Monday, July 29, 2019

MG Historical Fiction review of Sweet Home Alaska By Carole Estby Dagg

25489429. sy475 Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg
Format:  Paperback
Publisher:  Puffin Books 
Number of Pages:  304
Published:  July 16th, 2019 (paperback)
Source:  Publisher via Blue Slip Media 

Opening Lines: "It was because Terpsichore was the only unmusical Johnson that she dragged a hatchet across the yard toward a pumpkin as big as a pickle barrel."  

It's 1934 and the mill in Little Bear Lake, Wisconsin has closed.  Work has become scarce and Pop is concerned about being able to put food on the table.  Some of Terpsichore's neighbors have had to go on relief, sell off their valuables or even take charity from relatives, but Pop is determined to go it alone.   Then he hears of a New Deal Project that President Roosevelt is starting,  Pop is very excited about the prospect, but Mother is reluctant to leave behind her piano and electricity to rough it in Alaska.  However, she eventually agrees to give it one year.  Hoping to make a new start, the family sets out for Palmer, Alaska, but once they arrive circumstances are not what they thought.  For one, they will be living in tents until their house is built and most of the town is still under construction.  There's not even a school, church or hospital staff yet.  Despite all of this, Terpsichore loves her new home and is eager to develop its first library, but convincing Mother to stay is her next biggest challenge.

Sweet Home Alaska takes place shortly after the Great Depression just as President Roosevelt announced his New Deal and the Matanuska Colony project, a homesteading endeavor where families received a parcel of land in Palmer, Alaska to build a home and farm.  The story follows the Johnson family over the course of about a year as they settle into their new community.   In places, this really has the feel of the Little House on the Prarie books, which Terpsichore even makes references to during the story.  It's a glimpse into a different historical time period of out-houses, cooking without electricity, canning salmon and developing a town from the ground up.  There's the day to day musings of life in Palmer and the worry as winter gets closer and the reality that their house needs to be finished before the snow comes.  Terpsichore's mother is not happy about the move, she's very negative about the town and all of the things she perceives it's lacking.  Living in a tent puts a strain on her, whereas the rest of the family seems to be settling in just fine.  Terpsichore is excited about the potential for making her very own library and loves cataloging and checking out her books.  Together with some of her new friends she develops a Library Action Committee and sets out to raise money to purchase more books and magazines.  Overall there aren't any dramatic moments, but lots of positive messaging of children who are helpful, resourceful and a lovely sense of community.  

Life for the family in Alaska does include some initial hardships like the mosquitoes, horseflies, mud and long days of sunlight.  Much of the land where their house was to be built is forested, which took large crews and equipment to clear.  There are some details about the wildflowers found in Alaska like the spiky lupine, bluebells, and firewood blossoms, and mountain ranges surrounding the town but surprisingly absent are any interactions with moose, bear or any of the birds found in Alaska.  I would have also loved some interactions with the snow and cold winters and some explorations/playing outdoors, but truthfully the kids were way too busy for that.  However, I did learn how large some of their vegetables grow in Alaska, especially Terpsichore's pumpkins.  Who knew?  

There's an author note at the end explaining the initial inspiration for the story, a 1930's house her son purchased in Palmer, Alaska and a detailed resource list of some of the sources she used.  There are even recipes for the pumpkin oatmeal cookies and jellied moose nose mentioned in the story.  I also appreciated that the author's note explained her reasoning for not including interactions between the indigenous Alaskan people and the homesteaders, how in researching the topic she was unable to find any materials or references to their interactions and chose then not to include any interactions.  There's also a Curriculum Guide at Carole Estby Dagg's website with plenty of discussion questions and activities to incorporate into the classroom.  Overall this is a very lovely immersion into a historical time period for which I didn't know very much, I especially enjoyed the inclusion of pieces of FDR's Fireside chat and learning of Will Rodgers trip to Palmer.  A unique pioneering story.  


Thursday, July 25, 2019

MG Review of Carnival Catastrophe (The Problim Children #2) by Natalie Lloyd

42079154Carnival Catastrophe (The Problim Children #2) by Natalie Lloyd
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Number of Pages: 320
Published  June 25th, 2019
Source:  Purchased

Opening Line "The wind came as a night visitor, sneaking through the town of Lost Cove like a clumsy bandit."

