I utterly failed at MiddleGradeMarch this year and finally read one of the Horrible Histories books. I’ll consider that a win! Let me talk about that/those books for two seconds and then I’ll link some of my favorite MiddleGrade Reads from prior years to make up for my total lack of features.
I think it’s important (and getting more difficult) to find good and age appropriate Middle Grade books so I do try to participate every year. March was busy though 🤷♀️
So I bought a Horrible Histories book for my niece called Dark Knights and Dingy Castles, and it was just about everything I’ve come to expect from these books. Tons of good facts, funny illustrations, and thankfully not dumbed down too much for the age group. Kids love gross facts and there’s definitely some poop involved. The illustration above shows mad cows and a guy peeing, but are you going to forget crenels vs merlons after that?
I think it’s great how the illustrations are goofy but also help with recall. Heck knows I don’t remember dry historical reading.
Long story short this one talks all about tournaments, brave and cowardly knights, castles, sieges, and a ton more. It’s great. These books have been around forever (1997 this one) and they have staying power for a reason! 100% recommend for the age group and/or anyone who wants to read horrible history for fun
I also wanted to link a few of my MG favorites over the years. Obviously there’s Fablehaven and Skulduggery Pleasant and all the “regular” MG favorites, but let’s look at a relatively diverse list of some of the indies and small press MG books that I’ve loved over the past few years!
Geanna Culbertson is one of my favorite people in the indie and young reader community, you can read an amazing author interview I did with her here where we talk all about age appropriateness and her lovely MG series Crisanta Knight. I reviewed the first few of them on here too back in the day. Princesses saving the day, fairy tales, and girl power, heck yeah
A really cool little book by an Indian author is Asha and the Spirit Bird. A girl is guided through an adventure possibly by the spirit of her grandmother to save the family farm. It is a beautiful story set in rural India and I loved it endlessly
The White Fox is by Chinese author Chen Jiatong and now the first two books have been translated into English. It’s sad at times and well done in all regards as a fox goes on an adventure after watching his parents die
Dealing with anxiety, family addiction, parental strain, and a lot of other things at a completely age appropriate level, is one of my favorite MG books EVER: The Wild Path by Sarah Baughman. I love the magic wild horses and not so magic actual horses that the main character uses to hold on to magic in a difficult time of change
Last but not least is another of my favorite MG series: The Crowns of Croswald by D.E. Night. She has so much magical artwork and interactive things for this great series that’s HP with a lot more girl power and cute dragons. Ivy Lovely is out to solve a curse and prove her heritage as she works her way through a magical school of discovery and beyond. Um…apparently I have to upload my reviews for books one and two but trust me, they’re lovely books. Here’s a link to check them out
What are your favorite MG books? Have you read any of these??
Happy weekend to you all and welcome back to the Sunday Brunch Series! Episode 26 features Thomas M. Kane, author of many scholarly books and articles as well as the fantasy series Mara of the League!
He was kind enough to join me today to talk about Mara, Cold War history, his time writing gaming material, and tons more!
Without further delay, here he is ⚔️🥞
Welcome to the Sunday Brunch Series! As an introduction, can you tell everyone an interesting fact about yourself that isn’t in your author bio?
🎤 I used to live with a cat who ate paper. He figured out which button to press to make my computer printer eject sheets of it, so whenever he finished with one page he could help himself to another.
🍳What’s your brunch order today?
🎤 Pancakes sound good!
🍳So you also published gaming material? I was interested in learning more about your transition from gaming supplements, to role playing for students, to eventually lecturing on military exercises?
🎤 Yes, I broke into professional writing by publishing articles for role-playing games in Dragon magazine in the 1980s. Roger Moore, who was then editor at Dragon, was incredibly supportive. By the early 1990s, I was writing adventures and supplements for a wide variety of game systems, notably Shadowrun, Cyberpunk. GURPS, Top Secret, Talislanta, Ars Magica and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
A lot has changed in the gaming world. However, I’m thrilled to add that some of my work is still in print. I’m especially pleased to say that Atlas Games is still offering the Cyberpunk and Ars Magica adventures I wrote for them. Atlas encourages an original approach to writing gaming scenarios, with emphasis on character development. My work for Atlas includes The Chrome Berets, a Cyberpunk adventure in which characters wage guerrilla warfare. Greenwar, another Cyberpunk scenario featuring corporate takeovers and South of the Sun, an Ars Magica sourcebook about the legendary kingdom of Prester John.
I also designed wargames for Strategy and Tactics magazine and Command. When I started teaching politics at the University of Hull, I developed a module (i.e., a class) called The Nature of War, which dealt with the human side of warfare. To give students a taste of the confusion and complexity surrounding military command. I ran a week-long simulation of the World War Two German attack on Tobruk. Students took the part of leaders on the opposing sides and spent a week writing battle plans. We then worked out what we thought would have happened if they had implemented those plans in real life. The students often spied on the opposing team and attempted other hijinks which added to the fun.
Meanwhile, as you mentioned, I participated in a Royal Navy wargame called Operation Tropical Endeavour. I also observed a simulated battle involving real tanks at the US Army’s National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin. The NTC trip was especially valuable from a writing point of view, since it was an opportunity to see what military operations look like when you are in the middle of them. Or, perhaps, not to see—one truth which Fort Irwin demonstrates is that modern battles take place across great distances, and that the enemy is usually out of sight.
