Sunday, August 31, 2014

Program: Mad Science

Once again, I have a few programs to share with you! Mad Science Mondays is a program I ran during the school year, once a month on a Monday afternoon. We had a different theme and experiments every month. Here's how we finished out the spring.

Lava Lamps - I started with a brief PowerPoint presentation on oil and water and why they don't mix. We talked about molecules and then I handed out the supplies to see our experiment in action. This is a very simple experiment, though a bit messy. You simply fill an empty water bottle 2/3 full with vegetable oil and the rest of the way with water, leaving some room at the top. Then you add food coloring of your choice. The food coloring will sink through the oil and mix with the water (as standard food coloring is water soluble). Once the food coloring and water are mixed together, break up an Alka-Seltzer tablet and drop in one piece at a time. The tablet will sink to the water and release colored bubbles through the oil to the surface. It's a temporary effect (you have to keep adding tablets to keep the bubbles going) but the kids were pretty mesmerized by it. I explained the science behind it and the kids left with their own lava lamps!

Egg Science - as I browsed through my collection of simple (and economical) science experiments, I noticed that eggs seemed to present a number of possibilities. I actually planned on doing this program in two parts: part one consisting of the experiments I'm about to mention and part two being an egg drop. However, I could not secure access to the roof or a tall enough ladder to make part two work. Perhaps I'll try again in the future. Anyway, this is what we ended up with. I walked on eggs which, disappointingly, no one was terribly surprised to see I could do (also, they desperately wanted me to get egg all over my feet). Prior to the program, I made a bouncing egg, but I tested it out live in front of the kids. Results? Huge fail - the egg didn't bounce, even from a couple inches and instead just splatted all over me (much to their delight). And finally, we made egg geodes. No PowerPoint this time; I just explained the science as we went along. They each got an egg in vinegar to take home for further bouncing egg experiments, plus their geode starters. Aside from getting egg all over me, they liked the geodes the best (anything with food coloring seems to be a big hit with them).

Sweets - one of my most popular programs last summer was candy science, so I figured I'd give it another go-round during a less-crazy time of year. Once again, we made ice cream in a bag, but this time, I actually had the chance to explain the science behind it. I think we could just do this experiment over and over again and the kids would be happy. Then, we did another perpetual favorite: Mentos geysers. We tested out a variety of sodas to see which would create the biggest geyser. Easy and always a hit.

And that was our spring of Mad Science Mondays! Unfortunately, attendance for this program drastically dropped off (with the exception of the sweets science), so I won't be continuing it in the fall. I would be happy to let someone else give it a shot, but I think science is not my strong suit. Has anyone had any simple but crazy successes?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: The Trouble with Weasels

The Trouble with Weasels (Life of Zarf, book one)
By Rob Harrell
Expected publication September 2, 2014 by Dial

Zarf is a troll. Yes, THAT kind. He also has what is basically the worst name in the kingdom - I mean, come on, it rhymes with 'barf'. But he's pretty content otherwise. Until the day the beloved King disappears and his not-so-nice son, Prince Roquefort (Zarf's mortal enemy), takes his place. Things get even more complicated when Zarf embarks on a quest to discover the truth behind the king's disappearance.

I requested the galley of this because I figured it would be a quick read. Plus, it's an illustrated middle-grade fantasy novel, something that has tons of appeal to readers, so I figured it'd be helpful if I checked it out.

It definitely hits all the right notes on appeal factors for middle-grade readers - short chapters, liberal illustrations, a blend of silly and sophisticated humor, and typical middle school problems. I wasn't wrong about this being a quick read - I finished it in a couple of hours. The short chapters definitely help speed things along - it keeps readers turning the pages to find out what will happen next. Similarly, the liberal use of illustrations eat up large chunks of page space, making the pages fly by even more quickly. And it is funny - I chuckled to myself a number of times while reading. As I mentioned, it's a blend of silly humor (think your Captain Underpants, etc.) and slightly more sophisticated stuff (puns, satire, ludicrous twists on familiar tales). It works well and I think makes the book more appealing to a wider variety of readers. Though Zarf is a troll and his world is populated by fairy tale creatures, many of their problems are typical of kids in the middle-school set, making the book even more accessible to readers.

My only question is whether this illustrated kind of novel will appeal to fantasy readers as well - this book is, after all, definitely a fantasy. The only book that has come close to the same level of popularity as Diary of a Wimpy Kid is Origami Yoda - but both of those books are realistic fiction. I'm not sure if those same readers will be on board for a similar style in a fantasy world, but I'm happy for the change of pace. I will definitely be recommending this to readers of those series.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: 100 Sideways Miles

100 Sideways Miles
By Andrew Smith
Expected publication September 2, 2014 by Simon & Schuster

Finn Easton is not an alien. Yes, he does have two different color eyes and a scar on his back, traits he shares with the aliens in a famous novel, written by his father. But he is not an alien, just a kid trying to figure out his place in the world. And, when he meets the lovely Julia Bishop, he just might be on the right path.

I was very excited to discover that Smith had two books publishing this year, and I was even more excited to read this after I finished the truly excellent Grasshopper Jungle (review forthcoming, because clearly I still haven't mastered the art of reviewing things in any logical order). Sadly, this book didn't quite live up to my admittedly lofty expectations.

