Category Archives: Young Adult

St. Griswold College for Abandoned Boys (Xavier #1)

Title: St. Griswold College for Abandoned Boys

Author: E.M. Cooper

Series: Xavier #1

Xavier never suspected life wasn’t going well—until his parents dropped him off at St. Griswold College for Abandoned Boys, and never returned. Now more or less a prisoner at the school, which is surrounded by high walls and a deadly forest, he dreams of escape, rescue, anything. But the purpose of St. Griswold is more sinister than he knows, and if he can’t get out soon, he might lose more than his life . . .

I really wanted to like this one more than I did. Angels are hit-or-miss for me (I prefer general people with wings over the various things angels bring into the picture), but I didn’t mind them here. There’s a fair amount of flying, certain fun powers, and hints Xavier is growing into something more than anyone really knows (JUST BE ABLE TO FLY, is all I ask).

The biggest problem with the book for me was the fact that I spent the entire thing really confused about the big picture. It would have helped to have the map on the front page instead of at the very end (I only noticed it after I finished the book). By default, I’m going to assume a book is set in the present-day on Earth unless informed otherwise—and the beginning of the book appears to support that. Except then we get a creepy school in a haunted forest, which turns out to be supernaturally infested with a lot of things, and a wider world where apparently telephones and computers aren’t all that common anymore. If I had to guess, this is Earth after some sort of world war, but even THAT only came up very close to the end. And the story doesn’t help by completely glossing over anything big-picture-related, which makes the very detailed focus on the immediate environs frustrating.

What HAPPENED? Is this Earth after a war? The kids are in school—can’t their history class (or memories of a history class outside) just say so? Why are the people outside apparently used to actual demons running around, when Xavier is shocked to find out they even exist? Same with magic. Some people shrug it off and some act like they’ve never heard of it before. Which would be fine if I had more CONTEXT.

And the plot is a mess of cliches interspersed with more interesting original ideas. St. Griswold is stereotypically evil in a lot of ways: bad food, poor clothing, prisonlike atmosphere. Introducing Gabe into the whole mess helped liven things up a lot, because when someone born out of a stroke of lightning shows up things are bound to get better. And I’m definitely going to pay attention when people with wings start appearing.

Things went reasonably well (except for the whole being-totally-confused-about-what-year-and-country-this-is bit) until the escape. The boys have a lot of close calls, and for a while are managing on their own, but eventually they have to turn to other people for help, and this is where I hit the second bit cliff of disbelief. Pretty much everyone Xavier turns to for help does help, very nicely, with no payment required and no questions asked, up to and including a random guy who shows up one page and dies the next. And this after all the talk about shapeshifters and spies. (Yes, yes, there was that one incident, but technically Xavier didn’t fall into that, Gabe did).

And the END . . . made me so angry. It felt like the entire journey had basically been pointless. I am curious about seeing Xavier with full-fledged powers (and hopefully some wings sooner or later), but I’m not sure I want to go through another book to get there.

Overall, the inconsistent quality of the writing bogs down what could have been a much better story. Big details are skimmed or nonexistent while little ones get tons of focus. This especially hurts towards the end, when the story tries to widen to include more of the country. I’m only rating this slightly higher because I feel like it could possibly get better. I rate this book Neutral.

The Rescue (Guardians of Ga’Hoole #3)

Title: The Rescue

Author: Katheryn Lasky

Series: Guardians of Ga’Hoole #3

Soren has recovered his sister, Eglantine, but lost his new mentor, Ezylryb. The danger posed by St. Aegolius still exists, but whatever took his sister might be the “You only wish” danger Soren was warned about before. With evil at loose in the owl kingdoms, it may be up to Soren and his friends to fight sooner than they expected . . .

At last, a single story that manages to combine some lighter moments with a more serious plot. I found it odd that Soren apparently turned Ezylryb from a grouchy, disfigured leader he had just barely got over being afraid of into a beloved mentor somewhere between the end of the last book and the start of this one.

