Nick and Tesla's Special Effects Spectacular by Bob Pfluegfelder Book Review

Nick and Tesla's Special Effects Spectacular: A Mystery with Animatronics, Alien Makeup, Camera Gear, and Other Movie Magic You Can Make Yourself (Nick and Tesla #5) by Bob Pfluegfelder
Illustrations by Steve Hockensmith
Publisher: Quirk Books
Release Date: May 5, 2015

Nick and Tesla are a brother sister duo who have a knack for science, electronics, and solving mysteries. When a Hollywood production rolls into town helmed by their friend DeMarco's aunt, the kids are giving a behind-the-stage pass to visit. However, someone appears to be sabotaging the film and it is up to Nick, Tesla, DeMarco, and movie-obsessed Silas to find out who.

Starting a series on book five has some serious pitfalls. For example, by this point in the story the characters have been established, which means that although there was a tad bit of backstory, there were times when I was confused as to who was who. Add to that some references to previous books, missing parents, and an absentee Uncle, and I felt like I was definitely starting at a deficit. Seriously, what is going on with the parents? And side note, I absolutely hate these kid's names. It's like naming your twins Marco and Polo or Edgar and Allen. ugh.

This story had a lot of great examples of how movies are actually made. There is a ton of lingo, information about special effects, steadicams, makeup, and even how movie contracts work. Within the book are five different projects that readers can work on that are directly correlated to the stories plot. There is also a lot of emphasis tied to science and technology and a great deal of care in making this book relateable to both girls and boys.

I did think the mystery was a bit weak, but it was a fun adventure so there was that. As a geek, I was a bit annoyed with the portrayal of the comic book store geeks who were protesting the movie shoot as they were the usual cast of stereotypes. Of course, our plucky heroes weren't like those geeks at all, even though they have their own obsessions going on. Like Silas, their filmmaking obsessed friend who seems to know everything about special effects and B-grade movies.

All in all, a fun little adventure for those who love filmmaking or project building, or both.

Happy Birthday, Cupcake! by Terry Border Book Review

Happy Birthday, Cupcake! by Terry Border
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: July 7, 2015

Planning a birthday party is not easy, especially when you friends have special dietary needs. No ocean party because Soup seasick. Donut melts in the sun. And Cupcake could very well get squashed while playing musical chairs. Not to worry, Blueberry Muffin to the rescue.

Today just so happens to be my birthday, so what better book to review on this auspicious day, than a book about cupcakes and birthdays. As with his first book Peanut Butter & Cupcake, the food puns are great and the food photogenic. The concept still works, although is fairly simple as far as storyline goes. 

Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood Book Review

Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood
Illustrations by Meg Hunt
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Release Date: May 5, 2015

Once upon a planetoid,
amid her tools and sprockets,
a girl named Cinderella dreamed
of fixing fancy rockets.

With a little help from her fairy godrobot, Cinderella is going to the ball--but when the prince's ship has mechanical trouble, someone will have to zoom to the rescue!

Folks, this is it. This is the picture book that geek me can't help but gush over. Cinderella in space?! Yes, please. Told in cute lyrical rhymes, this book is the perfect combination of fairy tale re-hash, sci-fi awesome, and adorable illustrations. (Cinderella has pink hair!) This is a true girl power book. Not only is Cinderella a really good mechanic with absolutely no caveats to this fact, but when the prince asks her to marry him she declines, telling him she is too young. Even without the fairy tale twist, this story stands very well on its own. 

