Showing posts with label pre-young adult fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pre-young adult fiction. Show all posts

Sunday, October 14, 2018

We Are Not Eaten by Yaks by C Alexander London


Rating: WARTY!

This novel for middle-graders sounded like it might be interesting. It certainly seemed like it promised to be different. Instead of having children chomping at the bit for an adventure with their explorer parents, these children wanted nothing more than to be left alone to watch TV, but somehow end up on adventures anyway.

I discovered after starting reading this one that this isn't the first book in the series, but once again there's is absolutely nothing whatever on the cover to warn the reader that this is a story already in progress. It's like buying a book which has the first five chapters missing. This is why I do not have a lot of time for series or for Big Publishing who quite obviously simply do not care about the reader.

That I might have been willing to overlook had the story been worthwhile, but while it did have its moments, it had far too many boring sections to make it a worthwhile read, and I DNF'd it. The point I did this was when the father and his son and daughter, on an adventure trying to find their missing mother, were expelled from a plane in mid-air (without a single person on board objecting) over a snowy mountain range, and they ripped a page quite literally straight out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, by managing to escape with a life raft. Barf! Let's forget that at thirty thousand feet they would suffocate before they ever landed, so what they had to land in was irrelevant.

I cannot support a novel which when it's not boring is ridiculous and the ridicule is unleavened by plagiarizing a movie for an escape.


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, Jillian Tamaki


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a passable story of Rose, a girl beginning to venture into womanhood, told in graphic novel form by the Tamaki cousins.

Rose has been vacationing in a rented seaside cottage with her parents every summer since childhood, and each year she hangs out with her friend, Windy, who also vacations there. The two of them have fun, chat idly about all kinds of things, begin to notice boys, and realize they're much more observant of adult drama now than ever they were before, and much less able to discern any sort of role model in those grown-ups they see. And there seems to be a lot of drama in this particular vacation spot.

I've become a bit of a fan of the Tamakis lately, but their work can be very patchy. This was a cut above the patchwork and while the artwork was nothing spectacular, it was perfectly serviceable. The story wasn't exactly glittering, but it was enjoyable for a one-time read, and so I commend this as a worthy read.


Charlie Franks is A-OK by Cecily Anne Paterson


Rating: WARTY!

I didn't realize when I began this that it was volume 2 of the 'Coco and Charlie Franks' series, otherwise I probably would have skipped it altogether, but there is, once again, nothing on the cover to indicate to a poor unsuspecting reader that this is part of a series. This book won the CALEB writing prize in 2017 (this is a competition that authors pay to enter) and I can't for the life of me figure out why. I guess the competition was poor?

The book isn't god-awfully bad, and the reason I decided to read it was because I thought it might be different. It's set in Australia for one thing, and doesn't involve an only child or a child who is an orphan or who has only one parent. Aside from that, it hit every trope you can find in a book about girls and horses - the evil girl competitor, the competition you must win no matter what, the girl getting all the credit and the poor horse none; problems with her horse that threaten to derail her overriding ambition, lack of parental support (although both parents are present, they're really absent); resentment of a new addition to the family that becomes unrestrained joy later, trope overreaction to 'necessary' guy to validate the main female character, and so on.

After a year of home-schooling, the twins are going back to public school. Why they were home-schooled and why they're now going back goes unexplained. Maybe it's from something in volume one? It's at school where Coco fits in to the alpha girl pack and of course Charlie doesn't because she's nothing like her twin. Maybe this was something else that was gone into in the first novel, because it's not mentioned here as to whether they're identical or fraternal (can girls be fraternal twins? LOL! Sororal?).

I'm not one who expects identical twins to be exactly alike in behaviors and desires etc. I prefer it if they're not, but that said, they are quite literally clones and therefore have the same genes which often express in the same ways when it comes to preferences, tastes (not testes which is what I first accidentally typed! LOL!), lifestyle, etc. These two showed none of that whatsoever, so the point of twinning them was lost on me.

The worst problem for me though, was that the main character wasn't AOK. She wasn't even likeable. She had a one-track (or maybe in this case one-tack?) mind which revolved solely around her own selfish and self-absorbed desires, and really had no time for anything or anyone else, not even her sister who loaned Charlie her own horse after Charlie's wasn't able to compete. Charlie didn't strike me as having an over-abundance of smarts, either, as this quote indicates:

While I was at school, I put in enough effort to show I was actually present in the class, and at least vaguely interested in most subjects (I think I mostly just looked vague in Ancient History) but as soon as the bell went and I was on the bus, school was forgotten. Horses were the only things that were important....

The only other thing - quite literally - that she had her mind on was this guy with the asinine name of 'Jake' who seemed to have super powers since Charlie literally felt electric shocks when she so much as looked at him. I'm sorry, but no. How shallow can you make her? Well, this author paradoxically plumbed the depths of shallowness.

