Ragesong: Uprising (Ragesong, 2), by J. R. Simmons

ragesong uprisingI read book one of this series last fall and loved it. (Read my review here.) Because I was also furiously pounding out Ella Wood, it took me some time to return to the series. With my project completed and the third Ragesong book just about ready to hit the virtual shelves, I picked up book two. It’s every bit as good as book one.

In book one, Jake and Samantha find themselves drawn to the world of Fermicia where they help free the fallen king Klyle. Then they are sent home to grow in their mastery of music, which inhances their mystical power of Ragesong in Fermicia, while Klyle begins a rebellion against the evil usurper, Brael. In book two, after the passage of three years they return. The rebellion, however, isn’t fairing too well. Jake and Sam must help Klyle unite the Southern lands.

This installment introduces a wonderful array of new characters and new cultures. The danger is weighty, giving the new mission a trememdous sense of urgency. Brael is a horrible, violent, bloodthirsty tyrant bent on subjugation and the destruction of all who oppose him. And like the first book, this one holds some heavy moments of violence and war. They aren’t unnecessarily graphic, but a lot of people die, and the kids are in on the killing. But the values the alliance fights for–freedom, life, goodness–gives their actions a nobility and purpose. Loyalty, honor, and friendship are held in high esteem. And the tiny romance budding between Jake and Sam adds a lightness to this troubled world.

As I said in my book one review, this is self-published work far ahead of the majority. I’d set it against anything the traditional publishing world put out. The prose is crisp, the story compelling, the dialogue spot on. Very impressive. I absolutely love discovering these standouts and being able to credit the fine work and professionalism to a self-published author. Highly recommended for ages 10+

A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park

a long walk to waterThis is the remarkable story of Salva Dut, a survivor of the Sudanese Civil War that raged from 1983-2002. Salva spent years walking, avoiding the war, living in refuge camps—surviving. He was one of the lucky ones who eventually migrated to America. He then chose to return to drought-ridden Sudan and drill wells in poor villages. His vision has changed the lives of thousands.

I remember this war. I didn’t know much about it, but I heard it mentioned often when I was growing up. It opened my eyes to what these millions of Sudanese people went through because of a corrupt, intolerant government. It reads like a history, which it is. That war is over.

But this same oppression is still going on and in Sudan, in Iran, in Syria, in Iraq, in Nigeria. Power hungry Muslim militants and corrupt governments. They go hand-in-hand, it seems, all over Africa and the Middle East. It’s called jihad, the militant spread of Islam, and it’s devastating to civilians.

ISIS is crucifying adults and children, selling children into sex slavery, burning pilots alive. Boko Haram in Nigeria has killed more than 10,000 Christians in six years and abducted more than 1000 women. Christians beheaded in Egypt. Christians arrested, imprisoned, and murdered in Sudan. The war in Darfur. The war in Syria. Hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced. Massacres, chemical weapons, rape, torture.

This isn’t the stuff of history. It’s happening every day. Right now. And it’s not going away.

You and I can’t control it, but we don’t have to wait and read a story about the atrocities a decade from now. There are charity groups currently in place ministering to the hurting and displaced. The Red Cross. Samaritan’s Purse. WorldHelp. And many more. Even Salva’s Water for South Sudan.

I encourage you to read Salva’s story. It’s heart-rending, but appropriate for 10+. Then be part of the solution. Get involved. We have.

The Kindle version is only $3.52.

The Mosque Hill Fortune, by Vivienne Mathews

mosque hillThis is the tale of two otters, both sea captains, both strong and self-assured, both masters of their own crew. Marshall, son of the famous (and missing) relic hunter, is the darling of the Secoran navy, master of weaponry, loyal, honest, and stalwart. McKinley the Marauder, infamous pirate, quick on his feet, adaptable, brash, and droll. No two “men” have ever been more a different…or more equally matched. For both are pursuing the same end—the fabled Mosque Hill Fortune. There Marshall hopes to seize the Scepter, the ancient symbol of Secoran power, before the evil Baron Von Ulrich usurps the throne. McKinley seeks only treasure, and hopes it will be enough to save the life of his young daughter.

This is a tremendously engaging epic adventure with swashbuckling pirates, naval battles, a treasure hunt, and a host of wonderful characters, both good and evil. Ms. Matthews’ mastery of language is a beautiful thing. Each word is weighted and well-chosen, each sentence efficient and skillfully constructed. Lovely. The characterization and world building are also outstanding. Because the characters are all animals, it’s reminiscent of a Disney movie, but it contains a violent element with blood, injuries, and death that Disney usually sugar coats. It also reminds me a bit of the Warrior series by Erin Hunter, as well as some of the adventure of Peter and the Starchachers, by Ridley Pierson and Dave Barry.

