June 12, 2015

All the Answers - by Kate Messner

What if your pencil were magical?  You know, you ask it questions, and it tells you all the right answers.  Would it change your life?  Would you never fail a test again?  Would there be any problems?

When 6th-grader Ava Anderson who is a bundle of nerves, and her best friend Sophie find the mysterious blue pencil, it seems that all of their problems are solved.  As they use their magical tool to navigate the ups and downs of middle school life, they soon find out that having all the answers isn't always as great as it seems.  In fact, sometimes you learn things you never wanted to know.

This is a charming story about two girls trying to get the most out of life, with a little help from an unexpected source.  It paints a realistic and intriguing picture of family life, both good and bad. There are ups and downs, ins and outs, and some real twists and turns.  In the end, the pencil is not quite what they expected.

Ava and Sophie may not solve all of their problems, but they learn that there are more important things in life.  There are many lessons learned, and some real obstacles overcome.  This is a feel-good book, a great read for anyone who enjoys a little bit of mystical mystery tossed into a realistic coming-of-age story.  The author of Capture the Flag seems to have written another winner!

Tuesdays at the Castle - by Jessica Day George

Castle Glower is not your ordinary castle, and Celie is not your ordinary princess!  This 11-year-old has the interesting habit of mapping the castle, which is made all the more difficult by the fact that each Tuesday, the magical castle changes its layout! A new hallway here, new rooms there, you never know what a Tuesday will bring.

One fateful Tuesday brings more than changes: When Celie's brother graduates from Wizard College and her parents go to his graduation, a number of foreign visitors come to the castle, and they are NOT just there to pay their respects.  Before long, Celie has turned from the youngest sibling who nobody takes seriously into the only person who can save the castle and her brothers and sisters from their enemies.

This is a fast-paced, creative, magical, exciting story of adventure and courage.  What seems at first to be a silly magical princess story for young girls is ACTUALLY a rollicking adventure novel for readers of all ages.  The writing is excellent, the characters and setting intriguing, and the plot rolls out perfectly.  With a non-speaking magical castle as a main character, this is not your typical story, but it is unusually good, and I plan to read the entire series.

June 11, 2015

Heart of a Samurai - by Margi Preus

You will not believe that this is the author's first book! It's simply an amazing adventure story of the high seas in the 1800's, from Japan to New England and back again.  We meet Manjiro, a teenage Japanese fisherman who is stranded by a shipwreck and eventually picked up by an American whaling ship.  That begins Manjiro's odyssey, which includes adoption, learning to live in a small American town, dealing with all sorts of prejudice and anger, and growing into a man with a real mixed and conflicted cultural identity.  Will this poor stranded fisherman ever achieve his dream of becoming a samurai?

This is an amazing story, an epic tale of adventure, courage, and the power of the human spirit to overcome all odds.  I recommend this to everyone!  Especially history buffs, those who have an interest in Japan, fishing and whaling, life in the 1800's, classic sea adventures, and amazing writing.

The Fourteenth Goldfish - by Jennifer L. Holm

It really has nothing to do with goldfish, FYI.  This is actually the story of 11-year-old Ellie, a girl with serious boy problems, but they're not what you'd expect.  As she navigates the new waters of middle school and shifting friendships, Ellie also meets a new boy, Melvin, who seems suspiciously similar to her cranky old grandfather.

As Melvin and Ellie get to know one another, she begins to discover new interests and strengths, and finds the courage to break out of the direction her parents have hoped she would follow.  She makes new friends, has quite an adventure, and while she doesn't save the world, Ellie finds herself.

This is a fun, curious, charming, and imaginative story.  It blurs the lines between friendship story and science fiction, and is a fast and enjoyable book to read.  I would recommend it to anyone who wants to be pushed to think deeply about science and possibility, those who have a sweet spot for cranky old people, and anyone who wants to enjoy a touching coming-of-age story about a brave young girl.

January 8, 2015

Mousenet - by Prudence Breitrose

Mice on the Internet? That's just the start of it.  When you read this book, you'll never look at mice the same way again.

This excellent book tells the tale of Megan, a nice but lonely 10-year-old girl who is thrust into the world of mice when her uncle invents a tiny computer and gives it to her.  Megan has a little trouble fitting in at her new school, perhaps because for the last two years it's been just her and her mom, studying sheep on a remote island and focusing more on their science than on keeping up with fashion or pop culture.  Her social problems are the perfect opportunity for the mice to befriend her, because wouldn't you know it, the mouse world had been waiting for an opportunity just like this.

Mice.  Seriously, wait until you read what these mice have been up to!  Not only does this book do a brilliant job of creating an whole sub-world full of thoughtful and sophisticated (but still very mouse-like) mice, but it digs deep into the human  characters as well.  It's one of those books that seems a little silly, but ends up being pretty deep without overdoing it.  This is one that will appeal to boys and girls, and adults and children.  It's not a super action-packed adventure, but will keep your mind racing and your fingers turning the pages.

January 7, 2015

The Abominables - by Eva Ibbotson

Five yeti, a small boy and his sister, and a burly truck driver with a pig tattoo.  From the majestic Himalaya mountain range to sunny England, this fun fantasy carries the reader across Asia and Europe and through quite an adventure along the way.

You don't need to believe in Yeti, or "abominable snowmen" to enjoy this book, but you do need to have the ability to smile and even laugh.  It's a nice story about a family (of mythical beasts), but it's also got plenty of funny bits to keep things light. There is adventure, suspense, danger, mystery, action, and a nice feeling of success by the time you've reached the last page.

This is the last book that Eva Ibbotson ever wrote. This woman is an amazing author, famous for such fantasy powerhouses as The Secret of Platform 13, Which Witch, and One Dog and his Boy.  She had a clear gift for interesting writing, and this book is a showcase of her skills.

Sorry You're Lost - by Matt Blackstone

It's not easy when your mom is dead, your dad won't really talk to you, your teacher kicks you out of class, and your best friend is so weird that nobody talks to him.  Oh, and your name is DONUTS. For Donuts (Denny) Murphy, seventh grade is not off to a very good start.

When Manny, that oddball friend, concocts a flabbergasting plot to raise a lot of money and solve all of their problems, Donuts agrees to help, which could be the best, or the worst, decision of his life.  Will money, a cool car, and cute dates to the 7th-grade-dance turn their lives around, or are these two destined for a life as oddball rejects?  Wouldn't you like to know! Just go read the book.

