Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Book Review: Liesl & Po

Title: Liesl and Poe
Author: Lauren Oliver
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Liesl lives in a tiny attic bedroom, locked away by her cruel stepmother. Her only friends are the shadows and the mice,until one night a ghost appears from the darkness. It is Po, who comes from the Other Side. Both Liesl and Po are lonely, but together they are less alone.
That same night, an alchemist's apprentice, Will, bungles an important delivery. He accidentally switches a box containing the most powerful magic in the world with one containing something decidedly less remarkable.
Will's mistake has tremendous consequences for Liesl and Po, and it draws the three of them together on an extraordinary journey.

My Review:
Orphans on the run from dramatically evil adult villains? Yes, it’s been done. But add in two ghosts, the Other Side, and some dark magic that’s taken away all the sunshine in the world––now you’ve got a story!

If you read the afterword, you will learn that Lauren Oliver wrote this  book following the death of a friend. This is a story drenched with melancholy and sadness, but also one of hope. The world between the pages of this book are cold and colorless. But there is also love and kindness, so don’t despair! The ending is a happy one––more or less.

My only complaint is this: the magic is too loosely strung. I like my magic solid, like Harry Potter––rules apply. There aren’t really any rules to the magic in this book. It’s just thrown about haphazardly as needed for the plot. 

The same applies to the Other Side. The descriptions are good, and I had no trouble visualizing both worlds (the grey one Liesl lives in and the strange warped one of the Other Side), but the loosely woven “laws” that govern the two sides are easily broken. Basically, you are just told something can’t be done, then they go ahead and do it––with little to no struggle.

Overall: Three stars. The illustrations are amazing! The writing and characters are good (if you don’t mind one-dimensional villains). The plot, however, sagged and was occasionally predictable. The magic was too slippery. 

I still liked it. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Book Review: Mary Poppins

Title: Mary Poppins
Author: P.L. Travers
Genre: Children’s Chapter Book

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
From the moment Mary Poppins arrives at Number Seventeen Cherry-Tree Lane, everyday life at the Banks house is forever changed.

It all starts when Mary Poppins is blown by the east wind onto the doorstep of the Banks house. She becomes a most unusual nanny to Jane, Michael, and the twins. Who else but Mary Poppins can slide up banisters, pull an entire armchair out of an empty carpetbag, and make a dose of medicine taste like delicious lime-juice cordial? A day with Mary Poppins is a day of magic and make-believe come to life!

My Review:
I’m not going to lie, I only read this book because I recently watched “Saving Mr. Banks” and was curious just how different the book was from the Walt Disney version. Apparently, P.L. Travers hated the movie (despite what we learned in “Saving Mr. Banks”) and I personally found I too prefer the sharp tongued, vain, and at times menacing book Poppins to the chirpy, singing, and smiling movie Poppins. 

“There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.” Only the book Poppins can live up to that quote. She just has so much more mystery surrounding her. She pretends to be perfectly conventional nanny always denying  that she is at all odd or magical.

Some readers have complained Mary Poppins is too harsh a character. They can’t understand why the children would even like her. But the truth is obvious, it’s all an act, and the children see right through it:

Mary Poppin’s eyes popped. “At the Zoo? In the middle of the night? Me? A quiet, orderly person who knows that early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise?

Her vanity is particularly amusing: 

… for the thing they new Mary Poppins liked best  of all was looking into shop windows. They knew, too, that while they saw toys and books and holly-boughs and plum cakes, Mary Poppins saw nothing but herself reflected there.

Like so many post-film readers, I didn’t see much that suggested Mr. Banks needed saving. In fact, the story doesn’t have anything to do with him. I believe both the movie “Mary Poppins” and “Saving Mr. Banks” were based on all of her books, not just the first one. So it may be that the father character develops further on, I’m not sure. As to all the supposed strings connecting Mr. Bank to Travers' own father, all that I picked up on was that he works at a bank, is busy, and occasionally grumpy. 

