It's a Feudal, Feudal World by Stephen Shapiro Book Review

It's a Feudal, Feudal World: A Different Medieval History by Stephen Shapiro
Illustrated by Ross Kinnaird
Publisher:Annick Press
Release Date: August 1, 2013

A child's introduction to medieval times, this a fun way to explore history with tons of infographics and plenty of facts. Each double-spread includes various information from Byzantine Business to Knights, The Silk Road to the Crusades. This book provides a nice overview of life in the middle ages, simplified for young readers. This is by no means a comprehensive look at this time period, it is a nice start and would be a great addition to a library or classroom.

My only criticism is that the over-simplification makes some facts almost feel false. The section regarding women during the middle-ages focuses on some of the more notable women of the time period, but avoids the fact that most women of that time were rarely allowed to do exceptional things no matter how smart or brave they were. I was also a little confused by the final info graphic as it applies to society today, but again I may just be confused because of the over-simplification that is necessary for the targeted demographic.

On the whole, a great historical introduction to a time period that was anything but simple.

Penguin in Peril by Helen Hancocks Book Review

Penguin in Peril by Helen Hancocks
Publisher: Templar Books
Release Date: February 1, 2013

One little penguin. Three hungry cats. His chances don't look good - can this penguin in peril make his escape?

Despite some fantastic illustrations, the story was rather confusing. If the cats are so hungry, why do they then waste their money on a movie that just makes them hungrier? Then they hatch some kind of plan that involves a penguin, yet we never actually discover what the original plan is. Since we don't know the plan, I don't understand why the penguin thought he was in peril as it was obvious that the cats needed him to help with the plan and weren't intent on eating him. I know that this gave some great moments for the penguin to blend in with other things that resemble our black and white friend, which is perhaps more of the point, but it didn't make sense. 

Will a small child care? Probably not. Kids are really interesting in regards to what books they love and sometimes just some cats and a penguin are enough.

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud Book Review

The Screaming Staircase: Lockwood & Co. #1 by Jonathan Stroud
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Release Date: August 29, 2013

For over fifty years, England has been affected by an epidemic of ghosts and there isn't a soul alive or dead who doesn't believe in them now. As a result a number of Psychic Investigation Agencies have been created to battle the problem. Within these agencies are children for they are more receptive to the various apparitions, but it is also an extremely dangerous job. Lucy Carlyle learned this the hard way, which is why she finds herself without an agency and searching for a job. In her search she finds Anthony Lockwood who helms his own agency free from adult interference. After getting themselves into a bit of a scrape with one rather angry Type 2 ghost, Lockwood & Co. must take on a job at one of the most haunted houses in England. 

A fabulous character-driven ghost story, I couldn't read this one fast enough. Lucy Carlyle is smart, strong, and completely bad-ass. Her ability to hear the ghost whispers makes her an extremely valuable member of the team at Lockwood & Co. Anthony Lockwood on the other hand is a little more secretive and heedless, but he is truly the leader of the group. George, the third and final member is uncouth, rude, and crabby, but he is their scholar.

The true gem of this book is the murder mystery and ghost story, of course. I can't say that I am really a big fan of ghost stories, but this one was truly riveting, completely creepy, and thoroughly entertaining. I'll tell you the whole screaming staircase, demented monks, and red rooms was enough to give my goose bumps.

Personally, I was shocked and excited that there was not a love story (or worse, a love triangle) within the story. Lucy doesn't fall for nor date either of her team member and I found it completely refreshing. You mean men and women can work around each other and not fall instantly in love with one another? Fantastic. Also, although the story itself was complete, there were just enough mysteries for a series and I wouldn't mind that at all. I do hope however that if Lucy does have to have a love interest, I truly hope she does so outside of the agency. I kind of like their current dynamic.

Gazpacho for Nacho by Travy Kyle Book Review

Gazpacho for Nacho by Tracey Kyle
Illustrated by Carolina Farias
Publisher: Two Lions
Release Date: January 14, 2014

Beautiful bilingual culinary adventure in which Nacho, a rather picky eater, only eats Gazpacho, the cold soup phenomenon. He doesn't like the smell of pescado, he doesn't like ice-cold helado, just gazpacho. 

I think some of my favorite picture books concern food and as I read this, I thought, this book will be perfect if there is a gazpacho recipe at the end. I was not disappointed. Also included is a glossary of Spanish words. A feast for the eyes and imagination, this was quite a fun book. I will forgive it for being published by Amazon.  

