Thursday, January 22, 2015

Book Review: The Whipping Boy

Title: The Whipping Boy
Author: Sid Fleischman
Genre: Middle Grade, Medieval, but not exactly Historical Fiction. 

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
A shout comes echoing up the stairway "Fetch the whipping boy!"
A young orphan named Jemmy rouses from his sleep. "Ain't I already been whipped twice today? Gaw! What's the prince done now? It was forbidden to spank, thrash, or whack the heir to the throne. Jemmy had been plucked from the streets to serve as whipping boy to the arrogant and spiteful Prince Brat.
Dreaming of running away, Jemmy finds himself trapped in Prince Brat's own dream, at once brash and perilous.
In this briskly told tale of high adventure, taut with suspense and rich with colorful characters, the whipping boy and Prince Brat must at last confront each other.
Award-winning author Sid Fleischman again blends the broadly comic with the deeply compassionate in this memorable novel.

1987 Newbery Medal Winner

My Review:
There are a lot of big words, old words, and old British slang that will make this a difficult read for some middle graders. Example: “Your Pa ‘ll scrag me with his bare hands! So I’ll be obliged if you’d help me nip out o’ here.” For this reason, the book works best as a “Read to.” I recently read it aloud to a group of 2nd-3rd graders and they loved it, but we had to stop repeatedly and clarify what the characters were saying and the meanings of  some of the more uncommon words.

Despite the difficulties of language, this is such a fun story, full of adventure and escapes. Plot-wise it is pretty simple to follow,  though the twists are not at all predictable for younger children, and they did great trying to guess what Jemmy’s schemes and escape plans might be. 

I can recommend this book as a classroom read, but not necessarily as a Historical Fiction as it is often labeled. It reads more like “The Prince and the Pauper” as it is set in a Medieval-ish era. Neither the events nor the ending are believable enough to label it historical fiction.

Overall: Five stars. For such a short book, quite a lot happens, and despite the difficult words, I have found most children really enjoy the story. There is a moral, but it is not overly “moralistic” nor does it talk down to the reader. The “lesson” is buried deep in the adventure, and although the ending is not particularly believable, it ends well.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Book Review: My Brother's Shadow

Title: My Brother’s Shadow
Author: Tom Avery
Genre: Middle Grade, Realism

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Fans of David Almond’s Skellig and Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls will embrace this deeply affecting middle grade novel in which a girl suffering from terrible grief befriends a mysterious wild boy.

When I saw him that first time I screamed—a small and silent scream, all inside, in my gut. Eleven-year-old Kaia, who has felt isolated since her older brother committed suicide more than a year before, befriends a wild boy who mysteriously appears at her London school. Though the boy is mute and can only communicate with a flash of his gray eyes, he might be the friend Kaia needs to bring her through her grief. 

Here’s a fascinating story, which offers a fresh and completely original portrayal of loss and renewal.

My Review:
I knew this book was going to be sad, but I wanted to read it anyway, and I’m glad I did. Kaia describes herself as being frozen, frozen ever since she found her brother’s body. She can’t move forward. She’s lost her friends, her mother’s a mess, and Kaia is completely isolated in her grief. That is until the Wild Boy appears at school.

I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just say this is a story about Kaia forming an unusual bond, letting go, and getting her smile back.

I like almost everything about this story (even if it is sad). The Wild boy, however, is a bit of an enigma. I guess I wanted something more from him … or about him. It seems unfair to make his character nothing but a prop in Kaia’s story; he needs to be fleshed out, to be believable.

Overall: Four Stars. I think this story is brilliantly told. It deals with grief, loss, and isolation in a way most young readers can understand. That said, I’m not sure who I would recommend it to. I don’t think reading sad stories is a necessity of childhood. There will be enough sadness coming along shortly. I might, however, recommend it to a child who has already suffered a loss, or as a classroom read to promote discussion.

Other books dealing with grief and isolation: Olive’s Ocean, Walk Two Moons, Kira Kira, and The Spotted Dog Last Seen.


Monday, January 12, 2015

Book Review: The Misadventures of Edgar & Allan Poe

Title: The Misadventures of Edgar & Allan Poe; The Tell-Tale Start
Author: Gordon McAlpine
Genre: Middle Grade, Humor, Mystery

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Meet Edgar and Allan Poe -- twelve-year-old identical twins, and the great-great-great-great-grandnephews of Edgar Allan Poe. They look and act so much alike that they're almost one mischievous, prank-playing boy in two bodies. When their beloved black cat, Roderick Usher, is kidnapped and transported to the Midwest, Edgar and Allan convince their guardians that it's time for a road trip. Along the way, mayhem and mystery ensue, as well as deeper questions: What is the boys' telepathic connection? Is Edgar Allan Poe himself reaching out to them from the Great Beyond? And why has a mad scientist been spying on the Poe family for years?

