A Year in Review 2013

Books That Made Me Laugh Out Loud:
Winger by Andrew Smith
A Big Guy Took My Ball by Mo Willems
Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea

New-To-Me Series That On One Hand I'm Glad To Have Found, But On The Other, I'm Seriously Horrified That I'd Missed Out On Until Now:
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Legend by Marie Lu

Sequel Happiness:
Shades of Earth by Beth Revis
Insurgent by Veronica Roth
Impulse by Steven Gould

Book That Made Me Crave Food:
Fat Angie by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Most Enjoyable Bad Book:
Breath by Sarah Crossan

Forgettable Plot Saved By a Fresh, Honest Voice: 
Splintered by A.G. Howard

Book(s) I Was Most Surprised By:
Homesick by Kate Klise
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

Made of Pure Awesome:
Codename Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
This Girl is Different by JJ Johnson
Fallout by Todd Strasser

Best Book Hidden Under the Worst Cover:
Below by Meg McKinlay
Impulse by Steven Gould

More Adorable Than Sparkling Puppies:
Robomop by Sean Taylor and Edel Rodriguez
Dream Animals by Emily Winfield Martin

YA Book Most Likely to be Loved By Adults More Than Actual YAs:
One + One = Blue by MJ Auch
Janie Face to Face by Caroline Cooney

Best Vampire Book for Twilight Haters:
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Biggest Disappointment: 
Fire by Kristin Cashore
Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt
The Eye of Minds by James Dashner

Books that Invoked Irrationally Violent Emotions in me:
Juvie by Steve Watkins
Fallout by Todd Strasser

Books I Loved For Their Imperfect Heroines:
Codename Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Fat Angie by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Best Book For Wimpy Kid Lovers:
I Even Funnier: A Middle School Story (I Funny) by James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein
Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett by Tom Angleberger

Favorite Roadtrip Book:
Viva Jacquelina! By L.A. Meyer

Best Action/Adventure Book:
W.A.R.P. The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer
The Hostage Prince by Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple

Books that were weird just to be weird:
The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron

Sci-fi's that made me think there is still a future for this genre (future, get it):
Impulse by Steven Gould
Earthfall by Mark Walden
All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill

Books I lent out to people multiple times:
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Worst Book of the Year:
Time Fetch by Amy Herrick
Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block

Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather Book Review

Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck lee Tailfeather (aka Stella Gurney)

I am afraid that this is one seriously niche book. Entirely educational, this is a book the older child, that is if they want to read it themselves. Amazon says it is for ages 4-8, but unless a child is very interested in architecture, I can't imagine this being a go-to read. Or better put, I just taught my four-year-old nephew what architecture was a week and a half ago and he wasn't very interested in the concept and I know he wouldn't sit still for a book this text heavy.

That said, for the niche that the book is for, I think it is perfect. It has a wonderful perspective (the pigeon), beautiful illustrations, and lots of great facts. I am be no means an architecture expert, but I felt a little more educated on this subject and reading this book.

Fraidyzoo by Thyra Heder Book Review

Fraidyzoo by Thyra Heder

Little T is afraid to go to the zoo, but she doesn't know why, so her family agrees they will not go until they figure out why she is afraid. With a lot of creativity and patience they set out to find Little T's fear.

The mark of any good picture book is the marriage between text and illustrations. Fraidyzoo is a perfect merge of the two. Cute and funny, I absolutely loved how Little T's family created all the animals from the zoo using various household items and a lot of imagination. As the story continues, the costumes get more and more elaborate too. Going back through it a second time I found all kinds of cute little things added into the illustrations and can I just say...the poor cat. There is a cat in every picture and the things this animal get subjected to. Adorable. And the things that a child could come up with. The storytime possibilities are endless.

Whale Shines by Fiona Robinson Book Review

Whale Shines: An Artistic Tale by Fiona Robinson

The big undersea art show is about to get under way and Whale wants to be a part, but he isn't sure how since he has no real talent, at least none like the hammerhead shark or octopus. However, with the help of his plankton friends, Whale discovers that he can bring his unique view of the world to all of his friends.

Apparently the ocean is a secret Greenwich Village where Jackson Pollock is a fish and hammerhead sharks use shipwrecks as their artistic canvas. I enjoyed this in spite of myself. The writing felt a little flat to me, but there was enough charm and some serious underwater trivia as well as some outstanding art that I found delightful.

Fossil by Bill Thomson Book Review

Fossil by Bill Thomson

In this wordless picture book, a little boy discovers a rock, but when he accidentally trips and the rock breaks open he finds a fossil, one that comes to life before his eyes. Yet, he invites disaster when he finds the fossil of a pterodactyl.

On the one hand I loved this book, simply because it was wordless. I love the idea of telling a story simply through pictures and Bill Thomson's illustrations are beautifully realistic. However, for a book that has a disclaimer at the beginning about what a fossil is, it concerns me that the book is basically encouraging children to smash rocks open to find fossils and then smash the priceless fossils...that is if you imagine a pterodactyl has come to life. So basically, although the book seems like a non-fiction title, it is not. Purely fiction here folks, which is fine and this is a fine addition to the wordless picture book genre.

Cheese Belongs to You by Alexis Deacon Book Review

Cheese Belongs to You by Alexis Deacon
Illustrated by Viviane Schwarz

This is Rat Law: Cheese Belongs to You
Unless another rat comes along who is bigger, quicker, stronger, scarier, hairier, dirtier...or the boss wants it.

