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Recommendation: The Princess, The Scoundrel, And The Farm Boy

The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy

by Alexandra Bracken

If your son is anything like mine, it is almost impossible to get him to read outside of his allotted “required reading” for school. The summer has always been a struggle for me as a Mom — trying to maintain some sense of a schedule and mental stimulation while also trying to allow my children to rest. Their academic calendar years always seem so jam-packed and I sometimes wonder if on some instinctual and base physical level, they need the months of summer to recuperate and catch up on all of the sleep and rest they have lost.  Between the rigorous training that attaining his black belt involved, a basketball season with late games and extra practices, pushing through his first year of middle school like a champ — it all left my 11-year old son feeling mentally drained, but I pushed on, determined to get some reading in this summer.

My son did not learn to read until the summer right before he entered the 4th grade. He was identified as having a learning disability at age 4 and was formally diagnosed with a “short term memory” disability when he was in the 3rd grade. To give you an idea as to how his disability works: just imagine reading a paragraph of text. Then imagine moving to the next paragraph, but having completely forgotten the first paragraph you read. Because of this disability, we have had to find countless ways to work around things. In most areas we were successful early on — memorization was our friend. Math was always easy because while “write” and “right” sound exactly the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings, 1 + 1 is ALWAYS 2. Our final struggle and most arduous battle was reading. How can you teach a child to read when the task is so daunting and to be honest, at times so humiliating that they feel absolutely defeated? Well, I’ll tell you. You find a story that they know. A story that they know inside and out and all they have to do is put words on paper to the story in their head — this was our recipe for success.

Star Wars: The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy is essentially the retelling of the movie Star Wars: A New Hope (or Episode 4, if you’d prefer). Lovers of the iconic series set in a fantasy land of space and time, with rebels and empires and one memorable villain, know the story inside and out. A princess leading a rebellion against an evil empire hooks up with a handsome rogue who provides her with a sturdy ship. A once immature and naive boy begins to learn the secrets of The Force from an old and wizened Jedi Master in disguise. But the novel, the first of three, digs deeper into the lives of the three central characters. Each section is focused on one of the players, allowing members of this particular fandom to delve right into the very heart and core of what makes these people tick. While there isn’t a ton of extra or new information, the story is told in a fluid manner (something not easy to accomplish, given the focus of each character) and is fresh and crisp. Author Alexandra Bracken has a way of retelling a story that most people already know in a way that makes it appear new, and the writing style is extremely friendly to readers of all ages — including those 10-year old boys who lament over not ever being able to find something worthwhile to read.

I give this book a 5 out of 5 star rating, and I recommend it to any lover of Star Wars, of fantasy, and of lands far, far away. I recommend it to any boy or girl who wants to lose themselves in richly drawn characters that they can look up to — a princess who is smart and capable and no one’s snowflake, a scoundrel who is more than he appears and carries with him a sly sense of humor and a heart of gold, and a farm boy who will find within himself something that brews strong and ancient and a lineage to write home about.

Readers will enjoy the other two tales in this three-part series:

On Amazon.com, readers can find all three of the books in a bundle for under $35 — which is a steal. They are hardcover and gorgeous. I love the clever designs and colors. Disney and Lucasfilm Press did an amazing job putting these together. Not only are all three incredibly well written, but the illustrations are unique and flawless.

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Recommendation: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

by Ransom Riggs

“I used to dream about escaping my ordinary life, but my life was never ordinary. I had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was.”

Happy Summer!

We get lots of reading done in the hot and sticky months of June-July-August. Texas has unforgiving temperatures during the summertime and we avoid going outside until the sun goes down. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks plumping up my bookshelves with some great mid-grade and YA reads that vary from old to new, and as my children really loved this movie, I was excited to share the book.

Because you know, the book is always better. And you don’t have to wait long for the sequel, because it’s already in print!

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a unique children’s novel in that it is told through a series of photographs paired with narrative, and that it is darker than the average mid-grade book. The author’s original intent was to showcase his collection of vintage and peculiar pictures via a photo album format, but decided to go another way and provide a storyline to accompany them. Inspiration can come from a variety of places for authors and Ransom Riggs‘ blend of creepy and cool is sure to capture the interest of many more children to come. The genre of mid-grade books has expanded in the last decade, providing a larger variety of subject matter and a lot less fluff for this particular age group, and I for one am very pleased. This type of book in particular allows the readers mind to become completely engaged, and the imagination can run free while trying to figure out what the monsters involved in the story look like and how the idea of a “time loop” really works.

Jacob has always had a strong bond with his grandfather. As the years went by spending time together was a priority for them both, and after a strange and grisly accident that results in his grandfather’s unexpected death, Jake finds himself confused and at a loss as to how to process his grief. Growing up, Jake’s grandfather regaled him with tales of the school he grew up in, carving images of the tumultuous era of World War 2, and of how young Abraham took refuge in a children’s group home near Wales. Abraham was surrounded by kids of a variety of ages and manner, but they all had one thing in common — they were peculiar.

One girl could make herself completely invisible. One young lady possessed a freak amount of enormous strength. A young child had not one, but two mouths — the second of which was settled at the back her skull. As one boy used his stomach as a vessel for protecting live bees, another teenager was able to resurrect the dead, all while at the same time appearing to be as heartless as the subjects with which he ran his curious experiments.

” I felt even more cheated when I realized that most of Grandpa Portman’s best stories couldn’t possibly be true. The tallest tales were always about his childhood, like how he was born in Poland but at twelve had been shipped off to a children’s home in Wales. When I would ask why he had to leave his parents, his answer was always the same : because the monsters were after him. Poland was simply rotten with them, he said. 

“What kind of monsters?” I’d ask, wide-eyed. It became a sort of routine. “Awful hunched over ones with rotting skin and black eyes,” he’d say. “And they walked like this!” And he’d shamble after me like an old-time movie monster until ran away laughing. “

Surely none of these stories were true? Jake had always chalked it up to idle bedtime tales and the ramblings of an old and lonely man. Except something is now haunting Jake. . . his grandfather’s last words to him were not that he loved him or that he would miss him, but — “find the bird in the loop on the other side of the old man’s grave on September 1940, and tell them what happened.” With the mystery of Abe’s death completely unsolved, Jake has a hard time finding any sort of closure or resolution. His parents refer him to a psychiatrist who suggests Jake visit and explore the place his grandfather always spoke of so fondly, and to see if he can hunt down some answers about this strange school so he can perhaps put some things to rest in his mind.

