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2023 Brackets: May

This year, I am motivating myself to write reviews of the books I read by doing a tournament-style bracket every time I finish 16 books. So I'm torturing myself with tough choices in order to make myself read more...and also making myself feel so guilty for letting wonderful books "lose" that I write glowing reviews of them on Story Graph.

Now that I've graduated my MFA program, it's getting even worse. I just stop reading books that I don't love. The brackets are really getting brutal.

For this final showdown, I actually had to sleep on it. Just staring at the finalists for ten minutes certainly didn't do the trick!

I tried to decide on so many technicalities – is it fair to give The Last Olympian points related to how it ties up and pays off for an entire series? Or should I give it more points for doing all that work at a middle grade level? Conversely, does In the Lives of Puppets deserve the edge for having that warm, safe, found family feel in adult books that often don’t have the nerve to be so openhearted? Or for doing all of its rich, complex world-building in one go? Does Last Olympian deserve points for scale, or does focusing the revolution through Puppets' small, precious family make it all the more heartbreaking? Was I still deciding when I started to write this out? Yes, yes I was.

I will say, that I would have guessed In the Lives of Puppets was more than 40 pages longer than The Last Olympian (although who is that a mark for? Does Klune’s world feel more full? Or does a slightly more compact but just as full story give Riordan the edge? And is that a fair criterion for the end of a series?).

I think I might be more impressed by The Last Olympian for doing the very hard task of ending a sprawling series well: everything feels tied up, the book achieves both surprises and a sense that everything was leading here from the start.

But the speed at which I fell in complete love with the characters of In the Lives of Puppets, and the slow swirl to its devastating climax…no.

No, what made In the Lives of Puppets win is the conclusion. The Last Olympian ties up the war and gets back to happiness a little too fast. Klune takes his time and shows us an imperfect restoration, including permanent loss that still gives way to hope and love…and new questions of identity and choice ahead for our lovely built family.

Winner: In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune

5.0 (see original review on Storygraph)

The humor and love in this book is as deep and rich as all of TJ Klune's work, but while many of his other books felt like a flurry of activity and worldbuilding at the start, In the Lives of Puppets brings the slowburn strategy not just to the love story but all of the revelations and difficult questions that the characters face. Everything is treated with the care it needs in order to payoff at crucial moments in the plot, and many of the elements of the book twist and turn to wring your heart again and again as the novel progresses. The Pinnocchio references initially felt unnecessary, but the beats that resonated with the original story also flipped on their heads enough times to be worth it -- they complicate the questions the novel is asking in really powerful ways. The way this book pulled tears from me only to, the next moment, make me laugh loud enough to startle my roommate in the next room...everyone is complicated in this story, and everyone is worth loving, and everyone is a problem, and everyone is worth it in this, well, not just found family but built family.

Runner Up: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book Five: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

5.0 (see original review on Storygraph)

I almost feel like this book has no business being as good as it is. So many conclusions of long and sprawling series like the first Percy Jackson quintet struggle to tie everything up in a satisfying way...The Last Olympian proves that it is not impossible. Riordan almost makes it look easy! Also impressive is how Riordan managed to make a book that is mostly an extended battle sequence feel like...not that. Realizing how quickly we arrive at the Battle of Manhattan, toward which the series has been building for four books, I was concerned that I was in for the book-equivalent of an endless car chase in an action movie. Instead, Riordan balances the book with a variety of storytelling techniques and shows so many different ways of fighting for your friends and family. The balance of emotional and life-and-death stakes is well calibrated that it never felt like a slog through another battle sequence or like character development was being short-changed.

Spoiler: I'm also a sucker for one of the rarest feats to pull off: a prophecy that is justifiably vague. The surface, most-directly translated meaning of the Great Prophecy set in motion the necessary pieces for the true meaning of the lines to happen. Our hero, Percy, has all this while been a feint, a distraction to clear the way and draw the fire for Luke and Annabeth to play out the climactic moment. The choice that saves Olympus is a personal one, with Annabeth Chase's whole life as the collateral and Luke Castellan of all people at the pivot point. Percy is the support, the warleader on the ground, the inspiration, and the distraction to keep Kronos from figuring out how vulnerable he is to a sixteen year old girl wielding an old dagger against his legendary scythe. Beautiful.


If you thought that was hard, check out THESE brackets! At least I had a warm-up to the big decision...

Hardest Brackets!

Did Battle of the Labyrinth win just because it did not give me a fear of subway infections? Or was it that both of these books managed to spend a significant amount of time in underground transportation but only Battle of the Labyrinth managed to do so and still deliver a rat-free experience? Probably both but a little more the second.

Honestly, what a way to start the tournament! These two books could easily have made the finals. But we may be entering the era of feeling like I have to explain every single bracket, because now that I have graduated with my (third) master’s degree (this time) in Writing for Children…well, I would just put the book down if it didn’t stand a chance of winning...