I can't say I love pictures of hair, scary, dirty rats, but I like that in essence it is a concept book in that it teaches adjectives through a fun medium. And unlike some recent picture books that I have read, there is a nice solution that encourages sharing rather than a all-mine attitude. I think this would be a perfect storytime book.

An Otis Christmas by Loren Long Book Review

An Otis Christmas by Loren Long

It's almost Christmas and the farmer has given Otis his first real Christmas present--a shiny new horn. The animals are all excited because although a big storm is approaching, the horse is about to give birth. Then, in the middle of the night, something goes wrong and the horse is in desperate need of a doctor. But with the heavy snow outside, no one can make it to Doc Bakers...except Otis who begins the perilous trek on impassable roads. Upon arriving though, no one is awake and Otis has to use his new horn. Making it back in time the farm is given a wonderful Christmas gift--a brand new foal.

With the inundation of Christmas picture books, I still find it a wonder that anyone is actually allowed to publish new ones. There are so many out there and they all share such a similar theme that I get bored. And then I remember, children don't remember and don't care if this story may be similar to another story I read 10 years ago. They didn't read it. This is completely new to them. Otis is a cute tractor with an engine of gold and rather fearless. For those who are looking for a Christmas story with no particular religious slant or simply want a story about self-sacrifice and courage, this may be a perfect addition to your library.

Hey, Charleston! by Anne Rockwell Book Review

Hey, Charleston!: The Story of the Jenkins Orphanage Band by Anne Rockwell
Illustrated by Colin Bootman

In 1891, Reverend Daniel Joseph Jenkins opened an orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina. Needing a way to support them, he asked for the townspeople to donate old band instruments, sometimes left over from the Civil War  in an effort to start some kind of orchestra or band. He found teachers and soon the orphanage had a band. And what a band it was. The people of Charleston loved the Jenkins Orphanage Band whose unique style of music "rag", a rhythm inspired by the African-American people who lived on the South Carolina and Georgia coast. The band became world famous and performed as far away as Paris and London and still exists today.

What a fantastic biography. A little wordy, but told at a pace that would keep the 6-9 crowd engaged, I felt like I learned a ton after reading this story. How "The Charleston" came to be such a famous dance, where "rag" originated, and more importantly the story of the band and a very generous man who started it all. Illustrated to perfection , I think this is a must for anyone looking to add something to their collection of books dealing with subjects like music, history, biographies, or social-studies.

And since the band, not the orphanage, has been disbanded, here is a clip from the 1930's of the Jenkins Orphanage Band.

Bugs In My Hair by David Shannon Book Review

 Bugs In My Hair by David Shannon

As a child, I along with a number of classmates got Lice. The feelings of embarrassment and ickiness and baths with weird soaps created an indelible imprint on me. If only this book had existed then, to relieve me of my worries, to let me know I was not alone, and to let me laugh at these crazy bugs having a party in my hair. With his unique illustrations David Shannon sheds light on a rarely written about subject in a way that will bring a smile to your face whether you are currently suffering a louse problem or not. Not to nitpick (see what I did there?), but I kind of wished it had shown that other kids had gotten it too and that he wasn't alone...but hey.

Inhuman by Kat Falls Book Review

Inhuman by Kat Falls

America has been ravaged by a disease that has left the eastern half of the country uninhabitable. Protected by a wall in the west, sixteen-year-old Lane lives with her father, never having known the destruction of the disease that killed millions. When her father goes missing, Lillie learns that her father is a 'Fetch', someone who illegally travels into the east to collect items that were left behind like personal artifacts, heirlooms, and artwork. And Lane must find him or face execution. However, things have changed in the eighteen years since the wall went up, the virus that killed so many has weakened, and instead of killing its victims it mutates them into half-human half-animal variations that would boggle the mind. As Lane travels through the east she learns that her kindness, strength, and training are both a blessing and a curse and not everyone is what they seem.

This is a purely plot-driven book. The plot is set from the first few chapters. The disease, her father's sordid work in the east, and a time frame of 5 days to travel to Chicago and return with Lane's father and a family heirloom. It is this time frame that draws the story forward, rather than anything the characters say or do. This is not to suggest that a plot-driven book is bad, in fact as far as plots and story lines go, this one is quite intriguing and helps keep the pacing rolling along at a good speed. I found the idea of people who can be transformed into animals and may at any time go mad, to be very intriguing as is the question of what it truly means to be human.

What happens in plot-driven stories though is that the characters are thrown around like a pinball within the plot, ricocheting from one moment to the next and the reader is left scrabbling for scraps of characterization wherever we can find it. And as is apparently the standard in Young Adult novels, there is the usual love triangle. I am all for the rouge like character, in fact some of my favorite characters in novels have been rogues, however Falls made her rogue so unlovable and unlikable that all I could think was that if Lane ended up dating/loving/liking this guy, I would just be done with the story. I understand having a rough life and such, but Rafe had very little redeemable qualities and I would have disappointed if the author had gone in that direction.

All that to say, as far as plot-driven books are concerned, this was a fun quick read. I look forward to the second, with some hope as to more controlled characterization and some fun revelations.