This book reminds me of Slob, another excellent book which I've reviewed on this blog.  Both of them are a bit sad, but also hopeful, with lots of funny stuff thrown in along the way to a nice ending.  This book has plenty of humor, from a clueless principal and Donut's crush on his "goddess" math teacher to Donut and Manny's ridiculous attempts to impress Allison, the queen bee of the 8th grade.  Add a little bit of a middle school romance, and this book has it all.

It runs a little slow (or maybe just depressing) at times, but that's important to the plot and it all balances out in the end.

November 8, 2014

Liar and Spy - by Rebecca Stead

This book has a few twists and turns, so let's call it a mystery. What it really is, though, is a story about some lonely kids in the city who somehow get connected, and through their friendship find ways to deal with the problems in their lives. Sounds boring, but it's not.  It's a book that will make you think.

Georges, Candy, and Safer.  Yep, those are the names of our three main characters, so you know the author has a thing about names. When seventh-grader Georges moves into a new apartment building with his dad, he doesn't expect to end up in the middle of a spy ring investigating a potential murderer in a dark apartment.  However, Safer has a way of shaking things up for him, and life is not likely to return to normal anytime soon.

Follow these kids through the everyday excitement of Georges' life and learn a thing or two about friendship, acceptance, and... candy.
This book has nothing to do with Stead's previous bestseller, When You Reach Me, though it definitely has some similarities.  City kids, unexpected twists, and friendship helping the characters to survive personal challenges.  This is an author to watch!

October 4, 2014

The League of Seven - by Alan Gatz

Bringing together a band of teenage oddballs in a futuristic/old-fashioned America, this steampunk story will capture your imagination and leave you cheering!  The heroes are flawed but worth cheering for, the villains both oddly familiar and ridiculously unimaginable.

Like all steampunk stories, this one relies on lots of futuristic 18th-century technology, such as brass laser guns, airships, submarines, and robot babysitters.  When Archie finds out that his parents have been brainwashed by giant insects, he must set out across the country to Old Florida to rescue them.  Falling in with two mysterious but distinctly talented new friends, it is up to the three to stop not only a crazed murderous inventor (Thomas Edison), but the largest monster in history, who lies trapped under the swamps.

This story has plenty of mystery, lots of action and suspense, and enough dramatic twists to keep any reader turning pages.  It is highly imaginative and a bit inspiring.  You may find yourself, like I did, wishing you could climb aboard their airship for just one short adventure.

September 29, 2014

We Were Liars - by E. Lockhart

This is not a book to be taken lightly.  It is a book for teens, and I would say age 12 would be a good time to read it.  That said, it was an amazing and surprising story that I could not put down.

It's all about four kids who grow up together during summer's at their families private island off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.  Rich kids, that's right.  Privileged trust-fund children of privileged trust fund mothers, and everybody is just about perfect.  They are, after all, the Sinclair family.

The only thing is, everything is not quite as perfect as it seems. The title is perfect, and hits you on different levels by the end of the book.  As you read, you begin to realize that characters are twisted in unexpected ways, and that they are all twisted together as well.  The story is told from a seventeen-year-old girl, Cadence, about her fifteen-year-old self one summer on the island, and what happened that summer remains a mystery to us, and to Cadence as well, until the very end of the book.  It is suspenseful, full of interesting bends, and a very rewarding read.

The "teen" rating reflects some thematic elements that elementary-age children just don't need to think about.  Grab a copy of this for the teen in your life, and let them know it will be one knockout of a story.

August 26, 2014

Warriors: Into the Wild - by Erin Hunter (Guest Review)

Shadow clan wants more hunting ground, there is not enough prey in the forest.What will happen to the four clans of the forest?

In this thrilling book, Rusty a house cat stumbles upon Thunder clan, one of the four cat clans of the forest, and is given the choice to join. During his first few days in Thunder Clan, the clan starts growing weaker, and Wind Clan gets chased out of their territory. Will Wind Clan return? will Thunder Clan grow strong again? Find out in this amazing book! 

This is the first book in an action-packed series of seven that I would recommend to someone who likes fantasy books that are full of action.
(This review was written by sixth-grader Isaac R. Thanks, bud!)

July 30, 2014

300 Books!

Well, I don't expect anyone but myself to get excited about it, but I have now posted reviews of exactly 300 books.  It's not a prime number, nor an especially lucky one, but it's a pretty big number.  If you've enjoyed this site, if you have any fun comments, or if you have any ideas for me going forward, please add a comment below!  It's been fun reading with and for you, and I look forward to many more posts in the years to come.

July 26, 2014

The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story - by R. J. Palacio

Redemption.  It's all about making things right, and for Julian, the antihero of the unforgettable and life-changing book Wonder, it's the last thing you'd expect.  In this short sequel, author R.J. Palacio retells the story from Julian Alban's of view, and it is NOT what you'd expect.

I can't say too much about the story without spoiling both this plot and that of the original book, Wonder.   All I can really say is that there ARE at least two sides to every story, and it is worthwhile listening to all of them before making judgments about people.  This goes for storybook characters and real people as well.  Julian may have been the ultimate bully and bad guy, but when you dig a bit deeper, you may be surprised by what you uncover.

This book is a MUST for anyone who has read Wonder, but don't you dare read this first.  If you haven't read Wonder, I can only wonder... what are you waiting for??  Any age, gender, political affiliation, or other classification doesn't matter; this book is for you.

The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez - by Peter Johnson

This book was so much better than I expected.  It's all about a seventh-grade boy with an odd family, and ailing grandfather, and a curse: The cutest girl in his school is out to get him.  The final challenge: A poetry contest.  Yes, this seems a bit odd, but it totally works in this creative and captivating story.

Meet the Alvarez family: Benny's energetic younger brother Crash, his negative and oddball dad, his overly optimistic mom, his lovable big sister (who makes the best chicken noodle soup on Earth), his spaz dog Spot, and Benny himself, who his mom calls "Mr. Negativity."  It's true that he looks at the world as a glass half-empty, but in his mind, if you're expecting the worst, it's hard to be disappointed!  When a combination of surprising events happen, Benny is forced to finally decide whether he's going to be negative or positive, as his future and friendships hang in the balance.

The plot is tight, though this is far from an action/adventure book.  It's a school/family/friendship story about a believable and likable kid with everyday problems, who finds his own inner strength (with a little help from friends and family) to save the day at the end.  There's poetry, heavy use of a thesaurus, lots of humor, a bit of blushing (well, it's not Benny's fault he can't ever seem to look Claudine in the eyes!), and some more serious topics too.  It's a rewarding read that will touch both your funny bone and your thoughtful side.

