Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Happy Memorial Day

Hawking's Hallway - Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman

Summary: Nick Slate, in order to protect his father and little brother, reluctantly must help the Accelerati complete Tesla's great device. Their power-mad leader wants nothing less than to control the world's energy--but there are still three missing objects to track down.

Nick's friends can't help him, as they are spread across the globe grappling with their own mysteries--with Vince in Scotland, Caitlin and Mitch on their way to New Jersey, and Petula's whereabouts unknown. On his own, Nick must locate Tesla's final inventions-- which are the most powerful of all, capable of shattering time and collapsing space. (Summary and image from

Review: All of Nick’s plans seem to have fallen to bits. He tried so hard to keep his family from knowing what he was really doing, and now they’re in the clutches of the Accelerati. He’s had no choice but to join forces with the Accelerati to save the lives of his dad and brother, not to mention his friends. And soon—much too soon—he finds himself face to face with the leader of this nefarious group — Thomas Edison, himself. Still. Somehow.

I’ve got to be honest. This book is action-packed, moves in eighty different directions, there’s time travel, split people, stolen babies, the emergence of not only Thomas Edison, but possibly Nikola Tesla, there’s a lot going on. A LOT. While the other two have been good at setting the stage and endearing the reader to the characters and their cause, this is the final act, and there’s a lot to resolve. It gets intense. It gets downright scary. I may have teared up a bit at one point.

I really ended up loving this series, and very much appreciated the twists and turns of this novel. I loved the tidbits of history that found their way into the narrative. I loved the development of the characters, their resolutions, and the final product. It was definitely a satisfying conclusion to the end of the series.

To be honest, I binge-read this series in a  day and a half. I love doing that. Honestly, it was beneficial to me to have read all of them quickly so that I could follow all of the characters and their storylines. I’d recommend reading this series like that, otherwise, it may be too easy to get a little lost.

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader: We revisit the fire that started the series, there are deaths, Edison is disturbing, and there is an infant abduction.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Be Still My Beating Heart...

Tonight, I came out of the room after putting my youngest 
down for bed and I ran smack into this... I almost cried. 

 To quote Kelly Clarkson...
Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this! 

The only way to make it better would be for L and I to be snuggled in there, reading too!  For those who are curious, C is reading an early reader about the Avengers.  S is reading Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and K is reading Fall of Hades, the sixth book in the Michael Vey series.  

What are your kids reading?

Friday, May 26, 2017

Baba Yaga's Assistant - Marika McCoola; Emily Carroll

Must have skills in hauling, obeying orders, cooking, and cleaning. Magical talent a bonus. Must be good with heights. Enter Baba Yaga's house to apply.

Most children think twice before braving a haunted wood filled with terrifying beasties to match wits with a witch, but not Masha. Her beloved grandma taught her many things: that stories are useful, that magic is fickle, and that nothing is too difficult or too dirty to clean. The fearsome witch of folklore needs an assistant, and Masha needs an adventure. She may be clever enough to enter Baba Yaga's house on chicken legs, but within its walls, deceit is the rule. To earn her place, Masha must pass a series of tests, outfox a territorial bear, and make dinner for her host. No easy task, with children on the menu!

Wry, spooky and poignant, Marika McCoola's debut--with richly layered art by acclaimed graphic artist Emily Carroll--is a storytelling feat and a visual fest.  (Summary and picture from

My Review: So, strolling through the graphic novel section of the library (it's what I do), I spotted the name 'Baba Yaga' on a book spine and snatched it up without even hesitating.  I'm morbidly fascinated by weird dark fairy tales so, hence, my love of Baba Yaga stories.

For the uninitiated, Baba Yaga is a witch from Russian folklore.  She presents impossible tasks, eats children, and lives in a house that walks around on giant chicken legs.  When she's tired of that, she flies around the land in a mortar and pestle.  All around spooky and haunting.

I really enjoyed this book.  It was a quick read, but it did a lovely job of intertwining past, present and fairy tale, especially Masha's belief in the fabled witch even during modern times.  It presented a new story while hearkening back to other Baba Yaga stories within the tale.  Using her knowledge of Baba Yaga folklore, shared with her by her late grandmother, Masha is able to weave her way into this mythical world and work out some personal problems along the way.  I love when a character uses stories or fairy tales to help them in any situation, because stories have a way of helping us prepare for the world around us, and that's a theme I love finding in any book.

