Friday, November 28, 2014

Book Review: Maniac Magee

Title: Maniac Magee
Author: Jerry Spinelli
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction,

About The Book (from Goodreads): 
Jeffrey Lionel "Maniac" Magee might have lived a normal life if a freak accident hadn't made him an orphan. After living with his unhappy and uptight aunt and uncle for eight years, he decides to run--and not just run away, but run. This is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he changes the lives of a racially divided small town with his amazing and legendary feats.

My Review:
Wow. I think I was in love with this book before I finished reading the second sentence:

They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring. 
They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept.

This book is written in a narrative that is part hear-say, part school-yard legend, and part facts. Magee’s story begins when he runs away from his Aunt and Uncle who hate each other, but will not divorce: “Never again to return to the house of two toasters. Never again to return to school.” 
The words “run-away” are unlikely to ever be used more literally. Magee starts running and he doesn’t stop. He runs right out of town, and into the next town, and into a neighborhood where he does not belong. But that’s the best thing about Magee, he has no idea where he does belong, and in an attempt to leave his only family behind, he ends up making a new family. 

I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say this book touches on what it means to be family, the difficulties of friendship, different types of kindness, and most obviously–– racism. I am slightly confused as to what era this book is supposed to be set in, but my best guess is the 1960’s or 70’s.

Overall: Five Stars! Great book. Love the writing style.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Book Review: The Maze Runner

Title: The Maze Runner
Author: James Dashner
Genre: YA, dystopia, sci-fi

About The Book (From Goodreads): 
If you ain’t scared, you ain’t human.

When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his name. He’s surrounded by strangers—boys whose memories are also gone.

Nice to meet ya, shank. Welcome to the Glade.

Outside the towering stone walls that surround the Glade is a limitless, ever-changing maze. It’s the only way out—and no one’s ever made it through alive.

Everything is going to change.

Then a girl arrives. The first girl ever. And the message she delivers is terrifying.

Remember. Survive. Run.

My Review:
What I loved about this book was the action, pacing, and mystery. What I disliked about this book was the fact you never get any of your questions answered. What I liked about the plot was it doesn’t give you time to breathe (much less go to the bathroom). What I disliked about the plot was YOU NEVER GET ANY OF YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED. Yes, I am aware this is a series, and yes I will probably read on, but I really dislike reading unexplained action for long periods of time.

This book is a bit like playing a video game, it hooks you in and you can’t stop: you want answers! When I finally did stop, I realized how little I cared for the characters; they all felt completely expendable to me, including the main character. 

I will say the boys’ behavior seems real enough and I thought the dialogue was well written. I know a lot of readers complain about the made up slang (shank, shuck-face, slim-it, etc.), but I think it works. How else is the author going to write a book about a tribe of boys in a worse than Lord of the Flies situation? Especially for YA? He would have to use the F-word in every other line. Instead we have: “You are the shuckies shuck-faced shuck in the world!” 

Last of all, the ending was a huge let down. The explanation to solving the Maze is not the least bit interesting. I wanted something mind blowing. And as to the very end, all I got was  a few, vague answers, and many more questions. 
Overall: Three Stars. Excellent pacing and loads of action, characters could have been better developed (zero emotional attachment here),  but my main complaint: I NEVER GOT ANY OF MY QUESTIONS ANSWERED… oh, did I mention that already? I’m sorry, but I really feel like a few things (at least) should have been explained … seriously … like just a few.

Rated V for Violent: High levels of brutality (think Hunger Games), bullying, and loads of gruesome deaths. Not a MG book!

A note on Book Two: I went ahead and started Book Two (The Scorch Trials) in hopes of getting some answers. Just the opposite happened: all action, no information or explanations, and zero character development. I stopped reading about 1/2 way through.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: The Case of the Missing Marquess

Title: The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes Mystery #1)
Author: Nancy Springer
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction, Mystery

About The Book (Taken from Scholastic): 
When Enola Holmes, the much younger sister of detective Sherlock Homes, discovers her mother has disappeared — on her fourteenth birthday, to make matters worse — she knows she alone can find her.
Disguising herself as a grieving widow, Enola sets out to the heart of London to uncover her mother's whereabouts — but not even the last name Holmes can prepare her for what awaits. Suddenly involved in the kidnapping of the young Marquess of Basilwether, Enola must escape murderous villains.

