Sunday, July 31, 2016

Magic Animal Friends

Granted, I picked up this series in medias res, so I am woefully ignorant of the riveting story wherein Jess and Lily first meet up with Goldie and travel to Friendship Forest. I don't know Grizelda's gruesome backstory-- did Jess and Lily drop a house on her? Is the Smurf's nemesis Gargamel her brother? So many unanswered questions. 

I can only assume that the last volume of this set takes a dark turn. The parents in Friendship Forest, unhappy that they are under constant threat of having their children morph into mess making monsters in thrall to the questionable motives of Grizelda, decide to take matters into their own hands. The next time the purple sparks fly, there is also the unmistakable tang of gunpowder in the air, and when the smoke clears, Ruby Fuzzybrush's mother is left standing with a gun in her paw amidst the dead bodies of Snippit, Hopper et al.  Distraught, Grizelda retaliates by using her magic to poison the flour at the Nibblesqueak bakery. Atrocities pile up, and soon Jess and Lily can no longer travel to Friendship Forest because Goldie the cat is behind bars, having been found lurking outside Grizelda's lair with a modified version of Mr. Cleverfeather's Shell Seeker.

Seems ridiculous when we apply human motivations to animals, doesn't it? Yet how many tragedies could be prevented if people felt compelled to behave in a civilized fashion?

The moral of the story is this: Don't try to read and write critical reviews of too many early reader series at one time!

26892097Meadows, Daisy. Olivia Nibblesqueak's Messy Mischief (Magic Animal Friends #9)
May 10th 2016 by Scholastic Paperback
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

Friends Jess and Lily travel frequently into the magical Friendship Forest, invited there by Goldie the cat. When they go this time, a family of hamsters who run a bakery are working very hard to get delicious treats ready for a cake decorating contest. The animals helping out are all adorable, but soon cakes are thrown at the bakery, ruining a lot of the hard work. It's the evil witch Grizelda's horrible minions, who want to make the entire forest as messy as they have made Witchy Waste. One of them, a bat named Peep, casts a purple sparkle spell on Olivia, and soon she is marauding around with him, wreaking havoc. Jess and Lily need to discover three things about her in order to undo the spell before Olivia turns in to a bat! 

Even though I haven't read the previous books in this series, Jess and Lily's involvement with the Friendship Forest was nicely recapped, and there was a helpful map at the beginning of the book. The reading level on the book is stated as being appropriate for 3rd graders, but a younger child would find this appealing, perhaps as a read along, or with some assistance on more difficult words. 

The story is not nuanced, which makes it easier for beginning readers to understand. Grizelda and her minions are all unappealing and unabashedly evil, and the other animals are all cute and work to preserve social harmony. I was definitely put in mind of the Smurfs television series from long ago that the children I babysat wanted to watch! 

Readers who enjoy this author's fairy stories, or any of the Puppy Place series books will quickly become addicted to this comfortingly predictable series about magical animals. I can see a lot of hours being spent in recreating the world and stories of Friendship Forest in backyards with friends who are readers!

Meadows, Daisy. Evie Scruffypup's Big Surprise(Magic Animal Friends #10)
May 10th 2016 by Scholastic Paperback
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

It's Blossom Day in the Friendship Forest, and Jess and Lily are excited to join their friends for the Blossom-Drop candy hunt, but young Evie is put under a spell by Masha the Rat and is soon acting like the rat and messing everything up. Luckily, the girls have written down the spell that is used to reverse this curse, and get right to work finding Evie's favorite food, thing, place and her biggest secret. There is some trouble with this, since she loves Blossom-Drop candy and Grizelda's animals have ruined it all, but with the help of Evie's sister Hattie, they manage to take everything to Petal Dell and return Evie to her adorable puppy self before she becomes a rat permanently. 

While this embraces the formula of the previous book, the inclusion of Evie's sister is a nice change, and her secret shows a nice sisterly bond. I also liked that Evie is shown wearing glasses-- many young reader start wearing glasses in early elementary school, and it can be a difficult change. 

The line drawings that accompany the story are quite cute, and I can see the map being used as a starting place for a recreation of Friendship Forest. It would be easy to populate this with stuffed animals and baby dolls, and hours of play could result.

For readers who enjoyed Baglio's Animal Ark Pets or have finished all of Bentley's Magic Puppy series, Magic Animal Friends books offer a familiar story line, cute animals, and friends working together to help each other and their community. 

26892099Meadows, Daisy. Chloe Slipperslide's Secret (Magic Animal Friends #11)
May 10th 2016 by Scholastic Paperback
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

Agatha Glitterwing is having a Craft Club in the Friendship Forest, so Goldie the cat brings Jess and Lily to visit. The girls have a good time making jewelry, but soon Snippit the crow is causing mischief, throwing nuts and sticks at the crafters. Soon, Snippit casts a spell on poor Chloe the otter, and she begins to join the crow in his mischief. Consulting the reversal spell that they found in Mrs. Taptree's library, Jess and Lily start to find Chloe's favorite things. One of them is a necklace she made, but it has gone missing. Thanks to Mr. Cleverfeather's invention,it is found in a huge pile of shiny objects that Snippit has taken from many members of the community. The girls also manage to find a water lily that Chloe likes to eat, and ask her friend Violet about her secret and favorite place. Everyone is relieved when Snippit's evil spell is reversed. 

