These books are just plain fun.  The dialogue is hilarious, and Jackaby and Abigail are a brilliant combination of characters.  There’s still a bit too much modern SJW talk, with women’s rights being handled in a very heavy-handed way, and the whole transgender thing in Ghostly Echoes that makes absolutely no sense within the context of the story and is quite obviously being inserted to show us how open-minded Ritter is.  But I’m willing to overlook these types of things as long as the rest of the story holds up, and for the most part it does.

However, the further into the series we go, the more Ritter starts to build what I think of as The Grand Scheme.  Many series – in fact, most – do this, but for me it only works if the small schemes aren’t sacrificed in the process.  Each book should still be able to stand as a solid and engaging story on its own, and while it’s okay to have teasers leading into the next book/The Grand Scheme, it can be frustrating when it feels like I only got part of a story (I’m looking at you, Robin McKinley’s Pegasus).  Ritter doesn’t quite do this, but he’s close, which is probably another reason that I enjoyed Ghostly Echoes more the second time around – it wasn’t as annoying of an ending when I had the final book right in front of me!

The thing is, it just started to feel like Ritter had bitten off more than he could chew with his Grand Scheme.  All of a sudden we’re jumping in and out of fairy land and the land of the dead and we’ve got conflicting kingdoms and factions and all kinds of critters running around and it’s not really clear who is on which side and even if there are sides and there is this whole thing that’s going to apparently blow up the Veil that separates the physical world from the fairy world and there is this guy who can make zombies kinda and this little furry critter that gives cryptic advice and no one knows or really seems to care whose side he is on and then all of a sudden this one character who was kind of a minor character turns out to be the one who betrays everyone except when did she even meet the bad guy??  Like it felt extremely weird and was never explained how she even did what she did or why so her motivation makes literally zero sense and then in the end everyone apparently is just like Oh, okay, and they all go home??!?  And what happened with the zombie guy?  And apparently there was some guy who has been keeping the Veil safe for like hundreds of years and could live that long because he was wearing this magical gem but then he… took it off??  And died?? And the whole Veil started to collapse??  So why did he take it off??

Basically, the whole book made me kind of dizzy.  Things were happening very quickly and strangely without any genuine explanations, and instead of there being this big epilogue that made everything make sense, there was an ending that I found to be VERY STRANGE and did not like AT ALL.  The ending itself dropped the entire book a half star for me, like I could not get behind it at all.

So The Dire King was a bit of a letdown for me.  It had its moments, but just didn’t pull things together the way I had anticipated.  This series could have been a lot more fun and entertaining if Ritter had stuck with smaller stories that tied together instead of attempting to pull of a very complicated and involved Grand Scheme that just didn’t end up making a whole lot of sense.  I still recommend the series as a whole, and definitely will be rereading it sometime in the future – and maybe will enjoy The Dire King more when I have a sense of where it’s headed.  And I’ll be keeping an eye on Ritter to see what he decides to write next.

The Night Circus // by Erin Morgenstern

Even though I finished The Night Circus two weeks ago, I still am having a lot of feelings, and I doubt that this review will be very comprehensive.  It’s one of those books that is just too magical for reviewing.

//published 2011//

I feel like this book has been on my TBR forever, and when it came in the mail last month, I was quite excited to finally read it!

Recently, I decided to subscribe to receive a monthly book from Mr. B.’s Emporium of Books, because I really do love receiving book boxes, but the truth is that I don’t really read by ‘genre’, and the overwhelming majority of book subscriptions make you choose that way. E.g., I do read a lot of YA, but I don’t usually care for contemporary, angsty YA – I prefer fantasy/sci-fi YA instead.  But subscribing to a YA book box means I end up with contemporary YA, which is alright, but not really something I seek out.  (It’s how I ended up reading that book with the one-armed black skater boy hero a while back.)  All that to say, with Mr. B’s you actually fill out a (lengthy) survey about the books you like (and don’t), and I thought it would be fun to see if they managed to send books I enjoy – and The Night Circus was the first one I received!

This book was… gah, it was just plain magical.  Despite the fact that it involved a lot of ingredients I don’t usually like, I was completely and totally engrossed and did not want to put this book down.  As a general rule, I do not like present-tense narratives and I do not like books that rely on a dated header to tell you where you are in the story (e.g., ‘Associates and Conspirators – London, February 1885’), but this book used both and it only added to the magic.

The descriptions in The Night Circus were amazing.  I absolutely loved hearing about the different displays/acts in the circus.  Morgenstern created a definitive sense of place – the circus became its own character in the story, and it was amazing.  The introduction chapters written in second person should have been annoying, but instead were brilliant.  I was drawn into the story immediately by this method, as I stood waiting in line for the circus to open.

Pacing was excellent – just enough back-and-forth in time to keep the story building in a specific direction without feeling the whiplash of jumping around in time.  I fell in love with all the characters, even the ones I didn’t like.  The story unfolded with the precision of a perfectly-executed song.

For a while, I was nervous about the ending, but I shouldn’t have been, as that was perfect, also.

There were a few annoyances.  A character dies and I didn’t want him to, and Morgenstern has an aggravating tendency to drop French words and phrases throughout without bothering to explain them, even when they are an important part of the story.  But these are minor issues with a book that overall captivated me.

I am quite excited to add this book to my collection, and anticipate rereading it again in the (probably near) future.  All in all, a 5/5 read for me, and one of those few books that possesses genuine magic on every page.

NB – several reviews caused me to add this book to my list, and I’m not sure I have them all but among them – Stephanie’s Book Reviews, The Literary Sisters, Tales of the Marvelous, and The Penniless Bookworm.