🍳You also travelled a ton while living in the UK, do you recall having a favorite destination?
🎤 When I was growing up, I really wanted to explore a cave. In Europe, I finally got to. Being deep inside the earth is an amazing experience. Perhaps the most memorable cavern I visited was the Cueva de la Pileta in southern Spain, which features paintings that are approximately 20,000 years old. The paintings are extremely detailed and realistic—more realistic, in fact, than the relatively recent prehistoric artwork found in other parts of the cave.
🍳Let’s talk about your series, Mara of the League! You likened the Waan conflict to the real-life Cold War, in which to summarize, neither the U.S. nor Russia really wanted to attack each other directly. How did the war translate into a fantasy series for you?
🎤 You are right, that’s one of the most important similarities. Mara’s homeland, the League, is locked in a rivalry with a country called Waan. Both sides know that if they wage a full-scale war, they risk devastating the countryside and triggering a civilization-ending famine. Therefore, they spy on each other and stir up trouble for one another’s allies while trying to avoid direct confrontation.
This standoff has lasted over a century. Most League citizens expect it to go on forever. However, as the story progresses, Mara becomes convinced that Waan’s leaders see the stalemate as no more than a temporary obstacle, and that they are working to engineer a situation in which it can invade the League at an acceptable cost. The question then becomes whether she can convince her rulers to fight back against Waan’s plot in time.
So, the Mara of the League series is mainly an adventure story. The first three books involve espionage and political intrigue. Book Four features military strategy and battlefield action. The series also devotes a lot of attention to Mara’s thoughts and to her attempts to make sense of her world. Like the university class I mentioned earlier, this series is very much about the human side of things.
Anyone who enjoys exciting stories can enjoy this series. Those who are interested in history may notice that Mara is facing situations which resemble crises which erupted in real life. Fans of Cold War thrillers may notice that I’m taking a different approach from many authors in that genre. Sir John Hackett set the tone for many Cold-War-gone-hot books with his novel The Third World War (spoilers ahead).
The Third World War depicts a scenario in which weak Soviet leaders stumble into an ill-considered war with the West. The numerically superior Soviet forces do considerable damage at first, but Western defenders thwart them with superior technology and skill. Soviet leaders then fire one nuclear missile, but when the West retaliates with a single nuclear strike of its own, the Soviet government collapses.
Hackett’s novel is enthusiastic about military hardware. It pays relatively little attention to the ways in which a third world war would touch the lives of its characters, and of everyone on earth. Although Hackett suggests a political scenario which could bring war about, he depicts the Soviet leaders making hasty decisions, with few motives beyond staying in power. He glosses over the fact that the Soviet Union was founded upon a belief system which held that war to the death with the liberal nations was a historical necessity, and which gave them a compelling reason to prepare for such a conflict in a long-term and systematic way. Other thrillers (e.g., Ralph Peters’ Red Army) present the Soviet Union as a more formidable opponent, but even they stick to tried-and-true scenarios of Soviet numbers going head-to-head against Western hardware. A great deal of Western military planning rested on the assumption that something like this would happen in real life. Real-life international relations scholars tended to downplay the importance of Communist ideology as well.
Russia’s mistakes in its 2022 invasion of Ukraine makes Hackett’s depiction of Soviet incompetence seem believable. On the other hand, the increasingly visible ideological splits in contemporary politics remind us that Soviet leaders may have sincerely believed in their version of Communism. Fortunately, we will never know whether Hackett’s vision was realistic.
The Mara of the League series takes advantage of its fantasysetting to get away from arguments about what would actually have happened if the Soviet Union had attacked the West and explores what might have happened in an ideologically-driven conflict where the antagonists know what they are doing.
🍳Whew. What would you say to someone who reads that and says “Wow, I’d love to read the Mara books but I know nothing about this portion of history”?
🎤No background knowledge is required. The story begins with an eleven-year-old girl trying to save her family. She doesn’t know much about war or politics yet. Readers learn along with her.
🍳What prompted you to start Mara off as a tween, and grow her up pretty quickly throughout the series?
🎤As an adult in Book Three, Mara warns her country’s ruler of an attack no one else sees coming. Many think she is wrong, and that following her advice could provoke a civilization-ending war. Her experiences at twelve and seventeen helped her see threats which others overlooked and motivated her to want to defend herself at all costs.
[[She also got used to standing her ground when people thought she was wrong as a young kid! My favorite theme so far is trusting your own logic and intuitions]]
🍳You took an unconventional view of witches which I really liked, and brought a rather realistic fear of magic into the first book. Why did you choose that take, vs, say, bringing real magic into the series? Did it fit into the “flintlock fantasy style” a bit more?
🎤So glad you liked it! Mara spends her youth confronting her own country’s injustices. So, much of the story concerns the ways societies respond to dissent, the ways people turn against each other, and the ways powerful institutions keep control. The fact that Mara’s government did not need any evidence of real magic to accuse her aunt of witchcraft was part of the point.
However, real magic may exist in Mara’s world. There’s a scene in which her father claims to have seen it. When I came up with the idea for this series, I planned to include working magic. I planned to have it play a role in warfare similar to the role played in real life by nuclear weapons. As I started to write, I found I could tell the story I wanted to tell relying solely on the real-life problems of feeding armies in the early gunpowder era, so the magic weapons turned out to be unnecessary
🍳I loved the audiobooks and thank you for the chance to listen! How did you connect with your narrator? Was it a positive overall experience bringing Mara to audio?