At the end of each of these books, there is a short one page article on facts about the main animal. This is a nice inclusion of some nonfiction information. There is often also a puzzle or activity of some sort. 

Snippit is a particularly evil minion of Grizelda's, since he raises thievery to an art form, stealing shiny metal objects from nearly everyone in Friendship Forest. It is good to see the members of the community working together to get the items to the proper owner once the rather scatterbrained owl scientist and inventor, Mr. Cleverfeather, manages to locate all of them. The animals of Friendship Forest all are supportive of one another, so this serves as a good example for young readers. 

Since this series currently has about 14 books in it, getting the next book is an easy way to satisfy readers who have already finished the new The Magical Animal Adoption Agency books by Kallie George or the seven book Animalmagic series by Holly Webb. Be prepared to have beading supplies ready so that fans of Agatha Glitterwing can make their own creations to wear!

Meadows, Daisy. Grace Woollyhop's Musical Mystery (Magic Animal Friends #12)
May 10th 2016 by Scholastic Paperback
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

In the middle of knitting blankets for the animals in the animal sanctuary, Jess and Lily are taken to Friendship Forest. Their escort, Goldie, has lost her trademark scarf. It was stolen and used to wipe up slime; a clear indication that evil is afoot and Gizelda's henchmen are up to no good! When the group goes to the Woollyhop shop to get a new scarf for the cat, they meet Grace, but she soon falls prey to an evil spell cast by Hopper the Toad. Soon, Grace is making a mess of the yarn, and the hunt begins for all of her favorite things. Friendship Forest is hosting a concert in which Grace is supposed to play the tambourine, but the secret that is uncovered is that she also sings very well. Since her favorite place is with her group, getting ready to perform, it's easy to undo the spell so that Grace doesn't become a toad and the concert can go on as planned. 

I liked the fact that Jess and Lily spent a little more time taking care of animals back in the real world and wish that brief instruction about knitting would have been included. This would be an excellent opportunity to get a young reader interested in fiber arts. 

Grace's friends in the choir are understandably upset when their secret is discovered, since they wanted their performance to be a surprise. Since this series does talk a lot about finding out the secrets of others, it is good that there is always some discussion about when it is appropriate to tell someone's secret. If the person is in danger of becoming a toad unless the secret is revealed, always tell!

Adorable talking animals who have adventures is a hallmark of this series, which I can see being popular with readers who liked Soderberg's Puppy Pirates books. Since there is also a mystery to be solved in every book, readers who enjoyed Mlynowski Whatever After series could be tempted by these titles as well. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

3 of a Kind (Knightley and Son #3)

26892182Gavin, Rohan. 3 of a Kind (Knightley and Son #3)
August 2nd 2016 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens 
ARC from the publisher (Lizzy Mason)

Darkus Knightley still doesn't quite trust his father, detective Alan Knightley, and he knows that his stepfather, t.v. personality Clive, is completely bonkers. He's ready to give up investigating, but when Bogna the housekeeper disappears, he knows he must help Bill and the rest of the team find her. The search takes him to the US, where things are so very odd, although Darkus chooses not to complain about the way we serve tea! The Combination sabotages the team from the very moment they land, and finding Bogna takes them on an exciting road trip, and Tilly finds out some secrets about her mother. In the end, the Combination isn't as much of a threat... or is it?

Sequel to Knightley and Son and K-9.

Strengths: This was a decent action/adventure book, with things blowing up and people being chased about. There are even some cool gadgets, like a blow dryer that is also a blow torch. Darkus' observations of life in the US were rather amusing, and the mystery with the Combination wrapped up fairly well.
Weaknesses: Each book in this series seems rather different to me-- even Darkus' personality seems to change. I really did not appreciate that the third book has a completely different type of cover. 

What I really think: Conflicted. While this type of book generally does well, this series hasn't circulated as much as I would like. Debating, since this is very much like Black's Urban Outlaws #3- Lockdown.

26156447Peirce, Lincoln. Big Nate: Doodlepalooza
May 17th 2016 by HarperCollins (first published July 9th 2013)
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

Obviously, activity books are not something that I purchase for my library, and they are hard to review, but this was a particularly good activity book. I'm sort of tempted to keep it for myself, but it will make a fabulous prize at school. 

This activity book is best used by readers of the Big Nate notebook novels, since it actually brings in episodes from the series! This made it fun to turn the pages and see what might be next. The illustrations that accompany the various puzzles are of the same high quality and add a lot of additional interest. 

There are a wide range of activities included from drawing prompts to Mad Lib type fill-in-the-blanks. Word scrambles, mazes, and quizzes about the books give opportunities for lots of skills to be used. 

When I was very young, my brother and I always got an activity book for Christmas. I hadn't thought about that in years, but flipping through Big Nate: Doodlepalooza really took me back. I was the sort of child who felt compelled to fill in the book in order without skipping any pages, and I remember feeling thrilled when a particularly intriguing puzzle came up. I would have very much enjoyed this, although I probably would have had to fight off my brother's attempts to trade with me!