Let's start with the good - the characters. Man, Andrew Smith. He just gets teenagers. Every novel of his I've read has been filled to the brim with excellent characters who practically leap off the page to tell you their stories. Finn is no exception. He felt real. I wanted to give him a big hug at some times and at others, I wanted to smack the nonsense out of him. His voice is strong and truthful and if teens aren't reading Smith's books, they are missing out. What is especially excellent about Smith's books is that he doesn't stop with his protagonists - all his secondary characters are interesting as well. Cade, for example. At first glance, he's a stereotype but, as the book progresses, he becomes a much more nuanced character who broke my heart a little. That's the thing about a Smith book - you're almost guaranteed a little heartbreak.

I really enjoyed the way this story was told, almost in vignettes, and I thought Finn's measuring time in miles was really fascinating. As I've mentioned before, I love books that lead you to questions about serious topics without preaching or feeling painfully obvious. Smith is great at writing about things that make you want to ask big questions: what does it take to be a hero? Do all heroes start out great or can one become that greatness? How do my dreams differ from my parent's dreams for me? It's really thought-provoking stuff without feeling heavy-handed, something I think teens will really appreciate.

Things that didn't quite stand up for me: I wish Julia had been given a more prominent role. Actually, in general, Smith's female characters could do with more agency of their own, but it bothered me particularly here because there were hints of a really interesting character that I would have loved to get to know better. Once again, I find myself quibbling with the summary/jacket copy (I read an ARC, so I'm not sure what the final jacket copy will read). I find it almost another case of false advertising - the second paragraph is devoted to the time after Julia moves away, when Finn and Cade head out on a road trip that takes a dramatically unexpected turn. However, once again, this is an event that doesn't occur until very late in the novel, leaving me to spend much of the novel in anticipation of events that didn't happen until I'd nearly reached the end. Yes, the time after Julia leaves is quite defining for Finn and the road trip certainly is a major turning point. But putting it in the summary leads me to a false belief that it's going to happen sooner rather than later in the story. Maybe I'm the only one who finds this to be an issue, but it seems to be happening more and more.

Overall, this is another solid read from Smith, one that I imagine will find an audience and one I'll be happy to recommend.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Release Day Review: Ghost House

Ghost House (Ghost House Saga, book one)
By Alexandra Adornetto
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by HarperTeen

After the death of her mother, Chloe and her brother are sent to stay with their very English grandmother on her very English countryside estate. There's just one problem: Chloe can see ghosts. And one of the ghosts at Grange Hall is not excited that Chloe has come to stay.

Here is another in my string of extremely disappointing young adult ghost stories. I'm not even sure how much I can review this one because I'm just tired of writing the same thing about these stories. I think the main difference with this one is that it's a poorly written romance disguised as a ghost story. So I guess at least that's a little change of pace.

I thought the book was okay in the beginning - Chloe and her family learning to deal with their grief. I mean, it still wasn't anything super special, but it was working okay (though I did find it quite strange and unnecessary that the facts of Chloe's mother's death are obscured for so long). But then we get to the ghosty part and it just all falls to pieces.

Because not only is it a poorly written ghost story. It's a poorly written INSTA-LOVE ghost story. With a ghost. Right. Did you get that clearly? Chloe falls completely and desperately (and quite pathetically) in love with a ghost. Of course, she doesn't realize he's a ghost at first, so I guess that makes it okay? Or it's supposed to anyway.

And then it just gets even more trite and ridiculous. Because ghost boys poltergeisty former paramour is having none of this business and makes it her undead mission to destroy Chloe and maybe her kid brother while she's at it. I mean, I'm not rooting for the evil, crazy, possessive spirit, but the ghost that Chloe loves? Not such a great guy either.

Sometimes when a book is really bad, I finish reading it and I love it (because I truly love and appreciate things that are so awful, they're amazing). This book never gets to that level, instead remaining on the tedious just plain bad plateau. And the twist at the end that sets this up for future volumes? DON'T EVEN GET ME STARTED.

To be quite honest, though, this book will find its fans and, if you're a librarian worth your salt, you'll be able to tell what kind of readers will be interested in this one. Fans of over-the-top impossible romance, start your queue here.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via NetGalley.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Review: Amity

By Micol Ostow
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by Egmont USA

Connor has never been normal, something he gets from his father. But when his family moves to Amity, he begins to spiral dangerously out of control. Gwen has been hospitalized before - her family thinks she is prone to hysteria, to seeing things that aren't really there. The move to Amity is supposed to be good for her, a change of pace. It will be anything but that.

Okay, huge horror fan, even though I am quite frequently disappointed (I've been a horror fan so long that most things don't actually scare me), but I couldn't pass this one up. I wrote my college thesis on horror films of the 1970s that had been remade in the new century and The Amityville Horror was one of them. I'm not sure how familiar today's teens will be with the story, but it really doesn't have that much bearing on the story in this book.

See, this is not a retelling of Amityville, simply inspired by it, so even teens unfamiliar with the original story will be able to read and enjoy this one. I liked the dual narrative structure - Connor and Gwen's stories, set ten years apart - even though it was a bit difficult to get into at first. Once the story got underway, I thought it was refreshing to move back and forth between the narratives, seeing the parallels and differences. Actually, I think this book excels at pacing overall - the chapters are short, long enough to give you information but short enough to keep you flipping the pages quickly. As the book progresses and the danger draws ever nearer, the chapters get even shorter, upping the frenetic pace at which you turn the pages. I think it took me just a couple hours to finish this one - I was completely invested in the suspense of the story.