Benny Breakiron: The Twelve Trials of Benny Breakiron Book Review

Benny Breakiron #3: The Twelve Trials of Benny Breakiron by Peyo, Yvan Delporte, Will Maltaite, and 

Where the Rock Splits the Sky by Philip Webb Book Review

Where the Rock Splits the Sky by Philip Webb
Publisher: Chicken House
Release Date: March 25, 2014

When the aliens arrived, two decades back, they stopped the earth on its axis and destroyed the moon. Humanity calls them Visitors, but it is clear that they are anything but friendly. Megan has only ever known this version of Earth with its perpetual daylight and harsh realities. With her mother dead and father lost in the mysterious Zone, she has grown used to taking care of herself. However, when some Visitors arrive wearing the skins and likenesses of an infamous gang, Megan along with her horse Cisco and friend Luis, head into the Zone to find her father. The Zone is a place where science and physics hold little meaning, a point that is driven home when they run into a floating city and meet up with Kelly, a girl who had only now appeared after disappearing twenty years ago. Megan, driven by some instinctual understanding of the Zone, must lead the trio deep into the heart of the Zone in order to find her father, but the chances of them making it out alive are almost zero.

From the beginning, I had a difficult time placing the time period and geography of this book. The characters act and talk like Texan cowpokes from the eighteenth century, but with the mention (although no evidence) of  electronics, I was highly skeptical of the setting. I admit that I am not a Texan, but it very much felt like an amalgamation of every bad Texan stereotype I have ever heard. The geography was confusing in regards to the Zone. I desperately wanted some sort of map. More than that, I wanted to understand how this world, this new American, truly functions. Why are these people living like frontier pilgrims if they still have things like electricity and running water? Obviously, if electronics don't work in the Zone, then a tracker would own a horse, but if you were an everyday citizen, why not own a car? 

Perhaps the most interesting character in this story for me was that of Kelly. Rough and tumble, not afraid of anything, Kelly is found floating in a city that disappeared twenty years before with no memory of the time in-between. All the people she knows and loves are gone, probably dead. Her desperation for answers, the mystery of her lost decades, and eventual revelations made her my favorite character in the book. Megan just felt a little too one-note, with such a fixed mission that she became not only predictable but kind of boring. A huge plus, there is only the vaguest semblance of a love story. Downside, that tiny bit was completely unnecessary and kind of out of the blue. Is it really necessary to have romance in every young adult book? As a writer, I sadly already know the answer to that.

I have always said that a book is about a journey. You can have an incredible ending, but if the journey to the end is plodding, cliche, or full of tropes, that journey is quickly mired down with problems. This novel began with a lot of great questions that demanded answers: Why did the aliens come? What do they want? Why are they dragging Earth and its Sun through the universe? Where are they going? How is that even possible? What happened to all the missing people? How were they being kept on ice for so long? Why did Kelly's town just reappear suddenly after all this time? What exactly is this alien technology? Some of these questions were answered, most not so much. Despite there being a muddled middle, it would have been worth it had most of those questions been answered, but they weren't, which means that this book didn't work for me. Sci-fi is great because it asks questions, but you have to actually answer them.

The Jupiter Pirates by Jason Fry Book Review

The Jupiter Pirates: The Hunt for Hydra (Jupiter Pirates #1) by Jason Fry

In the future, pirating isn't just a space thing, but a family affair. Tycho Hashoone's family has been pirating for centuries except now they have privateer's license and their pirating business is completely legal. Tycho and his two siblings, are not only part of one of the greatest pirate...err...privateer vessels this side of Jupiter, but they are also in competition with one another to see who will become the next ship's captain. When the Hashoones find themselves in the midst of a conspiracy that may just draw the entire galaxy into another civil war, it is up to Tycho and his family to find out the truth in a way that only a true pirate can.

A high seas adventure set in space, The Jupiter Pirates is a classic pirate story with a futuristic twist. There are some great antagonists, serious stakes, and kids who are allowed to be the heroes without question. However, unlike many piratical adventures this one was lacking on some world building. (aka history) There are hints of a war, battles fought, family histories, political conspiracies, none of which was highlighted. Then again, to have such a story you would have to have a lot thicker book and the pacing may have been slowed a bit.

I did love the family dynamics. Not only are the parents very present, a rarity in children's adventure stories, but there was also an interesting although a bit cantankerous grandfather. In fact, I think the grandfather was probably my favorite character. The sibling rivalry seems harsh, but there was always an underlying love between the siblings. I was a little fuzzy on their servants/fighting men/sailors, but even those men felt like a reverent extension of their family. Or perhaps it was more like the Upstairs Downstairs hierarchy, with them treating even the children like they were something special just because they were Hashoones.

