Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Castle in the Mist by Amy Ephron

Cover image for The castle in the mistTess and Max are sent to live with a maiden aunt in England while their father works as a war correspondent in Afghanistan, and their mother recovers from an illness.  Tess finds a old key near the ruins of a castle near their aunt's country home.  The key is magic, and when Tess uses it to open a rusty gate, it leads her into a world when the castle was the home of young Lord William, his nurse, Marie, and a number of house servants.  Tess and Max visit William a number of times and have sometimes enchanting, sometimes frightening adventures.  Both William and Tess have the same wish, that they can be reunited with their parents, and it is up to Tess to make the wish come true.

I really liked this one.  It has an old fashion feel, like the Edith.Nesbit novels of early 1900's.  The children are kind and gracious to each other, and their adventures are fanciful and imaginative.  I was worried that it would have a really sad ending, but Ephron did a good job of making the story feel like it has a satisfying and positive resolution.  (167 p.)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

News Prints by Ru Xu

Cover image for NewsprintsBlue is an aggressive newsie in the coastal town of Nautelene. None of the other orphans know Blue's secret; she isn't a boy, as she appears, but is a girl who dresses as a boy so she can work and try to pay her own way.  One day Blue meets a enigmatic inventor, Jack, who takes her on as an apprentice.  She also meets another street kid, Crow, who, like her, hides a secret.  Little does Blue know that Jack also has a secret that ultimately connects Blue and Crow to the future of Natalene's looming war.

Here is a new "steam punk" series for those who like Kibuishi's Amulet   Blue is an appealing strong-girl character who is both tough and kind.  Xu's full-color illustrations do a great job at establishing the personalities of the characters and setting the tone of the story, while keeping up the breathless pace and high action of the plot. I think I like this one just as much as the first Amulet I read, maybe a little more because it doesn't have the "stuffed animal" style sidekicks that seem a little silly to me (but maybe kids really like the silly sidekicks, I don't know.) I did, at times, have a hard time keeping track of who was whom among the supporting cast in this book. Still, this is a good solid choice for the astute graphic novel connoisseur.  (198 p.)

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Forest of Wonders by Linda Sue Park

Cover image for Forest of wondersThis is the first in a new series, "Wing and Claw". Raffa lives with his parents and extended family in a town by the "Forest of Wonders."  His family are apothecaries, and Raffa has a special gift for mixing up curative poultices and infusions.  One day he finds a rare red vine and when he feeds it to an injured bat, the bat suddenly gains the ability to speak.  The leader of the Commons, the ruling class, invites Raffa and his family to the wealthy political seat to work on a special project.  With the help of newfound friends, Raffa figures out what the special project is and who is behind its evil purpose.

Linda Sue Park won the Newbery with A Single Shard, but has written quite a few other children's novels.  This is a pretty good middle grade fantasy.  A couple of times I wondered if the main character was going to do something stupid, but Raffa manages to avoid the worst mistakes.  Raffa's friends and family members are well drawn and complex characters. Each has ethical dilemma's and Park resists the temptation to draw a clear line between right and wrong.  I didn't love love love this book, but I might be interested in reading the next in the series when it is released. (242 p.)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

Cover image for See you in the cosmosAn 11 year old boy, Alex, lives with his mother in Colorado.  His mother has "quiet" days when she doesn't feel well enough to leave the house, and Alex takes responsibility for doing the cooking and shopping for both of them.  Alex is in love with the idea of rockets and space travel, and he saves money from his job helping at a gas station to buy a train ticket to New Mexico so he can attend a amateur rocket launch.  He manages to travel with his dog, Carl Segan.  At the convention he makes friends with two college guys, who, when they discover he has traveled alone, take him under their wing. After the launch, Alex receives word that his father might be alive and living in Las Vegas.  Alex and the two college guys start a wild road trip in search of answers about Alex's family.

This is an interesting book.  It is written as a series of recordings that Alex makes on his "golden I-Pod" (a reference to the golden record sent in the Mars probe).  Cheng writes them as a kind of "stream of experience" where anything that might have been picked up in a live recording is written into the narrative.  It feels raw, unfiltered, and achingly realistic.  The thing that saves that book from being too "raw" is that Alex, although he has been terribly neglected by a non-functional family, has a really buoyant and likeable personality.  Terrible things happen, and he bounces back and looks on the bright side.  I listened to the book on recording.  It is produced with a full cast and with sound effects.  I am pretty sure this one will be a candidate for the Odyssey award (for best recorded books) this year.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Hilo: The Boy who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

Cover image for The boy who crashed to EarthHere is my graphic novel for the week.  I chose it because the 3rd in the series just got a starred review last month.  This one got starred reviews when it came out in 2015

One day, D.J. sees an explosion in a field near his house.  When he goes to investigate he finds a blond boy lying in a crater with only silver underpants on.  He takes the boy home and soon suspects that the boy, Hilo, is not from this world.  Hilo doesn't understand the most simple things, like what is appropriate to eat, but has an irresistibly cheerful attitude. D.J finds him some clothes and food and lets him stay at his house.  The next day Hilo follows D.J. to school and causes all kinds of embarrassment, especially when D.J. realizes his old best friend, Gina, has just moved back into town after having been away for a number of years. Things get even more interesting when their town is attacked by a giant robot.