The art was fantastic, especially every time Baba Yaga was on the scene.  Her character design was delightful, and there was just enough danger in her looks while at the same time a feeling that she's not always what the stories make her out to be.  I felt the artist captured her essence very well, and it was very emotive and colorful, adding to the story.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: Nothing offensive, just mildly spooky (it is Baba Yaga, after all).

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Ultimate Guide to Grandmas & Grandpas - Sally Lloyd-Jones (illustrated by Michael Emberley)

Summary:  Did you know that when you have a grandma or a grandpa, there are guidelines for how best to take care of them?  There are all sorts of special things you need to do to make them feel loved.  Now here at last is a manual packed with advice, pointers, and helpful hints.  For instance, you need to dance for them, sing to them, draw pictures for them, and even hold their hand when they cross the street!  It's also very important to take a nap with them (so that they're not the only ones).  But most importantly, you need to give them lots of hugs and kisses -- because that is what grandmas and grandpas like best! (Summary from book flap)

My Review:  My youngest daughter is turning five tomorrow but still has a somewhat flawed selection process when it comes to choosing books at our local library.  Upon arrival, she runs to the kiddie section and proceeds to grab grab grab from the shelves until she has a Pisa-like tower of books and declares herself ready to check out.  As you might imagine, her reading choices can be somewhat hit and miss in the quality department and come story time, I usually regret my lack of guidance.  This has led to me reading far more Barbie and Biscuit books that a person really needs to read in a lifetime. However, very occasionally she manages to bring home a winner and this book is stinking adorable.

The Ultimate Guide to Grandmas & Grandpas is an adorably tongue-in-cheek care and keeping manual for the younger generations.  Each page shows a different set of animal grandparents and their grandchildren engaging in shenanigans and includes a little tip for kids on how to keep their grandparents safe, well-fed, and entertained.  Of course, there is the standard "let them spoil you" shtick but children are also directed to listen to their stories, gobble up the dinners they make, share their ice cream, go outside, and do fun things together.  There are even great little safety tips that any grandparent (or parent, really) can appreciate -- like being able to see your grandparents all the time "in case they run off" or hold their hand when they cross the street.  I can see it being a great gift for your little one to take with them the first time they stay the night at grandma and grandpas house OR (possibly even better) a great way to announce to your parents that they are becoming grandparents.  Either way, this book is a Goldilocks length for bedtime stories (not too long or too short) and would also work well as a read-together book for your up-and-coming reader.  I'm glad it managed to find its way home to us and I imagine we'll have to buy a few copies for the grandparents in our lives.

My Rating:  4.5 stars

For the sensitive reader:  As long as you have nice grandparents things should work out just fine.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Prisoner B-3087 - Alan Gratz

Summary: Survive. At any cost.

10 concentration camps.

10 different places where you are starved, tortured, and worked mercilessly.

It's something no one could imagine surviving.

But it is what Yanek Gruener has to face.

As a Jewish boy in 1930s Poland, Yanek is at the mercy of the Nazis who have taken over. Everything he has, and everyone he loves, have been snatched brutally from him. And then Yanek himself is taken prisoner -- his arm tattooed with the words PRISONER B-3087.

He is forced from one nightmarish concentration camp to another, as World War II rages all around him. He encounters evil he could have never imagined, but also sees surprising glimpses of hope amid the horror. He just barely escapes death, only to confront it again seconds later.

Can Yanek make it through the terror without losing his hope, his will -- and, most of all, his sense of who he really is inside?

Based on an astonishing true story. (Summary and image from

Review: Yanek feels safe and happy in his Polish town, until the Nazis appear. Suddenly, school isn't an option. Having food for dinner is a constant struggle. His Bar Mitzvah is conducted in secret, by cover of night. His family lives governed by fear first, by Nazis and the Judenrat second. His main goal in life becomes survival, at any cost.

Prisoner B-3087 is based on the true experiences of Yanek Gruener. As a child, he suffered through an unimaginable ten concentration camps, a death march, and the loss of his family. He survived. Miraculously, he survived. This is his story, told in a way that middle grade/young adults can grasp the desperation, the ingenuity, the terror, and the relief of his experience. Beautifully written, compellingly presented, and surprisingly hopeful, this is definitely a book that students studying World War II should read.