Carnival Catastrophe returns to House #7 in the town of Lost Cove.   Papa Problim has returned home but danger still lurks in their small town.  Desdemona O'Pinion continues to threaten to send the Problim children to seven different homes on seven different continents and Mama is still missing.  The Problim children are no closer in deciphering grandpa Problim's riddle to find the last three twigs they need to complete a water witch to find his lost treasure and hopefully Mama.  While they continued to search for clues, it became clear that the answers they seek are leading them toward Pirate Cove.  Could mama be in one of the caves?  Luckily this year's Corn Dog Carnival's grand prize is a trip to the Cove for all of the carnival's winner's.  Hoping to win one of the spots on the boat, each of the Problim's enter one of the contests.  Can they win the coveted prize and rescue mama?  

Mona continues to be my favorite character.  She reminds me a little of The Grinch, Pippi Longstocking, Matilda, and Wednesday from the Addams Family.  I love how Violet describes her as a "thundercloud, pretty but kind of scary."  The way she rolls her eyes, how she can be moody, sometimes blunt with her words, sneaky and how rain is her favorite weather.  And how she's always plotting her next dastardly deed.  Pranks are one of her specialties, and where Carly-Rue is concerned, she owes her rival a revenge prank for Carly-Rue and her mom trying to kick them out of town.   But when Mona's prank goes a bit too far, she starts to worry that she might be seen by her friends and family as a bully or a villain.  Usually, it's not in her nature to worry about what other people think of her, but now she's becoming more introspective, taking into account other people's feelings.  She really doesn't want to seem cruel or unkind.  As in the first book, I love the bond that the Problim children have with one another, each child has their own strengths, and are always looking out for one another.  There's even a fun riddle to solve, hijinks at the carnival and beautiful messaging about finding one "good truth" to tell someone, and that it's important to lead with the good.    

Favorite line:   "I believe everyone has their own song playing deep in their soul.  When you hear the music they make, you see a very vulnerable part of their heart."         

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

MG Fantasy review of The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner

37648365The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner
Format:  E ARC 
Publisher:  Henry Holt and Co.
Number of Pages:  288
Publishing:  August 6th, 2019
Source:  Edelweiss Plus

Opening Line:  "She descended into the basement, tasked with collecting the bones."

The opening lines and book description of The Bone Garden is what instantly hooked me.  There's something about graveyards that conjure up the images of gravestones, moonlit nights, caskets, and the potential for ghosts, of which there are none in this story.  It's just the right amount of dark, creepy and the perfect setting and atmosphere for this story.  I knew I was in for a treat.  I've seen reviews that compare The Bone Garden to Monstrous, The Graveyard Book and Coraline, which I full heartedly agree with.      

Each day Irréelle travels through the tunnels and passageways of the underside of the graveyard collecting bone dust for Miss Vesper.  A task that Irréelle eagerly completes because pleasing Miss Vesper is her highest priority.   Irréelle is tethered to Miss Vesper for her very existence due to being created by bone dust and Miss Vesper's imagination.  A fact that Miss Vesper will never let her forget,  one false move can lead to  Irréelle's existence being wiped out in a blink of an eye.   All Irréelle wants is to make her creator happy, which is turning out to be more and more difficult each day.  Irréelle both loves and fears Miss Vesper, making her the kind of character that you immediately feel sympathy for.  As far as villains go, Miss Vesper would be right there at the top of the list.  She's cruel, demanding, ill-tempered, and speaks to Irréelle with words as sharp as knives, leaving her constantly on edge.  Miss Vesper is kinda like this mad scientist from Frankenstein mixed with Cruella de Vil who creates children from spare body parts, bone dust, and her imagination.   Though her creations can also be imperfect.  For example, when Miss Vesper created Irréelle, she ended up with a spine that is crooked and limbs that are misaligned, leaving her with a limp.  Yet Irréelle persists in completing her tasks with the hope that someday Miss Vesper will use her magic to make her real.   