Unfortunately for Jake, once he arrives in England, he finds the orphanage of Abe’s childhood left in complete ruins and disrepair, apparently not having survived the brutalities of war. Not being able to garner much information from the townspeople is frustrating and leaves Jake to explore the small town primarily on his own. During one of his treks through the murky countryside he comes across a strange girl, and as it turns out, this meeting is not one of pure chance — it is this lovely, blonde young lady who leads him to the elusive Miss. Peregrine.

” ‘We peculiars are blessed with skills that common people lack, as infinite in combination and variety as others are in the pigmentation of their skin or the appearance of their facial features. That said, some skills are common, like reading thoughts, and others are rare, such as the way I can manipulate time.’

‘Time? I thought you turned into a bird.’

‘To be sure, and therein lies the key to my skill. Only birds can manipulate time. Therefore, all time manipulators must be able to take the form of a bird.’

She says this so seriously, so matter-of-factly, that it took me a moment to process. ‘Birds. . . are time travelers?’ I felt a goofy smile spread across my face. “

Jake feels as if he has entered another world completely and as he grapples with confusion and wonders if he has lost his mind, Jacob urges Miss Peregrine and the children at the home to explain to him what exactly is going on. The house he’d previously visited and found in ruins is now a beautiful and well-kept home, as if it’s part of some weird time warp. The children are dressed in clothes that seem to be from another time altogether. . . and all seem to have the same powers as those Abraham described in his elaborate stories. Miss. Peregrine explains that the house and its inhabitants are hidden in something called a “time loop” and that they all relive the same day over and over. The loops are set up by her particular kind all over the world for the protection of peculiar children and their rare gifts. Miss. Peregrine and other teachers like her are in charge of these special children and keeping them safe from a distorted race of monsters known as hollowgasts. The hollows and wights are the result of experiments gone wrong and use the children to expand upon their devious powers, hunting them down mercilessly and murdering them to absorb their energy.

Unbeknownst to the team of children and their leader, the hollows have been stealthily tracking them and are eager to engulf the children and receive special strength through their demise. Once Miss. Peregrine is kidnapped, it is up to Emma, Jacob, and a handful of other brave children to rescue her and try to restore the balance to the loop and their lives.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a novel that I give 4 out of 5 stars to, and while it is geared primarily for mid-grade readers, I enjoyed it as an adult. I know that some adults who have read this novel took issue with the (completely innocent) budding romance between Jacob and Emma, especially as Emma previously had a romantic link to Abraham. I think that falls into the category of nitpicking and has very little to do with the story, especially as nothing but a mild attraction comes of it. Emma is a girl stuck in the 1940’s and whether or not she has actually aged internally or not makes no difference, seeing as how she has lived the same day for the majority of her life, with no newcomers brought into it until Jake. The story is whimsical and innovative and should be taken at face value instead of trying to assign labels to it in a modern day setting. I think readers are happiest when they just let fantasy be fantasy, and that is exactly what this book is.

If you or your child enjoyed the film version, I recommend picking up the book. There are two sequels (Hollow City and Library of Souls) and a companion book (Tales of the Peculiar). Readers might also be interested to learn that Riggs is planning a second trilogy set in the Peculiar world, the likes of which will be played out in America.

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Review: Alice – The Wanderland Chronicles

Alice : The Wanderland Chronicles

by J.M. Sullivan

” ‘Rule number one: Always protect your queen.’ “

Alice Carroll is desperate.

A plague has been sweeping her city for an incalculable amount of time and although she and her sister have been able to avoid it up until now, death has now come knocking on their door. Trapped in a town that was once the flourishing and active site of a suburb set outside of Phoenix,  Alice has spent months watching as the people around her have fallen into complete complacency about the impending doom lurking right outside the walls that surround their metropolis. The population of her sector has fooled themselves into believing that the plague cannot darken their doorsteps, and that becoming one of the dreaded “momeraths” could not possibly happen to them.

” Like Dinah says, ‘We can only play the cards we’ve been dealt. It doesn’t do any good to wish about things you can’t change.’ “

After a scouting expedition leads Alice and her older sister Dinah outside of the confines of the sector, Alice is forced to helplessly watch as her sister falls victim to the fearful sickness that has been claiming lives all over the state. The MR-V virus attacks every system inside of their host, turning them into bloodthirsty violent killers who cannot be contained or satisfied. When Dinah begins to exhibit the signs of being a carrier for the fatal virus, Alice knows she has to do something. She’s heard whispers of a doctor miles away who is working towards a cure, and her mission is clear – she must find this man and beg for his help. Dinah is all she has left in this world and she refuses to lose her.

Leaving her precious Dinah in the care of a friend inside the sector, Alice sets out for the place that was once the thriving city of Phoenix, determined to find answers. Soon after arrival she is accosted by one of the terrible monsters that give her nightmares – a momerath set on tasting her blood and claiming her life in the process. Lucky for her, a chance encounter with a handsome (if somewhat erratic) young man named Chess leads her to temporary safety where she can formulate the next phase of her plan. But once she eventually finds the doctor she is looking for, Alice is dismayed to discover that he is scatterbrained and in a near constant state of confusion — and he insists that there is no cure for the disease that her sister is suffering from.

” ‘How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tale, and pour the waters of the Nile on every golden scale.’ His eyes flicked meaningfully from the book to Alice before he continued. ‘How cheerfully he seems to grin, how neatly spreads his claws, and welcomes little fishes in , with gently smiling jaws.’ Bug set the journal on his desk and gazed at Alice intently. Unable to decipher anything, she felt dumb. Clearly, it wasn’t the reaction Bug was hoping for. He sighed, then stood to pat her on the shoulder. ‘You’ll figure it out. but remember to be vigilant. Momerath can show up at any moment, and they’ll be hunting you.’ “

Alice finds herself wrapped up in the curious mystery surrounding Borogove Industries, a scientific research lab that sanctioned the creation of the drug that was eventually turned into the virus and subsequent plague. Her hunt leads her to the threshold of a woman thought to be sponsoring the creation of an antidote,  a woman reverently named The Red Queen. But while Alice hopes to find help and guidance from the woman in charge, she instead faces yet another challenge — mostly in controlling her temper. Alice doesn’t agree with the atrocities she experiences while under the Red Queen’s care, and fights to escape the false safety of the camp. After proving her worth and striking a bargain, Alice sets out once again, this time with the assistance of a team of elite soldiers that work under the tyrannical and deviant Queen’s employ. Alice storms the lab of Borogove in search of answers and a cure and as she unravels the convoluted riddle of the momerath disease, Alice finds herself plunging deeper into the heart of the matter than she ever intended. The path to salvation is wrought with puzzles and horrors, including an enlightening meeting with Dr. Matthew Hatta, creator of the drug, and Alice is forced to make some difficult decisions that will cling to the edges of her nightmares for years to come.

