Review: The Ring of Solomon

The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel by Jonathan Stroud. Disney Hyperion Books. 2010. Reviewed from unedited version from publisher.

The Plot: Jerusalem, 950 B.C.E. King Solomon (yes, that King Solomon) rules Israel with wisdom and strength. And a ring — a ring that gives him unbelievable powers. King Solomon controls Israel, including the magicians of his court. Magicians control djinni. One of those magicians has a djinni named Bartimaeus.

The Good: I’m addressing this to three different readers. Sort of like choose your own adventure! First, new readers to this series; next, members of awards/lists committees; finally, people who have read the other books in the series.

New Readers: In The Ring of Solomon’s world of magic, magicians bind djinni and other creatures to do their bidding. Bartimaeus is one of those djinni, summoned to do a master’s bidding. Djinni are rarely willing conspirators; elaborate spells and ceremonies are required to both summon and bind them and one misstep by a magician frees the djinni. The djinni are not happy to be summoned and commanded, so those missteps usually don’t end well for the magician. Usually the magician ends up eaten. So there is danger and risk in magic. The djinni do have some free will. With Bartimaeus, that means he is snarky, looks out for number one (that would be himself) and always tries to figure a way out of serving his current magician. Oh! And whatever you do, don’t call a djinni a demon. It’s rather insulting.

In The Ring of Solomon, Bartimaeus serves a magician who serves the mighty Solomon and, of course, it is Bartimaeus’s story. It is also the story of Asmira, personal guard to the Queen of Sheba. Sheba hopes to protect herself and her country from the personal, political, and military advances of Solomon so she sends Asmira on a secret mission. Kill Solomon. Take the ring. 

There’s no way you cannot like Bartimaeus, in part because he’s funny, sarcastic, and smart. Does Bartimaeus speak the truth? “Dissemblers as we sometimes are when conversing with humans, higher spirits almost always speak truth amongst themselves. The lower orders, sadly, are less civilized, foliots being variable, moody and prone to flights of fancy, while imps enjoy telling absolute whoppers.” An example of Bartimaeus’s behavior is, despite Solomon’s power, Bartimaeus sings bawdy songs about him and, at one point, takes the appearance of hippo that bears a startling resemblance to one of Solomon’s wives.

Asmira is also very likable. First, she’s strong — as a member of the guard of the Queen, she’s been taught to fight from the time she could walk. Second, she’s smart. She even knows a bit of magic. She’s on a journey anyone can respect: save her queen, save her country. Since Bartimaeus is linked to someone who protects Solomon, and Asmira is out to get Solomon, well, you know these two kids will hook up at some point.

So, you have action, humor, great characters. You also have a continuation of a series, but set several thousands of years before the other series, so you do not have to have read the trilogy to understand this book. Be warned: once you read this book, you will want to read the entire trilogy.

People on awards and lists: while this is a part of a series, because it is set so far before the trilogy, this book truly stands alone.

If you have read and enjoyed The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Stroud, here’s what you need to know: it’s the Bartimaeus you know and loved. The Ring of Solomon is set thousands of years before the trilogy, so none of the humans mentioned in the trilogy appear here. It’s a whole new cast of characters. If, like me, it’s been four years since you read the books, that’s OK because the only character you need to know is Bartimaeus and how can you forget him? You don’t have to worry about remembering anything about plot or characters from the other three books. The final version of the book will have a list of main characters as well as a map.

Is The Ring of Solomon stand alone? Yes; no cliff hangers here. As someone who loves Bartimaeus and his unique voice, which makes me laugh out loud, I hope that The Ring of Solomon is just one of many additional books about Bartimaeus.

Is this one of my Favorite Books read in 2010? Does a djinni call when summoned?