With regard to the baby her mother was expecting, this is Charlie's Take On it: " I didn't want to say 'she'. That baby was an 'it', forcing its way into our lives, and making my mum sick" Don't sugar-coat it like that, Charlie. Just plan on trampling the 'it' under your horse's hooves why don't you?!

I'm guessing that the author's plan was to turn this around, but by this point it was too late! I was slightly over halfway through, at the end of Chapter 13 (or 13 Chapter 13 as this book insisted on labeling its chapters!) and I was so sick of this character's attitude that I simply didn't care what happened to her. I refused to read about her any more. She was a dick, and you can't turn that around with simple homespun remedies.

Charlie boasts that she's never fallen from her horse, but even if this is what the author has planned, you can't turned around that obnoxious arrogance, and selfishness with a fall from a horse. You can't do it with mom having a miscarriage, because Charlie selfishly hates the baby. You can't change it by her mom having a cute baby because Charlie selfishly hates the baby. You can't do it by winning the championship, because she's already convinced that a win is inevitable. You can't change it by having her lose the championship because she'll simply blame it on having to ride her sister's horse, for the use of which she's never even properly thanked her sister. She's a big jerk, period and I refuse to commend a novel that makes virtues out of vices in one so young and then seeks to fix all these problems with a magical redemption.


Monday, October 8, 2018

Magic Beneath the Huckleberries by Kristy Tate


Rating: WORTHY!

Errata:
“She’d and hand Annie a sack lunch” (omit 'and')
“he’d by her a prettier one” ('buy', not 'by')

This was a really short story (less than ten pages) about a young girl, Annie, whose mother is dying of cancer. Annie is a book addict who would sneak reads of children's books at the library that her mother probably wouldn't approve of (maybe some of those are the 'banned' books I'm reviewing this month!). She also reads her mom's romance novels that a friend brings by, sneaking them into her own room when her mom is sleeping. Mom doesn’t have long left to live and Annie realizes that praying won’t do any good. The ridiculous idea that a benign god would make a person beg for something that the god could grant effortlessly were it not actually a malign and cruel god, says it all.

Annie wonders if the school witch coven can help, but discovers there's more sauciness than ever there is sorcery going on in that 'coven' in the woods, sitting around camp fires with boyfriends. On her way back from her pointless excursion Annie discovers some magic of her own, hiding in the huckleberries! This was very short, but sweet and I recommend it for a fast and entertaining read for anyone who likes a warm fuzzy story.


Well Witched by Frances Hardinge


Rating: WARTY!

I became a fan of this author after reading the excellent A Face Like Glass, and I've had this volume on my shelf for some time, but only just got to it. My reading list is long and oft interrupted - what can I say? I'm sorry therefore to have to report that I quit reading Well Witched because it was moving so slowly and not in interesting directions. It was nowhere near interesting enough to justify some four hundred pages of this stuff and after DNF-ing it, I now consider it well ditched.

The story is about three middle-graders who, stuck for bus fare one night, raid a wishing well. The wishing well is of course cursed, and they discover uncomfortable changes in their lives and eventually come to the realization that since they took the money, it's now incumbent upon them to grant the wishes. This is on the face of it absurd, even within its own framework, because it wasn't like these wishes were made just the minute before these kids took the money! Obviously the wishes had been made over many weeks or even years, so why do they suddenly need to grant wishes? Who's to say these people even want those wishes anymore, and if they do, then why hasn't the spirit of the well or whatever, granted them? If she, he, or it couldn't or wouldn't, then why do these kids have to?

I was willing to overlook that to begin with, but when I saw how ponderously the story was moving, I lost patience with it. I don't see any reason to make a middle grade novel four hundred pages long. That strikes me as evidence of a chronic inability on the writer's part to self-edit! Just sayin'! I can't commend this based on the quarter of it that I read.


Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff


Rating: WARTY!

This was a middle grade story that was way too young for me. I suspect it may be too young for many in middle grade. It was an audiobook indifferently read by Noah Galvin, and it was far too boring to hold my interest. I can barely remember the story because it made so little impression on me and I listened to so little of it.

The main character is a fifth-grade student named Albin, and goes by Albie. That should tell you the kind of juvenile approach the story takes. It would have been hilarious if the reader had done his voice as a chipmunk. But to be kinder, Albie is evidently learning impaired and no one is getting him the help he needs - except for the 'nanny'.

Alby's problem is that he's never been the best at anything, but rather than have him deal with that, this author seems to think he needs to be the best at something. Well he needs to have better parents, but the author seemed uninterested in addressing that. Albie's best friend is named Erlan, but at least he has a reason for that. Erlan is one of two sets of identical triplets in this one family which is being filmed for a reality TV show.

