‘The Burning Maze (Trials of Apollo 3)’ – Rick Riordan

The formerly glorious god Apollo, cast down to earth in punishment by Zeus, is now an awkward mortal teenager named Lester Papadopoulos. In order to regain his place on Mount Olympus, Lester must restore five Oracles that have gone dark. But he has to achieve this impossible task without having any godly powers and while being duty-bound to a confounding young daughter of Demeter named Meg. Thanks a lot, Dad.

With the help of some demigod friends, Lester managed to survive his first two trials, one at Camp Half-Blood, and one in Indianapolis, where Meg received the Dark Prophecy. The words she uttered while seated on the Throne of Memory revealed that an evil triumvirate of Roman emperors plans to attack Camp Jupiter. While Leo flies ahead on Festus to warn the Roman camp, Lester and Meg must go through the Labyrinth to find the third emperor—and an Oracle who speaks in word puzzles—somewhere in the American Southwest. There is one glimmer of hope in the gloom-filled prophecy: The cloven guide alone the way does know. They will have a satyr companion, and Meg knows just who to call upon. . . .

Accompanied by Meg and the amazing Grover – and a few more friendly faces – Lester is continuing his quest.
Without giving away too many details, our intrepid characters find themselves facing a lot of mythical creatures, tangling with gods, challenged by a labyrinth and desperately trying to avoid being killed by a particularly unpleasant Roman emperor and those working for him.
From the beginning we have what we’ve come to expect. While I laughed out loud at moments, there was a growing awareness from Apollo of humanity and what it means.
Can’t wait for the next instalment!

‘The Dollmaker of Krakow’ – R.M. Romero

Karolina is a very special doll. Once a seamstress in the Land of Dolls she had to leave her country behind when rats invaded and started to destroy the once peaceful land simply because they could. She and her friend, Fritz, journey across their land to a place where they have been told a spirit resides who can send them to a place where their heart will be safe. A dangerous journey, but one they feel compelled to make.

We first meet Karolina when she awakens in the toy shop owned by Cyril Brzezick, the Dollmaker of Krakow. A private man, Cyril is shocked to discover that he has brought this doll to life. Slowly, they learn to trust each other.

Set against the backdrop of events in Poland in 1940 it is inevitable that we have to read about intense hatred and prejudice. We watch as Cyril befriends Josef and his daughter, Rena, only to have their friendship taken away because they are Jews. Throughout these events Karolina is by Cyril’s side…right until the end.

For readers of 9 upwards I think this will be a great book to introduce some of the issues linked to WWII. Inevitably, it’s upsetting to see the hatred experienced by Josef and Cyril because of their religion or refusal to follow Nazi orders. I think the blending of historical and magical is a perfect mix. What happens to these characters is awful, but there’s glimpses of humanity that reduced me to tears.

A beautifully presented book, with wonderfully depicted characters (even the nasty ones) and I can’t wait to see how others feel about it.

‘A Spoonful of Murder’ – Robin Stevens

What a delight this latest instalment of Hazel and Daisy’s adventures was. Thank you, Robin Stevens, for the story and I only wish it could have lasted longer.
This time round the girls are in Hong Kong when Hazel is called back after the death of her grandfather. As we come to expect, the girls are soon caught up in another mystery when Hazel’s new brother is kidnapped.
There’s a number of suspects – father’s business partners, old friends and even ex-servants – and the girls get to carry out some daring deeds as they investigate the crime.
As always with this series there is a wonderful sense of the relationship between the two girls and the ease with which they investigate these strange events. What I particularly loved in this book was getting more of a sense of the character of Hazel, and gaining an insight into her sense of alienation while learning a little more of her cultural background.
The depiction of Hong Kong was exciting and I think marks a real shift in the series. It was lovely to see Hazel coming into her own a little, and Daisy placed in the role so often assigned to her partner.
Another fantastic adventure.

‘The List’ – Patricia Forde

I’m finding it increasingly hard to not be too dismissive of books marketed as middle-grade simply because I’m so far away from the target age of the intended readership. Sometimes, a story comes along that just carries you away regardless of age and though this wasn’t quite there it was a story that I can see appealing to many readers.