The story starts piecemeal, through the development of many character perspectives. They do merge into a complete, well-woven tale, but the initial approach would present some difficulties for my boys. Because of the violence, vocab, and degree of difficulty, I’d recommend this one for age 11.

Great news! This one is actually FREE! At least it was all during May. Grab a copy here!

The Gypsy Pearl: Tye (Gypsy Pearl, 3), by Lia London

gypsy tyeThis has been one of my favorite recent series. And it just so happens to be written by a friend of mine, Lia London. (But she became a friend after I’d been introduced to her fabulous writing.) Today, I’m featuring the newly released  third and final book in her Gypsy Pearl series, which I had the pleasure of beta reading.

Caz has been given three gifts. She’s been named the Gypsy queen. Now she’s arrived on the last planet in the Granbo System. But as she makes her way to the rendezvous point where she will complete the cycling of the pearl and take up her mantle, she wonders why the third gift has given her no special powers like the first two did. And as she is exposed to the variety of cultures on Tye, she begins to have doubts. How can she unite so many different governments and people groups?

“Unity is a vague term, isn’t it? What does it really mean? Can humanity ever really be united? What would it take? What would we have to give up to achieve it?”

Good questions. And we see Caz struggling here in this book more than in any other.

The Gypsy Pearl: Tie reminds me of Taran Wanderer, by Lloyd Alexander. Just as Taran explores and is shaped by the kingdom he will one day rule, so too with Caz. We see her maturing, problem solving, and though she does not know it, preparing for leadership. And along the way, she absorbs some important lessons. Like the one spoken by Nathani, an old woman who lends Caz aid:

She tapped her forehead. “Knowledge is up here, and it’s all facts and figures and skills. It’s what and where and how.” Spreading her palm across her concave chest, she said, “Wisdom includes the why. It is compassion and selflessness. If knowledge grows faster than wisdom, it ceases to breed kindness.”

This story resonates with gentle nudges of wisdom that are well balanced by Caz’s quick wit. Chose to be happy. Decide to survive. And it changes Caz. At one point her boyfriend Alf observes, “You are not a wave watcher, Caz. You are the wave.” It is Caz who drives this series. It is her growth that is so admirable and fun to watch. And it is so satisfying to see her journey reach its conclusion. Loved this series!

Grab a copy. They’re often .99 and never more than 2.99.

Gypsy Pearl: Caren
Gypsy Pearl: Craggy
Gypsy Pearl: Tye

It just so happens that while I was beta reading the last Gypsy book, Lia was beta reading my newbie, Ella Wood. Very blessed to give and take with someone of Lia’s calibre. She recently posted her response to Ella Wood as well as a short 4-question interview. Catch them on her website!

Still with me? Good! Because another of my beta readers, Patricia Tilton, featured Ella Wood on her blog today. Head over to Children’s Books Heal!

The Distance Between Us, by Kasie West

distance between usI’ve got one more cutsie YA romance for you. Yup, read it while I was writing Ella Wood, to absorb some of the light romanciness that my system doesn’t produce naturally. Actually, the book was pretty readable. I even liked it. I guess there’s just enough demand for a happily ever after in me to push me to the end, though I still prefer a little more substance. I was cringing mightily as I looked up the cover image and ran across all the hot guy and gal fan images overwritten with the book’s most gushy quotes.

This is sort of a star-crossed lover type story. Caymen is poor, poor, poor, and Xander is filthy stinking rich. The whole plot is basically Caymen trying to convince herself it will really work. To Ms. West’s credit, there are some well done side threads going on, specifically the secrets between Caymen and her mom, that kept me wondering till the end. Some I guessed right away. Others I didn’t see coming. The secondary characters–Caymen’s friend Skye, her boyfriend, and the lead singer in his band–are each unique and individual. Sharply and distinctly so. I liked that. A band sounds kind of teen cliche, but their chemistry works well and they feel real, not typecast. And, of course, Xander is loveable. He borders on the too-good-to-be-true stereotype, but he has just enough quirks and personality of his own to get a nod from me.

But what really made this story work for me was Caymen. She is so fabulously fashioned. Insecure about the father she never met, self-sacrificing yet struggling to break free of her mother’s failing store to pursue her own dreams, and wonderfully, delightfully sarcastic. Her sharp wit makes the dialogue totally entertaining.