🎤Again, so honored by your kind words! I beta-read Stevie Marie’s excellent fae-based fantasy Heart of Darkness. A few months later, she posted on Twitter that she planned to start narrating audiobooks. By good fortune, I saw the tweet and responded to it. I am thrilled with her work, and I’ve gotten lots of encouraging feedback. I’m incredibly grateful to have connected with her.
I’m currently listening to Stevie’s Kingdom of Acatalec. It’s a science fiction adventure about a feisty pilot who competes in an illegal drone race to save her friend. Strongly recommend.
🍳Have you read anything amazing recently?
🎤A few months ago, I discovered Gillian Flynn’s thrillers Sharp Objects, Dark Places and Gone Girl. I found her characters relatable and really enjoyed the way she explores their thoughts and feelings. Also very much admire the way Flynn crafts sentences. Unfortunately, she hasn’t written much, so I went looking for other authors who take a similar approach. This led me to discover Paula Hawkins, who is also brilliant. Just started Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, and it looks as if it is going to be fantastic too.
🍳Thanks so much for taking the time to interview! The last question is always an open forum, so please take this space to talk about anything I missed, or anything in the world that you want to share!
🎤Now that Mara’s series is complete, I’ve written a book about her mother Abigail. Abigail is a seventy-eight-year-old lawyer. As the war between Waan and the League rages around her, she comes out of retirement to defend a teen accused of murder. This fantasy legal thriller is titled The People vs. Abigail Bennet, and it will be available for sale in early 2023.
I also invite everyone to subscribe to my free monthly newsletter at thomasmkane.com. Every issue includes original articles or short fiction. The next issue features a return to Life in a Cup, a series of humorous tales and personal reflections based around experiences I’ve had drinking coffee.
There you have it! Thank you as always for tuning into Sunday Brunch, and do let us know if you enjoyed this interview!
Thanks to the author for letting me listen to and review the audiobook of The Witches of Crannock Dale! I’ll also be interviewing Thomas Kane on the Sunday Brunch Series soon so keep an eye out for that 🍳🎤
Bookish Quick Facts:
Title: The Witches of Crannock Dale
Series: Mara of the League #1
Author: Thomas M. Kane (Nar. Stevie Marie)
Publisher & Release: Self Published, 2019
Length: 288 pages (11h48m run time)
Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ yes for middle grade fans!
Synopsis: Spies. Witch-hunts. A little girl who asks dangerous questions.
When invaders threaten, eleven-year-old Mara must grow up fast. All her life, her homeland has been on the brink of war with the Commonwealth of Waan. But as bells warn of approaching enemies, her own realm’s knights arrest her favorite aunt for witchcraft. This prompts her to rethink much of what she has been taught about her country. When adults ignore her points, she teams up with unlikely friends in a bid to rescue her aunt and protect her village. Mara must make sense of grown-up politics if she is to save the people she loves.
This is Book One of the political fantasy series Mara of the League.
I thought that for a middle-grade, this one checks pretty much all the boxes for me. I can’t speak for the rest of the series yet but Mara is 11 here, and the content stays 100% age audience appropriate. Although she is 17 in book two I believe it remains a middle grade age level throughout.
Mara is a very smart and brave little girl who eventually becomes a spy for her country in later books. Here in Witches we are introduced to Mara and her family and learn about the plots and political conflicts happening in the world. Told in the first person point of view of an 11 year old, I think it’s a marvel that Kane had me interested in the imposter bandit king and how the war will eventually unfurl.
Mara is an easy character to root for as she becomes involved in local issues. I liked her brother too and the rest of the family.
As I’m obviously not 12 anymore (🤣🤣🤣), when reviewing for middle grade, I tend to look more at whether the book is fast paced (yes), interesting (yes), repetitive (no), and age appropriate (yes). I think it will hold their attention well. It’s also extremely well edited for a self published book so that’s helpful!
Are the themes something I would want my little niece reading? Yes, absolutely. Mara has to navigate complicated adult politics while still doing what she thinks is right. She also learns that sometimes rules do have a time and place in society, and that actions can have severe and unintended consequences. I like the sense of responsibility she has towards family and even town & country.
The issue I had is that the audio itself did not hold my interest, likely due to the Authors Direct app and a few challenges that it presented. That was an experience related issue though and I think Stevie Marie was a pretty solid, clearly spoken narrator. I did end up reading on Kindle Unlimited though and was then lucky enough to see the map and drawings.
Overall: I’m excited to keep reading to see how Mara and the war develop. It’s a solid middle grade read that I think YA can enjoy too since Mara ages fairly quickly in the books. Stay tuned for the author interview!
Yesterday here in WNY another person with terrorist ties made their way to the area and did something terrible. First the Buffalo massacre, now this attack on Salman Rushdie, it seems insane that crazies are coming from hours away to do their business here. My head is in knots and I am probably going to write a separate post about the actual vs figurative power of words, something weighing heavily.
So…. Dark Days
There’s not much to say about the book that I haven’t said about the series already. I would reiterate a point I made that Landy definitely expected the readers to age with the protagonist, as the content and themes are getting a little darker in each book.