Ranking these two books feels hard even so. More action-adventure versus more romance, greek mythology versus barely explained but thoroughly tested magic, and One Last Stop has the advantage of a glorious sapphic relationship…but Percy Jackson and his team have long held my heart.

Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan

4.75 (see original review on StoryGraph)

In my first read-through of the series years ago, this was my favorite of the books. Annabeth felt firmly and finally in charge, her emotional journey with Luke was allowed its full complexity even filtered through Percy as narrator, and the new characters who burst on the scene in this book felt particularly full of life and relevance. This book might also be the best series of adventures in the (first?) series, and the escalation of danger still feels fun despite the scope expanding toward disaster fast. The book didn't get a perfect rating mostly for how the book occasionally felt it was straining under the weight of how much information from the original mythology was required to follow the plot. I initially loved to see Riordan branching out to the offbeat parts of mythology like Daedalus and Perdix, but the beautiful cohesion of the other four novels in the series didn't quite feel achieved here. The different parts were so much fun and had individual payoffs, but it didn't feel quite so much like perfect clockwork when all the pieces came together.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

4.5 (see original review on Story Graph)

There's something so fun about how often this book zigs when you expect it to zag! Little pieces of the plot that feel like they're about to cleanly slot into place go just a bit pear-shaped -- not exactly wrong, but offbeat and imperfect and probably what an outsider would see as "weird" but perfectly fitting for the little found family and the interlocking love stories that inspire one another to be brave. There is so much love between the characters, and I appreciate a story about thoroughly investigating the limits and causes of a bout of gentle but undeniable magic. The physical aspects of the love story are a bold swing, but even beyond the magic, it's such a lovely queer love story. The magic makes the proto-typical longing, uncertain-of-reciprocation lesbian tale feel new and true again.

These were two lovely nonfiction picturebooks to read back to back! In the end, this decision came down to a preference for books that are not divided in their text. Just You and Me follows the often popular format of fun rhyming text as the main text with more explanatory text placed elsewhere on the spread. I find the interruption cuts my enjoyment of both, but if that doesn’t bother you, it’s quite fun!

Meanwhile, The Girl Who Could Fix Anything does one of my favorite illustrator choices of including non-white people in historical stories as a matter of course. The text of the story doesn’t say much directly about intersectionality, but the images do have an interplay of race and culture with feminism. It’s not a huge moment, but it doesn’t have to be to matter.

Just You and Me: Remarkable Relationships in the Wild by Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Alexander Vidal

3.5 (see original review on StoryGraph)

I like what this book is trying to do! My main complaint is that I wish the rhymes that introduce the symbiotic animal pairings gave a little more of the information. I realize the prose text covers the explanation, but the rhyme often leaves it quite mysterious even with the picture to help. You want to preserve the ability to read just the rhyme part of the story and still feel like you understand the animal pair's relationship, and not every spread delivers on that. I'd also have liked a LITTLE more detail on the extra prose passages, to justify the interruption of the flow of the book. But it has some very cool symbiotic animal relationships, and it spins that into cooperation metaphors, which makes it a good lesson.

The Girl Who Could Fix Anything: Beatrice Shilling, World War II Engineer by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Daniel Duncan

3.75 (see original review on StoryGraph)

While I appreciate that the format of biographical picturebooks tends toward this pattern of focusing on the whole life of the subject, I think a little more focus here would have made me love the book more. I enjoyed it a lot! I just wish we'd gotten more details about the engineering breakthroughs and a little less on the schooling journey (that seems typical for now if not for the period, which is hard to really capture). But it does well overall -- informative and a bit quiet, with one really cool engineering "solve" covered at the end. That said, the illustrations did a great job of introducing bits of intersectionality -- that's right, this book does not commit the common sin of white feminism by making gender the "only" struggle for acceptance by the old boys clubs. Or of implying that only white people were active and significant in historical events before the Civil Rights Movement. It's not a focus of the text or even of the illustrations, but it deepens the issues addressed to show other students and engineers struggling for respect for different reasons than Beatrice Shilling. Very well done.

Ouch, I’m so sorry, Hummingbird! You are SO lovely, and I’m going to make you a mentor-text and hopefully a comp for Patricia Ann and the Tricycles in Trees, because you are beautifully and wonderfully made. You just made me cry fewer times than In the Lives of Puppets (which became a mentor text for a book I’m worried I’ll never write again).

Oh the heartbreak and beauty of these texts, the joy alongside the disaster and the gentle magic in complex worlds. The puppets of TJ Klune must lose more and break more than the family knitting itself together for Natalie Lloyd, but the heart of both books is profoundly beautiful and beating wildly on their sleeves.