The Mischievians by William Joyce Book Review

The Mischievians by William Joyce

Despite William Joyce's always solid illustrations, this was probably my least favorite among his collection. The initial premise is interesting albeit a popular topic within picture books--what happens to all the things that disappear? Joyce's concept is that it is creatures known as Mischievians the Homework Eater, Danglers, Lintbellians, RemoteToters, etc. What doesn't work is that not only are the naming conventions of these creatures rather uncreative, but the humor is limited and the text not so much. With explanations that go on for far too long and the length being much larger than that of a regular picture book at 52 pages, I was quickly bored and if I was bored, I can't imagine how much more a child would be. It's only saving grace was the encouragement for children to create and add their own mischievians to the back of the book, which would make it an interesting read for a storytime if it wasn't so darned long.

Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett Book Review

Kid Tea by Elizabeth Fiocelli Book Review

Kid Tea by Elizabeth Ficocelli
Illustrated by Glin Dibley

A lot of the picture books I have read lately have been written and illustrated by the same person, which I am wondering if this is a new trend or simply the kinds of books I have been getting my hands on. That is beside the point though.

Where you a messy kid growing up? How often did your mother have to dunk you in the bath to wash off your recent shenanigans? In my case it was usually tree related messes. I destroyed an Easter dress once when climbing in a tree covered in sap. In Kid Tea, each day the children get into various kid-related messes like mud, Popsicles, paint, makeup, grass, and blueberries and after being dunked in the bath they turn the water different colors as they bathe. I like the concept of kids in the tub being Kid Tea. Dibley, whose has illustrated Don't Laugh At Me, Tub-Boo-Boo, and The Stupendous Dodgeball Fiasco, was a perfect choice with his cartoon stylized illustrations.

Red Knit Cap Girl To The Rescue by Naoko Stoop Book Review

Red Knit Cap Girl to the Rescue by Naoko Stopp

So I couldn't review the second installment of this picture book series without first reading the first and I can tell you this, the words "Red Knit Cap Girl" do not roll off the tongue. Trying to apply logic to the story was even harder since the moon apparently appears only when all light has gone out as it doesn't like to compete with paper lanterns. In the sequel, in which Red Knit Cap Girl she must rescue a polar bear cub who has gotten trapped on the ice. Since I was already aware that this is a completely whimsical series it was no surprise that she managed to save the bear cub using a hang glider made of paper and doesn't get eaten by polar bears. The illustrations, which are created with acrylic, ink, and pencil on plywood are simply beautiful with just the right amount of whimsy and like Emily Winfield Martin, I could see on paraphernalia of all sorts, although I would settle for a Red Knit Cap Girl notebook. Oh, and there is a narwhal.

Dream Animals by Emily Winfield Martin Book Review

Dream Animals: A Bedtime Journey by Emily Winfield Martin

Way back in 2012 I read a strange little book called Oddfellow's Orphanage by Ms. Martin that lacked in plot or storyline but more than made up for in the charming illustrations. I commented then that I wouldn't have minded some paraphernalia like paper dolls and clothes that had these delightful illustrations and that still stands and more so. Dream Animals is an adorable bedtime storybook with whimsical characters and a sing song text that will lull any child toward dreamland. Martin's illustrations lend themselves to a picture book of this type and she isn't afraid to show characters of color or strange animals like narwhals and who doesn't love narwhals?

The Sign Painter by Allen Say Book Review

The Sign Painter by Allen Say

Allen Say, author of one of my favorite children's biographies Grandfather's Journey, is no doubt a prolific artist. Sadly, although he is capable of writing good prose and telling a great story, The Sign Painter had neither of these. Although it reads like a non-fiction, I was confused as to whether this was a story that had happened to Say or whether this was simply a tribute to art with a loose storyline for children. Unlike some of his other books, there was no emotional through line and I found myself confused by where the characters ended up. It felt like there was a page missing or that I wasn't getting it and after reading it through twice, I am afraid that whatever meaning Say was trying to allude to, I am clearly missing. Perhaps it is simply about a transient worker and how art doesn't always have meaning, or perhaps it is about how art finds a way to express itself even when confined. Who know.

I Want A Pet by Lauren Child Book Review

 I Want A Pet by Lauren Child

From the wonderful and talented brain of Lauren Child, author and illustrator of Charlie & Lola one of my favorite children's programs of all time, comes the story of one little girl who desperately wants a pet despite her parents protestations. The illustrations are in typical Lauren Child fashion, which makes it likeable for me even if the content is just a rehash of an oh so familiar theme. Child wants a pet, parents suggest a stuffed animal, child dreams of exotic animals that should never be pets and in the end settles egg. That's right an egg. What's inside? Who knows. That is the best part, because I can imagine the things that a child will come up with if they were to be asked what they think is inside the egg.

Juvie by Steve Watkins Book Review

Juvie by Steve Watkins

Sadie was in the wrong place at the wrong time. After going to a party Sadie finds herself in the car with a very drunk and high sister and two losers who insist that she take them to a local convenience store. Before she knows what is happening she is caught up in a drug bust and soon her carefully planned future is spiraling out of control. In order to save her sister from being locked up and to protect her niece Lulu, Sadie agrees to lie and say she knew about the drug sale. As a first-time offender she was only supposed to get probation and some community service, but when the judge demands she give him the names of the two guys (who she doesn't know), Sadie is sent to Juvie for 6 months. What are the chances that Sadie can ever get her life back together again? Will her sister clean up her act? And what is the difference between not guilty and not innocent?

