Wednesday, April 24, 2019

MG Fantasy/Mystery review of The Missing Piece of Charlie O'Reilly by Rebecca Ansari

40535648The Missing Piece of Charlie O'Reilly by Rebecca K.S. Ansari
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher:  Walden Pond Press
Number of Pages:  400
Published:  March 5th,  2019
Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review via a Giveaway hosted at Word Spelunking for Middle-Grade March

Opening Line:   "Charlie O'Reilly was an only child."

It's been one year since Liam disappeared, poof, vanished without a trace and Charlie still feels his loss.  To everyone else, Liam is the brother that never existed, no one recalls Liam or believes he ever existed, despite Charlie having vivid memories of how irritating his little brother was.  Now Charlie visits with Dr. Barton who says that imagining a brother is "perfectly normal", given the stress that he feels at home.  Charlie's mom suffers from depression and he's been a semi-caretaker for her while his dad is away at work.  He gets the groceries, folds the laundry and is the one who makes sure his mom is taking her medication.  On the eve of Charlie's thirteenth birthday, Liam and Charlie had a disagreement and when Charlie woke up, Liam was gone.  The one year anniversary of Liam's disappearance is coming up and Charlie has a plan to get his brother back.  With a little help from his best friend Ana, maybe they can unravel where Liam is and why no one remembers him.  

The mystery of The Missing Piece of Charlie O'Reilly involves what happened between these two brothers, we know it was something major, but what could've been so bad that caused one brother to make a wish leading to the disappearance of the other?  Early in the story, Charlie begins to have bad dreams, images of himself during the 1800s in Ireland and then later immigrating to the United States.  He's not quite sure whether the dreams are trying to tell him something, but he feels a connection exists between him and the people in his dreams.  Then mysterious things begin to happen at home, his comic books have been rifled through and a note appears telling him to talk to his assistant baseball coach, Jonathan.  It's Jonathan who helps fill in the details about what might have happened to Liam.  Jonathan relays that he was a child who once disappeared and had his existence eliminated after he made a wish to never be born.  Yet, now he's back, although none of his family recognizes him.  Jonathan believes that he has a way for Charlie to get his brother back and with Ana's help they develop a plan to find Liam.  

Jonathan, Charlie, and Ana enter the Asylum for Orphaned Children, a place that was founded over 180 years ago and sits hidden away on the remains of the burned out building.  It's within the Asylum that Charlie is reunited with Liam and learns the truth about what happened on the night prior to his birthday and the secrets that Jonathan has been hiding from Charlie are also revealed.  Their situation soon becomes dire when they all learn that there may not be a way of getting back home after all.  That Brona, the creepy woman who runs the Asylum may have planned for them to be trapped with her after all.  Brona reminded me a lot of the White Witch from The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, the way in which her voice draws Charlie in, comforts him, the dotting causing him to forget his purpose for being in the Asylum.  She's not cold or evil per se but she does try to manipulate him, play on his emotions and there is some creepiness to her motives that comes together nicely toward the end of the book.  

Another aspect of the story that I really enjoyed was the theme of forgiveness.  How the story asks the question of whether we can forgive ourselves for our wrongs, the idea that a life living must include all the good and bad moments. It's the kind of book that leaves a lot of food for thought.   

Monday, April 15, 2019

MG Fantasy Review of The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu

40221339The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher:  Walden Pond Press
Number of Pages:  368
Published:  February 12th,  2019
Source:  Library

Opening Line:  " The two sisters were alike in every way, except for all the ways that they were different." 

Iris and Lark may be identical twins, but that's only if you look no further then what's on the surface.  Iris is the practical one, the one that everyone says needs to be more "ladylike."  Iris is Lark's protector, the first to come to her aid and to speak for Lark when she can't speak for herself.  Lark is the creative twin, who invents stories to combat their monsters.  Together they're a team.  It's the way that things have always been.  That is until the moment that everything changed, the moment when their parents told them that they were going to be in different classrooms for fifth grade.  Not only that, but their mother also enrolled them in different after-school programs.  Both girls think this change is unfair and Iris begins to worry about how Lark will navigate school without her. 

 As the school year gets underway, we begin to see changes within both of the girls.  Iris begins to lack a purpose, it's almost like she doesn't know how to act without her sister.  Simple tasks like designing the cover of her composition notebook become stressful and she's unsure of what to do.  Where she was once confident, she's now become timid and feels "twitchy."   Lark hasn't been fairing any better, she's stuck in a classroom with a bully and a teacher (Mr. Hunt) who forces her to do the very things that terrify her like oral presentations and math drills.  Without her sister, she's struggling in class and becoming more and more introverted.  Which worries Iris even more. When Iris tries to talk to her mother about Mr. Hunt behaving like an ogre, things don't go quite as she'd planned.  Instead of listening to her, her mother wants her to embrace the new changes and allow Lark to be her own person.  But how can she when defending Lark and being her voice is something that Iris has always done.                   