Graphic Novel Extravaganza

About once a year I go on a graphic novel binge where I read all the graphic novels I can get my hands on that I somehow missed. This is that time. I have read both old and new and shall rate them according to stars, because that seems the right way to do this type of post.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Release Date: September 2, 2014

Cleopatra in Space: The Thief and the Sword by Mike Maihack
Publisher: GRAPHIC
Release Date: April 28, 2015

City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau
Adapted by Dallas Middaugh
Art by Niklas Asker
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Release Date: September 25, 2012

Redwall: The Graphic Novel by Brian Jacques
Adapted by Stuart Moore
Illustrations by Bret Blevins
Release Date: Philomel Books
Release Date: October 7, 2007

Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale
Illustrations by Nathan Hale
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Release Date: August 5, 2008

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Publishing Group
Release Date: April 2, 2013

The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release Date: October 8, 2013

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova
Publisher: Yen Press
Release Date: July 1, 2015

The Scorch Trials: Official Graphic Novel Prelude by Jackson Lanzing, Collin P Kelly, and James Dashner
Publisher: KaBOOM!
Release Date: June 23, 2015

My Near-Death Adventures (99% True) by Alison DeCamp Book Review

My Near-Death Adventures (99% True) by Alison DeCamp
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 24, 2015

Stanley Slater would love to have a normal life, but that is impossible with a missing father and his Granny around. Especially when said Granny up and moves them to a lumber camp where he is stuck with his awful cousin Geri, cold-blood killer Stinky Pete, a host of suitors for his Mama, and far too many people who think they know what is best for him. If only he could prove that he is a man, then he is sure that he could have a real adventure and maybe find his dad.

Stanley is an idiot. There I said it. Among Stanley's many issues, his biggest is that he has absolutely no filter between his brain and his mouth. In fact, on a regular basis Stanley thinks out loud and most of his thoughts are on the fairly stupid side. (these thoughts are never called out for the reader, which means that it is up to us to guess when Stanley is thinking aloud) I wish I could say that Stanley is just a daydreamer, but it is more about serious naivety, stupidity, and close-mindedness. For example, Stanley's cousin Geri regularly lies to him, which he absolutely knows and still believes everything she says. It takes him forever to reach the point where he finally understands why all the men at the camp are being nice to his mom and even when he does understand, doesn't fully realize what that would mean for him. Are you seriously telling me that an eleven-year-old doesn't understand the concept of marriage?

I could possibly forgive a stupid character like Stanley as his ignorance is supposed to be part of the joke, but what I had a really hard tie with is that there are absolutely no adventures, near-death or otherwise. There is some daydreaming of adventures, some thinking that his father may be an adventurer, and some conniving to go to the river run, but none of it actually happens. Instead, we get to follow Stanley through a rather boring lumber camp as he willfully treats his Granny like she is the devil incarnate and his mom with a great deal of indifference. Worse yet, I agreed with everything his Granny had to say about him. He really does need to grow up and although he doesn't need an abusive father, he could really use a good authority figure in his life. And his mother does let him get away with a lot. There were so many times where I wished she would just sit him down and talk to him.

Isn't it funny how when we dislike a book we could go on and on about it? I wanted to like this book. I saw it's potential, but sadly found that the author's note at the end was more interesting than the book itself.

What James Said by Liz Rosenberg Book Review

What James Said by Liz Rosenberg
Illustrations by Matthew Myers
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: June 9, 2015

When a little girl thinks her best friend James has been saying bad things about her, she takes action by giving him the silent treatment. James, not understanding, tries to get her to talk to him, but she will have none of it. Like any friendship, these two friends must learn how to navigate a disagreement and a misunderstand.

You know how in sitcoms something terrible happens and you think (and sometimes yell at the television) that if the characters just talked to one another the problem would be solved? Of course, then the episode would be over in one minute, but you still roll your eyes at how stupid the characters are being. This is that book.

The first time a child has to do deal with a disagreement that goes beyond a simple schoolyard spat, the whole experience can be rather traumatic. Unlike the unnamed little girl, none of my experiences were ever misunderstanding, but perhaps that is a different kind of story altogether. Like a terrible game of telephone, this mistake happens because there are too many little lips spreading false information. The illustrations are great in that they give a real agency to these two children's hurt and sadness. As with many books on this subject, this is in the end, a story about communication and the lack thereof. This problem with James could easily have been solved at the beginning of the day if the girl had simply asked him about it. Instead she closes herself off and pushes him away. An understandable response that I am sure many children can relate to. The ending is predictable as it is destined to be given the subject matter, but it is an important jumping off point for deeper conversations with kids about proper communication skills.