First off, I must admit that I know very little about the correctional system either for adults or children. It is not a world that I have ever had to experience or be a part of. What little I do know is from television programs and documentaries, but since this is not a subject I am highly interested in, even that knowledge is limited. So I went to the best resource I knew to answer some of my questions, my husband, who worked as Corrections Office and has a degree in Criminology.

In the beginning I was confused by the set-up within the prison. All the children and teens placed in one cell block, the severity of the crime not seeming to be a factor, all treated equally harsh by the guards and wardens. My husband was quick to point out that even children can be violent and since a guard never knows when something may happen or when someone will hurt them, they must be vigilant at all times, treating everyone as a potential threat. Harsh to some, but then these people, both in this book and in real life, have done some really gruesome things and some don't blink an eyelash at hurting other people.

As for the story itself, I felt that the parts that took place in Juvie were very well done. We get to see Sadie as she ponders how she got to this place and what she wants to change as she moves forward. There are good people and bad people. Some may be innocent, most are not. There's the girl who poisoned a dog and shows no iota of remorse. The teen who shot her boyfriend in the hand. And you can't forget the young middle schooler who decided she wanted a bike so bad that she was willing to beat a little boy with a metal rod in order to get his.

However, I wasn't so caught up in the back story. Like Fallout by Todd Strasser the story bounces between the present (Juvie) to the past (events leading up to Juvie). However, much of the information that is told in the present was more than adequate for informational purposes and I found the back story did little to add to the characterization of Sadie or those close to her. It also slowed down the pacing sometimes. Honestly, I wanted more of Juvie. I wanted to see more of her classes, more action, perhaps a therapist of some kind (where were the therapists?), and more of a conclusion. The story ends at month 3 of the 6 month stint and I honestly felt a little jilted. I wanted to see Sadie leave. Instead, I feel like she was just left in jail and unless there is a sequel (not likely for this type of book) poor Sadie will always be in jail--stuck.

Winger by Andrew Smith Book Review

Winger by Andrew Smith

Ryan Dean West is a fourteen-year-old junior at a boarding school for rich kids. Due to a little rule breaking the semester before (he used a cell phone), Ryan Dean is now living in Opportunity Hall, the dorm for all the troublemakers at Pine Mountain. Despite Ryan Dean's genius mind though, he is really just a regular teen. He is in love with his best friend Annie, always thinks about sex, plays Rugby, might be cheating with his roommates girlfriend, loves drawing comics, and thinks he may or may not be a total loser.

Contemporary YA is a genre that seems to cater to a mostly female audience. Of course, boys are reading, but they move into the realm of comics, sci-fi, and non-fiction. Winger is one of the few successful contemporary teen books that I have read as of late and I believe it is successful for two reasons. The first is simple, language. Ryan Dean is all boy. He speaks, thinks, and self-deprecates in a language that sometimes feels alien to this girl and yet I have the strong suspicion that boys will understand every moment. (after all, it is written by a guy) The second reason is far more complex. The story is not particularly action packed. There are very few rugby games, with the majority of the book centering around Ryan Dean's relationships with the girls and guys in his life. His constant pining after two girls, complicated friendships with his friends, and the struggle to be a friend with a guy who is openly gay. I think it works because it is funny. That's right, the humor is what makes this work and would, for some guys, be an interesting read. That being said, for those guys who just want non-stop action, they should probably head over to Ender's Game or The Maze Runner.

Interesting point, I noted a few reviews back that there are a lot of books coming out these days with gay characters. Sometimes it works for the story and at other times this is an abysmal failure. This is one of the books where it works.

Honestly, I had a hard time getting into this book. Another boarding school, another high school romance, but once I made it past the first chapter, I realized that this book had so much more to offer. So far I have read three separate Andrew Smith novels and I have to say, I am a fan.

Earthfall by Mark Walden Book Review

Earthfall by Mark Walden

The earth has fallen. Humans are no more than mindless shells. Only a handful of people seem to be immune. Aliens have arrived on Earth and Sam knows, whatever their plans are, it cannot be good. On his own for nearly 19 months, Sam almost goes crazy with the knowledge that he is the only one not a "Walker", but then he meets a rag-tag army run by a scientist and an ex-military man. Sam knows there is something more going on then what they are being told, but their lives and those of the entire planet depend on them finding out.

This is how I look at books and my massive consumption of them. I know there are wonderful books out there, ones that make you hold your breath as you turn the page and gasp in horror when the big twist is revealed. Sadly, not every book can be that book and to be quite honest, within my average book reading of 100-140 books a year, I read quite a few duds. Most of the really bad ones never get reviewed here either because I feel bad for disliking it so immensely or because it wouldn't be fair to read a book that I simply skimmed (or sometimes skipped) through. This year there have been quite a few good books, but as anyone who has read this blog for long may know, I have a pension for science fiction. I am an equal opportunity reader of course, but I am always on the lookout for a good or even decent sci-fi. Earthfall falls into the category of great.

Earthfall reminds me of the sci-fi I used to read when I was a kid, books by H.M. Hoover, Anne McCaffrey, John Christopher, and Robert Heinlein. There is no doubt who the bad guys are and Walden is not afraid to let the reader know there is something so much bigger at stake and secrets that are just as big to go along with them. The pacing was right, the main character engaging, and the world, our world, devastating. However, this doesn't feel like a dystopian sci-fi in the way that Divergent or Hunger Games does. No, this is like a teen version of Independence Day, and just like the aforementioned film, there will be a sequel.

