Well, friends, Eric and I would just like to thank all our readers for supporting our efforts during the past year. We love you guys!!! We look forward to sharing even more adventures with you in the new year. We so love hearing from you and hope you've been enjoying a stellar holiday season.
So I wrote this Reading Wrap-Up blog post a few days ago and meant to get it up before New Year's Eve, but it wasn't finished till now. Thanks for bearing with me! One of our New Year's Rezzies is to put up a new blog post every Monday for your entertainment (and ours, haha, they're fun to write!). Anyway, better late than never. Here are my (Gael's) most memorable and enjoyable reads of 2014. (Maybe I can talk Eric into sharing his with you soon.)
I don't know about you guys, but the reading fairies really smiled on me in 2014. Somehow I kept stumbling over one wonderful book after another. I will say that only one of my top picks was actually published in 2014. The rest came out over the past couple years or so. Sometimes a book needs to be out for a while before I even hear about it!
The good side of that is that most of these are in series, so by the time I found out about them, there were already additional installments, which meant I could buy them right away without having to wait. I've linked all the covers to the book's Amazon page so you can go download a sample and check it out for yourself. :)
#1 - The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy (2012)
It may be that I am the last person in America to read this book, because it's been out for a couple of years now, and it's so amazingly awesome that everybody should've read it by now. In fact, I've been running around telling people about it everywhere I go ever since I first picked it up. One of the FUNNIEST books I have ever read. And it's my kind of humor - not mean humor, not crude, not stupid. (Ok, maybe a tiny bit crude. I think there was a fart joke or two along the way, but hey, it's middle grade. To an 8-12 year old, farts are just plain hilarious. LOL. Who am I to judge??)
I laughed, I chortled, a giggled and guffawed and I think that I even had a screaming fit of laughter with tears running down my face at one point. If a writer can get that kind of reaction out of me, I'm a fan for life. Delighted to see on the author's website that they may be making this one into an animated movie. Yay!
The concept is that all the Prince Charmings from four of the most famous fairytales finally get fed up with the bards giving all the glory to the princesses in the tales. We all know the names of Snow White and Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, et all, but somehow in the tales, the guys just become some faceless, random "Prince Charming" and they're sick of it! They want to be known for who they are, and believe me, they are not the kind of guys you'd expect. Run-don't-walk to the online bookseller of your choice and download a sample. You will love it.
To the author, I say, Mr. Healy: A big fat thank you writing for this book! I can't wait to read what the four unexpected Charmings will do in the next installment.
#2 - Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff (2013)
Really this one could've just as easily been my #1 pick, but if Hilarious is my one-word descriptor for the above, for this one, it would be: ADORBS!!! (Adorable.) It's also very funny. I mean, the whole concept is funny. In a kingdom where your name is your destiny, what kid could bear ending up with a nickname like Rump?
Poor, young Rumpelstiltskin! No wonder he came to such a bad end in fairytale world...OR DID HE??? Hmmm. No spoilers here!
But I will share one of my favorite details -- the gnomes who serve as messengers. They run around at top speed from sender to receiver, saying their message over and over again until they reach the person the message is intended for. Rump grabs one by the ears and picks him up so he can tell him the message. It's just a funny image and a really fun, creative use of familiar fairytale details. I'm quite amazed that this is Ms. Shurtliff's first novel! She has such a polished style and a warmth and ease with her writing that's not usually seen so early in a writer's career (imo). This book has a great message about not letting others define you with a label that you never asked for.
A charmingly told fairytale with fast-paced action, wonderful imagination in many aspects of world-building, and a whole lot of heart. You gotta sample this one, too! I think I'm going go read it again. :)
#3 - The Copernicus Legacy: The Forbidden Stone by Tony Abbott (2014)
Tony Abbott is my favorite kind of writer. A been-there, done-that, 100+ books-published professional who still writes like he's hungry, tons of mastery, yet continually pressing out to try new things, with a palpable commitment to excellence. I have so much respect for people like that. As someone who's been a fulltime author since the late '90's I can assure you that if you think it's hard getting one book published, just imagine what it's like to keep doing it again and again and again, 100 times in a row. You sure get good at something when you do it that often, and Mr. Abbott's apprentice-master level of storytelling makes for a great read in this first installment of The Copernicus Legacy.
