Wednesday, April 27, 2016

MG Fantasy/Adventure Review: Mabel Jones and the Forbidden City by Will Mabbitt

Mabel Jones and the Forbidden City (Mabel Jones #2) by Will Mabbitt
Illustrations by Ross Collins
Format:  Hardcover
Pages:  304
Release Date:  February 9th 2016 by Viking Books for Young Readers
Genre:  MG Fantasy/Adventure with a girl pirate
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review via a Giveaway hosted at Word Spelunking

"What do you do when you survive a pirate kidnapping, a milk-drinking contest with a giant grizzly bear, and a stint inside the belly of a whale? If you’re Mabel Jones, you do everything you can to avoid another UNLIKELY ADVENTURE! "

Or at least that's what Mabel had hoped at the end of book one, The Unlikely Adventure of Mabel Jones.  Mabel is once again home, all safe and sound, wiser and a more seasoned pirate.  But, unbeknownst to Mabel, an evil witch/sorceress has been watching and plotting.  She even sends her creeping vines to snatch Mabel and carry her off to the Forbidden City.  As I said though, Mabel is wiser, and the vines end up snatching Mabel's little sister Maggie instead.  Hot on their trail, Mabel hitches a ride with one of the vines and gets pulled into a whole different time filled with talking animals, and where "hoomans" are extinct. Desperate to find her sister, Mabel enlists the help of some fellow adventures who are also on a search for the Forbidden City and they in turn run into her former crew-mates,  who just might know how to get them there.  

Mabel is just adorable in her pj's and bunny slippers, swinging a cutlass.  She never ceases to amuse me. Even the intrusive narrator is quite humorous, perhaps not quite as much as I recall from the first book, yet still keeps things entertaining.  Captain Pelf and Jarvis, crew from Mabel's time on the Ferrous Maggot make an appearance, as well as new additions of Professor Carruthers Badger-Badger, PhD and Timothy Speke, an otter who has a remarkable ability for sketching.  And man, those illustrations by Ross Collins are gorgeous and wonderfully detailed.  There was a nice balance of newer and familiar characters, with Carruthers and Speke adding a nice British sounding flair.   One of my favorite characters, Omynus Hussh was also present, but sadly Mabel and his friendship has returned to a hatred with him having ominous plans for our poor Mabel.  The other change I noticed is that this book seemed to have darker undertones to it, not to say I didn't enjoy them, which I did, just that it is something to keep in mind. There is a particular scene where Mabel goes underground into a high school filled with the piles of bones of students sitting at their desks looking at a skeletal teacher and we're uncertain what happened to poor Jarvis.   There was also a battle with a huge creepy insect called the Scuttling Death, and well the evil sorceress is also a bit unnerving.  Myself, I enjoyed the rise in tension and felt nothing was to over the top or scary, with the narrator taking even these moments and making them funny and light or just making changes in the text size, spacing of words, or adding blank pages in between to show Mabel making her way around in the dark.   All making for a fun and amusing story.  

Far away aboard the Feroshus Maggot is Captain Idryss Ebenezer Split, who while looking through his telescope into the "hooman world," spots Mabel about to perform "THE DEED."  Not any only deed.  The most horrible, disgusting deed.  She is about to pick her nose and ...yep.... eat it.  I know gross right?  If you perform the deed, you get yourself bound to the Captain.  And at this very minute, he is sending his trusty mate, Omynus Hussh, to sneak down and bag himself the snuglet.  Mabel tries really hard to be brave after being kidnapped, but this crew is rather "beastly." And, when Captain Split makes  the horrible discovery that Omynus bagged himself something so terrible, something for which  the word can't be used to describe, the pirates vow to make it walk "the greasy pole of certain death."  That is until Mabel reveals that she can do the one thing that they've been searching for, she can read.   Mabel is enlisted as an honoree' member of the crew, given a cutlass and a belt, and in exchange for a means to get back home, she will help them find the pieces of a key needed to unlock a treasure.  

Monday, April 25, 2016

MG Fantasy Review: The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd

25152641The Key to Extraordinary  by Natalie Lloyd
Format:  Ebook
Publisher:  Scholastic Press
Number of Pages: 240
Published: February 23rd 2016
Source:  Library

Genre: Fantasy Mystery

First Lines:  "It is a known fact that the most extraordinary moments in a person's life come disguised as ordinary days."  