In fact, this is my only complaint. Earthfall wraps up fairly nicely, but I take issue with books that don't advertise themselves as a series if that is in fact what they are. This is definitely not a novel and it was open-ended enough for a series. It doesn't have to be a trilogy. Call it the Earthfall: The Chronicles of Sam or something equally understandable and ambiguous, but don't try to fool me either. I hate starting a series and not knowing that it is one. I feel like I have been tricked somehow.

I do not think everyone will love this book though. Truly, it is a book for lovers of the authors that I mentioned above. If you have been searching for a good YA sci-fi, I definitely think Earthfall falls into that category quite nicely. I may need to go in search of more of this author's titles.

The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins Book Review

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins
Illustrated by Jill McElmurry

Meet Katherine Olivia Sessions, a woman who nearly 100 years ago, set about turning San Diego from a desert wasteland to a beautiful green place that people could enjoy. She attended college in a time where woman do not get higher education and she did something that everyone said was impossible.

A beautiful and inspirational children's biography, The Tree Lady is everything that I want out of a picture book biography. Informative yet sparse in language, the reader is given all the necessary information and none of the filler. It also inspired me to look up a few pictures of Kate and Balboa Park and it is simply fascinating to see such beautiful foliage in a place that was once desert.

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig Book Review

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig
Illustrated by Patrice Barton

Brian is sure that he in invisible, after all that would explain why no one seems to notice him or includes him in their group, game, or parties. Then a new boy comes to class and for the first time Brian has a friend, who doesn't ignore him and Brian finds himself not so invisible anymore.

A common discussion about children's picture books is the lack of people of color. Outside of the historical fiction realm, it is not uncommon to see a plethora of bunnies, chicks, cows, turtles, and every other animal as the artist muse. This solves a quick solution for one doesn't have to deal with race at all if they are bunnies and publishers still have the notion that a white family will not buy a book with black or Asian characters on them. Does anyone else see a problem with this?This is not to say that there aren't people of color in picture books or that artists do not want to draw them, they are just vastly outnumbered by animals.

So I was surprised to see children of all ethnicities represented in this book, but more importantly that there was a Korean child who tries to explain his meal of Bul go gi to his new friends at school. The author and illustrator went out of their way to create an American child with a very specific ethnic background and I thought it was great.

The illustrations are adorable, with Brian, the invisible boy, slowly becoming less and less invisible as each chapter progresses. The story had a didactic nature, but I think children can easily relate and there is even a discussion guide on the last page for teachers and librarians. A rather well-thought out story that I wouldn't mind owning. (Most of my picture books come from the library.)

Mister Max by Cynthia Voigt Book Review

Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt
Illustrated by Iacopo Bruno

Max's parents are actors, owning their own theater company and always performing and twelve-year-old Max has played many parts in their various shows. Then one day a mysterious letter arrives asking for the two Starlings to come perform and set up an acting troupe in India. Not wanting to turn down such an opportunity the two pack their bags, get an extra ticket for Max, and make their final preparations. However, when Max shows up at the docks the boat his parents are supposed to be on doesn't exist and his parents have disappeared with only a cryptic letter as a clue. Max returns to his home and librarian grandmother heartbroken over the turn of events but determined to make his own way, for twelve he feels, is old enough to be on his own. Purely by accident, Max falls into the line of work most would call detective work, but can he solve the biggest mystery of all, what happened to his parents?

Mister Max is a cute story that I guess would be considered historical fiction although there is little historical information within. I could never really pinpoint the exact time period, the use of money completely skewing this (Max earns $50 for his detective work. A portly sum in Victorian London, yet this amount only lasts Max a week or two). There was also the issue of independence, which Max desperately wanted and was willing to maintain, which would not have been such an issue in this time period. Apprenticeships cost money and once Max had earned enough through his sleuthing, he should have been able to find a decent clerk position with the money he had pocketed, boys did that kind of work all the time.

Histocracy aside, the plot was really a series of vignetted mysteries that, in the end, combine to create a greater mystery and help Max solve a matter of the heart. On the downside is the fact that although Max's parents are clearly missing, he doesn't seem as interested in solving that particular mystery, leaving it up to his grandmother to do the sleuthing. There were so many hints, letters in code, mysteriously heavy paintings, etc. that made the reader all too aware that Max's parents were in trouble and yet he is so concerned about remaining independent and not being forced to live with his grandmother that he sets it aside, sure that they know what they are doing. Let me point out here that his parents are overly-dramatic morons who don't seem to have a bit of sense between the two of them. In fact, they are so careless that they have been known to forget about Max altogether, being so caught up in their own theatrics. Max sees this drama in a warm light, but it made his parents highly unlikable and goofy.

It is a cute book, but a long one and I think if I was to recommend a middle grade mystery this would not be it. I believe I would steer readers toward Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms, which I somehow didn't review on this blog when I first read it, but I can assure you, it is brilliant.

I'm a Frog by Mo Willems Book Review

I'm a Frog by Mo Willems

Gerald is careful. Piggie is not.
Piggie cannot help smiling. Gerald can.
Gerald worries so that Piggie does not have to.
Gerald and Piggie are best friends.
In I'm a Frog! Piggie has some ribbiting news! Can Gerald make the leap required to accept Piggie's new identity?

