The Unicorn Hunter

Unicorn-Hunter-Tour-BannerThe Unicorn Hunter by Rachel Kirkaldie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was lucky enough to receive a digital copy of this book in return for my honest review. I am excited to be participating in the blog tour.

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Princess Jessalyn’s betrothal is the talk of the realm, but all she cares about is escaping her family’s smelly fishing kingdom. As queen of Gontir, her life will finally be perfect. But her plans are shattered when she’s kidnapped in a plot to destroy Gontir. With her dreams in ruins, Jessalyn must decide if the life she’s always wanted is worth the price of her heart.

My Review

The Unicorn Hunter is a grand adventure through a fascinating world. The author took me on a journey of discovery as she revealed the principles of magic and history that rule the lands. The story moves quickly and every word helps to move it forward. I so enjoyed not being bogged down with long explanations and descriptions; instead the author develops the characters, setting, and conflict through the story progression. The fast pace and lack of distraction or disruption from the story was perfect for the genre. The author’s voice works perfectly with the story and genre as well. She’s not scholarly, flowery, or fancy; neither is she juvenile, crude, or flat. It’s just right for being pulled into the story quickly and being held there to the end. It doesn’t take too much work to follow. You just get in and enjoy the ride.

I loved that I didn’t love princess Jessalyn at the start. It was refreshing to read about a heroine who really doesn’t have much heroism to offer. I was intrigued as to how she would develop and become likable. I wondered what events could break through her vanity, cleanliness, and too perfect exterior? What could happen to add depth to her priorities that at the start were about as shallow as an empty yogurt cup? Then the “hero” of the story was introduced and he wasn’t much better with life motivations completely focused on wealth, and thievery being his method of achieving his desires.

But the author builds a plausible plot that believably reveals the redeeming qualities of a selfish princess and thief. She succeeds in getting readers to care about these characters and their world. The cast of supporting characters such as the royal family and the thieving band are shown more in glimpses, but those glimpses are so clear that you really get a strong feel for their motivations right away. I liked them immediately for their strengths and weaknesses and they provided a perfect contrast for the initial shallowness of the main characters.

My only complaint for the book is that I wanted more. By the end I was starting to see the main characters blossom, but I didn’t feel completely satisfied with their growth or with the plot reconciliation. In my opinion there was more to be told of this story. There is plenty of foreshadowing for sequels (and I am crossing my fingers that there is at least one more) but even for this portion of the story I think there was more to tell. More information about the villains would give a much more satisfying end. I wanted more story to show me where Jessalyn and the thief would go from there. I could see that their experiences had changed them, and I wanted to know how that would affect their goals and direction for the immediate future. But I was left hanging.

Without a sequel this story is definitely incomplete, and because I felt there should have been more to the ending I would really give the book 3.5 stars; but I rounded up to a 4 because it was such an enjoyable read. I just wanted more! So I’m crossing my fingers and wishing on stars that there will be a sequel. And soon!!

Age Recommendation: This book is ideal for 15 and older. I think girls would be more drawn to it.

Appropriateness: Very clean yet exciting. Lots of action, but nothing grossly descriptive about it.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in The Unicorn Hunter I think you would also enjoy An Uncommon Blue by R.C. Hancock, Eruption and Reclamation by Adrienne Quintana, The Selection Series by Kiera Cass, The Winner’s Series by Marie Rutkoski, Until We Meet Again by Renee Collins, Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt, The Princess Academy series by Shannon Hale, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Golden by Cameron Dokey, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, and  Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

 

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Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes

Sadako and the Thousand Paper CranesSadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this one with the idea of using it for my high level reading groups in my third grade class, so I wasn’t just looking for good story and writing as I read. I was looking for content that could spark discussion and provide opportunities for really diving into comprehension on all levels of thinking. This telling of Sadako gives all of that and more.

