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

51024873. sx318 sy475  
Prince 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?     

Monday, October 7, 2019

MG Fantasy review of The Dragon Warrior by Katie Zhao

The Dragon Warrior by Katie Zhao
Format:  E ARC
Publisher:  Bloomsbury USA Kids
Number of Pages:  288
Publishing:  October 15th,  2019
Source:  Edelweiss Plus

Opening Line:  
"On the eve of the Lunar New Year, the demons invaded."

Twelve-year-old Faryn Liu and her younger brother Alex were born and raised in the Jade Society, home to an elite group of demon fighters in San Francisco's Chinatown.  Ever since their father disappeared four years ago, they've been outcasts, forced into servitude to Mao, the mistress of the Jade Society warriors, while secretly being trained by their grandfather (Ye Ye).  Then one day during the Lunar New Year festival, Faryn encounters a demon as she's returning from an errand, and with the help of Erlang Shen, the God of War she is able to vanquish it.  Faryn doesn't tell anyone about her encounter and instead returns to her responsibilities preparing for the Jade Societies banquet.  

During the celebration, the Fenghuang,  a spear is brought forward and per the legend, whoever lifts it will become the Heaven Breaker or the General of the Jade Emperor's army.  Many warriors make an attempt, but none are considered worthy to wield Fenghuang.  Then, Erlang Shen interrupts the festivities when he comes bearing a proclamation on behalf of the Jade Emperor, with a quest for the new Heaven Breaker in the form of a riddle and a series of tasks that need to be accomplished.  Once the Heaven Breaker has completed their tasks, they are to come to the island of Peng Lai and present themselves to the Jade Emperor and the eight immortals.  Is this the opportunity Faryn has been looking for?  Can she complete the quest and become the Emperor's General on Peng Lai Island, and if she does will she be where her father was headed when he disappeared?

The Dragon Warrior is inspired by Chinese mythology and lore and takes the reader to the Chinatown's of San Fransisco, Phoenix, Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York.  It's a fast-paced adventure, similar to the Lightning Thief in the amount of action and mythology, and sure to be very popular with readers looking for more #ownvoices stories.  I especially enjoyed the inclusion of Chinese words and phrases and how the context made it possible to get the gist of the conversation.  I wish my review copy had the glossary for the pronunciation of certain words, I believe the added details would enrich the reader's knowledge about the culture.  Also perhaps more information on the deities mentioned in the story would be appreciated, cause I sure want to know more about the Gods and Goddesses that Faryn encountered.     

The pacing and action of the story was fantastic.  There are horse-drawn chariots that take Faryn, Alex and a host of other characters on wild rides in the sky, sword fights, demons who conjure wild tornados, mid-air rescues, trap doors and a scene that reminded me of Percy Jackson in the Lotus Casino from the Lightning Thief.  Most of all the story involved a quest to get to the Lantern Festival on Peng Lai Island and Faryn's discovery that the Emperor may have nefarious plans of his own.   Faryn is aided in her quest by the supporting characters of Moli, a friend Faryn had a falling out with, Alex, Faryn's younger brother, and Ren, a boy they meet on their travels who has pure white hair and a few mysteries of his own.   Sprinkled throughout are the advice and teachings from Faryn's grandfather and lovely descriptions of Chinese foods like steamed buns (Bao zi) and spicy noodles that had me eager for more.  

The journey also involved heart to heart moments between Moli and Faryn where they discuss what happened to tear their friendship apart, why Moli shied away from Faryn and wasn't there for her when she was being bullied, and how Faryn needed her after her father disappeared.   Zhao also explores Faryn's feelings of being seen as other within her own community, reveals that one of the characters is of mixed ancestry and whether or not family requires you be related by blood.  All while huge rifts are forming between Faryn and Alex changing their relationship.   And did I mention there are dragons and secret identities?   I highly recommend The Dragon Warrior for its wonderful blend of action, adventure, humor, interesting themes and characters, and lovely Asian mythology and culture.    