Just Jake - by Jake Marcionette

This book was written by a sixth-grade boy.  That in itself is a good reason to check it out, but its interesting storyline, fun characters, and creative twists make it a good pick for any kid 2nd-7th grade, at least.

The story focuses on a sixth-grade boy named Jake (a coincidence?), and his first year of middle school in a new state, where he has no friends.  He hopes to transfer his popularity from his old school, but it doesn't work that way, and he's suddenly at the bottom of the social ladder, struggling to make any friends at all, to avoid the school bully, and to survive living with his explosive teenage older sister.  To his advantage, Jake is a creative guy, a good artist, and he is full of confidence.  Will those talents be enough to help him not only survive but thrive in his new school? You'll find out, but the journey through that sixth-grade year is not an easy one, and it's Jake's struggles and solutions that make this book a winner.

Read this book to be inspired. This author is pretty awesome (his character's favorite word), and if he can do it, why not you, too?

July 19, 2014

Multiple Choice - by Janet Tashjian

Terrible cover, I know!  Perhaps you know this author better by her My Life as a Book series, which is great.  This book is also good, but it's a different kind of story.

It's all about Monica, a teen girl who has a terrible time making decisions. It's worse than that: She has OCD: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  She's basically a perfectionist whose anxiety is getting in the way of living a normal life, and her family and friends are totally frustrated with her.  Nobody can help her, and she doesn't seem to be able to help herself, until...

Scrabble.  It's a wonderful game, and kind of explains those squares on the cover of the book, but it also kind of saved Monica's life.  You see, she came up with a game called Multiple Choice, in which she would give herself options for what to do next, and she would draw Scrabble tiles to see which thing she would have to do.  It allowed her to move forward without locking up her brain like would normally happen, and it led to some funny and unexpected outcomes.  In fact, Monica began to think that the game was saving her life and restoring her to "normal" status.  Of course, it's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.

In this case, Monica's game caused both emotional and physical harm to her friends, but she just couldn't seem to stop playing.  Could her cure become an even bigger problem than what it was trying to fix?

It's actually a really good story, telling a realistic and interesting tale of a likable and believable girl who struggles with the same thing that many girls do: anxiety.  I think most girls would like this story, and even though it's old and has a ridiculous-looking cover, it's worth checking out.

Boundless - by Kenneth Oppel

As tracks are laid for the new Trans-Canadian railroad, young Will steps into the adventure of a lifetime.  How could he have predicted the changes that would come after that one fateful day, the day he first met the curious tightrope walking girl, the powerful rail baron, the yeti, the ringmaster, and the man whose treachery would threaten everything.  It seemed like just another ordinary day, but that's how things go.

Will's adventure centers around the train tracks stretching across Canada in the 1800's.  His father works for the railroad, and is known to be strong and fearless, but Will just likes to draw.  Before long, both of their futures will be tied to that of the largest train to ever roll on two tracks: The Boundless.  To survive, Will is going to need every bit of luck he can get, his improving drawing skills, and plenty of courage, but also the help of a whole new collection of unexpected friends.  As the book builds to its breathtaking climax, Will's good deeds of the past are all repaid, reminding the reader that the choices we make really do have consequences far beyond the current moment.

This is one of my favorite books of the year, and an excellent adventure story for boys and girls alike.  It is the best book Mr. Oppel has written (and he's written some real winners), and a book I'll recommend to everyone.

Legend - by Marie Lu

June is rich, her brother is a powerful and important soldier in the Republic's army, and her skills are remarkable.  Day is dirt-poor, on the run from the law, apparently homeless, but his skills equal June's. What brings these two teenage characters together is the stuff of legends, and the plot of this book, so I won't give it away.  I can tell you that the story takes place in an imagined future in the American west, that there is a good assortment of likable and believable characters, and that the action, including some rough fight scenes, is fantastic.

This is probably my favorite of this type of books: The teen dystopian/futuristic America drama/adventure series with a strong but flawed heroine/hero.  With Marie Lu's Legend, you've got the real deal.  June and Day are both fascinating characters, and to see what happens when their worlds spin together makes for an unforgettable story.

There are many middle grade/teen series out there, but this one has just as much action and suspense as the others, but none of the graphic love scenes.  It's a winner, trust me.  Keep your eye on Marie Lu!

Insurgent - by Veronica Roth

How would it be if everyone thought you were a traitor and your boyfriend was a coward, and then you found yourself in a situation in which the only way you can save the world(so to speak) is by defying your own faction, and lying to the very person you trust the most?  Welcome to Tris's world in this epic sequel to the powerful novel Divergent.

Things are not going well in futuristic Chicago.  Factions have taken up arms against one another, and beyond the obvious reasons lies a true secret known to only a few people, for which people are willing to die.  What can be so important?  Luckily for the reader, this secret is exposed in the final chapter, setting the stage for an explosive third book.

Tris is a lovable heroine, though she's tough and conflicted.  In this book we get to know Four/Tobias better, and he becomes even more likeable. A previously trustworthy character commits a shocking act of betrayal, while a sworn enemy unexpectedly does the right thing in a moment of need.  Read this action-packed book to witness relationships stretched to the breaking point, tension rising to the boiling point, and (no more analogies, I promise) a really good story.

July 8, 2014

Rogue - by Lynn Miller-Lachmann

What do you get when a teen girl with Asperger's syndrome, a bunch of BMX enthusiasts, and a neighborhood meth lab all come together in one little book?  A powerful, heart-breaking but hopeful story with plenty of twists and turns and an unexpected hero.

Kiara has a really hard time getting along with people, and the world often doesn't make sense to her.  She usually relies on Mr. Internet for help, but there are some questions he just can't answer, such as why her mom won't come home, and why she has Asperger's anyway.  Naming herself Rogue, after the X-Men mutant super-girl is a step toward finding her own power, and through Kiara's courage in hard times, she eventually does find out what makes her special.

This is a book about facing the hard times in life, and how to make it through them. It is about looking at your abilities, not your disabilities, and fighting for what you deserve.  It's an unusual story because it tackles some tough issues: disability, drugs, loyalty, and family trouble, but it does so with grace, and is a rewarding book.

July 7, 2014

The Classroom - by Robin Mellom

How does a socially-clueless guy not only survive but thrive in his new middle school? There's only one option:  Go Epic.