Meanwhile, there are strange things happening all over town.  There seems to be a crow watching Iris from outside her window.  Even a new shop opens up with mysterious messages on its welcome easel and an owner who is equally odd.  When Iris ventures in to explore the Treasure Hunters antique store, she ends up walking into more danger than she bargained for.  At the same time, things begin to go missing around town and then in Lark's life.  First, it is small things like a bracelet, a key, one of the dolls from Lark's dollhouse.  Next, it's bigger things from around town, the disappearance of a taxidermied bird and the Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture from the Museum grounds.  Then things take on an ominous turn and Iris is the one who needs rescuing.  

The Lost Girl initially begins from the vantage point of a mysterious narrator,  whose identity stays hidden until the very end of the story.  This is a brilliant setup, things are revealed slowly, giving the reader time to really get to know Iris and Lark.   While the main focus of the story may be on Iris, we learn so much about her because of how she contrasts with her sister.  Or how Iris sees herself when she is separated from Lark.  You come to know and love both of them as they struggle to find a way of dealing with being in separate classes, not having each other to rely on as they always have.  It's really a very sad situation.  On the one hand, I totally understand the importance of Lark being able to stand up for herself but to force Iris to watch Lark struggling in class and then not give her any means of helping her sister, it seems cruel.  It's no wonder that Iris begins to feel lost and stressed over worrying about her sister.  They have such a special bond, even a special language that no one else knows.  They see each other, know each other to their very core, their a team.  Not only is it difficult to watch Lark struggling at school, is difficult to watch Iris completely lose her confidence.  There were many times that I wanted to hug these girls, to let them know that they would make it through this.  

Just as we slowly learn more and more about Iris and Lark, the villain of the story is also slowly revealed.  And boy is he creepy and unnerving, the way that he taps into her insecurities, her fear that she might be bad for Lark, that she has no power in her life.  How those around her aren't truly listening to her.  It's kinda like watching a movie hoping the villain gets what's coming to them.  And being happy when they finally do.  In this case, it's girl power and summoning one's inner courage that wins the day.  So if you like sibling stories, strong females, magic that has a cost, and a story that will make you revel when the villain has been vanquished, The Lost Girl is a perfect choice.      

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

MG Fantasy review of The Portal (Tangled in Time #1) by Kathryn Lasky

39087692The Portal (Tangled in Time) by Kathryn Lasky
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Number of Pages:  384
Published:  March 19th,  2019
Source:  Library

Opening Line:  "Rose Ashley stood in the middle of the circle as the three girls spun around her."  

Less than three weeks ago Rose Ashley's mother was killed in a car crash, resulting in her moving to Indianapolis to live with her grandmother, a woman she barely knows, and who has dementia.  Rose's grandmother is fairly well off and has a caretaker and driver who help manage her significant memory issues.  But when Grandmother Rosalinda is in her greenhouse tending to her plants and flowers, she seems to come to life and in these moments is able to recall her granddaughter, Rose.  

With the move, Rose will also be starting a new school. Rose is a very unique girl who has a style all her own, designing clothing from articles she adapts from her thrift store finds.  She also runs a popular fashion blog, Threads, but when news of her arrival begins to circulate at school, she draws the unwanted attention of a trio of mean girls who begin to bully her about the clothes she wears.  These mean girls are bent on embarrassing or causing her trouble.  Rose's only solace is spending time with her grandmother in her greenhouse.  

It's among the foliage that one day Rose finds herself being transported back in time to Hatfield, England during the sixteenth century, shortly after Princess Elizabeth was banished from court by her father King Henry VIII.  The mechanism by which Rose is transported back and forth in time doesn't appear to be under her control, she describes it as a "tumble" through time which at any moment she can be pulled back from.  Maybe it's meant to be similar to Lucy pushing her way through the coats in the wardrobe and ending up in Narnia.  Either way, she finds herself split between two time periods where time seems to stop in Indianapolis and moves forward in Hatfield where her intermittent disappearances go unnoticed.   I do wish the portal aspects of the story were better explained.  While in Hatfield, Rose takes a position as a chambermaid to the princess and meets Franny, a dairy worker who guides her in sixteenth-century customs.  Rose also happens to stumble upon a locket containing a photograph of her and her mother on one side, and a picture of a man dressed in clothing from the sixteenth century on the other.  Could this man be Rose's father?  

