August 9, 2017

House of Robots: Robots Go Wild - By J. Patterson & C. Grabenstein

This latest installment in the Patterson/Grabenstein series is as hilarious and touching as the others. If you aren't familiar with the series, it's all about fifth-grader Sammy Hayes-Rodriguez, whose mom is a famous professor of robotics, and whose dad is a well-known graphic novelist. Sammy's little sister, Maddie, has a life-threatening immunodeficiency disorder, and can't safely leave her bedroom. Thanks to their mom, Sammy is soon bringing a new "brother" to school with him - his Bro-Bot, E!

Follow Sammy and E's adventures through school and the community in this series of action-filled books. Told with a lot of heart, they are perfect for fans of robotics, but are really good stories for every reader to enjoy. There are villains in each book, a goofy sidekick (Sammy's second-best friend forever), and enough drama to hold anyone's interest.

Posted - by J. D. Anderson

It's crazy how phone-obsessed kids are today, especially at Branton Middle School, where Frost and his friends just started 6th grade. When cell phones are banned, the kids come up with a new way to communicate: Sticky Notes! Of course, this could go very well, or very wrong. When you factor in preteen emotions, you can bet things will get crazy.

More than just a creative story about Post-it Notes, this is a story about friendship, courage, making hard choices, and the power of words. It is about finding "your tribe," the people who you click with, and who will support you through the hard times. And it's about what happens when a new person wants to join your group of friends, and not everyone is in favor. Lastly and most importantly, it's about accepting those who are different, and the important of all types of diversity.

I highly recommend this story.

August 18, 2016

The Exact Location of Home - by Kate Messner

Geocaching is pretty popular these days, and this book will tell you all about this fun activity.  Along the way, it will take you on the emotional journey of a young teen boy and his friends, leaving you with an aching heart, a thirst for exploring your neighborhood, and a new perspective on poverty and homelessness.

Kirby Zigonski is not your typical teenage boy.  First, his dad is missing, his mom won't tell him why, and they are about to get evicted from their apartment.  Second, Kirby is a whiz with electricity, and can repair just about anything.  This time, though, Kirby may have found a problem that he can't figure out how to fix.  His two best friends (both girls) try to help, but Kirby pushes them away, drawing closer to a mysterious stranger that he *hopes* is his missing father.

Kate Messner never disappoints.  Really.

A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans - by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder

I love stories told from an animal's point of view, and the viewpoint of this thousands-of-years-old dragon is a great example of the genre.  Miss Drake, as we know her, recently lost her "pet" human, but as the story begins, a new pet is just arriving.  Winnie is a charming and precocious young teen, and her great aunt seems to have told her everything she needed to know about caring for the family dragon.  Little did Winnie know, however, that the dragon had plans of its own!

This captivating story imagines life in modern San Francisco, but with hidden magical life all around.  Take Miss Drake, for instance.  She may be a fierce, full-grown red and scaly dragon, but she can transform into a fashionable French fashionista in the blink of an oversize eye.  There is a problem in every story, of course, and in this case it takes Winnie and Miss Drake a little while to realize that a seemingly wise act has resulted in setting wild magic loose on the city, possibly breaking ages-old magical rules, and threatening the destruction of land and life.  Don't worry; Our heroines are up to the task of taking the magic into their own hands, but the process promises quite a magical adventure.

This is a very interesting and well-written book, full of magic and girl power.

July 8, 2016

Woof - by Spencer Quinn

This deep-south mystery has all the elements of a great, suspenseful novel:  A brave kid main character, an unknown but evil bad guy, nasty people, helpful hints, a unique and clearly-described setting, and dog biscuits.  Well, here's the thing:  The whole story is told by a dog!

Yep, Bowser the mutt is not only the narrator of our story, but one of its heroes.  Along with his new girl (owner) Birdie, they need to solve a robbery and save the swamps near their home.  By the way, this takes place in the gator-infested swampland of rural Louisiana.  As long as Bowser gets his treats and a chance to pee on the tree in front of their house, it's all good.

Not only is it creative and interesting to have the dog tell the humans' tale in his own words, but it works far better than you would expect.  It's hilarious, too, as the author gives us a true dog's-eye-view, from sniffing butts to getting totally distracted by squirrels.  Bowser's love for Birdie shows through too, and this is a winner for dog-lovers and mystery fans alike.