I was so impressed with the tact with which Gratz approached Gruener's story. I can't begin how difficult it must be for a survivor to relay what he went through, and then adding the further challenge of making his experiences age appropriate for the reader, it's nearly a Herculean task. Gratz doesn't stoop to the "shock and awe" factor to spice up Gruener's story, he relays the information in a tactful and appropriate manner. The simplicity itself is beautiful, especially for a reader just hearing about the horrors of the Holocaust for the first time.

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader: This is a book about the Jewish Holocaust. While the atrocities are downplayed, they are very much there.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

Summary: The captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body. 

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel - in its form and voice - completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

My Review: One of the first places I heard of this book was from the podcast “Kirkus Reviews.” I had heard mention of it before, seen a few friends who had read it, but it was largely off of my radar. After heaving George Saunders interviewed on the podcast, I knew I had to check it out. Originally I began reading it, as one does when, you know, reading a book. However, I heard mention of it again and how the audio version was incredible—famous narrators including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, George Saunders, Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July, Lena Dunham, and a full cast including over 120 characters convinced me that this was a book I had to listen to.

Now, just so you know, I rarely listen to books. Like never. My audio time is devoted to podcasts, which I also love. The nerdier the better. The only other book I can remember listening to was Elizabeth’s Smart book that she reads herself. I found it very powerful. However, I actually like reading as opposed to “reading.” I really enjoy it. There are definitely books on my list that I will probably listen to, the Harry Potter series being one of them because I’ve heard they’re incredible, but most books—99% perhaps—I will read. However, I am so glad I listened to this book for several reasons. First off, there are a bajillion characters. Remember how there is a full cast including over 120 characters? That is no joke. Some make only one appearance, and a few you only hear from once or twice, but that makes it super confusing for reading. However, with it being read it made it more understandable. In some ways it is actually written very play-like, and having readers helped it flow and made it really interesting. The book itself (which I began reading before switching over to the audio version) looks very choppy, broken into small chapters with each character saying maybe one sentence or a small paragraph and then their name written under it. I can see how it would take a lot of concentration to read this book and get out of it what I think the audio version has to offer. Not to mention that I really enjoyed the readers. There were a lot of readers I recognized and have enjoyed in other places and so it was fun to have them be a part of this book as well.

The book itself is super weird but also awesome. It’s a mix of reality and fiction. I loved how Saunders incorporates first-hand accounts of what Lincoln was like, what the White House was like, and just in general had a lot of reality interwoven with the fictional goings on at the bardo. One of the things that struck me when I heard about this book on the Kirkus Reviews podcast was that the editors receive dozens of Lincoln biographies every week, but this one was different. It’s a biography but it isn’t. I felt like I came to understand Lincoln more than any other thing I’ve read (and I haven’t read a lot, admittedly), but the first-hand accounts as well as were arranged in such a manner that many different viewpoints were offered—some contradictory—and it made for a weirdly complex and complete picture of a very deep, iconic man.

Now for the bardo. Oh, what a weird and wonderful creation. Saunders has masterfully created very real characters in an obviously confusing (for them) situation. This allows for all kinds of discussion of life and death and what it all means in the end. What matters most. What we leave behind and what we can take with us. What we would do in the next life to be able to go back and fix in this life. The confusion of it. It really is quite brilliant. It’s hard to explain, really, because it is a very complex book that is surprisingly clear in its confusion.

I think this is a great read. It’s not a light read, necessarily, and it certainly has some language and content. Two of the ghosts in the bardo have exceptionally bad language and so for that reason I would caution those who are sensitive to such things.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some sexual content and a few instances of very bad language.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mark of the Thief - Jennifer A. Nielsen

Summary: When Nic, a slave in the mines outside of Rome, is forced to enter a sealed cavern containing the lost treasures of Julius Caesar, he finds much more than gold and gemstones: He discovers an ancient bulla, an amulet that belonged to the great Caesar and is filled with a magic once reserved for the Gods -- magic some Romans would kill for.

Now, with the deadly power of the bulla pulsing through his veins, Nic is determined to become free. But instead, he finds himself at the center of a ruthless conspiracy to overthrow the emperor and spark the Praetor War, a battle to destroy Rome from within. Traitors and spies lurk at every turn, each more desperate than the next to use Nic's newfound powers for their own dark purposes.