This series blends real and alternative history and takes readers on a whirlwind adventure through modern-day Europe and other points on the globe. So well researched I felt like I was there! Fabulous. Had a good chuckle with our four-kid team of adventurers trying to understand the Italian accept of an elderly paisano in Rome.
This book really does have everything you'd want. Fast pacing--check. Intriguing puzzle that must be figured out before doom befalls the world--check. Diabolical villain--check. But what really makes this book stick in your mind is the characters. I found the warm relationship between our brainy hero, Wade, and his laidback, half-Asian stepbrother Darrell, really touching and different. His cousin Lily is a bit of a "cool girl" type, flirty, loud, and materialistic, but she turns out to have more substance that she seems plus is super tech-savvy--a convincing "early adopter" who can handle the gadgets. Hey, every team needs one! But her tagalong friend, the shy, quiet, thoughtful girl, Becca, was a character I could really relate to. Especially when she got nervous on the plane rides in all their globe trotting! :)
Definitely a fun read, and I will look forward to continuing on with this series.
#4 - The Cloak Society by Jeremey Kraatz (2012)
Now this one's really different. What do you do if you're born into a family of seriously bad super villains, only to start slowly realizing that you might be...good? Uh-oh!
Poor Alex, the star of this book, has the kind of mom (um, telepathic assassin) that, trust me, you do not want to be punished by. *grin* Kids who like comic books and lots of action-adventure will really enjoy this, although I will warn it's a little more violent than my other top picks. What I really liked about it was how well the author really thought out what it would be like to be raised in a secret society of villains. It kind of reminded me of a fictionalized version of what growing up in the Hitler Youth must have felt like for young German children placed in those programs against their will. (Ok, but it's not portrayed in that heavy a manner, but rather in a comic-book, fantasy style.)
Everything horrid is being impressed upon Alex as if it were good and vice versa, but not in a way that supports moral relativism, but rather disproves it. Evil still feels evil to Alex even when it's presented by the adult villains around him as if it was good and right and the way things should be.
Because of the adults' gung-ho bad-guys' attitude, the awfulness of their worldview has more impact on us as readers through the hero's eyes. For example, real friendship is frowned upon, relationships are extremely hierarchical (think Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter), and people under the same roof are apt to backstab each other in all sorts of ways. You really can't trust anyone and if you do, you can bet it will eventually be used against you.
Preferred living environments are underground cement bunkers separated by age groups, not in families. Little children are fed and cared for by nondescript workers. School age kids study things like Machiavelli and Sun Tzu's Art of War, lol, and if a secretly-good teacher tries to teach the kids in his class anything of real value, that teacher, ominously, disappears.
Contrast this with the unselfish and noble Rangers of Justice, comic-book style super heroes who are the Cloak Society's hated arch-rivals. Much to Alex's dismay, his team, the bad guys, are winning. His conscience tells him the Rangers are in the right, but Cloak has hideous new weapons to use against them, and they are going down right before his eyes. Alex knows his own clan will kill him themselves if he tries to defect to the other side and help the good guys. So he's in quite a pickle. This is a boy hero who's going to have some serious choices ahead. I look forward to seeing how his path will continue to unfold in the rest of the series.
I think this book would be a good tool for parents wanting to get into philosophical discussions about right and wrong with their 10-and-Up's. Not just what's good and evil, but why.
#5 - Loki's Wolves (The Blackwell Pages) by K.L. Armstrong & M.A. Marr (2013)
Got Vikings? Or at least Norse gods. :)
This one had a little more of a YA tone to my ear rather than a strictly middle grade tone, a little more angst that most MG I've read, but don't let that scare you. The storyline/language are perfectly acceptable for the MG age group. It's a neat concept. If you're a fan of Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion," then you'll already know that certain states in the US contain a large population of Norse-descended people. Well, apparently, a good many of them ended up in the South Dakota town of Blackwell, where the rugged town sheriff is none other than a descendent of Thor himself.
As for his 13-year-old son, Matt, as you can imagine, that's a lot of pressure on a kid. Not just the sheriff's son, but a great-great-great-great grandson of the god Thor. Matt is definitely hero material, though he doesn't think he's quite good enough. He's responsible, a hard worker, honest, and magnanimous to his enemies, even the shady troublemaker of his school, Fen, who--surprise, surprise--is a descendent of Loki. :)
Actually, bad kid Fen is the reason this book made it onto my best-of-the-year short list. He is not just a character, he's an *Achievement* of fantastic characterization, imho. If you read this book, watch for how the authors slowly transform Fen from a guy you want to punch in the mouth to a kid you can't help but root for. He's a tough little loner, doing his best, though he's been dealt every bad card life could deal him. It would take a big-hearted son of Thor to give him another chance and, through friendship, turn this born-villain into a good guy. Armstrong and Marr deserve a big round of applause for their masterful job with shading in Fen's transformation.