Firstborn - by Tor Seidler

This is the fictional story of a pack of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, featuring a huge pack leader named Blue Boy.  It is realistic and fascinating, but it is also a ripping good tale that will have you turning pages with enthusiasm.  Surprisingly, the whole book is narrated by a bird!  Maggie the Magpie (she doesn't like the name either) is our fearless narrator, and is as much a part of the story as any other character, though it's essentially a book about wolves.  This interesting choice of narrator works exceptionally well.

This book looks and reads a little like a wilderness book by the author's friend, Elizabeth Craighead George, author of Julie of the Wolves, and one of my favorites.  That is because it was on her urging that Mr. Seidler began studying and writing about wolves.

This is a carefully and intelligently-written story, and will appeal to animal-lovers, but also anyone who loves a good story, well-told.  There's even a little wolf romance, for those who like that kind of thing.  If you want to learn more about wolves, this is definitely the book for you.

Seriously, Norman - by Chris Raschka

International spies, bomber salesmen, weird parents, odd coffee-loving tutors, lots of new words, and four friends with a shared love of old movies and saving the day.  This is a zany but brainy, quirky but just-right story about young Norman and his worries about his father, whose job as a bombastic bomber salesman may be endangering them all.  Can his best bud Leonard and the twin girls from next door form a quadrumvirate (noun: a group of four powerful or notable people) without getting sidetracked by Norman's muddle-headed mother or taken out by two furry-hatted European spies?  Probably, but not definitely.

This is kind of a weird story, but I loved it.  Norman didn't do so well on his standardized test, so his parents hired a tutor, one Mr. Balthazar Birdsong, who seems more intersted in having Norman read the dictionary and watch clouds than in preparing him for the test.  In the end, though, Mr. B's lessons turn out to have been just what Norman needed to find his courage and save the day.

This book will get you curious about New York City, kites, dictionaries (my son asked for a dictionary of his own after we listened to this audiobook), and of course, hot chocolate.  It's well worth the read, even if the cover has you scratching your head (as it does me).  It's a well-voiced audiobook, too.

May 4, 2016

Honey - by Sarah Weeks

This is a very fun and sweet book, that has absolutely nothing to do with honey.  However, it does involve a dog, a beauty salon, tuna noodle casserole, an annoying 6-year-old girl, a wonderful teacher, a grumpy teacher, and some dandelions. Oh, and a dead mom.  Yeah, there's that.  Don't worry, though. It's a happy story, but some characters have to deal with a few issues along the way. You know, kind of like life itself.

Really, this is the story of young teen Melody, and her quest to find something she didn't even know she had lost.  Through the story, we meet her friends and family, a delightful stylist named Bee Bee, and her grandpa.  Lots of bad cooks, which strangely becomes a plot line. It's a swiftly-moving tale of growing up, learning secrets that your dad never knew when to tell you, and finding delight where you least expect it.

The strangest thing: This book got me interested in nail polish.  Really.  Nail polish.  Read it and you'll understand.

April 26, 2016

Serafina and the Black Cloak - by Robert Beatty

Serafina is Chief Rat Catcher at the historic Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, home to one of the richest men in America.  The year is 1899, and strange happenings are afoot at the mansion. Not just strange - terrible!  Children are disappearing, one each night.  A mysterious and dangerous strangers is stalking the halls of the mansion in the dead of night, and the only thing that can stop him is... a scrawny, dirty 12-year-old girl?

This is an excellent piece of historical fiction, set in the author's own backyard and introducing the reader to a fascinating piece of American real estate and point in time.  This book combines true-to-life descriptions of the setting with local legends, and tosses a scary fantasy/mystery over the top to keep us on the edges of our seats.  It works.

Thank you to my young friend Lilia for introducing me to this book, and loaning me your copy.  This is a real girl-power story, and you will be amazed by Serafina's courage, as well as her secrets, which even she doesn't know about at first.  It's a bit scary at times, but scrape up a bit of courage yourself, and check it out.

Shark Wars - by E.J. Altbacker

I had seen these books on the shelves, but had resisted picking up the shiny-covered series because it looked kind of ridiculous. Now that I've read the first book, though, I am hooked!

This is the story of the world's oceans - from under the water!  It turns out that shark rule the seas, through groups known as "shivers".  Each shiver has a leader, who is supported by a "line," the next five strongest sharks in the shiver.  You won't be surprised to learn that the sharks in the story behave like you would expect: Sneaky and violent.  Not all of them, though...

Meet Gray, a reef shark who, with his best friend dogfish, leaves his shiver to go off and explore the big blue.  Before long, they are swept up in one new shiver, then another, and their world is turned on its head.  These peace-loving but sharp-toothed fish want nothing more than a good meal and an adventure, but they find themselves in the middle of a battle for control of all the world's oceans.  As you might have expected, Gray turns out to be a pretty important shark.