The mystery of the flecks, Eglantine’s whereabouts, and Soren’s growing leadership are the strongest part of the story. I wasn’t too surprised by Metal Beak, though. His identity was all but revealed the moment his name comes up. And the final fight was a bit odd because we have a few extra owls appearing out of nowhere to even up the sides–and I don’t recall the plot ever mentioning why or how they got there.

If you’ve enjoyed the series so far, by all means keep reading. Younger readers may not be as quick to spot some of the obvious plot turns, and the characters are a generally enjoyable bunch. I rate this book Recommended.

The Journey (Guardians of Ga’Hoole #2)

Title: The Journey

Author: Kathryn Lasky

Series: Guardians of Ga’Hoole #2

Soren, Gylfie, Twilight, and Digger set out to search for the Great Ga’Hoole tree and the noble order of owls that lives there. They’re eager to report the horrors they’ve seen. But Ga’Hoole isn’t what they expected, and the owls are reluctant to launch an attack like Soren expected. Instead the four are tasked with learning various skills so they can become full-fledged members of Ga’Hoole.

I liked this book better than the previous, but it was a bit odd to get to the destination only halfway through. The plot feels like two different books, comprising the before and after of the owls’ arrival at Ga’Hoole.

Since they are traveling, though, Soren and his friends get to see much more of the world. It’s literally a flyover, but they make a few stops. I do wish they’d bothered explaining exactly why a certain area was so dangerous. Why would it have been bad to linger, other than forgetting their original mission? Technically, they don’t really try to mobilize the Ga’Hoole owls once they get to the tree after being told they have much more to learn.

And I know the owls are being humanized, but it was still odd to see them drinking tea and eating cooked meat.

All in all there isn’t much to say, other than it feels like two very short books rather than one short book. The break in the middle splits the story pretty well, and makes it difficult to hold an overarching plot, since the goals of the first and second halves are markedly different. If you liked the first book, you might as well keep going. I rate this book Recommended.

Audiobook Roundup – Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday

Title: Mister Monday

Author: Garth Nix

Series: Keys to the Kingdom #1

(Also Grim Tuesday, which is the second book in the series)

I had the opportunity to listen to the audiobook versions of Mister Monday and Grim Tuesday recently. Both of them are narrated by the same reader and generally very well done. I wasn’t too fond of Suzy’s dialogue as she’s read in a bit of a whiny tone, but the variation in voices was good (so you could tell who was talking before you got to the dialog tags) and there was a lot of emotion in the actual lines.

I still find Grim Tuesday less interesting than Mister Monday, mostly because the Will doesn’t show up until basically the end, and doesn’t do anything much. And the Second Key also isn’t in Arthur’s possession until basically the last chapter. But it helps that Nix’s stories make very good audiobooks—he doesn’t have wasted prose, the plots are tight and energetic, and his characters are well drawn.

Check out my reviews on the books if you want farther thoughts on the plot. The story is good in either case, but you won’t go wrong with the audiobook.

The Capture (Guardians of Ga’Hoole #1)

Title: The Capture

Author: Kathryn Lasky

Series: Guardians of Ga’Hoole #1

Soren is a young barn owl with loving parents, a cute little sister, and a terrifying older brother. When he prematurely leaves the nest, he’s snatched up by owls who take him to their home. St. Aegolius has its own ideas about what an owl should be: numbered, unthinking, obedient. Above all, don’t ask questions. But Soren refuses to succumb, and with the help of Gylfie, an elf owl, he makes plans to escape . . .

I liked Soren, and the various owl kingdoms, and the little details of their lives. Especially the flying. The various types of owls have their own abilities according to their species, which shows up more towards the end when those abilities come into play. And Soren and Gylfie are both very cute characters. I like Gylfie’s faculty with language, and Soren’s sensitivity. I liked how the stories of bravery kept them going and inspired them to break free.

I am, however, tired of extremely dysfunctional societies. It’s just not fun to have the constant terror of brainwashing, monitors, and slavery drowning out all the possible moments of joy. The book being a clear first in the series means that the end doesn’t really wrap anything up, either.

