Friday, August 29, 2014

Book Review: The Spotted Dog Last Seen


Title: The Spotted Dog Last Seen
Author: Jessica Scott Kerrin
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction

About The Book: 
While tracking clues from a secret code penciled in the margins of mystery novels at a public library, Derek Knowles-Collier discovers a time capsule, an unpublished author and a gravestone that may finally put his haunting past to rest. At Queensview Elementary, grade-six students are required to complete a community service unit as part of their school curriculum, and Derek is assigned to repair duty at the local cemetery...

My Review
There’s nothing creepy or supernatural here, this book is about connections, community, friendship, and overcoming a traumatic past. The friends Derek makes as he works at the cemetery are clearly not the friends he would choose, but each of them has something unique to offer as they unravel the clues found in a library mystery book. Each character feels, speaks, and acts in a very realistic, and unique way. They are not ridiculously quirky or unrealistically smart, they are perfectly average, but interesting characters (refreshing!)
Derek has reoccurring nightmares that connect to a past trauma– an event he is forced to shut out of his mind daily as it haunts him at every turn. This book is certainly different from other middle grade reads, it deals with deep issues in a way middle graders can understand and connect with, shows how events effect an entire community, and touches on how to deal with grief on a person level. 
A few too many coincidences that tie up all too neatly in the end, is my only complaint. 


Overall: 4 Stars. This book is much more than a mystery! Don’t let my review bog you down, this story has a fair bit of humor and suspense. Death is certainly not its only theme!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Book Review: Fortunately, the Milk


Title: Fortunately, the Milk
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction

About The Book: 
"I bought the milk," said my father. "I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: T h u m m t h u m m. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road."
"Hullo," I said to myself. "That's not something you see every day. And then something odd happened."
Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal, told by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Skottie Young.

My Review
Unfortunately, I do not feel there was really enough here to make a book. If anyone other than Neil Gaiman had written this, I sincerely doubt it would have been published or managed to snag two such brilliant illustrators (Skottie Young did the US Version and Chris Riddle the UK). However, I guess if you are as famous as Neil Gaimen you might as well milk it. 
Cutesy, rambling, and wacky this book is written to sound like an on-the-spot made-up story. It might be a fun before-bed-read, but there is nothing particularly brilliant going on here. At its best it is sarcastic and witty– at its worst it is lazy storytelling. Neil Gaiman tends to have me in raptures when it comes to creativity and world building, but drop me flat when it comes to plot. This book was no exception … except there was no rapture, all I got was Un-Fortunately, The Milk. 

Overall: Three Stars. Highly creative and humorous, but patchy, random, and weak on plot. Might have made a better picture book. If it wasn’t for the fantastic illustrations I would never have made it through. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Book Review: Flora & Ulysses


Title: Flora & Ulysses
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction

About The Book (taken from Amazon): 
Winner of the 2014 Newbery Medal! A cynic meets an unlikely superhero in a genre-breaking new novel by master storyteller Kate DiCamillo. It begins, as the best superhero stories do, with a tragic accident that has unexpected consequences. The squirrel never saw the vacuum cleaner coming, but self-described cynic Flora Belle Buckman, who has read every issue of the comic book Terrible Things Can Happen to You!, is the just the right person to step in and save him. What neither can predict is that Ulysses (the squirrel) has been born anew, with powers of strength, flight, and misspelled poetry—and that Flora will be changed too, as she discovers the possibility of hope and the promise of a capacious heart. 

My Review
“Holy bagumba!” This book is too much fun. Quirky, hilarious Flora–– a self proclaimed “natural born cynic,” might be full of sarcasm and sass, but may not be quite as cynical as she thinks she is. Like so many great fictional characters (Roald Dahl’s Matilda comes to mind), Flora has no faith in the adult world and her observations regarding it are perfectly hilarious. Ulysses, a squirrel who gains superpowers in a near death accident, quickly becomes her closest friend and a symbol for all that is miraculous and hopeful in the world. 
  