This is not only a great adventure story, but it is a strong and touching tale of friendship and loyalty.  I loved looking at the world from a shark's point-of-view, and the characters, good and bad, were portrayed so clearly that I felt like swimming along at their side.  This is one excellent story for sailors and landlubbers alike.

February 26, 2016

The White Giraffe - by Lauren St. John

This story takes us to South Africa along with Martine, poor thing. You see, Martine is a young teen from England whose parents died in a fire that she managed to escape from.  Before long, she was trundled away to her grandmother's home in South Africa, on the grounds of a wild animal reserve.  This was not the outcome that anyone wanted, and when Martine arrived, she could tell right away that her grandmother wanted nothing to do with her. Welcome to Africa.

However, there is quite a twist to this story.  Martine isn't your ordinary girl, and has a rare gift that ends up making all the difference.  As she navigates life in her new home, she makes a number of discoveries about the reserve, her family, the animals, and herself.

Why "The White Giraffe?"  There is a legend on the reserve that an exceedingly rare white giraffe lives nearby, sacred to the native people and hunted by greedy poachers.  This mysterious creature will prove central to Martine's sotry in ways nobody had expected.

This is a touching but exciting story about a girl's quest to survive in a world that is full of twists and turns, and is a testament to the beauty of South Africa and to the importance of family and friends.  It is the first in a series of promising novels.

A Whole Nother Story - by Dr. Cuthbert Soup

Strange, mysterious bad guys.  International super spies.  Sock puppets. Epic wads of bubble gum.  Dirt clods. Time machines.  A hairless dog that can sense danger, and finds many opportunities to use this skill.  A very odd narrator.  Such an odd list, but they can all be found within this strange and wonderful book.

Dr. Ethan Cheeseman and his children are truly exceptional, but they've got some problems.  For one, they are on the run, changing identities and homes more often than they can count, on the run from a wide variety of evildoers.  They are also missing their mother, but the details of that particular problem don't become clear until later in the story.  As the Cheesemans make their way across the country in search of the answer to their biggest problem (which can not be disclosed here), they meet an interesting cast of characters, all of which help to make this odd story a bit more zany.  Through it all, the cheeky and slightly ridiculous narrator, "Dr. Cuthbert Soup," gives all sorts of commentary to the reader.

This really is a silly book, but it is a lot of fun to read, and hard to put down.  The narrator thing is a bit like the books of Pseudonymous Bosch or Lemony Snicket, and makes the story even more interesting.  The second book, Another Whole Nother Story, is just as good if not better.

February 20, 2016

Captain Nobody - by Dean Pitchford

Who is Captain Nobody?  It all starts during a football game, THE BIG GAME, where fourth-grader Newt Newman's older brother Chris, the star quarterback of the high school team, is out to make history.  He does, but not quite in the way he intended.

This story follows Newt and his two best friends, tall-girl J.J. and short but drum-crazy Cecil, as they navigate being the least-popular kids in fourth grade, but also as they struggle to find a way to come to terms with a tragedy that strikes Newt's family.  I really can't tell you what happens, but trust me that it is BIG.

Before you know it, Newt is dressing up in his brother's old clothes and calling himself Captain Nobody.  Of course, that isn't enough to make anyone a super hero.  Really.  Or, is it?  And what kind of superhero would "Captain Nobody" be, anyway?  That, dear reader, is the key to the whole story!

This is such an amazing, heartfelt, readable story that my 6-year-old and I, who just finished listening to it on CD in the car, have been lingering in the driveway because we just don't want to turn it off!  Equal parts funny and touching, this is a really fantastic book.  It is not part of a series, but stands alone as a testament to the power of courage and friends to make everything better.

Absolutely Almost - by Lisa Graff

Sad, sad, sad.  That's what my Guys Read book club decided kept us all from loving this book, it was just kind of sad.

Don't get me wrong, no book is completely sad, and there were definitely some interesting and enjoyable parts of the book.  It's all about this kid in New York City, Albie, who although he tries his hardest, just can't seem to please his teacher, his parents, his best friend's family, or anyone else.  Albie is kind of stumbling through life when he gets a new nanny, Calista.  This girl is dynamic: An art student who is full of creativity and encouragement, just what Albie needs. Through Calista, Albie has all sorts of great times, realizations, and happiness... but then things go wrong, as they often seem to in Albie's life.  See?  Sad.