Pretending is not a new concept in the Piggie & Elephant series and I don't think this particular book was nearly as funny as some of the others, but it is the usual Piggie and Gerald shennanigins that I know children love. And as a wink to the adults (for there always is one) there is the following dialogue: 

"Everyone pretends."
"Even grown-up people?"
"All the time."

Fallout by Todd Strasser Book Review

Fallout by Todd Strasser

It’s 1962, and all anyone is talking about is the possibility of nuclear war. Scott’s dad is the only person in their neighborhood who has prepared for the worst though, building a bomb shelter in their backyard, but praying they will never have to use it. Then, in the middle of the night, the unthinkable happens. As the sirens blare, Scott and his family run to the shelter, but are unable to close the doors before some of their neighbors force their way inside. Trapped underground, ten people in the space that was meant for four, with food and supplies for only four, they must survive until the radiation levels return to a sage level. But even worse than the possibility of starvation is what will remain once the door is opened again.

You know Todd Strasser. Even if you don’t think you do, you do. He has penned such tales as The Wave, Give a Boy a Gun, The Good Son, and Home Alone. Yes, that Home Alone. Strasser grew up during this nuclear war era. His dad built a bomb shelter in their backyard. And this story was the thing of his nightmares. What if nuclear war came? Would their shelter really have protected them? What about their neighbors, friends, family that were left behind on the other side?

I was absolutely entranced by this novel. The chapters bounce back and forth between the past (pre-bomb) and the present (in the bunker) making the pacing of this story incredible. The chapters of the past did a lot of world and character building, painting the picture of the fear that pervaded the children’s lives. We see how Scott and his best friend get along (or don’t), how different children were raised, how parents were reacting to this situation, of the terror of drills. Then, in the bunker, things are so dire that, despite liking the character building chapters, I was always eager to get back to the present. Would they survive? How do ten people share food meant for four for two weeks?

Just to be clear, this is not like the film Blast From the Past. This is an alternative history novel. In this book, a nuclear bomb really did go off. Everyone they knew, their neighbors, friends, wives, are dead. I definitely felt like I learned so much more about how people approached this situation than the slightly didactic, although very interesting Countdown. The characters felt so real and fleshed out. The fear is tangible. The hopelessness understandable. The desperate will to survive commendable.

At the end of the book, Strasser speaks about returning to his old home and visiting the bunker that his father had placed in the backyard. The hatch in the playroom had been sealed off, but the new owner had made an entrance from the yard. What the man found as he tried to break in were thick walls, reinforced with steel and concrete feet thick. His comment to Strasser, “Your father must have really wanted to keep you safe.”

One of the best books I have read this year.  Oh, and I love the cover.

Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig Book Review

Under the Empyrean Sky (The Heartland Trilogy #1) by Check Wendig

Sometime in the future, there are two kinds of people. The wealthy who live on flotillas that drift high above the Earth and the poor working-class people who farm on the ground, watching over and harvesting an invasive genetically engineered corn. As if this existence wasn't already bad, the people of the Heartland suffer from all sorts of ailments, physical mutations, and tumors stemming from (presumably) working with the genetically altered plants. Cael's life is as hard as anyone and more than anything he wants to fight back against the Empyrean, but what can a few teenagers do when up against a government that clearly wants to keep them down?

When I originally read the jacket flap for this book, I thought, bingo...this is my type of book. Not hard sci-fi, but dystopian, with what felt like a promising premise and plot. Genetically engineered corn? Aren't people freaking out about this now? Sadly, this story suffered from too many
clich├ęd characters, some sparse world-building, and didactic social issue ruminations.There is, as seems to be in many stories these days, the gay character. The love triangle. The spunky girl and the sappy girl. The bully. The drunk father. The kindly sad father. 

Wendig creates this world with its social stratas, but we never actually get to see anything beyond the Heartland. Although I understand the author may be holding this in reserve for the trilogy, the result felt stilted. I had a lot of questions, questions that were actually necessary for this story, for this plot. How did things get this way? Why does anyone think this okay? Why does no one know anything about earlier religions, life, geography? There is mention of the schools being closed down, but parents aren't even passing information on to their children here.

Having done a lot of work with the poor here at home and overseas, I found Wendig's descriptions of what would basically be a frontier town rather disturbing. The fathers are all drunks and very few seem to show genuine love or interest for their children. The mothers and women in the story are simply property, traded away at eighteen to men they may or may not love. They, like all the characters in this story, are two-dimensional and cliched in a way that undermines the good things in the story.

Between the cliches was the story of Cael and his father, the only three-dimensional characters of the whole lot. Cael hates his father for sitting back and doing nothing, for just watching as their home and lives are destroyed and ground down by the Empyrean. But it is clear to the reader that Cael's father definitely is not what he seems. That is the heart of a story.

The series has potential. However, I expect a lot more world building in the second book that should have been in this first one. For those who harbor deep mistrust of produce, this may be your thing.
Oh, and if you enjoy those teenage love triangles, you should snatch this one up pronto.