” ‘What about family?’ she asked. ‘And love?’

A wistful look flitted across Hatta’s features before he carefully arranged them back in place. ‘People get too invested in emotions,’ he said briskly. ‘It hinders them from processing information objectively and responding accordingly.’ 

‘But without emotions, what’s the point?’ she asked. Though she rarely got caught up in emotion, it didn’t mean she didn’t recognize their   value.  “

When the truth comes out, Alice is more confused than ever but stays the course — her eyes on the prize. She must get back to Dinah as soon as she can. Her sister’s life and Alice’s future depends on it. But sometimes going down the rabbit hole leads to more twists and turns than one may expect, and finding your way out of the darkness can prove to be nearly impossible.

Alice: The Wanderland Chronicles is the debut novel from American author, J.M. Sullivan. As far as debuts go, Sullivan has gotten off to a great start in a series that is sure to be a curious addition to any mid-grade to YA reader’s library. Twisted tales are all the rage and while Sullivan could stand to push the envelope more with cleverness and parallels, the story was fresh and inspired. With the exception of a few out-of-place curse words, this novel is appropriate for those ages 10+. I give the book 3 out of 5 stars; I was hoping for a bit more expansion on the characters and there were more than a few plot holes. It is my understanding that this is set to be a series of books (if the cliffhanger is any indication) and am hoping for a bit more depth in the next installment. Readers who enjoyed Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles are encouraged to give this novel a try.

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Recommendation: The Selection

The Selection

by Kiera Cass

” 35 girls. 

1 crown. 

The competition of a lifetime. “

There are few books that I have come across that have such beautiful covers as those of The Selection Series, by Kiera Cass. The series spans three books with an additional two in a spin-off series, along with one companion book full of novellas. All six books are undeniably lovely with vibrant colors and elaborately dressed young ladies.

It was the cover of the first book, The Selection, that made me pick it up off the shelf at Barnes and Noble a few years ago. It was the middle of summer and I was looking for a book to throw in my purse to read at karate lessons, gymnastics classes, and by the pool. I’d never really been into YA books until then, but the mysterious young lady in blue peeking over her shoulder at me pulled me in. And while I guess this novel is technically considered YA, it is my opinion that it is appropriate for mid-grade as well, appealing to ages as low as 10. The dialogue and subject matter are not overtly unique or high-end, but it’s an entertaining fairytale that young girls will swoon over.

The Selection’s plot is in short, a combination of the caste system and culling of The Hunger Games and the awkward and strange romance of The Bachelor. The time period appears to be set in the future, not quite dystopian, but with major faults.  Countries that are in creation in our modern day are now called by different names and are grouped together differently. The United States of America no longer in existence. The entire population is sorted into castes that each have their own way of life. Some are singers, some are actors, some are factory workers; it all depends upon your caste. There are a few hints as to what has happened to the former world, but a clear answer is never given. In any event, Caste 1 is the royal family, and their crown prince is in need of a wife.

Cue, the Selection.

America Singer is a member of Caste 5, set almost directly in the middle of the system. She is neither rich, nor poverty ridden. As a family of artists, her family has nearly everything it needs but not nearly enough of the things they want. Work is guaranteed but a few times per year, and times can definitely be hard with a family of seven. When news of the Selection breaks, her mother and younger sister May encourage her to enter, caught up in the hope that America could win and their situation could have forever stability. America is of the right age and has a quiet beauty; she’s also hardworking and talented. But the love she carries in secret for a boy in a caste lower than hers gives her severe pause. Only when Aspen, the sweet boy she’s known all her life, pushes her towards entering does she agree. He also sees the Selection as a step forward to a better life – for them both – as any young lady who participates will be rewarded with an immediate elevation of caste. For the people in America’s life, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime.

” ‘I think you should do it,’ he said suddenly.

‘Do what?’

‘Enter the Selection. I think you should do it.’

I glared at him. ‘Are you out of your mind?’

‘Mer, listen to me.’ His mouth was right to my ear. It wasn’t fair; he knew it distracted me. When his voice came, it was breathy and slow, like he was saying something romantic, though what he was suggesting was anything but. ‘If you had a chance for something better than this, and you didn’t take it because of me, I’ never forgive myself. I couldn’t stand it.’

I let out my breath in a quick huff. ‘It’s so ridiculous. Think of the thousands of girls entering. I won’t even get picked.’

‘If you won’t get picked, then why does it matter?’ His hands were rubbing up and down my arms now. I couldn’t argue when he did that. ‘All I want is for you to enter. I just want you to try. And if you go, then you go. And if you don’t, then at least I won’t have to beat myself up for holding you back.’

‘But I don’t love him, Aspen. I don’t even like him. I don’t even know him.’

‘No one knows him. That’s the thing, though, maybe you would like him.’

‘Aspen, stop. I love you.’

‘And I love you.’ He kissed me slowly to make his point. ‘And if you love me, you’ll do this so I won’t go crazy wondering what if.’ “

America is (of course) picked to join the formal group of Selection candidates and heads off to the castle for her extended stay with much trepidation. She is anxious about leaving Aspen behind and worried about fitting in. She’s never had fancy dresses, nor does she possess any refined skills; and the other ladies in the Selection have been culled from every caste from 2 to 8. She quickly befriends a sweet girl named Marlee and just as quickly, makes a frenemy with a higher-casted girl named Celeste.