This is the story of Albie not exactly improving his situation, but finding inner strength and coming to terms with who he is and what he is capable of, even if it's not quite as much as anyone had hoped.  It was a well-written book, with short chapters, interesting characters, and some fun pictures, but in the end it was a little too much of a downer for my group of 3rd-5th grade boy readers.  A bright note:  One of our favorite characters was the endlessly-bullied, stuttering Betsy, who through her gummy bears and fortitude, proves to be the strongest and the best character in the book.

January 13, 2016

The Terrible Two - by Jory John and Mac Barnett

It's a perfect prank.  The principal's car is halfway up the school stairs, parked sideways and totally stuck.  The question is, who did it?  Miles Murphy, the new kid in town on his first day at his new school, wishes it had been him.  In his old school, everyone knew that he was the #1 Prankster, but here he is forced to admit, there just might be some competition.

As the hilariously fierce yet bumbling principal Mr. Barkin locks on to Miles as a "trouble maker," the story begins a wild ride of pranks, secret identities, curious cows, gullible bullies, non-existent cool kids, and ultimately, a true friendship.  Who is the true prankster, and will Miles be able to compete with his or her brilliance and creativity?  And what is with this "School Helper" kid Niles, who follows and annoys Miles from day one?  I'm not telling you - just read the book, silly!

This is an excellent story, well-paced and full of strangely likable but annoying characters.  The pictures lead it toward the graphic novel category, but it stops short of being as heavily illustrated as a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book.  The co-authors, both hilarious authors on their own, are a truly dynamic duo in this project, which has already spawned a sequel (The Terrible Two get Worse).

I highly recommend this book, as well as its companion website:

January 7, 2016

Paper Towns - by John Green

This is an amazing story, and it definitely earns its "Teen/Young-Adult" category label, but not for the same reason as many books in the genre.  This is the story of Quentin, a high-school senior who finally gets the chance to hang out with his dream girl, his next-door neighbor, the crazily popular, wild, and unattainable Margo, for one wild night.  From those after-dark adventures, the book follows a sort of mystery path as Quentin searches for what he can't quite find, but which he seems to have been chosen to search for.  I don't want to give anything away here, so will stop there.

It is a story of running away and other ridiculous teenage shenanigans, and is not an appropriate guide for the development of children's choices or character.  There are scenes of teen partying and allusions to more "adult" topics, but nothing too explicit here.  For any teen looking for a riveting story, this is a fantastic read, which is to be expected from this author.

Sunny Side Up - by Jennifer & Matthew Holm

What young girl wouldn't love to spend a summer in sunny Florida?  Sunny Lewin was pretty excited about the opportunity, until she realized that her grandpa's retirement community was not what she expected... just a bunch of geezers sitting around all day doing boring, boring, and more boring.

Before long, though, Sunny realizes that there may be a little more to these old folks than she first thought.  Once she meets another kid, they begin having adventures, making new friends, and turning the summer into something special after all.

This is a fun, thoughtful graphic novel about one girl's everyday adventures over the course of a surprising summer.  It will appeal to readers of Rain Telgemeier, for sure.  

September 8, 2015

Lawless - by Jeffrey Salane

Kids have different opinions about school.  I know this, because I'm both a parent and a teacher, and have seen all sorts.  None of the kids I know have ever been interviewed and enrolled in a super-secret hidden school for the children of master criminals, though.  Not that I know of, at least.

In this amazing, action-packed, suspenseful thrill ride of a book, young M. Freeman (a sweet, innocent girl who seems to have quite a talent for crime), ends up at the Lawless School, though she has no idea where it is.  It's a nice school, except for all the people trying to kill her, and the fact that her plane crashed inside a mountain the first day of class, and, yeah.  Let's just say that nothing is ordinary at this school.

When I finished this, I was very disappointed that I didn't have the sequel in my hands, as I was so hooked I couldn't wait a day to get to the library.  The sequel leaves you hanging just as much, which may just be a ploy to get you to buy more books, but is also pretty exciting as a reader.  This book is so much more than you expect, as it digs deep into M's life and shows her character changing nearly page to page.  It's pretty sophisticated, like a true spy novel, but should be manageable for most middle-grade readers.  I HIGHLY recommend the series to all readers, especially those who love spy stories, mysteries, and suspense.

August 6, 2015

Pieces & Players - by Blue Balliett

This is Blue Balliett's fifth book about the same characters solving art mysteries that the police can't seem to solve.  Starting with Chasing Vermeer, Ms. Balliett has introduced each of these five characters, sometimes in their own books, and now she pulls them all together for their biggest mystery yet.