Unicorn on a Roll by Dana Simpson Book Review

Unicorn on a Roll by Dana Simpson
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Release Date: May 26, 2015

A year has passed since Phoebe skipped a rock across a pond, accidentally hit a unicorn in the face, and was granted a single wish--which she used to make the unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, her obligatory best friend. Not much has changed either. Marigold Heavenly Nostrils is still just as self-centered and conceited as ever. Phoebe still goes to school every day and deals with her frenemy Dakota.

This is Calvin and Hobbes but with a more juvenile twist. Do not confuse that statement as saying that the stories are more childish, but rather that I don't think any of the jokes are going to go over a kids head in this series. I do mention series here, because there are two books and after reading the second volume, I immediately requested the first book from the library as well. There were a lot of laugh-out-loud funny moments. Some of the strips were standalone while others keep a certain "storyline" going for several pages. I love the absolute conceit of Marigold and her disdain for most human things, yet her friendship (even without the wish) works. Phoebe needed a friend who would listen to her conspiracy theories and ranting. She also needed someone who would help her stand up against Dakota who is your typical mean girl. To be sure there are some more "adult" jokes too, meaning references to grown-up or old things, not dirty.

I really adore these books and believe that some children in my life may be getting some Unicorn on a Roll book-shaped birthday presents soon.

My Cousin Momo by Zachariah OHora Book Review

My Cousin Momo by Zachariah OHora
Publisher: Dial Books
Release Date: June 2, 2015

Momo is coming to visit, and his cousins are SO excited! But even though Momo is a flying squirrel, he won't fly for his cousin’s friends. Plus, his games are weird. He can't even play hide and seek right! But when Momo's cousins give his strange ways a chance, they realize that doing things differently can be fun...almost as much fun as making a new friend.

For this story I found the retro art and color pallete far more interesting than the story itself. Whether it was Momo dressed as a muffin or the awesome treehouse, I found each spread to be beautifully illustrated and occasionally surprising. Also, doesn't this squirrel look kind of like Luke Wilson in Royal Tannenbaums? The story itself felt a bit week, with the crux of the story focusing on being different and yourself, which is a great sentiment but logically didn't pan out for me seeing as Momo is a flying squirrel who doesn't like to fly. Perhaps this was to avoid showing off or wanted to be different in other ways, but I didn't see that as being himself. Cute book, but not a standout for me.

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty Book Review

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: July 14, 2015

Serafina knows she is not normal. Her father, a maintenance man at Biltmore Estate has been secretly living in the basement for years. When the rest of the house and servants are sleeping, Serafina creeps about the home, catching rats and staying out of sight. Which is how she saw the man in the black cloak lure a child below stairs and make her disappear. Risking discovery and her father's wrath, Serafina goes upstairs to tell the Vanderbilts what she saw, but the only person who seems interested in a girl in a dirty shirt is their nephew. As Serafina and Braden seek out the man in the black cloak and the missing children, Serafina begins to learn about who and what she is too.

Have you ever read a book that you thought was fun, riveting, and interesting only for someone to declare that they too read it and hated it? And then you have this brief moment where you think, maybe my standards have lowered because I really liked it? To be honest, the reaction I received after saying how much I liked this book was a bit puzzling. It seems that when a local author writes about local things, the response is essentially an eye roll. The book is getting all kinds of good press and yet the independent bookstore is reluctant to sign them for reasons that I don't quite understand.

As stated, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. A fun middle grade book featuring some dark, although slightly predictable, twists and turns that I finished in two days. I liked Serafina and loved Braeden. The setting was big and real and yet felt like a complete fantasy. And I must make a confession, although I have lived in NC for twenty odd years, I have never actually been to the Biltmore house due to the cost. $50 a person always felt like a bit much to pay for visiting a house. After reading this book, I think I have changed my mind.