At this point I gave up on it because nothing is further from reality than a televised show and this felt like one more step into an unforgiving swamp. This is the second Lisa Graff novel that I have thoroughly disliked (the first being Lost in the Sun where she nauseatingly channeled John Green-around-the-gills), so I guess I'm done with her as an author of interest! I cannot commend this based on what I listened to, not even for a middle grade student.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a fun graphic novel in nicely-drawn grayscale, about this girl, Anya Borzakovskaya, a Russian émigré who lives with her kid brother and her mother, and is trying not to feel like the odd one out at this private school she attends, trying to play down her origins, losing her accent, trying to fit in. She even refuses her mother's сырники (syrniki, a sweet cheese fritter. I had to look that up after first translating the Russian!) because she thinks she's overweight. She really isn’t, but shamefully slick advertising has brainwashed far too many girls into thinking they are.

I couldn’t quite follow how she ended-up going home in the dark though a deserted field, but she did. And she fell into a well. Fortunately, all was well, because despite the depth of it, she landed at the bottom without breaking or spraining anything. The problem is that it’s a deserted area and there's no one around except these bones, which bring forth the ghost of the girl, Emily, who once owned the bones. This is Anya's ghost.

When Anya finally is discovered and gets out, Emily, whose ghost has been tied to her bones for ninety years, somehow manages to follow her. At first this freaks out Anya, but after she discovers that Emily is useful, she becomes somewhat less fraught with misgivings. Emily can’t be seen by anyone else, and so is able to crib answers from other students during a test and relay them to Anya, for example. Having spent a lot of her free time reading fashion magazines in Anya's bedroom, Emily is also able to advise Anya on how to dress to kill, and put on make-up for a party she wouldn’t normally have attended.

It would seem that all was well with this new relationship in Anya's life, but when Anya starts talking about putting the ghost to rest, Emily deflects the matter repeatedly. Anya is a strong female character though and pursues the quest unbeknownst to Emily, co-opting the aid of another Russian émigré, a boy whom Anya had had little time for until now. What she learns from her investigation is disturbing, leading to a disturbing confrontation with Emily.

I really enjoyed this story. It was in some ways reminiscent of others I've read or seen in movies, but nonetheless fresh and very entertaining. The artwork was sweet, sand the main character, Anya, was admirable and very cute. I definitely would read something else by this author, and especially if it featuring this same character.


Count Karlstein by Philip Pullman


Rating: WARTY!

I've typically liked stories by Philip Pullman with a few exceptions such as Clockwork, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and Tiger in the Well. I have to add this audiobook to that small group, I'm sorry to report. It wasn't engaging me at all, wasn't interesting, offered nothing of value, and I DNF'd it.

The story isn't aimed at me, yet while I've enjoyed many middle-grade stories, I found this one tedious and the character names trite. For a parody, they might have been amusing, but for a story like this, they seemed a bit like profiling! Arturo Snivelwurst? Signor Rolipolio? Really? If I'd known that Kirkus Reviews (who apparently never met a novel they didn't like) had boasted of its "whirlwind plotting, manipulated into a pulsing tale of darkened hearts, treachery, and at long last, redemption" I would have avoided it like the plague. If all of your reviews are positive, then what's the point?

The story is of two young girls (Lucy and Charlotte) whom their evil eponymous uncle is going to offer up as sacrifices to appease Zamiel, the Demon Huntsman, who has granted Karlstein his riches. How exactly that worked remains unexplored - at least in the bits I listened to. Set in Switzerland in 1816, the story relates how the count's scheme is derailed by the actions of Hildi Kelmar, a servant at the castle where the count lives.

Hildi helps Lucy and Charlotte escape (at least temporarily), and later becomes attached to an amusing shyster named Doctor Cadaverezzi, an illusionist. The ending (part of which I listened to, the rest of which I read of in Wikipedia) is so irrepressibly happy that it's nauseating. I advise having insulin on standby if you plan to read the ending.

The book featured an ensemble cast featuring three of the four Strallen sisters: Zizi, Saskia, and Scarlett. I assume it was recorded in winter because Summer didn't take part.... There was also someone by the name of Schrapnell! The reading of the various parts which wasn't too bad, it has to be said. I loved the English accents (despite these girls supposedly being Swiss!), but was bemused by the differing accents among other characters, and also by some of the pronunciations.

In German, 'stein' for reasons which escape me, who speaks no German to speak of, is pronounced like 'schtine', but with less spittle than you might expect(orate!), yet the pronunciations of Karlstein's name were all over the place and actually seemed out of place given that most accents were English! It's a pity the content of the book wasn't as entertaining as the accents, so all I can do is paraphrase Much Ado About Noting's Benedick, even if it means being a dick: in faith, I consider it too low for a high praise, too simple for an intricate praise, and too little for a long praise; only this commendation I can afford it: that were it other than it is, it were unappealing, and being no other but as it is, I do not like it.


Saturday, August 18, 2018

Ice wolves by Amie Kaufman


Rating: WORTHY!