Friday, July 29, 2016

Guy Friday- Sherlock Sam

Low, A.J. Sherlock Sam and the Missing Heirloom in Katong (Sherlock Sam #1)
August 2nd 2016 by Andrews McMeel Publishing
Copy provided by the publisher 

Samuel Tan Cher Lock (who prefers to go by "Sherlock") lives in Singapore with his engineer father and stay at home mother. He has a robot companion named Watson, an annoying sister named Wendy, and a best friend, Jimmy. When visiting his Auntie Kim Lian at her Chin Mee Chin Confectionary, Sherlock finds out that his aunt's heirloom cookbook has gone missing. Did she just misplace it, or is there a more evil plot afoot. Bolstered by kaya toast and cream cones, Sherlock and his friends set out to find the cookbook and restore it to its proper owners. A glossary of terms at the back is helpful in describing food and places mentioned in the book. 

27169938Low, A.J. Sherlock Sam and the Ghostly Moans in Fort Canning (Sherlock Sam #2)
August 2nd 2016 by Andrews McMeel Publishing
Copy provided by the publisher 

Sherlock manages to install a recording device in Watson, his robot companion and meets a new boy, Nazhar. After Sherlock's school takes a historical field trip to The Battle Box, Sherlock and his friends become intrigued by the WWII activities at Fort Canning, and begin to suspect that the place may be haunted. Odd sounds coming from secret entrances lead them to believe this, and they investigate to try to figure out whether ghosts really do exist. There is also a mystery involving the disappearance of a classmate's historical monetary note from the Japanese Occupation which the group also solves. 

Strengths: Both of these books had a lot of interesting cultural references about school and home life in Singapore, and LOTS of descriptions of food. They are marketed towards ages 8-12, but the simplicity of the text makes these suitable for even younger readers. There are a few illustrations, which add some humor to the stories. The mysteries have an Encyclopedia Brown vibe to them. 
Weaknesses: US readers may be surprised at how much food is discussed, and confused as to how Sherlock's sister can get away with calling him chubby and accusing him of eating too much. Food and weight have become the new taboo topics in US kidlit. I would have liked a little more explanation of why some characters had more American sounding names like Wendy and Jimmy, but some did not. 
What I really think: I would buy this for an elementary library if I could get the paperbacks in a prebind version. I'd love to see books that were previously published in other countries for older readers be available in the US. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Cabinet of Souls

28256464Stine, R. L. Cabinet of Souls (Monsterville)
July 26th 2016 by Scholastic Inc.
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

Kellen is kind of shy, but really likes Beth. When the two go to the carnival in their town with friends Nicole and Luke, things start to get very weird. Dr. Hysteria approaches them to come to his Hall of Horrors, and the group thinks it will be a hoot. Beth soon learns that things are more serious than they appear. Kellen is entranced by Dr. Hysteria's assistant, Lilith, and Luke thinks that the showman will give him a chance to get exposure for his comedy routine, but there is evil lurking within the fun house walls. When Beth stumbles upon a Cabinet of Souls but manages to escape, she realizes that her friends' lives are in jeopardy and that Dr. Hysteria is a real threat that must be stopped. 

This book is based on the screen play of the movie by the same title, and is an excellent example of what Stine does best-- he mixes things that seem scary but are not a likely threat (zombies, vampires) with moments of terror, like the rows of missing children whose souls are being sucked dry by Dr. Hysteria. His Goosebumps books are ones that children can read and choose whether or not they wish to be scared by them! 

The other element that Stine injects well (and is used to good effect in this book even though Stine is the inspiration and not the author) is romance. Often, the situations in the book worsen because of drama involving relationships. Here, Kellen's crush on Beth makes him take the threat of Lilith less seriously, since he thinks she is just being jealous. At the same time, Kellen assumes that the dark and brooding Hunter is a huge threat before he even knows anything about the boy, just because Beth seems attracted to him. 

There are full color movie stills in the center of the book, making it a great movie tie-in for readers who have managed to catch either the movie or who are long time fans of the many different video incarnations of Stine's work. 

Reminiscent of other evil carnival books ranging from Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes to Shusterman's Full Tilt, Cabinet of Souls is a harmless romp that is mildly scary... or a blood chilling look into an evil mastermind determined to live forever by robbing the young of their souls... and he may come next for YOU!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

#WNDB Wednesday- The Last Cherry Blossom

25898828Burkinshaw, Kathleen. The Last Cherry Blossom
August 2nd 2016 by Sky Pony Press
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline 