Told like a video documentary, this coming-of-age story follows Trevor, a fun but awkward 7th grader whose guiding light, his best friend Libby, has decided to back off and let him solve his own problems this year.  This promises to be a disaster, but that's what makes it so much fun to read about!  As Trevor navigates this difficult transitional point in his life, trying to make new friends, avoid the bullies, survive the classes, and reach his epic potential, there are many more flops than successes, and much of it is comic genius.  His neurotic friend Libby, who has tired of saving his butt time after time in elementary, sits back and watches the drama unfold as Trevor eventually figures things out and takes his future into his own hands.

Kind of like the Wimpy Kid books, but with more likeable characters and fewer illustrations, this is a pretty good book, especially for 3rd-6th grade boys who want a good laugh and a quick, interesting book to tell your friends about.

The Hunt - by Andrew Fukuda

This is an absolutely original and stunning book!  There are vampires, but not the Twilight variety.  There is a futuristic America, but not like The Hunger Games or Divergent.  Best of all, there is amazing writing, a very tight plot, and as much suspense as I can handle. For TEENS, this is a new dystopian thriller to check out immediately.

Meet Gene: He is a human. The only problem is that he lives in a land of vampires.  They seem normal, but for their pale skin, extreme strength, razor-sharp canine teeth, lack of sweat or body odor, and the fact that they all eat raw meat and don't drink water.  All of his life, Gene's father has taught him the tricks for survival:  Whatever you do, don't draw attention to yourself!  Don't sweat, don't laugh, and don't fall in love.  It's hard enough to keep pushing away the beautiful girl who keeps catching his eye at school, but when he is chosen to participate in the historic Heper Hunt and taken away to a training institute, keeping his true identity secret becomes nearly impossible.  Just wait until you find out what the hunt is all about...

This book is fast-paced, brilliantly imagined and detailed, and very enjoyable.  If you like non-magicsci-fi/fantasty/alternate-future series, this is one of the best.

Divergent - by Veronica Roth

Don't compare this to The Hunger Games, first of all. This genre is bursting with good futuristic altered-American-reality books, and this one is fantastic.  Yes, it is a movie, but of course the book should be read first!

Divergent focuses on Tris, a girl who must choose, as everyone her age must, which of the four "factions" in their society they would like to join. It is most common to stay in your family's own faction, but switching is not unheard of. When Tris finds out during her screening test that she actually has the skill or inclination for three different factions, she learns that she is actually "divergent," a label which could get her killed!  She decides to leaver her straight-laced Abnegation faction for the thrill-seeking Dauntless, and through many hard times, she learns that she is, though small, a natural fighter.

Though Tris is enjoying her new freedom and faction, she soon learns that there is a plot afoot that could destroy everything, and it is up to her and a few trusted friends to save the day.  As family, friend, and faction are shaken, shocked, and turned against one another, Tris realizes that nothing is as it seems after all.  The adventures of Tris are incredible, exhilarating, and heart-wrenching, and you will not be able to put this book (or its two sequels) down!

This is really a TEEN book, because of the violence, love scenes, and more mature content.  That said, the fifth graders who have read it seem to have no problem with those parts...  Perhaps we parents and teachers worry too much?  Or perhaps children today have been exposed to more than is good for their young minds and are not surprised by things that should shock them.  I can't say, but I would recommend young (elementary-age) kiddos to get their parents' approval before reading this one.

The High-Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate - by Scott Nash

Have you ever found yourself wishing for a rollicking old-fashioned pirate story... in which the characters are all BIRDS?  Probably not, but this story may change your mind.

Blue Jay is a demanding captain of a flying pirate ship in a land which seems to be filled with all birds.  When his crew captures a giant egg, they think it is pure treasure... until it turns out to be a goose.  Luckily, geese are considered near-gods in the bird world (Birdlandia), but unfortunately, this particular gosling quickly outgrows Blue Jay's ship, but cannot yet fly. However, when the pirates find themselves at the sword-point of a nasty gang of crows, their goose may not be cooked after all.

With interesting characters, including a star-nosed mole and a number of feisty little warrior birds, a unique story line and incredible drawings by the author, this is definitely an interesting and unusual adventure and an enjoyable book.  The problem is the target audience: The language may be a little advanced for the kiddos who may be most likely to pick up this book, and the ideal audience of middle-grade readers may think bird pirates are too silly, or may recognize the author as a regular on the picture-book circuit for younger readers.  It's a story worth anyone's time, though, as long as that reader has a sense of adventure!

July 1, 2014

Reboot - by Amy Tintera

Zombies are cool.  Well, not if one is chasing you, which is what Wren's job is, and nobody does it better.  Known as "178" for the number of minutes it took her to reboot back to life when she died, she is the star of the government's reboot program, until she takes on the wrong new recruit to mentor.  When Wren accepts Callum, who is practically still a human, she begins to question the way things are.  In a land where dead teenagers are recruited as slaves to police the bad guys, any internal resistance could bring catastrophe.

This is an exciting, creative dystopian thriller, along the lines of Divergent, The Hunger Games, and Legend.  It is unique in its use of zombies (reboots), but it shares a strong female lead, lots of action, a realization and then fight back against the ruling regime, and characters who learn to care more about their similarities than their differences. There's plenty of violence, but also more tender, thoughtful moments than you would expect.

The pace is fast, the world is interesting, and it's a good book.  In this genre, this book is around the middle of the pack, which is not bad, as there are some amazing science-fiction/fantasty teen  stories being  published these days.  Check this book out, but be prepared to fall in love with a 5-years-dead murderous teen girl.

The Lost Kingdom - by Matthew Kirby

Imagine travelling back to the mid-1700 American colonies, and preparing for the adventure of a lifetime into the uncharted western wilderness.  Now imagine that your journey is organized by Ben Franklin, with the goal of connecting with a long-lost colony to aid in the fight against the French. Let's make this even cooler: You're travelling by air using ridiculously cutting-edge technology, in the first airship in history.

This exciting story combines a real period of history and actual people from that time with a fictional (in some ways fantastical) plot.  Enjoy the story, connect it to some history and names that you've heard of (including George Washington), but don't believe a word of it.  Here's your introduction to a new genre: Alternate History.

The main character is teenage Billy Bartram, who tells the tale first-person.  Billy accompanies his famous botanist father on the expedition as his sketch artist, and through Billy's eyes we experience the excitement and terror of their journey, the shock of his father's prejudice against the natives, the suspense of an unidentified spy, and the confusion that comes when a child first realizes that not all adults are trustworthy or honorable.