I'm not a fan of series, with few exceptions, but once again I find myself with the first book of a trilogy (the second of the "Elementals" series is due next year and the third the year after) which had nothing up front to indicate that this actually was the first in a series. That kind of thing really annoys me, and publishers really ought to be ashamed of this deceptive practice, but why would they care when readers keep supporting them? When they can lure someone in with a novel and later reveal it to be only a prologue? My advantage is that I picked this audiobook up on spec at the Blessed Library of Our Lady of the Sneak Previews, so it cost me nothing!

One of the big problems with a trilogy is that the first book is necessarily a prologue. This leads to the second problem which is that despite the pretense of this being a novel, it really isn't because there is a beginning, but no middle or ending to it!

I avoid prologues like the plague, but I ended up reading this novel because I wasn't informed ahead of time what it was. As it happened I quite liked it, but whether I will go on to read any more in this series is still an open question. I certainly am not going to read another until both the remaining two volumes are out, but by that time I'll probably have forgotten about this one!

If I'd known ahead of time and decided maybe this series might be worth a read, I could have waited until all three were out so I could read them one after another. This business of waiting a year between reads is frustrating, because by the time volume two comes out, you've forgotten a lot of what happened in volume one, and I sure don't have the time to go back and re-read it.

Anyway, that beef aside, this story is of an apparently medieval people who live on the island of Vallen, in the main city of Halbard (sp? This was an audiobook!). In the past, scorch dragons and ice wolves lived together in peace and cooperation, but something caused a rift. Now the dragons live who knows where, and the wolves live in the city. For some reason, periodically dragons attack the city, burning things and stealing children. So we're led to believe! I had a few suspicions about the real authors of these incursions.

Resident in the city are orphan twins Anders and Rayna, who eke out a living on the street. Rayna is the dominant partner. Anders is a bit of a wuss and definitely a follower rather than a leader. While trying to pick a few pockets during the monthly ceremony to find new ice wolves, the two of them discover something extraordinarily disturbing.

In the ceremony, children are offered the chance to touch the magical staff and see if they will transform into a wolf, which would allow them to join the Ulfar Academy and begin an apprenticeship with the ice wolf guard who protect the city from dragons, but this month, they're having a sorry time finding anyone who can transform.

Nothing happens until, during a fracas, both Rayna and Anders end up touching the staff in turn. Rayna immediately transforms into a dragon! Hounded, she takes off and disappears. When Anders touches it, he transforms into a wolf! He can't believe it. Twins should both be the same. How can his sister become a dragon and he become a wolf? Alone for the first time in his life, Anders joins the wolf guard and starts learning how to be a solider.

While trying to hide his street origins, Anders makes friends, particularly with Lisabet who has a secret of her own. He learns to become a wolf, but he can't produce their signature ice spears. Even so he finds a family with the pack, but all he can think of is finding his sister, whom he thinks has been kidnapped by dragons. With Lisabet's help, he learns of a way he might get to her.

Despite feeling 'tricked' into starting a middle-grade/YA trilogy, I ended up liking this story. It started out strongly; then it faded annoyingly at the start of Anders's apprenticeship, but it picked up again later when Anders began to man up and form his alliance with Lisabet, who was herself harboring grave suspicions about what they were being taught about wolves and dragons being mortal enemies. I really liked Lisabet, who was a strong female character with a mind of her own.

I commend this story as a worthy read.


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt


Rating: WARTY!

This was an audiobook which I picked up because I'd very much enjoyed the last book I listened to by this author, and while the reading voice of Alison McGhee was quite a pleasure to listen to in this volume, the story was rather less than satisfying.

We're pretty much expected to believe that a young girl's sister dies by drowning, through her idiotic practice of running in the forest by a dangerous section of the river, but of course her body is never recovered. I found it hard to believe that there was no effort made to have divers find the body.

Apparently someone else had died here too, but there was no fencing and no signage that I heard of. That part was realistic because humans are morons when it comes to safeguarding lives, and in particular the lives of children. There have to be multiple deaths before preventive action is taken. It's the rule. Also, it's the rule in this book because everyone seems to be dying: people and animals alike! It's the Appelt Book of the Dead!

Anyway, sister one goes running off (for a ridiculous 'mission' she has to complete, which is later revealed for the stupid thing that it is), and is magically reincarnated as a fox. Why? Who knows? Maybe the author does, but she doesn't care to tell us - not in the part of this I could stand to listen to anyway, since this was a DNF for me.

A better question though is 'who cares?' because we're given no reason to invest in these people. The characters were uninteresting and uninspiring, and they did not draw me in. Adults are essentially non-existent and vacuous when they are. Children don't have childish thoughts.

The story was way too long and boring because it moved so slowly, which is ironic given that much is made of the speed of the running sister and of the fox she returns as. Given that the foxes have very human thoughts, leaving a ribbon for the sister to find as some sort of a message made no sense. Why not simply scratch the message in the dirt with a claw? Plus foxes are like dogs: they don't see green. An author writing about foxes ought to know this.

