Tuesday, May 24, 2016

MG Historical Fiction/Fantasy: The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox
23208665Format:  Hardcover
Pages:  388
Release Date:  March 15th, 2016 by Penguin Random House
Genre:  MG Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review via a Giveaway hosted at Word Spelunking

Something is not right at Rookskill Castle, a rundown Scottish manor shrouded in mystery. The castle is a temporary boarding school for children escaping the Blitz, but soon it’s clear there is something terribly wrong. There are clues hinting that a spy is in the house, and there are undeniable signs of a sinister magic. When the children in the castle’s temporary boarding school begin disappearing one by one, it’s a race against the clock for twelve-year-old Kat Bateson, her two younger siblings, and their new best friend.

My initial reaction to The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle was that it was unnerving, not quite creepy, but very unsettling. The story takes place in Scotland and has all the feel of being mysterious, dark, and drafty.  Something seems to be lurking in the corridors of the castle, and there are rumors that the castle is haunted, what with the strange sightings of young children wandering the grounds. Yet, there are only small hints to what this mysterious thing is.  The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle begins with some historical background on what a "chatelaine" is,  think a charm bracelet but worn at the waist, and a creepy poem about the charms on one particular chatelaine (Lady Eleanor's).  The plot then slowly unfolds with each chapter alternating between time periods, characters, charms on the chatelaines and just what the Lady of Rookskill's plans are.  I really enjoyed the way the story unfolded, it kept things tense and suspenseful, so much that it was very hard to put it down.  I really wanted to see how everything was going to come together and boy did it.  Lovely atmospheric story, with great historical details and suspense, plus Fox leaves things open enough that there could be another book.   

Monday, May 23, 2016

MG Realistic Fiction: Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary

28355256Ramona the Pest  by Beverly Cleary
Format:  Paperback
Pages: 211
Release Date: Scholastic
Genre:  MG Realistic Fiction
Source: Library

Ramona is about to start Kindergarten and she couldn't be more excited.  At school, she meets her new teacher, Mrs. Binney.  Mrs. Binney has important rules like sitting quietly and keeping your hands to yourself.  There are even lessons on how to write your name, but the school doesn't turn out to be as much fun as Ramona had anticipated.   Especially when Mrs. Binney reprimands Ramona for pulling on Susan's bouncy curls and insists that she never do it again.  Ramona wants to stop pulling Susan's hair, but she knows that she can't promise Mrs. Binney that she will never do it again.  

It had been a long time since I've re-read Ramona the Pest, way too long.  I'd forgotten how special Ramona was to my reading experiences growing up.  She is such a sweet girl, not nearly as much of a pest as people made her out to be.  She may be strong-willed and know what she wants, and is willing to go after it, but she is also adorable and sweet and has a kind heart.  Qualities that I've always admired about Ramona.     I loved how the story started with Ramona's early experiences going to Kindergarten and followed along with her year.  Every once in awhile stopping for a few misunderstandings that happen when you put a bunch of children in a classroom.  The cutest moment was when Ramona met Mrs. Binney and she tells her to "sit here for the present."   Ramona takes this to mean that she is going to receive a present from her teacher, even I wanted to give her a present over the misunderstanding.   Ramona strikes me as trying her best to behave in Kindergarten, and she seemed to want Mrs. Binney to like her, to please her.   Ramona's Kindergarten sounded like it was more fun than work. This got me thinking about all the ways that Kindergarten must have changed since I was growing up.   Sure there are still the early rules about sitting in your seat, raising your hand, moving to printing upper and lower case letters.  But, I couldn't help think about the things that are different.  For instance is there still time for art projects, and  are there parties?  I know Halloween parties where you wear costumes are probably a thing of the past.  Is Kindergarten more work than they used to be?   I remember learning through pretend play, having a  grocery store with a cash register and selling plastic fruits and vegetables to my friends.  Even gluing macaroni onto to a piece of paper to write our names.  I kinda envision a Kindergarten of today with Ipads and drills on the letters of the alphabet.  Yet,  children of today are also learning things at a much earlier age than I did.  I see this even with my kiddo in middle school,  so I guess in some ways change is good, as long as there is still time for laughter and creativity.   Ramona the Pest was such a delightful re-read and I'm hoping to pick up a few more books in the series.  Such fun to visit another time and reflect on the similarities/differences.   

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

MG Fantasy: Gorilla Tactics (Dr. Critchlore's School for Minions #2) by Sheila Grau

26240642Gorilla Tactics (Dr. Critchlore's School for Minions #2)  by Sheila Grau
Illustrations by Joe Sutphin
Format:  Hardcover
Pages: 304
Release Date:  March 1st 2016 by Amulet Books
Genre:  MG Fantasy
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review via a Giveaway hosted by Aeicha at  
http://wordspelunking.blogspot.com as a part of March Middle Grade Madness).  

Runt is back in another installment of Dr. Crichlore's School for Minions.  Runt's sixteenth birthday is quickly approaching, so he is desperate to find  out who put this curse on him and convince them to break it.  If he can't get answers soon, he will end up dying on his birthday.   When hints surface that the Great Library might have answers for him, Runt once again enlists the help of his friends, Skye and Frankie to locate the spies (librarians) who have been tasked with protecting its wealth of knowledge and location.  But, Runt is not the only one who is seeking the Great Library,  and what is going on with Dr. Critchlore hosting a fashion show to try and save the school?  