Overall: Four stars. This book is written in the old style where each chapter tells of a small peculiar adventure with Mary Poppins, and as imaginative as they are, nothing much happens––that is to say, there isn’t always a problem that gets solved, a situation to get out of, or even a lesson learned. Just: weird things happen, they have fun, come home, and then Poppins denies anything strange occurred. This lack of plot really bothered me at first, but then I realized it only bothered me because that’s not what I’ve been taught a story should be. So what, I liked it anyway.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Book Review: Doll Bones

Title: Doll Bones
Author: Holly Black
Genre: Middle Grade/YA

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends for ever. They love playing with their action figure toys, imagining a magical world of adventure and heroism. But disaster strikes when, without warning, Zach’s father throws out all his toys, declaring he’s too old for them. Zach is furious, confused and embarrassed, deciding that the only way to cope is to stop playing . . . and stop being friends with Poppy and Alice. But one night the girls pay Zach a visit, and tell him about a series of mysterious occurrences. Poppy swears that she is now being haunted by a china doll – who claims that it is made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl. They must return the doll to where the girl lived, and bury it. Otherwise the three children will be cursed for eternity . . .

My Review:
I loved this book! The characters are interesting and complex. The story is mysterious. And I love the way Holly Black writes––it’s such a satisfying mix of action and creepy descriptions. 

The only oddity I found in this story is the characters age. They are supposed to be twelve, but sound and act significantly older. In fact, the only “young” thing about them is that they still “play” (and by play I mean a game that involves dolls, action figures, and their imagination). But even this game is so complex it is much closer to interactive storytelling or LARPing than what I would consider childish “play.”

The characters feel their game is something they should’ve long outgrown (which hits age 12 about right), but everything else about them––specifically the way they talk and interact with each other comes across as far too mature for middle schoolers. At times the main character, Zach, sounds like he could be 17 or 18.

Overall: Five stars. Minus the age thing, this story is perfectly told and I loved it! 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Three Times Lucky

Title: Three Times Lucky
Author: Sheila Turnage
Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic, Mystery

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Rising sixth grader Miss Moses LoBeau lives in the small town of Tupelo Landing, NC, where everyone's business is fair game and no secret is sacred. She washed ashore in a hurricane eleven years ago, and she's been making waves ever since. Although Mo hopes someday to find her "upstream mother," she's found a home with the Colonel--a café owner with a forgotten past of his own--and Miss Lana, the fabulous café hostess. She will protect those she loves with every bit of her strong will and tough attitude. So when a lawman comes to town asking about a murder, Mo and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, set out to uncover the truth in hopes of saving the only family Mo has ever known.

My Review:
Mo LaBeau might be the funniest MG character I’ve read about in a long time. Her Southern know-it-all, talk first–think later, point of view will give you a side ache from laughing so hard: 
“They found Mr. Jesse in a boat?" I asked. "I'm wondering if maybe he just up and died. Maybe there ain't no murder. Like the fish weren't biting and he died of boredom. It happens. Boredom kills. I've had close brushes myself, during math.”
Turnage takes a few pages from Mark Twain while writing this utterly hilarious MG mystery. There is certainly something of the Huckleberry Finn voice that comes through Mo’s view of the world and the many characters of Tupelo Landing. 
The reader is plopped right down in the middle of  a full cast of eclectic, small-town characters, each as nosy and opinionated as the next, and none less than Mo. Mo’s opinions about her eccentric guardians–– The Colonel and Miss Lana, best friend Dale, crush Lavender, and Sworn Enemy for Life–– Anna Celeste, kept me in stitches:
“Yes ma'am," I said, "Anna Celeste's party is Saturday, but I don't need a ride.... No ma'am. It's because Anna Celeste is my Sworn Enemy for Life and I'd rather go face-down in a plate of raw chicken entrails than go to her party. Plus I'm not invited…."

Overall: Five stars. I loved this book! The writing, humor, plot and pace, make it an all around exceptional piece. Mo LaBeau has a voice as strong as Anne Shirley, Huckleberry Finn or any other famous fictional character!

Can’t Wait to Read: 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: The School for Good and Evil

Title: The School for Good and Evil
Author: Soman Chainani
Genre: Middle Grade / YA

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):

“The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.”

This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good & Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.

But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…?

My Review:
This story is told through the alternating perspectives of Agatha and Sophie. I think this was a great choice, and gives the book fantastic pace; what starts out as hilarious, quickly turns dark (I wouldn’t give this book to a kid under the age of 10) and sometimes gruesome. Sophie morphs from being shallow to truly horrible and then full on evil, while Agatha more-or-less stays true to herself. You might have a little trouble convincing yourself they really are friends. The idea that their friendship is real, is what concludes the story, but the entire book, well … shows you the opposite. Problem? Yes it is.