What an amazing book!  The characters and setting are interesting and well-scripted, and the plot is fast-paced, twisting, and captivating. Matthew Kirby has come back with another winner.

June 21, 2014

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children - by Ransom Riggs

This is an odd book.  Just like it is when I refer to Lemony Snicket's books, that is a real compliment.

Growing up, Jacob was always in awe of his grandfather's fantastic, unbelievable stories.  The tales grew harder to believe as Jacob grew older, but when his the older man passes away and leaves him a cryptic message, the 16-year-old ends up on a far-fetched adventure to uncover the truth of his grandfather's past.  In the wild of Wales, he discovers something quite unexpected, and the story goes from there.  I mean, it REALLY goes, well beyond the expected and into some funky stuff.

This story combines unusual historical photographs with a touch of the supernatural to produce one wild, amazing story.



June 19, 2014

The False Prince - by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Who is Sage, but a ragged orphan who must steal to get enough to eat?  In this fictional olden kingdom, he seems to be less than nothing. However, when the rich nobleman Conner selects him, along with a handful of boys, to take part in an epic act of deceit, it turns out that there may be more to Sage than meets the eye.

Twisting and turning, this book leaves the reader guessing at the characters' intentions and loyalties as the story builds until the very end. There is an earth-shattering revelation mid-way through the book, but that doesn't stop the suspense at all.  This is an AMAZING book.

Jennifer Nielsen knows how to pack a punch, and this first-in-a-trilogy (all three are now in print) novel will appeal to readers of all ages, but especially middle-grade boys and girls who crave adventure and suspense, who don't mind a bit of fighting and violence, and who love a tightly-wound plot and intriguing characters.

I wouldn't know about this book at all were it not for my good friend Mr. Potter.  Thanks again, dude.

Ghost Hawk - by Susan Cooper

Little Hawk is a Native, living in what will later become Massachusetts as the first wave of English settlers arrive.  This story follows him as he grows from a boy to a man, living three months on his own in the wilderness in search of his manitou (spirit).  Upon his return to his village, Little Hawk finds something that changes the course of his life, and our story.  There are too many surprises in this book for me to say much more, for fear of telling too much.  It is a bit of a mystery, and a delightful supernatural romp through the world of early Native Americans.

Half of the book focuses on a totally different character, an English settler named Tom.  Between Tom's story and that of Little Hawk, we get a good feeling for the challenges, restrictions, but also the pleasures of life during the early 1600's in the American northeast.  Susan Cooper has drifted away from her typical magical mythology writing (The Dark is Rising and The Boggart), to craft a believable, but somewhat ghostly, historical adventure novel.

This is a perfect book for future historians, fans of early American stories, believers in the supernatural, or for any young (or old) person who is willing to look at history from multiple perspectives.

Winter of the Robots - by Kurtis Scaletta

Robots are cool, right?  You know, R2D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars were pretty awesome.  But what happens when robots begin to think on their own?

Set in North Minneapolis, this is the story of  Jim, a middle-school kid who joins his best friend in their science project to make a small robot that can battle other robots in a competition.  As Jim learns how to write code to program a robot's actions, he has no idea how useful those skills are going to become.  While Jim and his friends encounter and work through normal teen issues like strained friendships, dating, problematic siblings, and dealing with concerned parents, something sinister is taking place at the junk yard down the road.  As you may have guessed it is up to Jim and his friends to save the day.

Full of robotics talk, this is a must-read for any future programmers or battle-bot competitors.  It's also a plain old good story with some good twists and turns.

April 7, 2014

Breadcrumbs - by Ann Ursu

Whoa.  This is not your average middle grade fantasy novel, but it is definitely worth reading.

11-year-old Hazel is a pretty normal fifth-grader: Frustrated with her parents, having friendship trouble, and dreading the bus ride to school. That said, she's pretty extraordinary as well, though it takes the other characters and the reader some time to realize it.  Could it be her obsession with fantasy stories, from Harry Potter to The Chronicles of Narnia? Maybe the fact that her lone friend is her next-door neighbor, who happens to be a boy?  Or could it possibly be that when one day her best friend Jack suddenly has an abrupt personality shift and no only stops talking to her, but goes and disappears mysteriously, she is the only one with the courage to go after him?  Yeah, let's go with that one.

The incredible thing about this book is the pacing and the gradual shift from realistic fiction to fantasy.  We begin in the suburban school days of a Midwestern winter, but we end up in a fantastical forest, where anything is possible.  Throughout, it is all Hazel can do, and the reader can hardly believe she pulls it off, to keep her head and follow her heart.

Not your average book at all, and so much the better for that.

Give Me Liberty - by L.M. Elliott

Colonial times were tricky: Where do you throw your loyalty, with the Patriots or the Tories?  For indentured servant  13-year-old Nathaniel, the revolutionary fever in Virginia has thrown his world upside down, and left him wondering not only what is right, but what is possible.

This story follows Nathaniel from his work on a Virginia cotton plantation to Williamsburg, where he finds a new master in kindly school-teacher Basil, whose love of language opens Nathaniel's eyes to a broad range of thinking.  As he works for a Loyalist carriage-maker and befriends a firebrand boy set on rebellion, Nathaniel feels torn. Finding himself in a situation where he must choose between the law and helping an escaped slave, Nathaniel digs deep and finds strength he never knew he had.  Soon war breaks out, and Nathaniel follows Basil to the battle lines, eyewitnesses to an explosive episode in American history.

This thrilling and brainy novel of the Revolutionary era will hold the interest of most readers, especially history buffs and liberty lovers.  There is drama, friendship, sacrifice, warfare, and some excellent flute-playing.  This is a great addition to this classic genre.

(I need to add an update:  While I enjoyed this book, a student book club of fifth-grade girls that I gave it to last spring did NOT enjoy it. Too slow, they said.  Not very exciting.  Huh. That just proves, once again, that I am not a fifth-grade girl!!)

February 22, 2014

Codename Zero - by Chris Rylander (Guest Review by Nicholas)

Not much happens in North Dakota. At least that's what they want you to think...

Codename Zero is an awesome book about an average prankster who is pulling a prank involving fainting goats. Curious? Read more to find out.  When suddenly, a sweaty man shows up carrying a package and says, "Don't open it," what do you think our hero, seventh-grader Carson Fender does? He opens it (of course), and he is life changes forever.