My Review:
This book is a great little mystery; a short read full of cyphers, hilarious disguises, and clever (but not bafflingly-cryptic) clues. The historical details are well done with descriptions that give you a quick feel for the era without weighing down the plot with details. Both classism and sexism are addressed, and give the story extra punch. You really feel for Enola and her mother, and understand why they do what they do.  
This book has both humor (mostly involving Victorian undergarments) as well as thrills and danger. Enola is a smart, rebellious, resourceful teenager–a character almost as complex and intelligent as her older brothers (which is honestly quite unrealistic, but highly entertaining). Happily, I felt the author stayed true to Arthur Conan Doyle’s creations; neither Sherlock nor Mycroft deviate from the way I envisioned them while reading the original Sherlock Homes books.

Overall: Four Stars. A great way to introduce middle graders to the “cozy” mystery. Although there is certainly plenty of clues, adventure, and “scary bits” there are no gristly murders to make this book inappropriate for younger readers. The only odd thing about this book is the title, as the “Missing Marquess” is certainly the smaller of the two mysteries of which Enola solves, and also one that doesn’t really take precedence until almost half way through the book. A peculiar choice. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Book Review: Lost Children of the Far Islands

Title: Lost Children of the Far Islands
Author: Emily Raabe
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction, Folklore, Mythicism, shapeshifting

About The Book: 
Twins Gus and Leo live normal lives, so it comes as a complete surprise when their mother becomes mysteriously ill and strange things began to happen around the house. First, they notice peculiar things happening to them (like being able to hold their breath underwater for long periods of time), then their younger sister, Ila (who has never talked) begins to speak for the first time. She uses strange words that sound like warning and are difficult to interpret and when their mother goes into a coma they learn she has given up her health and possibly her life to protect them. They are the last of the Folk (Selkies or seal people) and the only ones who can stop the Dobhar-Chu (the evil King of the Black Lakes) from escaping his island prison. 

My Review:
I picked this book up because of the fabulous cover and honestly, if I had read inside the jacket flap, I probably would have set it back down. Animorphs or shapeshifting––the mythical idea that humans can morph or shift in and out of animal forms, is not one of my favorite themes. However, by time the I realized that’s what the book was all about, I was too immersed in the story to stop reading.
Raabe takes the mythical stories of Selkies and drags them across the Atlantic from Ireland to the coast of Maine. Gus (yes, a girl named Gus), her twin brother Leo, and their little sister Ila are the last of the Folk, humans who are also seals. 
However, long before they learn what they are, strange things begin to happen (wolf tracks outside their home, their mother’s night poem, symbols in the dirt) and their home is no longer a safe place. Their father decides to take them to their grandfathers. However, their flight to safety is interrupted by the Bedell, a sometimes sea mink sometimes human creature, who is a messenger for the Morai (their Grandmother who is also Folk), and this is were they learn they are Selkies and end up running away with him.
Oddly, the children running away from their Father seemed more strange and out of character than anything else that happens in this book. What children, who grew up in a safe, loving home, would leave their father (who is trying to protect them) and run away with a minx-man who just appears in their hotel room?
From here on their adventure only grows in intensity and mystery and I very much enjoyed the mythical twists, legends of the Selkies, and other magical animals included in the story. 
Overall, the writing is pretty good. There are however, a few hiccups. The author likes to use a lot of facts about animals and the sea in her writing. This works great when this information is coming out of Leo’s mouth (as he is a brain and bookworm). However, sometimes the author breaks voice and narrative to drop these factoids into the story. As true or relevant as they may be, they break up the flow of the story. It is as if you are watching a film and suddenly the screen goes blank, then the narrator says, “Seals, although they may look gentle, are ferocious hunters.” Then the screen flickers, and we are back to the action.
Every shark used has its correct name: mako, tiger, great white, bull, hammerhead, etc. Same with every kind of fish and whale. This is fine during non-dramatic or low-action moments, but I’m sorry, in the heat of battle, whilst being attacked, is it necessary to know exactly what type of shark is attacking? I found that it pulled me out of the action more than helped me visualize it:
“A tiger shark, young enough that its stripes had not yet faded, slammed against Gus, sending her careening helplessly through the water.” 
Hmm, yes, that is what I would notice if the shark were attacking me. In the author’s defense, prior to this book she has only written non-fiction, and I do like the idea of mixing fact and fiction. Fantasy books certainly do not have to be devoid of learning, however in this case, it was not done well.

Overall: Three Stars. Great characters, imaginative plot, and excellent use of folklore. If it wasn’t for the factoid encumbered writing and occasional breaks in character, I would give it four stars. I tried to ignore my personal disinterest in shape shifting, and would like to point out that, the fact I kept reading is proof of how much pace and pull the plot truly has. 