Bookish Quick Facts:
Title: Dark Days
Series: Skulduggery Pleasant #4
Author: Derek Landy
Publisher & Release: HarperCollins Children’s Books, January 2010
Length: 414 pages
Rate & Recommend: I do like the series, and the audios.
A Quick Note on the audio: 8:08 narrated again by Rupert Degas. This is his last in the series apparently, sadly. I love his narration. This installment dropped the musical soundtracks which made it feel a lot shorter
Skulduggery Pleasant is gone, sucked into a parallel dimension overrun by the Faceless Ones. If his bones haven’t already been turned to dust, chances are he’s insane, driven out of his mind by the horror of the ancient gods. There is no official, Sanctuary-approved rescue mission. There is no official plan to save him.
But Valkyrie’s never had much time for plans.
The problem is, even if she can get Skulduggery back, there might not be much left for him to return to. There’s a gang of villains bent on destroying the Sanctuary, there are some very powerful people who want Valkyrie dead, and as if all that wasn’t enough it looks very likely that a sorcerer named Darquesse is going to kill the world and everyone on it.
Skulduggery is gone. All our hopes rest with Valkyrie. The world’s weight is on her shoulders, and its fate is in her hands.
These are dark days indeed.
The books in general are getting darker and Valkyrie is now training and fighting with necromancy. While Skulduggery was gone she was working with a necromancer who is trying to recruit her to their cause. I like the Shadow magic, it’s a little more interesting than the elemental magic and going forward we will have to see which branch of magic she chooses to specialize in.
There’s a found family theme too that I like between Valkyrie and Tanith. We got to see the real Kenspeckle.
The stakes are getting higher and the villains are getting nastier. This was still action packed and fast paced, just darker. There is still plenty of humor too, like naming the bad guy club and Skulduggery’s changing 💀
I think the funniest part was how the zombies couldn’t stop squabbling over dumb things and were absolutely not terrifying at all. Poor guys lolol.
And Valkyrie got a boyfriend! Haha ish. Her role is starting to change too as she has finally established herself as much more than a sidekick, able to seek her own resources and set some of her own missions.
With visuals of parental death, torture, and more detailed violence that does balance well with some more hopeful themes, I would still recommend this book to upper middle grade. The first three would be fine for almost any age.
Here’s some interesting reading I found about the series not taking off in the U.S. originally and was reissued with the new covers, in 2018
I am going to keep the next Derek Landy reviews a little more vague since I try really hard not to put spoiler content here.
Bookish Quick Facts:
Title: The Faceless Ones
Series: Skulduggery Pleasant, #3
Author: Derek Landy
Publisher & Release: HarperCollins, April 2009
Length: 432 pages
Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐⭐✨ if you even remotely liked the first two books yes:
Audio: 7hours, 47 min from HarperCollins. Narrated by Rupert Degas! I’m loving the audio experience.
Here’s the synopsis from GoodReads:
The third bone-breaking, belly-busting adventure in the series that puts the “funny” back in, um, funny series. That didn’t really work, did it?
If you’ve read the previous Skulduggery books then you know what the Faceless Ones are — and if you know what the Faceless Ones are, then you can probably take a wild guess that things in this book are going to get AWFULLY sticky for our skeletal hero and his young sidekick. If you haven’t read the previous Skulduggery books then what are you doing reading this? Go and read them right now, so that you know what all that stuff in the previous paragraph was about. Done? Good. So now you’re on tenterhooks too, desperately awaiting the answers to all your questions, and instead you’re going to have to wait to read the book. Sorry about that.
So I am now three books into my Skulduggery Pleasant audio binge and have no regrets. I think Landy finally hit his stride here in book three because The Faceless Ones is far, far better than the first two! Another action packed story with better writing, nonstop action, mature villains, and an engaging storyline with more depth now.
I think the humor got good reception in book one so he ended up overdoing it in book two. Here he finally hit a good balance. There was a great mix of humor and serious content, with an overall darker tone.
Similar to other middle grade / young reader series like HP, Landy is getting into tougher subject matter as his protagonist gets older. Valkyrie is (I think) 14 now. I like watching series grow up with their characters and I hope Landy continues this trend.
Continuing with the ever present theme of moral grayness, there’s a clear line between the good and bad guys in this one. The bad guys got more serious though and even the good guys are willing to get dirty. There’s no happy ending, some significant character deaths, and the Dr is truly laying into Skulduggery for putting Valkyrie in danger. At the end of the day she is literally just a child and I like that Landy isn’t letting Skulduggery off the hook so easily as a morally gray character wreaking havoc on a child’s life.
Throughout the book we get hints of dark times to come, concluding with a surprisingly bleak ending.
The only thing missing? I wish Landy would do more with Ireland as the setting! Why not engage the middle grade audience with Irish things! The book could take place in Chicago or Berlin or Vancouver for all we know except he keeps mentioning Dublin, and it seems like a terrible waste.
Overall this is by far my favorite of the series so far. It stays age appropriate. Great audio too with Rupert Degas still narrating; he said he stays for the first four books so that’s exciting. Definitely recommend for Middle-grade/YA
Here are a few favorite quotes!
“You don’t treat me like a child”
He smiled. “Of course I do, but you seem to have this ridiculous notion that being treated like a child means to be treated with less respect than an adult
I’m sophisticated, charming, suave and debonair, Professor. But I have never claimed to be civilized.
I will heal your wounds,” he said, “but I will not facilitate your battles.