Fat Angie by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo Book Review

Fat Angie by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Fat Angie is broken. Her sister, varsity-athlete-turned-war-hero has been MIA in Iraq for over 9 months. Everyone thinks she is dead, but Angie knows they are wrong. Even so, Angie did try to kill herself last year, in front of a gym full of kids and now she is back in school where those kids make it miserable for her every single day. They call her Fat Angie like it is her name. Her couldn't-be-bothered mother only cares about is the fact that Angie is fat and so refuses to buy Angie more clothes until she loses weight. This, of course, makes Angie just eat more. Fat Angie's life pretty much sucks, until the arrival of KC Romance. Pretty, bold, and not afraid to be seen with Fat Angie, the two begin a rocky friendship, one that takes them into territory that Fat Angie isn't sure she is ready for and will force her to confront the damage in her life.

This book has a lot going on. War, death, homosexuality, bullying, obesity, suicide, cutting, divorce, absent parents, adoption. Yet, despite all of these things, which could have been toned down a bit I admit, I found it to be compelling, with a wonderful multi-dimensional protagonist. Fat Angie is bullied because she is fat, she is fat because of her sister's disappearance and her mother's neglect, her sister's disappearance led to her suicide attempt, and divorce was already a part of her family before all this stuff went down. Reminding me in tonality of It's Kind of a Funny Story and even Fat Vampire, I was really rooting for Fat Angie. I wanted her to make friends, to confront her bullies, to tell her mother off, to reconcile with her brother, to settle things with KC.

There are a few things about this story that fell flat for me. The first is Angie's mother, who is one of the worst examples of a cruel verbally-abusive mother that I have seen in a while. As a story that is supposed to be so reality-based it felt odd and out of sync with the story to have such a terrible mother who has very little redemption in the end. I understand that the author wanted to have an antagonistic character (which already exists in the school bully), but the mother was just over-the-top cruel to her daughter and we are given very little in regards to this woman's character before her daughter went missing so it is hard to see her as anything but cruel.

The second thing is in regards to other reviewers complaining about Angie losing weight. Some feel that she should just embrace the fat and develop a healthier body image. Here is the thing, Angie has an eating disorder. She binge eats because she is unhappy. She was not always fat and once she begins to exercise again, playing basketball and running, Angie loses that weight. Yes, Angie should lose weight as she begins to heal, because she has an eating disorder.

Lastly, is the homosexuality or as Angie calls it "gay-girl-gay". This is the third book in a row that I have read that has homosexuality in it. (Love in the Time of Global Warming, Under the Empyrean Sky) It is the newest "issue" and in some stories it works and in some it feels like this added thing, simply to have a gay character in the mix. I am still unsure if this worked, mostly because it is clear that Angie and KC both have so many problems and haven't learned yet how to communicate in a way that create any kind of lasting relationship. I don't need my characters to live happily ever after, but I want to know they are going to be okay and I am sure that Angie is well on her way to recovery, but I don't know about KC. In fact, I think KC has a long way to go and trying to make a relationship work, whether hetero or not, was really not advisable. But then, teens make these kinds of bad choices all the time.

All in all, I was rooting for Fat Angie. I cared about her and wanted her to be okay. As you will see with my next review, if you don't care about the characters, it makes for a pretty boring read.

The reason why I read this book:

New Picture Books - September

Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block Book Review

Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block

Penelope (Pen) has lost everything—her home, her parents, and her ten-year-old brother. After the great earthshaker, Pen leaves home in search of her family. What she finds instead are giants and witches, love and enemies. 

I am a huge fan of the hero's journey. From the early stories of The Iliad and Odyssey, to the more modern stories of Star Wars to Harry Potter. Joseph Campbell said, “Every myth is psychologically symbolic. Its narratives and images are to be read, therefore, not literally, but as metaphors.” It is unclear to me as to whether Block was either so wrapped up in The Odyssey metaphor that she became bogged down in it, or that she simply didn't understand the metaphor and let it run away with her.

The story also couldn't decide what it was. Was it a post-apocalyptic thriller? Fantasy? Myth? Metaphor? One thing it was not, this was not a story about Global Warming, in fact the title is completely misleading considering that the devastating earthquake had nothing to do with global warming. The basic idea is this, Pen, after huddling in her ravaged home for two months, leaves when a group of bandits shows up. She "steals" (is given the keys to) a van and travels aimlessly throughout Los Angeles searching for her family. Here she discovers that her life is literally following the tale of The Odyssey complete with giants, witches, sirens, and everything else in-between. 

This is, of course, where the confusion lies. Although this takes place in LA, there are witches and supernatural powers, weird orange butterflies, and nothing that seems like anything from our world. Apparently Pen has never even heard of the word earthquake, since she insists on calling it the earthshaker. Despite living in a modern world, she and her mother apparently don't know what a camera is either. As if following the exact same story line of The Odyssey wasn't a strange enough coincidence, Pen also has this weird way of running into other teenagers. No adults in this ravaged LA, apparently they have all been killed or just left. Just teenagers. And not just any teenagers. Pen has the extraordinary luck of running into three other teens who, like her, all happen to be LBGTQ. I have nothing against such characters, but it just added to the identity crisis this book seemed to be having.