Don't you love comic books.  You go from having a fairly normal school story to fighting giant robot insects at the turn of a page.  I actually enjoyed this book pretty much.  Hilo is a really likeable character, and D.J. and Gina make pretty good sidekicks.  I look forward to reading the next book.(191 p.)

Flying Lessons and Other Stories

Cover image for Flying lessons & other storiesThis is the children's fiction book that has received the most starred reviews so far this year.  It is a collection of short stories by some famous children's authors that each deal with diversity.  I listened to the book electronically. Each story has different narrators and producers.  Some are read by the author, and some are doing by voice actors.  This collection is part of a campaign called, "We need diverse books."  I liked the fact that the stories presented children from a variety of races, cultures, and abilities, but none of the stories was really about, "Whoa is me, it is so tough to be _________"  They were mostly just a slice of real life for a black person in a white city, or a boy in a wheel chair, or girl making a new friend from a different culture,  etc.  My favorite story was the title story, mostly because I could relate with the main character.  He is a boy who is really good at academics, but not very good socially.  He wants to make friends, but doesn't know how and he lacks confidence to even try.  The author really pegged what it felt like to be me as a child, and to some extent, still me today.  The fact that the boy was half Indian, half white American, visiting Spain with his grandmother, didn't obscure the common humanity I felt with the character. I think this is the main strength of this collection; a feeling that, in the end, we have more in common than we think. (218 p)

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Drawing Lesson by Mark Crilley

Cover image for The drawing lesson : a graphic novel that teaches you how to drawHere is an interesting graphic nonfiction.  A young boy, David, sees a woman sitting on a park bench, drawing.  He is impressed with her artwork and begs her to give him a drawing lesson.  The woman, Becky, finally does, and David is so delighted he starts stalking her to get more drawing lessons.  Each lesson is one chapter in the graphic novel.  Becky teaches David about proportions, shading, composition, blank space, and other good basic drawing skills. Becky has David do a sketch, and then she critiques it and suggests improvements. I like the fact that when David gets something off in his drawing, it isn't obviously off, until you look at it closely.  Then you notice what Becky is pointing out.  Each chapter ends with suggests for the reader to try at home.  Reading the book really is a little like receiving personal drawing lessons.  I wonder if this book will appeal to the kids who check out the "How to Draw" books.  One of the reasons the "How to Draw" books are so popular is that they give the artist instant gratification; just follow these 5 simple steps and you have a recognizable picture.  This book takes a little more time commitment, especially if you do the practice suggestions.  I am eager to give it to some of my young artist friends and see if they like it. (137 p.)

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Wearle by Chris D'Lacey

Cover image for The WearleThe Wearle, a race of dragons, has just arrived on Erth (sic).  They have displaced a primitive tribe of the Hom and are hoping to set up a breading ground.  They are also trying to discover what happened to an earlier colony of Wearle that disappeared some years before.  Most of the Hom hate the "scalers" but are powerless to fight them.  One young Hom, Ren, is fascinated with them and makes a bold move to learn more about them.  He inadvertently gets involved with Wearle political intrigue and becomes the key to discovering the grisly fate of the earlier Wearle colony.

D'Lacey is well known for his "Last Dragon Chronicles" series which I have not read, and I believe this story is connected with that.  I kept feeling like I was missing something; that certain revelations were significant, but I didn't understand them. The book mostly made sense on its own, and I recognize that D'Lacey had created a richly imagined fantasy world that many sophisticated fantasy readers would enjoy.  I didn't enjoy it that much.  It was a bit too dark and violent for my taste.  There was a lot of death, dismemberment, and cruelty among the humans and the dragons. The first and second book of D'Lacey's Unicorne Files, which I have read, (or at least I started to read the second one, but stopped) were also too dark for me, so I think I am done with Chris D'Lacey. (284 p.)

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Evil Wizard Smallbone By Delia Sherman

Cover image for Evil wizard SmallboneNick runs away from his abusive uncle in hopes of finding a better life for himself. What he finds is a magic bookstore and its owner, who claims to be an evil wizard. The Evil Wizard Smallbone takes Nick as his apprentice, but refused to teach him magic. Instead Nick has to cook and clean and tend the animals. Luckily the bookstore gives Nick just what he needs to handle Smallbone and an even greater threat, the cruel werewolf,  Fidelou.

Sherman has created a delightful magical romp that will appeal to kids who like the fantasies of Michael Buckley and Holly Black.  Nick and Smallbone are both endearingly flawed and the fun of the book is watching them gradually go from being enemies to allies.  Sherman's magic system is interesting and  I was pleasantly surprised that there were plot twists that I hadn't expected.  The book had a satisfying ending, but leaves enough open that readers can hope for a sequel. (408 p.)