Whewww I am getting burned out on writing reviews this month, thankfully I’m almost caught up!
As a “fun for all ages” middle grade read I like the Skulduggery Pleasant series quite a bit. Playing With Fire is a fast paced, snarky sequel that I jumped into right after finishing the first book.
Let’s get into it!
Bookish Quick Facts:
Title: Playing With Fire
Series: Skulduggery Pleasant #2
Author: Derek Landy
Publisher & Release: HarperCollins, May 2008
Length: 400 pages
Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ for fans of the first book! *Not a standalone*
Here’s the synopsis from GoodReads:
Skulduggery and Valkyrie are facing a new enemy: Baron Vengeous, who is determined to bring back the terrifying Faceless Ones and is crafting an army of evil to help him. Added to that, Vengeous is about to enlist a new ally (if he can raise it from the dead): the horrible Grotesquery, a very unlikable monster of legend.
Once Vengeous is on the loose, dead bodies and vampires start showing up all over Ireland. Now pretty much everybody is out to kill Valkyrie, and the daring detective duo faces its biggest challenge yet.
But what if the greatest threat to Valkyrie is just a little closer to home?
I have to admit the book became a bit repetitive after reading the first two back to back. The audio was once again entertaining – and Rupert Degas said hi on Instagram so that was cool – but again, the music is also getting slightly less fun after hearing it so many times in short succession.
I want to keep reading but I’m going to space the next book or two out a bit.
Not to say it’s bad though. Playing With Fire had more one liners and banter and wit, plus we got a little more motivation from the individual “good guy” characters. I liked seeing a little more of what keeps Skulduggery going, and how Valkyrie is regretting her time spent away from home too.
There were quite a few bad guys and henchmen in this one. I couldn’t keep their names, abilities, affiliations straight, and that’s totally on me. It didn’t detract too much and I loved the Billy Ray jokes.
The evil also felt a lot more cartoonish in this one, even for a middle-grade series. I did like the continuing theme of good vs bad vs gray zone though as the team navigated shifting alliances.
Overall: age appropriate, action packed, funny, and seriously grim at times. I can see these books being fun for all ages. There are a few gory horror elements but a strong middle grader would have no problem with these books.
I stuck with the audio as my Libby only has that available. Rupert Degas continues to delight and I’d definitely recommend that route if it is available.
Lastly, here are a few favorite quotes:
If you don’t see me in five minutes, then I’ve probably died a very brave and heroic death. Oh and don’t touch the radio–I’ve got it tuned right where I want it and I don’t want you messing that up.
‘Only a heathen would bring a gun to a sword fight
‘And only a moron would bring a sword to a gunfight’
Bravery, after all, isn’t the absence of fear. Bravery is the acknowledgement and the conquering of fear
When I polled my friends for their favorite books, one of my bookstagram buddies responded that her whole family loves Skulduggery Pleasant!
It sounded a little silly. A middle grade novel with fantasy/horror/humor elements about a snarky skeletal detective. I have seen it recommended before and said ok why not, I could use a laugh!
The audiobook didn’t disappoint. I absolutely loved it enough to put holds on the next few books. I’m told that the series goes downhill and gets PC/political later on so I am a little bit wary, but plan on enjoying the books until it gets to that point!
Bookish Quick Facts:
Title: Skulduggery Pleasant
Series: Skulduggery Pleasant #1
Author: Derek Landy
Publisher & Release: HarperCollins, April 2007
Length: 400 pages:
Rate & Recommend: 4.5⭐ for fans of middle grade-YA. (Remember that I rate these books mainly off of age appropriateness and overall enjoyment)
—as well as ally, protector, and mentor of Stephanie Edgley, a very unusual and darkly talented twelve-year-old.
These two alone must defeat an all-consuming ancient evil.
The end of the world?
Over his dead body.
There are a lot of books bridging the Middlegrade to YA reading gap and this is one of them. A mature 10 year old could read or listen to this, or an adult could find a few things to laugh at too.
It’s funny, very funny, and I think the narrator brought out the banter and personalities of the characters really well. Some of the dialogue is clunky but for a debut novel I really liked the characters.
Stephanie didn’t seem to have a lot to be upset with in her life, but she is seeking adventure and finds it after her uncle dies and a skeleton in disguise shows up at the reading of his will.
Between Stephanie’s adventure sense and Skulduggery’s one liners and absolute lack of any idea of how to handle a 12 year old, they make quite a pair. I say again how much I love the banter and how awkward Skul could be
The book moves at an appropriately fast pace for middle grade fantasy. The fighting got a bit repetitive but the story moved quickly and I was absolutely not bored at all. I think that 10-16 age group would devour this book
The biggest thing I noted that set this one apart from it’s genre peers is how dark it got at times. Age appropriately dark, but still dark. Where other books in this genre stay fairly light on tough themes, this went into grief and torture, betrayal and madness, among other things scattered between the jokes and lighter content.
I liked it for that contrast of light and dark, highlighting the gray zones and debating who the “good guys” are.
Here are a small few of my favorite quotes:
I’m placing you under arrest for murder, conspiracy to commit murder and, I don’t know, possibly littering
A living skeleton isn’t enough for you, is it? What does it take to impress young people these days?