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

MG review of Polly and Buster: The Mystery of the Magic Stones by Sally Rippin

39861621. sx318 Polly and Buster:  The Mystery of the Magic Stones by Sally Rippin
Format:  Paperback
Publisher:  First Published in Australia May 23rd, 2018 by Hardie Grant Egmont.
Published in the US:  2019 by Kane Miller, a division of EDC Publishing 
Number of Pages:  296
Source:  Review copy provided by the Publisher
Series: Second book of the Polly and Buster Series

Opening Lines:  "Polly sits at her teacher's kitchen table and thinks about what lies ahead."

Monsters and witches shouldn't be friends,  that's what everyone in Blackmoon Coven believes.  Yet,  Polly and Buster are truly the best of friends, friends who've always protected one another.  They've stood by one another even after the huge misunderstanding that occurred between the witches and the monsters.  Even now as the witches are after Buster because they believe he's dangerous and a threat.    Polly and Buster are more determined than ever to stay together.  To escape from the threat of the witches.  At the beginning of the second book in the series,  Polly and Buster were forced to flee from their home and are now temporarily hiding out with Polly's teacher.  

Meanwhile, the tension between the monsters and witches has been escalating.  Getting closer and closer to an all-out war.  Monsters are taking witches captive and Mrs. Halloway, head of the witches commitee has been trying to get the mayor to have the monsters expelled from the Coven.  Feeling they're the cause of all the problems back home, Polly and Buster venture out toward the Hollow Valley mines looking for some answers.  Six years ago, Polly's father died following a cave-in within the mines.  Since then the mines have been closed, considered too dangerous, rumored to be haunted.  But, Polly's convinced that the magical stones her father gave her shortly before his death have been calling to her, leading her to the mines.   Once inside, she learns the truth, sees for herself what has been protecting the mines, what's been scaring off intruders.  What's been waiting for her.  And why she's the only witch who can cast a powerful enough spell to put the Gorvan, a creature living in the deepest part of the cavern back to sleep.  Can Polly be strong enough to face her own fears and will her magic be powerful enough to protect her family and friends?

As with the first book in the series, Polly and Buster's friendship is the sweetest part of these stories.  Over and over they've demonstrated the importance of standing by your friend, having their back.  Although it took Polly a little while to determine that being with the most popular girl in school wasn't as important as her true friend, she does finally come to that realization and is even more determined to not let anything happen to Buster and that it's her turn to let everyone know just how kind and caring he is.  Intermingled in the plot there is an emphasis on telling the truth.  And when an unexpected ally does come forward telling the truth about how the misunderstanding between monsters and witches took place,  everyone finally has a chance to see that their bias about monsters wasn't founded.  That although Buster is a monster, they have nothing to fear from monsters.  If anything Buster is courageous and actually a hero.  I very much enjoyed reading The Mystery of the Magic Stones with its positive and uplifting messaging.    

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

MG Fantasy review of The Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jean Horwitz

43212931The Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jean Horwitz
Format:  E ARC
Publisher:  Algonquin Young Readers
Number of Pages:  366
Publishing:   October 1st, 2019
Source:  Edelweiss Plus

Opening Lines: "Clementine Morcerous awoke one morning to discover that her father had no nose."  

The Dark Lord Elithor is under a curse and is slowly "whittling" away.  Clementine is determined to find the person responsible and reverse the curse before there is nothing left of him, but when you're an evil dark lord, you're bound to have made a few enemies.  

For hundred's of years Clementine's father has reigned over Castle Brack unchallenged, but now that he is indisposed,  Clementine must take over the day to day operations of the families estate, including all of the Dark Lord's responsibilities.  Everything from tending to the fire-breathing chickens and grooming the nightmares on the farm,  to performing the Dark Lord's dastardly deeds on the local villagers.  Lord Elithor has been preparing Clementine to take over, training her in the ways of being a proper Evil Lord, but Clementine isn't sure her dark magic skills are fully up to the task.  

At first, Clementine is concerned that she's not living up to the family name, feeling worthless, unsure of how she can help her father.  But, Clementine isn't easily discouraged from searching for answers and a cure for her father's curse.  As the curse takes further hold on her father, the magical charms on the farm and everything within the boundaries of the castle begins to change.  The magical scarecrows stop their chores, the witch in the kitchen has run away and the silence imposed on the farm by her father is weakening leaving the castle open for an attack.  Joining Clemintine on her adventure are an unusual, but humorous mix of characters;  there's Sebastian, a boy from the village who wants nothing more than to be a chivalrous knight,  Darka the unicorn huntress, Dave a book-loving, talking black sheep and Gricken the part grimoire part chicken, whose eggs contain magical spells.  Together they venture into the neighboring woods in search of the curse casting culprit.  