Read this book if you like average people becoming powerful.  I give it five stars for its cool hideouts, weird friends, and unlikely heroes.

(Thank you to fifth-grader Nicholas H., who read this in one night and is never far from a stack of books, for this guest review!)

How to Train your Dragon - by Cressida Cowell

I know this book has been out for a while, and has ten more books in the series, but I had forgotten all about it and haven't read it for five years.  My loss! My son and I just finished this book, and it was really wonderful.  I didn't like it five years ago, but have changed my tune.   I can see why it's been so popular, and why it was made into a movie.

This is a funny book, told first-hand by Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, the least-heroic Viking in his long-ago village.  He is not only the biggest failure in his tribe, he also happens to be the chief's son.  When the boys are called to climb a cliff to the dragon caves and sneak away with sleeping baby dragons, it figures that Hiccup gets the scrawniest, most toothless of the whole bunch.  Will his luck ever change?  When his stubborn dragon gets Hiccup exiled forever from his village, things are definitely not looking up.

Join Hiccup on a grand adventure right in his own backyard.  This is a wonderful story, full of shouting, dragons, more shouting, more dragons, and some other stuff too.  This book will inspire would-be heroes, and will remind all of us that you just can't judge a book (or a Viking or his dragon) by the cover.

February 17, 2014

Magic Marks the Spot - by Caroline Carlson

Aargh, Matey!  This is a delightful pirate story that is far from normal, and is wonderful for its quirkiness.  Hilary Westfield has always wanted to be a pirate, and is well on her way with her own sword, ability to tread water for well over half an hour, and swashbuckling attitude.  There are two problems:  1) Her father is admiral of the Royal Navy, and has a life mission of ridding the kingdom of pirates, and 2) The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates has rejected her application for piracy on account of her being a girl, and has forwarded it to Ms. Pimm's Finishing School for Delicate Ladies.  Hilary is on her way to the dreaded school when a magical theft turns things upside down, and she must battle stern governesses, magical thieves, treacherous sailors, and rapscallion rogues of all sorts in her quest to solve the mystery of the Queen's missing treasure.

Armed with her trusty sword, and backed by a nervous gargoyle and a mismatched crew of unexpected friends and associates, Hilary sets off to Gunpowder Island, where her fortunes will explode, and she must sink or swim.

This is a witty adventure, full of twists and turns, interesting and surprising characters, and a perfect ending.  Boys and girls alike will enjoy this fantastic book.

Sports Camp - by Rich Wallace

Well, a more appropriate title would be impossible.  This is the story of eleven-year-old Riley, who heads off to a two-week sports camp with 59 strangers, to vie for the Big Joe trophy.  Over the course of those two weeks, Riley learns many lessons, including:

  • everybody has something to contribute
  • training can enhance your natural talents
  • never eat week-old in refrigerated fried chicken
  • legends can't hurt you, but giant snapping turtles can
  • first impressions can be deceiving
  • sometimes cheaters DO prosper
  • but sometimes they don't

This short book is great for kiddos who love sports!  Softball, basketball, water polo, swimming, and archery were all part of the competition, pitting cabin against cabin.  Riley was the smallest in his group of boys from New Jersey, and was hopeless at basketball, but he found ways to contribute in the endurance events, and earn his teammates' respect by working hard and never giving up.

It was an interesting story that built toward a predictable but exciting conclusion, but the very end didn't tie things up quite as neatly as I had hoped.  It was good, but kind of abrupt.   Read this if you enjoy camp, competition, huge turtles, or lousy dining hall food.


February 5, 2014

Phoenix: Out of the Ashes Book 1 - by Jeff Stone

Mountain biking, kung fu, a tough girl with deep secrets, and a very, very old grandfather.  Bring these all together and you've got the story of 14-year-old Phoenix Collins, a mountain-biking teenager with a mission.  Full of action, fighting, cycling, and a bit of history and travel, this exciting book kicks off a new series with a pretty unique version of good guys vs. bad guys.

Jeff Stone wrote the Five Ancestors series, which was seven books about ancient kung fu warrior children who had the adventure of a lifetime as they traveled and fought to save their country and all that they believed in.  It was an excellent series, and this book carries the same story forward 400 years, with a new set of characters.  While you could read this series on its own, I think it will mean more if read after the original series.

The writing is tight, the pacing is exciting, maybe even thrilling, and the detail is exquisite.  However, the talk about cycling, both mountain biking and cyclocross, is overly detailed, and may lose (or win? who knows!) readers in the intended age range.  In this way, it reminded me of Will Hobbs books like Go Big or Go Home, which are good, but very sport-detail-heavy.  Overall, this is an excellent book that I did not want to put down!

January 7, 2014

The Storm Makers - by Jennifer E. Smith

Sometimes books with awesome covers can end up being pretty bad, but this one was as good as it looks.  It feels like a story we've heard before:  A normal boy is minding his own business when a mysterious stranger arrives, and suddenly the boy discovers he has special powers.  The interesting twist here is that the main character is the boy's sister, the super power doesn't really work, and the bad guy seems kind of like a good guy.

The boy in question is 12-year-old Simon, who recently relocated from Chicago to a rural Wisconsin farm with his parents and twin sister Ruby.  A terrible drought is hitting much of the nation, and the big worry is whether the family can make farm life work when nothing will grow.  When Ruby catches a disheveled man sneaking out of their barn one morning, things start to get interesting.  What is Simon's power, and why isn't it functioning correctly?  What is Ruby's role in the story?  Can two kids on a farm save their country from a not-so-natural disaster?

It's an interesting story with good pacing, some fun surprises, and a satisfying ending that hints at, but doesn't require a sequel.  To top it all off, it's beautifully illustrated by Brett Helquist, the master.

December 27, 2013

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict - by Trenton Lee Stewart

I opened this book expecting it to be my new favorite book. Why?  This comes at the end of an amazing series, the Mysterious Benedict Society and its follow-ups, and it focuses on possibly the most intriguing character in those stories, Mr. Benedict himself.   Was I disappointed?  Not a bit.

Although not an action-packed story, this book is nonetheless full of quick wits, realistic adventures,  mystery, reading, problem-solving, courage, and unlikely friendship.  It's got a little of everything, and a bit of something more:  Wonder and Genius. Can you tell I am a big fan of Trenton Lee Stewart?