To betray is to act against, I just haven’t acted at all
Content wise – there’s very little language, I think he says “damn” once. There is no romantic content and the dark content stays pretty age appropriate which I love and find necessary in order to rate these books! Any one liners targeted at adults are going to go straight over the little one’s heads, even I hardly caught them.
Overall: I would definitely recommend this as a fun, fast paced read or listen for anyone interested in middle grade/ early YA books
A quick note on the audio: approximately 7 hours, narrated by Rupert Degas. I loved his accent so much and found it perfect for the text, characters, banter, etc. There’s music at the end of each chapter that set the mood for the next chapter, corny but fun. 100% going to listen to a few of these because I need a laugh in my life and if nothing else, I was laughing out loud for sure 😂
Hi everyone! As promised this week, I have a special interview to bring to you guys! Have you read the Crisanta Knight books?? If not, I guarantee you will want to after reading this amazing interview!
I want to take a quick second to thank Geanna Culbertson for taking the time to answer a few questions about her writing, content, content in general, and plans going forward! I originally became a fan of her clean content and writing style after winning a giveaway that introduced me to the books, and even more so once we incidentally got to chatting about inappropriate content! (See Question 3)!
Alright I’m done talking, here she is!
Meet the author!
Geanna Culbertson is the award-winning author of The Crisanta Knight Series. The series follows the kids and siblings of fairytale characters, all of whom live in a magical world called “Book,” where citizens train to be the next generation of main characters in stories. The majority of this coming-of-age series is told from the empowering, sassy perspective of Cinderella’s daughter—Crisanta Knight.
Her full biography can be found on her website, here:
1) How did the Crisanta Knight books take shape for you? Did you know from the start it would be a fairytale re-imagining?
When I was a sophomore in school I took a course devoted to classic and contemporary fairytale analysis. It was a fabulous experience that I loved. Having all that exposure to the classic tales filled me with so much wonder and inspiration, and one day on my way to class the name for the school in my book series: Lady Agnue’s School for Princesses & Other Female Protagonists popped into my head. Later that week I drew out a map of the world, aka the realm of Book and I wrote the prologue and first chapter to go along with it. So that’s how it all started!
In terms of the “reimagining” aspect—I am a girl who is a big believer in the power of change and moving forward. People remake stories all the time; I want to know what happens next. Furthermore, I am someone who is extremely passionate about heroic female characters and living a life where you are always challenging yourself to be better, stronger, wiser, etc. Those qualities helped my main character of Crisanta Knight take shape.
As the plot formed, fairytales were the main backdrop, but my love of superheroes, princesses, action-packed comedy, and elaborate world-building fused with that and started to grow. The idea for the story simmered in my mind for a little while and then eventually I came to a point where I had to explore it. And so the adventure began . . .
2) I like the focus on character, identity, and friendship in the books so far! What are some of the topics and themes you think are important for girls and young women to see on-page?
At the beginning of my author journey, I set out to write a story that would inspire others the way my favorite tales have inspired me, featuring characters who balance heart, humor, and a genuine sense of honor. I always thought it was important that a great story not just be about an exciting external plot—magic, adventure, larger-than-life stakes—the true power of story has to be in the internal arc. Some themes I explore throughout my series that I think are very important for girls, young women, and all people are: self-acceptance, trust, taking fate into your own hands, making proactive choices, fighting for what matters to you, understanding, respect, perseverance, and more. However, the overarching theme of my series is CHANGE. To paraphrase a line in Book One, change is a beautiful thing because within it is the opportunity to do anything and become anyone. I hope that as my readers experience the series, they are inspired by all these themes to try and live as fiercely, wisely, kindly, and optimistically as possible.
3) We talked a bit about “clean reads” and your philosophy on content, could you talk about that a bit?
There is a word I came up with in college: “scandalosity.” It’s a term that encompasses inappropriate, intimate things that take a movie from PG-13 to R, if you catch my drift. I tried to put that word into one of my college English papers lol, but the TA said she’d dock me a letter grade. Anyway, my books are scandalosity free. It’s not my thing, neither is extreme violence or gore—basically anything that would cause adults to want to cover the eyes of their under 18 children.
I think that there is a lot of unnecessary violence and scandalosity in stories these days. You don’t need to rely on that to create something compelling or intrigue an audience. Strong storylines should always take the lead and if you are going to have romantic moments, action, death, etc. it needs to serve a greater purpose and push the story forward. If it’s just being used for shock and awe, it has no point there and it is lazy writing—storytellers trying to make an impact through cheap shots.
Action and drama can be handled with style and class, and should genuinely matter to plot/character development. I once heard director David Leitch say something akin to: “You should learn as much about a character from a good action scene as from dialogue.” I agree with that. Death (the killing of characters) can also be a valid event in a story if it truly is integral to plot/character development. But again, there is no need to make it overly graphic. Like, maybe a death needs to happen, but there are many ways that it can be portrayed. No need to scar someone traumatically.
Also, if utilized in a story that targets younger audiences, death should be eased into. Take Harry Potter for example. You don’t start in Book One with characters dramatically dying left and right. The story progressively explores the themes of loss and death—each book getting more intense so audiences of different ages are eased into some of the harder moments as they grow with the characters and the scope of the story.
Romantic encounters are also fine if they meet the same criteria of being integral to plot/character development (though it’s important to note that you can get the feel of intimacy across without random boobs or whatever flying in your face). I come back to the idea of handling things with style and class i.e. the choices of how intense moments are portrayed.