Overall, I was actually quite impressed. For a lighthearted romance with nothing world-changing going on in the plot, there was a surprising amount of depth to the characters. And it was perfectly clean. It will get passed along to my daughter, who will likely be ga-ga over it.

And this concludes my venture into teen romance for the time being. I’ll be ordering books from the library with a little more literary weight for my summer reading, most likely of the middle grade genre. Back to our regularly scheduled programming…

The Kindle edition is a lovely 1.99.

Chosen (Amish Bloodsuckers Trilogy) by Barbara Ellen Brink

chosen

This is an unusual book to classify. I love that indie publishing allows for these unique books that don’t really fit into a comfortable niche, ones that publishers often reject for that very reason, no matter how well written the story might be. This one warrants a place on the virtual shelves.

Jael, named for the Old Testament slayer of Sisera, is a normal fifteen-year-old girl. At least, she wishes she was normal. But coming from an unsocial family living 30 miles into the dessert, she’s often teased about hiding out in a commune with lots of sister-wives. And none of the other girls she knows train three hours a night in martial arts. But one of her classmates, an Indian named Shadow with unusual skills, knows what she is. He learns before she does, and he puts out an alert that she’s been found. For Jael, though she doesn’t know it yet, was born to slay vampires.

I don’t normally read vampire novels, but Amish bloodsuckers? I had to find out. And the combination is certainly unusual. Jael’s parents have fled from an Amish community where bloodsuckers have taken over positions of authority.

I like that vampires are portrayed as evil. And I liked the unobtrusive statements of faith worked in a quiet odd moments. “Faith is never plain or simple, despite the life we came from and once knew. It’s a daily ritual of taking self and sacrificing it on the alter of obedience—trusting that the Creator knows what we need more than we do.” Good thoughts, though I’ve never seen them combined with slaying vampires before. It made me laugh, but it actually works in the story.

Despite Jael’s Amish background, the book isn’t really about religion. It’s about kicking vampire butt. And it was a pretty entertaining read. And pretty innocent. Not gory, but high action, no language, with a mild romantic element, though date rape is mentioned. However, one question did sort of bother me though the whole book. What’s the connection between the vampires and the Amish? True, they aren’t particular about their victims, but I never understood the reason they take over the Amish community and nowhere else. Because the Chosen One comes from the Amish line, I assume? If it gave a solid reason, I missed it.

Chosen is unique, clean, and appropriate for age 14+. I dare you to read it and not purchase the next one.

Kindle edition:
Chosen (Amish Bloodsuckers Trilogy, 1)

El Deafo, by Cece Bell

el deafoThis year’s Newbery was announced not long ago, so I rushed to grab a copy of the new winner. I was rather disappointed. In fact, I haven’t really liked a Newbery winner since 2011, Clare VanderPool’s Moon Over Manifest. Perhaps all the edgier, more experimental types of literature like graphic novels and verse I’ve been seeing lately are leaving me in a bygone era. I don’t know. I just know I much prefer the old-fashioned literary novel.

El Deafo is a graphic novel, 233 pages that took only 90 minutes to read, that tells the real-life story of author, Cece Bell. It is emotional, focusing on the feelings she experienced as she traversed grade school with an oversized, strap-across-her-chest hearing aid with cords that went up her ears. It shares the challenges she faced (kids speaking too slow and emphatic, staring, teasing) as well as the triumps. We get a pretty funny account of Cece acting as auditory lookout for the off-task classroom when her teacher, who wears a microphone, leaves the room. There is much that I related to, and much that I learned.

However, I found the graphic format of the novel mildly obnoxious. The entire 233 pages are laid out like a never-ending comic strip, and the rabbit-people characters come off looking a little ridiculous. I know lots of kids take to graphic novels, and there are arguments to be made for the benefits they pose to low readers, but I just want to READ my books minus all the goofy drawings. The thing I disliked most, however, is that the pictoral format limited, in my opinion, the emotional output of the story. Bell has a very touching story to tell. She’s the odd one out, a child who’s longing for acceptance and friendship among her peers. But the simplified story failed to elicit much emotion in me, and the writing just isn’t very pretty. Dialogue bubbles don’t leave much room for artistry of that sort. The force of the message could have been amplified tenfold in a more traditional telling.

So there you have it, my bias against graphic novels. I just don’t like them. At all. While this one was acclaimed all over the web last year, and I am sure there are kids out there somewhere with whom the story resonated, I’m having a hard time giving it much of a recommendation.