The Dark Lord Clementine has the kind of premise that I so love, with a character who's unpredictable, and not going to behave in a typical way that you'd expect.  I just adored Clementine and the way that she changed throughout the story.  How her search for answers to her father's curse allowed her to explore her own feelings about being the heir of Castle Brack and whether she really had what it takes to follow in her father's footsteps as an evil lord.  She does have all the makings of an evil lord, she's commanding, dignified, proper, but beneath that refined exterior is a girl that is also lonely.  Prior to meeting Darka, Sebastian and Dave, Clementine lived a very solitary life, a life that she no longer wants for herself.  Making new friends has taken on a new importance to her.   It's something that she's not willing to give up.  I so enjoyed the humorous way the story explored good versus evil and how happy thoughts and memories were the special ingredients needed for performing magical spells.  I'm hoping they'll be more stories for the Dark Lord Clementine.      

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

MG Realistic Fiction review of Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo

43584741Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo
Format:  Paperback ARC
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Number of Pages: 256
Publishing  September 24th, 2019
Source:  Publisher in exchange for an honest review

Opening Line:  "Buddy died, and Beverly buried him, and then she set off toward Lake Clara."

In 1979 at the age of fourteen, Beverly Tapinski hitches a ride with her cousin Joe Travis out of town after her dog Buddy dies.  Beverly isn't simply running away, this was "leaving,"  an important distinction that she makes at the beginning of the story.  She's run away before, but now she's truly left.  Once she reaches Tamary Beach, Beverly gets her first job bussing tables at Mr. C's fish restaurant and meets Iola Jenkins, a kindly old lady living in the nearby trailer park.   Iola makes a deal with Beverly, in exchange for driving her around in her Pontiac, she'll give her a place to stay.  In order to distance herself from the pain over the loss of her dog, and an alcoholic mother who doesn't seem to care about her, she agrees to help Iola out.   Beverly puts on this tough exterior as if she doesn't care about or need anyone's help, she seems indifferent at first to any help that is offered to her.  What she needs is to immerse herself in her work bussing tables.  Then she witnesses Elmer from Zoom city convenience store being bullied by Jerome and something inside of Beverly stirs, opening her to the new possibility of companionship, comfort and a place where she belongs.  

Beverly, Right Here is the third book in Kate DiCamillo's trio of books that began with  Raymie Nightingale and was followed by Louisiana's Way Home.   I haven't yet read Raymie Nightingale, but after reading Louisiana's Way Home, I knew I wanted to read Beverly's story.  I also plan to go back and read Raymie Nightingale because I really do wish I knew more about Buddy and Raymie.  Beverly feels his loss from the very moment that she buried him near her house with Raymie, but I feel like I missed so much by not having read these books in order, so I'm going to fix that mistake real soon.   

 In her introductory letter to the reader, DiCamillo says that Raymie Nightingale was "about the saving grace of friendship, Louisiana's Way Home was about deciding who you are, and Beverly, Right Here was about acting on the knowledge of who you are.  Together all three books are about the power of community."  For me, that's my take away from her latest book, community.  DiCamillo really has this knack of drawing you in through the characters that she creates and their interactions, they're all so easily relatable and their stories stick with you, draw on your emotions.  There's the simple charm of a young girl who is grieving, so sad over her dog's death, and lonely over her mother's abandonment due to her alcoholism.  And then to have her meet Iola and Elmer and we get to see Beverly's tough exterior begin to weaken.  She moves from these simple short one-word answers that she gives to Freddie (the waitress at the fish restaurant) to the longer more in-depth conversations that she has with Elmer and Iola.  It's the kind of story that I can see myself reading over and over again if only to experience the love and kindness that Iola gives to Beverly again.  