In a quest to stop the rebellion, save Rome, and secure his own freedom, Nic must harness the magic within himself and defeat the empire's most powerful and savage leaders. Summary and image from

Review: Everyone loves a good underdog story. There's just something satisfying about reading about the successes of the little guy, and it doesn't get much lower than a Roman slave in the mines. Sent on a mission that will most certainly lead to his doom, Nic comes face to face with a griffin, and to his surprise, is not only marked with Magic, but comes into possession of Caesar's bulla, a magical object that holds the power of the Gods. 

Disclaimer: this is clearly a middle grade book. Not quite YA, still too mature for younger-but-skilled readers, this could be a poster child for the MG genre. It's fun. It's a little intense, but not so intense that I'd hesitate giving it to my 11 year old. It's a good blend of silly, sweet, and suspenseful.

As a book falling solely in the MG genre, it's also predictable. From an adult standpoint, it was super easy to see where the characters were being led, the twists weren't true twists as much as well-broadcast turns, but I didn't get bored. Sometimes it's a pleasant change to read something that requires less brain power than Victor Hugo, and where I'm not as stressed about solving the mystery as I tend to be with the Queen of Mystery Agatha Christie's books. This is exactly that kind of book--fun, doesn't require too much commitment, easy on the mind, and well-written enough for me to look past the genre and reach for the second book. I'm curious to see what one of my kiddos would make of the book. 

Rating: Three and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader: The treatment of Nic as a slave could illicit discussions with your children. Since this book is set in Ancient Rome, gladiators also make an appearance. It's not gruesome, but it may bring about some questions.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Fire and Steel Vol. IV: The Proud Shall Stumble - Gerald N. Lund

Summary: Battered down and humiliated on an international scale, post-World War I Germany is a nation on the brink of economic and social collapse. Work is scarce, food has become an extravagance, and money is practically worthless. The people have lost the pride and conviction that once carried them. But some see their suffering as a political opportunity to restore the Fatherland to its former glory--by any means necessary.

In the fourth volume of Gerald N. Lund's epic new series, the Eckhardt family is shaken to the core by Hans's involvement in an attempted coup in Bavaria that has devastating consequences. While Emily turns to her newfound faith for hope and comfort, the world takes little notice of the country's rapidly deteriorating situation or an ambitious political leader who is anything but defeated by his conviction for treason. (Summary and image from I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: We left the two families of the Fire and Steel series during Hitler's meteoric rise to the top of the Bavarian political scene.  Considering the frustration boiling over throughout Germany after the Great War, the unbelievable inflation and economic trials that were hitting postwar Europe, and the uncertainty surrounding any governmental action, Bavaria is now a hotbed for revolution, and Hitler is ready to fill that role. His stormtroopers are mobilized, his plan is flawless, he is convinced that this movement will lead to the eventual takeover of Germany as a whole. But it doesn't work. No plan is perfect, and the coup fails because of ego. In the first few chapters, we find Hitler and his comrades--including Hans--arrested and tried for treason.

Things aren't much better with the Westlund family in Southern Utah. Economically they're prospering -- it is the Roaring 20s, after all. But while they worry about their German family and friends, they also worry about their children. Times are changing and change is scary, especially when what they see coming from Germany doesn't match the reports their friends are sending along. Is this prosperity going to last? Is there something looming?

This was a really interesting follow-up to book three. I always knew Hitler had spent time in prison for trying to overthrow the government, but it was always the footnote. Oh, and by the way, first attempt failed, so he went to prison and wrote Mein Kampf. It fascinated me to revisit the series of events that led to that prison stay, to experience them in more detail than we ever covered in history, and to see Lund's imaginings of how those events would have been viewed by citizens both in Germany and in the United States. While this wasn't as fast-paced or as jam-packed with historical references and events, it delved into the history and the ramifications of the few events it covers in astounding detail. It felt pressing, and urgent, and harrowing. I love how Lund can make me forget that I know how it ends.

Now, let's be honest. There were a few years in the 20s where nothing major either in America or Germany happened. Instead of trying to fill the time, I was surprised to just see a three-year jump. It shocked me a bit to finish one chapter and start another to find teenage characters now finishing school and engaged, but it moved the story forward in a way that would have otherwise detrimentally slowed it down. I get invested in these families, but I also get ridiculously bored when I'm bogged down with the minutia of their daily lives. My biggest draw to this series isn't the lives of the characters, it's how they've fit into history. I'm happy to say that the traction that Lund found in book three hasn't slackened. This is a great addition to the series, and I can NOT wait for the next installment!