The story is heartbreaking, particularly because it’s all true, but it’s told with sensitivity and perspective perfect for young minds. In the second paragraph of the prologue the author tells you that this story is about a girl who dies from radiation poisoning so right from the get-go you know this isn’t a “happily ever after story.” And it is so sad. The author highlights the tragedy of the whole situation, of a life taken long before it should be, but it’s done with a simplicity that keeps it from being traumatizing even for kids. And in the end there is a feeling of lightness, just like a paper crane hung on a string. It’s the example of Sadako’s child-like faith and hope despite terrible pain and injustice that leaves you motivated to see good and possibility in the world even with all the problems and uncertainties.

The book is short – 9 chapters and an epilogue. I finished it in less than an hour, but it still has plenty of depth. There is so much to ponder regarding war, death, responsibility, choice and consequences, faith, Japanese culture, family, and helping others. It opens the door to looking at our country’s actions in Hiroshima in WWII from many different perspectives.

This book will be perfect for my reading groups. I even created some worksheets with questions they can write responses to as they read to test their comprehension and to also prompt them to think more deeply. You can download them here: sadakoandthethousandpapercranes

Feel free to use them in your classroom, book club, or anywhere else.

Age Recommendation: This book is easy to read, but the content is thought-provoking and a little heavy  so I would recommend it for 3rd grade and higher. It’s a great introduction to Sadako for adults. It makes me want to find out more.

Appropriateness: Despite the heavy subject matter there is nothing that would be inappropriate for children. This one leaves you better for having read it.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Sadako you should also read So Far from the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

Teaching Resources: Here are the worksheets I created for my high level reading groups to answer questions about the book: sadakoandthethousandpapercranes

 

Ella Enchanted

Ella EnchantedElla Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

At Ella’s birth, an imprudent young fairy bestows on her the “gift” of obedience. Anything anyone tells her to do, Ella must obey. But instead of making her docile, the fairy’s curse makes Ella a bit of a rebel. When her beloved mother dies, Ella must keep herself safe from her selfish and greedy father, her mean-spirited stepsisters, and the things the curse could make her do. Ella sets out on a quest for freedom and self-discovery which includes fending off ogres, befriending elves, and falling in love with a prince along the way. Yes, there is a pumpkin coach, a glass slipper, and a happily ever after, but this is the most remarkable, delightful, and profound version of Cinderella you’ll ever read.

My Review

I had a lot of time in a car last week so I brought one of my all time favorite books to keep me entertained. I hadn’t read Ella Enchanted for probably 10 years and it was definitely time for a reread.

I loved it once again. I was wrapped up in the characters and the story just as much as the first time I read it. It’s an easy read without complicated language so my 5, 7, and 9 year old daughters loved listening to me read it aloud, but it’s written intelligently and beautifully so that I was engaged just as much as the kids.

I love the way the elements of the Cinderella story are presented in a way that they fit together better and make a more fulfilling story than the original fairytale. Even though it’s a retelling it’s fresh and feels completely new. The romance between Ella and the prince is developed well, is believable, and brings such warm fuzzies.

This wasn’t my first reading of this book and it definitely won’t be the last.
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Age Recommendation: This is an award-winning children’s book and will be enjoyed by all ages. As I said, even my 5 year old enjoyed it as a read aloud, though I think my 9 year old certainly understood the themes better. So I would say this book is best for 9 and older.

Appropriateness: This one is squeaky clean. Nothing crass or crude, though some younger readers may feel emotional over the death of Ella’s mother and the injustices that she is subjected to.

Other Book Recommendations: If you liked Ella Enchanted you should also read Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, The Storyteller’s Daughter by Cameron Dokey, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, Goose Girl and The Princess Academy both by Shannon Hale, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, and Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt.

 

Until We Meet Again

Until We Meet AgainUntil We Meet Again by Renee Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

The last thing 17 year old Cassandra wants to do is spend her summer marooned with her mother and stepfather in a snooty Massachusetts shore town. But when a dreamy stranger shows up on their private beach claiming it’s his own—and that the year is 1925—she is swept into a mystery a hundred years in the making.

As she searches for answers in the present, Cassandra discovers a truth that puts their growing love—and Lawrence’s life—into jeopardy. Desperate to save him, Cassandra must find a way to change history…or risk losing Lawrence forever.