John Noa (obvious parallels) is not a man we know much about until later on in the story. However we are told that he is the founder of the new community, Ark, and that he has made many changes to this new society to help them adjust to this future world. He’s no genial gentleman though – his actions throughout the story hint at a steely determination and a willingness to do anything he deems necessary to carry his plans to fruition.

The focus on words is what drew me, and it’s an obvious link to want to feel for the main character Letta whose job is to record the few words prescribed as permissible to use under List. Far too young to be placed in the position she is, her refusal to turn her back on an injured boy leads to some dangerous meetings that have her questioning everything she’s been led to believe.

Throughout, there were many echoes of other well-known stories but I don’t think this is a problem per se. My main issue with the plot was that it was quite predictable and that we never seemed to get a fully-developed sense of the world/people in it.

‘Shadow Weaver’ – MarcyKate Connolly

Emmeline has a skill, one which terrifies those around her. She can talk to Shadows, and manipulate them to her own purposes. Since she was little this has been a source of comfort to her, though it scares everyone in her house. When her family prepare to let her be taken to the mysterious Lady Aisling who says she can cure such children, Emmeline believes she has to run.

We follow Emmeline on her adventure as she journeys away from her home. She meets Lucas, a young man with his own talent. The question, however, is who can Emmeline trust?

I had suspicions throughout the story and there’s no getting away from the fact that you get what you are expecting. In spite of the reader probably guessing that Emmeline will be betrayed in the worst possible way, the story is well-told and I think younger readers will empathise with Emmeline’s situation.

Thank you NetGalley for sending the advance copy in exchange for my review.

‘Mistletoe and Murder’ – Robin Stevens

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong return…and I can’t fault it. I’ve got rather a soft spot for these two, and i’m pleased to say that Mistletoe and Murder offers more of what I love about this series. This time the girls go to spend Christmas with Daisy’s brother, Bertie. Unfortunately, the girls’ habit for getting involved in murder and mayhem continues apace as they find themselves embroiled in another investigation.

The relationship between the two is somewhat akin to Holmes and Watson, and there’s a certain charm in the recreation of 1930’s Cambridge. I also admit to having a bit of a soft spot for the Christmas setting which creates a fairly cosy feel for a book involving a number of deaths.

In case you hadn’t grasped this yet, I love these books and this is yet another great addition to the series. I liked the involvement of our second Society, though I fear Alex and George’s involvement is going to cause issues later.

‘Nevermore:The Trials of Morrigan Crow’ – Jessica Townsend

A recent visit from my sister-in-law had us talking books – and she was raving about a book she’d heard about from several friends. She said it was flying off the shelves in Australia, and the buzz about this book was amazing. It was only later on that she remembered the title…Nevermoor.

Having been granted an ARC by NetGalley, I was so disappointed that the digital copy I received was nearly impossible to read. I persevered through chapter 1, and loved it, but didn’t feel up to the task of reading the whole book in that way…so I made myself wait until publication to be able to read it properly.

Film rights for this have already been snapped up, and it has – perhaps inevitably – drawn comparisons with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. However, it struck me as a much more assured story, darker in some ways and more universal.

Nevermore tells the story of Morrigan Crow, a young girl who is cursed. She was born on Eventide (the unluckiest day of the year), and is destined to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday. Throughout her short life, her father has apologised for her existence, and she is used to being blamed by those around her for everything that goes wrong.

At this early stage in the book you can’t help but wonder where this is going, but then Morrigan is given a way out…the rather strangely titled Jupiter North offers to act as her patron. He wants her to become part of the Wundrous Society, a prestigious organisation that admits few members. In order to become part of this elite, Morrigan has to successfully pass four trials, competing against some of her country’s most talented peers. With no discernible talent, Morrigan is up against it.

The world-building in this story is magical. Morrigan’s new home of the Hotel Deucalion and the magnificent Magnificat, Fen, were enchanting. There’s an evident cinematic quality to this, and a rather whimsical tone to the writing. The settings are easy to picture, and I really can’t wait to see how this goes down with my youngest son who’s just about the right age to – I hope – be entranced by this.

