Thursday, January 28, 2016

Nightmares!: The Sleepwalker Tonic - Jason Segel & Kirsten Miller


Summary:  Nightmares! The Sleepwalker Tonic is the sequel to the hilariously scary New York Timesbestselling novel Nightmares! by multitalented actor Jason Segel and bestselling author Kirsten Miller. You thought the nightmares were over? You better keep the lights on!

Charlie Laird has a dream life.

1) He has a weirdo stepmom who runs an herbarium. 
2) He lives in a purple mansion with a portal to the Netherworld.
3) Since they escaped from the Netherworld, he and his best friends have been sleeping like babies. 

But Charlie can’t shake the feeling that something strange is afoot. Charlotte’s herbarium used to be one of the busiest stores in Cypress Creek. Now her loyal following is heading to Orville Falls for their herbal potions.

Weirder, though, Orville Falls is suddenly filled with . . . zombies? At least, they sure look like the walking dead. Rumor has it that no one’s sleeping in Orville Falls. And Charlie knows what that means.

Things are getting freaky again. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: Charlie was so happy that his nightmares were finally his friends.  After the whole mess a few weeks ago, he was relieved to finally sleep some, to have a better relationship with his stepmom and his brother, and to put the fear of trolls taking over the Real World behind him.

But then some dude wanders into his town from the neighboring town, buys a bunch of paint, and drives into a pole... all while asleep. Sort of.  And things in the Netherworld aren't as they seem.  

I don't know why I'm constantly surprised that Segel is such a good storyteller.  This series is so imaginative and so much fun to read! Everything I loved about Nightmares! applies here.  I love that Charlie is a real kid.  Sometimes he's a jerk.  Sometimes he's a genius. I love that his family is in a better place now, and that there's some agreement about taking care of the Portal.  

I was so impressed that this story kept me on my toes.  I thought I knew where it was going to go, but every time, I was pleasantly surprised.  It's such a nice change to read a Middle Grade/Middle Reader book and feel surprise and freshness in the pages.


Rating:  Four stars

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Children's Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination - Bryan Young


Summary: Over the course of American history, there have been only four presidents who have been forced to sacrifice their lives for their country at the hands of an assassin. These great men have not been forgotten, and their stories are told here in fascinating detail for history lovers of all ages. 

But those four presidents are not the only ones who have been close to death in the line of duty to the American people. This book, A Children’s Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination, delves into all of the major assassination attempts throughout the history of the United States, in vivid detail, illustrated by Erin Kubinek. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Yes, you read that correctly.  I reviewed a children's book about presidential assassination.  And it. Is. AWESOME!  I felt a little odd laughing at Young's recounting of some of the attempted assassinations, but frankly, they were pretty funny.  Imagining President Jackson beating his would-be assassin into submission with a cane when the attempt failed? Tell me you wouldn't laugh.

This is truly an incredible book.  Stemming from his own daughter's interest in why someone would do something so unthinkable, Young sets out to explain in simple, understandable, intelligent terms why presidents have been triggered in the past, why their assailants were motivated, and how the nation reacted every time.  He includes a nod to the Secret Service and its history, but the most enchanting part of the book for me was the illustrations his daughter supplied him with, either presidential portraits or her rendition of the assassination scene.  

Granted, this is a dark topic.  But it's frustrating for intelligent kids who truly want to learn our nation's history to only be fed crumbs.  Young realizes this and assumes that the readers of his book are smart enough to handle the material.  I found myself learning things about the presidents who had been targeted -- for example, I didn't know that Jackson was the only president to PAY OFF the national debt.  Sure, he was a horrible man, but seriously.  That's impressive.  But as someone who loves history, and who considers myself fairly well-versed in American history, I loved learning more about the topic than I had intended.  

Included in the book are any known attempts at assassination, but covered in more detail than any APUSH class would give you.  I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts when Young was interviewed.  His recounting of Roosevelt's survival had me laughing so hard, I came home and immediately sought out the book.  Yes, assassination is terrible and unthinkable, but the ways these men survived them?  Everyone should know the bravery of these men.

Rating: Five enthusiastic stars


For the Sensitive Reader:  While the subject matter is handled with the utmost care, this is a book about assassination.  Young doesn't get overly graphic, but keep in mind the subject material.  Personally, I handed it right to my nearly-ten-year-old ... a fellow history buff.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Zeroes - Scott Westerfeld

Summary: Don't call them heroes.

But these six Californian teens have powers that set them apart. They can do stuff ordinary people can’t.

Take Ethan, a.k.a. Scam. He’s got a voice inside him that’ll say whatever you want to hear, whether it’s true or not. Which is handy, except when it isn’t—like when the voice starts gabbing in the middle of a bank robbery. The only people who can help are the other Zeroes, who aren’t exactly best friends these days.

Enter Nate, a.k.a. Bellwether, the group’s “glorious leader.” After Scam’s SOS, he pulls the scattered Zeroes back together. But when the rescue blows up in their faces, the Zeroes find themselves propelled into whirlwind encounters with ever more dangerous criminals. And at the heart of the chaos they find Kelsie, who can take a crowd in the palm of her hand and tame it or let it loose as she pleases.

Filled with high-stakes action and drama, Zeroes unites three powerhouse authors for the opening installment of a thrilling new series. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review:  Hmm.  Okay, I loved the Uglies series.  I haven't found a series from Westerfeld since that I've enjoyed nearly as much.  It was with trepidation that picked up this series, courtesy of Buzzfeed's ridiculous quiz (I mentioned it in an earlier post), but I was sort of intrigued by the idea.  Normal world, normal kids, normal lives, but supernormal abilities.

I couldn't tell if I didn't like this book because of my frame of mind (pained and bored), because of the language (holy swears!), or because the story wasn't quite good enough.  I didn't love it.  The characters were decently developed, the central conflict was frankly ridiculous, and the interpersonal relationships were eye-roll inducing.  I found myself so frustrated with the main characters, who blatantly ignored the slightest shred of reason because of a personal and misguided grudge that it was hard to care for any of them.

Don't get me wrong.  This isn't a book that's just been called in by Westerfeld.   He tries so hard, too hard, to get his readers to care for every single one of the Zeroes, even the smarmy ones.  But it just fell flat for me.  Frankly, it made me worry whether I was finally too old to get the whole YA genre.  I wanted to scream at the book, "USE YOUR WORDS, silly characters!!!  Listen with your ears, and use your words!! Ugh."  And yet, I kept reading.

I don't know if I'll pick up the next book in the series.  I just don't know if I can be brought around to care for these characters.

Rating:  Two and a half stars


For the Sensitive Reader:  Gang and mafia violence, drug use, drug pushing, ridiculous amounts of the F word ... I'd think long and hard before recommending this to someone who is sensitive.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Nest - Kenneth Oppel

Please welcome back guest reviewer, Courtney Cope!

Summary:  Steve just wants to save his baby brother—but what will he lose in the bargain? This is a haunting gothic tale for fans of Coraline, from acclaimed author Kenneth Oppel (Silverwing, The Boundless) with illustrations from Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen.

For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered.

All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?

Celebrated author Kenneth Oppel creates an eerie masterpiece in this compelling story that explores disability and diversity, fears and dreams, and what ultimately makes a family. Includes illustrations from celebrated artist Jon Klaassen. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: I have not been able to get this book out of my head.

It's a deep-rooted, psychological horror written for kids, and I can say with satisfaction that it terrified me. 

I have long been a fan of Kenneth Oppel's work, and was introduced to his novels years ago when I was able to meet him.  'The Nest' is quite different from his other fare, but in a good way, taking a dark, spooky path into the life of a boy with some quirky, but real phobias, and his quest to try and fix his family's heart-wrenching problem through a seemingly angelic appeal.

The story rolls out in a methodical manner, but it is in no way slow, as danger lurks on every page, and grows alarmingly the further you read.  The antagonist is truly creepy, and worthy of her nightmarish visits.  As a fan of dark tales, this one is up there with the best, burrowing itself into your psyche and giving you even deeper questions to ponder as you take this strange and macabre journey.

Childhood, while a seemingly innocent time, can also be a scary place, fraught with bogeymen and monsters under the bed, intensely real to young minds.  'The Nest' illustrates that lingering fear of what lies out there, and whether or not it is a real threat or one of the mind.  Many children suffer from these fears and anxieties, and you don't often see them portrayed in such a believable and tangible manner.

Jon Klassen (whom I've also had the pleasure to meet) sporadically illustrates the story, and his art adds to the eerie and ominous feeling.  His loose images, and the wasps that tend to multiply with every chapter heading, bring a visual edge to an already terrifying tale.
I think what I loved so much about this book was the absolute unknown, the unique and original way Oppel wove the tale, such a strange, bizarre and twisted idea that worked so very well.  I've never really read anything quite like it.  

'The Nest' is a quick read and, trust me, you will want to block out appropriate amount of time to read it in one sitting.

Rating: Four stars

For the sensitive reader: It might be a little intense and spooky for the younger reader. Think of it on the level of 'Coraline' to the power of wasps.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

At the Water's Edge - Sara Gruen

Summary: After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind. To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants. The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: Truth be told, this book is a hard one to review. It had some bad things about it, but it also had some really good things about it. I think the best thing to do is to just break this down.

The Good:

I’m sad this book is over. I felt like I was in the story, and even though it was somewhat monotonous at times, it was a good monotonous in that I felt like I was there experiencing the monotony of it with the characters. When it was over, I missed being there with those characters.

My granny is Scottish and she was raised there and so I have a strong connection to Scotland. I love reading about it, and I love the atmosphere of it—its cold, it’s rainy, I feel like it speaks to me. When I read books about it, it strengthens my resolve that I need to go there ASAP.

Nessie is fun, no matter what. Whether you believe there is actually a Loch Ness Monster or not, it’s fun to read about it and have it play a part in the story, even if it is or isn’t real. Nessie’s just fun.

The Okay:

The writing was okay. It wasn’t amazing, and I am a little disappointed after having read Water for Elephants and loved it so much, but whatever. Sometimes there is magic, sometimes not.  There were some awkward writing bits in here, and it just didn’t seem as smooth as I thought someone with Gruen’s experience would be able to pull off.

The Bad:

The characters in this book were decent—I felt a connection to them—but what I did not like is that their story seemed really contrived and convoluted. So many things happened that I felt were huge leaps of conjecture. It’s like Gruen had a plan and just kept adding in more and more stuff to make that plan happen and it didn’t matter whether it fit or not. It was just really convoluted and almost soap opera-esque.

This book took on so much. It’s almost like three different books all smooshed into one—there’s Nessie and Loch Ness, there’s WWII (which almost seemed an afterthought), and there’s the abusive relationship (I’m not giving more than that away). There’s also high society during WWII. And mythic creatures in foreign lands. It just seemed really unfocused. I think there was too much going on and the author should have chosen her focus and stuck with that. As it was, nothing got too much attention and this ended up making the book seem contrived and at times trite. This also lessened the impact of the ending.

The ending. I liked the ending, all things considered, but I just think it ended really inelegantly.  The epilogue was like a whole other sequel squished into a few paragraphs, and the ending itself had come from such a long and convoluted, unfocused story that her last paragraph—which is probably the first thing she wrote and so she just HAD to stick it in there no matter what—seemed like too little too late.

So. What to do? Well, I’m giving this book three stars because I missed it when it was over. It must have made some impact on me. Its writing style and unfocused nature maybe almost knocks it down to two stars, but some of the story brings it up to four, so I’m giving it an even three and walking away and feeling generous about it.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There are some pretty descriptive love scenes as well as language sprinkled throughout. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Night Gardener - Jonathan Auxier


Summary: This much-anticipated follow-up to Jonathan Auxier’s exceptional debut, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, is a Victorian ghost story with shades of Washington Irving and Henry James. More than just a spooky tale, it’s also a moral fable about human greed and the power of storytelling.

The Night Gardener follows two abandoned Irish siblings who travel to work as servants at a creepy, crumbling English manor house. But the house and its family are not quite what they seem. Soon the children are confronted by a mysterious spectre and an ancient curse that threatens their very lives. With Auxier’s exquisite command of language, The Night Gardener is a mesmerizing read and a classic in the making. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review:  Friends don't let friends read crummy books.  It's true.  They really don't.  I'm super lucky, because one of my dear friends also happens to be a school librarian.  She and I have so much time to chat over books while I volunteer in the library (honestly, my favorite volunteer post).  She mentioned this one in passing with the warning that nightmares accompanied it.  I was intrigued, and since my son was in a spooky mood, I checked it out.

Auxier has built a richly colored, varied, deep world in fewer words than you'd expect.  Every character steps out of the page, fully formed and with a backstory you can feel even before it unfolds.  His attention to every detail of the book creates such an amazing atmosphere that just enveloped me. The house, the tree -- both integral and main characters -- come with the same attention.  

The story itself is fairly straightforward.  Two children--possibly orphaned, down on their luck, and starving--are offered work for a family in the forest.  They arrive in the village to be shunned for their race (Irish), warned to leave before ever entering the forest, and realize they have no allies, save the bag lady who lives off of her stories.  And what stories she has to tell.  Of course, the children ignore their gut instinct, enter into service, and start to unravel the mysteries of the house -- why is everyone sick and blanched of color?  Who is the man that cones into the house at night?  And what is exactly behind that green door?

It astounded me how quickly the spooky and menacing aura of his entire world bled through the pages.  It didn't take long before I couldn't put the book down, even if I was a little creeped out.  And my friend was right -- nightmares accompanied it.  Hers were of the Garden itself -- the silver flowers, the threats, the mounds, and the holes.  Mine were of the cupboard -- the threat of a wish fulfilled.

Any book that can make me have nightmares for days afterward deserves a tip of the hat.  This is definitely a book that I hope doesn't get optioned into a movie.  It couldn't go anywhere but down from here!

Rating: Four Stars


For the Sensitive Reader:  This book is seriously creepy.  While I'd deem it appropriate for 12+, any younger than that and you might get visitors of the scared and bed-hogging sort.  There are also a few murders that are pretty grisly for the intended audience.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Red Queen - Victoria Aveyard

Summary:  This is a world divided by blood – red or silver.

The Reds are commoners, ruled by a Silver elite in possession of god-like superpowers. And to Mare Barrow, a seventeen-year-old Red girl from the poverty-stricken Stilts, it seems like nothing will ever change.


That is, until she finds herself working in the Silver Palace. Here, surrounded by the people she hates the most, Mare discovers that, despite her red blood, she possesses a deadly power of her own. One that threatens to destroy the balance of power.


Fearful of Mare’s potential, the Silvers hide her in plain view, declaring her a long-lost Silver princess, now engaged to a Silver prince. Despite knowing that one misstep would mean her death, Mare works silently to help the Red Guard, a militant resistance group, and bring down the Silver regime.


But this is a world of betrayal and lies, and Mare has entered a dangerous dance – Reds against Silvers, prince against prince, and Mare against her own heart.  (Summary and image from goodreads.com)


Review:  Do you remember the Grinch's dance when he comes up with his ingenious idea to steal Christmas from the Whos in Whoville?  I am not even ashamed to admit that I may have done that selfsame dance when I discovered this book.  I am ashamed, however, to admit that it came to my attention through one of those Buzzfeed quizzes Which YA Book Should You Read for your Astrological Sign?.  I know.  I went through the entire quiz (I've been down a lot lately), added every book to my To-Read list, and then requested the lot.  Some were absolute stinkers.  Some were decent.  This one?  I've got a series to be giddy about!

Mare's life isn't fair.  She has no skills (unless you count being an excellent pickpocket a skill), no apprenticeship, and adulthood is fast approaching.  No one likes growing up, but in Mare's world, adulthood means being sent to the Wars -- and very few people return.  She fears for her future, for her family, and for her best friend, and one night unburdens her soul to a kind (and really cute) stranger in the town pub. To her astonishment, the next morning she is summoned to serve the ruling family and nothing is the same.  

I am dying for more books in this series to come out.  From what I understand, there are humans and what could have been benevolent aliens who now rule Earth ... and all humans. As Silverbloods, they have supernatural powers, like the ability to control metal, the earth, wind, fire, even the air, and more.  Humans can't compete with that, can they?  Enter Mare, who is thoroughly human.  She's as red-blooded as she can be, and she can control electricity.  Unfortunately, she discovers that at the same time as everyone else, and is thrust into a world of lies, deception, politics, and rebellion.  Betrothed to one prince, but is she falling for the other?  Or for the one she's been told to marry?

Ave yard's take on the dystopian trope is fresh.  She has such an easy voice, but her story telling is fast.  Lightning fast.  This is one of those fun, easy reads that just grabs you by the shirt and doesn't let go.  I love those books!

Rating: 4.5 stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Some kisses, some murders.  Betrayal of the worst kind.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Secrets of a Charmed Life - Susan Meissner

Summary: She stood at a crossroads, half-aware that her choice would send her down a path from which there could be no turning back. But instead of two choices, she saw only one—because it was all she really wanted to see… 

Current day, Oxford, England. Young American scholar Kendra Van Zant, eager to pursue her vision of a perfect life, interviews Isabel McFarland just when the elderly woman is ready to give up secrets about the war that she has kept for decades...beginning with who she really is. What Kendra receives from Isabel is both a gift and a burden--one that will test her convictions and her heart.

1940s, England. As Hitler wages an unprecedented war against London’s civilian population, one million children are evacuated to foster homes in the rural countryside. But even as fifteen-year-old Emmy Downtree and her much younger sister Julia find refuge in a charming Cotswold cottage, Emmy’s burning ambition to return to the city and apprentice with a fashion designer pits her against Julia’s profound need for her sister’s presence. Acting at cross purposes just as the Luftwaffe rains down its terrible destruction, the sisters are cruelly separated, and their lives are transformed…

(Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. I actively tried to convince myself that it was a great book. I like the design of the cover, I really like historical fiction, and it had good ratings. Unfortunately for me it was just okay. The story itself was pretty good. It was tragic and horrible like all things World War II, but the ending was not what I had wanted. I understand that a story has to go where a story has to go—that a good author lets the story end how it needs to, no matter what they want, but I felt like Meissner had a plan and that plan was going to happen no matter what. Although I can see why it ended the way it did, it just didn’t flow as smoothly as I thought it might. It felt contrived, actually, like too many things didn’t work out when they should have and then in the end there were way too many coincidences that worked when they shouldn’t have. I know I’m being vague here—I’m doing it purposely so—but that’s what I thought when I got to the end.

Another thing that surprised me about this book and how well it did is that everyone talked about how fabulous the writing was. Again, I disagreed. It wasn’t bad writing, and it was certainly above average, but it was not beautiful and effortless and at times it was even a little silly and noticeable (which I think goes hand in hand with the story being forced). It was fine writing, but it wasn’t stellar or even noteworthy.

Also, I didn’t love the characters. I know that people are flawed, I know that some people are genuinely unlikeable, but I don’t necessarily love books where I end up only liking one or two of the people I’ve been reading about for 300 or so pages. Maybe I was supposed to like them? I don’t know. They were weak and selfish and should have had more redeeming qualities.

Now. After all this has been said, it was a decent book. I’ve certainly read worse but I’ve also read better. For me it was just run of the mill. It doesn’t offer a lot to the genre, and I think it’s got some pretty big competitors in WWII historical fiction right now. There are some brilliant books about basically this same thing—women and children left behind in the war—so it’s hard to keep up with those other books. For instance, see my review on The Nightingale. There are lots of people who will disagree with me, I’m sure, but I feel like compared to many of the other WWII historical fic books I’ve read, this one was not one of my faves.

My Rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some discussion of war violence and some discussion of sexual relationships, but nothing overt and it is comparable to others in the genre.

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