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Clean. Hitler's speeches are inflammatory, but it's Adolf Hitler. Of course they are.

Friday, May 12, 2017

King's Cage - Victoria Aveyard

When the Lightning Girl’s spark is gone, who will light the way for the rebellion?

Mare Barrow is a prisoner, powerless without her lightning, tormented by her lethal mistakes. She lives at the mercy of a boy she once loved, a boy made of lies and betrayal. Now a king, Maven Calore continues weaving his dead mother’s web in an attempt to maintain control over his country—and his prisoner.

As Mare bears the weight of Silent Stone in the palace, her once-ragtag band of newbloods and Reds continue organizing, training, and expanding. They prepare for war, no longer able to linger in the shadows. And Cal, the exiled prince with his own claim on Mare’s heart, will stop at nothing to bring her back.

When blood turns on blood, and ability on ability, there may be no one left to put out the fire—leaving Norta as Mare knows it to burn all the way down. (Summary and image from

Review: Entrapped in a cell lined with Silent Stone, shackled with manacles made of the same power-blocking material, and with two Silents as guard, Mare can barely stand. Escape from Maven and his regime is nearly impossible, and yet she has agreed to this. In order to save her family, her friends, and her love, she’s agreed to this slow death and torture. But Silent Stone only quiets her powers, not her mind.

Book Three in this series was an easy, fun, fly-through read. It was clear that this was a holding-pattern book, but there was still so much that happened in it that it that I was surprised to not find myself as bored by this plot advancement as other books that have the same purpose. Were the major revelations? Some. Were there fierce battles and advancements of the Red Dawn’s cause? One or two. But the whole purpose of this installment wasn’t to give you a James Bond-esque action novel, nor was it to rush the series plot forward. 

So, then, what DID we get? Amazing character development to start, not only from Mare but from Maven. Until this point, I never stopped to ask how difficult it could be to be raised by someone who could control your body and fiddle around in your mind. The exploration of that was fascinating and heartbreaking all at the same time. Second, some seriously awesome twists and turns that will shake up the series moving forward. Unexpected allies, new powers emerging, and different forms of the powers we’ve already seen made for a brighter read. Finally, a little bit of the bigger picture, as well as a promise of what is to come. And man, I’m excited what is to come. The research into where these powers came from is something that I’m super excited to discover.

While this isn’t as exciting as the first book in the series, or as action-packed as the second, it did get me very excited and more curious about the next book to come. Further, I’m not happy I have to wait to read it!

Rating: Three and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There’s a fade-to-black that isn’t exactly, um, discreet.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Silent Children - Amna Boheim

Summary: Vienna, 1938: Something's amiss at the home of young Annabel Albrecht. First, her favourite maid Eva disappears, then her friend Oskar. Worse is to come – her brother is murdered and her mother is taken away, leaving Annabel to fend for herself. 

Almost 70 years later, Annabel's son Max uncovers his mother's long-buried past, and unlocks the secrets preserved by Annabel's missing friends. But as Max is to discover, some children can never be completely silenced. Is he haunted by ghosts or by guilt, and will he ever escape?

The Silent Children is a gripping tale of tragedy and revenge, a modern-day ghost story that will stay with you long after you turn the final page. (Summary and image from I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Okay, to start, don't read this book at night. Don't. Especially when your husband is out of town on business and you have an overactive imagination. First off, it's impossible to put down. Second, the ghostly part (which I totally misjudged when I requested the book) comes out of nowhere and doesn't pull any punches. This is a book best read in a brightly lit room with birds chirping outside your window. 

Now to the actual book.

Boheim's debut novel is so well-crafted and well-executed, it's difficult to remember that this is her first book. Reminiscent of Daphne's DuMaurier's Rebecca (one of my favorite books to read in October), the reader is immersed into the mystery surrounding Max's family, a mystery that Max is uncertain whether he wants to even uncover. Boheim has done an impeccable job of creating and capturing how consumed Max becomes by these tidbits of revelation that keep appearing over the course of many weeks. 

The story without the ghostly aspect is strong enough. It could stand on its own without having to delve into the paranormal, which could in other hands prove fatal to the book. However, the ghostly aspect is sparse enough and so perfectly parsed out that instead of mucking up a story with unnecessary "boos" and "spooks", it strengthens and spices up the plot, truly taking it to the next level. It strikes a perfect balance between heartbreaking, terrifying, hopeful, and horrific.