When you begin this book, you meet young Nicholas, the precocious orphan with a remarkable memory who is just heading to his last-chance home, a very odd and problematic mansion full of mean boys and inattentive caretakers.  Before long, Nicholas puts his impressive mental talents to the challenge of solving a decades-old mystery before his arch-nemesis, and to the ultimate goal of getting himself out of this dead-end life and into a successful path to a rich, orphanage-free future.  Of course, nothing in this poor boy's life is easy, and this task may be his most difficult and hopeless yet.  Or not.

Mr. Stewart's latest book is a wonderful balance of just about everything, and is a must-read for anyone who's read his series, and even those who have not.  Like any of Roald Dahl's best work, this book is a stand-alone, unforgettable novel of an extraordinary boy whose pluck and wits help him make the best out of a troublesome life.  Go read it.

 

Dangerous Waters - by Gregory Mone

This is not the Titanic story you're expecting, except for one thing:  Not to spoil anything, but THE SHIP SINKS.

What is this story?  It is the tale of young Patrick Waters, an Irish lad whose brother just landed a job as a coal man on the Titanic.  Due to remarkable circumstances, Patrick ends up on the ship as well, and that's where the adventure begins.

Meanwhile, a dangerous man can be found sneaking around London, trying to steal a very valuable book which contains a remarkable secret.  His search leads him onto Titanic, and before you know it, all of our main characters' lives are intertwined.

This is a thought-provoking book, but also an adventurous, fast-paced tale.  Patrick is an Everyman type of hero, and the bad guys are truly bad.  Violence, mystery, a bit of love, and of course... a shipwreck.  What more can you ask for?

One thing you could ask for is a little less fancy language, and more plain-speak.  As in his novel Fish, Mr. Mone can get carried away with his wording, making his books a bit more appropriate (or fully understandable) for teens than for younger middle-grade readers. While I appreciate an author who doesn't "dumb down" his writing, it does take away from his stories, but just a little.  All in all, this is a rousing adventure on the high seas, and I recommend it to anyone who's not afraid of a little iceberg.

November 18, 2013

Flora and Ulysses - by Kate DiCamillo

This is by far, and without any argument, the BEST book I've ever read about a pessimistic girl and her super-hero squirrel.  More than that, it is just a delightful story, full of hope and wonder, ridiculous and laughable characters, and a really obnoxious lamp.  Who would have thought that a squirrel could do such things?  Or that a mother would be capable of such wickedness?  Or that a father would introduce himself quite so often?

Like much of Ms. DiCamillo's work (Tiger Rising, The Tale of Despereaux, or Because of Winn-Dixie, to name a few of her firsts and my favorites), this story is about more than it seems at first.  It is ostensibly the tale of a girl whose parents have split up, leaving her in the uncomfortable middle.  When she meets a special squirrel, it begins a chain of events that change her life forever, bringing several new people and great adventure (relatively speaking) into her life.  Behind the scenes, it's really about family, and what it really means to be a family.  It's about love, beauty, and poetry.  It's about time someone wrote a book like this, and this was the right person for the job.

I should note, the book does have a number of clever illustrations, and the reader gets a good feel for the characters through these drawings. I like the subtitle, "The Illuminated Adventures," as it reminds me of those beautiful hand-colored illuminated bibles of long ago.  The drawings, though wonderful and humorous, are not overpowering, and it is definitely NOT a graphic novel.  It is, however, a book for the ages.

November 2, 2013

Pi in the Sky - by Wendy Mass

When you're reading a story about characters in another dimension, one in which the folks who create and maintain the Universe look like normal people, but can turn their legs into wheels, and in which pie delivery is essential to planet building, you know things are going to get weird.  That's exactly what happens in this surprising, creative, but somewhat strange and disappointing book by Wendy Mass, author of so many good realistic fiction works.  I found myself wishing she had just stuck with excellent stories like The Candymakers, as this one just lost my interest.  It's totally sci-fi, which is not my genre of choice, so please don't be scared off by my so-so review if you like that kind of thing.

The story follows one boy, Joss, seventh son of the Supreme Overlord of the Universe (who likes to hit golf balls out of his office window).  Joss delivers pies, while his brothers and father are responsible for running all aspects of the Universe.  This leaves him somewhat disappointed with his life, but at least he has his best friend Kal.  Until Kal disappears into a previously unknown dimension, that is, and Joss needs to pull out all the stops, with the help of a pushy earthling named Annika (can't tell you how she comes into the story, but she's the best character in the book), to save his friend Kal and a little planet called Earth.

The book really has nothing to do with Pi, just pie.  You could read into the whole planet-making thing with the idea of Pi, but it's a stretch, really just a cute title that the author's publisher came up with.  If you like sci-fi, give it a try.  If you're more of a realistic fiction fan, pick up The Candymakers.

August 22, 2013

Agent Colt Shore: Domino 29 - by Axel Avian

How does a teenage boy end up an international agent fighting to save the world from bad guys?  There are so many books with similar plots on the market now that I didn't expect anything original from this one.  That's where I was wrong.

First-time author Avian blew me away with his character, Colt Shore. This teen enjoys hanging out with his friends and doing normal stuff, but when a mysterious stranger, a slick Bond-like gentleman with a fancy car, shows up in his house one day and announces that they are leaving for Colt's new school, everything changes.  Of course it is a secret school for young members of an international organization that fights bad guys... but it's not for spies.  An "agent" is tasked with supporting the good guys rather than hunting down the baddies, and that's what Colt begins training to do.  A series of surprising events and revelations carry him into places he never expected to go, saving people he never expected to meet, and making choices he never wanted to make.  It is a thrilling adventure, with rock and roll, cool gadgets, and wild stunts.  Yes, even a hint of romance, too.

Best of all, this book is a true original in a genre packed with copycats.  Alex Rider is the king of teen spies, but Colt Shore beats him out in several ways.  Colt is down-to-earth, humble, and does what is needed without thinking of himself.  He is an Everyman hero, a character that you can identify with and that you will cheer for from cover to cover.  I could hardly put this book down, and suspect I'm not the only one.  Despite its psychedelic but somewhat unappealing cover, this book is a keeper.

July 30, 2013

Sidekicked - by John David Anderson

Finally, a superhero book that really gets it right.  This is the story of would-be sidekick Andrew Bean, who would like nothing more than to have his hero pay him some attention, for the girl he likes to stop hanging out with his mortal enemy, and for those pesky villains to stop hanging him over pools of acid.  Sadly, when it seems that things are getting better, they are actually on their way to getting much, much worse.