For Yuriko (sometimes called Joya by her father), life in Hiroshima is fairly pleasant, even with the advent of WWII. When her aunt Kimiko and her obnoxious son Genji move in with her and the privations of war intensify, things are less pleasant. Still, both Kimiko and her father are planning to remarry, and there are plans to be made for the celebration, and family secrets are revealed. When the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, these secrets are of little consequence in the wake of the devastation to Yuriko's family and home. This is loosely based on the author's mother's experience surviving the bombing, and an extensive glossary is at the back.
Strengths: I am always a fan of books that tell me more about what daily life in a particular place at a particular time was like, and this does a good job, with much of the book covering the time period before the bombing. I can't think of another book that covers this topic. The family secret adds another layer of interest to this. Clearly well researched, this also has a strong emotional impact due to the personal touch of the author's mother's experiences. 
Weaknesses: For some reason, I got distracted by odd details that seemed like they might not have been accurate. We're talking TINY details, like the sewing machine that can do a satin stitch, or some of the food, which seemed heavy on meat that might have been difficult to obtain during the war. Granted, I know absolutely nothing about what went on in Japan, so I was working from a purely US knowledge base. 
What I really think: Much needed book about not only what when on in Japan during the war, but also after the bombing of Hiroshima. Definitely a must purchase for schools whose curriculum covers WWII, and just generally interesting. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


26114232Jones, Carrie. Flying
July 19th 2016 by Tor Teen
ARC from Young Adult Books Central

Mana suffers from a little anxiety, but her Mom and her best friend, cross country runner and cheerleader Lyle, take good care of her. She has a bit of a crush on hunky Dakota, so when she sees him being hustled into a locker room by a beefy man wearing sunglasses, she goes after him. A cheerleader with great gymnastic skills, she's still impressed and surprised with herself when she knocks over a row of lockers and kicks holes in the ceiling. When she witnesses Dakota spit acid (first verbally, with racist comments, then literally), she's inclined to believe the sunglasses wearing man that something is wrong. When she finally returns home, her house is trashed and her mother is missing. She ends up spending the night at Lyle's house, which doesn't make his mother happy. Even though Lyle's well-developed musculature is becoming more and more intriguing, Mana knows she must find her mother and stop whatever alien incursion is developing. It's not easy to do when she's not entirely sure what side she should be on, Lyle starts to return her romantic interest, and she finds out secrets about herself.

This was an absolutely delightful read, filled with deft turns of phrase that made me snort though my nose. Mana, who is partially of Asian descent, is a heroine with which to be reckoned; she has no patience for the wendigo type creatures that are trying to exterminate her OR for any racist or sexist remarks. (My favorite retort: "Wildcat? For God's sake, really? How freaking sexist are you? Women are not cats. Or dogs. Or animals of any kind. But thank you for at least not making me domesticated." (pg. 125, ARC))

While the hysterically coded terms for the "funky vertical monkey", etc. make this is more appropriate for young adult readers, those are the readers who will also best appreciate the lack of black and white villains. The man in the sunglasses, China, says to trust no one. Does that include him? No one is what they appear to be, with the possible exception of Lyle. Mana's increasing appreciation of Lyle's hotness will also resonate with the teen crowd. 

Jones' Need series gives me hope that this also will become a series-- there are so many questions at the end of the book that another volume is certainly in order. While the audience for this is all over the map (there are cheerleaders, cross country runners, Men in Black type characters, a cooking baking mother, AND aliens who spit acid), this is a fantastic, fun read for just about any teen who enjoys humorous books with lots of action and adventure... with a touch of romance thrown in for good measure. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

MMGM-- Books, and some Blather

An update on a few personal matters; feel free to skip:

Back from London. We went to the Warner Brothers studio where Harry Potter was filmed, and she cried while standing in front of the scale model of Hogwarts. We saw just about everything else we wanted to see, and had a great working knowledge of the Tube by the time we left. 

My podiatrist didn't understand that "normal activity" for me is walking 10-15 miles a day. After the first week of walking about London (one day was 17 miles!), my foot started to ache. Couldn't very well NOT walk, so I'm back in my boot for a month. 

I mean, the spy mission went well, and I managed to nab the double agent, but my wall scaling skills need work, and falling from the top of the Shard is not a good idea!

Hope everyone else's summer has had fewer complications! On to the reviews!

The Enemy Above: A Novel of World War IISpradlin, Michael. The Enemy Above
June 28th 2016 by Scholastic Press
ARC from Young Adult Books Central

Anton's life in the Ukraine has been difficult. His mother died when he was young, and his father went off to fight in WWII and has not been heard from for a very long time. He has a supportive uncle, however, as well as his grandmother, Bubbe. When his village is overrun by the Nazis, a small group of people manage to escape, but they are found by Major Von Duesen, who is taking his directive to make the area free of Jews very seriously. Bubbe is angry and lets Von Duesen know, which gives Anton time to escape, although Bubbe is taken into custody so she can be questioned later, and two neighbors are shot to death. Anton is bound and determined to get Bubbe back, since she is all he has left. He manages to sabotage the truck she is on and free her, and they make their way to a cave where they set up a community and try to survive by stealing food from local farms. Von Duesen is angry that his career was ruined by Bubbe's group, and vows to find them and bring them to justice, especially since the war is not going well for the Nazis. How will Anton and his friends and family be able to survive until the Americans come and the Nazis retreat? 