My only gripe is that now there’s another series that I’m desperate to read…

‘The Empty Grave’ – Jonathan Stroud

I was so impatient for this, and found myself desperate to finish it while being reluctant to get to the end. No more? There’s options, and I’m certain we could dip further into Lockwood & co and what happens to them following this book…yet there’s something bittersweet about knowing that there could still be a story to tell and not getting it.

We open fully aware that this is going to be a humdinger of a case. Lucy admits that this case is their biggest yet, and it has far-reaching consequences.
The dynamics between Lockwood, Holly, George and Lucy remain fresh and funny. They are quickly caught up in an investigation into possibly the biggest upset of the series…the exact situation regarding Penelope Fittes. I didn’t see this coming, and it was ripe for exciting scenes on the other side, battles and ghostly goings-on.

For me, there were two strands that were focused on in this book that just caught me by the heart-strings and tugged over and over again. It may be a story about ghosts, but I wanted Lucy and Lockwood together. Their attraction was even more obvious here, and I was excited to see how he opened up to her. His backstory and the details surrounding his family were just what was required, and though it’s been all too obvious how they feel about each other I like that Stroud has kept this under the surface.

Oddly the love story that has most impact for me in this series is that surrounding Lucy and the skull. From the moment she could hear its vile mutterings we’ve known Lucy and the skull share a special bond. He is a character crucial to events but the kind of character who entertains and infuriates in equal measure. His comments towards Lockwood certainly show his feelings for Lucy, and this book was all about whether she’d trust him. How can a spirit character who spends his time chained to a jar be the character I’m most engaged by? Simple…his actions later in the book were just beautiful. That glimpse on the windowsill at the end is just enough for me to hope that his actions weren’t in vain.

‘Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Castle’ – Gabrielle Kent

Alfie Bloom’s life is dull. Dull and lonely, and this summer is set to be the most boring yet. All of that changes when he is summoned to the bizarre offices of mysterious solicitor, Caspian Bone, where he discovers he has inherited a castle full of wonders that has been sealed for centuries. Alfie is astounded to learn he was born in that very castle six hundred years ago during a magical timeslip. There, Orin Hopcraft, the last of the druids hid an ancient magic inside him, which others seek but should never be used. With the help of his cousins Madeleine and Robin, and Artan the flying bearskin rug, Alfie must keep the magic from terrifying adversaries and ensure that the secrets of Hexbridge castle stay secret, forever!

From the moment he arrives at Hexbridge Castle Alfie gets the feeling that this is a good place. However, it’s clear that there are secrets being hidden…and that they involve his new head teachers.

This is an exciting read for younger readers, with just a hint of terror. There are elements of the novel that can be found in a number of other popular stories for this age-group, but it doesn’t seem overly-similar . Great fun, and the events were left in a good place for book two.

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, and for Alfie that is certainly the case!

 

‘Witchtown’ – Cory Putman Oakes

When I saw this on NetGalley I, along with many others I would imagine, was expecting lots of details about witchcraft and perhaps some focus on exploring how it impacted on people’s lives in this imagined future. I got it, but not quite in the way I expected.

Macie and her mother, Aubra, move into his safe Haven called Witchtown. It is a safe community for those ostracised from the rest of the world when their talents become known. Sadly, it’s the latest mark in this pair’s thieving trail. Only this time, things are different.

Macie has always felt rather reliant on her mother. As a Void (someone with no magic) Macie has depended on her mother’s Natural ability to protect her. This leaves her vulnerable as she can rely on no-one. Yet we are told that in their last residence Macie did exactly that, and it started off what can best be described as an unstoppable source of tension.

Macie is a character who comes into her own in this, with the help of new friends Talya and Kellan. She learns more about who she is, what she wants from her life and what it might cost her to achieve it. Even though her mother is depicted in a rather caricature fashion, there’s something rewarding about watching Macie take a stand against what she’s been told her entire life.

Though there’s some interest in watching Macie learn the truth about herself (which we suspect from quite early on), there’s a lot that just doesn’t add up and this is, ultimately, frustrating.