Emma, Granny Blue and her older brother Topper live in the Boneyard Cafe,  "perched on the edge of a famous cemetery" within the town of Blackwood Hollow.  Emma provides tours at the cemetery and knows all  the local stories and legends. While she is on one of her famous tours, her Uncle Peri and Aunt Gerta tell her about the tale of The Conductor, who hid his treasure somewhere within Blackwood Hollow, but will only reveal it to someone who has "good intentions and is pure of heart."   The Boneyard Cafe is a special place for Emma, it holds all her memories of her mother and is the only home she's ever known.  When Emma was ten, her mother gave her a  family heirloom,  The Book of Days.  A special book filled with the stories, admonitions, newspaper clippings, trinkets and the "Destiny Dreams" of the women in their family.   Emma's mother shared how each of the women had a dream of the "wondrous thing" they were going to accomplish in their life, with each dream beginning in a field of blue flowers.  Emma believes her destiny is to find The Conductor's treasure and  to save her beloved Boneyard Cafe from being sold.   But, when Emma finally has her dream it's a confusing mess, and the only clue to her destiny seems to rest in a key.  
 The Key to Extraordinary has a lovely atmosphere , with it's small town feel seeped in memories, traditions, history, legends, ghosts and all the emotions that go with it.  For Emma it is the feeling of the "Big Empty," a heavy aching feeling from the loss of  the space that her mother filled in her heart.  A feeling easy to relate to if you've ever lost a family member, friend or even a beloved pet.  Emma and her friend Cody Belle  are truly lovely girls and because of Emma having been teased about her cleft lip repair, she is able to see what new boy Earl needs is a friend.  I loved how they were so inviting and reached out to welcome him into their circle.  The Key to Extraordinary is also magical in the form of the Gypsy Roses blowing on the wind, talking vines and even in the Boneyard Brew sold at the cafe.  With all the references to peach lavender muffins, cookies and fresh baked scones,it really made me want to do some baking or at least make a cup of hot chocolate.   There were also so many beautiful quotes, with my favorite being  "Every life time, no matter how long it lasts, is a gift.  And to love and be loved, even by one person during your lifetime...that is a treasure no one can take from you."   Most of all though it's a story of love, loss and the connections that we make to the past, to our family and friends.  Absolutely loved, loved, loved it.    

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

MG Fantasy/Adventure Review: The Tournament at Gorlan (Rangers Apprentice The Early Years) by John Flanagan

23846048The Tournament at Gorlan  (Rangers Apprentice The Early Years) by John Flanagan
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher:  Philomel Books
Number of Pages: 364
Published: October 6th 2015 
Source:  Review copy provided by publisher

Genre: Fantasy Adventure

 The Tournament at Gorlan recounts the story of Baron Morgarath's plot to seize the throne from King Oswald.  Morgarath  begins by weakening the Ranger Corps, and replacing much of the men with his own.  He also captures Prince Duncan and holds him hostage, while having an impostor impersonating the Prince wreak havoc and besmirch Duncan's name across the countryside.  The plan is to have King Oswald, the villagers and nobles get so angry with the Prince, that it will force the King to disinherit his son and replace Morgarath as the rightful heir to the throne.  Well at least until our heroes of this tale, Halt and Crowley,  come along.   When Halt and Crowley uncover Morgarath's villainous plans, they set out to gather the Rangers, release Prince Duncan from his captures and expose Morgarath's plot.  

The Rangers Apprentice is a series of twelve books that my kiddo has steadily been reading, currently leaving off with book four I think.  There is also a spin off series called The Brotherband Chronicles and the newest series, The Early Years is meant to not only provide backstory to the events in book 1 and 2 of the Rangers Apprentice, but also includes some of the characters  and plot points from a previous book.   With  well over twenty books out there, it's safe to say that Flanagan's books are pretty popular.   Prior to reading The Tournament at Gorlan, I was only familiar with the first book in The Rangers Apprentice,  having gotten distracted by other books, but from what I remember, I quite enjoyed it.   One of the things I enjoyed most about this new series is that it isn't dependent on having read The Ranger's Apprentice series first.  You could pick this up and pretty much follow everything going on.  Although if you do read and enjoy this book, you just might want to go back and read from Flanagan's other series', be forewarned.   While riding horseback,  Halt and Crowley encounter a rider carrying a dispatch from Baron Morgarath to Sir Wildriver, the letter pretty much details all the Barons plans.  I thought this was quite amusing, from the get go, Halt and Crowley know everything that Morgarath is doing.  But, here is where Flanagan still is able to throw in a few twists that makes things more difficult then Halt and Crowley thought.  Quite a bit of the initial parts of the book  are spent with Halt and Crowley gathering Rangers who are loyal to the King.  During the amassing of troops there wasn't lots of action, but I was okay with this.  There was plenty of amusing scenes with Halt and Crowley bantering back and forth around a campfire or while riding horses, and the strength of their friendship really shows.  Plus this gave me a chance to get to know the other Rangers and they in turn got to use their bow and arrow skills  against Morgarath's troops.  Everything started to come together nicely with the action revving up,  ending in the final jousting competition at the tournament.   I'm surprised that I got to read this one first, but will be passing it along to my kiddo.  