There are never enough books about the Jewish experience in the Holocaust, and this is an interesting change from books where people are sent to camps. The details of escaping, living in the cave, and foraging for food are all vivid and helpful in understanding another facet of the Jewish experience. That this book is set in the Ukraine was also interesting, especially since Bubbe knew some German since the Ukraine had been so unsettled for so many years. 

Anton is motivated by survival, and also by helping to keep his family alive, and his efforts to do this are well described. It is Von Duesen, however, who is an interesting character study. While there had to have been many Germans who treated the Jews in horrific ways, there were probably a larger number who did what they were told to do lest they suffer themselves. Von Duesen is between these two types of people-- he's irritated by the Jews enough to commit atrocities, but the core of his motivation seems to be his own success. Therefore, when the Jews escape, he is more concerned that it will look bad for him with his superior officers than with the fact that there are Jews who escaped. I hadn't really thought about people who lingered in that area of self-absorbed cruelty. Kathryn Lasky's portrayal of Leni Riefenstahl in The Extra would be the closest book I can think of that has such a character. 

Fans of Dan Smith's WWII books, Will Osborne's Hitler's Secret, or even Hoose's nonfiction book, The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club will find the portrayal of Anton's struggle against the Nazis to be an excellent addition to the body of books about the Holocaust.

24397131Steinmetz, Katy. Awesome America
May 31st 2016 by Time For Kids 
Copy provided by Blue Slip Media

Unfortunately, this came in the mail right before I left for England, and it's the sort of book that I have trouble reviewing. It's not connected narrative; it's sort of like a geographical and historical Guinness Book of World Records. Highly browsable and the sort of book that children love to flip through to look for pictures that amuse them. In that regard, it's sort of like a whole week pasta version of Guinness. 

A variety of topics, ranging from presidents to states to little known historical facts are covered in well-illustrated, beautifully designed pages. I can see this being used by classroom teachers to instruct students about elements of the page such as side bars, bold print, etc. 

This will get a lot of heavy use in middle school and elementary libraries, so it does concern me that the paper over board binding is already showing small tears. With a list price of $24.95, this will probably get its money worth in use, but might not see out an entire year. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Daisy the Kitten (Dr. Kitty Cat #3)

26798314Clarke, Jane. Daisy the Kitten (Dr. Kitty Cat #3)
July 26th 2016 by Scholastic Paperbacks 
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

I adore this series, and if I had any 5-8 year olds hanging around, I would definitely be giving lots of copies of this series. Luckily, I am rug rat free for the forseeable future, but I enjoy reading these, too. Unfortunately, I had an E ARC of this, and the pages turned much too slowly for me to finish the entire book. Suffice it to say that Dr. Kitty Cat has a very informational Shiny Smiles clinic and then has to rush off to help an injured Daisy at the Cupcake Bake-Off!

From "All the little animals in Thistletown are competing in a Bake-Off. Daisy the Kitten is determined to make the purr-fect cupcakes! When an injured paw slows her down, Daisy knows just who to call -- Dr. KittyCat!

Daisy has two-color art inside! Supercute photographs of real puppies and kittens combine with hand-drawn orange line art for a completely unique look."

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Saturday Morning Cartoons- The King of Kazoo

28256458Feuti, Norm. The King of Kazoo
July 26th 2016 by GRAPHIX
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

When a mysterious tunnel opens up in a nearby mountain, Bing, the daughter of King Cornelius and a budding magician, sets off to find out why it has appeared. She goes with her father, who is a bit dim and not the nicest monarch, and Cornelius, who is the royal inventor and does not speak. In comic book form, the three have an almost Phantom Tollbooth type adventure involving a local alchemist, Quaf, as well as other fantasy characters. 
Strengths: This reminded me a lot of the comic books we would buy at the Breezewood, PA gas stations when I was very. There was something about the artwork that reminded me of Richie Rich and Little Lulu. I was glad to see that Betsy Bird (who is much more well versed in comics and graphic novels than I am) offer a lengthy opinion of this book.
Weaknesses: I'm just not the audience for this. Reading this felt like watching random children's television from the 1960s for me.
What I really think: I will probably buy a copy, since my students would love this, but it just didn't do anything for me personally. 

28190256Krosoczka, Jarret J. A New Class (Star Wars Jedi Academy #4)
July 26th 2016 by Scholastic Inc.
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Victor Starspeeder is excited to go to the Jedi Academy, even though his older sister claims that she won't talk to him at all. He has a lot of problems controlling his use of the Force, which gets him into a lot of trouble. When he arrives, he runs afoul of Artemis, who appears to be a Sith in training. In order to learn to control his anger, Yoda has him work on scenery for the school play, My Fair L8-E. This gets Victor close to his crush, Maya. He also spends a little too much time with Zach, an older cool kid who doesn't have Victor's interests at heart. 
Strengths: This is a combination of graphic and notebook novel, with Victor's journal interspersed with cartoon story panels. Many characters from the films are incorporated, there are others that are not from the canon. It's goofy fun, and fans of this author's other titles will not be too sad that this franchise has passed from Jeff Brown's hands. 
Weaknesses: These are for younger readers, or those who are not hard core Star Wars fans. I was surprised that Victor was allowed to use the Force irresponsibly. I'm just not the target demographic for this one!
What I really think: My 6th graders love these, so I'll purchase this once. Since it's paper over boards, I may or may not replace it when it falls apart. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Guy Friday- Still a Work in Progress