Finally, I love how the events, objects, and people that Beverly encounters at the beginning of the story develop into these lovely scenes later on.  Especially the significance of the passage that Beverly reads in the phone booth and how she ends up sharing it with Elmer.    And although the ending didn't feel complete, it does feel hopeful.  Beverly's future isn't set in stone,  it's what she will make of it.  How she chooses to live it and who she wants to include in her life.  Her future may be uncertain, but she seems to be off to a good start.

Favorite quote from the ARC:

 “Imagine if you hadn’t found my trailer. Imagine if I didn’t need someone to drive the Pontiac. Then me and you wouldn’t’ve become friends, and you wouldn’t know how to dance. Oh, I’m glad I needed you. I’m glad you needed me.”

 “I didn’t really need you,” said Beverly.

 “Yes, you did, honey,” said Iola. 

“Yes, you did,” said Elmer from the back seat. 

“Okay,” said Beverly. “Whatever you people say.”

Thursday, September 12, 2019

MG review of Polly and Buster: The Wayward Witch & the Feelings Monster by Sally Rippin

34535576. sx318 Polly and Buster:  The Wayward Witch & the Feelings Monster 
Format:  Paperback
Publisher:  First Published in Australia June 2017 by Hardie Grant Egmont.
Published in the US:  2019 by Kane Miller, a division of EDC Publishing 

Number of Pages:  280
Source:  Review copy provided by the Publisher
Series: First book of the Polly and Buster Series

Opening Lines:  "Polly Proggett is terrible at spells, which is rather unfortunate when you're a witch."

The weather has been getting much colder so when a request came in to read a story about a young witch and monster who are friends, I eagerly jumped at the chance.  

Polly and Buster are next-door neighbors and secretly the bestest of friends.  Which wouldn't be a problem if witches and monsters were supposed to be friends, but they aren't.  Even their parents have been discouraging them from playing together, so most of the time Buster and Polly don't say anything to one another.   On the way to school, Buster sits at the back of the bus and Polly sits with the witches upfront.  If they ever cross paths, they ignore each other and keep right on walking.  Yet, every day after school they still meet at the top of their favorite tree to reminiscence about their day.  Buster doesn't tease Polly about messing up her spells and Polly is comforting for Buster, he can truly express his feelings with her.  Feelings that cause him to grow when he's happy and shrink when he's sad.  Feelings that seem to match what Polly is feeling.    

Then one day Polly's class takes a trip to the art gallery.  At first, things are going well, Polly and the most popular girl in her class, Malorie seem to be hitting it off talking about drawing and art.  But then they run into Buster's class.  Buster is so surprised to see Polly that he forgets the rule of ignoring each other and waves excitedly while calling out Polly's name.  At first, Polly tries to ignore Buster, pretending she doesn't see or hear him,  which only leads to his feelings getting hurt.  When Buster's feelings are hurt, he starts to shrink and his classmates begin to notice and start to tease him.  Polly becomes so angry by their teasing that she surprisingly unleashes a protective spell, stunning everyone including Polly.  She's never cast a spell before.  Malorie believes that Polly's spell was actually to protect her from the monsters and she begins to tell everyone how Polly saved her from the terrible mean monster.  This leads to a huge misunderstanding between witches and monsters.  What is Polly to do now?  Should she tell everyone that monsters aren't mean, should she tell everyone that she and Buster are really friends?  

Polly and Buster weren't supposed to be friends on account of monsters and witches not getting along.  But their friendship just tugs at your heartstrings.  Polly is insecure about her inability to cast spells, she seems to believe that the reason the words swim across the page for her is due to not focusing as hard as the rest of her classmates.  As a speech pathologist, it was pretty clear to me that she's dyslexic, but for a young reader, this wasn't really explained as clearly as I would've hoped.  Maybe this is addressed in the next book, but I really wished that she would've received some help from her teacher Miss Spinnaker, who reads as a kind and understanding teacher and would've been the perfect person to help Polly with her dyslexia.

And Buster, the kind-hearted feelings monster who illustrates that having and expressing feelings are okay.  That being teased and bullied is not okay and the importance of standing up for your friend.  Although Polly initially was lured by the promise of friendship with one of the popular kids, she begins to realize that Buster's is a friendship worth fighting for.                       