The plot is dark. Notwithstanding the fact that it's a ghost story, the secrets Max's family has buried are difficult to read. Unlike Rebecca,  the ending holds no hope. It's tragic. It fits the story, but man. Have some tissues nearby. 

Rating: Four and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Read in bright, sunshiny, populated company. The ghostly presence is vengeful. There is also a post-assault scene that is difficult to read. And the secret is dark.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Me and Marvin Gardens - Amy Sarig King

Summary: Obe Devlin has problems. His family's farmland has been taken over by developers. His best friend Tommy abandoned him for the development kids. And he keeps getting nosebleeds, because of that thing he doesn't like to talk about. So Obe hangs out at the creek by his house, in the last wild patch left, picking up litter and looking for animal tracks.

One day, he sees a creature that looks kind of like a large dog, or maybe a small boar. And as he watches it, he realizes it eats plastic. Only plastic. Water bottles, shopping bags... No one has ever seen a creature like this before, because there's never been a creature like this before. The animal--Marvin Gardens--soon becomes Obe's best friend and biggest secret. But to keep him safe from the developers and Tommy and his friends, Obe must make a decision that might change everything.

In her most personal novel yet, Printz Honor Award winner Amy Sarig King tells the story of a friendship that could actually save the world. (Summary and pic from

My Review: Well this was a funny little book. I do like JFic for some of the wacky things that happen. This book was no exception. The story itself is real enough—a beautiful and large parcel of land owned by one family that is, 100 years ago, sold off for various reasons, much of it by the grandfather of the main character to pay drinking debts. Now the family must watch as its beloved land is turned into subdivisions all in different phases. My family has never owned land like this, but I did grow up in a rural-ish place that was slowly built up into houses. I used to ride my horse through the fields in back of my house, but those fields are now subdivisions with names about as cheery as the ones in this book. So I can somewhat understand what the protagonist is going through.

I loved that there were fun kid things that he did—burying something of his in each of the houses to be built so that the land would still be his. I loved that he would go places and feel a sense of belonging and loss for the land. It really did paint an accurate portrait of a young boy. I have boys around this age and I can totally see that they think how he did. My oldest son is just this age, and he has friends who are starting to get into girls. He isn’t interested at all yet, though (thankfully!). He seems utterly confused by the giggling girls around him and can’t figure out what’s going on. I really enjoyed the main character for this reason—I think he is a realistic boy caught in a realistic situation with very real and relatable thoughts and actions. That is one of the things I love about good JFic.

Now for the animal. Marvin Gardens. How hilarious is it to have an animal who eats trash and poops toxic waste and seems the answer to all things but possibly also the problem of all things? It’s really quite funny, and also sad, too, and again, I loved watching how the kids interacted with him and accepted him. They were fine with a mythical-type creature. They didn’t have a problem believing he was real or trusting him, even when they understood the gravitas of the situation. I mean, it’s no small feat to discover an animal and then have to protect it and know who to tell to both protect it from the world as well as protect the world from it. It was an interesting conundrum that added a layer of maturity to the book that I also appreciated.

One thing I did not love about the book was how heavy-handed it was. I believe that humans pollute the world. I will leave it at that because who wants to read about global warming and whether or not it exists and whether or not humans created it on a book blog? Not me. The point is that I am fine with authors discussing issues. I am. But I do not like being hit over the head with an agenda, no matter what that agenda is, even if I agree with it. Now if I go into a book expecting an agenda—like I’m reading a religious text or maybe a book with the title This is what I think of this topic and I’m going to spend 300 pages telling you about it then I shouldn’t be annoyed because I know what I’m getting into and I’m willingly subjecting myself to such things. However, when I feel like an author tells me something and then hits me over the head with it over several hundred pages I get annoyed and then possibly rebellious about it. I’m looking at you, Barbara Kingsolver. I do feel that this book was somewhat this way. However, because it is a JFic book I understand that subtlety is not necessarily as effective.