As another reviewer put it so nicely, "Not only does Love in the Time of Global Warming feature not one but four protagonists who rely on Homer's original tale to guide them through the post-apocalypse--in essence, an allegory of The Odyssey that also features The Odyssey as a main driver of the plot, which is simply ridiculous--but the similar characters and plot-points are not so much alluded to as copied outright, with updates that are supposed to modernize the story doing little more than reducing one chapter after another into helpless parody. The Lotus-Eaters who populated an island of drug-fueled laziness in Homer's tale are now lotus-eaters who populate a hotel of drug-fueled laziness in Block's. Circe, the seductress who transformed Odysseus' men into slobbering pigs, is now a failed TV star who has one "minion," a teenage boy she brainwashes with pastries and keeps in a collar. And the cyclops who terrorized Odysseus and his men are still cyclopes, only now they're genetic mutants who supposedly cause earthquakes."

Block knows how to make beautiful prose, but beautiful lines can't save a story that, at its core, is having a serious identity crisis. I don't mind rehashes of classics, but the author must make the story their own. One mention of The Odyssey would have been fine, but using the book as a road map, quite literally, and then ignoring it even after realizing that they are living the story, just annoyed me. There was so much that could have been done with this, as it stands, it isn't a good allegory, dystopian sci-fi, or fantasy.

Janie Face to Face by Caroline Cooney Book Review

Janie Face to Face by Caroline Cooney

Originally published in 1990, The Face On the Milk Carton was a thriller that asked, what would you do if you saw your face on a missing persons poster? What if your parents were kidnappers? At 15, Janie Johnson sees her face on a milk carton during lunch and from then on her life is thrown upside down. She is really Jennie Spring, kidnapped from a mall when she was three by a woman named Hannah Javenson. Her parents, Hannah's parents, thought Janie was their granddaughter and raised her as their own. After reuniting with her biological family, Janie really struggles with this idea of who she is and who she can love. The series continued on for three more books, detailing Janie's struggles to be a part of both the Spring's and Johnson's lives and finding enough love to go around.

Now, in the fifth and final book, Janie Johnson is 20 years old. A true-crime writer has been tracking down her family members and Janie isn't sure who she is anymore. Janie? Jane? Jennie? And what about that kidnapper, Hannah, what has she been up to all these years?

Caroline Cooney, despite not intending for this to ever be a series has finally finished the story of Janie Johnson. For all the female fans, this is a book chock full of romance and weddings and forgiveness and everything girly. It begins a little slow, but is soon running along at a good speed.

Although I absolutely love having this final chapter in Janie's life, there were some problems. The first being simply that the first book was written 23 years ago, however in the story only five years have passed. Instead of making her book dated and setting it in 1995, Cooney chooses to ignore when the first book was written and pretend that the first story took place in 2008. Now, Janie has a cell phone, computer, and Skype. It was a little strange.

The book is also told through multiple viewpoints. Throughout the story we get the viewpoints of almost every single character in the story. Janie, her brothers, her sister, mother, father, Miranda, Hannah. Come to think of it, the only viewpoint we didn't get was Frank, her adoptive father who had a stroke. The constant jumping from person to person could be jolting sometimes, especially if you went from a sympathetic character (Sarah-Charlotte, Reeve) to the more douchebag (Stephen, Jodie) ones. Although, I think the intention was for us to see how some of these characters are growing up, some of the characters like Jodie and Stephen did little to redeem themselves.

Perhaps the most interesting character in the whole story was really Hannah, the kidnapper. We get to see into her twisted and mentally ill mind and makes for some interesting, although eventually annoying, perspective.

In the end, looking back over the life of the story, I always found this series to be entertaining and a fun what if. However, I also know that there is no one today who would take a 15-year-old girl from parents who were loving and were not in fact the kidnappers and force her to move back to her biological family who she does not remember without some counseling, a lot of meetings, and much transition time. Honestly, if this had happened, Janie would not have been struggling so much in this final book.

Will Sparow's Road by Karen Cushman Book Review

Will Sparrow's Road by Karen Cushman

Will Sparrow is a liar and a thief, doing whatever it takes to get by. After his father sold him to the innkeeper for drink, Will stuck around, but when the innkeeper promises to sell him to a chimney sweep, Will escapes. Penniless, Will steals what he can and searches for his place in the world. Stumbling upon a country fair, Will takes up with an illusionist and then a sideshow entertainer. Young Will must learn that life can be deceiving and people doubly so.

I have always been a fan of Karen Cushman's novel, enjoying the historiography and true-to-their-time characters. Set in 1599, Will Sparrow's Road promised so much in the way of an Elizabethan world. Sadly, I did not feel like it delivered on that promise.

Will was a wholly unlikable child. He is a thief and a liar who swears that he will only look out for himself. He is also abominably naive and more than a little stupid. It isn't until almost the very end of the story that Will manages to get a clue and even then I don't have faith that he will grow up into an individual with good critical thinking skills.This is the core problem with the story, for, like all of Cushman's tales, this book is supposed to be character driven.

With such an unlikable character I kept wondering if Cushman was going to go with a different more plot-driven approach this time, but it soon became clear that Cushman just wanted to write about an Elizabethan Faire. You know, like the Renaissance Festivals we like to attend, although this one was supposed to be more historically accurate. The author wanted a story about a faire, so she created a character and inserted him into this setting with no clear direction and very little definable personality. Truth is, for all his "stealing" and "lies", Will is one terrible thief and liar so he isn't even what he says he is. The secondary characters were more interesting due to their disabilities, however, since the story is told from Will's naive and limited perspective, they came off as flat and annoying. I felt some sympathy for all the characters in the end, but was so frustrated by the lack of any decent plot that I didn't really care.