To the Sea by Cale Atkinson Book Review

To the Sea by Cale Atkinson
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: June 2, 2015

Sometimes Tim feels invisible and lonely. Then he meets Sam. Sam is a blue whale trying to find his way home. Tim knows where home is, but returning Sam there is going to be hard work.

What is the deal with whales being stranded on land? Recently there was The Storm Whale. There is of course Adam Rex's Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem. There is also Whale in the Bath, My Friend Whale, and The Whale in My Swimming Pool. Is it that we like the idea of whale's being on land or being our friends? Is it the absurdity of the concept? None of this should be taken as a criticism of the actual book, I am just curious as to this whole whale as a friend concept. Then again, I did just review a book called Sea Rex, so there's that.

Adorably illustrated, I was in love with this whale the minute I saw his tiny little face on his big blubbery body. A book about an unlikely friendship and the lengths that someone will go to for their friend is the perfect sized message for this lovely little picture book.

Sea Rex by Molly Idle Book Review

Sea Rex by Molly Idle
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 26, 2015

What could that be down in the sea? Is it a fish? A snail? A mermaid’s tail? No, it’s bigger than that . . . a LOT bigger . . .it’s Sea Rex!

I originally fell in love with Molly Idle's illustrations in Flora and the Flamingos. A beautifully illustrated picture book, I was actually disappointed that this one had words, seeing as it didn't really need it. Obviously, being a sequel to Tea Rex, I understand why, but I think I prefer Idle's wordless picture books to this series. This is your usual going to the beach story even with the dinosaurs , but would be perfect for beach trips.  

Little Miss, Big Sis by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Little Miss, Big Sis by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Illustrations by Peter Reynolds
Publisher: HarperCollins
Release Date: June 16, 2015

Little Miss is going to be a big sis. In this sequel to Plant a Kiss, Little Miss we explore the wonders of becoming a big sister as she and her family celebrate the arrival of a new baby.

In this cute, but typical new baby book, young readers are given a glimpse into what life can be like with a younger sibling. Peter Reynold's illustrations are beautiful as usual, simple and beautiful. Obviously, the audience for this book is rather limited, but so it goes with all issue books. This one is more enjoyable than most.

Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall Book Review

Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall
Publisher: Egmont
Release Date: March 17, 2014

When the Morrors came to Earth, they promised they could reverse the global warming and assured the humans that they only would live in the cold areas of the Earth. What they didn't say was that they were planning on making the entire planet cold. Born into war, the children of Earth have never known a life without the Morrors. Alice's mother is a spacefighter, world-renowned for her ability to spot and destroy the invisible Morror ships. Which is why it was no surprise when Alice ended up being shipped off to military academy on Mars with other kids from around the world. Some, like Carl came because his brother won the lottery and siblings can come too. Others like Josephine were recruited because they were smart, even if they don't want to become soldiers. Besides, the newly terraformed Mars is safer than Earth at the moment. At least on Mars you can kind of breath and no invisible Morrors are around to shoot you. Then all the adults disappear and it is up to Alice, Carl, Noel, and Josephine to find a way to contact Earth. And they better hurry because a terrifying new life form has arrived on Mars and they are ten times worse than a Morror.

Balancing between a middle grade and a young adult novel, Mars Evacuees is a carefully planned and executed space adventure. In the beginning we are introduced to Alice who lives in a boarding school in England, a school that is now under threat from oncoming ice. Both her parents are deployed and she rarely sees either of them. She deals with feelings of inadequacy next to her "exceptional" mother and worries she will never have a future. Carl and his brother Noel are Filipino-Australian lotto winners who really don't seem like the kinds of kids you would want in a military academy, but war is war and Mars is safe. Noel lovingly calls his brother Kuya, a Filipino term meaning brother. At first Carl is rather off-putting as he is always trying to show off, but as the story progresses you see it for what it really is, a good deal of machismo mixed with fear and loss of control. Josephine (who really should have been the main character) is smart, driven, and a born leader. She is the Sherlock to Alice's Watson. She also happens to be black and for those keeping track, that makes three out of the four main characters, diverse. Thanks to the war with the Morrors, she has a big chip on her shoulder when it comes to aliens.