28814842Knowles, Jo. Still a Work in Progress
August 2nd 2016 by Candlewick

Noah's seventh grade year at his small school starts off a bit tense-- his friend Sam has left a tuna fish sandwich in his locker, boys are standing on the toilets to get in and out of the stall without unlocking the door (no one knows why, exactly), he's worried about the bigger kids giving him a hard time, and he and hid friends are trying their hands at asking girls out. Noah has bigger problems, too. His sister Emma had an unspecified issue last year, and he thinks it has returned, although his parents are so busy worrying about her vegan diet that they don't seem to notice. As the school year progresses, there is a school dance, Thanksgiving drama, Secret Santa difficulties, and a culmination of Emma's problems, which impact Noah's life considerably. 

I was expecting a straight forward, humorous school story with this one, but it ended up being an interesting issue novel involving anorexia. The cover, and the beginning anecdotes, all have gross, middle school humor such as the rotten tuna sandwich, a hairless school cat who wears pink sequined vests and gets into all kinds of scrapes, and anxiety about talking to the opposite sex (complete with glimpses of *gasp* a bra). Told in a standard, linear school year fashion, this will be an easy sell to readers who like funny stories that adhere fairly closely to their own experiences. 

There are some unusual quirks to the small school that will seem exotic to many readers. There are community meetings where students are asked about things like why people are standing on the toilets and what can be done to stop this from happening. Seventh graders are reading Lord of the Flies and then A Separate Peace, which are usually high school texts. Most schools no longer have Secret Santa exchanges, and some schools even lack the art classes at which Noah excels. 

The real stand out of this book is the unexpected inclusion of Emma's struggles with anorexia. While I had my suspicions after Emma's style of dress was described (three layers of sweaters and always being cold is rather a giveaway), Noah's narrative leaves the reader guessing until quite far in the book. While we see more of how this problem affects Noah instead of the progress Emma is making at her care facility, there are probably far more siblings affected by anorexia than there are people themselves affected, and there isn't as much in the literature from that perspective. 

While Still a Work in Progress is a great addition to eating disorder books such as Anderson's Wintergirls, Lytton's Jane in Bloom and Levenkron's classic 1978 The Best Little Girl in the World, the mix of humor and problems will find an audience with readers of books like Weeks' Guy Time, Acampora's Rachel Spinelli Punched Me in the Face and Buyea's Because of Mr. Terupt

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Mischief at Midnight

27882913Kerr, Esme. Mischief at Midnight
June 28th 2016 by Chicken House 
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

Edie and Anastasia return to Knight's Haddon after their adventures in The Girl with the Glass Bird only to find that Edie has to room with recalcitrant new girl, Janet. Not only that, but other things are changing as well. The tower, which had been used by the students, has been sold, and the students are very disappointed. Anastasia's father and mother are still very remote, and after her father cancels birthday plans, the girls decide to go to a fair in the village by themselves. They are found out, of course, but not until after someone presses two ferrets upon them, and they manage to take them back to school. Miss Fotheringay gives Edie approval to keep them in the animal shed even though Anastasia considers them hers, and Janet takes quite a liking to them. Janet gets Edie into all kinds of trouble, because she is perfectly happy to get kicked out of school. Edie and Anastasia have a fragile relationship anyway, and when Edie is accused of setting the ferrets free, the two fall out. Janet goes home with Edie for break, and seems to like Edie's family more than Edie does! Edie isn't comfortable breaking the rules, but she wants to remain friends with Janet, who manages to drag her into major trouble. 

Knight's Haddon is a boarding school that many readers would love to attend. I can think of a lot of older books that feature this type of school, but it's harder to find one set in modern times. Girls who liked Harry Potter but don't normally read fantasy will find this foray into the drama of interpersonal relationships when schoolmates are also roomates will enjoy both books in the series. 

Janet is an interesting character, if not a pleasant one. There are not a lot of students whose aim it is to get kicked out of school, but middle school certainly makes just about everyone entertain those thoughts from time to time! 

Drama, intrigue, and lots of unauthorized adventures make Mischief at Midnight a great read for students who harbor fantasies of attending a British boarding school.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Darkest Hour

26625720Richmond, Caroline Tung. The Darkest Hour
July 26th 2016 by Scholastic Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Teenager Lucie Blaise's father is French, but she lived in the US. Now that her older brother has been killed in action during WWII, she has decided to use her linguistic skills and join the British covert ops team with other girls. Provided with a variety of different identities, she travels around on different missions. Her first mission is to kill an informant while she is disguised as a nun, but he claims to have more information, and she lets him go. When she finds out that the Nazi "secret weapon" is actually a horrific disease, she tries to figure out how to keep it from being used. It's hard to know whom to trust, as many people have divided loyalties or are not who they claim to be. There is a lot at stake-- can Lucie manage to keep herself safe while she is trying to keep the world safe?
Strengths: This had some interesting dealings with the Nazis and the various kinds of soldiers, doctors, etc. that had a part in that horrific war machine. Lucie isn't the most competent spy, but it's easy to identify with her and for the reader to put herself in Lucie's place. I like the cover. 
Weaknesses: It was hard to believe that Lucie was really recruited as a spy. Historical notes on real life spy organizations that involved young women might have helped. 
What I really think: I'll probably buy a copy of this, but it lacked some spark. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Ministry of Ghosts