Oh, yes, and I almost forgot to mention -- the central problem of the book is that Ragnorak could be on the way! (That's Viking Armageddon, for those who have not yet read our book, Jake & the Giant.)
Not Sure What To Say About This One...To the Adults..Spoilers
Onward to 2015!
The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
A lot of parents follow our blog, and I would feel guilty if I didn't give you kind of a heads-up about this book, because it's everywhere. And it's slated to come out as a "major motion picture" from Universal Studios. So your kids are probably going to want to see it if they haven't already read it. But I sincerely recommend that you Preview This One for yourself before giving it to your child. IMO, this is an angry book with a subversive message and an upside-down worldview. (Geez, Gael, tell us how you really feel, lol.)
Be sure and read it all the way to the end, because the final quarter or so of the book is where it goes from merely being devoid of any sort of moral compass to being downright icky. It depicts one girl's descent into a truly adult-level degree of deep, interior evil. It is chilling to read, but while fascinating, it does not feel like a children's book.
Another problem is that it is relentlessly unkind to males. Any boy or man who appears in the book--especially if he's handsome!--is depicted as either stupid or cruel. So, right out of the gate, it's got the anti-male bias so beloved of cheesy TV commercials where every Dad is a bumbling loser. As for the girls, a lot of Amazon comments discussed the overly sexualized descriptions of some girl characters and I can't disagree.
But even before it reaches that point, this book goes to work twisting, mocking, warping, confounding and conflating our notions of Good and Evil until both terms are rendered meaningless.
I don't think I've ever seen a children's book take such glee in trying to undo the hard work that most parents do in trying to teach their kids right and wrong. In this book, Good is Evil and Evil is Good. Good is all just phony while Evil is scary but seductive, misunderstood and actually heroic. (Horrified yet? I was.) Then it tops it all off with a sudden GLBT-themed surprise ending with a girl-girl kiss that pops out of nowhere like a rabbit out of a hat. The way it's handled comes across as unsavory and manipulative; it makes you start to wonder if this was all just a big propaganda piece all along.
Considering the age of the characters (11-12), to me, the big, dramatic "True Love's Kiss" at the end of the fairytale would have been inappropriate even if it had been between a boy and a girl instead of two girls. Oy. I heard book 2 ends with another same-sex kiss.
I bring it up because nowhere in the packaging does it alert the parent that this is where the book is going. I find that a little shady on the publisher's part. I understand it will be no big deal to some parents and offensive to others, so to my mind, they at least should have given you a heads up so you can decide for yourself if your child is ready to deal with that yet.
To be sure, this book has its pluses, it's got a very imaginative setting and a lot of pretty language. But all in all, I think many will feel it's better saved for teen readers, maybe 8th grade and up, not the 8 to 12 year olds it's being marketed to. None of the other Middle Grade books I've run across so far and none on my list above have a big, angsty kiss in them, either gay or straight.
In any case, I still think the overall moral confusion throughout the book is the bigger danger to a child reader, with its subliminal message that there's really no such thing as either Good or Evil, it's all just whatever YOU decide. Hardcore moral relativism rather than what fairytales usually give us, which are familiar boundaries between good and evil. I don't even know if an 8-12 year old's brain is wired yet developmentally to deal with this sort of existential concept.
Anyway, just wanted to give you a heads-up to be sure and check this one out beforehand, if you're not already doing that as a regular practice. I know a lot of you already are. Fwiw, I did not see anything of concern in my five Top Picks of the Year. Maybe just a little violence in The Cloak Society, but no worse than the average video game.
Ah, now I feel bad. I really don't like criticizing a fellow author, but I really felt I had to say something. Oh, well. Maybe some of you will feel differently about that one than I did. Everyone's different. For me, I may need to go read a Kate DiCamillo just to recover from that one. Anyhow...
Moving on, I am very excited about what's up next on my TBR Pile! I'm starting with Ranger's Apprentice by John Flanagan.
All The best & Happy Reading!