I was truly disappointed in this one. It was such a sorry contrast to The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp, and I cannot commend it.


Saturday, July 7, 2018

Lizzy and the Good Luck Girl by Susan Lubner


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was an entertaining book about Lizzy, her friend Joss, and this young girl they find living rough in a decrepit house across the street from Lizzy's family restaurant where Lizzy also helps out. It's almost an exhausting book to read because there's always something going on! I don't know where Lizzy gets the energy! She is a sweet-hearted girl who helps out at the local animal rescue center and is working with Joss to produce cat sweaters to sell to raise funds for the shelter.

Her soft spot for down-on-their-luck pets is what gets her into that building where she and Joss encounter Charlotte, who has run away from home because her family is breaking up, and she can't stand to see it. Lizzy and Joss promise not to give the girl away, but when the house across the street burns down, Lizzy ends up taking in another stray, and Charlotte starts living in her closet!

I don't normally comment on covers because they're usually nothing to do with the author, and my blog is about writing: interiors, not covers! But I have to say in this case, the cover image is quite charming. I liked it very much.

Overall this book was fun, engaging, told a great story, and really brought me, as a reader, in. Even though it's not aimed anywhere near me, I'm happy to be collateral damage in this case! It touches on some delicate topics with appropriate humor, sensitivity, and complete honesty. I recommend it as a worthy read.


Alex and the Monsters: Here Comes Mr. Flat! by Jaume Copons, Liliana Fortuny


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Translated from the original French by David Warriner, this book (curiously originally titled Arriba el Sr Flat!) was a bit young for me, so while I found it entertaining and I recommend it as a worthy read for middle-grade readers, it's also the start of a series, and I don't intend to follow it beyond this volume. I'm not much of a series kind of a guy!

So Alex is a middle-grader who is totally irresponsible and I'm not completely convinced that he learned his lesson by the end of the book! His room is a mess and his homework assignments - while he does them - do not get turned in. Frankly I think his teachers are as irresponsible as Alex is if they don't require the kids to turn in their assignments regularly!

Alex discovers that this plush toy he finds (which he calls a 'stuffie') is actually a real monster from a book (so the monster claims). The monsters all got kicked out of their book by the evil Dr Brut. The monster, Mr Flat, brings a change to Alex's life by interesting him in reading, but aside from Mr Flat going missing, that's about all that happens in this short novel.

The novel is illustrated by Liliana Fortuny, and has some comic-book like pages, but mostly it's a chapter book and it's mildly amusing and entertaining, and the pictures are sometimes funny, so I consider this a worthy read for its intended age group.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

When Friendship Followed me Home by Paul Griffin


Rating: WARTY!

Read by the author - who actually doesn't do too bad of a job - this was another failed audiobook trial. The subject matter! Oh the subject matter. It's aimed at middle-grade boys, and is supposed to be your typical "I survived middle school" story for boys, but what it felt like to me was that the author seemed like he really wanted to tell a Star Wars story without paying a licensing fee to do so.

The first chapter opened with a quote from a Star Wars movie which didn't augur well, and if that had been all there was, it would have been fine, but then there were several more references to Star Wars in that same chapter. That's when I quit it. In the first chapter. It seriously rubbed me up the wrong way. I have devoutly gone off Star Wars - not that I was ever a huge dedicated fan or anything, but while I'm not quite anti-Star Wars, I'm also definitely not remotely interested in it anymore, after episode seven turned out to be nothing more than a remake of episode four. The whole series is uninventive and derivative and it's not entertaining or even interesting to me. So this book was a derivative of a derivative movie series! LOL!

The story is supposedly about this disaffected kid who is adopted by an older woman, and who knows when she retires in three years she's going to move with him to a different locale, so he decides it's not worth making friends? What a moron! Then of course he befriends this dog. Barf. I love dogs, but I hate stories about them. They've been overdone. I'm not even sure why I picked this up at the library, because the whole idea seems way too sugary now I think about it! I can only explain it by positing that I picked up a book, thought it looked okay but not that great, then changing my mind after putting it back, I pulled the wrong book back off the shelf! LOL!

I honestly cannot face listening to any more of that, especially when I have other audiobooks to go at. I'm sure there are middle-graders who will enjoy a story such as this one but that doesn't mean I have to rate it a worthy read! It's schlock and of the lowest form (unless it magically changed after the point at which I quit - which I seriously doubt). It's unimaginative and uninventive, and I can't recommend it.


Unwanted Quests Dragon Captives by Lisa McCann


Rating: WORTHY!

I didn't realize, when I picked this up, that it was part of a larger world, and maybe even a series. The publisher/author all-too-often doesn't tell you on the book cover, "Hey dummy, this is volume 2 - go read volume 1 first!" This is one reason I am not a fan of series.

However, this book can be read as a standalone which was my inadvertent approach, and it was an enjoyable read - the one gem in a pile of dross that is my experience of selecting audiobooks off the library shelves. Although I have to say up front that this was a gem which lost a little of its luster before the story was over.