My Review:
Combine a witty narrative, with fantastic illustrations, and pages of notes, secret messages, letters, and e-mails (most beneath the disclaimer: “WHAT THE POE TWINS DID NOT KNOW…”) and you have this hilarious, fun, little book.

Allan and Edgar are very amusing characters, and their adventure is both fun and funny. However my favorite parts of the book are where the reader gets to visit their Great-Great-Great-Great-GrandUncle Mr. Edgar Allen Poe in the “great beyond.” Here, the famous author attempts to communicate with Allen and Edgar through his desk job of writing fortune cookies. Hilariously, his plans are often interrupted by his boss, Mr. William Shakespeare, and the dialogue between the two is truly amusing.

Overall: Four Stars. I like the characters and their adventure. I liked their cat. I liked the incorporation of some scientific and literary concepts. And of course, I liked the “real” Edgar Allen Poe from beyond the grave. The only reason I am giving the book four stars instead of five is because all the characters are absolutely one-dimensional. I know this is a “cartoony” book and fully dynamic characters are not necessary, but still, it made the story fall a bit flat.

End Note: If you enjoy this book, you might also like: The Templeton Twins, A Series of Unfortunate Events, or the Time Warp Trio.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Book Review: The Princess in Black

Title: The Princess in Black
Author: Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
Genre: Early Reader, Chapter Book, Fairy Tales

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Princess Magnolia is having hot chocolate and scones with Duchess Wigtower when . . . Brring! Brring! The monster alarm! A big blue monster is threatening the goats! Stopping monsters is no job for dainty Princess Magnolia. But luckily Princess Magnolia has a secret —she’s also the Princess in Black, and stopping monsters is the perfect job for her! Can the princess sneak away, transform into her alter ego, and defeat the monster before the nosy duchess discovers her secret? From award-winning writing team of Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrator LeUyen Pham, here is the first in a humorous and action-packed chapter book series for young readers who like their princesses not only prim and perfect, but also dressed in black. 

My Review:
This is a great early reader with lots of pictures. A fantastic “big girl book” with its chapters and hardcover, but an easy read. Finding early chapter books is so difficult, and Shannon Hale is one of my favorite MG/YA writers, but that said, I really wanted to like this book more than I actually did. 
The story is cute, but unfortunately, the plot is so simple it’s rather boring. The idea of a poofy-pink princess having a secret ninja-like identity is fantastic, but the whole “princesses are this, and princesses are that” has been done to death, and there really isn’t much of a plot.

Overall: Three stars. This book is more on level with a picture book, than a chapter book (it’s just longer). It is cute, and fun, and funny, and I am sure there are quite a few little girls who will be dressing up as the Princess in Black for halloween.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Book Review: The Westing Game

Title: The Westing Game
Author: Ellen Raskin
Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade or YA?

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
A bizarre chain of events begins when sixteen unlikely people gather for the reading of Samuel W. Westing's will. And though no one knows why the eccentric, game-loving millionaire has chosen a virtual stranger - and a possible murderer - to inherit his vast fortune, one things' for sure: Sam Westing may be dead... but that won't stop him from playing one last game!

Winner of the Newbery Medal
Winner of the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award
An ALA Notable Book

My Review:
An eclectic group of individuals, a set of random clues, and the self-predicted murder of a multi-millionaire … it all sounds pretty exciting doesn’t it? 

Right from the start, the narrative hops from character to character (all neatly and purposely contained within Sunset Towers; a luxury apartment complex) and the reader is given a series of quickly shifting scenes: a spattering of clues, bits of conversations, thoughts, and speculations. These must all be used to piece together the plot. Like most mysteries, there is a method to the madness and as the puzzle pieces fall into place, a picture begins to form … not the picture you expected and certainly not the picture of a murderer, but a picture none-the-less. 

There are so many elements of this book that are well done: the writing is sharp, the characters interesting, and the ending is unpredictable. That said, this book did not hold my interest. Neither the characters nor the clues were enough to keep me glued to the page; something was missing, something that made it far too easy for me to set the book down and forget about it.

Most obviously, there wasn’t a single character I really cared about. No, not even Turtle Wexler, which appears to be a favorite of so many. Without the care-factor, either action or intrigue needed to dominate, but this is a zero tension read (then again, the last book I read was “The Maze” so maybe I’m just desensitized).  

Overall: Three stars. Not quite as exciting as I hoped, but not a bad read. The clues unravel in a way I found neither clever nor intriguing and the ending lacked clarity, though it was certainly original.  

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.

Other Great Books by Jerry Spinelli:


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.