Overcome with emotion and anxiety, America attempts to take solace in the castle grounds. The trees, grass, and flowers are nearly the only thing about the massive castle that seems the least bit familiar. But as she soon finds out, no one is allowed out of the castle proper without express permission, especially the Selection ladies. As she struggles to regain composure and push down her panic, she is met with a surprise – the handsome Prince Maxon. He escorts her outside and they share a few private moments together where she finds herself surprised to see that this process may not end up being as terrible as she’d initially thought.

All of the challenges, heartbreak, and frivolity of the Selection process is captured by cameras that are stream the footage to the outside world. Everyone in Illéa is anxiously awaiting each elimination, hopeful that their favorite will pass through to the next round. America and Maxon soon strike a deal – she will stick around to keep him company and help him make his final decision as long as he understands that he will never have her heart, and he will allow her to stay so that she may continue to send money and favors home to her family.

” ‘Wouldn’t it be much better for you if you had someone on the inside? Someone to help? Like, you know, a friend?’

‘A friend?’ he asked.

‘Yes. Let me stay, and I’ll help you. I’ll be your friend.’ He smiled at the words. ‘You don’t have to worry about pursuing me. You already know that I don’t have feelings for you. But you can talk to me anytime you like, and I’ll try and help. You said last night that you were looking for a confidante. Well, until you find one for good, I could be that person. If you want.’

His expression was affectionate but guarded. ‘I’ve met nearly every woman in this room, and I can’t think of one who would make a better friend. I’d be glad to have you stay.’ “

When Aspen, the boy from home, shows up unexpectedly, America is put in a terrible position. Having feelings for any other man while engaged in the Selection is considered treason, and she must choose which path to go down. Does she follow her heart? Or does she play the game?

The Selection is not a book that goes deep into any physical romance, so it is appropriate for most ages. It’s definitely a fairy tale and not written in an elevated form, so it is easy to grasp the concept and follow along. All in all, it’s a fun and quick read that any budding teenage girl would love to get wrapped up in. America is a strong and faithful girl with a great heart, and her love interests are positively dreamy. I give The Selection 3.5 stars (mostly because I am quite a bit older than the targeted audience).

The Selection is followed up by The Elite and The One. Several novellas have been compiled into The Prince and the Guard, and readers who enjoy America’s story will also enjoy The Heir and The Crown, two books that follow the Selection process of King Maxon’s daughter, Eadlyn.

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Review: Dream Magic

Dream Magic

by Joshua Khan

” The six legendary princes who’d brought magic into the world and founded the great houses of magic. Her ancestors.

Djinn, the master of fire.

Coral, lord of the seas.

Typhoon, ruler of the endless winds.

Herne, the antler-headed sorcerer who commanded the earth and the beasts.

Solar, the great shining one. 

And Solar’s twin, Prince Shadow. The first and greatest of the lords of darkness, and the founder of her family. “

When Dream Magic was sent to me for review, I was intrigued. The cover art by Ben Hibon is stunning, and after a quick flip through the pages, I was delighted to find that more of the superbly intricate and uniquely dark illustrations were included. My only complaint about these drawings is that there are so few – they are spread throughout the book almost like the tease of freshly baked bread wafting from a French bakery as you pass by, leaving my mouth watering as I craved more. The talented illustrator has many impressive credits attached to his resume; most notably for readers is his contribution to the animation direction of The Tale of The Three Brothers in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The cover is as alluring as it is mystical, with shadows oozing from every corner and crevice, and an eerie white light hovering over the character’s heads. I was hooked.

I was eager to crack this book open and reveal the secrets hidden within, already curious about the archer and apparent witch featured on the front cover, who seem to be teaming up against something that appeared to be spiders made from crystal. But before I entered into the world of Dream Magic, I did my due diligence, as I do with any book I am about to begin, and discovered that this was actually the second book of a mid-grade fantasy series.

I have to admit, learning that this was a series made me even more excited. I know that series that are not already published in their completion can sometimes put readers off, as they are afraid of getting caught up in a story only to have to wait an undeterminable amount of time for the next book to be published, but I’m hoping that’s not the case with this particular set of books. The first book, Shadow Magic, came out in April of 2016 and this second book is due to be out for general sale next Monday. So here’s hoping that the trend continues and author Joshua Khan can crank another book out by this time next year.

My goal this year with my blog is to feature a review and a recommendation each week and not repeat authors all year long. I’ve found that this is going to be a lot harder than I’d originally thought. While, yes, I’ve read literally 1000’s of books, I’ve noticed that what I love most is getting caught up in a series and falling into a deep and meaningful cadence with a set of characters. I love watching them grow up and evolve. I love the transitions of relationships and the familiarity that serial books can lend. And as a result of my attachments to serial literature, I tend to read the same authors over and over. I was happy to have a new author thrown into my mix. I’m always on the hunt for a good book in this age bracket, as I have two children in it.

Shadow Magic is the tale of two characters set on a parallel path. Thorn is the 12-year old son of an assumed outlaw. But don’t let his age fool you. Thorn has grown up rough and tough, and he has a mouth to match. After his father took the blame for a crime Thorn committed, he had to leave the family home and strike out as far away as he could, leading the law away from his wife and children. Thorn waited as long as he could after his father’s hasty departure, but his guilt and shame over what he’d done to break up his family overtook his sense of reason and he had to follow. Instead of catching up to his dad, he is instead captured and sold into slavery – but not for long. He’s bought by a man named Tyburn, the executioner of House Shadow, rulers of the people in the faraway land of Gehenna. Thorn reluctantly travels with the quiet and esteemed executioner to a city that celebrates and honors their dead, and he tries not to become too offended at the strange customs of this dark land. But as is his lot in life, Thorn’s mouth keeps landing him in trouble.

Lily Shadow is an orphan, and has gone from being a typical and, moody 13-year old girl to the ruler of the land. The role of Lady Shadow was never one she intended to have, as she was the youngest child. But since her parents and brother have been murdered by a team of bandits and her family line ends with her, it is up to Lily to take command over everyone and everything, and it is not a task that is to be taken lightly. She’s feeling daunted by the task at hand – her impending marriage to a son of a rival House, but there are problems much closer at hand.

Thorn and Lily’s adventures in Shadow Magic are fast-paced and richly written, and I cannot say enough good things about it. I was thrilled to find a book that I know my son will bite into this summer. Dream Magic picks up right where its predecessor leaves off, throwing us into yet another set of obstacles wrought with magic and deception.