In terms of the horror, there is some gore described on the page, so if you're sensitive, bear that in mind. The horror here is more psychological than physical - the slow descent into madness, the questioning of one's own sanity. It's heavy stuff, and I think Ostow does it well. I think teens looking for a gripping horror story this fall will be in luck to discover this one.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Program: Daycare Storytime

I have two daycare storytimes to share with you today, both from the spring (just in time for kicking things off this fall!). Here's what we did!

Opening: We Clap and Sing Hello - this is our standard storytime opening.
Penguin Facts - I wanted to provide some real information about penguins in our storytime, so I asked the kids what they knew about penguins. The answers were about what you'd expect (they are black and white, they eat fish, they live in cold places, etc.), so I shared some new information with them (kinds of penguins, where they live, etc.).
Song: Freeze Dance - get it? FREEZE dance?!
Book: One Cool Friend by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by David Small - this is a fun book, but I'm not sure the kids really "got" the twist at the end. They loved Elliot's adventures as he tries to care for his new penguin.
Song: If You're a Penguin and You Know It - we flapped our wings, stomped our feet, and waddled around!
Penguin Facts - for more real life information, I played a short clip of a penguin call, figuring that the kids might not know what a penguin actually sounds like.
Book: Penguin and Pinecone by Salina Yoon - I mean, how could I not? I want to take Penguin home!
Song: Penguin Shuffle - more waddling around!
Craft - we made this little guy!

Opening: We Clap and Sing Hello
Book: If You Give a Dog a Donut by Laura Numeroff, illustrated by Felicia Bond - I could have chosen almost any Numeroff book. I went with this one because we got to show off our ninja moves and because I wanted to have a wide variety of sweets represented in our storytime.
Song: Happy by Pharrell - I don't think there was a storytime presenter this spring that wasn't using this song in some capacity. The kids went absolutely nuts for it and I loved seeing their happy dances!
Book/Dramatic Presentation: Should I Share My Ice Cream? by Mo Willems - I have done this before in storytime and it was a huge hit. I show the scanned pictures of the book on the projector screen and do a dramatic interpretation of the story. It's a good one for this because it's mainly just Gerald and he shows quite the range of emotions in this story.
Song: Sticky Bubblegum - since gum has enough sugar to be considered a sweet, I resurrected this storytime favorite and we unstuck the gum from the various parts of our body.
Song: Popcorn by the Barenaked Ladies - I know popcorn isn't really a sweet, but it is food and I was trying to stick with the theme. Plus, who doesn't want to pop around like popcorn in the pan?
Book: Little Mouse and the Big Cupcake by Thomas Taylor, illustrated by Jill Barton - oh, they really liked this one!
Craft - we decorated our own paper cupcakes and I had the kids tell me what flavor they made!

Obviously, this is only a small sample of the books and songs available for these themes. What are your favorites?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Review: Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms
By Katherine Rundell
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Wilhemina knows she doesn't have an ordinary childhood but she wouldn't have it any other way. When tragedy strikes and her half-wild way of life in beautiful Africa is threatened, Will will do anything to avoid a terrible fate.

I had mixed feelings about Rooftoppers, Rundell's 2013 release. Never one to write off an author after just one try, when I spotted this one available as an e-galley, I snatched it up, prepared to give her a second shot.

I'm not sure I fared much better with this one. While I appreciated the idea of a non-traditional childhood (Will pretty much runs wild on a farm in Zimbabwe), something about the story just felt off to me the whole way through. I can't quite put my finger on it. It's not that I don't believe there are children living lives like this somewhere. I suppose at least part of it is just how different Will's life is from my own - I can't imagine a place where education is not compulsory and where having a monkey clinging to you is par for the course. There were bits and pieces of the story that rubbed me the wrong way - Will is quite abrasive and extremely selfish; I had a hard time working up sympathy for her. I found it difficult to believe that the Captain would so readily fall for an obviously manipulative woman and would toss Will's welfare aside so easily.

Some of the problem also lies with the fact that I'm not sure what exactly this book wants to be. Part of that is, I think, a marketing issue. The description makes it clear that Will is going to be sent to an English boarding school, but this doesn't happen until halfway through the book. I guess I always just assume that if a plot point is in the summary, it's going to happen sooner rather than later. So, the first half of this book mostly just feels like a love letter to a childhood in Africa. Reading Rundell's author bio shows that she, too, grew up in Africa, and it's clear from this first half that she wouldn't trade that upbringing for anything. But when Will is sent to the boarding school, the book just falls apart. It became increasingly difficult for me to suspend disbelief and even more difficult for me to sympathize with Will. I understand that she is being forced into a situation against her will but she takes no responsibility for her own actions. I'm not excusing the bullying that takes place (though it's certainly far from the worst I've ever encountered), but Will makes no attempts to understand why it's happening. Also, I find it difficult to believe that the adults at the boarding school would have let things continue the way they did - and I don't just mean the bullying. You can't make me believe that a stuffy English boarding school is not going to do something about a pupil who is not bathing. Will's adventures through London are sure to seem exciting to a middle-grade reader, but to me they were desperate and often horrifying.