Overall this isn’t a bad start. I found it a bit too depressing to be a favorite, but it was a decent read, and I’ll likely go on with the next book. I rate this book Recommended.

The Shadow of Black Wings (The Year of the Dragon #1)

Title: The Shadow of Black Wings

Author: James Calbraith

Series: The Year of the Dragon #1

Bran is a young dragon rider eager to graduate from the Academy and go on with the rest of his life—even if he’s not too sure what he wants to do. A journey taken with his father on a ship bound for places he’s never heard of sounds like a good start. But destiny has some marked him for something else . . .

The land of Yamato is more isolated than the Qin behind their barrier. An island unreachable by most sailors, it nonetheless contains a civilization to rival the rest of the world. But strange divinations foretell great changes. A shrine maiden and her best friend, a female samurai, are more involved than they suspect in the turmoil to come.

I really liked this, but the book suffers greatly from a lack of cohesion. The worldbuilding is excellent, picturing an alternate-history where Bran, who is from either Scotland or Wales (I never looked up what the new names referred to), finds himself on a sea voyage that takes him all the way to China and Japan. Along the way we see various kinds of dragons and magic, and the ways different cultures approach them both. The majority of the beginning and middle is devoted to this, with the greater plot only picking up at the end.

The biggest flaw is that the narrative doesn’t flow well at all. The initial scenes put a great deal of emphasis on Bran’s time at school and the bully that torments him. Both of these things drop out of the story after he graduates (hopefully they’ll surface in a future book so the time spent developing them wasn’t wasted). Then the sea voyage is less of a journey and more of a series of vignettes about various places Bran sees along the way (and the frequent switches from Bran’s point of view to his father’s don’t help much). Then we switch to Yamato and spend a good amount of time setting things up there before the story ever circles back around and connects the two threads. And the story cuts off in the middle of rising action, with nothing resembling a climax, even a minor one.

The ending may be less of a problem if you read the bundle, since I presume the second book will pick up immediately after this one left off. But whether or not you enjoy the book is probably going to come down to how much you like exploring the world, as the rest of the story feels like it needed another draft. I would have preferred alternating chapters between Bran and the girls, as it would have allowed the moment their stories merge to come much closer to the event that caused it.

Overall, I suspect I’ll keep going with this, because I do like it, but you’re probably better off getting the first book while it’s free and sampling it that way. I rate this book Neutral.

Elizabeth’s Legacy (Royal Institute of Magic #1)

Title: Elizabeth’s Legacy

Author: Victor Kloss

Series: Royal Institute of Magic #1

Ben Greenwood was devastated the day his parents vanished. With his house wrecked, and no clues to where they’d gone, he has nothing but his own stubbornness and a fragment of shimmering cloth leading him to believe they haven’t just abandoned him. But when an unexpected legacy leads to a place he never suspected existed, he realizes his parents were involved in far more than he knew . . .

If there’s one major complaint I have about this, it’s that the prologue is too good to then drop Michael for the rest of the book. I had expected alternating chapters exploring what Michael saw in the past with what Ben was discovering in the present, but it appears the prologue is there mostly to provide that long letter of introduction to the Royal Institute of Magic (and so Michael’s name will be vaguely familiar the next time you encounter him as a historical footnote).

That aside, this was a lot of fun. I liked how overweight and unmagical Charlie wasn’t ignored or belittled, but has his own critical part to play at several points. And I especially appreciated that the end wasn’t looking to write him out of Ben’s life. Similarly, I liked Ben. His parents clearly have something weird going on, which they tried to keep him out of, but he’s mostly normal, although he’s got more of a gift of magic. He’s desperate to find his parents and clear their names, but he can’t do it alone.

The worldbuilding was also interesting. Various races and types of magic show up, although they do tend towards certain class stereotypes for the most part (with the hotel being an amusing exception). Then again, Ben doesn’t really get the chance to know any of them for longer than a few moments, so that could easily change.

All in all, this is a solid start to a series, with the hook at the end indicating what direction future books will take. I still wish Michael’s story got a chance to fully come out, but maybe he’ll get additional scenes in the future. I rate this book Recommended.