Thursday, April 14, 2016

MG Fantasy Review: Rise of the Wolf (Mark of the Thief #2) by Jennifer A. Nielsen

25582867Rise of the Wolf  (Mark of the Thief #2) by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher:  Scholastic Press
Number of Pages: 352
Published: January 26, 2016
Source:  Library

Genre: Fantasy

Nic is caught between two sides of a war raging within Rome. A terrible predicament to be in for sure.   On the one side are The Praetor's,  who will stop at nothing to get Nic to retrieve the Malice of Mars,  an amulet needed to create a Jupiter Stone.  On the other side is Nic's grandfather, Radulf, who wants to use the amulet to destroy Rome and secure his power. Stuck in the middle are Nic's family and friends, who are constantly being used as leverage by both sides to manipulate him into doing what they want.  It's very complicated to say the least, and Nic is always unsure of who he can completely trust.  When Nic's mother is taken hostage by the Praetors, Nic challenges them to a chariot race.  If he loses, Nic agrees to the Praetors demands, but if he wins he will achieve his goal of ensuring those he loves freedom and protection.  

 As a parent, I'm always on a lookout for books, series, non-fiction, anything that sparks my child's interest. Although, I'm pretty lucky to have a reader and a school that encourages reading, I wish they didn't have genres requirements and reading prompts to do.  Any-who.  The Mark of the Thief has been one of those series' for us.  The first book came out as they were studying about Rome in school.  Lots of discussions ensued about the Roman empire, and the premise of Caesar being a descendant of the Gods.  The Gladiator battles were pretty cool too.  My kiddo just finished my copy of My Life in Dioramas, and has started reading Rise of the Wolf, I'll add in any thoughts or comments at the end of the review later.  One thing is for sure, we will be chatting about this book on our car rides back and forth from school.  Rise of the Wolf for me was about Nic's inner struggle to try to right the wrongs that he feels he committed in taking the bulla for himself in the first book.  He sees himself as a thief and doesn't want to be responsible for the fall of Rome.  He also really wants to protect his family, who all seem to end up in danger at some point or another, or are used to try and manipulate him in some way.   There is also a mystery about a key that is needed to acquire the Malice of Mars.  What exactly this key is and whether Nic possess it are two of the questions to be answered.  The character that surprised me the most was Radulf, Nic's grandfather.  Early on in the story, Radulf pretty much demands that Nic acquire the Malice of Mars for him.  Where at first he was  forceful and demanding, Radulf's tone begins to soften as his concern for Nic's safety in the chariot race begins to emerge.   Quite the twisty-turny plot of emotions and intentions.  One of the things that I really appreciated was that Nic didn't give in to the manipulations and is crafty in figuring out a way out of things thrown at him.  Well up until the chariot race and that cliffhanger ending.  My reaction was NOooo, but I enjoyed Nielsen's response to me "If we authors aren't cruel to our characters, how will they ever rise up as heroes?  So in a way, I'm helping them."  Yep, I've got faith that Nielsen has a plan for Nic to get out of this sticky situation.  Overall, Rise of Wolf nicely mix's historical information, mythology, action and intrigue that really appeals to us.  Anyone know when book 3 comes out?  Asking for a soon to be curious teenager.     

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

MG Realistic Fiction: George by Alex Gino

24612624George by Alex Gino
Format:  Ebook
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Number of Pages: 208
Published:  August 25th 2015

Source: Library
Genre:   MG Realistic Fiction
Opening Lines: "George pulled a silver house key out of the smallest pocket of a large red backpack.  Mom had sewn the key in so that it wouldn't get lost, but the yarn wasn't quite long enough to reach the keyhole if the bag rested on the ground.  Instead, George had to steady herself awkwardly on one foot while the backpack rested on her knee."

In those opening lines we can see that George's story begins with the use of the pronouns "she" and "her,"  George is seen by everyone else as a boy, but knows that she is a girl.  It's a secret that George has chosen not to share with anyone.   But, as the school is about to put on a production of Charlotte's Web, it becomes increasingly more important for her share, especially since George really wants to tryout for the role of Charlotte.  The only problem is that George's teacher refuses to even consider casting a boy for that role, even if she would be perfect for the part.  After George's best friend, Kelley gets the part, she suggests the two switch places during the final production and give George the chance that she has been waiting for to take on the starring lead.  