This world appears to me to be a bit like the floating "Hallelujah Mountains" of Pandora from the movie Avatar, excepting that here they're more like worlds - or at least large islands in space. It may be that previous books in this world have defined those other islands since each is named "The Island of..." but I can't speak to that. There is apparently no way to get from one island to another except by magical means, and it so happens that the world in which sisters Phifer and Thisbe (spellings may be off since this was an audiobook) exist, there is magic. Predictably for a book of this nature, the child in question either doesn't have it, or they're not yet fully mature in it.

The latter is the case with the sisters, and their unreasonable older brother Alex happens to be head magician of their world. but he will not let them learn magic until they show responsibility. The problem is that they cannot control their magic very well, and often cause harm and do damage with it. Why idiot Alex thinks denying them lessons will improve things is a mystery, but this is his position, so they sneak around picking up whatever magic they can from wherever they can.

In a rip-off of Harry Potter, there is a dark and dangerous forest where they're not supposed to go, so of course they go and get into trouble, and this in turn leads to their decision to go help the dragons on a different island after their bother refuses to do so. This is where they end up in trouble, and I'm sorry to say this novel ends in a cliffhanger and so isn't really a novel, but episode one, which to me is a downright cheat. That said, I enjoyed this book as far as it went, and I recommend it as a worthy read, especially for people who enjoy series with cliffhangers!

One of the reason I enjoyed it so much was the spirited reading by Fiona Hardingham. I don't know if she's British or not; I'd never heard of her, but she inflected these charming British accents for the two girls and quite won me over. Her only misstep in my opinion was in one of the animal characters. In this world, there are animated stone statues, and this really what makes the forest dangerous, Why wizards didn't go in there and re-freeze all the harmful statues is an unexplained mystery, but not all of them are evilly-intentioned. One of these is a cheetah. This species comes from Africa and India, but for inexplicable reasons, the reader gave it an American drawl! It made zero sense and took me out of suspension of disbelief every time it spoke.

The story went downhill somewhat towards the end and the abrupt non-ending was annoying, but the early part of the story and Hardingham's reading had won me over enough by then for me to let that slide. I recommend this, but I do not feel so excited by it that I want to read more. For those who do, there are many other volumes set in this world as far as I can tell.


Panda-monium by Stuart Gibbs


Rating: WARTY!

Read slightly annoyingly by Gibson Frazier, this audiobook started out interestingly enough. It's part of a series where the middle-grade boy solves mysteries. Frankly, if this is to be the basis of my judgment (I have no other!) then Teddy Fitzroy really doesn't do very much and worse, his life really isn't very interesting! This is, I believe, the fourth in this series, all set in a zoo-cum-theme park named FunJungle - evidently based on SeaWorld® in San Antonio, Texas.

The panda disappeared apparently from a moving truck on a highway, such that when the truck left, the panda was on board, and when the truck arrived, it was no longer there. I thought a cool way to do this for a kids' book would be to have a false panel at the far end of the trailer, so that the panda could be hid behind it and the truck looked empty, but given that the FBI were involved in this investigation (pandas are considered to be the property of China), I doubt such a ruse would fool them!

I never did find out how the theft was done because I DNF'd this one after about a third of it. Judging the rest of the book from what I did read though, it seems to me that there would have been a perfectly mundane explanation - nothing special or daring. As it was, the part of this book that I could bear to listen to was simply too boring, too slowly moving, and had nothing entertaining to offer me. Appropriately aged readers may disagree, but for me, I can’t recommend this and I will not be reading any more in this series. The characters held nothing for me, being a bunch of spoiled, privileged brats, and the story was too light and lacking in substance.

Some other reviewers have mentioned that this author was or is a writer for Disney and that this book had some Disney-ish aspects to it and I can see that in retrospect, but that wasn't on my mind when I was listening to it. I just didn't find it engaging at all. The characters were unappealing and I cannot recommend it as a worthy read.


The Wormworld Saga Vol 1 The Journey Begins by Daniel Lieske


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I wasn't impressed with this story and it reconfirmed my rule of thumb never to read any story with the word 'saga' (or 'cycle' or 'chronicles' in the title). I didn't apply that rule to comic books and now I think I shall have to!

Of course it wasn't aimed at me and maybe the middle-graders it is aimed at will go for it, but for me it was too abrupt of an ending - it never really offered any sort of resolution because it was so determined to leave you on a cliff-hanger to draw you into the next one in the series. This is the problem with series, and why I am not very much a fan of them. I appreciate an author more who leaves you wanting to read on because he or she has done such as good job of investing you in the story rather than one who forces you into a choice by breaking the story in the middle of something.