I’m often quite surprised by the types of content targeting the YA and middle grade markets. I feel like every other TV channel is showing something with murder or scandalosity. However, I firmly believe that audiences of all ages want more than that. People watch those darker things because that’s what’s on; that’s what the media is putting out there the most. But there is plenty of cleaner, goodhearted programming out there that is beloved, proving my point. There just needs to be more of it.
That is what I have brought, and intend to keep bringing to the world. My stories will have action, romance, drama, and deal with intense topics—morality, loss, anger, and so forth—but they will always be handled with care, finesse, and consideration of all the above factors. Any book I ever write can be equally and appropriately enjoyed by an eleven-year-old, a twenty-five-year-old, and a seventy-two-year-old.
4) I wish I had read all the books to know where this is going, but so far (The end of book 3) you have Crisa worrying about herself before she starts worrying too much about boys! Is there hidden advice in that?
Growing up, most of my favorite stories have had male main characters. I think part of the reason for this is that while a male main character may have a love interest, that love interest/romantic relationship is never the point of his story; it is just another factor. Meanwhile, in most female-led fiction, the love interest/romantic relationship is of equal value and importance to that female protagonist’s individual journey. It shouldn’t be that way. She should come first. Most girls have more on their mind than boys. They just do. The complexities of growing up, taking ownership of your choices and goals, accepting yourself, and learning who you are and who you want to be is way more pivotal to a person than deciding which hot guy you want to end up with. So while there are romantic, shippable elements to my series, I do not belittle my female characters and their potential by limiting the scope of what they focus on to romantic entanglements.
5) What is your favorite fairytale? Do you have a favorite fairytale twist that you’ve written so far? (Mine is definitely everything you did with Aladdin, from the sarcastic cave to the flying furniture!)
In terms of my favorite fairytales—Cinderella has been close to my heart since I was very little. That’s why I made my main character Cinderella’s daughter. If we’re talking strictly about Disney interpretations of fairytales, The Princes & the Frog is one of my favorites. Then in terms of the classic, old-timey tales I have a lot of respect for Snow White because that story created the roots of the fairytale-loving culture we have today.
In terms of the twists I’ve written, that’s such a hard question!!
I have highlighted so many fairytales and classic tales in my series now—diving really deep into quite a few. For example, the majority of Book Five takes place in Camelot, so there are a lot of characters, myths, and settings I work with there. In that space, developing Merlin as a character has been really interesting, specifically regarding his relationship to Crisanta. However, as Book Eight is freshest to me, I would have to say that diving into Mulan and Alice in Wonderland lore in that novel has definitely been one of my most challenging and rewarding fairytale exploration experiences thus far. All of Book Eight really was an intense adventure to write—Toyland, Swan Lake, Rumpelstiltskin, there’s just so much!
6) Many books in the series have been nominated for and received Feathered Quill book awards (yay -congrats)!!! Can you talk about that a bit?
I feel very grateful for the many awards that different books in my series have won. In terms of Feathered Quill, I have won six awards so far. Winning such an array of awards in the last two years has been awesome—two awards for Best in Teen Fiction (13-18 years), two awards for Science Fiction/Fantasy, Best of Backlist, and The Write Companion Award for Best Overall TOP PICK (Adult, Children’s and Young Adult categories included).
Winning these awards, combined with the wide array of other awards that my series has won, is quite flattering. I think what makes me the happiest about this range though, is that it shows the huge scope of audiences that my series appeals to. I have always believed that one of the strongest elements of my series is how many different kinds of people it can connect with. If in one week I can get fan mail from a nine-year-old girl, a twenty-year-old college student, a forty-year-old woman, and a fifty-year-old father, then it means I have done my job right. Because, at the end of the day, this isn’t a story about a princess, or even fairytales. This is a story about a good-hearted, honorable person trying to figure out how to best live her life, live up to her potential, and do right by the world, the people she cares for, and herself. That’s a story anyone should be able to relate to theoretically.
7) As an author looking for feedback from reviewers and readers, what do you hope to see from those people?
I love positive reviews; I mean who doesn’t? But I particularly love it when people go into specific details about their favorite parts or moments in a book. Getting five stars is awesome, but knowing how specific jokes landed, or how twists affected my readers, what they connected with most, etc.—it is great feedback for me.
Also, I like to use a “Mario Cart” comparison when it comes to how reviews affect me (you know, the video game). So in that videogame, as you’re driving your racecar along, players can throw exploding mushrooms or other brickabrack at you. When that hits you, your car spins or you crash temporarily or slow down. That’s what negative reviews are; they don’t take you out of the game, but they can still hit you hard. Positive reviews are like the magical stars or rainbows or bonus coins that you pick up as you’re driving along. You could still keep going on fine without them, but they give you extra power and supercharge you. ☺
8) Thank you for taking the time to be interviewed! Is there anything else you’d like to talk about or add?
The Crisanta Knight Series is my beginning. I have so many other wonderful series and standalone novels coming down the line. For example, in addition to working on the Crisanta Knight finale right now, I am working on the first novel in my new “guardian angels” series that releases next year. Also, my magical, heartwarming Christmas standalone novel releases November 3, 2021—official book announcement and book trailer launching in June.
***Audiobook Two for The Crisanta Knight Series releases this summer as well.
Here is another great feature for #MiddleGradeMarch !!