It looks like trolls are beginning to attack the citizens of Gehenna, or are they? Several houses have been broken into and their inhabitants carted off. But the work of trolls is usually a lot messier and with a lot less mystery. Thorn and his band of squires are in the midst of investigating the ongoing problem, but there’s another issue surrounding the castle and it’s lands – zombies. Ever since Lily performed the forbidden art of magic weeks ago, more and more of the dead are becoming UN-dead, and it’s becoming a cumbersome dilemma. What is Lily supposed to do with all of these “new” subjects? Where will they live and how will they make a living when they are literally falling apart around themselves?

And if Thorn doesn’t have enough on his full plate already, the constant train of suitors lining up for Lily’s affections are a burr in his side. Not that he’s into her that way – of course not! – but he’s getting tired of having to appease and bow down to yet another lord around the castle. With every “m’lord” that comes out of his mouth, he is reminding of his peasant lineage. And now Gabriel Solar – everyone’s favorite brat – is back with a new set of grievances, not to mention  the curious alchemist from another distant land that’s poking around. Everything is complicated, including the unspoken feelings swirling around and between Thorn and Lily, but the problems around the castle are taking up too much of their time for any exploration.

” Thorn shoved Devil off. Then, wearily, he dragged himself back out of the mass of twigs. ‘Thanks. You got here quick.’

‘You’ve a talent for getting into trouble, so I had to keep an eye on you.’ Old Colm tapped the snow off his peg leg. ‘And I can move on this if I have to.’ He looked over at the dead dog. ‘I thought you Herne folk had a way with animals.’

Thorn grimaced. The pain was really kicking in. ‘We do. Usually.’

‘So we’ve got the parents.’ Old Colm gestured at the two dead bodies. ‘What about the boys?’

‘Vanished.’ Thorn stood up and regretted it instantly, as a spell of dizziness struck him. He sucked in the fresh air and tried to clear his head. Blood dripped down his sleeve and decorated the snow with small crimson petals. 

He stared at the farmer and his wife. What had happened here? There was a way of finding out secrets even from the dead. ‘Lily will want to see these two.’

‘Will she?’ asked Old Colm suspiciously. He inspected the pair. ‘And why’s that? Seems to me we should bury them here, by their homes.’

Thorn bit his lip. He knew Old Colm had heard the rumors regarding Lily.

She was his friend, and while only thirteen, she was the ruler of Gehenna. She was also a Shadow, descended from the lord of darkness himself, the greatest necromancer the world had ever known. 

And death itself could not stop a Shadow. . . “

Lily knows she’s not supposed to practice magic. She knows it’s forbidden. But there has never been a ruler of the Land of Shadows who wasn’t a sorcerer, and she feels like it’s an important trade to learn. And now that she knows she’s halfway good at it, there really is no turning back. She spends night after night holed up in the Shadow Library, practicing her skills under the careful and encouraging eye of her father’s ghost. But it’s scary to think of how her people would treat her if they knew the truth. Women who are caught conjuring enchantments and illusions are historically put to the stake to burn, and she can’t imagine that she would be considered any different – even if she is the current Lady Shadow.

” The country was suffering a plague of the undead. On Halloween, the dead had come out of their graves, no one knew how many. First the people had been happy, overjoyed at seeing loved ones they’d lost and missed. Families had thrown resurrection parties. 

Now, three moths later, things were different. The undead had come home to roost and would not leave. There was no place for them here alongside the living. 

And not just zombies, but also ghosts and even the odd vampire. One bloodsucker had caused a lot of trouble in Witch Glade, draining livestock and attacking villages until he’d been captured and reburied, this time with an iron stake through his chest. The price of garlic had tripled. 

Lily gazed at the hour candle, wishing it would burn faster. She wanted his over and done with so she could get down to the castle library. A shiver of excitement went through her at the thought. Her studies were going well, learning what it really meant to belong to House Shadow. . . “

But after a strange encounter with a disfigured Court Jester in disguise, Lily is left locked out of the library and sealed off from her teacher and father, pulling her carefully maintained magical teachings up to a screeching halt. Why did the stranger care so much about the box of her father’s old and random correspondence he stole from the library? And why did he steal the key, locking the door to the library for who knows how long? Lily hardly has time to process the incident; news is traveling across Gehenna of a Troll King and an army making their way towards the castle, and she knows she doesn’t have enough guards and military to withstand a fight like that. Especially not with their leader, Tyburn the feared executioner, out of commission.

Thorn’s suspicions were correct. It wasn’t a band of trolls who have been carrying on in the countryside and terrorizing the folk of Gehenna. The culprits are actually crystalized spiders who upon biting their victim, send the fated person into a deep and dreamy sleep. But who is so desperate to put the citizens of the land to sleep, and why? Where are they being hidden, and how can he rescue them? Can he do it before the trolls bring war?

Fans of Harry Potter, How to Train Your Dragon, and Hotel Transylvania will be delighted with this new fantasy series. In a land full of magic, a giant flying bat, a hero with a smart mouth, and a determined female ruler, Dream Magic will keep readers of all ages turning the page in an anxious quest for more. What I loved most about this book was how it spoke to so many ages AND to both boys and girls. I have a 13 year-old daughter and never have a hard time finding books for her to read, but my 11-year old son is another story. We’ve flown through Percy Jackson, The Jedi Academy, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but he always needs something more, and doesn’t latch onto books that are solely female driven. Dream Magic is unique in that it has both a boy and a girl starring as the hero; both with equal billing and equal page time. The story is vividly written and thrilling, with no lull in the plot (which means that the young readers aren’t going to get bored, which I appreciate). I especially loved the scenes featuring Thorn riding his bat – the ever-opinionated Hades –  and how both Thorn and Lily were always so quick to think of things from different angles. Any time a problem came up, they would combat it with a mixture of common sense and ingenuity, always using violence as a last resort.

I recommend this book for readers ages 8 and up, and for boys and girls alike. I give Dream Magic 5 out of 5 stars. Look for it next week when it hits bookstores, libraries, and online markets near you.

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Review: The Alchemyst – The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel

The Alchemyst – The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel

by Michael Scott

” I am legend.