22654827Shearer, Alex. The Ministry of Ghosts
3 May 2016, Sky Ponly Press
Copy Provided by Young Adult Books Central

Mr. Beeston, from the Department of Economics, is bound and determined to trim the fat from the budget, so when he finds information about the Ministry of Ghosts, he sets out to see if anything is being accomplished there. What he finds is Mr. Copperstone, who probably should have retired years ago, his able assistants Miss Rolly and Mr. Gibbins, and their flighty secretary, Mrs. Scant. There is also a cat, whose expenses come out of petty cash. Even though there is the pretense of getting work done, there have been no ghosts found or dealt with in the 200 plus years that the ministry has been in existence, which strikes Mr. Beeston as ludicrous. He gives the group two months to find a ghost or they will all be sent to the Department of Sewage or forced to retire. Upon reflection, the group decides that children are the way to lure ghosts, so they post an advertisement in the window of their dusty office. Two students from the nearby school answer it-- Thruppence, whose father owns a local fish store, and Tim, whose family has a woodworking shop that used to make prosthetic legs. The two are glad of a little spending money and investigate ways that they could find ghosts. In the end, they decide it is necessary to fool Mr. Beeston and contrive to fool him into thinking that a ghost has appeared... until they uncover a number of ghosts in an unusual place. 

Shearer, who has written a number of children's books in Great Britain but got his start by writing for television, seems to have a firm grasp on British bureaucracy. The details of the daily routine of the Ministry of Ghosts is rather amusing, as are the eccentricities of the people working there-- Mr. Copperstone takes naps, Miss Rolly writes letters to the newspapers about women's issues, Mr. Gibbins tries to do the crossword puzzle without anyone noticing, and Mrs. Scant is forever offering to make tea that never appears. 

Tim and Thruppence (a nod, perhaps, to Agatha Christie's characters Tommy and Tuppence?) are very modern children thrust into an old fashioned world, but they take their ghost hunting very seriously, investigating the dusty tomes and antiquated equipment in the Ministry, and using their knowledge to find a way to trick Mr. Beeston after their midnight trips to the graveyard yield nothing. 

There is a decided lack of ghosts until the fabulous twist at the end of the book, but this would still be a good choice for readers who enjoyed the work of Eva Ibbotson or Ruth Chew but aren't quite ready for the more violent ghost adventures of Catherine Jink's City of Orphans or Stroud's Lockwood and Company. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

MMGM-Click Here to Start

23502057Markell, Denis. Click Here to Start
July 19th 2016 by Delacorte BFYR 
E ARC from
Also reviewed at Young Adult Books Central

Ted's mother's Uncle Ted is in the hospital, and it doesn't look good, so Ted visits him one last time. He's a quirky guy who ran a liquor store and had fought during WWII with a Japanese division. He can no longer speak, but he gives Ted some instructions that seem odd until the will is read. Ted has been given the contents of his great uncles apartment, and he must unravel a mystery to find a "treasure". To help him along, there is an online "Game of Ted" that shows him clues as to how he might be able to find objects in his uncle's apartment, and later, other places as well. Aided by his best friend Caleb (whose father works with Ted's at the university, teaching English, but has recently left Caleb and his mother) and the daughter of the new department head, Isabel, Ted starts to clean out the apartment and learns a lot about his uncle's background. When "Clark Kent" shows up from a Hawaiian newspaper, wanting to do an article on the elder Ted's war experience, the children are apprehensive. Clark later claims to be Stan Kellerman, whose father was one of the Monuments Men who tried to get artwork stolen by the Nazis back to rightful owners. The children don't want to give away any of their own clues, but eventually get dragged deep into some real life danger. 

The use of video games will give this instant appeal to middle grade readers, and it was well done to have the game be involved in the mystery. The real life parallels of finding clues in the apartment, and later, using escape room game skills to help Isabel get out of her house were fascinating even if the reader does not play games. 

Isabel, a transplant from New York City, has a different view of the San Fernando Valley than Caleb and Ted do, and seeing it through her eyes (and seeing her through Ted's) creates some interesting juxtaposition. I love it when a city or area is so richly described throughout a book so that it almost becomes a character. Isabel's recent loss of her mother gives her father a good excuse for moving cross country, and isn't talked about excessively. 

Caleb's family situation is realistic as well, and not overdone. The best family situation is, of course, Ted's. His father brings his own quirkiness to the family-- he is of Jewish descent, with family back in New York, teaches English literature, and has an obsession with a catalog of French farmhouse furniture. Ted's mother is of Japanese descent and was raised in Hawaii, but came to California to study as a nurse. Using this cultural background to then bring in WWII history was especially brilliant. 