Not only is the story a testament to the power of friendship and the importance of standing up for one another, it also weaves in some pretty heavy topics from the times of segregation and during World War II when the Jewish people were persecuted and forced to wear identifying badges.  Rippin does present these with great care and gears them toward the attended audiences age.  I can really see the story being used for classroom discussions on these topics.  Happily, the author and publisher have included numerous discussion questions, teacher tips and games, and activities on their website for teachers to use in conjunction with telling the story.  I'm looking forward to reading Polly and Buster and The Mystery of the Magic Stones next.      

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

MG Fantasy review of Malamander by Thomas Taylor, illustrated by Tom Booth

Malamander by Thomas Taylor
43679814Format:  E-ARC
Publisher:  Walker Books US  
Number of Pages:  320
Publishing in the US:  September 10th, 2019 
Source:  Publisher via Netgalley

Series: The Legends of Eerie-on-Sea

Opening Lines:  "You've probably been to Eerie-on-Sea, without ever knowing it."

In the summer the town of Eerie-on-Sea is bustling with tourists, but during the winter all of the beachcombers have left and the town is quiet again.   Not far from the pier, you'll find the Grand Nautilus Hotel.  And just shy of the hotel's reception desk,  within a small cubbyhole is twelve-year-old Herbie Lemon, resident Lost-and Founder hard at work matching lost things to their owners.  Then one day Violet unexpectedly comes climbing through his cellar window pleading for Herbie to hide her.  Violet hastily climbs into a trunk while Herbie throws lost coats on top hoping to disguise her location.  Then the manager of the hotel, Mr. Mollusc and a man in a sailor's coat with a large iron boat hook for a hand show up demanding to know where she's hiding.  After searching the room and coming up empty-handed, they leave and Violet returns shortly thereafter requesting Herbie's help once again, this time to find her parents.  When Violet was only a baby, her parents disappeared while staying at the hotel.  Violet was shipped off to an Aunt but is now back looking for answers.  Soon Violet and Herbie set out to uncover any possible clues to their disappearance and somehow become entangled in the local legend of the mysterious Malamander, a monster that is half-man and half-fish.                
Malmander is the first book in the Legends of Eerie-on-Sea series. It's sorta reminiscent of Lemony Snicket and maybe even a little Pseudonymous Bosch, especially The Name of This Book is Secret because of the early caution to "close this book and lock it in a tin box and cast it off the pier."  Advice that I chose to disregard.  When I saw the cover my interest was instantly piqued.  Usually, the fantasy stories I enjoy reading take place in settings where the characters are traipsing through the mountainside, attending magical schools, even within castles and old houses.  Well, I think I've found a new setting to add to the list, a salty seaside town.  Eerie-on-Sea is mysterious and filled with quirky people and places. There's a Book Dispensary where a tophat wearing mermonkey will fill your book prescription and select the book you need to read.  It's also a tad eerie place because it comes with its own legendary monster, the Malamander.  I have to admit that at first, I thought the monster was just this legend created to keep the troublesome kids away from the wreckage of the Leviathan, but it turns out the monster was much more than that.  And certainly more dangerous.     
Malamander is told from Herbie Lemon's perspective and is predominantly about Violet's search for her parents and the monster.  Herbie strikes me as kind, caring and intelligent, with a somewhat mysterious past of his own.  Five years ago he washed up on the shore of Eerie-on-Sea in a crate of lemons, with no knowledge of his past, not even his own name.  The owner of the Grand Nautilus Hotel gave him his name and set him up as the caretaker of the Lost and Foundery.  A job that Herbie takes very seriously.  Now, Violet, she's a wild-haired, brave girl who's ready for adventure.  She's rash where Herbie is more analytical.  But one thing is for sure, Violet is determined to find out exactly what happened to her parents.  Sometimes her choices lead to more danger for the two of them.  As they delve further into the mystery, their quest takes them all over the town of Eerie-on-Sea, even face to face with the legendary Malamander.  And although they don't find all the answers to what happened to Violet's parents, it's still a very satisfying story.  I suspect that some of this will be resolved in future books.   If you're looking for a mystery with a unique setting, quirky people, and lovely illustrations, I'd certainly give Malamander a read.  I certainly can't wait to see what adventures these two have next.