Thank you so much to Chicken House for the early copy of Asha and the Spirit Bird in exchange for an honest review! All opinions are my own! This is a fast paced adventure by an Indian author, set in the Himalayas. An interesting and appropriate for ages 8+!
Title: Asha and the Spirit Bird
Author: Jasbinder Bilan
Publisher & Release: Chicken House, February 2019
Length: 288 pg
Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ sure for middle graders and fans of!
Here is the synopsis from GoodReads:
Asha lives on the family farm with her mother in rural India.
Her father is away working in the city, and when the money he sends stops suddenly, a wicked aunt arrives. She’s determined to seize the property – and the treasure rumoured to be hidden on the land. Guided by a majestic bird which Asha believes to be the spirit of her grandmother, she and her best friend Jeevan embark on a journey to the city, across the Himalayas, to find her father and save her home …
Asha and the Spirit Bird is a wonderful middle grade adventure story about a young girl on a journey to reunite her family.
I just thought this was a great story, focused on friendship, family, and Faith. Little Asha is unshakeable in her beliefs and convictions. It was touching watching her learn to trust herself, her friend Jeevan, and her spirit bird, as they journey across the Himalayasl together.
When debt collectors come crashing through their small Himalayan farmhouse, Asha knows her mama is in trouble. Her Papa left for the city months ago but stopped writing and sending money – where could he be? Is he alive?
With the help of her best friend, Jeevan, she runs away to find her father. Asha is a terrifically brave little girl, with the magic power to sense and be guided by her ancestors. I loved the Nanijee storyline, and how Asha learned to trust herself and her intuitions as well as embrace her family’s heritage.
There is plenty of danger and action in the plot too, from wolves to kidnappers. I read the whole book in one sitting and think that kids will definitely enjoy this one from cover to cover.
The setting is well done too, with beautiful descriptions of the mountains, scenery, animals. Weather and smells and sounds are also described. I think my favorite parts were at the temple in the mountains, and how Asha’s little mango tree symbolized her faith and hope as well.
One HUGE thing that the book did well, and I think is absolutely essential in an ethnic book published in North America … is a glossary of foreign words and phrases. I hate feeling alienated when authors throw foreign terms and words in without translating. Bilan not only translates but offers explanations, which is absolutely amazing and so much appreciated.
Overall: With clean content, no language and only one suggested hint as a possible future crush, this is a great story of friendship, faith, and family. Fully recommend for any young reader!
Thank you so much to the author for the early copy of Anders Reality! This one published on March 5th and is a great low/urban fantasy pick for Middle Grade March, from an indie author!
Title: Anders Reality
Author: Adam Roach
Publisher & Release: Indie, 3/5/21
Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐⚡ for the target age group!
Here is the synopsis from GoodReads:
WHAT IF FOR SOME, WHEN THEY SLEEP, THEY DON’T SIMPLY DREAM, BUT FALL INTO ANOTHER WORLD?
As “Dreamers”, they’re sworn to protect a world called Luceria and that duty has never been needed more than now. There was a time when Luceria was a beautiful magical place, but has become dark and dangerous because of The Taker.
The Taker is a Dreamer who wants the magic of Luceria for himself and wants the ability to stay there forever and rule with those Lucerians he’s turned into his own army.
For the past six months, Ander has been having nightmare like daydreams that he can’t seem to stop or get away from. He doesn’t know where to turn or who to trust and its beginning to affect every aspect of his life. On the night of his 14th birthday after spending the day being tortured by the school bully, Ander goes to bed and shortly after falling asleep, he feels like he’s falling and lands in the abandoned looking, terror filled world of Luceria.
Is this the same place as his daydreams?
Why is this happening to him?
Are there others like him on Earth who can fall into this other world?
Where has everyone gone?
Ander has more questions than answers as he begins to try and navigate not only the notion of another reality, but who he really is meant to be.
ANDERS REALITY is a YA Low-Fantasy Novel and is written for ages 10 and up.
I am reviewing this one through the lens of “appropriate for age 10+”, not so much as an adult critique! It is definitely appropriate content wise for the target age range and I think they will enjoy the story. The main character just turned 14 and in general the book does read to the young side!
When Ander is asleep, and sometimes when he is awake, he travels to an alternate land called Luceria. Eventually we learn that it used to be a wonderful and magical place, until the Taker started corrupting the world searching for a key that unlocks a strong power.
Ander and his two friends are all freshmen and he has a bully. He seems to get along with everyone else but is super sensitive and does seem to cry easily. It was fun watching that storyline resolve. He has to choose to be brave in both realms, both to defend himself at school and to choose to save Luceria.
I liked the idea overall, just had a lot of questions as an adult about the world and the inhabitants, but I think these will go over the target age range’s head.
My questions were: why cats? Why did the tether takers have to maim themselves, or were they just humans dressed like cats while the Lucerians were real cat-people? Whose heads were on stakes? Where did that whole VR Gaming thing with the tethers and available items come from? Why keep all the dreamers in pods? Oh…. What the heck, THAT guy was the bad guy? And so forth. I don’t think kids will question these things and it was appropriate length, with fast paced action for middle grade.
Overall? A good story, with high school friendships and being at odds with parents, and bully problems. A lot of kids will relate. I liked the low fantasy elements. Recommend for kids who like contemporary/urban scifi/fantasy!!