Lately, however,  Irréelle's imperfections have led her to become even more forgetful and clumsy, and despite the best of intentions in pleasing Miss Vesper, she ends up doing the inexcusable, unforgivable.  She crushes one of Miss Vesper's newest creations, a hand that when it comes to life begins to attack Irréelle.  Even though Irréelle pleads with Miss Vesper that it was just a mistake, that she was only trying to defend herself, Miss Vesper has had enough and decides it's time to break their tether.  While Miss Vesper gathers supplies for a bonfire, Irréelle manages to escape into the passageways below ground.  But, Miss Vesper won't let one of her creations go so easily and sends her bats after her.    

As Irréelle tries to escape through the tunnels, she stumbles across a boy (Guy).  He too is one of Miss Vesper's creations.  Originally he was sent to find "an unmarked grave that is very clearly marked," and when he was unsuccessful, was buried under a pile of rocks, it never pays to anger Miss Vesper.  Irréelle believes that Guy may just be what she needs to get back into Miss Vesper's good graces if they can complete her impossible task maybe she can be forgiven.  

Irréelle's time is initially spent below ground, carrying a candle to illuminate her way through the tunnels to extract bone dust, which is certainly creepy but not too scary.  She's a dutiful girl, very eager to please.  Other than the anger and contempt Miss Vesper shows her, she is in no true danger at first.  Even Miss Vesper is not quite as scary as I thought she was going to be, although she certainly is unkind and cruel in her treatment of Irréelle.  She can conjure up bats made from dust so probably best not to get on her bad side.  There's an element of adventuring and mystery as the duo makes their way above ground and through the cemetery trying to figure out why Miss Vesper is so desperate to find this unmarked grave.  Who's remains does it hold and what does she intend to do with them?  Things also take an interesting turn when they run into an unexpected ally, a girl named Lass who's also been sent by Miss Vesper to search for the unmarked grave.    And danger does come when they have a run-in with the watchman from the cemetery and are returned to Miss Vesper's clutches.  It's within these moments that Irréelle's character shines, she acts boldly to save her friends and learns that she has the inner strength, and determination to resist being compelled to do what someone else wants.  I really enjoyed her transformation and the way in which the story was resolved.  

Monday, July 15, 2019

MG Fantasy/Adventure review of Moonlocket (The Cogheart Adventures #2) by Peter Bunzl

33148504Moonlocket (The Cogheart Adventures #2)  by Peter Bunzl
Format:  ARC paperback
Publisher:  Jolly Fish Press 
Number of Pages:  384
Publishing:  August 13th, 2019 (first published May 1st, 2017)
Source:  Publisher 

Opening Lines: "Jack stepped through the crack into the night.  Outside the yard was quiet and thick dark clouds hid the moon from view."

Moonlocket opens with a prologue and introduces the character of Jack of Diamonds.  A nefarious criminal who has just escaped from prison for yet unknown reasons.  This is a brilliant setup which sets the mood and excitement level for the story yet to come.  Bunzl then shifts to Lily and Robert relaying how Lily's mother died when she was six years old in a tragic accident.  How her father is a famous inventor and one of his inventions was instrumental in saving her life.  Robert is the boy who assisted Lily and who has come to live with her since his father died in the first book.  Lily's father would like to adopt him, but Robert is reticent and feels that he has unresolved issues to deal with first and he's still grieving and doesn't feel it's the right time.  Robert visits his father's shop often, but it's still a painful reminder of all that he has lost, his prior home, and that his father's shop now belongs to his mother, wherever she might be.  It's while at his father's shop that Robert sees a mysterious figure lurking about.  At first, he believes it's his da now as a ghost but soon discovers that what they were really after is the Moonlocket, a locket with mysterious markings that holds a hidden clue to Roberts past and might lead him to his mother.