The Portal is the first book in Lasky's Tangled in Time series.  I quite enjoyed the setting of Hatfield during the sixteenth century.  There were nice tidbits of information from the time period, like how people might have brushed their teeth with twigs of bayberry and juniper.   Lasky also incorporated photo's of time period clothing and shoes as well as portions of Rose's blog posts, diary entries and letters she shares with Franny into the story.  Truthfully, if Rose spent the whole time in England, I would have enjoyed the story so much more.  It might have felt more magical.  Rose never completely immersed herself into the time period.  She straddled between the two, bringing the twenty-first century with her in her expressions and mannerisms.  There also appeared to be many inconsistencies that stuck out to me, like how everyone in Hatfield took Rose so literally at her words and that they don't really question her use of common twenty-first-century phrases as being odd, they just seem to gloss over them.  Even Rose's actions aren't consistent, one minute Rose is reprimanding Elizabeth for her demeaning remarks to a chambermaid and then herself refers to Princess Mary as "snailhead."  Then there was the trio of means girls, who just seemed unnecessarily mean.  Perhaps if the message was consistently made that all forms of bullying are wrong it would have worked better for me.  

Lastly, I found that I wanted to know more about Rose's grandmother.  She seemed like such a sweet elderly lady.  But why would she be put in charge of Rose's care?  Despite having the financial means, is this really the best option?  Most of the time she needed to be reminded who Rose was, unless she was in the greenhouse and then she excelled at recalling everything about caring for her plants and flowers.  I probably spent way to much time thinking about what Rose's future would be like and so I don't think I was as vested as I could have been in figuring out who Rose's father was.  Or maybe it was that everything seemed to come together rather quickly.  The story ends with an epilogue that hints to the direction that future time travels will take Rose and am curious enough that I will keep an eye out for the next book in the series.  

Favorite line:  "So much of life is yielding to the extraordinary."

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

MG review of Katt vs Dogg by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

41062218Katt vs. Dogg by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
Format:  ARC paperback
Publisher:  Jimmy Patterson Books/Little, Brown and Co. 
Number of Pages:  310
Published:  April 1st, 2019
Source:  Publisher via Goodreads Giveaway

Opening Line:  "Oscar hung his head out the window of his father's pickup truck, his tongue flapping in the breeze."

Oscar and Molly have grown up knowing that doggs and katts are mortal enemies, each side hating the other.  It's just what doggs and katts do.  Doggs are smelly, drool on everything and all they think about is chasing katts up trees.  And katts, well they're stuck up and they have icky hairballs and step on litter.  Gross.  One thing they both agree on is that while they're vacationing at the Western Frontier Park they will stay in their respective camps.

Oscar is a fun loving, rambunctious dogg, who's stellar at long distance running, but also easily distracted.  Molly, on the other hand, thinks of herself as dignified, has plans to be an actress and knows she's destined for great things.  Yet when a squirrel and butterfly cross their path, they both can't resist the urge to chase them through the woods, resulting in both of them becoming hopelessly lost.  When they happen to stumble into each other, their natural instincts take over but eventually realize that working together is the only chance they have to get back to their families.

James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein have written quite a number of series together, I Funny, Max Einstein, Treasure Hunters and House of Robots to name a few.  Katt vs. Dogg is the newest debut in the Jimmy Patterson Books for children. What an eye-catching cover, has me thinking of cartoons, and I love the expressions on their face, it captures Oscar and Molly's personalities.   Makes me wish my ARC had all the completed illustrations by Anuki L√≥pez.  

Each chapter is broken down into three to four pages with illustrations every couple of pages.  I so wanted to love this book, I thought it would be funny, seemed to have an interesting premise, and maybe there'd be a little conflict.  It has a great setup cause most dog's and cat's really don't get along and I was curious how they would fend when they got lost and had to rely on each other.  It just wasn't as light and funny as I was expecting.  I think it's partially because one of the important concepts of Katt vs. Dogg is that each side hates the other, which is fine given the animal's nature but there seemed to be an exorbitant amount of insults to push this thought forward.  The cats and dogs referred to each other as dumb, stupid, and ignorant.  Sure there are a few funny insults thrown in but it seemed like a large portion of the beginning of the book was setting up how much their families historically hated each other.  I don't know maybe it's just me and children will gloss over the insults and see two arch enemies becoming friends.  And they really do become friends in the end, but it kinda zapped some of my enjoyment.  

The overall messaging of Molly and Oscar being stronger when they work together is rather nice and there are some interesting statistics about dogs and cats, like cats having more than twenty muscles to control their ears and that the average dog can run twenty miles per hour which I really enjoyed.  In the end, they do determine they have more in common than they initially thought and there is an overall happy ending.  There's also an interesting mix of characters with hybrids including a wolfbear, lionodiles and a kindly doggkatt who offers them help and advice.  Plus, being lost in the wilderness, they have lots of obstacles to overcome, including a hungry mountain lion and a huge river they need to cross. So yeah, some adventuring, danger and creative mechanisms of getting them back to base camp.  Given cat and dogs are so popular as pets, I can certainly see the kid appeal.