There is just something about Rundell's work that is not connecting with me. I can see her appeal on certain things, but overall, I don't think I'll be reading her again.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Review: Into the Grey

Into the Grey
By Celine Kiernan
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by Candlewick Press

Everything changes for Pat and Dom the night their Nan sets their house on fire. In the wake of the devastation, the family moves to a summer house - and Dom becomes different. So different that he might not actually be himself anymore.

I blame my lack of enjoyment in this book completely on myself. I've been hearing about this book for a long time - so long that I seem to have forgotten exactly what it was supposed to be about. When I downloaded the e-galley of this, I didn't bother looking up the synopsis again - once I'm interested in a book, that pretty much seals it for me. So, the problem is that I wasn't reading the book I thought I was.

I thought this book was about mental illness - that the fire had warped Dom's psyche and Pat was trying desperately to bring him back to himself throughout the course of the novel. Wrong. This is a ghost story, pretty much straightforward. If you've been reading my blog lately, you'll know I've not been having much luck with ghost stories and horror novels. So, the moment I realized that this was a book about possession and not about mental illness, I was disappointed. Maybe I should have just stopped reading right then.

However, in all the time I've been hearing about this book, I've been hearing good things, so I stuck with it. After all, wouldn't it be great if a ghost story finally surprised me? Unfortunately, this book just didn't do it for me. While I'll admit that the notion of possession was interesting and pairing that with the bond shared by the twins unique, most of the time I just felt bored by this book. I had to work really hard to finish it - I never particularly cared about Pat or Dom (or Francis or Lorry, for that matter), so I had a hard time worrying about what might happen to them throughout the rest of the book's pages.

What I think the book did well was the portrayal of the relationship between brothers. Though I'm not a twin or the same sex as my sibling, the relationship among siblings is one that continues to fascinate me. I always pay attention to portrayals of this relationship in fiction for children and teens. I thought Kiernan did a great job with the sets of brothers, realistically portraying their importance to each other and the helplessness one might feel when unable to help his brother.

Overall, this book just didn't work for me. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via NetGalley.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Review: Rumble

By Ellen Hopkins
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by Simon & Schuster

Matthew doesn't have much to believe in - not since his younger brother's suicide. His family is falling apart, his friends were not who he thought they were, and he certainly can't believe in a God that would take the life of someone he loved so much. Not even his beloved and devout girlfriend can change his mind about that. Can anything?

I'm always game for a new Ellen Hopkins book, so I eagerly downloaded this one when I spotted it available. However, I'm beginning to think I'm a little tired of the formula in her books. Her books tend to be one horrible thing after the other - sometimes to the point where I have a hard time believing this much bad stuff could happen to one teenager (though, of course, I know anything is possible). This book felt like a waiting game - I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, the next horrible thing. In this one, the foreshadowing felt extremely heavy-handed - I could see how it all was going to play out very early on.

Additionally, I had a really hard time with Matthew as a character. I tend to like the Hopkins novels with multiple narrators more than those with single narrators - the kinds of characters that Hopkins often writes can be hard to handle for long periods of time (and her books always clock in over 500 pages). What made this even more difficult for me is that I felt like I should have been able to relate to Matthew much more than I did - after all, I know what it's like to lose a sibling, and I'm constantly seeking out teen novels that deal with this topic well. I can certainly understand a lot of what Matthew feels, but I guess what I had a harder time with was the way he acted. When you're grieving, it's extremely easy to feel that no one can possibly relate to you, that no one feels the same grief you're feeling, even that this loss belongs to you alone - and I think this is particularly true of young people who lose a sibling. I felt some of that - I knew my parents' loss was not the same as my own loss. However, I still recognized that they HAD lost, and acted accordingly; Matthew doesn't. He has his reasons for it, at least regarding his father, but I still just couldn't relate to his actions.

Also, the big accident mentioned in the blurb? It doesn't happen until, literally, about 15 pages from the end of the book. Publishers: THIS IS A REALLY FRUSTRATING THING. STOP DOING IT!

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Release Day Review: The League of Seven

The League of Seven (League of Seven, book one)
By Alan Gratz, illustrated by Brett Helquist
Expected publication August 19, 2014 by Starscape

Archie's parents have taught him the truth about their world - monsters exist and without the Septemberists and the League of Seven, those monsters would rule the world. So, when his parents are brainwashed and become pawns of an evil Mangleborn, Archie knows it's up to him to stop the evil from rising.

An ARC of this book showed up at my library a couple months ago and I set it aside, thinking it looked interesting and hoping I could find some time to read it before adding it to our giveaway books. I snuck in some reading time recently and bunkered down with this book.

I'll admit, this book didn't grab me right away. There is a lot of explanation in the first 50-60 pages that feels info-dumpy and definitely didn't leave me feeling interested in the story. I understand that Gratz is setting up his world - a steampunk, alternate version of 1870s America and that involves a lot of work. However, there are usually better ways to do it than just throwing a bunch of information at your readers. It's not as bad as it could be, which is something, but it kicked the book off on a bit of a slow start.

It's interesting because, despite my lack of enthusiasm for the first part of the book, when a colleague asked me about it, I explained the relevant bits and she said, "well, that sounds really cool." I think maybe this is what bothered me most about that first chunk of book - the premise here is really interesting and definitely has kid appeal, so to bog it down in all these details in the way that Gratz does just feels frustrating.

