Sunday, January 19, 2020

MG Humor review of The Terrible Two's Last Laugh by Mac Barnett and Jory John, illustrations by Kevin Cornell,

38656996. sx318 The Terrible Two's Last Laugh by Mac Barnett and Jory John, illustrations by Kevin Cornell
Format:  Ebook
Publisher:  Amulet Books
Number of Pages:  226
Published:  December 24th, 2018
Source:  Library

Opening Line: "For the last time:  Welcome to Yawnee Valley." 

Yawnee Valley is home to the notorious pranking duo of Miles and Niles.  Pranksters who are about to enter their final year of school.  Across the series thus far this duo has played some incredible pranks.  Of course, they were much easier when they performed them anonymously, but now that they've been found out things have become a bit more complicated.  Yet, this is a momentous year for Miles and Niles, not only are they set to graduate, but they also want to perform one of the most legendary pranks ever and really leave their mark at school. 

On their first day back at school,  Principal Barkin calls Miles and Niles to his office.  At first, the duo thinks they're in trouble, but Principal Barkin instead tells them that he wants to make their duo into a trio, he's learned the joy of pulling a well-planned prank and feels that their teaming up can only improve his skills.  However, when Harriet Nervig, the Superintendent of schools unexpectedly passes away and former-Principal Barkin, AKA Principal Barkin's father takes over and becomes his boss, all of their plans suddenly come to a halt.  Yet, Niles is determined that the boys will leave their legacy behind even if the acting Superintendent wants to get his own revenge on the two. 

 I've quite enjoyed reading The Terrible Two series.  Sure some of their pranks have been over the top, but they're lighthearted and always seem to induce a giggle from me.  They have such a wonderful imagination and are so clever and it's been fun watching how their friendship has evolved.  I also particularly enjoyed Principal Barkin in this one.  His desire to become a part of the team, even wanting to hold the boys back from graduating just so that they could continue to pull some pranks together.  I also loved how he was reminiscing with the boys about the very first prank that they pulled on him in the first book of the series.  

In a lot of ways, it appeared as if Mac Barnett and Jory John were saying their own goodbyes to one another.  In the same way that Miles and Niles needed to after the received some sad news from acting Superintendent Barkin.  There were far fewer pranks than in the first three books of the series, but truthfully I was okay with that.  The Terrible Two's Last Laugh felt like it was more about their friendship, a heartfelt touching moment to be shared between the two.  Their planning for a final prank to commemorate their time together.  Which was actually really sweet.  

As always, I adored the illustrations by Kevin Cornell.   Especially the ones of the boys and the green cow with purple spots, with the illustration being in black and white I'm going to have to picture that green color on my own.  I just love the way Cornell captures their friendship.  While I'm sad the series has ended, I hope that we'll see more from these authors in the future.  I highly recommend you give this series a chance if you haven't yet read it.                 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

MG Historical Fantasy review of The Good Hawk by Joseph Elliott

39679039The Good Hawk by Joseph Elliott
Format:  E-ARC
Publisher:  Walker Books US

Number of Pages:  368
Publishing:  January 21st, 2020
Source:  Netgalley

Opening Line: "The wind is on my nose and my eyes sting."

The Good Hawk is a historical fantasy set in mythic Scotland.  Agatha and Jaime are members of the Clann a Tuath from Skye island.  Agatha is a Hawk and spends her days on the wall as a lookout for any possible invaders.  Jamie is an Angler who hates the sea.  He'd always wanted to be a Wasp and make boats, but the enclave doesn't get to choose their profession.  Instead, it's unlawful to do anything else then what they've been assigned.  For generations, marrying was also outlawed, but Jamie is due to marry Lileas from a neighboring island.  No reason is given, but it's suspected that the clans want to form stronger bonds and align against a possible threat from the Deamhain.  

On the day following Jamie's wedding, an invading force of Deamhain kidnaps the clan.  Being the only remaining villagers, Agatha, Jaime, and Lileas set sail after the invaders to try and rescue the clan.  Along the way, they face many perils, including being overpowered by a Deamhain soldier they've captured who is linked to the leader of the invading army and having their boat sink off the coast of Scotia, a place that is rumored to be haunted.  Once on the mainland Agatha and Jaime encounter a clan of Highland bull riders which requires Agatha to use her hidden talents of communicating with animals to get the clan to escort them to the east.  They also meet a Mad Queen and upon reaching Norveg come head to head with the king of Deamhain.  But once their bargaining chip is lost, how will they convince the king to let their clan go?

The Good Hawk was inspired by Elliott's own work with children with learning disabilities.  Agatha's character is meant to portray a young girl with Down Syndrome who is misunderstood by her own clan, often placed in the care of others so she doesn't get into any trouble.  The story alternates between Agatha and Jaime with both voices being very distinct.  Agatha can get angry at times and maybe is easily infatuated by the other male characters, but she is endearing and cares for her clan deeply.   Jaime is brave and only becomes overwhelmed by all of the dangers that they've encountered.   He has the tendency to doubt himself and feels weak for it.  

The various clans have varying beliefs and practices.  This is where I found a few potential issues.   For one, Jaime shows insensitivity and intolerance in his interactions with a character who is gay.  He not only says he's "heard of people like that," but that he "knows it's not right."  Maybe this was meant to reflect the thinking of the time period,  given that even Agatha is told by one of the clan's elders that she "should have been drowned at birth."  I just wish that the author would have included more current positive depictions and thoughts in here as well.   Maybe have Jaime defend Agatha against the elder's words by saying how she is a kind compassionate person.  Or continue to highlight Agatha's capabilities despite any physical or mental differences she may have to show the elder's ignorance.   I know it may be a small piece of an otherwise wonderful adventure but just these few instances soured the story for me slightly.       

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow (The Sinclair’s Mysteries #1) by Katherine Woodfine

24463265The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine
Format:  Paperback
Publisher:  Kane Miller a Division of EDC Publishing

Number of Pages:  320
Published:  June 4th,  2015
Source:  Publisher in exchange for an honest review

Opening Line:  "This dainty straw hat with a ribbon bow is the essence of charming simplicity." 

Fourteen-year-old Sophie has been orphaned ever since her father was killed in a military accident in South Africa.  Since her father left no will or instructions for her care and she's in desperate need of money to make ends meet, Sophia ends up getting hired as a shop girl at Sinclair's, a high-end Department Store opening soon in London.  On the eve of the store's grand opening, a robbery occurs and the thief takes off with Mr. Sinclair's most prized possession, The Clockwork Sparrow.  Sophie was the last person seen leaving the store that evening and therefore becomes the police's number one suspect.  There was a witness to the robbery, a young vagrant named Joe, but he has since gone into hiding to avoid capture because of his past connections to a gang from the east end of London who has been hunting for him all over town.   The only other person who is convinced of Sophie's innocence is Billy, an apprentice porter, and nephew of the head doorman.  With the help of Joe, and Lilian Rose, one of Mr. Sinclair's Captain Girls, Billy sets out to uncover the truth and find the true culprit.

I loved reading mysteries like The Nancy Drew series growing up.  It was probably one of the first series that I read.  I loved how Nancy was independent and strong-minded and of course her sleuthing skills.  As soon as I saw the cover of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow with those lovely silhouettes in the windows,  I jumped at the chance to read it.  I was half expecting something along the lines of the Murder Most Unlady Like mystery series by Robin Stevens except this book doesn't take place in a boarding school, instead, it takes place at Sinclair's in London.  A bustling department store, reminiscent of my one trip to Harrods.  Think tea sandwiches, biscuits, crumpets, and buns, balls and parties with girls in corsets wearing flowery gowns, fancy hats and the posh finery of silver hat pins in the shape of a rose.  An utterly delightful setting for a mystery.  At the same time, it's filled with lovely British words and phrases like, "geezer", "a quiet corner to kip for the night", and my favorite "it's all rot."  The illustrations were charming and there are newspaper-style clippings sprinkled throughout the book.  

The story begins with our main character Sophie who is just trying to make ends meet.  The other shopgirls from Sinclair's think she is too posh, upidity, even refer to her as a princess, but I actually quite liked Sophie.  She has a kind heart and tries very hard not to let the girls teasing get to her.  Partway through the emphasis of the story switches to Lil and Billy as they try to help prove Sophie's innocence.  Lil is lots of fun,  she has an infectious personality, bubbly and very easy going.  She knows what she wants and has no trouble getting it.  Lil takes to Sophie right away and I bet their friendship grows across the series.  Billy is also adorable, I  just love how he's an avid reader of serial mysteries and his steadfast belief in Sophie.  I think he actually has a crush on her.  We'll see where that goes.  I could certainly read more stories featuring this trio.          

The mystery was a tad slow to evolve, although there were some nice twists and turns in the middle.   As the first in the series of Sinclair's Mysteries, I did see the importance of establishing the characters and to develop the setting more than you would in say the second book.  I guess I was just hoping for more suspects and clues to follow and an exciting mystery to solve.   The Baron did, however, make for an interesting character, with his hidden identity and connection to Joe's past.   I'd imagine he'll resurface in a later book.  There were a few ciphers, which normally I'd love to take a crack at, but these ones didn't lend themselves to the reader solving.  Instead, the answers came from the characters in the story, which was slightly disappointing.  Yet, overall I did still quite enjoy how the mystery was resolved, the overall setting and British feel of the story and how the story alludes to a potential future career for Sophie and Lil as private detectives.   

Saturday, November 16, 2019

New Adult Review of Twinkle, Twinkle (The Sand Maiden #4) by L.R.W. Lee

48404107. sy475 Twinkle, Twinkle (The Sand Maiden Book Four) by LRW Lee
Format: E ARC
Publisher: Woodgate Publishing
Number of Pages: 329
Published: November 15th, 2019
Source: Author in exchange for an honest review
Opening Lines:  "I tried desperately to beat back the dread that longed to overwhelm me as I followed the Empress Rasa." 
Princess Alissandra and Prince Kovis are now in the capital city of Veritas within Wake, far from Ali's father.  For the moment they're safe and planning their next move.  The empire's leaders are about to arrive at the palace and Ali and the royal family are on edge.  The council is unhappy with Empress Rasa's decision to end the biannual 89 competition and for their part, the delegates feel as tho the warriors aren't being valued as they should be.  At the same time, King Ambien continues to manipulate Kennan, placing all of Wake in danger.  He's been amassing an army of creatures that he's plucked from people's nightmares and it seems the King's desire to control all of Wake is becoming closer to reality.  Meanwhile, Ali is searching for answers and is more determined than ever to not let her father succeed. 

Twinkle, Twinkle is the final installment in the Sand Maiden series and truthfully I'm a bit sad, not for the ending mind you, just that the series has come to an end.  From the very first book in the series, I've so enjoyed spending time in the realms of Dream and Wake.  Each has a rather unique magical system and the characters are so lovely.  On Wake, the people wield fire, ice, terra, and metal, while on Dream there are sand people.   I do so love the premise of sand people lulling their charges to sleep, weaving their dreams and watching over them to ensure they don't experience nightmares.  I also adore the two main characters, Alissandra (Ali) and Prince Kovis who over the course of the series have developed such a special bond, one filled with lovely moments of bantering and a closeness that is playful, and romantic.  They make a wonderful couple.  

I so enjoyed this final installment in the series, the way that the story has been building toward a final confrontation between Ali and her father, King Ambien.  A battle that we've seen coming since the moment that Ali left Dream, defying her father to protect Korvis.  We always knew that he wouldn't take her defiance well, but the lengths that he goes to are even more sinister and evil then I initially imagined.   I truly worried about their safety when they separated to divide and conquer during Ambien's final attack.   Kovis battling for the empire, while Ali went up against her father in Dream.   Concerning, to say the least.   I've always disliked Ambien and my initial feelings didn't change much.  If anything I came to dislike him more and so there was a huge part of me that was happy that he gets what is coming to him.  He's such a manipulative person that messes with everyone's heads and I hated the way that he deceives his own children.  How he's made Ali feel to blame for what happened to her sister Velma and caused her self loathing and a multitude of emotions for his own evil deeds.  

And poor Kennan, the mental hold that Ambien had over him, causing him to act in ways that were so hurtful to everyone around him.  Plus the emotional trauma that Ali, Kovis and their siblings endured under both of their father's hands was just heartbreaking.  But what nearly gutted me was the death of a certain beloved character, which was so very sad.   Ali had just begun to develop a closeness with this character.  She'd brought down her barriers and they'd become friends.  Ali exposed a vulnerable side to a character that was usually composed and was helping this character to heal.    It's a loss that I'm still thinking about even after having finished the book.  I guess tho it's just a testament to Lee's writing, she's made me come to love these characters.  Like I said before, I'm sad that this is the last book in the series but I'm sure Lee has plans to continue writing more books in the future and I'm eager to see what she comes up with next.          

* I received an E-ARC from the author in exchange for an honest review **

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

MG Realistic Fiction review of Dog Driven by Terry Lynn Johnson

40500411. sy475 Dog Driven by Terry Lynn Johnson
Format:  E ARC
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 
Number of Pages:  240
Publishing:  December 3rd,  2019
Source:  Netgalley

Opening Line:  "Whoever's behind me is coming fast." 

Are you ready for a fast-paced action story? Do you have a craving for adventure?  What about a compelling story of a girl musher competing in the Great Superior Mail Run, a race that follows the route used by dogsledder mail couriers from the late 1800s?  

I was instantly captured by the cover and ended up reading Dog Driven in one sitting.  I know hardly anything about dogsledding, other than what I've previously learned from reading Johnson's Ice Dogs and Sled Dog School.  But her stories are always an exciting read.  They so perfectly capture the atmosphere of winter, the coldness of the snow.  The thrilling feeling of leading a team of dogs in a race across the Canadian wilderness and all the hardships that a race like that entails.  

Dog mushing runs in McKenna's family, her mother used to race dogs, but now that her younger sister Emma has been diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a form of macular degeneration which leads to a progressive loss of vision, Emma's condition has become the central concern of her family.  Then a new dog sled race in Ontario is announced, The Great Superior Mail Run.  Emma is really excited about the race, she really wants McKenna to compete and carry an important message in her mailbag to help improve the awareness of Stargardt disease.  McKenna, however, is really worried.  She has a secret about her own vision that she's been hiding from her friends and family.  Competing in the race is dangerous.  But how can she turn down her kind sweet younger sister? Despite all of the initial excuses she tries to give to Emma about why she can't do it, ultimately she agrees.  Before moving forward with the race, McKenna does confide in her sister about her symptoms, and they make a pact to keep her deteriorating vision from her parents until after the race.  Neither wants their parents to question why she isn't racing or to make them worry.  Will McKenna be able to make the dangerous 200 plus miles across unfamiliar terrain?  And can she lead her dogs across safely?

 McKenna's vision has been deteriorating.  Does she have Stargardt disease like her sister?  So far no one has suspected she has any difficulties.  McKenna is really good at pretending that everything is okay, while silently she fears being found out.  Doing all of this pretending has led her to be isolated from her friends, but she still can participate in her favorite pastime, mushing.  Since Emma was diagnosed with the disease, McKenna has seen how her parents reacted to the news.  Her mother became overly anxious about Emma's diagnosis and both of her parents have been arguing about how to manage things at home.  McKenna doesn't want to add to their burden, and she really doesn't want to give up mushing.  At the same time, McKenna seems to understand that she might be putting her team of dogs at risk if she races.  

 Johnson wonderfully balances the adventuring with the interspersing of information on how McKenna's visual difficulties have been affecting her at school, with her friends and in her day to day life. There are even explanations about how the diagnosis is made and real-life classroom situations that highlight the adaptive vision-enhancing equipment that can be used.    McKenna experiences her share of hardships, worries, and concerns during the race.  Early on she losses her protective eyeglasses and has a startling encounter with an owl losing her mailbag.  Yet, McKenna also takes on each of these challenges with a positive outlook and is determined to persevere and to overcome them.  During the race, McKenna does receive help from two of the other competitors and I so enjoyed the playful competitiveness that she shares with fellow musher Guy.  Although they all are in a race it's nice to see them sharing gear and helping each other out.  Most of all I loved McKenna's ingenuity and the strategy she devises to get her through the last leg of the race.   Dog Driven was an absolutely riveting story.  It makes for a wonderful wintery time read with lots of action, adventure and I highly recommend it.  

Favorite line from the E-ARC:  "I heard once that a dog's nose reveals another world beyond what humans can see."

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

MG Fantasy review of Prince Dustin and Clara: Secrets of the Black Forest by Daniel Lee Nicholson

46763612Prince Dustin and Clara: Secrets of the Black Forest by Daniel Lee Nicholson 
Format:  Paperback
Publisher:  Fossil Mountain Publishing
Number of Pages:  247
Published:  August 29th,  2019
Source:  Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  

Opening Line: "On a splendid spring day many, many years ago, the remaining snow on the mountain tops finally melted."
Secrets of the Black Forest takes place several months after the events in the first book.  The winter snow has now given way to spring.   Prince Dustin and Princess Sugar Plum have been searching for their parents, who vanished some time ago.  Despite an exhaustive search within the Black Forest, they've come up empty-handed.  Prince Dustin is now due to be crowned as the King of Konfetenburg and just as the coronation is about to begin,  Princess Sugar Plum goes missing.  King Egon, the Mouse King, has kidnapped the princess and is threatening to harm her unless Prince Dustin brings Clara to Niedertrachtig Castle within three days.  To save princess Sugar Plum, Clara and Prince Dustin must venture into the deepest darkest parts of the Black Forest.  A trip that is sure to be filled with many perils and one that will test the adventurer's bravery and courage.

According to its website, Fossil Mountain Publishing has a mission to publish books that include both the performing and fine arts.   Each story is divided into acts, with the inspiration for the first book in the series being The Nutcracker.  Book one, Deep in the Black Forest, according to the notes at the end of the book is a retelling of the Nutcracker fairy tale with a re-imagining of the snow scene.  I do so enjoy the Nutcracker and even though I haven't been to the ballet for quite some time, I do love to listen to the music each year.  I would've probably enjoyed reading the first book but it isn't really necessary to have read it first to follow the current storyline.   Book two, Secrets of the Black Forest includes many of the same characters from the ballet such as Clara, Herr Drosselmeyer, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the Mouse King, it has the feel of a quest or an adventure.  The interior artwork by Luke Ahearn is gorgeous, it's framed and captioned in such a way as to give the appearance that it could be a piece of art hanging in a gallery.  

Secrets of the Black Forest makes me feel nostalgic for my time having lived in Germany.  It's always a treat to find a book that includes German words and names with fantasy elements from the Nutcracker.   I also quite enjoyed reading the many descriptive passages by Nicholson.  For example this one: 

"The sun glowed in soft shades of amber.  Clara was making her bed and fluffing the over-stuffed pillows.  Her bedroom was decorated in ballet pink with white lace accents on the bed skirt and curtains.  A warm breeze from the open window gently blew the curtains in rhythm.  The smell of primroses scented the air." 

It's lovely how the words that an author uses in their passages can conjure up a scene or setting.    Secrets of the Black Forest can definitely be read as a standalone, and if you really enjoy the Nutcracker Ballet I'd encourage you to read the first book, Deep in the Black Forest as well.  Nicholson appears to bring his past experiences performing as solider in the Nutcracker into the storyline and I imagine the first book wonderfully details the snow scene from the ballet.  

The prologue of Secrets of the Black Forest alludes toward something bad or ominous about to happen.  Herr Drosselmeyer and Queen Nordika, the Snow Queen are concerned with visions of upcoming danger.  In the beginning chapters, The Mouse King, Egon has kidnapped the Sugar Plum Fairy and a valiant rescue team was assembled.  Following their departure, the action begins to take off.  I really like that Nicholson set the story in the Black Forest of Germany.  I'm picturing densely wooded areas, mountain ranges and the site of many of Grimm's fairytales.    As Prince Dustin and Clara make their way through the Black Forest, they encounter many magical creatures.  Some kind of silly, like the Knuddeligs , a baby bear-like creature who seems to want to snuggle.  And others that are helpful like the Schmetterling or butterflies.   Yet, the Black Forest maintains its image as a dark place, a place that is best not to venture into.  When the group encounters the Lovely Ladies of Tanzer Lake Island, I never thought they would be able to escape.  So definitely a story filled with action and adventuring.  I'm curious if there are plans for another story in the series and hope to read the first book in the future.   

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Middle Grade Fantasy review of The Missing Barbegazi by H.S. Norup

44650388The Missing Barbegazi by H.S. Norup
Format:  ARC Paperback
Publisher:  Jolly Fish Press
Number of Pages:  224
Publishing:  November 12th,  2019
Source:  ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  

Opening Line: "Tessa aimed her binoculars at the white blanket of new snow, searching for a Barbegazi."

Tessa's Opa (grandfather) shared many stories with her, but her favorite is the one of how he was saved after an avalanche by a Barbegazi.  Everyone in their village believed Tessa's Opa was crazy but not Tessa.  He'd always planned to show her the spot where he was rescued, but now he's gone.  Since then, Tessa and her mother have been caring for her Oma, who lately has become lost after her husband's death.  To make her Oma feel better, Tessa wants to prove that Barbegazi's exist, that her Opa was right.  She has a lot to prove and very little to go on.  

Gawion's twin sister Maeg is missing, presumably lost after an avalanche.   Gawion knows in his gut that's impossible because both of them can ride the snow of an avalanche and his sister could never get buried in the snow.    After a previous bad experience with humans, Gawion's parents forbid him from searching for Maeg anywhere near the human village, and most of all from interacting with them.  Humans are dangerous and not to be trusted.  But, Gawion feels the only way he will be able to help his sister is by getting some answers from the nearby villagers.  After Tessa has a mishap while skiing out of bounds, Gawion comes to her rescue and later they join forces to find Maeg.  They also discover the true reason Maeg's missing, which turns out to be more sinister then they thought, she might've been captured by Professor Bahne from the Institute of Zoology in Zurich who's researching the existence of the Barbegazi.  

The Missing Barbegazi is the debut novel from Danish author, H. S. Norup.  It is set in the wintery backdrop of the alpine mountains and is the tale of a young girl in search of the mythical creature from her Opa's stories.  The Barbegazi are a gnome or dwarf-like creature covered in white fur, with a long beard, and large feet, they live in the freezing cold in shelters covered in snow and help people who become trapped after an avalanche.  Each chapter alternates between Tessa and Gawion and is separated by excerpts from Professor Bahne's book, Habits & Habitats:  A Historic Account of Alpine Elves, with events taking place from December 26th through December 31st.  

Norup credits some of her inspiration for the story from her time living in Switzerland and skiing while her sons took ski race training.  It captures the atmosphere of an Austrian village, swishing on skis, the cable cars and lifts pulling you up the mountainside.  The mention of goulash soup and the use of Oma and Opa to refer to Tessa's grandparents had me nostalgic for Germany.  And maybe because I was thinking about small villages and foods, I personally would have loved more of there inclusion.  I do so love immersing myself in all the sights, sounds and smells of another culture.  The Missing Barbegazi is a very unique story and I quite enjoyed learning about the Barbegazi., especially the snippets between each chapter from the Professor.    

Tessa is a sweet young girl, whose family is grieving the recent loss of her Opa.  She's trying to combat the village's negative views of her Opa while also trying to cheer up her Oma.  Her heart always seems to be in the right place but at the same time, she takes risks.  She's so determined to get answers and despite knowing the dangers of skiing out of bounds on the course, she still forges ahead.  The story isn't filled with fast-paced action, aside from the times she is skiing, and Tessa isn't really in tremendous danger from the professor.  Rather it's a story of Tessa's growth,  from a rash kid to the young girl who takes other's feelings into consideration.  And her coming to the overall realization of what could happen if she proves the existence of Barbegazi.  Which ultimately leaves her questioning whether it's more important to prove everyone else wrong or to know that you're right despite what everyone else thinks?