I'm always initially drawn to Dr. Crichlores's School for Minions by the cover and illustrations by Joe Suphin, and I just love the detailed map at the beginning too.  Quite eye catching and engaging.  It really draws you into these characters.   And my are there some characters, all with very unique personalities.  I'm kinda partial to Uncle Ludwig, who seems to know much more than he is letting on (he's in the bottom right of the cover). It's hard to not like the trio of Skye, Frankie and Runt though too.   Runt has always had a rocky time at the School for Minions.  After the first book, he found out that his friend Skye was keeping an important secret from him and getting into the Junior Henchmen program has been more challenging than he expected.  Runt has taken to making to-do lists to help stay focused on his tasks, but still faces the same problem most of us face when starting these lists, eventually you have to revise and add things to them almost constantly.  Skye has been trying to make amends with Runt for keeping the secret from him that he isn't a werewolf,  which left him feeling pretty hurt and humiliated for much of the first part of the book.  It isn't until Runt is put into a similar situation where he has information about Skye's past that might be hurtful to her, that he see's why she kept things to herself for so long.   It isn't easy to tell your friend the truth all the time.  I liked that Runt  finally realizes just how unfair he has been, but felt bad for him being in the same situation.  I expect we'll learn much more about Skye's past in the next book.  Gorilla Tactics seemed to move along at a much faster pace then the first story, with more action and some nice twists in the plot.  Lots of plots, with the school takeover, the fashion show to try and save it, who cursed Runt and why? and Skye's past.  Plus there was a new mystery for Runt to solve about his own past sending him and his friends off to follow the clues.   Yet, everything tied together nicely,  and despite a few unanswered questions at the end, I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

MG Adventure: The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin by Elinor Teele

25817157The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin by Elinor Teele
Illustrations by Ben Whitehouse
Format:  Hardcover
Pages:  352
Release Date:  April 12th 2016 by Walden Pond Press
Genre:  MG Adventure
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review via a Giveaway hosted at Unleashing Readers

Opening Line Chapter 1:  "Once upon a time there was a boy who made coffins." 

John and Page Coggin, live with their Great-Aunt Beauregard in the town of Pludgett, ever since their parents died.   Great-Aunt Beauregard runs the family coffin making business, making them the "Supreme Craftsmen of Death."  John has labored for years building the coffins, while his younger sister Page went to school.  At night, he would tell her stories about their parents or make up these characters that go on wild adventures. John also loved to tinker, and was quite imaginative, hoping one day to have an invention that would ensure he and his sister could leave the family coffin business behind. If they don't get away soon, John worries what Great-Aunt Beauregard has planned for their future. When Great-Aunt Beauregard does finally announce her plan, it's much worse then John feared, she want's to make John the heir to the casket business and have Page join them as the beautician to the deceased.  John can't stand by while his Great-Aunt forces his sister into the family business, so the two decide it's time for them to runaway.   One of the first people they meet is Boz, who offers them employment with the Wandering Wayfares, a circus that Boz has a history with.  At first, things are working out for the siblings, but when one of John's inventions goes horribly awry, they are off once again, this time trying to escape the clutches of Great-Aunt Beauregard.  Will they find a safe place to live at the bakery, or at an ancient dig site?  Or will John just have to give in and sign Great-Aunt Beauregard's contract when she captures and threaten's his sister?   

For six years, John's creativity has been stifled being "ensconced in sawdust,"  so it's easy to see why he works so hard to earn the acceptance of the people he meets along the way (Maria and Miss Doyle) by building various contraptions to make things easier, faster or more economical.  Often things went horribly wrong with his inventions, yet despite his failures, his friends that he makes encourage him to keep trying.  John is most successful when he works with others on his inventions, I think there is a valuable lesson in here about accepting help. I felt like John's character grew from being pretty indecisive and meek to having more confidence and willing to stand up for his friends and family.  He also learned to keep trying.  His sister Page was also a wonderful character, in the way that she supported John, but also when she refused to separate from him, she could have stayed with any of the people they met, but she had confidence that he would come up with a plan. The major appeal of the story though for me was Boz, he was such a hoot, with his extraordinary vocabulary and use of large words.  I particularly enjoyed the word combinations he made to take a simple idea and make it much more complex. For example, when he asks John the question, "Where are the foundations of your perambulation?" (AKA shoes.) Something about those word choices just tickles me.  He does this throughout the book and adds much of the lighter moments to the story.   As an adult, I appreciated them, my kiddo, probably not so much.  A dictionary might have been necessary to decipher what he is saying, but he was just so amusing to listen to.  I also enjoyed that Boz was flawed, in that he ran away when things got dicey, but when it really mattered, he stepped up and comes to John's aid.  Great-Aunt Beauregard reminded me of Snidely Whiplash from the Dudley Do-Right cartoon on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, a little more comedic then villainous.  Overall, I quite enjoyed The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin.  As a side note, there are wonderful suggestions for using this book as a vocabulary activity at Unleashing Readers, where I also found this link to the educational activity kit based on the book created by Walden Pond Press.  

Cover & illustrations by Ben Whitehouse
Cover & illustrations by Ben Whitehouse