Review: The Secret Society of the Pink Crystal Ball

The Secret  Society of the Pink Crystal Ball by Risa Green. Sourcebooks. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Erin Channing has the highest GPA in tenth grade. Yes, she’s the smart one. She’s so normal she’s a bit boring and that has her worried. She really wants to go on the AP Art History Trip to Italy. Who wouldn’t? Problem is, only five students are going on the trip and those five will be picked based on their grade in AP Art History (shouldn’t be a problem, Erin does have the highest GPA) and on a personal essay that demonstrates “personalities, outside interests, and strength of character.” Erin imagines that reading books and doing crossword puzzles aren’t the type of “outside interests” that get you on an all expenses paid trip to Italy.

One minute, she’s complaining to her friends Lindsay and Samantha that “I’m boring. I’ve never had anything happen to me.” The next minute, the phone rings. Her Aunt Kate is dead. Kate (also known as Kiki and Kooky) has left Erin a Pink Crystal Ball. Shake it, ask a question, get an answer. Turns out? This Pink Crystal Ball can make wishes come true.

The Good: Does the Pink Crystal Ball make wishes come true? The first “wish” — and remember, like Jeopardy, it has to be phrased like a question — is the silly type of question three half-bored teenagers would ask a child’s toy. “Does [hot senior] Spencer Ridgely think I’m smexy?” The answer is “consider your fate to be sealed.” Shortly after, Spencer Ridgely, who shouldn’t even know Erin exists, calls her “smexy.” Which, by the way, is smart plus sexy.

Lindsay, who deals with being the target of a mean girl by buying voodoo dolls and other items from Ye Olde Metaphysical Shoppe, quickly believes that the Pink Crystal Ball actually works. Erin applies logical thinking (research and controlled experiments) to the question as she tries to figure out what it is and how it works and why Aunt Kiki gave it to her. Erin (sensible, practical, boring) discovers that she believes that wishes come true, just be careful what you wish for. Free will remains, and wishes can be undone. Wishes made for other people have their own danger. The role of magic is so subtle, that readers could argue that their is no magic.

It’s nice to have a book about fairly normal girls in a fairly normal situation. Erin is the smart one. Samantha is the sexy one, sexy enough to attract the attention of the lead singer of a band but still normal enough to have a crush on a boy who doesn’t like her back. Lindsay is the “Nicest Girl Ever” and, as mentioned, deals with being bullied by venting to her friends and seeking “metaphysical” solutions rather than actually doing anything.

Take away the Pink Crystal Ball, and Erin’s story is, well, as normal as she is. She works hard at school to try to go on a trip; she falls in love with a boy; she helps her friends with their problems; she deals with her aunt’s death. Just as Erin shouldn’t equate “normal” with “boring,” so, too, is her story not boring. Take the boy. At first Erin sees Jesse Cooper as a boy who is “going for a spiky punk rock thing that seems thirty years too late and might have been hot once but now is just… confusing.” Erin falls for Jesse (and who wouldn’t, he has the whole artsy guy in cool clothes thing going on) and also falls out of her preconceived notions about him and other people. Falling for a hot guy at a punk rock concert that involves crowd-surfing? Not boring at all. Her work at school involves art history which will lead some readers to wonder, wait, is that painting they are describing real? Where is the art museum closest to my house? And as for her friends’ problems, nothing is ever simple when it comes to boys and bullies.

But if you take away the Pink Crystal Ball, would anything have happened? Would Erin have had the courage to pursue Jesse? Would Samantha — well.  I’m not telling you everything these girls do. But whether you believe in magic or not, the Pink Crystal Ball is the catalyst that makes things happen. Do Erin, Lindsay, and Samantha make their own fate? Does the Pink Crystal Ball and its promise of wish-fulfillment give the owner (and her friends) the confidence to act? Or, as Erin and her friends believe, are the coincidences to much to be anything other than magic? 

I have never met Risa Green in real life (or pretend life, for that matter). I used to be a lawyer (Villanova Law School, corporate & employment law, almost ten years, OK, that answers all the questions that usually brings up) and I have a soft spot for “used to be lawyers,” like Green. In part because when I do meet former lawyers, I never have to explain why I left the law. Anyway, Green is a former lawyer. Which I love. And not even a lawyer-now-writer, but a lawyer-somethingelse-writer. Awesome.