My Review

Until We Meet Again was exactly the type of book I was in the mood for when I picked it up. It’s not a literary masterpiece or anything, but it was entertaining and engaging, easy to read, and well-written. It is a young adult romance novel and it doesn’t claim or try to be anything else. It simply does a great job of being exactly what it’s meant to be.

I enjoyed the wit of the main character and her totally realistic teenage thought processes and motivations. I liked Cassandra right away even with her teenage angst because she was smart and funny, and despite her poor choices her motivations were not cruel or mean. She was pretty relatable.

I didn’t relate to or connect with Lawrence as a character quite as much. He actually seemed like a bit of a player, especially at first, but he was nice enough, and the interaction with Cassandra was fun, cute, and had plenty of romantic tension, so I was still able to get wrapped up in the story.

The only real problem I had with the book was that I wanted more. I would have liked an epilogue maybe 6 months to a year later. I would have loved to know how Cassandra had changed because of her relationship with Lawrence and what choices she made for her future.

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Age Recommendation: 14 and older. Probably would appeal to girls most.

Appropriateness: There is lots of kissing, and some eluding to greater intimacy than that, but nothing is told in graphic detail.  I thought it was tastefully and subtly done.

Other Book Recommendations:  If you liked Until We Meet Again you might also like Eruption by Adrienne Quintana, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares, The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski, The Fault in our Stars by John Green, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Princess Academy and Goose Girl both by Shannon Hale, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Golden by Cameron Dokey, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, and Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli.

 

The Winner’s Trilogy, books 1 & 2

The Winner's Curse (The Winner's Trilogy, #1)The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
AND

The Winner's Crime (The Winner's Trilogy, #2)The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary of The Winner’s Curse (from Goodreads)

As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.

One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.

But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.

Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

Book 2, The Winner’s Crime follows Lady Kestrel and Arin as they continue to decipher if they can trust each other, and if they can trust themselves. Their skills in deceit both help and hurt as they try to uncover a shocking secret affecting both their countries.

My Review

I haven’t been so wrapped up in a series since the Hunger Games. I did not want to put these books down. Only necessities like feeding myself or my children could tear me away. It’s just a good thing that I had the sequel on hand and could start it immediately after finishing book 1. But I have now finished book 2, and book 3 hasn’t been released yet!!! Goodreads shows the expected publication date as March 1st. I HATE waiting.

The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime are part of the Winner’s Trilogy. They are the perfect combination of action, intrigue, romance, and engaging prose. I enjoy the excitement, and fairly “clean” and innocent romances of YA fiction, especially when I am looking to just get lost in a story for awhile, but these books surpassed that basic entertainment value and became enthralling. They have all of the thrill of forbidden love, and palpable chemistry between the main characters; then add to that a unique world, and thought-provoking moral and philosophical situations and you get a captivating story.

The setting for these books is NOT a dystopian future, as is so popular in YA fiction these days. The world is completely a fictional one, but there are similarities to our world’s history, particularly to the days of Roman conquerings and enslavements. It is original and refreshing, and presented and described well. It feels as if it could be real.

But let’s get to what really sets these books apart for me. Never have I read a story with so much deceit, lies, half-truths, conspiracy, and stratagem on the parts of both the “bad guys” and the “good guys.” These are smart characters that have had to learn the ways of war, secrecy, stealth, disguise, in order to survive their world. Now they have to face situations that challenge everything they thought they knew and everything they thought they were committed to. I loved the believability of their reasoning, thought-processes as they were forced to examine themselves and their world. And even as the plot becomes more and more intricate the conclusions of the characters stay completely plausible and consistent within the characters motivations and knowledge.

The Winner’s world is one of “grays.” You see multiple sides to every issue and watch as characters try to do the best they can to make choices they can live with amidst a culture and civilization that makes it impossible for all sides to live the way they want. Even when unpleasant events occur because of the choice of one of the “good guys” you can completely see the logic and reasoning behind that choice and why they are still a “good guy” despite the bad things that happened. Definitely makes me glad I am not in the business of politics, war, or revolutions. Though I hope the leaders in those fields in our world are as careful and considerate with their decisions as the characters in these books.