There were a few moments in the story where I worried about whether this would turn into some Ender's Game and later into Lord of the Flies, but McDougall kept it on track and well-paced. As if there wasn't already four fabulous main characters, there are also two other secondary characters that throw a wrench into all kinds of things. One, a Goldfish robot-teacher who follows them across Mars, is annoyingly chipper and very much would like to teach the children math, even when they are fighting for their lives. The other cannot be mentioned without ruining the story for you. Although it isn't a twist per-se, I think readers should discover them on their own. There are a number of weighty topics dealt with including alien sex, which is why the book is pushing towards YA.

A fun action-packed sci-fi novel that is truly a stand-alone novel that craftily asks what does it mean to be human.

The Night World by Mordicai Gerstein Book Review

The Night World by Mordicai Gerstein
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: June 16, 2015

Everyone in the house is sleeping, but outside, the night world is wide-awake. It's a wonderful night to explore!

I would like to think that it is books like this that help alleviate childhood fears of the dark. That by understanding what darkness is and the fascinating things that live in the night, one will no longer fear the thing itself. 

There is such a vibrant beauty to the illustrations that speaks of the author's love of the night. As the boy and his cat explore the world of night, a world filled with dewy grass, star filled sky, and shadow. The animals one never sees during the day begin to poke about. And then the night turns into morning. The birds begin to call. Animals leave. The sun peeks its head out and pushes back the shadows and send the night animals to bed. As a bit of a night owl I do love the homage to night and readily admit that usually the only way to enjoy a sunrise is to stay up all night. As a non-morning person, I'm afraid a sunrise lacks that special beauty when I am still waking up.

Drowned City by Don Brown Book Review

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release Date: August 4, 2015

When Hurricane Katrina arrived on August 29, 2005 with wind and surging water, no one knew what the true cost would be as the levees broke, flooding eighty percent of the city. Over eighteen hundred people lost their lives and showed both the best and worst of humanity.

This is a book that is in its own sort of genre. A non-fiction graphic "novel" with no clear characters that weaves together a story that is ruthless in its truths and heartbreaking in its accuracy. The presentation, appropriate for younger readers while not avoiding the inevitable death, is well done. There is a definite message that is being portrayed here, but it is one that points out the missteps as well as the heroism. As someone too familiar with this story, there was nothing I was surprised by, although it did help remind me of the timeline and order of events.

One of the downsides of a narrative like this though is that it is very much non-fiction and although tries to convey the human tragedy of this event, there is a certain amount of pathos that is missing. By not having a main character of sorts, one that we can follow and which readers can relate to, it reads like a lot of facts. This is not bad entirely, but it does make books like Upside Down In the Middle of Nowhere feel more effective, not because it is fiction but because it brings you face to face with the tragedy. It is one thing to read that people died in their attics when the floodwaters came, it is quite another to follow a family through that chaos. This book is an excellent book as a resource and a teaching tool, but it felt more textbook in nature with some really fabulous illustrations.

Your Baby's First Word Will Be Dada by Jimmy Fallon Book Review

Your Baby's First Word Will Be Dada by Jimmy Fallon
Illustration by Miguel Ordóñez
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Release Date: June 9, 2015

Your baby's first word will be Dada, right?

Written for the male set of adult readers, this is supposed to be a book about how fathers try to coerce their children into using the word Dada before anything else. Now, I have mixed emotions concerning celebrity authors as it seems to be hit or miss on the quality scale. As far as late night talk show hosts are concerned, it has been a solid miss. I actually enjoy Jimmy Fallon, I think he is a talented musician and comedian, but he is not a children's book writer. In fact, it is getting a bit exhausting how all these celebrities think they can write a children's book, usually with a terrible concept, and someone out there will publish it. And people will buy it too.

A child's first word is always a source of debate and fascination. My first word words were mama, daddy, and chocolate. In this book, it is a menagerie of animals waiting and coaxing their young to say the word Dada. Instead, the animals all say their own various sounds. It is an incredibly simple concept, one so simple that I am a bit disappointed in Jimmy for not being better. Surely he tells better bedtime stories to his daughters than this. Which brings me to my final point, who is this book written for? Is it for children, because if so the payoff is very small and there isn't enough here either textually or visually to entertain a toddler. If it is for adults then the same thing rings true. Except the parents are the ones who will shell out their money for this laughable children's book, so I guess it will be Jimmy laughing all the way to the bank.

The Map to Everywhere by Carrie Ryan and John Parke David Book Review

The Map to Everywhere by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis 
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: November 4, 2014

Fin is completely forgettable. For reasons that no one can explain, no one can remember him. If he walks away for even a minute, the people he just introduced himself to will entirely forget that he exists. This is the key to him being a successful Master Thief of the Khaznot Key, although it is a very lonely existence. That is why he jumps at the chance to find a map that may be the key to finding his mother, the only person who has never forgotten about him.

When Marrill accidentally stumbles upon the magical Pirate Stream she is looking for a cure for her mother's cancer, not an adventure. Now she is stranded on a boat in magical waters looking for a map that can get her home again. She finds friends in a young ship's captain, an absentminded wizard, and a boy who is forgotten by everyone but her. Followed by a sinister figure they search for the pieces of the map that could either save them or destroy everything.

Now, I love a good fantasy and when it is a good book, longer is usually better. After all, who wants a good book to end. Of course, when a book drags, a long book can be exponentially longer. Such was the case with The Map to Everywhere. The pacing ebbed and flowed much like the Pirate Stream, sometimes moving along at a good clip only to drag at parts for dozens of pages. More frustrating still, there were a number of places where I wish more time had been spent explaining some of this weird fantasy world and a lot less time with Fin constantly worrying over being forgotten. Especially since all the set-up in the beginning was pointless seeing as most of the important stuff in the story took place somewhere else. Of course, this is a planned four book series so perhaps we shall return to it by the end of everything.

The characters themselves were rather interesting. Marrill is a rather normal girl lost within a world that is anything but. Like the straight man in a comedy. (straight meaning non-comedic) A character that is constantly forgotten brings a new spin to the amnesiac trope in fiction. From other reviews, there seems to have been some clever typography used in the print book that obviously didn't translate to audio.

Perhaps the greatest sin of this book through was that nothing was accomplished. The bad guys are still alive, Fin still hasn't found his mother and is still completely forgetable outside of Marrill's memory. Marrill is back where she started in the beginning, her mother is still ill, and although she is aware of magic she has no way of accessing the Pirate Stream.

I'm not sure if I am willing to devote myself to this entire series, because if nothing happens until book four, I just don't see the point.

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki Book Review

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki
Illustrations by illian Tamaki
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: May 6, 2014

Every summer, Rose goes with her parents to a lake house in Awago Beach. Her friend Windy is always there too, her best friend who she only gets to see for a few weeks every year. This summer is different though. Rose's parents are constantly fighting. Both girls are on the cusp of young adulthood and they are witnessing some of the secrets and sorrows that come with growing up.

I know a lot of people liked this graphic novel and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. However, in my mind this is the type of story that really doesn't go anywhere, meandering through a summer in a way that felt rather pointless. It may be that I was just unable to relate to any of these characters, either now or from my childhood. My family never went on long vacations anywhere. I have always hated the beach. And the things that Rose and Windy are experiencing in their coming-of-age story is nothing like the things I dealt with. This is not meant as a criticism, but rather so that there is a deeper understanding as to why I couldn't get into this book. For me, with no connection to the characters on any level, it just wasn't fulfilling.

All that said, objectively speaking this is a well-done graphic novel. The illustrations were fantastic and it definitely has its audience, as it has shown over the past year. Windy is a fantastic character and one of the few positive examples I have seen of a girl who wouldn't be considered "skinny". This is important, as many books with overweight characters seem to dwell on weight far too much. Rose's mom is also dealing with some rather grown-up issues and although nothing ever felt fully resolved, perhaps this was the point.