Warnings: Fair bit of violence (though mostly between animals), there is a death, and certainly some scary moments (wolves, the Dobhar-chu, shark attacks). I did not however, find the book particularly dark, the magic is light and not the least bit creepy. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Top Drawer Tuesday: C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors and as tomorrow is his birthday, he absolutely had to be showcased in this week’s Top Drawer Tuesday. Picking out a single quote to illustrate was difficult because there were so many good ones to choose from. So I have decided to simply put the rest of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes below. 

1. “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different...”

2. “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

3. “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

4. “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”

5. “You can’t know. You can only BELIEVE––or not.”

6. “Why, it is she that has got all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter, and never Christmas; think of that!” (The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe). 

7. “We must go on and take the adventure that comes to us” (The Last Battle).

8. “Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read all the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

Friday, October 24, 2014

Book Review: Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes

Title: Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes
Author: Jonathan Auxier
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction

About the Book (from Goodreads):
Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes is the tale of a ten-year-old blind orphan who has been schooled in a life of thievery. One fateful afternoon, he steals a box from a mysterious traveling haberdasher—a box that contains three pairs of magical eyes. When he tries the first pair, he is instantly transported to a hidden island where he is presented with a special quest: to travel to the dangerous Vanished Kingdom and rescue a people in need. Along with his loyal sidekick—a knight who has been turned into an unfortunate combination of horse and cat—and the magic eyes, he embarks on an unforgettable, swashbuckling adventure to discover his true destiny.

My Review:
I love children’s fantasy. New and old. I willingly suspending my disbelief, following senseless tales, and getting lost in absurd magic. I enjoy fairy tales both dark and creepy or light and hilarious. Fantasy worlds do not need to be explained, they simply are, and I love it that way. 
That said ... an author creates a world, that world has rules––unstated, hazy, and sometimes fairly peculiar (they’re more like guidelines really), but whether one is reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Percy Jackson, the world takes shape as certain realities are broken and new ones formed. THIS BOOK HAS NO RULES. Everything (and I mean everything) is ARBITRARY.
Never while reading Peter Pan, Matilda, or any other children’s book based in ridiculous magic, have I actually thought, “This is ridiculous.” NEVER! I love it. Sink into it and soak it up. I don’t stop and say, “Why would that happen?” or “This is absurd!” But I said all of these things to myself over and over and over while reading Peter Nimble. 
Because the story line makes it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief … and I really wanted to. I’m not going to make a list of all the absurd things that happen (another reviewer already did that), but I will say a story doesn’t have to be plausible (as in real world plausible), but it does need to be plausible within itself––within the world created. The events surrounding and actions of Peter Nimble are inconceivable even within the world that has been created specifically for him. 
Overall: This is my first DNF Review (DID NOT FINISH), which is really too bad because I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for a long time. Not only are the reviews fantastic and the cover art beautiful, but the entire set up for the story is simply brilliant. I even love the title. 
Despite having a terrible time with this particular book, I still think I might be willing to try another book by Auxier.  Overall, I like his writing style, imagination, and humor.  

Rated V for violent: There are definitely some grotesque scenes (a baby getting its eyes pecked out for starters) and bodies litter this plot like candy wrappers at a parade. Right from the cover I was drawing connections to Peter Pan, but whereas the dark side of Barrie’s book is subtle and tenuous, leaving the creepy bits to settle like cobwebs in your head, Auxier’s dark side is brutally blatant, like a skillet to the head (and not nearly as profound).

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review: Fly Away

Title: Fly Away
Author: Patricia MacLachlan
Genre: Early Middle Grade Fiction

About The Book : 
Lucy and her family make their annual trip to visit Aunt Frankie in North Dakota just as the floodwaters rise, threatening her home.  Author of the Newbery Medal–winning Sarah Plain and Tall (1985), MacLachlan writes with simplicity and clarity. The book has large type, and wide-spaced lines of text make this volume an inviting choice for readers who are beginning to read longer chapter books.

My Review:
Lucy’s whole family can sing, even her little brother Teddy, of whom no one else in the family thinks can even talk. Lucy can’t sing, but she has a secret too: she is a poet. Artfully written, simple and elegant, MacLachlan tells a story about family, secrets (good secrets!), and bravery.
This is a quiet book and some readers may find it boring as there is little drama and not much danger, however, I think there are plenty of young readers who are ready for stories with a little more substance, even if it means a little less action.

Overall: Four Stars. Great first chapter book for young readers. A short, simply told story full of meaning, and an excellent way to introduce a child to poetry.