The art work was colorful but a bit plastic in my view, so it left something wanting, although some individual images were really rather fetching. But the story really wasn't anything new: a kid finds a magical portal into some other world where they magical find themselves a special being. It's been done so many times that if you want to do it again, you really need to bring your 'A' game and I felt none of that here. Indeed, I felt like there was more story told in the blurb than ever we had in the actual story which I think is a first for me.

So all in all I cannot recommend this, although I wish the author all the best in his pursuit of this tale.


The Long-Lost Secret Diary of the World's Worst Dinosaur Hunter by Tim Collins


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was a highly amusing book aimed at middle-grade readers. It's also quite short. I can't speak for middle-graders, but it amused the heck out of me! It seemed a bit far-fetched at first, all the bad luck this young girl was having trying to find dinosaur bones in the USA. Her first set turned into a crumbled mess in storage. She found more at a different location, only to be held-up at gunpoint by masked bandits and the bones were taken, and so it went.

Despite the far-fetched nature of the tale, I was willing to let this slide because it was a children's book, but then this girl figures out her expedition is being sabotaged, which I thought was a pretty good twist. The story is amusing, and the girl is plucky and smart: just my kind of female main character. She's also very patient with her opportunistic and rather avaricious father. The book is educational. Periodically there's a section which talks about the bones she finds and what kind of dinosaur it was and so on, and so I really liked this. I mean, what's not to like, especially since it's very loosely based on a real female dino-hunter?

It seemed to me to be the perfect story for any middle-grader interested in dinosaurs or in science in general. I'd have liked it slightly better if the girl had shown that she knew that you don't just find random dino bones. You have to look in certain rock strata where the bones would have been fossilized, so that information would have been nice. The assumption here is that the fossil hunter who prepared her maps would have marked the right location to search, but a small clarification about rock strata would have been a nice addition. I liked that she consulted books, journals and maps to plan her forays. That was a good touch. Overall, I enjoyed this very much and I recommend it as a worthy read.


Friday, June 1, 2018

Freaks by Kieran Larwood


Rating: WORTHY!

Sheba is a freak, so-called. She has some sort of wolfish traits in her that don't come out at the full Moon, but which do surface when she's emotionally disturbed. Fortunately that isn't often, since she's quite accepting of her freakishness and her lot in life which is as a lonely exhibit on a pier in an obscure Victorian seaside town.

This all changes one day when a rotund man from London shows up with his traveling freak show and buys her from her 'owner'. She finds herself in a wagon full of people like her - not wolfish, but each with strange appearance or talents, and unfortunate smells. Sheba's enhanced sense of smell is one thing which is always on tap, she's sometimes sorry to suffer. At other times it can be very useful.

This change isn't a bad thing as it happens, because she finds acceptance and companionship in this circus as they travel back to London and take up residence in their permanent quarters, as a freak show in a dismal London side-street in a ramshackle, run-down and dirty house, where Sheba has to sit each day in a room so people can stare at her. But it's just for a short time and then she gets to have a decent bed and not too horrible food, which is new to her.

One day a little girl sneaks in to the show and meets Sheba, before the interloper is discovered and tossed out. The two of them bond in that moment, so when Sheba later learns that this same girl - a mudder who scours the low-tide banks of the Thames for anything of value to sell to buy food for her family - has gone missing, Sheba is moved to act. In her search for the mudder, she is joined by Sister Moon, a ninja girl with almost super-human speed and accuracy, and Monkey Boy, who is frankly gross-out disgusting.

This for me was the first and one of very few false steps in this Victorian era novel with steampunk elements, which is aimed at middle-grade readers. Given that three of the main five 'freak' characters are female, it suggests that the novel is aimed primarily at girls, yet the toilet 'humor' if you can term it that, is aimed at boys, so it made little sense. Other than that it was fine and it featured some other intriguing characters too, such as the woman who trains rats and the gentle giant who writes romance stories!

The plot became clear pretty quickly, but for younger readers it may remain more of a mystery for a little longer, and the story is engaging, with a few thrills and spills to keep a young heart racing, so overall I liked it. In some small ways it reminded me of the Philip Pullman series 'His Dark Materials' and young Lyra Belaqua. Sheba isn't quite like that, and this novel isn't in that league or about the same subjects, but young readers who enjoyed that might like this, and vice-versa. It's educational too, about the horrific conditions under which children lived, and how they were exploited back then, especially if they were not like most other children, so I recommend this as a worthy read.


The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly


Rating: WORTHY!

Read delightfully by the amazingly-named Lulu Lam, this is the story of two girls who came with their father to Louisiana, only to have him abandon them and return to the Philippines, leaving them at the mercy of their somewhat sadistic stepmother. Soledad and Dominga, aka Sol and the unfortunate abbreviation of 'Ming' which makes her sound Chinese, lost their other sister, Amelia when they were much younger, and Sol feels she is responsible in some way. As if that wasn't bad enough, their mother died not long afterwards. Now their dad has ditched them so they're stuck with stepmother for the last two years or so.