Once I got past that little bit at the beginning, though, this book definitely picked up the pace. The action is pretty much non-stop, which definitely works well for kids. More details of the interesting alternate world that Gratz has built come out in the story - all of which I found fascinating (I quite enjoy both steampunk and alternate history). I thought Gratz did a great job with the characters as well - I really empathized with Archie and I liked getting to know Hachi and Fergus. They are all characters with diverse back stories and I think, as a team, they work well together. I could certainly see myself reading more of their adventures. As you might imagine from the series title, there are sure to be a few more characters introduced in future volumes and I'm definitely looking forward to discovering them and their stories as well. One of the things I like about alternate history is the appearance of famous historical figures and I think Gratz does it well here, using names that will likely be familiar to kids. Like many recent reads for middle-graders, this book definitely has a science aspect that Common Core lovers will find appealing. Personally, I don't care so much, but I do like it when a book can spark an interest in a real world topic.

Overall, I think this book will definitely appeal to readers looking for a new adventure upon which to embark. I'll be looking forward to book two and be recommending this while I wait!

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: Feral

By Holly Schindler
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by HarperTeen

Claire barely survived a brutal attack in Chicago, leaving her scared and angry. So, when her father's career takes him to Peculiar, Missouri, she thinks it's a fresh start for her as well. Except a teen girl has just shown up dead and Claire seems to be seeing things that no one else is - like a menacing fog of dead souls. Hungry dead souls.

The blurb for this book pitched it as "The Lovely Bones meets Black Swan" - there was no way I could resist that! Unfortunately, this book didn't live up to those expectations for me.

The majority of the time I spent reading this book, it just felt strange. In fact, that's what I kept telling people as I read - "this book is weird." And it is. Now that I've finished it, it's much clearer to me what Schindler was trying to do - without giving spoilers, think along the lines of Charm & Strange - but with a title like that for comparison, this book just does not succeed at its goal.

I never connected with Claire. On the one hand, I can understand her anger after the attack. On the other, it seemed very misplaced to me and I never felt like she wanted to give other people a chance. It's hard for me to want to continue with a book if I can't understand where the main character is coming from - not impossible, but difficult. And Claire wasn't the only character I found too strange to relate to - I still couldn't explain Becca to you, even after finishing the book. The weird tensions that occur between characters I guess are supposed to all be explained away by the ending, but while they're happening, they're uncomfortable and don't feel true to life at all.

Additionally, the feral cats. Obviously where the book gets its title from, I kept waiting to discover their significance. I'm still waiting. Authors, don't just include a random plot element that you think sounds cool without actually giving it meaning - it's frustrating when that meaning never unveils itself.

The first part of this book is plain old not interesting - it's full of characters I don't understand with weird vibes surrounding them and not a lot of action. When the action finally starts to amp up, it's just all so strange. It just didn't work for me. Maybe other readers won't find the same flaws I did, but this book just wasn't successful at what it set out to do.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Review: Nuts to You

Nuts to You
By Lynne Rae Perkins
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by Greenwillow

Jed is a very special squirrel. He has two of the best friends one could ever ask for. But when Jed is snatched up by a hawk, he never expects them to go after him. Lucky for him, his friends are determined and resourceful. When the three friends end up uncovering a mystery that presents a danger to their homes, they must work together to protect everyone they love.

I don't know why I keep forcing myself to read animal fantasy - it's just not my style. Maybe it's because some of surprised me and become among my favorite books. Maybe it's because I've enjoyed them more in my recent past. Maybe it's because they're extremely popular with middle grade readers and I'm trying to read more middle grade books.

Whatever the reason, I found myself breezing through this upcoming title recently. Perkins is a Newbery Award winning author, so this book was already on my radar when I saw it pop up on Edelweiss. I figured it would be a quick read (the e-galley is just around 100 pages) and it features illustrations by the author, so I decided to just plow through it.

That probably sounds like I didn't enjoy it, and that's not quite true. Though I'm still pretty convinced that animal fantasy is not my thing, I thought this was a pretty cute story for the most part. I like that Perkins is presenting it as a tale told directly to her by a squirrel, which she has translated and annotated for humans to enjoy and learn from. This book is billed as The Incredible Journey with squirrels and I think it's a pretty apt description, though our three main heroes do not spend a huge amount of time apart (I seem to remember each of the animals in Journey having a little solo adventure). I enjoyed that they encountered new kinds of squirrels, though that squirrel dialect was quite difficult to read. I loved the innovation the squirrels use when they want to rescue their friends and families at the end - very smart, and definitely teaches kids how to use your strengths. I did feel that the message got a little heavy towards the end, which pulled me out of the story a bit. I'm not sure if kids will have the same problem, but it was distracting for me.

Overall, not really my kind of book, though I can see its appeal and think it definitely has potential as a great read-aloud.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: Fiendish

By Brenna Yovanoff
Expected publication August 14, 2014 by Razorbill

Clementine spent ten years of her life trapped in a root cellar. The world she emerges into is not the one she left, and it seems as if no one remembers who she is. In addition, she feels drawn to the boy who rescued her, even though her cousin tells her he is no good. When strange magic starts popping up around town, Clementine can't help but wonder if it's because she's out in the world again.