Hummingbird by Natalie Lloyd

5.0 (see original review on StoryGraph)

A beautiful story with a very tidy structure -- I'm envious of writers who can do that! Honestly, Lloyd delivers on all of the great writing checklist: engaging narrator, great descriptions, funny dialogue and commentary from our protagonist, gentle magic that stays deniable most of the book but has a deeply satisfying conclusion, and an almost too-perfect-wholly-beautiful resolution snapping all the various pieces into place. The fact that the book also navigates the emotional complexities of blended families, new friendships, and disability advocacy in the midst of this magic treasure hunt makes it even more lovely. I thought the audiobook's narrator might be putting on a southern accent at first, but it added to the story in the end.

I love this picturebook so much that, honestly, it won handily…I just didn’t want to join the haters of Lost Hero! I can imagine why fans found this a disappointing return to what was then largely known as the Percy Jackson universe, now more aptly called the Riordanverse (especially with Kane and Magnus Chase crossovers included).

Also, the tightly woven structure disguised as monster-of-the-chapter felt more like…monster-of-the-chapter with some of our chapter villains showing back up for the final showdown. The plot is not as tightly constructed in the Heroes of Olympus series, but the shifting perspectives of the characters make for plenty of moving parts that snap together in pleasing ways and even more writer's craft to study.

Plus, with TikTok arguments about how Jason Grace became a disliked (comparatively) character in the fandom because fans mistook him for the “new” Percy, there is plenty of meta-play in this novel. The Lost Hero, by denying us Percy Jackson the former narrator, puts us in the place of Annabeth in her search. It blows up the first person structure to make way for the shifting perspectives of the second series. Also, I think that Jason Grace was not just a foil for Percy, as TikTok has informed me, but also a lightning rod to draw attention and any disappointment away from Leo Valdez…who could easily have read as “Percy Lite” but is better understood as an admittedly similar character but a hero of his own who has the most compelling arc of the new quintet. Well done, Riordan, on so many levels.

BUT THE PERFECT RHYMES of Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow?...wonderful! The rhythm that allows toddlers to complete the rhymes, the way the pages flip open in that half-pop-up book way with extended spreads in different directions…Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow? is a masterpiece. The Lost Hero does a lot of difficult things and is a fun read. Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow? does all of that in rhymed verse without a parade of what, for the first time in the Riordanverse, felt a bit like random battles.

Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow? by Susan A. Shea, illustrated by Tom Slaughter

5.0 (see original review on StoryGraph)

What a perfect picturebook! Rhyming verse that doesn't announce itself, just sounds perfect with the cadence of letting a toddler finish the rhyme and flip the picture art (a rhythm I find all the more fascinating and impressive, having no idea how to do it myself). The illustrations are deeply clever, and the smaller inanimate objects that the book imagines might "grow" into larger versions of themselves transform in a variety of clever ways on the half-pop-up-book pages. The use of cut-outs and flip-folds and just perfect placement makes this book not just fun for kids and parents but deeply impressive in the mechanics of text and images.

The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan

4.75 (see original review on StoryGraph)

It's a shame that this book tends to be Riordan fans' least favorite of the Greek mythology track (you can't help people who don't like the Magnus Chase series. It's not even worth trying...they are lost to you forever). It had a tough draw, since the announcement of a "new Percy Jackson book" that...does not include Percy Jackson...well, it surprised people. In my project of rereading the entire cycle this year, I also found that the monster-of-the-chapter structure did not quite snap together into one, united plot the way that the five books of the first series did. In fact, Heroes of Olympus is more varied and wide-ranging than the tidily-narrated-by-Percy first set of five books. The shifting perspectives add richness to the adventures that in some ways replaces the beautiful snap of all the pieces coming together. The books feel more sprawling and expansive in the second series, and maybe that's just fine! This book also feels like an accomplished series of brave moves by the author. He wants to blow up his single POV-tone, alter many established rules of his universe, and open up the series to more voices, more perspectives on life, and charge ahead in new ways. Percy's absence from the first book feels like a bold but necessary move to pave the way for a very different story -- and Riordan also uses it to create a meta-connection between the reader and Annabeth and Team as they search for the vanished Percy on the sidelines in this book. By the time the novel finishes, we are ready to see Percy Jackson from the outside in Son of Neptune and beyond...and any disappointment has faded in the face of evidence that we'll love him and those in his world even more for opening up the telling of their story.

This feels controversial, and I fully expected going into the full series reread that The Battle of the Labyrinth would be my favorite (again) by a margin. I think that might be Titan’s Curse now, but…well, there’s just something so impressive about The Last Olympian. It should have felt like an unrelenting battle sequence, like The Illiad with one hero going on a magical murder spree after another. However, the action and emotion are varied. The morality and the flashbacks and flashes sideways, the parleys and strategy sessions and breaks to recover from wounds…the characters we meet just enough to be crushed when they die and the slow rollout of the prophecy revealing that the face-value interpretation of the prophecy was necessary to set up the pieces for the true finale…making it a rare Justified Vague Prophecy. It’s a masterful work of art.

The Battle of the Labyrinth is a wonderful, action-packed adventure, as well it should be!

The Last Olympian has no business being as good as it is.

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