Book Reviews

Book Review: SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK

serafinaTitle: SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK
Author: Robert Beatty
Series: Serafina, #1
Publication Information: Disney*Hyperion, 2015
Pages: 293
Genre: Middle Grade – Historical Fantasy, Mystery
Warnings: Some scary images, mild violence
Rating: 3.5 stars
Recommended For: Readers who love atmospheric settings and don’t mind being scared a little.

Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of the Biltmore estate. There’s plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate’s maintenance man, have secretly lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember.

But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of the Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity . . . before all of the children vanish one by one.

Serafina’s hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic, one that is bound to her own identity. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must seek the answers that will unlock the puzzle of her past.

(Summary from Goodreads)

SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK was a nice fusion of historical fantasy and mystery elements, all revolving around the mysterious forest surrounding the Biltmore estate and twelve-year-old Serafina, who ventures into the forest to save the children kidnapped from the estate by an evil man wearing a black cloak.

My favorite part of this book was the setting. It’s set in North Carolina in the late 1800s, and the Biltmore estate – and the surrounding forest – really came to life in an atmospheric way that was deliciously creepy.

Another thing that kept me reading were the dual mysteries at the heart of the plot. The main mystery is the identity of the man in the black cloak – Serafina is sure it’s someone from the estate, but she has to figure out who it is. There’s also the mystery of who her mother is; Serafina was raised in the basement of the main house by her father, and she’s always wondered about her mother. I think both mysteries were woven together really well and the pacing was just right.

I also loved how much of this book was a story about friendship. In the course of unraveling the mystery of the man in the black cloak, Serafina befriends Braeden, the nephew of the estate’s owner. Neither of them has had a real friend before and it was lovely to watch them figure out what it means to be a true friend in a way that wasn’t overly sappy.

TL;DR: An atmospheric + deliciously creepy story about saving kidnapped children and what it means to be a friend.

Book Reviews

Review: Cecile: Gates of Gold

CecileTitle: Cecile: Gates of Gold
Author: Mary Casanova
Series: Girls of Many Lands
Genre: Middle Grade – Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 2002
Age Recommendation: Upper Elementary School, Middle School

Twelve-year-old Cecile Revel is given a change to leave her peasant life and serve at King Louis XIV’s court. She finds life within the palace gates is not as full of ease and elegance as she had imagined. Faced with a test of conscience, Cecile shows that behaving in a noble matter has little to do with one’s place at birth.

(Summary from Goodreads)

Cecile was a fast-paced, easily digested historical fiction set in the court of King Louis XIV of France (also known to history as the Sun King), also known as the Sun King. Not only did Casanova do a great job bringing it to life, she did it in a way that didn’t overwhelm the reader with details, with a heroine who was both courageous and vulnerable.

While the plot was straightforward enough – Cecile is a peasant girl who becomes a servant in the Sun King’s court – the background details were anything but. Through Cecile’s eyes, we get a taste of the wealth gap in France during this time, which sets up brilliantly for what happens a few decades after the end of the book: the French Revolution. We also get a look at how everything at the court of Versailles was one big show, with references to things like everyone watching King Louis get dressed in the morning and everyone crowding in to watch the dauphine during childbirth. We get the sense that France is the royal family’s personal playground, all with just a few well-placed details.

Even more than that, I loved Cecile, the main character and narrator. She is quick-witted and brave, shown by her willingness to take a stand on things she believes in despite the consequences, yet at the same time she’s not afraid to be vulnerable, shown whenever people talk about her father or when she starts to miss him. She’s also not afraid to admit her mistakes, most especially when she acknowledges her shame at denying her connection to her father and his questionable past.

Cecile would be perfect for anyone who has finished all of the Little House and Dear America and books and doesn’t know what to read next.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: Keeper of the Lost Cities

Keeper of the Lost Cities (Keeper of the Lost Cities, #1)Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved Keeper of the Lost Cities! It was fun, with all of the things I love in middle grade – genuine characters and friendship. There were some parallels to other things I’ve read that got distracting at times, but the positives far outweighed the negatives for me.