I'm doing a pretty good job of keeping up with my reading goals for this year (to read widely and diversely),  and I'm pretty happy with my selection this month of George by Alex Gino.  I can see this book being used to spark all kinds of conversations about transgender and it's refreshing to have a book who's overall message was supportive.  With George, Gino appears to realistically portray the types of feelings that transgendered children might be experiencing.  Though, it isn't just a book for transgendered children, as the dedication brilliantly states, "to you, for when you felt different."  Who hasn't had that moment when they felt different?  For George it was constantly being referred to as a boy, when really she is a girl.  Just look at this quote which really got to me: 

"The word man hit like a pile of rocks falling on George's skull. It was a hundred times worse than boy, and she couldn't breathe. She bit her lip fiercely and felt fresh tears pounding against her eyes. She put her head down on her desk and wished she were invisible."

 Gino seemed to take great care in presenting George's story in a way that young children could understand, even giving George a supportive brother, friend and mother who eventually began to understand what George had been feeling.  And I loved that things end on a hopeful note for George, with a lovely trip to the zoo dressed as Melissa with her best friend Kelley.   

Monday, April 11, 2016

MG Realistic Fiction: Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Clearly

9644879Ellen Tebbits (Ellen and Otis #1) by Beverly Cleary  
Format:  Paperback
Publisher: Avon Camelot
Number of Pages: 160
Published:  July 1st 1990 (first published 1951)

Source: Library
Genre:   MG Realistic Fiction
Opening Line: "Ellen Tebbits was in a hurry."

Sometimes saying sorry is harder than it seems ...
"Ellen Tebbits is convinced she'll die of embarrassment if any of the girls at school discover her secret. But then she meets Austine Allen, a new girl in class who's hiding the very same secret. Instantly, the two become best friends. They do everything together, from clapping erasers to riding horses. Ellen quickly learns that embarrassing secrets and pesky troublemakers like Otis Spofford aren't so bad when you have someone special to stick up for you. But then Ellen does something terrible that makes Austine stop speaking to her. Will she ever be able to prove how sorry she is?"
To wish Beverly Cleary happy 100th birthday (on April 12th), the Goodreads group Kindred Spirit decided to read one of my favorite Beverly Clearly books growing up, Ellen Tebbits.  Hope you stop by and join us in the discussion.  I read Ellen Tebbits over and over, until the edges of the book were so dog eared and the cover started to come off the spine.  I really identified with Ellen growing up, especially her desire to have a best friend that she could share all of her secrets with.  Being an Army brat and middle child, I grew up pretty lonely most of the time.  Sure there were plenty of kids around, I even had my two sisters, but just as you get to know someone, we had to move again.  And with one sister being five years older and the other four years younger, you were either to young or to old to play with.  It really wasn't until ninth grade that I first met my " forever best friend." It was at the time where my dad retired and we started to what I like to call "put down roots." Like Ellen, we both worried about what other people thought of us.  Me for wearing hand-me downs, Ellen cause her underwear bunched in the middle during dance class.  This also happens to be one of my favorite scenes.  I'm probably  setting myself up to be the black-sheep on this one, but I always loved the scene where Ellen is in ballet class trying to do the warm ups and Otis is imitating her movements.  Otis is meant to be seen as teasing Ellen, but he never says anything to her.  He just moves like she does, hitching and leaping and clutching.   For Ellen this is terrifying, because she doesn't want those bunching underwear to slide.   Yet, I couldn't get the image of Otis in his spurs, and double barrels of guns at his hips out of my mind.  It's kinda ridiculous that he is trying to do ballet in spurs, but somehow also funny to me.  Yes, I feel horrible for Ellen, who must be mortified, but he is quite something.  Secretly, I always imagined that he was kinda jealous of all the attention that the girls got from his mother, and perhaps what he wanted was to join in on the dance and not necessarily tease Ellen.  But, I'm pretty sure Otis is well known for his teasing.  Re-reading Ellen Tebbits made me a little nervous at first.  You know will your favorite hold up?  And happily for me it does.   Ellen does make a terrible mistake with her new friend, for which she eventually makes amends for and Austine is such a wonderful girl that you can't help but love.    Ellen Tebbits was also a lovely trip down memory lane to a time where you can walk two houses over to a friends house, ride your bike into town, go out for an ice cream cone, or even like in Ellen's case clap erasers with your best friend.   I'll be picking up Otis Spofford and Ramona to read next.  
I think most people are more familiar with Ramona even Henry Huggins.  Ramona certainly has more books written about her.  Did you ever get to read Ellen Tebbits growing up? Or do you have a favorite book by Beverly Clearly?  Feel free to leave a comment.      