Yovanoff is an author who has intrigued me for a number of years - I've seen her books come out and have definitely been interested but have never found the time to pick one up. I spotted this on Edelweiss and requested, figuring it was long past time to give her a shot. And, of course, I'm always looking for more horror novels.

It must be me. I think maybe I just need to stop expecting books to creep me out. Every book I've read lately that I've hoped would do the trick just hasn't, so I'm starting to think that maybe I'm just not creeped out by books. Certainly, Yovanoff has got some creepy stuff here - I mean, for starters, her heroine is locked in a root cellar for ten years and is surrounded by a magic that makes everyone forget she ever existed. There are different characters with different kinds of humors - that means they can affect different elements. There are fiends - a kind of creature that I really knew nothing about before reading this book. There is plenty here to creep out your average reader.

In addition, Yovanoff's writing style works exceptionally well for this kind of horror story. She really takes her time to create an unsettling atmosphere, one in which neighbors no longer trust neighbors and enlisting the help of fiends suddenly seems like your most viable option. I loved her descriptions - it's easy to see why she and Maggie Stiefvater probably work well together as critique partners.

The characters are quite interesting as well, though I wished we had gotten to spend some more time with some of the secondary ones (Shiny, Rae, Davenport). I liked Clementine well enough and the romance that developed felt expected but not in a bad way. I think the book could have worked without it also, but so be it.

For me, it started to drag a bit towards the end, as it seemed quite obvious how everything was going to play out, but that may not be the case for most readers. I can definitely recommend this book for readers looking for something a bit strange and a bit creepy.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Review: The Fourteenth Goldfish

The Fourteenth Goldfish
By Jennifer L. Holm
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by Random House Books for Young Readers

Ellie wishes things would stay the same. But one day, when a strange boy shows up, she begins to wonder if change is always a bad thing. Because that strange boy looks an awful lot like her grandfather, a scientist who's been on a quest for immortality. Could it be he's discovered the secret?

I requested this digital galley because Jenni Holm. I mean, really. I adore her. Her books are pretty much always winners for me (I've yet to read them all, a tragedy I really should remedy soon) and she's a lovely person in real life as well (I've seen her speak a few times). So, when I knew she had a new book coming out, I eagerly requested the galley, knowing I'd probably enjoy it and knowing it would get some Newbery buzz.

I think I was right on both accounts. This is a short, quick read, packed with fun characters and really fascinating science. I really enjoyed it, and I've already seen it being thrown around as a Newbery contender. What I enjoyed most about this is that Holm manages to cover quite a few topics in a small number of pages - and she doesn't short any of them either. This book addresses science and the role it should play in our everyday lives, families and how they change, the difficulties of growing up and watching things change around you, and the importance of believing. I'm convinced that Holm is one of the best and most important middle-grade authors currently working - I hope she continues to write for many years to come.

Ellie has a great voice - I fell in love with her almost instantly, and I think middle-grade readers will find her easy to relate to as well. I absolutely loved the other characters, also, particularly Melvin. What a delight he was! My one quibble is that I found it quite difficult to believe that Ellie, by all indications a pretty typical 11-year-old, had never heard of most of the scientists her grandfather references. I don't remember whether or not I knew of them all when I was her age, but it did make me pause for a moment (particularly Marie Curie).

As I said, I loved that Holm was able to cover such a wide variety of topics and still give them each enough page time to merit their inclusion. This is a great book to ignite discussion and I think many teachers are going to enjoy discovering and sharing this one. I also really appreciated Holm's inclusion of suggestions for further research. This is another science-focused book that I think will definitely spark a desire to learn more about the facts. I'll be keeping my eyes open for discussion of this one in mock Newbery groups.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: Courage for Beginners

Courage for Beginners
By Karen Harrington
Expected publication August 12, 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Mysti Murphy's life just got a lot more complicated. Her father is in the hospital and her mother never leaves the house because of the Secret No One Talks About, so getting to school and getting groceries become much more difficult tasks. In addition, her best friend Anibal has decided he wants to be a hipster this year - with no room in his plan for Mysti. Will Mysti find the courage to make it through the year?

Harrington made a big splash with her debut last year, Sure Signs of Crazy. Many of my coworkers read and loved the novel, though I haven't had a chance to read it yet. At ALA Midwinter, the publisher enthusiastically recommended her newest title and handed me a galley. She also informed me that Harrington is a Texas author, something I didn't know previously. I might have figured it out after reading this book, though.

I've had a string of middle-grade titles that I've been less than enthusiastic about recently, so I'm very pleased to be able to say I really enjoyed this book. My enjoyment of this book most heavily stems from the strength of its main character, Mysti. She is fantastic. She reminds me a lot of myself - she's smart and funny and has very few friends and, when her father has an accident, feels like she must be the responsible one in her family. My situation is not exactly the same, but I definitely felt a lot of pressure to be successful and responsible for the sake of my family. She is the kind of character for which you just root so hard. I wanted everything to just come together for her.

Everything about this book just felt so real - the characters, obviously (not just Mysti, but everyone), but also the setting (this book is very TEXAS), and the events that occur. Anibal's hipster experiment felt exactly like something a 12-year-old kid might do, one who's desperate to form a new identity for himself and attract a certain kind of girl. It was heartbreaking to watch Mysti stand by and defend him when it was clear that he was changing completely - and not for the better. It all just felt so achingly real. I think kids will definitely be able to relate.