On the whole the story was an exciting romp through space, but it never loses that high seas feeling, never quite felt like a space story, but rather a rehash of an old story I had read many times before. The originality is all in the fact that it is set and space and without the necessary world building, it didn't quite feel like enough. Perhaps there will be a bit more world building in the coming sequels, although I may be happy if there is just a bit more of the grandfather.

Don't Play With Your Food by Bob Shea Book Review

Don't Play With Your Food by Bob Shea

Buddy is a monster and he is very hungry. So when he runs into some bunnies, he immediately orders them to hop into his mouth. But the bunnies have other plans that include baking cupcakes, swimming, and starting a Buddy fan club. He may have to wait to eat them, but if he does eat them, who will he have to play with?

In typical Bob Shea fashion, the cartoon illustrations leap off the page and I thought it was hysterical that throughout the entire book the bunnies kept multiplying. Buddy eventually notices, but not until the very end. I am also glad that Buddy did not, in fact, eat the bunnies, because I am tired of these picture books where the cute animals get eaten at the end.

Space Rocks by Tom O'Donnell Book Review

Space Rocks by Tom O'Donnell

Chorkle is a regular Xotonian youngling, who isn't supposed to be worried about the fur-headed "humans" who have arrived on their asteroid. But when his people vote to use a weapon against the unsuspecting humans, Chorkle knows that he must warn them, even if his originator disagrees. With a spattering of the human language, Chorkle sneaks aboard their ship and is almost undone by Feeney's Original Astronaut Ice Cream. When four human children end up stranded on Gelo, Chorkle knows it us up to him to protect them and reunite them with their parents.

When I was eleven I picked up a book from the library called Away is a Strange Place to Be by H.M. Hoover. It was a middle grade sci-fi written by an author that most people have never heard of these days. I wasn't much of a reader, but I had recently started homeschooling and we had no television so I was desperate for some entertainment. This little book was the reason I fell in love with reading and specifically sci-fi. Every time I read a book for intermediate readers is, I always ask the question, could this be a book that would make another eleven-year-old fall in love with reading? This is one of those.

Perhaps you think I am overplaying this book? It's true that it probably won't win a Newbery, but then, none of my favorite books have. It isn't high literature and it is possible that like my favorite sci-fi book from my childhood, hardly anyone will read it. (I sincerely hope that is not the case) I can tell you this though, it is fun and funny, a romping adventure with a unique approach with loveable characters and despite it's cutesy cartooney cover, it is not to be taken lightly. There are some high stakes in this book and some real life and death struggles and I think kids are going to gobble it up. I think reluctant readers are not going to be so reluctant. Most important, I think this may be a gateway book for a kid to fall in love with reading and possibly even sci-fi.

Also, for the record, my advance reader copy had Chorkle stickers in it, which is the original reason I snatched it up and it is a brilliant marketing strategy. Who doesn't love stickers?

Paul Meets Bernadette by Rosy Lamb Book Review

Paul Meets Bernadette by Rosy Lamb

Paul is a goldfish. He used to just swim in circles. Until Bernadette arrived. Bernadette shows him the world outside of their fishbowl, but in the end Paul just wants to swim circles around Bernadette.

It's a fish love story with a sweetness that I haven't seen since Finding Nemo. Young readers will delight in how Bernadette doesn't quite know the names and uses of the various objects outside of the fishbowl. The art is beautiful and goes so well with the story, with a wonderful use of space and color. It's a quiet book, but one that I think would make a nice addition to anyone's picture book library.

Query Letter Woes OR Writing an Honest Query Letter

Writing is hard.

Now that I have that out of the way let me tell you, writing a Query letter is harder. Definition of Query Letter for the uninitiated: A cover letter that you write to a perspective agent or editor that gives a brief summary of your book, a mini-bio, and the reason why you are sending it to that particular person. There is so much advice out there about how to write the Query letter and what to say and perfect Query letters that got someone that elusive book contract, but the truth is, no one can write your query letter but you. This stinks as I think it would be so much easier to pay someone to just read my book and write my query letter for me, but I think that is considered cheating.

Let me break this down into why this is so difficult:

1. The Mini-bio
This is probably the easiest part. You don't want to be braggy if you have already published something. (I have not) But you also don't want to be apologetic if you haven't. You want to include anything that will make an agent/editor think you are a marketable author, but not one that would be difficult to work with. You can include some fun fact about yourself here, but be careful about the "tone" of your letter. Respectful yet open.