Their stepmother Vee (?spelling since this was an audiobook) works, and feeds and houses them, but in many ways she resents them and demands strict adherence to her rules. Sol quietly and not so quietly rebels and often retreats into fantasy, particularly when she's punished. Some of those occasions, like when she's locked in a closet in her bedroom, are paradoxically quite amusing because she pretends she's in a spaceship traveling through space. When Ming opens the door later and asks why she isn't coming out, there ensues a conversation which made me laugh out loud. Sol asks, "What's your planet like?" and Ming looks around their bedroom and answers, "It's kind of messy."

Sol's behavior is highly questionable. She and her best friend Manny regularly steal from a convenience store where the popsicles are wonderful and out of the line of sight of the person minding the checkout. She and Manny regularly bully the kids from the snotty school not far from the convenience store. At one point, Sol throws a pine cone and hits the albino girl on her head, cutting her so badly that blood runs down her face. This girl is nicknamed Casper after the white ghost, but her name is Caroline. She's a particular favorite to mock, but Sol later seeks her out at her home and apologizes and the two become friends, and Ming befriends Christine, Caroline's younger sister.

Somehow, because of Sol's constant story-telling, Ming begins to focus on their non-existent Aunt Jove, and claims she writes to her and gets letters back. She refuses to show these replies to Sol, but maintains Jove will come and get them - which of course never happens. Meanwhile, Sol is regularly seeing Amelia's ghost and asking advice of a ghost which appears to be the same age now as Sol is. Fortunately for their welfare and sanity, they befriend a Chinese woman down the hall, Mrs Young (Yung? Again, audiobook) who seems to enjoy their company as much as the enjoy hers.

I felt that this book had some unresolved issues, but in other regards, I liked it. I liked the inventive stories and the humor, and I consider it a worthy read, although the morality is a bit off, be warned.


Friday, May 18, 2018

Beyond the Green by Sharlee Glenn


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Not to be confused with Beyond the Glenn by Sharlee Green (I'm kidding!), this book was pretty darned good. It addresses a controversial issue of which the author has had some direct experience judged from her note at the end. I rarely read author's notes, and never read introductions, prefaces, prologues, and so on, but this note was interesting.

In 1978 a law was passed regarding how American Indian children in need of foster care should be treated. As usual, white folk had in the past assumed that they knew best, and simply taken Native American children into white Christian foster care giving no consideration even as to whether there were any native American relatives who could do the job, let alone others, and no consideration at all was given to Indian tradition or culture. It concerns me that this law applied only to Native Americans and gave no consideration to other cultures or even races, such as black or Asian. It seems to me that what's good for the cultural goose is also good for the ethnic gander, but that's outside the scope of this novel so I won't get into that here.

The middle-grade novel, set in 1979, evidently in some way mirrors what happened in the author's life, and is told from the perspective of a young Mormon girl, Britta Twitchell, whose family fosters a native American child from the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation in Utah for about four years. Rather than use the child's native American Ute name, they inappropriately named her Dorinda, and then shortened that to Dori. The child's actual name is the much more beautiful Chipeta. Her mother, Irene Uncarow, is an alcoholic, but she has recovered now and wants her daughter back. This causes Britta, the main character, to react very negatively, and start scheming to prevent her 'sister' from being abducted by this alien woman - at least that's the kind of viewpoint Britta has.

Her reaction is rather extreme, beginning with kidnaping Chipeta herself and running away, and later scheming to ruin Irene's sobriety so she can't reclaim her daughter. But Britta isn't dumb, she's just young and naïve, and she grows and learns lessons from her ill-conceived plans. The book isn't dumb either: it tells a real and moving story with interesting and complex characters and it does not shy away from talking about prejudice and alcoholism. There is always something happening, and it's not predictable - except in that you know that Britta's mind is very active and she will for certain cook-up another wild-ass plan before long.

The only issue I had with it was that it was a bit heavy on religion, but then this was a Mormon family. There was a minor instance of fat-shaming by Britta, but again, young kids are not known for their diplomacy. It's a different thing for a character to say something than it is for an author to say the same thing. Some people don't get that about novels! What a character says isn't necessarily what an author thinks!

For example, at one point Britta describes a loved aunt thus; "I pretty much idolized Aunt Mariah. She was pretty and spunky and smart." Normally I'd be all over something like that - placing prettiness above all else when it comes to describing women, as though that's the most important thing a woman has to offer, way before smarts, courage, integrity, independence, or whatever. I've seen far too many authors do that - including female authors, and it's shameful, but in this case it's the character, Britta, who is saying that. That's a different thing altogether, although having said that, it wouldn't have harmed this story to have had Britta rank 'spunky and smart' before 'pretty'!

But overall I really liked this story a lot. It's a great introduction for middle-grade children to the potential problems inherent in a family of one culture taking charge of a child from another. Anything that serves to open minds and enlighten children that different doesn't equate with bad or scary is to be recommended, and I recommend this as a worthy read.