Review: Karma Bites

Karma Bites by Stacy Kramer and Valerie Thomas. Sandpiper Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Books. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Book Website.

The Plot: Seventh grader Franny Flanders doesn’t want much out of life. Just for her two best friends, Kate and Joey, to get along and be friends so that she is no longer torn between the two. Just for her divorced father to dump his girlfriend and reunite with her mom. Just for her English teacher to chill and stop assigning Beowulf. Just for some decent food to be served in the school cafeteria. Just for mean girl Elodie to stop being, well, so mean. Just for Alden to like her as much as she likes him. Just for…

Well, maybe Franny does want a lot out of seventh grade. How to get it all done? Luckily, Franny has found her Granny’s box of magic recipes. She’s about to find out — there’s a recipe for that!

The Good: Karma Bites offers a frothy concoction of over the top middle school politics, friendship dynamics, and family, with magic that sometimes helps, sometimes hurts, and always has consequences. Having read several serious books in a row, it was nice to just relax, laugh, and enjoy.

Don’t read Karma Bites expecting realism. It’s all over the top and heightened. Franny’s school doesn’t just have cliques; it has cliques so entrenched, and popular “peaks” so powerful that they control when kids can enter the school. Franny’s best friend, Kate, is the eccentric side-kick to the nth degree, dressing in “Einstein meets skater girl” and talking in extreme slanguage. Franny’s other “bestie” is Joey, who fills the “popular girl” stereotype in her own over the top way: she’s a “pom” (pom pom/ cheerleader), perky, pretty, smart. Joey and Kate cannot get along, and Franny negotiates being best friends with both with a schedule that would scare a CEO. Who she walks to school with, how long she spends with one, it’s so detailed that it leads no time for Franny. No, seriously; because she has to support Kate’s band practice and Joey’s pom practice, Franny has no time to join anything herself.

Granny counsels Franny to actually, you know, talk to Joey and Kate. Who wants to have an uncomfortable talk when a magic recipe box offers an easy solution? OK, maybe not so easy if it involves whipping up a bunch of Brassbound Beatudinous Blondies* and standing on one’s head. Unfortunately, it backfires. Joey and Kate don’t just stop hating each other — they become such best friends that they dress alike, ignore everyone else (dropping out of band, poms, and, well, everything) and setting up a blog dedicated to their own fabulosity. Needless to say, if before they pulled Franny in two different directions, now they ignore her completely. And that is just ONE of Franny’s fix it recipes that don’t quite fix it the way she wanted.

The authors, Stacy Kramer and Valerie Thomas, both have a background in the film and television industry. Karma Bites reminded me of a film or tween television show brought to life: I could easily picture Franny and her friends, their school, the details of their lives; and the problems Franny’s recipes cause, as well as their solutions, are very mad-cap capers. Karma Bites is a good recommendation for those wanting fun, humor, and friendship. You know the kids (or parents) who, when you ask them what they like to read, reel off the name of a half dozen television shows and only want tie-ins? The types of books that either don’t exist or your library doesn’t buy or are all checked out? If they are asking for iCarly, the Wizards of Waverly Place, and Hannah Montana types of books, Karma Bites will make them happy.

The recipes Franny finds in the magic box are included in the book and some are also at the book’s website. Ah, the magic box of recipes. As I said, Karma Bites takes everything and makes it that much more. So of course, Granny isn’t going to be a typical Granny. She’s a world traveler (settling down to help her divorced daughter), who practices yoga and tai chi and collects an assortment of items (and friends) along her travels. If by the time you get to the end of Karma Bites you’re thinking “oh come on” about Granny’s friends, you’ve been reading the book wrong.

My interview with Stacy Kramer.

* I am thisclose to making those blondies, minus the headstand. Except for the whole “I don’t bake” thing.