One thing that was a little distracting to me was the whole Sophie being the Chosen One thing, but no one would tell her what she was chosen for (and seriously, I’m pretty sure she was smart enough to understand if anyone had bothered to explain it to her). I’ve seen this in a lot of other books I’ve read, the two coming to mind being Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. That being said, I still loved Sophie as a main character because she seemed so genuine to me – her feelings of wanting to belong and her attempts to find her place in the world were realistic, and there were times when my heart really ached for her.

I also loved watching Sophie make friends for the first time in her life. I think that was my favorite part, because friendship was really the most important part of what happens toward the end, far more than Sophie’s amazing abilities. I loved that in the end, Sophie had to rely on her friends, because it showed that she’d learned to trust other people and realized that even though she was different, she still fit in.

Keeper bordered on being just a little bit too long, but I still breezed through it, and I think fans of Harry Potter or Rick Riordan’s books would love it. I can’t wait to read the next book!

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Currently Reading: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Currently Listening To: Trace Adkins – “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”

Book Reviews

Review: The Planet Thieves

The Planet ThievesThe Planet Thieves by Dan Krokos

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really loved Dan Krokos’s other book, False Memory, so I decided to take a chance and just buy this one since my library didn’t have it. That chance totally paid off, because I ended up loving The Planet Thieves just as much as False Memory. The Planet Thieves was a super quick and fun read and had a good blend of action and friendship that would make it perfect for middle schoolers (or, you know, anyone who likes adventure stories).

One thing I loved right away was the relationship between Mason and his older sister, Susan. Their relationship felt realistic to me, and the way it was introduced made it clear right away that Mason was going to be a very fun character to follow. It also made Mason easy to relate to, because even though a lot of middle schoolers aren’t going to find themselves taking charge of a group of their peers to save the planet from aliens or whatever, they are going to be able to relate to things like Mason wanting to rescue his sister and stand up for his friends, which I think was what the story was mostly about. Establishing Mason and Susan’s relationship right away also made Mason’s motivations throughout the story really clear and believable, and there were definitely a couple situations that hit me right in the feels.

Like I said in the previous paragraph, this story was more about Mason and his sister and friends than it was about the fight with the Tremist (although that was also really important, of course, since it’s the catalyst for the entire book). I loved Mason’s relationship with the other cadets, but especially Merrin and Tom. I loved how willing Mason was to stand up for Merrin even when he was outnumbered by the other cadets, and I also loved watching him and Tom go from being enemies to developing a respect for each other and learning to work as part of a team.

If you’re looking for some good middle grade to read, I recommend The Planet Thieves. This is definitely a book I’m going to keep in my back pocket for when I’m looking for things for middle schoolers to read. It’s fast-paced and has characters who are easy to relate to, so I think this is something a lot of them would love. And the whole saving the world thing would also be great for Rick Riordan fans.

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Book Reviews

Review: Deep and Dark and Dangerous

Deep and Dark and Dangerous: A Ghost StoryDeep and Dark and Dangerous: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Deep and Dark and Dangerous is a ghost story, which isn’t normally my thing, but I liked it. There were some genuinely creepy parts that made me glad I didn’t read this one before bed at all – and I don’t normally tend to get creeped out by books (or I’ve been reading the wrong kind, whichever).

I thought it was a cool premise – something happened at the lake thirty years ago, something the strange girl showing up to play with our main characters seems intent on telling them about – but the story ultimately lacked suspense for me since I guessed at what happened early on.

Additionally, there were some words that threw me out of the story. I got the impression that this story was set in the present day, but then the main character is throwing around words like “permanent” (i.e. perm) and “casement” which don’t really seem like words a thirteen-year-old would use. For the most part our MC’s voice was realistic, except there were enough of those moments where she used strange words for no apparent reason that it bothered me.

Overall, Deep and Dark and Dangerous was a nice way to kill a couple hours, but it wasn’t something that kept me up reading past my bedtime.

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