Thursday, April 7, 2016

MG Fantasy/Humor Review: Alcatraz vs The Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson


Alcatraz vs The Evil Librarians  by Brandon Sanderson
Format:  Ebook
Publisher: Starscape
Number of Pages: 241
Published:  February 16th 2016

Source: Library
Genre:   MG Fantasy/Humor 
Opening Line:  "So there I was, tied to an altar made from outdated encyclopedias, about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil Librarians."

"On his thirteenth birthday, foster child Alcatraz Smedry gets a bag of sand in the mail-his only inheritance from his father and mother. He soon learns that this is no ordinary bag of sand. It is quickly stolen by the cult of evil Librarians who are taking over the world by spreading misinformation and suppressing truth. Alcatraz must stop them, using the only weapon he has: an incredible talent for breaking things." 

Alcatraz is the narrator of his story, which in the prologue he says is meant to be an autobiography, but most likely will be published as a "work of fantasy."   Alcatraz is one of those intruding narrators, which may or may not be to some's liking.  Myself, I enjoy them, mostly because they interject snide comments or just mix up the writing style a bit.  Alcatraz was somewhat unique for me, aside from the name, which is kinda funny when you think about it, who gets named after a prison and fights Librarians?  What I really enjoyed was how as he was writing there were descriptions of the writing process.  Explaining things like foreshadowing, talking about writing scenes with "danger and tension" and cliffhangers.  All the while trying to convince the reader that he is not a nice person, or a hero.  It's not all about Alcatraz's dialogue, there are also these Occulator glasses, hidden talents and a race to retrieve a bag of sand stolen by the Librarians.  I found the whole thing quite amusing and most likely will continue with the next book in the series, Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones.  

Favorite line:  "Great success often depends upon being able to distinguish between the impossible and the improbable.  Or, in easier terms, distinguishing between popsicles and insanity."  

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

MG Realistic Fiction Review: Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

15937108Counting by 7s  by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Format:  Paperback
Publisher: Dial Books

Number of Pages: 400
Published:  September 16th 2014

Source:  Fellow blogger Jill The Owl via a Giveaway on her blog
Genre:   MG Realistic Fiction 

I read Counting by 7s while on Spring Break, which worked out really well given a had a large chunk of time uninterrupted.   The story begins as Willow and her new friends are returning home from a trip for ice-cream with their school counselor.  As they approach Willow's house,  they spot a police car waiting out front.  At first, Willow thinks she is in trouble with her adoptive parents, but soon learns the horrible news that they died in a car accident.  Everything Willow knows turns upside down, where will she go, who will take her?  Why didn't her adoptive parents make plans for her care in the event something were to happen to them?   This is the crux of the story,  family.  For Willow, it has always been her adoptive parents who've understood her the best, but now that they are gone, everything changes.  The story picks up two months prior to the events, relating Willow meeting the people she went for ice-cream with, and just how and why they become so important to her.  Willow is absorbed by grief over the loss of her parents, and although Mai doesn't know Willow well at first, she is quick to recognize how lost Willow is.  Mai convinces her mother to take Willow in, which at first is supposed to be a temporary fix.  Instead, it causes some interesting complications to the housing arrangements, and concerns that Mai and her family might not be up to child welfare standards for taking Willow in.  Mai and her family then enlist Dell's (the school counselors) help and take over his apartment to show Willow has a stable place to live.  

Willow is such an interesting character,  with her love of growing things, counting by 7s and unique ability to diagnosis someone's medical condition with her keen observational skills.  Since the story is told from Willow's POV,  you get to see the inner dialogue of a genius as she contemplates others emotions and you get a feel for what makes her so unique.  How many kids can diagnosis a possible cancer from a mole on someone's neck? Willow really grows from someone who sees herself as an outsider at school to accepting herself, having friends and a family who accept and love her.  So, why didn't I absolutely love Counting by 7s?  I think it's was the school counselor Dell.  He didn't work for me.  He's very incompetent at what he does, not able to provide any semblance of help to Willow or Mai's brother.  Even Willow recognizes that he doesn't really seem to know what he is doing.  Since he was an integral part of the story, it really saddened me with the way that he treated Willow, he develops this labeling system for the children that was just wrong.  Dell really got in the way of me completely enjoying this.  That being said, I've still been thinking about Willow.