What begins as a fluffy, funny story with perfectly ridiculous plot line subtly thickens into something so much more (and who could expect anything less from DiCamillo). However, unlike some of DiCamillo’s other books (say The Tiger Rising) this book neither begins nor ends with anything particularly dark, philosophical, or profound. Instead, all that (the meaningful-ish-ness stuff) is hovering just below the action; laying low and subtle beneath the silliness. To which I say: brilliant! 

Overall: Five Stars! I would have to call this book “silly” (and it is) but in the most meaningful and wonderful way! Also, fantastic comic book illustrations by K.G. Campbell are a perfect addition to this brilliant book. Oh yes and … loads of fantastic new words for middle graders: malfeasance, obfuscation, and capacious– just to name a few.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Book Review: What the Moon Said


Title: What the Moon Said
Author: Gayle Rosengren
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction, Realistic, Historical Fiction

About The Book (Taken from Goodreads): 
Thanks to her superstitious mother, Esther knows some tricks for avoiding bad luck: toss salt over your left shoulder, never button your shirt crooked, and avoid black cats. But even luck can't keep her family safe from the Great Depression. When Pa loses his job, Esther's family leaves their comfy Chicago life behind for a farm in Wisconsin.
Living on a farm comes with lots of hard work, but that means there are plenty of opportunities for Esther to show her mother how helpful she can be. She loves all of the farm animals (except the mean geese) and even better makes a fast friend in lively Bethany. But then Ma sees a sign that Esther just knows is wrong. If believing a superstition makes you miserable, how can that be good luck?

My Review
After having read so much fantasy and fast paced adventure stories lately, getting into this book took some time. However, I found myself drawn to it, picking it up without thinking and reading late into the night. The plot is subtle. The pace of the book slow but even; it doesn’t drag, it’s just that you don’t realize what the story is all about until you’re right smack in the middle of it. 
Ester is a heart wrenchingly lovable character, and her motives so simple, but misunderstood amidst all the complexity around her. Early on in the book, she comes to the conclusion that her mother doesn’t really love her, and sets herself up to win her mother’s love. 
The story follows their family’s move from the city to the country as they struggle to make it through the depression. Ester’s mother is all knowing when it comes to good luck and bad luck. Signs and superstitions affect all the choices made in the household and ten year old Ester is left grappling to understand right and wrong when these superstitions sometimes cause pain to others, as well as influence how her mother treats Ester and her siblings.

Overall: 4.5 stars. I recommend this book for readers who enjoyed the Little House on the Prairie series, What Katy Did, or realistic / historical fiction. Although the pace is slow, the theme is a sensitive one, and must be unraveled gently, coming to light through the day in and day out struggles of Ester and her family.   

Friday, August 1, 2014

Book Review: The Thickety by J.A. White


Title: The Thickety: A Path Begins
Author: J.A. White
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy, Dystopia, Horror

About the book: 
When Kara Westfall was six years old, her mother was convicted of the worst of all crimes: witchcraft. Years later, Kara and her little brother, Taff, are still shunned by the people of their village, who believe that nothing is more evil than magic . . . except, perhaps, the mysterious forest that covers nearly the entire island. It has many names, this place. Sometimes it is called the Dark Wood, or Sordyr's Realm. But mostly it's called the Thickety.

My Review: 
The main character, Kara, is a beautiful creation by J.A. White. She can see there is good in everyone, even in those who treat her cruelly and torment her. She wants to believe in the Path, follow the rules, and trust the teachings of the village elders (but this means denying her mother and that is difficult). It is because Kara is such a truly good character, that this story is all the more frightening. Watching Kara loose control as she is pulled in by witchcraft, turn dark and vindictive from using the grimoire, and begin to lord this power over the villagers is truly terrifying! Kara is good, but the allure of the grimoire is more powerful than she is. 
I will not go into details or plot spoilers, but (as you might assume) she does eventually free herself from the control of the dark book. It is at this point the author chooses to turn things around, to suddenly try to convince us that there can be good magic, that Kara can use her powers for good (and she does). However, the switchover feels weak and forced and after all the truly awful things she has done under the control of the grimoire, the story fails at convincing its readers that magic can be used solely for good (no matter how careful one might be). The phrase, “I guess there really can be a good witch,” sounds utterly ridiculous when it is finally spoken.
Now I will allow that perhaps we are supposed to feel this way. That the book is supposed to end without one being sure if witchcraft can be used solely for good or not (the ending does suggests that Kara is still caught in the web of magic outside her control). However, I kind of doubt that the author meant for his readers to side with the villagers, and by the end you very well might. 