2. The Summary
Here is where you attempt to explain your 278 page novel in three paragraphs. You want to write it in the same syntax of your book, possibly even in-character if that works. Don't reveal too many characters or you will just confuse the reader. Hard to do when you have three main characters. You need to highlight what makes your book different than all the other books out there. How is my fantasy different than all the other fantasies out there? So you tweek and twist the summary, trying to make it sound different, yet highlighting all the major parts, but not giving away the middle or ending because you really do want them to read the book. Oh, but you can't be too vague either otherwise it will just read like a bunch of keywords. Truth. Love. Betrayal. What makes my book different? Nothing. And Everything. It's high fantasy, there are horses and swords and magic. But there are also aliens and secret passages and warrior maidens who kick ass. Then there is everything in-between like assassination attempts, poisoned arrows, betrayal, kidnapping, magical devices, and ancient mysteries. Yeah, try fitting that into three paragraphs in a way that makes sense.

3. Why you?
And then comes the hard part. Why are you sending this book to this agent? So let's be honest. About half of the agents I have gathered have come from the most recent version of Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market. Surely, they know this. I carefully scoured the book before going on-line and doing a bit more research. What am I looking for? An agent who likes sci-fi and fantasy and yet also seems to have an interest in other genres. See, I don't write just one genre, so although I am currently sending out a fantasy, the next one is probably going to be a contemporary YA about adoption and foster care and the one after that is probably going to be either an urban fantasy for middle graders or a YA sci-fi. I want a career like Jane Yolen, who has written everything from historical fiction to fantasy to biographies. When I am sending out the query letter it is apparently smiled upon if you mention their blog or a recent interview or whatnot. And here is the conundrum. I do not have enough time to read or follow everyone's blog. When I discover an agent's blog, it is usually through the query process and no matter how interesting the blog is, I am just looking to see if they will be a good fit for me. Do they talk dispraringly about high fantasy or are they a huge Tolkien fan? Are they going to snub their nose at a story set in space or do they find the genre fascinating? Do they speak of how they like "urban fantasy", but are basically referring to Harry Potter?

The other half of my names come from looking up my favorite authors and seeing who their agents are. Beth Revis, Tamora Pierce, L.A. Meyer, Holly Black, Veronica Roth. I check out their agents and see if there may be room for me in their lists. Yet, one must be careful because if your book is too much like an author they already represent, then there probably isn't room. Somehow you have to fit this all into a few sentences, sound respectful and professional and don't stroke their ego too much because you sound like you are brown nosing. (which you are)

Here is what I really want to write:

Dear Agent, 

I am writing to you because it looks like you don't have an aversion to two of my favorite genres: sci-fi and fantasy unlike a ton of agents out there. I have been tweeking this Query letter for a couple of months now and since I have received only one response from an agent, I am going to assume that there is something wrong with my summary, which I have tweeked again for your benefit. I hope you are the kind of agent who responds to your queries as I would love to get a rejection at this point. Believe me, direct rejection is so much better than never hearing anything at all. I did look through your blog and you seem like the kind of person I would jive with. Also, you said you like to talk on the phone and I am a huge phone talker so that is another reason why we would get along.

Summary: A bad ass high fantasy book without dwarves and elves that people will love because there are three awesome characters in it who get themselves into some serious life or death trouble. But I am not going to tell you everything that happens in the book because I want you to read it.

My books is complete at blah blah blah. Please please please read the 3 or 10 pages or 3 chapters that I have copy and pasted to the bottom of this email. Please dash my dreams in the kindest way possible. And if you think my book looks kind of awesome (because I certainly do), consider reading the entire thing. I personally love the whole kidnapping business as well as...well, you'll see.

That's it. Not very professional, but a bit more honest. I'm writing to you because I am trying to get a book published and that is your job and you say that you like the kind of things I write. I know the book isn't perfect, but I have revised this thing 9 times and although I think it looks fantastic, I am ready for some professional help. Although my family and some friends think I should self-publish, I really just want to do this the traditional way, despite all this frustration. (aka: paying my dues) In the meantime I will be over here, acting like I am not checking my email every few minutes in hopes that you will respond. Wait...what's that? Oh, another Groupon. Perhaps I shall drown my sorrows in the 2 for 1 deal at my local Indian restaurant.

And if you are an agent reading this: I love your blog/interview/website!

Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein Book Review

Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein

Mr. Lemoncello is famous for his games. Form board games to video games and everything in between, there isn't a kid alive who hasn't played his games. Especially Kyle Keeley. So when Mr. Lemoncello opens a library and invites twelve lucky 7th graders to a lock-in as a grand opening, Kyle, although a bit slow to enter the contest, knows he has to be there. Once inside though, it isn't as easy to get out. Kyle and the other winners must solve every clue and every secret puzzle to find the hidden escape route. And the stakes are very high.