I am so enamored with these covers, the steampunk aspects of zeps combined with Malkin the mechanical fox, the kids riding their bikes and even the playing card.  Just gorgeous.  The tag line is also so perfect for the story, "a thrilling tale of catastrophe and courage." Yes and yes.  I was excited that Robert had the opportunity to tell more of his story about his mother's disappearance and his connection to the missing Moonlocket.  Lily and Robert make a fantastic team and I love how they support each other.  Lily's no-nonsense approach and how she won't be talked out of "going on a ghost hunt" with Robert.  They're creative, fast thinkers and although at times they get overpowered by the adults, somehow they manage to outwit them as well.  And Malkin, the sarcastic mechanical fox, who adds just the right amount of humor.    Moonlocket also features a cryptogram or engraving of words on the locket so is perfect for kids who like to solve puzzles.  Such a fun adventure that is both a touching and a heartfelt testament of friendship and courage.    

Favorite lines:  "...when you lose someone close, the gifts they gave you become keepsakes to remember them by - it's as if they magically contain a part of that person.  And when you mislay such a gift, it is like losing that person all over again.  But when you recover it, it is always a great and unexpected blessing."              

Monday, July 1, 2019

YA Fantasy review of Last Things by Jacqueline West

41154322Last Things by Jacqueline West
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Number of Pages: 416
Published  May 7th, 2019
Source:  Purchased

Opening Line: "I like the edges."

 Anders Thorson is the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Last Things, a metal band that performs at the Crow's Nest coffeehouse on Friday nights.  To the small town in Minnesota, they're legendary and destined for great things.  At school,  Anders is a bit of a dork, the quiet guy that no one notices.  He's insecure, self-deprecating and doesn't truly feel worthy when people praise his talents,  and certainly never deserving of such notoriety.  Frankie is his sort of girlfriend, but he doesn't think he's worthy of her admiration either.  She's probably just hanging out with him because of the music.  Yet when Anders takes the stage, his skills shine.  He plays and sings with passion, intensity, and such lightning-fast speed that it sets him apart from anyone else in the band.  He's consumed by the songs that come to him in flashes of full-page lyrics that he instantly must jot down.  He lives and breathes his music.      

 Thea Malcolm is new to town and likes being on the periphery of all the action.  She quietly sips her cafe' au lait and watches Anders, Jezz and Patrick perform pretty much unnoticed.  She's drawn to Anders, always watching him perform, hanging around while he's packing up after the show, even following him home and staying until he turns out the light.  Not once has she approached him, telling herself she's here to protect him.  Everyone in Anders orbit calls her his stalker, but Anders has hardly noticed her at all.  Then one day Thea approaches Anders and tries to give him a warning that he's in danger.  Anders is initially suspicious even doubtful, he thinks she's just trying to scare him.  Yet, Thea knows things, details from his past that no one should know.  She knows about what happened to him two years ago in the woods, how it might've been the catalyst for his talents.  She even seems to know something about Frankie's disappearance.  Can he trust her?  Should he believe her?  

Last Things alternates between chapters of Thea and Anders, slowly revealing the main plot, always with a hint of mystery and suspense.    There's an overall eerieness that I thoroughly enjoyed.   The woods almost take on a life of their own, they have an ominous, dark, mysterious even dangerous quality to them.  They contain a darkness that is watching, lurking, preying on peoples strongest desires and insecurities.  Couple that with Thea's almost obsessive fascination with Anders and her earliest descriptions of watching him perform at the Crow's Nest, it gives the story a whole creepy, stalkerish vibe.    Is she a love-struck fan or does she have other motives?     

 Growing up I had a place that was like the Crow's Nest.  Mine wasn't a coffeehouse but was an 80's bar that had live music.  It's the place I saw my first concert with my friends, where The Outfield performed.  West creates this beautiful atmosphere within the coffeehouse.   She captures the perspectives of both the performer and the audience.  It's exhilarating to read about Anders on stage performing his sets, the way he strums his guitar and how the intensity of the music moves the audience.  The poetic quality of the lyrics he sings and the emotions that arise in those listening.  West even includes the entire song lyrics into the story, my favorite is "Devils Due."   I'd describe this book as a mix of  Stranger Things meets the movie Crossroads starring Ralph Macchio.  In fact, in one of her interviews, she says that she drew inspiration from the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson who reportedly sold his soul to the devil.  Overall, I quite enjoyed this dark twisty story with an emphasis on metal music and questionable musical talents.

Favorite line:  "Darkness takes whatever space it's given."