Overall: Four Stars. The Thickety is an intense, fast paced, and truly frightening book with excellent writing and characters. Though technically middle grade, due to the creepiness, I would reserve this book for upper middle grade readers (no one under 6th grade). There is a lot of death, dark moments, and nightmarish visuals. 

For more on the book, check out White's Site: http://jawhitebooks.com/novel/the-thickety/

Friday, July 25, 2014

Book Review: Fish Finelli; Seagulls Don't Eat Pickles


Title: Fish Finelli; Book One: Seagulls Don’t Eat Pickles
Author: E.S. Farber
Genre: Children’s Chapter Book 

About the Book (taken from Goodreads): When bully Bryce Billings bets Fish Finelli that he can't find Captain Kidd's legendary long-lost treasure, Fish and his friends embark on a quest to find real-life pirate treasure. Between sneaking into the library to track down Captain Kidd's map, stowing away on a boat, and trespassing on an island, Fish and his friends have their work cut out for them. But will Fish actually be able to find Captain Kidd's booty and win the bet? Appropriate for both boys and girls, this first book in the Fish Finelli series will inspire readers to use their imaginations, learn about the world around them, and appreciate the bonds of friendship.

My Review:
Great book for kids who like facts, not fantasy and enjoy reading low anxiety adventure stories. With so many dark and creepy middle grade books out there, Fish Finnelli is a refreshing summer-fun mystery full of humor and light thrills. 

Packed with fun facts, fourth grade humor, and pirate treasure (what more could you want?) this is a great “read-to” for six and seven year olds, while kids ages eight and up will be reading it to themselves. Due to the simplicity of the plot however, I would say fourth grade is the limit as this book will come across as highly implausible to older kids.

The writing is clean and simple and Farber mostly uses dialogue to keep the story rolling. Fish, Roger, and T.J. sound like real boys, but there is no gross humor just “goose poop,” silly puns, secret codes, and acronyms. Scientific facts break up the narrative throughout and though mostly helpful and amusing, at times they become wearisome and gum up the pace of the story.

Overall: Love the factoids in the margins, the illustrations, and the laugh out loud boy humor. The plot is pretty simple and the characters one-dimensional, so I would draw the line at fourth grade; younger kids will be laughing while older ones will be rolling their eyes. 


Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy


Title: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
Author: Karen Foxlee
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy, modern day fairy tale 

About the book (Taken from Goodreads): Unlikely heroine Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard doesn't believe in anything that can't be proven by science. She and her sister Alice are still grieving for their dead mother when their father takes a job in a strange museum in a city where it always snows. On her very first day in the museum Ophelia discovers a boy locked away in a long forgotten room. He is a prisoner of Her Majesty the Snow Queen. And he has been waiting for Ophelia's help.

My Review:
In a word: enchanting. This brilliantly told, magical modern day fairy tale had me from beginning to end. I instantly fell in love with Foxlee’s writing style and her quirky characters. I love fairy tales retold and this is a charming spin on a very old classic– the Snow Queen. 
Ophelia’s curiosity, asthma, self-doubt, and scientific mind make her a quirky, hilarious, and endearing character. She doesn’t want to believe in magic, even when the evidence is all around her. She’s quite sure she is neither brave nor clever, but keeps proving herself wrong at every turn.

“Wizards, she thought, when she gained her composure. What good were they if they couldn't tell you how to do stuff, if they were always talking in riddles and saying they knew everything before it even happened? It wasn't very helpful.

If she were a wizard, she'd write reports for people. She'd make sure everything was very clear. She'd write, Looking for a magical sword? No problem. Go to the fifth floor, turn left, open a large wooden chest, et cetera, et cetera. She'd have check boxes. Found your magical sword? Place X here. (Pg. 190)”

Overall: Five Stars. This story was spun with pure magic.