Through Andrew's view as narrator, we meet an unlikely crew of middle school students who are secretly training to become superhero mascots.  When they are not training in the school's basement, they are trying to live normal lives, which isn't easy.  It becomes even harder when a super-villain long thought dead returns to terrorize their city, and the superheros who are expected to defeat him are not who they seem.

This is a great story, a wonderful take on the superhero genre from an unusual point of view, and an excellent bit of writing.  You don't have to love superheros to admire this super story.

Pieces of Georgia - by Jen Bryant (Guest Review by Georgia M.)

Georgia McCoy's life is falling apart at the seams. For starters, her mother died when she was only seven, and now, to pay the ever increasing bills, her grieving dad must work overtime. Her best friend, Tiffany, is always playing sports with little time for Georgia. Almost to the point that Georgia's best friends are the horses she tends. And, to top it off, Georgia is on the "At Risk" list at school and has to visit the school counselor. Georgia makes a deal with her counselor that instead of visiting the guidance office so often, she can write to her mom in a journal. That is where Georgia's story begins.

Georgia writes to her mom about everything-- like her love of art, all her troubles, and about receiving a mysterious card in the mail for her 13th birthday. The card is a year-long membership to a nearby art museum which she begins to visit often after school. Through the art and her writing she begins to feel like the pieces of her life are coming together.

This wonderful book is full of great twists and turns resulting in IRA Young Adults Choices List 2008 and many more awards.

(Thank you to charming and talented 6th grader Georgia M. for this wonderful review!)

July 22, 2013

Spy School - by Stuart Gibbs

Ben, a 12-year-old boy is invited to go to a secret school for spies.  He doesn't really fit in, but by the end of his first year, he has not only proven that he belongs at the school, but has managed to save the school (and the country) from destruction by the enemy, but has become friends with the school's most beautiful (and talented and deadly) girl.  It sounds like a story I've read time and time again, but the author keeps it interesting with a number of twists and turns and some excellent spy-speak.

There are a lot of references to spy agencies, which may prove distracting for readers who are less familiar with that lingo, but which will appeal to fans of James Bond, Alex Rider, and the like.  This is a nice coming-of-age story with an unlikely hero, and it is a tight plot.  We don't get a lot of background or in-depth character description, but that keeps the book short enough to hold the attention of the boy readers, who are clearly the target audience.  However, the most compelling character is definitely Erica, a ninja-like girl who steals the show, and Ben's heart.
For a book that seems a lot like so many others I've read, this still stands out for its quick pace, surprising outcomes, and good writing.

July 17, 2013

Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities - by Mike Jung

It's kind of a weird title, but I figured that a geeky book should probably have a geeky name, so let's go with it.  It really is a geeky book, but in a thrilling and action-packed way.

This is the story of middle school student Vincent Wu and his two best friends, who together form the fourth (and smallest) Captain Stupendous fan club in their city.  In case you didn't know, Captain Stupendous is simply the coolest, most amazing super hero there is, and he happens to save their city from villains on a pretty regular basis.  As the story gets rolling, Vincent's girlfriend (or maybe she would be if he ever got the courage to actually TALK to her!) is kidnapped by a new super-villain, and Captain Stupendous is nowhere to be found.  That's just the beginning, because soon Vincent and his buddies are wrapped up in a stupendous adventure to bring Captain Stupendous back, defeat a giant indestructible robot, and rescue the girl of Vincent's dreams.  How will they do it?  With geeky style, of course.

This is a great super hero book, but it's even better as a book about friendship that deepens through shared adventure.  It has a surprising amount of "girl power," so ladies do not be scared off from this excellent book!  This book is sure to give lots of kids, including brave girls, some great ideas.

June 25, 2013

Hold Fast - by Blue Balliett

Life can be hard for everyone.  However, if your  family is poor, your dad suddenly disappears (and is wanted for questioning by the police you were hoping would find him), and you are suddenly living a desperate life with your mother and little 4-year-old brother in a scuzzy homeless shelter, "hard" takes on a whole new meaning.  Welcome to the life of 11-year-old Early Pearl, a Chicago pre-teen who went from worrying about girly problems like what to wear the next day to solving the mystery of her father's disappearance in the blink of an eye.

This is a mystery, though not your Nancy Drew or Encyclopedia Brown type with clear clues and an easy, logical ending.  When Blue Balliett writes a book, you can expect things to be a bit more complex, and they certainly are in this book.  There are international crime rings, retired English teachers, strangely-accented secretaries, and tiny, valuable, and totally mysterious diamonds to mix things up for the reader.  You'll find yourself solving the mystery right along with Early, and that is the way it should be, because you will be so sucked into the story that you won't want to stop to figure out who the bad guy is.  This is great writing, and a powerful plot, and will leave you wanting more until the (satisfying) end.

Though Mrs. Balliett has a reputation around my school for being a difficult author for upper-elementary kids to read, this is probably her most accessible book, and it deserves a look by those who lost interest after too many obscure art references in the Chasing Vermeer series.  There is a delightful story-within-a-story about Early's brainstorm for helping the homeless children of Chicago find homes, and indeed this story serves the secondary purpose of reminding us that people who are on the streets are not there by choice, and that even the most hardworking, honest, and brave folks may be out of luck with few options.

One last thing: It could be said that this is also a book about American poet Langston Hughes, who shows up throughout as a constant source of inspiration to the Pearl family, and without whose writings the mystery may never have been solved.  What's the rhythm, Langston?  It's high time you read this book and find out.

June 21, 2013

The One and Only Ivan - by Katherine Applegate

What's so great about the great apes, anyway?  Reading this book, you'll figure it out.  Ivan is a gorilla, and this is his story.  You don't get to read many books told from a gorilla's perspective, so don't pass this one up.

It's a sad, but hopeful tale of Ivan and his animal friends, all part of a small curiosity zoo at a random interstate shopping center.  The author drops us right into the middle of the story, where we find plenty of struggle.  The zoo owner struggles to make ends meet, the animals struggle to keep their spirits up, the kind custodian struggles with his conscience as he sees things slipping downhill, but there will be no struggle for this book to hold your attention.  The chapters are very short, and we are truly transported into the mind of a gorilla, for better or worse.

This is a fantastic book, and I highly recommend it.  There's not much action, but plenty of drama.  If you love art, wild animals, friendly mutts, custodians' daughters, or stories that break your heart before they stitch them back together with magic, this is for you.