The set up is brilliant, just like one might assume by reading the blurb. The schools, teachers, classes, and rules are both amusing and clever (Chainani takes a lot from Hogworts, but it’s done well so you won’t mind). The names of the classes are especially hilarious, and the book pokes fun at all the things you expect it would:

“The boys went off to fight with swords while girls had to learn dog barks and owl hoots. No wonder princesses were so impotent in fairy tales, she thought. If all they could do was smile, stand straight, and speak to squirrels, then what choice did they have but to wait for a boy to rescue them?”

Yes, there are a lot of good lessons to be learned about shallowness and self-esteem and of course the most obvious: a pretty face doesn’t mean a pretty heart, but overall this book has no idea where it is going or what it is trying to say.

Overall: Three stars. Although I loved the set up and the humor, the plot is too loosely woven, and I didn’t find the characters to be entirely convincing. Sophie is so awful, that her sudden spark of goodness––which comes right at the end, is hardly believable. Also, the meandering pace is highly frustrating. This book could easily have lost a hundred+ pages and no one would have missed it. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Book Review: Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid

Title: Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid
Author: Megan McDonald
Illustrator: Peter H. Reynolds
Genre: Children’s Chapter Book

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Shrink, shrank, shrunk!

Every morning, Judy Moody measures Stink and it's always the same: three feet, eight inches tall. Stink feels like even the class newt is growing faster than he is. Then, one day, the ruler reads -- can it be? -- three feet, seven and three quarters inches! Is Stink shrinking? He tries everything to look like he’s growing, but wearing up-and-down stripes and spiking his hair aren't fooling anyone into thinking he's taller. If only he could ask James Madison -- Stink's hero, and the shortest person ever to serve as President of the United States.

My Review:
Kids will get a mini history lesson it this comic filled book about Stink (real name: James Moody). Stink is a smart, nice kid who is seriously insecure about his height.
Stink and his sister, Judy Moody, sound and act like real kids––not at all idealized, special, or freakishly intelligent. They argue, make fun of each other, and get in trouble. I think a lot of kids will be able to identify with stink and his mini adventures. 

Overall: Three stars. Not all parents will enjoy reading these books to their kids, for an adult they come across as pretty silly, and a bit plotless. However, this series is great for kids who are transitioning from picture books to chapter books. It is an easy read, with wonderful little illustrations, and hilarious comics drawn by Stink.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Book Review: Marty Mcguire

Title: Marty Mcguire
Author: Kate Messner
Illustrator: Brian Floca
Genre: Children’s Chapter Book

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Marty McGuire would rather spend recess catching frogs in the pond than playing dress-up with the other girls in third grade. So when her teacher casts Marty as the princess in the class play, Marty's absolutely, positively sure that there's been a huge mistake. But after a special lesson in the art of improvisation, Marty comes up with her OWN plan to IMPROVE the play: Why use stuffed-animal frog onstage when a live one would be so much better? In the end, Marty's one-of-a-kind performance makes for an unforgettable show. Maybe a tomboy princess CAN live happily ever after, after all!

My Review:
As a child I loved Ramona Quimby, and I am sure I would have loved Marty Mcguire even more! Marty Mcguire is not about poofy dresses, dancing, or playing princess, but she is all about pond scum, slimy frogs, and playing Jane Goodall. I find this incredibly refreshing as the whole princess phenomenon makes me a bit a gaggy at times. Also, it seems like it’s been a long time since children’s literature has openly embraced a tomboy.

Messner writes for this age group with such clarity and ease. The voice is perfect! And anyone who is on the lookout for early chapter books, will instantly know what a rare find this is. The book is written in first person, and Marty’s spunky personality rolls out within the first few sentences.

Every aspect of the story is firmly established in the everyday events of 3rd grade. The ups and downs of friendship and family make this a positive read. Also, unlike, say Judy B. Jones, parents won’t have to worry about Marty saying rude things and calling everything “stupid.” I personally love the Judy B. Jones books, but must admit reading them aloud to kids, requires a series of stops and explanations. “This is funny kids, but should Judy have…” (These clarifications come across less credible after you keep bursting into laughter!) No such worries here, Marty makes mistakes like any child, and gets in trouble (what would the book be about if she didn’t) but the problems are solved, and lessons learned throughout the course of the story (parental guidance unnecessary).

Overall: Five stars. This is a great book for 2nd and 3rd graders who ready for chapter books and a fun read-to for first graders. Funny, and fresh, with a real plot, this is an early reader must!

More great chapter books for young readers: