Monday, August 13, 2018

MG Mystery: Otherwood by Pete Hautman

38256488Otherwood by Pete Hautman
Format:  ARC 
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
Number of pages:  320
Publishing:  September 11th, 2018
Source:  Publisher in exchange for an honest review

Opening Lines:  
"Years later, people still talked about it. 
It came out of nowhere, they said.
Middle of the day.
Black as night.
Sideways rain.
Trees bent and twisted like blades of grass."

The last book of Pete Hautman's I've read and enjoyed was Slider, it's a book about a boy who enters a competitive eating contest to pay off an online auction he entered but couldn't afford.  Not only was it a humorous story, I really liked the way that 
David's relationship with his younger brother Mal, who has autism was so realistically portrayed.   So, when I read the premise of how Otherwood is a "book about memory and loss and the destructive nature of secrets, but also about the way friendship, truth, and perseverance have the ability to knit a torn-apart world back together." Yep, I jumped at the chance to read it.  

When Stuey was eight years old, a terrible storm came through his town.  While Stuey and his mom went and hid in the cellar, Stuey's grandfather decided to wait it out in his cottage guarding a book he had been writing.  After the storm subsided, Stuey found the pages of his grandfather's book strewed around the room and that his beloved grandfather had passed away.  Since then, Stuey likes to explore the families orchard, wander through the meadow and spend time in his favorite spot within the poplar grove where nestled among the trees he found the remnants of a golf course, originally built by his great-grandfather.  Hidden even further in is also a deadfall or a group of five entangled trees creating a spot where just the right size kid can crawl inside.  A secret fort.   
Stuey is a slightly shy and lonely boy, until the summer he meets Elly Rose.  Elly lives on the other side of the woods and shares the same birthday as Stuey.  They both have quite the imagination.  At first, Stuey doesn't know what to think of Elly Rose, especially after she says they're to become "soul mates" and starts talking about a magical kingdom within the woods.  However, Elly's stories about Castle Rose win him over.  Not only does Stuey share his special spot with Elly the two quickly bond and become the best of friends.  Then one day while playing in the woods, Elly vanishes before Stuey's eyes. 

As the story progresses, we learn of a feud that existed between Elly and Stuey's family dating back to their great-grandfathers.  Stuey's great-grandfather was a bootlegger who tried to go legit by building a country club and golf course.  However, he had horribly discriminatory practices in his admissions to the club.  Elly's great-grandfather was a district attorney and sought to put Stuey's in jail.  In the end, both of them went missing following a horrible disagreement.  Thus, setting up the mystery surrounding what exactly happened to the two of them. 

The overall plot is slowly revealed with a huge twist somewhere around the middle that I never saw coming.  It totally blew me away with how the direction of the story changed from not just being a mystery about the past.  I really don't want to say too much more about it, cause spoilers, but wow Hautman had me guessing as to how things were going to resolve.  Otherwood's a much deeper read than I was expecting.  At first, I thought it was going to be along the lines of something like Bridge to Terabithia, a fantastical tale of kids creating a hidden world in the forest.  Which is a very small part of this story, but there are also ghosts, themes of the loss of a grandparent, discrimination, grief of a missing friend, mans impact on the environment, reality, perception, memory, secrets and holding onto a friendship.   Hautman's afterword where he states how the book was a "eulogy to the woods that live now only in my memory" leaves you with a lot to think about. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Historical Fiction Review: Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground (Zora and Me #2) by T.R. Simon

38256472Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground (Zora and Me #2) by T.R. Simon
Format:  ARC Paperback
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
Number of pages:  272
Publishing:  September 11th, 2018
Source:  ARC received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Favorite Lines:  "There are two kinds of memory.  One is the ordinary kind, rooted in things that happened, people you knew, and places you went...   The second kind of memory is rooted in the things you live with, the land you live on, the history of where you belong."  

The Cursed Ground is the second book in the Zora &  Me series.  Unfortunately, I missed out on the first book, but both appear to be the historical fictionalized accounts of author Zora Neale Hurston's early childhood.   The story is initially narrated by Carrie and set in 1903 in Eatonville, Florida.   Late one night while sleeping over at her friend Zora's house, Carrie hears horses running wild outside the bedroom window.  She suspects that they belong to Mr. Polk's farm.  Zora immediately wants to investigate and convinces Carrie to come with.  Upon reaching the farm, they find Mr. Polk with a long gash on his arm.  Shortly after, Old Lady Bronson, the local healer or seer shows up and tends to his wound.  When Lady Bronson and Mr. Polk communicate in a language the girls don't understand, they're flabbergasted as Mr. Polk is well known for being mute.  Mrs. Bronson makes a deal with the girls, she'll tell them a story in exchange for their silence about Mr. Polk being able to speak.  

From there the story shifts back in time to 1855 where our second narrator,  Lucia, an orphan serving girl and Prisca, the daughter to the gentleman Don Federico have just found out that Prisca's father has taken a new wife and they will be leaving the Dominican Republic to travel to their new home in Westin, Florida.   Lucia has been a companion for Prisca for most of her life, the two are the best of friends, spending almost every waking moment in each others company.  Yet, following the move to Florida, Lucia becomes a slave within the household.  No longer can the two friends play together, now Lucia has chores and punishments if she doesn't perform her duties.  Lucia tries to adapt to her new life, learning to survive by keeping her emotions and feelings in check but also lives in fear of angering those around her and having the atrocities she witnesses befall her.  She tries very hard not to jeopardize the other slaves around her by not drawing attention to herself.  

Zora & Me is really a story within a story that spans two time periods.  In 1903, we find out the events that led to the attack on Mr. Polk and in 1855 learn about Lucia's life and struggles in Florida.  I found Lucia's story to be the most impactful because of how accurately it portrayed the brutality of slavery, the emotions, feelings, and pain.   The story makes slavery not just something that happened in the past, somewhere else, but something tangible.  Images and characters that you won't forget.  Some parts are sad, heartwrenching and difficult to read, but it is a very important story.  I especially enjoyed the strong theme that "history is a living history, not something you just read in a book, that it is everything your life stood on."  That even in 1903, the girls are facing events that occurred from the past, how they begin to see that the history of slavery is one based on a"hate and desire to have control or power over something seen as inferior."  There are so many powerful messages within Zora & Me making this a valuable teaching tool.   

The ending came together rather quickly for me, partially because I was so engrossed in Lucia's story, but it was important for the reader to be brought up to speed with the historical details of the Jim Crow Laws and Reconstruction to ensure they had the context to be able to follow the events occurring in Zora's hometown.  I read this book in one sitting, it has such a riveting plot and I loved how Lucia's and Carrie's stories intertwined. 

 "History ain't in a book, especially when it comes to folks like us. History is in the lives we lived and the stories we tell each other about those lives."

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Graphic Novel Reveiw: Illegal by Eoin Colfer & Andrew Donkin, Illustrated by Giovanni Rigano

Author:  Eoin Colfer & Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano
Format:  E ARC
Publisher:  Sourcebooks
Number of Pages:  144
Publishing:  August 7th, 2018
Source:  Edelweiss Above the TreeLine

Synopsis from Goodreads:

This is a powerful and timely story about one boy's epic journey across Africa to Europe, a graphic novel for all children with glorious colour artwork throughout. From Eoin Colfer, previously Irish Children's Laureate, and the team behind his bestselling Artemis Fowl graphic novels.
Ebo: alone.
His sister left months ago. Now his brother has disappeared too, and Ebo knows it can only be to make the hazardous journey to Europe.
Ebo's epic journey takes him across the Sahara Desert to the dangerous streets of Tripoli, and finally out to the merciless sea. But with every step he holds on to his hope for a new life, and a reunion with his sister.

I haven't read a graphic novel in quite some time, but when I heard about Illegal, I knew that it would be the kind of book that I wanted to read.  The first thing that hits you is the illustrations by Giovanni Rigano, the deep blue of the ocean at the very beginning really grips you and places you in the reality of that moment, the feeling of being alone in the deep ocean on nothing but a small raft.   Then contrast that with the colors of the desert in Africa as Ebo tries to find his brother Kwame in the city, giving you the expansive feel of the task he's set for himself.    Illegal alternates between Ebo's current situation and his past, explaining why first his sister and now his brother left Africa to immigrate to Europe.  It's a touching story that not only highlights the dangers that refugee's faced, but what their hopes and dreams were for the future if they could survive the journey.  Ebo is intelligent, and resourceful, and determined to find his brother, which isn't a small task when he makes it to the larger city.  While there isn't a lot of dialogue, the story will hold a lasting impression.  The full-page illustration alone with a boat filled to the brim with people and Ebo in this small raft that's falling apart at the seams kept me riveted flipping pages to see how it ends.   Illegal is a realistic story, full of all the potential hazards and risks you might expect, there was a particularly heartbreaking moment that had me shedding a few tears.  Not a story I will soon forget, and I really hope there will be a discussion guide to accompany this so that it can be adapted for an educational setting.  I found this video on Youtube and it will give you an idea of the illustrations.  Illegal is a story that you won't want to miss. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

MG Realistic Fiction: Wonderland by Barbara O'Connor

Wonderland by Barbara O'Connor
Format:  E ARC
Publisher:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Number of pages:  288
Publishing: August 28th, 2018
Source:  Edelweiss Plus 

Opening Line:  "Mavis Jeeter sat on the bus stop bench beside her mother and whispered goodbye to Hadley, Georgia."

School has just let out for the summer and Mavis Jeeter has found out that her mother has taken a new job, this time in Alabama as a housekeeper for the Tully's.  There's a huge part of Mavis that wishes her mother could just stay in one place, it gets so hard to find your best friend when you're constantly moving.  This time though Mavis vows things will be different cause the Tully's have a girl her age and even though she doesn't know it yet, they're going to be the best of friends.  

Rose Tully has a difficult time making friends, she worries a lot about what other people think and follows all of her mother's rules.   The highlight of her day is going to visit Mr. Duffy at the gatehouse to Magnolia Estates, but lately, Mr. Duffy hasn't been himself.  He doesn't whistle while he works, hasn't shown her a magic trick in weeks and ever since his dog Queenie died, he seems sadder.  Mr. Duffy has been making mistakes at his job and the neighbors are getting angry with his performance.  

Henry is the greyhound dog that has been hanging around the estates looking for food, and when Mavis and Rose find out about him they set out to coax him out of the woods.  If they can just capture Henry and bring him to Mr. Duffy, he won't be so sad anymore.  

Mavis and Rose are polar opposites, Mavis is bold, unafraid, speaks her mind.  A force to be reckoned with.  Whereas, Rose is constantly worried about breaking her mother's rules, especially when it comes to exploring outside of her neighborhood.  They both are looking for a best friend and think they've found it in each other.  Mavis helps Rose to be brave and take risks, while Rose helps Mavis to see how she needs to take other peoples feelings and wants into consideration.  These two girls argue and disagree, but ultimately are best friends.  Wonderland is told from the alternating perspectives of Mavis, Rose, and Henry, and what a sweet dog Henry is.  He's looking for attention and love, and despite Mr. Duffy's initial reluctance to take him in, Henry is just what he needed.  Wonderland is a quick read with endearing characters and a plot that is heartwarming, similar to Wish which is also by Barbara O'Connor.   

Monday, July 23, 2018

MG Realistic Fiction: Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher:  Arthur A.. Levine Books 
Number of pages:  286
Published:  May 29th, 2018
Source:  Library
Opening Lines:   "My parents told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers till we were red in the face."

When Mia Tang was about ten-years-old her parents immigrated from China to the United States looking for a better life, a place where they could be "freer."  With only a couple hundred dollars,  they struggled to find work, a place to live, even the money for food.  Initially, Mia's dad found a job as the assistant fryer at a Chinese restaurant, and despite Mia's mom being an engineer in China, she took on a job as a waitress to help the family to gather enough money for a one bedroom apartment.  Mia was a go-getter, always eager to contribute to the family, so she even tried her hand at waitressing like her mother.  Unfortunately, she was too small for the task and following a mishap with an order the whole family was let go.  Eventually, Mia's mom found a managerial position at a motel in Anaheim where the family could live on the property rent-free, and earn a portion of the room rental fees in wages.  A deal that is too good to be true when they learn that the owner, Mr. Yao has been taking advantage of them.  Mr. Yao not only has a strict set of rules that they have to follow, he even cheats them out of some of their weekly pay.  Mia thinks she may have a solution to their problem, entering an essay contest to win a motel in Vermont, but where will she get the money for the entrance fee?  

When Mia and her family move to the motel, Mia takes over running the front desk and even labels herself the "manager," with a sign and all.  While she mans things up front, technically within one of Mr. Yao's rules, her parents are able to get all the daily cleaning of the guest rooms done.  At first, Mia's most difficult task is getting adults to take a ten-year-old seriously, especially after her rocky start navigating the early wake-up call system but Mia does come up with some unique solutions to the problems she encounters.  Not only does she put up the sign, she figures out how to manage cleaning the towels after the washing machine breaks, she successfully hides fellow immigrants looking for a place to stay for the night from Mr. Yao, she even wins over the most difficult customers.  

Now Mia's new school is a bit more of a challenge.  Mia loves to write, but her mother is concerned that the other children know and speak better English than Mia.  She's also has a group of girls who constantly say mean things about her clothes and then there's how to handle having Mr. Yao's son Jason in her class.   On the bright side, Mia meets Lupe, a girl who's families living situation is similar to her own, and there's also the "weeklies" at the motel who treat Mia with kindness, with Hank being one who she has a special bond with.  

 I'm pretty sure that I first heard about Front Desk from MG Book Village, then it was making the rounds on Twitter and I'll admit I fell in love with that cover.   There's a beautiful Author's Note explaining that the story was inspired by events in Yang's own life and that it was a story that she wanted to share with her son that would be uplifting.  How she hoped that the story would let other immigrant children know that "you are not alone."  The story is so much more than about a young girl managing the front desk at the motel her parents are running.  It includes the themes of bullying, discrimination, unfair work practices targeting immigrants and racial profiling.  It provides a realistic perspective on the experiences of immigrants, injustices occurring in the world while also building empathy.  There are heartwarming moments and practices that touch on current events, but overall it's also a story about the strength of friendships and a network of "weeklies" who capture their own dream of happiness.  

Favorite line:  "Don't be sorry.  Be better."       

Monday, July 16, 2018

Longburrow The Gift of Dark Hollow (The Five Realms #2) by Kieran Larwood, Illustrated by David Wyatt

Longburrow The Gift of Dark Hollow (The Five Realms #2) by Kieran Larwood, illustrated by David Wyatt
Format:  E-ARC
Publisher:  Clarion Books
Number of pages:  272
Expected Publication:  August 7th, 2018
Source:  Edelweiss Plus

Opening Lines:  "He still dreams about them sometimes.  Nightmares that leave him wide-eyed and gasping with fears sixty years old pounding fresh through his blood."

In the first book of the series, Podkin and his siblings, Paz, and baby brother Pook fled from Scramashank, the leader of the Gorm army, a group of warrior rabbits with iron infused bodies.   After the Gorm invaded the sibling's warren, killing their father and capturing their mother, the children barely escaped with Starclaw, a magical dagger and one of the ancient Twelve Gifts.  Continuing to be pursued by the Gorm Lord, the siblings made their way to Dark Hollow along the way being joined in their quest by a healer rabbit named Brigid and a blind warrior named Crom.  Together they devised a rescue plan to free Podkin's mother and were successful in fighting back the Gorm when Podkin chopped off the foot of the Gorm Lord.  
The Prologue of The Gifts of Dark Hollow begins with a rabbit waking from a nightmare, restless the bard contemplates leaving the warren when a young rabbit named Rue sneaks up on him.  Rue has all the making of an apprentice bard, so the older rabbit agrees to help find a teacher for him at the Festival of Clarion, a gathering of the bards from across the Five Realms each Spring.  As the bard and Rue make their way across the countryside, and to distract the young rabbit from asking so many questions, the bard begins to tell him the story of Podkin and the Gift of the Dark Hollow.   

After the events in the first book, The longburrow of Dark Hollow became a refuge for all of the local warrens.  Food was scarce with winter approaching, but all the rabbits banded together.  Podkin's mother and aunt had somehow fallen into a deep slumber and were being tended to by Brigid.  Scramashank was most likely still on the hunt for Podkin, but for the meantime, the warren was safely hidden within the Grimheart forest.  Podkin was getting very bored and a bit discouraged that he wasn't included in the War Council with Crom and the other rabbits.  He fancied himself a hero after his last encounter with the Grom Lord.  Curious as he was, Podkin then ventured into the depths of the Temple of Hern where he found the chieftain's hidden throne room and Moonfyre, the lost Gift of Dark Hollow.  Moonfyre granted Podkin the ability to teleport between dark shadows where he managed to overhear a conversation about the location of a powerful artifact hidden by Priestess Comfrey.  Unfortunately, the priestess was currently being held captive by the Gorm army, but if Podkin and his friends were able to rescue her they could recover the Surestrike Hammer, a new weapon to help them defeat the Gorm.

The Five Realms series has the feel of a story being told around a campfire.  Each book is told from the vantage point of an old bard, with the first book centered around a holiday gathering and the second a tale told while the bard and his new apprentice travel across the countryside.  Occasional the bard pauses his stories of Podkin One-Ear to converse with his audience,  in this case, Rue.   The writing style so reminds me of Brian Jacques Redwall series with our hero Podkin One-Ear and his band of daring rabbits trying to fend off the evil Gorm army by acquiring magical weapons and going off into battle.  The black and white illustrations by David Wyatt are gorgeously detailed and  I especially loved the ones of Zarza the bonedancer, a new character added to the story. I'm really looking forward to the next book in the series.  

Friday, July 6, 2018

MG Review of Del Toro Moon by Darby Karchut

Del Toro Moon by Darby Karchut
Format:  E ARC 
Publisher:  Owl Hollow Press
Number of pages:  256
Publishing:  October 2nd, 2018
Source:  ARC received from the author in exchange for an honest review

Opening Line:  "Worst thing about riding point on my first hunt?  Waiting to find out if I was going to die on my first hunt."

When Darby Karchut contacted me about reading Del Toro Moon it was the cover and description that initially struck my interest, it has a western vibe that I found really appealing.  Then I learned Darby lives in my hometown of Colorado Springs and the setting of the book is Huerfano, Colorado (a county located in Southern Colorado) and I was hooked.

Twelve-year-old Matt Del Toro and his family are a part of a legendary order of knights that dates back to the sixteen hundreds when the Queen of Spain tasked their ancestor Santiago Del Toro with bringing a coffer to the New World.  Housed inside were these creepy wolf-like creatures called skinners.  Santiago stayed in the New World guarding the town against any of the creatures that may escape, a task the Del Toro's have continued even to this day.  Except now the creatures have increased in number and have been intensifying their attacks.  

Del Toro Moon is an action-packed story with plenty of scenes where Matt and his family are slinging their mace, striking down the skinners causing them to vanish in thin air.  And boy were the skinners creepy, this description is pretty accurate, creatures that look like "a bloodied, fresh-skinned carcass."  Not something you'd want to come up against in the desert.  I really liked Matt, he wants his father and brother to take him seriously and despite being new to the task of hunting skinners, he really wants to show he has the skills to make a good fighter.   It's not easy being the youngest, having a father who is a legend and a family history to live up to.  Not to mention having an older brother who teases you ruthlessly and can get on your last nerve.  I also really liked Matt's father, Javier and their relationship.  How Javier understands what Matt is going through and the genuine love and caring that he shows him.   

Aside from the family relationships and action, I really liked the Del Toro's Andalusian war horses.  Now, these horses are special because not only can they assist the family in their battle against the skinners, they can also talk.  Which at first thought sounds kind of silly, but these horses really have a personality that stands out.  There's El Cid who's wise, kind but with a wry sense of humor.  Then there's Turk whose arrogant, and well deserves the nickname of Turk the Jerk.  And newcomer Izzy who is also eager to show what she can do.  Together making a wonderful story.