My one major issue with the book is that no one gets involved regarding the mother's agoraphobia. Apparently, no one at the hospital questions why she doesn't visit her husband (who's in a coma) and no one at Mysti or her sister's school questions why they never see their mother. Something about it just felt a bit unlikely and concerning to me. Other than that one stumbling block, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can easily see it being a big hit this summer.

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: Anybody Shining

Anybody Shining
By Frances O'Roark Dowell
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Arie Mae just knows that her cousin in Raleigh is destined to be her own true friend - now she just has to convince cousin Caroline of that truth. So, she sets out on a letter-writing campaign, filling Caroline in on all the goings-on of her small Appalachian town. But what is Caroline never writes back? And what of the group of children just arrived from Baltimore - might Arie Mae find a true friend among them?

This book caught my eye for two reasons - it's told through letters (mostly) and it takes place in 1920s Appalachia. I've a big fan of epistolary novels and I love historical fiction, so I knew I'd be giving this one a try.

While for the most part I enjoyed this book, I'm a bit confused about it. My first point of confusion is with the way it's told - each chapter begins and ends with snippets from the letters that Arie Mae is writing to her cousin Caroline. However, the middles of the chapters don't really feel like they couldn't be part of the letters as well, so it just seemed confusing to write it this way. The only difference between the letters and the parts that aren't letters is the font - at least, this is the only difference I really noticed.

My next point of confusion is Arie Mae's persistence in writing to someone she's never met and who never writes back. Maybe she's just a much more determined child than I (my penpals never lasted more than a few letters, despite my strong desire to have friends from all over the world), but it just didn't make sense to me. It almost seems like a strange fixation for Arie Mae to write Caroline. I realize that the author is probably trying to show the power of words to heal familial wounds or something along those lines, but it just didn't sit right with me.

Lastly, my confusion about the book as a whole - nothing much really happens. I mean, yes, there is a bit about a boy Arie Mae meets who becomes ill after an adventure they take together, and there's another little bit about a potential ghost, but really this is more of a quiet, character-driven novel. I'm not sure how much of a call there is for those kinds of novels for the middle-grade set - I'm sure there are kids interested in reading simple stories of other children's lives, but those don't seem to be the kinds of books flying off our shelves. Historical fiction is often a harder sell, as well, so I struggle with finding an audience for this book. For the right reader, it's definitely a sweet little read, but it will take some work to find that reader.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review: Life on Mars

Life on Mars
By Jennifer Brown
Expected publication August 5, 2014 by Bloomsbury Childrens USA

 Outer space is in Arty's blood - after all, everyone in his family is named for a star. He's determined to be the first person to discover life on Mars, so he's on his roof every night, trying to signal the Martians. When his parents tell him they have to move, Arty is pretty sure his dream his over. That is, until he discovers the astronaut living next door.

I have read a couple of Jennifer Brown's young adult novels and enjoyed the realistic way they've portrayed teens and families, so I was definitely interested in seeing how she did with middle-grade. Also, I was in the mood for something realistic - fantasy may be my first love, but it's nice to get a break from it every once in a while.

So how did I fare? Brown really has a knack for voices - Arty is a fantastic character with a unique voice about who I really enjoyed reading. He's really just a typical kid, but he's written very believably - I felt his emotions right along with him. From the unfairness of being told of the move to the changes his friendships are undergoing to his terror that the new neighbor might be a brain-eating zombie, Arty was definitely an endearing character. Once again, Brown shines when it comes to depicting realistic and heartfelt familial relationships - I really felt that I got to know every member of Arty's family and how they related to each other seemed very true to life. I also liked the exploration of friendship with Arty and his two best friends - one boy and one girl - and the changes those relationships are experiencing as the three grow up.

But the heart of this book and probably my favorite thing is the relationship that grows between Arty and his new neighbor (who, spoiler alert, is not a brain-eating zombie). Maybe I am a sucker but inter-generational relationships always get to me and this was no exception. Cash is, at first, a stereotypical grouchy old man, but through Arty, we discover that there is, in fact, much more to him. To me, it never felt hokey that they had space as a common denominator - sure, it's a big coincidence that an astronaut might move in next door to a kid determined to discover life on Mars, but it just worked for this story. And, of course, the relationship is antagonistic at first and develops into something more meaningful than perhaps either of them realize, but, once again, it just worked here.

Additionally, I really liked that there is enough information about space to capture anyone's interest but the story is never overwhelmed with the facts. I like that Brown provides a guide for further space exploration (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) at the end, and I can see many kids wanting to learn more upon finishing this book. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and will be happy to recommend it.

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Release Day Review: Frostborn

Frostborn (Thrones & Bones, book one)
By Lou Anders
Expected publication August 5, 2014 by Crown Books for Young Readers

Karn's destiny is clear - someday he will be hauld of his family farm in Norrongard. Unfortunately, all he wants is to explore more of the world. Thianna's destiny is not so clear - half human, half frost giant, she doesn't feel completely comfortable in either world. They don't know each other yet, but their paths are about to cross in ways neither could have imagined.

When an ARC of this showed up at my library, I snagged it, wanting to give it a quick read before adding it to our pile of prize books. I'm always trying to read more middle-grade titles and I really liked the Norse setting.

I quite enjoyed this story. I instantly empathized with both Karn and Thianna - though the details of their struggles are unique, the feelings they evoke will be extremely easy for tweens to relate to. The awkwardness of trying to fit in, dealing with bullies, questioning family responsibilities - all things that kids in the middle grades will be experiencing. I particularly liked Karn's obsession with the board game Thrones and Bones - and I loved seeing how his knowledge of it came into play throughout the action in the story.

The plot moves quickly, which works extremely well in a middle-grade fantasy. There is never a dull moment and I think kids will love the ride that Anders brings them on. I mean, there are frost giants, dragons, trolls, and undead soldiers - it's a fast-paced and creature-filled adventure. The ways in which Karn and Thianna's fates become intertwined works well also. I liked how quickly they came to rely on and care for each other. I think Anders has created a unique world that kids will enjoy exploring - I loved that he even included instructions for Thrones and Bones at the end of the book!

What I'm a little unclear about is this being book one of a series. The main plot of this book is wrapped up quite nicely by the end. I can definitely see a way for Thianna's story to continue, as she wants to unravel the mystery of her mother, but Karn's is a little more difficult to see. I suppose he could join Thianna on her quest at a later time, but that might feel a bit inauthentic. I suppose I'll have to wait for a synopsis of book two to see just what Anders has in mind!

I will definitely be recommending this to my fantasy-loving tweens and I think it will easily find its audience. Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Monday, August 4, 2014

July Check-In

It's that time again - time to check my reading stats for the month. Here's what I read:

Middle-grade: 6

Teen: 6

Adult: 5

Picture books: 0

Library books: 1

Books owned: 16

 I thought my numbers would be much lower, as this was the busier month of summer for me. Looking back at previous months, however, my numbers are not really significantly lower than in previous months. I did read slightly less, but not like I anticipated. My library number is extremely low because, as I mentioned in last month's post, I was listening to A Dance With Dragons on audio and it took almost the entire month to finish. The bad news is that I've been trying to stay more on top of the digital galleys I've downloaded, so that actually accounts for most of the "books owned" number, rather than physical books I have. I'm still trying to find the balance between those e-ARCs and the print copies I have at home. Here's hoping I can make a bigger dent in August!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: Bewitched in Oz

Bewitched in Oz
By Laura J. Burns
Expected publication August 1, 2014 by Capstone Press

Though the use of magic is forbidden, Zerie Greenapple doesn't see the harm in practicing it. Things change, however, when Flying Monkeys come and carry off one of her friends. With her remaining friends, Zerie sets off a quest to rescue Tabitha - but they must traverse the dangerous lands of Oz. Will they make it in time?

I'm sure I've mentioned many times that I'm a big fan of retellings - fairy tales, classic stories, urban legends, anything really. I love new takes on old stories. I'm also a big Oz fan - I watch the movie every year and I've read a number of retellings of the story. When I first heard about this book, I was obviously intrigued. I'm lucky enough to be auto-approved by Capstone on NetGalley, so when I spotted this one, I happily downloaded away.

What a huge disappointment it turned out to be. This book has potential, but it just fails to succeed. For people who've only seen the movie or read the first book, much of the Oz that Zerie and her friends explore will be unfamiliar to them, but it's all very interesting. This takes place after Dorothy and her friends have visited Oz, with Princess Ozma ruling the land. No one but Ozma is allowed to practice magic, something that Zerie finds impossible to resist once she's unlocked her natural born talent. It has the beginnings of a fun adventure story.

Unfortunately, the book just isn't well-written. The language, characters, and plot development are all incredibly simplistic. Let's look at each piece. The language is just frustrating. I've said before that I don't like it when it feels like an author is writing down to an audience - and that's kind of what it feels like here. I'm not sure if that was the intention, or just that perhaps Burns' prose needs a little more refining, but it just isn't good. For some reason, the author finds it necessary to repeat what I suppose she believes is the book's message, "Friends are strongest when together" (something along those lines, I don't have it in front of me to check exact wordage). It feels like the author doesn't think readers will be smart enough to figure this out without being beat over the head with it repeatedly.

The characters - they are supposed to be 16. They don't read like any 16 year-olds I know. They read much younger. Additionally, none of them are developed fully. I don't feel like I could distinguish between them aside from the different abilities their magic gives them. The little information we're given about them is very bland and uninteresting. It doesn't make me care about them or their quest at all. Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of their characters is that Zerie spends about 90% of her time more concerned about which boy she should like and whether or not her friend likes him too. And this is happening while they are being hunted by apparently evil Flying Monkeys who have already kidnapped their friend. I mean, the author wants you to believe that they are consistently on the verge of absolute peril but then Zerie will start wondering if she's still in love with Ned or if maybe she likes Brink instead. It's just plain ridiculous.

And the plot is not much better. Like I said, it had potential - magic outlawed, a quest to rescue a friend, the extraordinary land of Oz. But it's so simplistic - one terrible thing happens, they find a way out, then the next terrible thing happens. Lather, rinse, repeat. And the big twist at the end? Not surprising at all.

I can't find any definitive information, but it seems clear that this is intended to be book one of a series. I will not be back for book two.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via NetGalley.