Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Review: The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency

Title: The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Moonstone
Author: Jordan Stratford
Genre: Middle Grade, Mystery, Historical Fiction (I guess so…)

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Jordan Stratford imagines an alternate 1826, where Ada Lovelace (the world’s first computer programmer) and Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) meet as girls and form a secret detective agency!

Lady Ada Byron, age eleven, is a genius. Isolated, awkward and a bit rude—but a genius. Mary Godwin, age fourteen, is a romantic. Adventurous, astute, and kind, Mary is to become Ada’s first true friend. And together, the girls conspire to form the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency—a secret constabulary for the apprehension of clever criminals. Their first case involves a stolen heirloom, a false confession, and an array of fishy suspects. But it’s no match for the deductive powers and bold hearts of Ada and Mary.

My Review:
The best thing about this book is its characters. Ada and Mary are form a kind of Sherlock/Watson friendship. Ada being the socially inept reclusive genius and Mary being the empathetic and practical one. They are both intelligent, strong, and adventurous.

I will say, this book is not for reluctant readers. For one, there is quite a run of difficult vocabulary––though often the reader will be helped out by one of the characters (Stratford does a great job of incorporating definitions without it sounding forced or unnatural). Two, there are a lot of historical references children may not be familiar with (this can be looked at as a great little history lesson). And three, the plot drags a bit as the actual mystery is not particularly inventive or thrilling (too neat, tidy, and simple). The case itself only takes up a small portion of the overall story. This book serves its purpose as an introduction to the characters, setting, and era, but the lack a serious plot may make mystery readers less enthused about the next book. 

Adult readers and lit fans will revel in the historical characters mentioned and all the nods to the gothic, mystery, and victorian writers of the time. Unfortunately, all that will go right over the average MG reader’s head (but still I nice introduction to Byron, Shelly, Dickens, and others).

Overall: Three stars. The characters are excellent (seriously funny and endearing), the historical details are nicely done and introductions to historical figures, well placed. The plot is so-so, however, and the mystery, sadly less than that. I did enjoy the book, but I was really hoping for more (plot-wise). Not sure if I’ll read the next one.  

Friday, April 10, 2015

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

Title: The One and Only Ivan
Author: Katherine Applegate
Genre: Middle Grade

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.

Katherine Applegate blends humor and poignancy to create Ivan’s unforgettable first-person narration in a story of friendship, art, and hope.

My Review:
This book is based on a true story!

Using short chapters and simple but poignant writing (almost poetic in style) Applegate writes in a truly unique voice. The voice of Ivan is perceptive and matter-of-fact, Applegate doesn’t try to humanize him, or give him unnatural emotions. He sounds like … well, a gorilla. A gorilla that’s been in captivity and has learned a lot about humans, but doesn’t really understand them.

Besides Ivan, there is Bob a dog of “uncertain heritage,” Stella an elephant, and later Ruby––a baby elephant. Each animal has a voice both unique to their character and their species. The dialogue between these characters is bitter sweet and often humorous.

Applegate doesn’t hold back the painful truths about animals in captivity, or shield her readers from the dark side of human behavior. But for every bad thing that happens a good thing shines through. The animals have stories to tell about good humans and bad humans and you see it everyday in the behavior of those around them. There’s nothing preachy or sentimental in these stories or Applegate’s writing––animals don’t have those devices.

My favorite character is Bob who dislikes humans the most (he was abandoned as a puppy and the only one in his litter who survived). Bob distrusts all humans and can never see the good in them, but the book ends with (SPOILER ALERT) him being adopted by my favorite human character, Julia.

Overall: Five stars! If I had to describe this book in just one word  I would say: hopeful. After reading it, I am not the least bit surprised that it got the Newbery. This book is fantastic. All I can say is READ IT! 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Genre: YA

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.

Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author's own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character's art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.

My Review:
This is the first book I’ve read by Sherman Alexie (which is kind of embarrassing because I live in Spokane). I’ve never read a book with this much hype and not been disappointed. But in this case, the hype is all well deserved, and I’m sorry I waited so long to read it.
The best thing about this book is that it speaks to everyone. This is a story every teenager can identify with: feeling like an outsider, the pressure of being different, the pressure of being expected to be the same, and the wish to be accepted. The story of Junior is hilarious, heartbreaking, and full of hope. Alexie wrote a story so painfully true you feel like you’re getting kicked in the gut.

I read this book at Lake Roosevelt and was almost half way through it before I remembered I was quite literally on “the rez.” It made the book all the more memorable when we drove home through Rearden. I had to stop so I could take a look at the High School and yes, their school team is still the Indians.
Overall: Five stars. This is one of the best coming of age books I’ve ever read. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel like you got kicked in the stomach.

Note: Not for MG readers! This book contains sexual references, heavy subject matter, and gratuitous swearing. 

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: