Tuesday, February 18, 2020

MG Realistic Review of The Queen Bee and Me by Gillian McDunn

44280977The Queen Bee and Me by Gillian McDunn
Format:  E-ARC
Publisher:  Bloomsbury Children's Books

Number of Pages:  288
Publishing:  March 3rd, 2020
Source:  Edelweiss Plus

Opening Line:  "There are two kinds of people in the world:  those who want to look inside to see how stuff works and those who couldn't care less." 

Meg is a thinker, the kind of person who would take a toaster apart to see how it works.  For a long time, she was happy following Beatrix, not wanting to upset the waters between them.  Although they've been best friends since kindergarten, sometimes Meg doesn't like Beatrix all that much.  Meg has a hard time being honest with her because Beatrix can get mad easily.  Lately, Meg has been finding it increasingly difficult to tell Beatrix that she wants to participate in science elective instead of dance.  It was an honor to be chosen, and Meg really likes science.  Beatrix is the one who's passionate about dance, not Meg.  Then Meg meets Hazel, she's quirky, friendly and very easy to talk to.  Hazel is really passionate about beekeeping and nothing like Meg, she just likes what she likes.  She's not worried about being teased for liking beekeeping or for wearing striped leggings, scarves and a knit hat.  Hazel has her own personal style.  Meg finds Hazel interesting and enjoys working with her on their animal fieldwork study, although bees frighten her, she's willing to give it a try.  Beatrix doesn't like their new budding friendship and intervenes to cause problems.  When Beatrix's antics threaten to have Hazel's beehives removed from town, Meg gets upset and is left questioning whether Beatrix's friendship is really worth all of the trouble.                 

Friends since kindergarten, middle schoolers Meg and Beatrix are now experiencing a change in the dynamics of their friendship.  Beatrix was always the sort of queen bee of the group, everyone followed her rules or they were frozen out of the group.  But Meg starts to realize that it isn't the kind of friendship that works for her anymore.  Hazel is such a fun character, she's spontaneous, creative and I appreciate she has her own style.  She's a risk-taker and love how she was willing to wing it when making cookies.  No recipe required, just experiment with adding different ingredients.  The story is really an exploration of friendships and how they should be a give and take relationship.  The importance of sticking up for ourselves and that sometimes when friends grow apart, the only thing you can do is" change yourself."  This reminds me of Pack of Dorks by Beth Vrabel.  They both utilize some of the characteristics of animals/insects and use them to explain human nature.  In Vrabel's, the comparison was made between the main characters and a pack of wolves and in The Queen Bee and Me there was a comparison made between the various roles humans take and the roles honey bees take within their colony.  I especially enjoyed all the interesting facts about bees and how they are so important to the environment.   It flows nicely with the rest of the story and I think it makes for a wonderful story for kids interested in science as well.  The book trailer is also so adorable!!   

                                        Narration: Violet McDunn, Music: www.bensounds.com

Thursday, February 13, 2020

MG Realistic review of We Could Be Heroes by Margaret Finnegan

46164337We Could Be Heroes by Margaret Finnegan
Format:  Paperback ARC
Publisher:  Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Number of Pages:  241
Publishing:  February 25th, 2020
Source:  Publisher via Blue Slip Media in exchange for an honest review

Opening Line: "Hank had things totally under control until he actually held up his brand new Survival 4000 Fire Striker with Compass and Whistle--the one he got for his birthday, the one that he was only supposed to take camping--to Mrs. Vera's book."  

Fourth-grader Hank Hudson is upset with his teacher Mrs. Vera because she's been reading his class this "495-page torture device" about a boy trying to escape from the Nazis.  Hank really identifies with the boy in the story's sadness, he doesn't like how he feels whenever Mrs. Vera reads it.  To prevent himself from getting sad, Hank tries to get rid of the book by setting it on fire in the boy's bathroom.  New girl, Maisie sees Hank sneaking back into line after he sets the sprinkler system off in school and is inspired by Hank's boldness in burning the book.  He might just be the kind of friend she's been looking for.  One day while Hank is visiting Maisie's house, she takes him next door to play with her neighbor Mr. Jorgensen's dog, Booler.  Maisie tells Hank that Booler is tied to a tree all day, which according to Mr. Jorgensen is because Booler has seizures and that's the only way he knows how to keep him safe.  But Maisie feels it's inhumane to treat Booler this way and because Hank had the guts to burn a book at school, she now wants Hank to help her rescue Booler.  

This is a darling story of two kids who want nothing more than to save the dog next door.  Hank is an endearing main character.  He is sensitive, kind and empathetic.  When he's overwhelmed, due to his autism,  he takes out the rocks he carries in his pocket and distracts himself by listing off cool facts about each rock.  He is clever and sweet.  Hank has strong feelings and up til now, he's been able to use his strategies at school fairly well.  When he meets Maisie, Hank is very excited about her showing an interest in being friends with him.  Most of his childhood friends moved along to form new friendships and Maisie is the first person he's had anything in common with for a long time.  She's special because not only does she like acting out the Jungle Book, her parents are even geologists and Hank loves collecting rocks.  I really love the way that Hank is portrayed in the story, it's not a story about him being autistic or being bullied, it's an uplifting story with kids who are easy to relate to.   

Hank and Maisie's friendship is also wonderfully depicted.  They do have their share of difficult moments and tests to their friendship but eventually resolve their differences.  Maisie is such a force, strong-willed and determined.   She strikes me as inquisitive and tenacious, when there is something that she really wants, she usually gets it.  What she really wanted was to save Booler from being tied to a tree all day.  She wasn't going to give up, even when Hank starts to think that some of the things she's asking him to do might be wrong, even after they both get into trouble.   The actions they took, from calling 911 to report Mr. Jorgensen for being mean to his dog to writing a letter to their parents arguing the legal reasons for keeping Booler, to eventually taking the dog and running away, all seemed like real things that children of this age group might try.  Even though I sometimes was disappointed with Maisie's methods, especially when she used Hank's feelings and emotions to get him to go along with her plans, her heart always seemed to be in the right place and her actions did seem to come from a deep caring for Booler.    

I also really adored Hank's parents and the lovely interactions they had with him.  They were caring, kind and encouraging.  There were some especially difficult conversations that they had with him about friendship.  Their conversation felt real and especially thoughtful of Hank's feelings.  Like when they suspected Maisie was taking advantage of Hank by playing into his empathy and sadness over Booler's situation, they explained how true friends don't make you change who you are, and friends also do things that you want to do.  There were some valuable messages in here about what makes for a true friend.  No one wants to feel like they're being taken advantage of and Hank gets very upset with his parents because they're putting doubt into his mind about Maisie.  Again, these situations felt so real, full of the potential emotions one would have when we start questioning everything you think you know about your friend.   Hanks struggles to keep his emotions in check, to use his strategies will help children gain insight or provide a realistic glimpse into the life, feelings, and emotions of a child with autism.  Such a heartwarming story with characters that are easily relatable and a wonderfully positive message that as Hank would say "different isn't less. "    

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

MG Fantasy review of Skycircus (The Cogheart Adventures #3) by Peter Bunzl

40551757. sy475 Skycircus (The Cogheart Adventures #3)  by Peter Bunzl
Format:  ARC paperback
Publisher:  Jolly Fish Press 
Number of Pages:  432
Publishing:  February 11th, 2020 (first published October 4th, 2018)
Source:  Publisher 

Opening Lines: "Most people who fall in their dreams wake before they hit the ground."

Lily Hartman is unhappy because today is her fourteenth birthday and instead of getting ready for her party, everyone is busy preparing for an event for her father.  Then a hatbox mysteriously appears on Lily's doorstep, inside is a notebook filled with Lily's late mother's notes about becoming a mechanist and research she was doing on the characteristics of flight.  Included with the present was a cryptic message and an invitation for Lily and two of her friends to attend Slimwood's Stupendous Skycircus.  Hoping to get some answers, Lily, Robert, Tolly and Lily's mechanimal Malkin set out for the circus.  At first glance, the circus appeared to hold all of the excitement that Lily had hoped for, but upon closer observation, Lily and her friends begin to suspect that the child performers are only pretending to be happy.  When Tolly sees a girl performer he recognizes being mistreated, Lily and her friends know they must rescue her.  Instead, they unknowingly walk into a trap and are kidnapped.  Forced aboard the flying skycircus, Lily, Robert, and Malkin must now find a way to save themselves.  

Lily, Robert, and Malkin began their adventures in the first book of the series,  Cogheart After Lily's father, a famous machinist disappears, Lily is returned home from finishing school to try and find him.  Much of the steampunk aspects of the Victorian setting including the "zeps" or flying airships, mechanical animals, mechanical humans, and hybrids or part humans and mechanicals were introduced in the first book.  The story then continued with Moonlocket in which Lily and her friends faced off against a new adversary, Jack of Diamonds.  Snippets of Robert's backstory began to emerge and Lily and Robert forged a stronger friendship.  Skycircus is the third book in the Cogheart Adventures series and opens mysteriously with the introduction of a new character,  Angela a young girl imprisoned at the Camden Workhouse.  The story then shifts to Lily, Robert, and Malkin's current predicament in which they're kidnapped by Slimwood and Madame Lyons-Mane.

I was really excited to read Skycircus, imagining a big top filled with magical circus performances.  Everything from clowns, acrobats, the trapeze and walking the tightrope, maybe even Lily and Robert eating some popcorn and cotton candy.  The tag line on the cover also caught my eye, "A Spectacular Showstopper of Trickery and Tightropes."  But I must admit the skycircus has a much creepier atmosphere than I expected.  Not scary but it is a bit unsettling.  The premise begins with the mystery of who sent Lily the message and what exactly they want from her.  Once at the circus, there is the initial excitement of the show, but then the reality of what truly is happening is revealed when the audience has left.  Our two circus owners, Slimwood and Madame Lyons-Mane play their parts as villains very well, they're cruel and unforgiving.  Forcing their animals and circus performers to live in deplorable conditions, always with the threat of harm if they don't toe the line.  They separate the hybrids or part human/mechanicals from the remaining circus performers, thus creating a division between the two to keep them under control.  

As in previous books, I expected there would be an adventure for Lily, Robert, and Malkin.  Yet Skycircus had a much slower pace than its previous books and focused more on conveying the message that differences are just that, differences.   That some can be internal versus the external ones of the hybrid circus performers.  That one should not judge others.  That the choices that we make are important and that we risk being complicit if we don't stand up when we see something wrong.    All important messages that took some time to develop in the storyline.  The addition of new characters also took up much of the story and I was disappointed when Lily and Robert were separated and had to find a way back together.    

Overall, I did enjoy the story and am interested in reading Shadowsea when in releases in the US.  Skycircus can be read as a standalone, but I'd recommend starting with Cogheart.  

Favorite lines from the book:  "No one conquers fear easily.  It takes practice to reach true heights; a brave heart to win great battles." 

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Thursday, February 6, 2020

MG action review of The Red Casket (Del Toro Tales #2) by Darby Karchut

52523009. sx318 sy475 The Red Casket (Del Toro Tales #2)
Format:  paperback
Publisher:  Owl Hollow Press
Number of Pages:  260
Published:  January 14th, 2020
Source:  Author in exchange for an honest review

Opening lines: "Pest control.  That's what our father, Javier Del Toro jokingly called our hunting sprees."  

From Goodreads "Never trust a witch.

For four hundred years, generations of the Family Del Toro and their battle-savvy warhorses have secretly guarded their corner of Colorado from all things creepy. But when a menacing woman with some wicked witch powers shows up at the Del Toro ranch and demands the return of the Red Casket, twelve-year-old Matt Del Toro must team up with his best friend Perry—along with the warhorses Rigo and Isabel—to out-wit, out-ride, and out-fight one Viking-size sorceress."

In the previous book in the series, the reader was introduced to "skinners," or these creepy creatures that are all bloody and kinda resemble a "fresh-skinned animal carcass."  The reader also learned that Matt and his family are a part of this ancient order of Knights sworn to protect the world against these creatures.  With their talking Andalusian warhorses, they've been able to keep the skinners at bay.  Much of the first book centered on Matt's training with some awesome fights against these creatures.    

Matt is the kind of character that I so adore.  He's not overly confident, hesitant at times, even introspective.   He's always looked up to his dad and respects him as not only his father but also for his skills in hunting.  In the first book, Matt was concerned about whether he was up to the challenge, he had a lot that he wanted to prove to his family.  Not to mention wanting to prove to his older brother that he could be a strong fighter.  That he could wield a mace, stay on his horse and most importantly not get himself killed.  But now that they lost one of their most knowledgeable horses and a dear friend in the previous book, Matt is not only feeling his loss but he's also concerned with whether or not their newest member, Rigo is happy being paired up with him.  

In this book, Matt learns that he's being groomed to take over the family business.  It's a choice that Matt isn't sure that he would make.   Is he ready for the responsibility?  Does he have what it takes?  One of the themes  I felt the story was trying to convey was the idea that there isn't "a right or wrong decision, only the best decision that you can make at the time."  Which plays in nicely as Matt begins questioning his leadership skills.  Matt's father gives him the room to make his own decisions while at the same time supporting him.  Even when Matt makes a huge mistake, he doesn't chastise him for it.  He instead encourages him to take it as a learning experience.  I so enjoy these interactions between Matt and his dad.   Matt has shown such growth from the first book, he's making some of his own choices and even taking on more of a leadership role, especially when his dad is called away to Denver.   He's incorporated some of his previous conversations with El Cid about the importance of staying together and is learning to become a leader.  I'm really curious to see how this evolves further in the next book in the series.    

Family dynamics are a huge part of the story, but so is the action.  When this white-haired woman shows up asking for the red casket, Matt knows that she means trouble.  She tries to negotiate for the casket at first, but after being told flatly "no", she's not willing to back down either.  She means business.  It definitely builds toward a high stake ending.  Overall I love the feeling of family, connection, loyalty, sacrifice and the special bond that exists between horse and rider.  The story has a lovely southwestern flair and the positive message that family will always be there to support and love you. 

Monday, February 3, 2020

MG Fantasy review of Britfield & the Lost Crown by C.R. Stewart

Britfield & the Lost Crown by C.R. Stewart
Format:  E-book 
Publisher:  Devonfield Publishing LLC 
Number of Pages:  361
Published:  June 18th, 2019
Source:  Review copy from Netgalley

Opening lines:  "Number forty-seven!  stop chattering to thirty-four and get back to work, immediately!"  

Tom has lived at Weatherly Orphanage for six long years.  Here the orphans are forced into hard labor by Mr. and Mrs. Grievous, but Tom has plans to make his escape.  On one of his last night raids into the Grievouses mansion to steal a book from their collection, Tom inadvertently alerts them to his presence.  While not initially detected, the Grievouses suspicion's are raised and the very next day Tom is called to the main office.  Mr. Grievous presents Tom with an offer if he confesses within two days as to which orphan snuck into his home, in exchange he will receive information about the parents Tom thought were deceased.  Unable to rat out his fellow orphans, Tom and his best friend Sarah enact a plan to escape from the orphanage.  When Mr. and Mrs. Grievous learn that they're on the loose and fearing that they can tell the police about all of their misdeeds, they hire Detective Goverstone, a legendary Scotland Yard detective known for locating missing children to hunt them down.  Equipped with only a piece of paper with the word Britfield on it, Tom and Sarah set out on a 300-mile cat and mouse chase across England to determine the significance the word holds to Tom and to uncover any possible clues that might lead Tom to the whereabouts of his parents.

Britfield and the Lost Crown opens with an action-packed escape from Weatherly Orphanage.  At first glance, I thought this story was going to take place during a much older time, something kinda akin to Oliver Twist, especially given the horrible way in which the orphans were being mistreated.   Although I wasn't able to pinpoint the exact time period, there are computers and a helicopter giving it a more modern feel.   Tom and Sarah endure many hardships as they make their escape from the orphanage.  Especially as they climb across a rooftop, travel through an underground tunnel, and once they hop aboard a hot air balloon.   All while being tracked from the ground by Detective Goverstone and his massive police force.  When their balloon does crash land, a foot race ensues taking them through the city streets of Oxford.  Along the way, Tom and Sarah receive help from a student and professor at Oxford University and visit such historical sites as Windsor Castle, Christ Church, and Canterbury Cathedral, to name a few. 

I love stories set in England and having Tom and Sarah flying around in a hot air balloon gives the reader an interesting, birds-eye perspective of England.  As I learned from reading an interview with the author, one of Stewart's main goals for writing Britfield & the Lost Crown was to not only to write something that was entertaining but also something that was accurate geographically, historically, architecturally, and culturally.  I think he accomplished this very well.  There are lovely passages describing the buildings they pass and historical details about the places they visited are intermingled into the dialogue.   In addition to the story being exciting, there are also five maps detailing the places Tom and Sarah visited in the story, with one even including the layout of Windsor Castle.   There's even a website for the book with even more details and actual photographs from the countryside of Yorkshire, The Midlands, Oxford, Windsor, Richmond, London, and Canterbury.  Beautifully detailed photos that include excerpts from the book linking them to the relevant passages from the story and adding in the historical significance as well.  For example this one on Windsor Castle: 

" The oldest inhabited royal residence in Britain, Windsor Castle represents the pinnacle of majesty.  First built in 1070 by William the Conqueror, the original wooden structure was replaced with greyish stone and improved over the centuries.  Perched high on a hill and illuminated by lights, it stood as an enormous fortified structure with thirty-foot walls and fifty-foot rectangular towers."       

The next book in the series, Britfield and The Rise of the Lion is due to release in the Fall of 2020 and this time Tom and Sarah will be traveling to France.  I can't wait!!  There's even a Goodreads giveaway going on right now.