I enjoyed the writing as well. It’s easy and fast to read, just as I like it when I’m completely caught up in a book, but there is also depth and beauty to the ideas and presentation that goes beyond your average entertainment read. These are not literary classics, by any means. This is simply a YA romance series, but it’s one that I am totally loving.

So, I say, “Well done Marie Rutkoski. Now hurry up and finish the third book!!!!”

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Age Recommendation: The are intricacies in the plot as well as moral implications that make these books for 15 and older in my opinion.

Appropriateness: There is deceit, war, murder, torture, and romance described, but none in gory detail so I wasn’t grossed out or disturbed. These could be interesting book club reads as they would give much to discuss about the choices of the characters, whether they are good or bad, justified or not, and whether you would act the same way. The state of the world also provides great discussion material – how is our world the same and different? How do we avoid the problems they are facing? How have we overcome some of these struggles? Are we heading for more?

Book Recommendations: If you like The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime you should read The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, The Books of Bayern Series by Shannon Hale, Eruption by Adrienne Quintana, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, and Graceling by Kristin Cashore

 

The “how” of reviewing (part 1)

Reviewing a book means we make a judgment about it. Basically, we decide whether or not a book was “good.”  So what do we base our judgment on?

What makes a book “good”?

The simplest answer – If you like it then the book is good, right? Well, kind of.

The Bronze Bow

Problem is people don’t all like the same books 100% of the time. We have different tastes and preferences in genre, subject matter, and writing style. Our like or dislike of a a book depends so much on our own personal preferences and opinions which are not quite good enough standards for determining a book’s worth for the world in general. How could there ever be any agreement on giving a book an award or recommending it for study in a book club or high school English class if the merit was all based on opinion? I found The Grapes of Wrath to be depressing and Great Expectations annoying in high school, but that doesn’t remove them from the Classics list, and it doesn’t mean that they don’t have some worth in the literary world. Hearing me admit that would probably give my high school English teacher a heart attack as my teenage mind was rather adamant that both books were just lame. But thank goodness for a college children’s literature class that opened my mind.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World

In that class we were required to read books from a variety of genres, some of which I was not as excited about as the others. I liked reading for an escape from my reality for just a little while, so I never got terribly excited about nonfiction. I also had never been able to read a “high fantasy” book without getting bored part way through and just giving up. But I needed to pass the class for my elementary education degree, so I decided to keep an open mind and give all the genres a fair chance.

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons

It was surprising which books I enjoyed most. My number one favorite from the class actually turned out to be a nonfiction selection called Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and The Endurance . And surprisingly the “fairy tale-esque” Seven Daughters and Seven Sons wasn’t just the reality escape I was expecting. I enjoyed the book, but it was also the source for some great class discussion about controversial reading material. And So Far From the Bamboo Grove caught me by surprise with the horrifying real-life events it covered while still fitting into the children’s literature category.  The fantasy book The High King turned out to be more amusing and easier to read than I had anticipated. Being able to discuss all of these books in class and hear others explain and justify their opinions and preferences really helped me to find greater enjoyment in genres I would have normally not considered reading.

Golden

I came to recognize that I needed knowledge and experience with various genres in order to make appropriate recommendations and choices for the elementary school children and the curriculum I would be teaching. I would undoubtably have students one day who had different opinions and preferences for reading and I wanted to be able to encourage a love of reading and to help develop their interests. And even more importantly I learned to appreciate the “good” aspects about books which in turn allows me to now enjoy a much broader scope of genres. I can even recognize the “good” when I don’t necessarily like the book as a whole. My experience with a variety of genres taught me that a “good” book is more than just its subject material. That may pique our initial interest, but a book’s true worth comes not only from what is written, but how it is written.

(Check out my previous post for the”why” behind reviewing and stay tuned for part 2 of the “how” of reviewing.)