Death has no claim over me, illness cannot touch me. Look at me now and it would be hard to put an age upon me, and yet I was born in the Year of Our Lord 130, more than six hundred and seventy years ago. 

I have been many things in my time: a physician and a cook, a bookseller and a soldier, a teacher of languages and chemistry, both an officer of the law and  a thief. 

But before all of these I was an alchemyst. I was the Alchemyst. 

I was acknowledged as the greatest Alchemyst of all, sought after by kings and princes, by emperors and even the Pope himself. I could turn ordinary metal into gold, I could change common stones into precious jewels. More than this: I discovered the secret Life Eternal hidden deep in a book of ancient magic. 

Now my wife, Perenelle, has been kidnapped and the book stolen. “

I often wonder about the real-life heroes.

The ones that authors pluck from history as any random climbing rose in an English garden or a dandelion swaying in the wind of an open meadow. Many authors will find their inspiration hiding in an old history text, choosing to build their epic romances, arduous tales of war, or their harrowing adventures around real-life figures.

One such figure that creeps into a lot of modern day writing is the elusive and mysterious Nicholas Flamel. Readers have followed his legacy through Harry Potter’s quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone, they have heard him described as a supposed Grand Master of the Priory of Scion while on a journey with Robert Langdon as he sought out the Holy Grail, and even the famed Indiana Jones has spent time searching for Flamel’s ancient text that is said to describe the process of how to alchemically produce the elixir of everlasting life.

History says that Nicholas Flamel stumbled upon a puzzling and peculiar book while traveling as a scribe and bookseller sometime in the 1300’s. Flamel was assumed to already be a student of the sorcerous art of alchemy, the medieval forerunner to what we now accept as modern day chemistry, and his interests pushed he and his wife Perenelle to read every book on the subject that they could get their hands on, often traveling to distant lands in search of translators and often meeting up with curious characters much like those that they are paired up with in later literature for entertainment value.

Shortly after coming into possession of The Book of Abramelin, a veritable grimoire that is said to hold the secrets for turning ordinary metal into gold, Flamel departed the city. When Nicholas and his wife returned from a sabbatical that took nearly twenty years, their wealth was immeasurable. Rumors over their considerable and somewhat overnight wealth swirled the city despite his best efforts to lead a quiet and unassuming life,  and the Flamel’s took care to donate much of their wealth to charity: sponsoring hospitals, churches, and orphanages around the Paris area where they took up residence in a stone house that still stands to this day.

After the couple died, their home was torn apart as scavengers searched for the secrets of their wealth, but nothing was ever found. Their tomb was eventually invaded by the same type of predators in the hopes of recovering something of substance, but to the criminal’s surprise, the graves were empty – spurring the legend of the immortal Flamels and further instigating the fire that surrounded their mysterious alchemical connections. As the days after their deaths turned into years and decades, reported sightings of the Flamels continued to emerge and to be recorded, leaving one to wonder – were they actually immortal? Does the Philosopher’s Stone actually exist?

The Alchemyst is a mid-grade level book written by Irish author Michael Scott. While he has written other series for the same age group, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series is definitely his shining star.

The story is set around a colorful collection of characters:

  • Nicholas and his wife Perenelle, who are former historical alchemists now living in modern-day California as booksellers.
  • Sophie and Josh Newman are a pair of teenaged twins; Josh works for Nicholas in the bookshop and Sophie works across the street at a coffee bar.
  • Dr. John Dee, a curious historical figure best known as his role in Elizabeth I’s life as her chief doctor, trusted personal advisor and astrologer, is our clear villain.
  • Mythological creatures Scathach (a Celtic warrior), Hekate (a three-faced goddess of Greek lore who is known for her protectiveness of family), Bastet (the Egyptian goddess of warfare), the Morrigan (an Irish symbol of fate), and The Witch of Endor (the Biblical mistress of the air) all make an appearance – but while it may seem that some figures are on the right side of peace and others are on the wrong side of evil, readers are encouraged to not trust anyone.

Nicholas is alarmed to become involved in a magical shootout when Dr. John Dee and his nefarious cohorts pop into the bookshop, searching for the elusive Book of Abraham the Mage, a book that Dee has been searching for over the centuries. Flamel has been able to outsmart and outrun his previous pupil in the world of alchemy so far, but it seems that the run is over. Or is it? Flamel is able to sneak his way out of the shop with his employee Josh, a terrified teenager, at his side and after learning that his wife Perenelle has been subsequently kidnapped by Dee, Flamel grabs Josh’s twin sister Sophie and they set out on the road searching for sanctuary.

Flamel is pained to be separated from his precious wife and he is inflamed to realize that Dee was able to procure the book from him. If Nicholas and Perenelle do not create and ingest the alchemical formula for immortality once a month, they will begin to age at an alarming rate – one year per day they do not have their elixir. His attempt at flight brings them to a hidden dojo where they end up bringing an ancient goddess of war into the fray with them – Scathach, better known as Scatty. While the red-haired warrior may look like a teenager herself, she is actually one in a line of Elders, albeit of the Next Generation, meaning she is not as old and powerful as some of the creatures out there. She agrees to help guide the twins and Flamel to the refuge of Hekate, where they hope to regroup and regain their strength before formulating a plan.

” At the mention of the word twins, Scatty looked up from her packing. “They’re the real reason you’re here, aren’t they?”

Flamel suddenly found something very interesting to stare at on the wall. 

Scatty strode across the small room, glanced out into the hall to make sure Sophie and Josh were still in the kitchen, and then pulled Flamel into the room and pushed the door closed. 

“You’re up to something, aren’t you?” she demanded. “This is about more than just the loss of the Codex. You could have taken Dee and his minions on your own.”

“Don’t be so sure. It’s been a long time since I fought, Scathach,” Flamel said gently. “The only alchemy I do now is to brew a little of the philosopher’s stone potion to keep Perenelle and myself young. Occasionally, I’ll make a little gold or the odd jewel when we need some money.”

Scatty coughed a short humorless laugh, and spun back to her packing. She had changed into a pair of black combat pants, steel-toed Magnum boots and a black T-shirt, over which she wore a black vest covered in pockets and zippers. She pushed a second pair of trousers into her backpack, found one sock and went looking for its match under her bed. 