This story was a cross between Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but peppered throughout with tons of children's literary references. The idea is really simple, the library can be an important and holds all the information you could possibly need, Librarians can open your entire world, and the point of a good game is to have fun, not win.

Yet, despite these rather didactic nature of the book, it was a rather fun read with good pacing and a really good guy in the character of Kyle Keeley. In fact, this is one of the better characters I have read in a while. A kid who just loves to play games and treats others with respect and is willing to lose in order to help others. There is of course the antagonistic-Veruca-Salt-like character who never really got his moment of redemption, but then there are some people who never figure out how to play fair so i will chalk that one up to realistic.

A fun read for middle grade readers, but especially for the ones who are already bibliophiles or mystery solvers.

Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell Book Review

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker
Words by Patricia Hruby Powell
Picture by Christian Robinson

In beautiful moving verse with vibrant pictures, this biography creates an extraordinary portrait of the fabulous Josephine Baker. Told in chapters and following her from a childhood in the slums to the grandest places in the world, this story sets the stage for one of the most vibrant talents of the 20th century. It's a powerful story of struggle and triumph about a woman who has become a legend.

I admit that I have never been a big reader of children's biographies and am even more ambivalent towards biographies written in verse. This story however was so exceptionally well-done that I think I may have to change my opinion in regards to these. I was vaguely aware of Ms. Baker's life and music before I started this story, but there were quite a few facts that I was unaware of. And the end? I cried.

Additional note: The illustrations by Robinson are fantastic. I could immediately tell that Josephine was dancing the Charleston, wiggling her bottom, grinning a foxy grin, and even lost in sadness. And on the spreads where there were no illustrations the words themselves danced across the page.

These Broken Stars by Annie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner Book Review

These Broken Stars (Starbound #1) by Annie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

She, Lilac LaRoux, is the daughter of the richest man in the universe. He is a Major Tarver Merendsen, an army rags to riches story that only the poor can envy. Both are just playing their parts, until catastrophe strikes. The Icarus is pulled from hyperspace and crashes into the nearest planet. Able to make it to an escape pod, Lilac and Tarver find themselves on a planet that is more than just another terraformed colony planet. With whispers on the wind and a tortuous journey to the Icarus wreckage, they find that two seemingly different people can find love.

This story started with a lot of promise, basically Titanic in space, complete with Jack (Tarver) and Rose (Lilac). Despite my aversion to romance stories, I found that the excitement of the ship crashing and the escape pod and survival situation really held me interest. Then the second half of the book happened. Basically Jack and Rose, errr...I mean Tarver & Lilac then spend a large amount of time (although it never quite felt like a lot of time) traveling across the planet to find the Icarus wreckage and basically falling in love. Just so you aren't confused, this isn't puppy love either. There is some serious stuff that happens here, but Brian's Story this was not.

There was a lot of potential here. A lot of world building in this giant universe that I never fully understood. I still don't think I have a complete grasp on the way that the rich and poor live. What was Tarver's home like? What is Lilac's home like? How does this Universe function? Why is Lilac's father so powerful? How does the power structure of this world work?

Another issue that was made more glaringly apparent by the audio book was that that there were very clearly two writers writing this story. I am not sure if the authors each took one character, but what I noticed was that Tarver didn't really sound like Tarver whenever it was Lilac's chapter. At first I thought I was imagining it, but as the story progressed and we get to know these characters it became more and more obvious was that Tarver wasn't really Tarver for half the book.

What I did like were the short chapters as Tarver tells his version of the truth to an interrogator. Each vignette was a small revelation of what the next chapter may entail, like an old Dickens novel, yet never revealed too much. Also, to be fair if you like your sci-fi heavy on the romance and light on the science, then this may be the book for you. Obviously this is going to be a series, which I find surprising because I felt like the story wrapped up nicely. Well, nice enough that I don't really feel like I need to read another one. I don't want to sound overly critical and there is definitely an audience for this book, but as a hardcore sci-fi lover, I just couldn't get on board with this romance novel.

Fiction Featuring Winter Olympic Sports

The Winter Olympics are coming and despite there being massive amounts of non-fiction out there concerning figure skating and hockey, I though some fiction titles may be of interest. Sadly, there are no fiction book that I can find that feature Speed Skating, Luging, Bobsledding, or Curling. I find that interesting considering the Skeleton Luge looks like one of the scariest things a person can do and it would be interesting to read a book from someones perspective who does that particular sport, but you will just have to make due with these titles for now.