This book will appeal to a wide audience. Readers who enjoyed Schreiber's Game Over, Pete Watson will enjoy the video game component; fans of Fitzgerald's Under the Egg will enjoy reading more about the Monuments Men; detective story aficionados will revel in the inclusion of The Maltese Falcon story. This is a great book to hand to just about any middle grade reader since the cover is bright and appealing and the story highlights good friends involved in an intriguing mystery. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Thing About Leftovers

27272417Payne, C.C. The Thing About Leftovers
July 19th 2016 by Nancy Paulsen Books
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Fizzy (aka Elizabeth) is having a hard time-- her parents are divorced and there's no chance that they will get back together. Her father is remarried, and his wife is expecting, and her mother is going to marry her fussy boyfriend who doesn't seem to like children. At least her aunt is supportive, and believes that Fizzy can win the Southern Living cook off, and helps her practice and register. Fizzy's friends, Zach and Miyoko (who has her own issues with parents) are understanding as well, but Fizzy feels like every thing she does makes her unlikable, and she worries that she will get thrown out by both of her parents and have to live in foster care. 
Strengths: Even though there are problems in Fizzy's life, this is a generally upbeat book, and even the "difficult" substitute has Fizzy's best interest at heart. Books involving cooking, and especially competitions, are always popular with my students. Will definitely purchase. 
Weaknesses: Fizzy really was rather annoying, and I just wanted to slap her most of the time. I'm sure that children of divorce feel anxious a lot of the time, but Fizzy took this to extremes. Miyoko's parents were over the top as well. I prefer characters with a little more shading. 
What I really think: This will circulate well, my own personal objections to Fizzy aside. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Saturday Morning Cartoons- Rise of the Robot Army

27206407Venditti, Robert and Higgins, Dusty. Rise of the Robot Army (Miles Taylor and the Golden Cape #2)
June 14th 2016 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Having spent the entire summer being the superhero Gilded and saving the world from all manner of crises, Miles has a hard time going back to middle school. His father wants him to concentrate on his studies and only use his superpowers for extreme cases that regular law enforcement can't handle, but school is boring, and saving the world is fun! Even his best friend, Henry, thinks he is over using his powers, and agrees with Miles' dad that he should be grounded. Angry at this intervention, Miles lets down his guard and is kidnapped by General Breckenridge, who thinks that Miles is an enemy of the US, and who wants to become Gilded himself. Henry is also kidnapped, and the two meet Lenore, a foster child who had the bad luck to be near the first Gilded's onion farm when the General unearthed a space ship there. It's not easy to escape, especially when the General gets his hands on the cape. Can the three make it out, and defeat the robot army?
Strengths: I loved Miles' supportive father, and they way that he tried to get Miles to pay attention to school. This story moved along fairly well, with enough super hero action to keep me interested. I like the inclusion of comic strip style art.
Weaknesses: This had some slow moments since everyone was in captivity and kept getting drugged. The first book hasn't circulated as well as I'd hoped. The covers should somehow incorporate the cartoon panel format so I don't have to flip through the book to sell it to readers. 
What I really think: This should be more popular. I'll see if I can drum up interest in the first book before I invest in the second. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Guy Friday- Supergirl at Super Hero High

27405470Yee, Lisa. Supergirl at Super Hero High
July 5th 2016 by Random House Books for Young Readers
Copy provided by publisher 

When the planet Krypton is in danger of exploding, Kara Zor-El's parents put her in an escape craft and send her to earth. She ends up living with the Kents, although Clark is a good ten years older due to variances in the time-space continuum. While the Kents are very nice to her, she feels that she should probably go to school somewhere else, and Korugar Academy. She also is a fan of Wonder Woman, so she's okay with going to Super Hero High. When she arrives, however, she damages the Amethyst Tower and proceeds to make a lot of klutzy moves. She does make friends with tech support helper Barbara Gordon, who works at the school but doesn't go there, and people aren't too unkind. She even makes some good friends when she invites everyone to the Kents for Thanksgiving. When dastardly deeds are occurring involving the school's Boom Tubes (sort of portals to other times and places), Supergirl helps to investigate, and comes to feel that Super Hero High could be her home. 

Strengths: DC and Marvel comics are huge right now, and I have a lot of students who are REALLY into the stories and movies. (I had a big conversation with one about whether Batman or Superman would win. I'm sorry. Batman? No. But comics are not my flavor of geek.) I think it's especially important to get boys to read books about all sorts of girls and given the problems that have faced women who do embrace the world of comics, throwing in some female super heroes is an excellent idea. I'm very sure that this series (Wonder Woman at Super Hero High) was started with the best of intentions. 
Weaknesses: Like the first book in the series, this felt a bit contrived. Clearly well researched, with lots of DC characters thrown in, it would have helped to have an index of characters in the back, for those of us who aren't fluent in DC. I was a little confused by Granny Goodness not being evil and thought she would come into play more. 
What I really think: Even though I would like these books to be a little better written (and not be in cheap paper over board bindings!), I'm kind of looking forward to reading about Barbara Gordon when it comes out January 3rd, 2017, especially since these can be read independently.