“Nicholas Flamel,” she said, her voice muffled by the blankets, “you are the most powerful alchemyst in the known world. Remember, I stood beside you when we fought the demon Fomor, and you were the one who rescued me from the dungeons of An Chaor-Thanach and not the other way around. ” She came out from under the bed with the missing sock. “When the Rusalka were terrorizing St. Petersburg, you alone turned them back, and when Black Annis raged across Manitoba, I watched you defeat her. You alone faced down the Night Hag and her Undead army. You’ve spent more than half a millennium reading and studying the Codex, no one is more familiar with the stories and legends it holds –” 

Scatty stopped suddenly and gasped, green eyes widening. “That’s what this is about,” she said. “This is to do with the legend. . . “

Flamel reached out and pressed his forefinger to Scatty’s lips, preventing her from saying another word. His smile was enigmatic.

“Do you trust me?” he asked her eventually. “

But Dr. John Dee and his impatient clients, the Morrigan and Bastet, have a different idea. While Dee was able to snatch the book off of Flamel before he fled, he is furious to learn that several of the pages have been snatched out – in fact, they are the single most important pages of the entire book. Dee and his clients devise a plan to attack the Flamel group in Hekate’s haven, which will result in the deaths of things that have been alive since the beginning of time.

While visiting the enigmatic and curious Hekate, Flamel has begun to formulate some suspicions. The twins, Sophie and Josh, seem to have more to them than meets the eye. The Book of Abraham speaks of a set of magical twins and predicts that they will either save the world or end it, and Flamel has to wonder. . . are these the ones of which the foretelling told? Hekate is able to see their auras which burn a bright gold and silver, confirming what Flamel is equal parts afraid of and excited about. The twins become even more precious commodities now, and it is his mission to Awaken their powers and to keep them safe until their paths become clear.

When Dee, Bastet, the Morrigan, and a slew of their demented creatures descend onto Hekate’s home, war breaks out. And although one twin has been Awakened, the other has not, and contempt and jealousy begin to take root as the group escapes and begins another journey.

” Hekate fell silent, watching the twins punch and kick next to Scathach.

“Silver and gold. The rarest of all auras,” she muttered, and for a single heartbeat, the auras bloomed around the twins. “If I do this and it kills them, will you be able to live with it on your conscience?”

“I am old now, so old,” Nicholas said very softly. “Do you know how many friends I’ve buried over the centuries?”

“And did you feel their loss?” There was a note of genuine curiosity in Hekate’s voice.

“Every one.”

“Do you still?”

“Yes. Every day.” 

The goddess reached out and placed her hand on his shoulder. “Then you are still human, Nicholas Flamel. The day you stop caring is the day you become like Dee and his kind.” “

The Alchemyst is a book that can be enjoyed by all ages, but is truly geared toward both male and female readers between the ages of 10 and 15. Readers who enjoyed the Harry Potter series and the Percy Jackson books will enjoy this series of 6, becoming enthralled by a magical world within a world, and following along with likable characters through their tribulations.

While I found the beginning of the book started off with a splash of adventure and fast-paced excitement, the middle portion stalled a little. I think it was to produce some character development since the beginning missed a lot of that due to the exploits, and I am hoping that as the book ended much as it began, that the rest of the books in the series will remain as thrilling.

I give this book 3 out of 5 stars, knocking off points for the stall in the middle and for the onslaught of mythological creatures that got a little convoluted at times. I didn’t feel the descriptions were clear enough for the targeted age group, but that is not to say that it will not be enjoyed. Readers may want to have their computer or iPad at the ready to look up the creatures to formulate an accurate description in their mind.

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Review: Lost in a Book

Lost in a Book

by Jennifer Donnelly

“The second vulture screeched. He shook his head, and then his wings. Death’s pale cheeks flushed with indignation. 

“I know there are rules, Truque!” she said. “I know I cannot go to the girl before her time. But what if she comes to me? What if I can bind her here? That changes things, doesn’t it?”

The vulture considered his mistress’s words, then dipped his head and grabbed the book with his sharp talons. Death opened a window, and the two birds swooped off into the night. As she watched them go, her sister’s words came back to her.

You have no idea how the story ends. 

Death’s bloodred lips curved into a grim, determined smile. 

“Oh, but I do,” she purred. Because I intend to write it!” “

Lost in a Book is a Disney sanctioned novel that I came across via FaceBook. The marketing for the book must be very good because ads for it popped up onto my feed multiple times a day! I follow several Beauty & the Beast groups and I guess those cookies are working in my favor. I am so glad I came across this sweet little book. It was really fun to read and a great perspective.

I don’t know much about Jennifer Donnelly other than she is very involved on her FaceBook page. I love it when authors take the time to interact with their fans, and she has many. There is something very charming about the back and forth between a fan giving a compliment and an author receiving it and responding. Social media is a great platform for celebrities and their adoring masses to come together, and the praise for this novel has been substantial.

Lost in a Book is the tale of Belle’s time as an unintended guest of the Beast’s enchanted castle. The time period (if you are going by the movie) is after she has arrived and tried to escape, only to be set upon by a pack of wolves in the forest and saved by her captor, the Beast. The Beast has gifted Belle with her very own library and she is determined to begin the task of tidying it up, along with the help of her friends and familiar faces – Cogsworth, Lumiere, Mrs. Potts and Chip. The library is a disaster of dust and grime and they spend a few days and many hours cleaning things up so that it can be a place for Belle to find sanctuary. Books have always helped Belle escape the tribulations of her life and she needs them now more than ever; being separated from her father is heartbreakingly difficult.

” “Reading became my sanctuary,” Belle continued. “I found so much in those books. I found histories that inspired me. Poems that delighted me. Novels that challenged me. . .” Belle paused, suddenly self-conscious. She looked down at her hands, and in a wistful voice said, “What I really found, though, was myself.”  “

What Belle doesn’t know is that a trap has been set for her. Two sisters, Death and Love, have been playing with her life on their chessboard of fate, watching her from a veritable distance. Love, of course, is hoping that Belle will begin to see the good in the Beast, allowing the spell to be broken and for the both of them to live happily ever after. Death on the other hand is hoping to claim Belle’s life as part of her collection. They place a bet on Belle’s life, each hoping that their wish will become reality, but what Love doesn’t know is that Death has decided to cheat. She places an enchanted book in Belle’s library, one that will come to life and tempt her into another world. If Belle takes three things from this magical world inside the book titled Nevermore, and leaves three things in return, then she will be bound to the world forever and as such, meet her eternal end.