It's a very good story, and if you like complex mysteries about stolen artwork, you'll love this book.  It may not appeal as much unless you've read her earlier works, though, and if you make it through Chasing Vermeer, The Wright Three, The Calder Game, The Danger Box, and Hold Fast, then you will definitely like this story.  I happen to love her work, and have read everything she's ever written.  The characters are incredible, the mystery tough to crack, and the description of Chicago's landmarks and artwork is just perfect. 

It takes a dedicated reader to tackle Ms. Balliett's series of art mysteries, but those who do will be richly rewarded with this latest installment. Are you game?

Wilder Boys - by Brandon Wallace

Two boys and a dog, escaping into the wilderness on a special quest, running toward an unknown dream, and away from a scary man.  This is an excellent story of hope and survival, of using wits to overcome a terrible situation, and of friendship and family.

Jake and Taylor Wilder had been taking care of themselves for a long time.  Their mom was sick, their dad missing somewhere in the mountains since he left home years ago, and their mom's abusive boyfriend was getting even worse.  With pages from their dad's old notebooks, a confusing clue from an old letter, and whatever they could shove in their backpacks, the boys suddenly found themselves on a cross-country adventure that makes for an amazing story.

This book is fast-paced, full of interesting characters, and deadly serious at the same time that it is full of hope and adventure.  I highly recommend it!

July 27, 2015

Space Case - by Stuart Gibbs

Stuart Gibbs is an amazing writer, and this may be his best book yet!  

Imagine yourself on the moon, but not as an astronaut:  You are a member of the first group of moon colonists, along with your mom, dad, and six-year-old sister.  This is where we find Dash, the 12-year-old protagonist, and he's not too happy about it.  It turns out that the government's advertisements for the "resort-like" Moon Base Alpha were way overblown, and it's nowhere near as nice or exciting as he'd expected. 

Things get MUCH more exciting, though, when Dash witnesses a murder!  Now it is up to him and a couple of unexpected friends to solve the crime before things get worse.  As the government begins to cover it up, Dash is running out of time, and with a murderer on the loose in    their small community on the surface of the moon, things will definitely get worse before they get better. 

This is a compelling mystery, a realistic sci-fi look at our future in space, and a very interesting story about a brave young man who's trying to do the right thing.  Read it!

July 24, 2015

House of Robots - by James Patterson

Imagine that you're the fifth-grade son of a famous robot inventor mother, and one day she asks you to bring her newest invention to school with you. Two problems:  You are the second-most unpopular kid in your class (after your best-friend Trip), and the invention is a walking, talking nerdy robot that you are sure will ruin your life forever!

As E (the robot)  tags along with Sammy (the kid), we are dragged along on a very surprising and funny school adventure.  E is definitely a talented robot, and before long everyone at school finds out what a difference a robot can make.  Even the school bully gets a surprise, which leaves the reader cheering!  This is a fast-paced, smart story about fitting in, standing up, and giving new things a chance.

This is a great book for boys, and for anyone with an interest in robotics (along with the excellent Winter of the Robots, also reviewed on this site.)  It's one of my favorites so far among all the new series being pumped out by Patterson and his co-authors.

July 9, 2015

Return to Augie Hobble - by Lane Smith

Most of us know Lane Smith's artwork; he has illustrated a number of best-selling books, including a number of Jon Scieszka's stories.  What would a first-time novel from such a creative artist be like?  A little weird.  Adventurous, sad, mystical, mysterious, enjoyable, yet... weird.

This is the story of middle-schooler Augie Hobble, a pretty neat kid whose family lives and works at an out-dated Fairy-Tale-themed amusement park.  Augie has a strong suspicion that there is something going on that is not quite right, and you bet he is correct.  This book reminds me a little bit of Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs, but in that book the villains were your typical bad guys, and in Return to Augie Hobble... things definitely take a turn to the fantasy side.  Not nice fairy tale fantasy, but a bit more mystical than that.  I don't want to spoil anything, but there are some very unexpected turns.

I was surprised to find severe food allergies at the heart of this book.  I haven't encountered that before, and as the parent of a son with life-threatening nut allergies, I welcomed the education for the readers.  However, it's not an easy book to read for kiddos with those allergies, because there is a very upsetting death.  That wasn't the focus of the book, but then again, I'm not really sure WHAT the focus was.  The plot had powerful events and themes, but felt a little mixed-up and never really came through with a strong message in my mind.

It's a surprising book, and probably worth a read, but I could only rate it a 3 out of 5.

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.