Overall, I found this to be a witty and creative book with lots to offer. It was a fun story but also discussed real issues and real feelings, which I think is great. I think my boys would love it.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is quite a bit of discussion of poop, which they call scat after talking about poop for quite awhile. Also, there is some bullying. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Lock and Key: The Initiation - Ridley Pearson

Summary: Bestselling author of Peter and the Starcatchers and the Kingdom Keepers series, Ridley Pearson reimagines the origins of the epic rivalry between Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty. Set in modern times and focusing on Moriarty's bone-chilling beginnings, this middle grade mystery-adventure series will upend everything you thought you ever knew about Sherlock Holmes—and the true nature of evil.

In the pantheon of literature’s more impressive villains, Sherlock Holmes’s greatest nemesis, James Moriarty, stands alone. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle describes him in the classic tale “The Final Solution,” Moriarty is a genius, a philosopher, and a spider in the center of his web. He is the Napolean of crime—and now, for the first-time ever, New York Times bestselling novelist Ridley Pearson explores the origins of his evil ways.

Our story begins when James and his younger sister, Moria, are unceremoniously sent off to boarding school at Baskerville Academy. It is not a fate either want or welcome—but generations of Moriarty men have graduated from Baskerville’s hallowed halls. And now so too must James. It’s at Baskerville where James is first paired with a rather unexpected roommate—Sherlock Holmes. The two don’t get along almost instantly, but when the school’s heirloom Bible goes missing and cryptic notes with disconcerting clues start finding their way into James’s hands, the two boys decide that they must work together to solve a mystery so fraught with peril, it will change both their lives forever!

It’s another seat-of-your-pants mystery from the bestselling author of Peter and the Starcatchers and The Kingdom Keepers series, Ridley Pearson. (Summary and image from

Review: I'm a sucker for a Sherlock Holmes story, regardless of the form. Even though I know not all retellings are going to be as enthralling as the original (and that I may end up liking one or more retellings even more than some of the original stories), I can't seem to step away from them. Enter Ridley Pearson's new series, Lock and Key.

Now, I really like Pearson's writing. It's fluffy, it's fun, it's light and intriguing, it entertains me when I just want to be entertained. Like many prolific authors, there are some series I like more than others, and some I am fine taking my time working through. But the older I get, the more I realize I'm not going to read every book on my TBR list unless I get a little more discriminating in what I pick up. Some series need to be abandoned, some I'm okay with not even starting. Unfortunately, this is one I'm a little upset I started. 

The reader is taken through a few different points of view throughout the story, giving us a better picture of what's going on. However, it just convoluted the story. And I don't know if it's because I'm such a fan of BBC's Sherlock, but I really didn't think that modernizing the characters worked in this setting. I had a difficult time wrapping my head around why on earth Sherlock, a British charity case, would be shipped across the Atlantic to boarding school, when the very best boarding schools are in Europe. It just felt too convoluted and forced. 

Second, I found myself searching desperately for any spark of brilliance in Moriarty, and all I truly found was a propensity toward bullying, but not much of one. Building upon that upset, Sherlock seemed like a sycophant, desperate for anyone's approbation. It just grated on my sensibilities. Gone were the formidable and genius minds, in their place were two rather average intelligent tweens. And yes, I understand that tweens aren't going to be full adults, but I expect more from two of the greatest minds in fiction, even in their youth.

Finally, this story just dragged. It got outright boring, something that no Holmes-based story should ever be allowed to do. Slogging through the detritus of the story in order to solve a rather boring mystery became chore-like. That's not what a Sherlock story should be. It should be a mind-puzzle. An opportunity for the reader to deduct, reason, and foresee potential outcomes. Never, ever, should a Sherlock story in any form be an exercise in endurance.

Rating: Two stars

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Wolf Hollow - Lauren Wolk

Summary: Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby’s strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.

Brilliantly crafted, Wolf Hollow is a haunting tale of America at a crossroads and a time when one girl’s resilience, strength, and compassion help to illuminate the darkest corners of our history. (Summary and pic from

My Review: Wolf Hollow is the third stop on my tour of 2017’s Newbery Award winners. As with the winner this year—The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and one of the Honorable Mentions, TheInquisitor’s Tale, this Honorable Mention was also a very powerful, well-written book.