Belle finds the book in secret room within the library and cannot hold herself back from entering. In it, she finds a world that is amazing and all that she has ever dreamed of. Inside the book of Nevermore is the city of Paris and it’s outskirts, parts of her country that Belle has always dreamed of visiting but never had the means. She also encounters a handsome duke named Henri and a startlingly curious Countess who offers to take Belle under her wing and show her the lays of the land.

” Belle was taken aback by the countess’s title. “Terres des Morts. . .” she echoed. “Land of the Dead? I’m not sure I wish to meet her!”

The young man laughed. “It’s a horrible title, I agree. It was given to an ancestor of the countess’s. After he’d won a particularly bloody battle. It is much more fierce than she is, I promise you.”

Belle hesitated. “What is this place?” she asked.

“A bit of magic, like all good books,” the man replied. “An escape. A place where you can leave cares and worries behind.” He smiled. “At least for a chapter or two.” He offered her his arm. 

Belle bit her lip. She cast a glance behind her. It wasn’t too late to leave. It wasn’t too late to run out of the chateau, down the drive, through the portal, and back to the Beast’s castle. 

But there, she could only read stories. Here, it seemed, she could live one.  “

Belle comes back from the book and is torn. She loved her adventure while visiting the magical land inside the book with the Countess and her new friends, but she also is finding a particular fondness for the inhabitants of the enchanted castle and the Beast. His behavior and demeanor are no doubt mercurial, but she is slowly beginning to see the good inside of him. He is making an effort and although it often feels as if he is taking one step forward and three steps back, everyone is hopeful that the Beast will honestly and valiantly earn Belle’s trust and eventually, her heart.

Belle had stood there for a long moment, staring at the empty doorway. 

The gift the Beast had bestowed upon her was so incredibly generous, it was almost unbelievable. She felt as if the Beast, who had caused her so much sorrow, was now doing everything in his power to undo it. 

Everything, that is, except letting her go. 

“What are you?” she’d whispered. 

Was the Beast the snarling savage who’d imprisoned her father, then herself? Was he the cultivated reader who could recite lines from a sixteenth-century poem? Was he her adversary? Her friend?

Or was he somehow all of these things? “

Despite the Beast’s best efforts, something always seems to go wrong in his attempts to woo and romance Belle. He plans an outing to take her ice skating and ends up coming down with a cold. He tries to hold a polite conversation with her and he cannot control his temper. The enchanted objects of the castle try to smooth things over but between the Beast’s rages and the sorrow Belle is feeling over the absence of her father in her life, she has a very hard time resisting the temptation that is the magical book and world of Nevermore. The Beast however, continues to try and connect.

Something was wrong — very wrong. The Beast could feel it. 

“Why aren’t you eating, Belle? Are you not well?” he asked. 

“I’m fine, thank you. Just not terribly hungry,” Belle said, giving him what was clearly a fake smile. She laid her spoon down. “I didn’t sleep well last night. In fact, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll take my leave.” 

The Beast raised an eyebrow. “Where are you going?”

“To the library.”

“Would you like to go for a walk through the grounds instead? The brisk air will put some color back into your cheeks. You look so pale this morning. Surely you’ve noticed.”

“How could I?” Belle asked. “There aren’t any mirrors here.”

“True.”

“Because you broke them all.”

The Beast cleared his throat. “Also true,” he said. “Personally? I like books better than mirrors,” he added, trying to lighten the mood. “Mirrors only show us what w are. Books show us what we can be.” “

Little does she know, but her new best friend inside the book is none other than Death herself, working her own brand of magic against any love Belle may feel in the real world. She is able to persuade Belle into tasting several things from Nevermore which half binds her to the book, and she cunningly begins to try and find ways to steal things from Belle which will finish the trap. Belle is finding so much joy and solace in what she believes to be the perfect world that she ignores the warnings that Love has sent her way. She continues to go back and forth between the worlds and ignores the physical attachment she is beginning to form to the book. Each time she goes back and forth it proves to be more difficult to get back into the real world.

” “Goodbye, Madame Comtesse,” Belle said as they stepped into the drive. “And thank you again for everything.” 

There was a note of melancholy in Belle’s voice. The countess noticed it. “What’s the matter, child?” she asked. 

“Nothing,” Belle said wistfully. “At least, nothing that doesn’t make me sound like a complete ingrate. I just. . . I wish I didn’t have to leave. Ever. I wish Nevermore was real.” 

The countess smoothed a stray piece of hair off Belle’s forehead. Her touch was as cool as marble. “Does it matter if it’s not?” she asked. “Life can be so difficult, and stories help us escape those difficulties. It’s all right to lose yourself in one, Belle. Isn’t that what you’ve always done? And this one is your own story, for goodness’ sake! What harm can there possibly be in that?” “

Belle is being further manipulated by Death each time she enters the book and finally, things come to a head. She has bound herself to Nevermore by leaving three things and taking three things, and she must embark upon a perilous journey to escape if she wants to keep her life intact. Relying on Love’s emissaries and her own wits, she struggles through puzzles and problems to try and find her way out and back to her Beast — someone that she now realizes she cares more for than she did before.

Jennifer Donnelly brings a bright and appropriate new story to the beloved world of Beauty & the Beast; one that can be enjoyed by a wide range of ages. The narrative is such that a 10-year old and a 30-year old can each enjoy the story and appreciate the addition to a world they already love. I especially loved the nod to the original author of Beauty & the Beast’s tale, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. The author wrote the story of Beauty and her Beast in the 1700’s and although it has been cut down and penned under other names as well, Donnelly used the original author’s last name Villeneuve as the name of the village Belle comes from.

Please note that Lost in a Book follows the storyline of the live-action film and not the cartoon. As a result, if you have not seen the live-action movie, you may find a few discrepancies. I really enjoyed this addition to my favorite fairy tale. I give Lost in a Book 4.5 out of 5 stars, and recommend it for any and all age groups interested in learning more about Belle’s time in captivity at the Beast’s enchanted castle.