One of the things I have really enjoyed about this year’s Newbery Award choices was the diversity of them. The Girl Who Drank the Moon was a fun and allegorical fairytale that obviously had real-world application, but was also just fun because it was an allegorical fairytale. The Inquisitor’s Tale was hilarious and beautifully illustrated and a really unique book that did an excellent job of creating the world in which it took place. Wolf Hollow is an excellent book that had an old-timey feel about it, with a great grasp of the best parts of historical fiction, but also the very real applicability of a book that kids today could relate to.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I feel like I say that a lot. I love to be happily surprised. (Who doesn’t?) I always have high hopes for award winners, especially ones that are as prestigious as the Newbery Award. But let’s face it—some of those early Newbery winners couldn’t hold a candle to the winners today. JFic has become an extremely competitive genre, and I think that’s due not only to more adults reading and enjoying JFic (because let’s face it, sometimes adulting is hard), but also because today’s kids are facing situations that are very complex and layered and they are understanding and experiencing commensurate to what they are reading. I, for one, have very much enjoyed what the JFic genre has had to offer for the past several years.

One of the things that surprised me most about Wolf Hollow was the old timey feel about it. It reminded me of historical fiction books from a long time ago—the kind that don’t necessarily bring you right to living in the time it takes place, but more like helping you remember another time, another place. Does that make sense? It’s not like I was living in the world, I felt like I was watching the world it was taking place in. It was fascinating, actually. Wolk does an excellent job of setting time and place and explaining things in a way that just really takes you back. Not that I lived during this time, of course, (WWI is a very long time ago, even if you think I’m old, which I’m not). For instance, in the very beginning of the book she’s describing how the main character doesn’t think she’s rich, and then proceeds to tell about the home she lives in, the little extras like the small stained glass window in their house, and it just creates this very real portrait of the world as well as what the narrator is like. It’s great.

I very much enjoyed the characters in this book. They made the story, of course. As I’m sure you can tell from the description, this is a sad book. There is so much hurt and misunderstanding and sometimes that’s really frustrating not only to read about, but to live in real life as well. And so I appreciated the honesty in that sense. I also appreciated that for the most part, people were good and trying to give each other the benefit of the doubt. I like this in real life and I also enjoyed it in the book. My world view is such that I believe people really are like this.

Lastly, I thought the writing was fantastic, as you might expect from a winner of such a prestigious award. It was beautiful and poignant and felt like it was written by a young pre-teen, even though it was also very complex in its simplicity and insight. There was a lot to be learned not only from what was being said, but by the subtle nuances as well.

I really think this was a great book. I appreciated the lessons it had to teach, and definitely recommend it to those who love JFic.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some child on child violence and also some sad scenes. I felt like these things were all dealt with on a level that JFic readers would be sad to read about, but could understand and relate to.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Zalman Ber - Sol Kotz and Lisa Mishler

Summary: Zalman Ber's story, told in his own voice, is a powerful addition to the historical recountings of World War II. Together, he and his wife, Luba, survived the Holocaust. They escaped the horrors the Nazis inflicted on their Polish villages. They fought with partisans. Then later, Zalman enlisted with the Russian military.

Their story is about love, war, heroism, and miracles. It is a testament to their resiliency and capacity not just to survive, but to flourish and rise above tremendous adversity. Love, courage, and a sheer force of will drove Luba during her long journey to find Zalman, alone, in one of the coldest winters in recorded history while being surrounded by Nazi soldiers. Luba with her sensitivity influenced Zalman when, time and time again, he should have been killed and was not. Their story deserves to be experienced and honored. (Summary and image from I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Zalman Ber and his wife survived the ghettos of Poland. They survived the personalized attention and disdain of a Nazi commander. They joined the resistance, fought bravely, endured unimaginable personal loss, and survived the war. This is his story as told to his daughter, and it’s a powerful one.

Written in a conversational tone, almost as though the book is a transcript of her father’s interview, this is a simple book that grabs at your heart and humanizes some of the lesser-told stories of the Holocaust. It was sweet. It was fast — and I’m talking an hour and a half read. But don’t let the length diminish the worth of the story. Ber may succinctly lay out his struggles and his triumphs, but he doesn’t glaze over either personal failures or growth.

The style of writing perplexed me. At the beginning, I couldn’t decide if it was stylistic to write in broken English, or if it was a draft that had been published as an ARC. Confusing me further, there were numerous typos that are scattered throughout, and the English improves for a time, only to devolve toward the end. I don’t feel like the style lent itself to the story, rather it detracted from what is a powerful enough narrative in its own right. 

Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There are glancing mentions of sex and affairs. But they’re so brief you can blink and you’ll miss them.


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