April 17, 2015

Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery in Mayan Mexico

by Marcia Wells
First sentence: "I'm back."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There's some mild violence and some mild romance (it's not a kissing book), but the language/chapter length level works for the younger readers as well as the older ones in the age range. It's in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I had a woman in the store the other day, looking for a Harriet the Spy-type mystery for a 10-year-old boy, who wanted something with intrigue and adventure. (They'd already read Harriet the Spy, or I would have given them that.)  Thankfully, I had just finished this one, so I had a great, middle grade mystery with intrigue and adventure to hand to the customer. (Bonus: this is the second, but you don't need to read the first at all!)

Edmund (call him Eddie, please!) and his family are in need of a vacation. He'd just gotten done being grounded (for events in the previous book), and his mother was given a vacation/opportunity to go to a conference. In Mexico. Sounds delightful, no? Especially since Eddie's best friend, Jonah, was along for the ride. But once there, an ancient mask that's on display at the hotel is stolen and Eddie's father is blamed for the theft. So, it's up to Eddie, Jonah and their new friend, Julia, to solve the crime and find the real thief.

I really did thoroughly enjoy this one. It's well-paced, with intrigue, suspense, and action, as Eddie and Jonah follow the twists and turns through this mystery. I liked that they were reasonable kids, doing reasonable things, and that aside from Eddie's photographic memory and artistic skillz, they're pretty normal kids.

But what I really liked is that Eddie is an African American kid, and its not an issue. At all. In fact, it's not something I even realized (shame on me?) until I was about a third of the way through. It's a diverse cast, being set in Mexico, and it's not something that's pointed out. It just is. Which is always nice.

A good, refreshingly solid, middle grade book.

April 15, 2015

Willy Maykit in Space

by Greg Trine
First sentence: "When Willy Maykit was three years old, his father went on an African safari and came home with amazing stories of lions, tigers, and bears."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It's on the simpler end of things, language-wise. Short chapter, easier words. Good for reluctant and younger readers. It's in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Willy Maykit has exploring in his blood: his father was a fantastically adventuresome explorer. The problem is that he went missing in the Amazon a year ago. And so, Willy's problem is getting his mother to let him go on the field trip to Planet Ed. Of course, she lets him  (or there wouldn't be a book), and of course he, and another friend, get left on this strange planet (that looks a lot like Colorado), Of course they have adventures and fight monsters. Of course they get rescued (sort of). And, of course, the book is filled with knock knock jokes and silly puns.

(My favorite? The book Yellow River, by I. P. Freely.)

It's a silly premise for a silly book. And you know what? It totally works. Especially if you're 8 years old at heart. (And even if you're not, it's a good punny book.) No, it's not Deep with well-drawn characters or a good plot, but it is Fun, and sometimes, that's what counts.

April 13, 2015

I Will Always Write Back

by Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch
First sentence: "I'd never heard of Zimbawe."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It's a non-fiction book that deals with teens, and so there's some mention of teen drinking and pot smoking, but for the most part it's pretty harmless. It'll be in the middle readers biography section, though I'd hesitate giving it to the younger end of the readers. I think it'll be best for grades 5 and up.

In the fall of 1997, Caitlin Stoicsitz made an impromptu decision that changed multiple lives. She raised her hand to get a pen pal, and her letter was sent to Martin Ganda in Zimbabwe. You wouldn't think something as simple as that would be life-changing, but it was. Caitlin's letter got sent to a small, rural school in Mutare, and by chance Martin, who was one of the best students in class, was on the receiving end. He wrote back, and that was the beginning of what became a deep friendship for them. And because of that friendship, Caitlin was able to change Martin's life, to give him the opportunities -- especially educational -- that he wouldn't have had otherwise. For what seems like mere pittance, Caitlin (and eventually her whole family) was able to pay Martin's fees for school (especially since his father was out of work) and help him get into a U. S. College. That doesn't sound like a whole lot, but as you get to know both Caitlin and Martin over the course of the book, you realize that it IS.

In return, Martin gave Caitlin something that many Americans desperately need: a view of how everyone else lives. Compassion for the downtrodden, and a knowledge that we really, truly are privileged in America.

Like many memoirs, this one is uneven. It's chatty, and sometimes Caitlin's narrative borders on whiny, neither of which might bother the intended audience, but kind of grated on me. I also felt like there was a bit of the "American savior swoops in to save the day" which also kind of grated.

But I do honestly believe that Caitlin and Martin have a bond, and I do believe that writing and responding to the letters, when one truly cares and when one is open to other ideas, can change lives.

And this book is a good reminder of that.

April 12, 2015

State of the TBR Pile: April 2015

It's truly out of control this month, but there is a good reason. Well, one good reason: I've added books that I need to have read before the ABA Children's institute next week in Pasadena. To which I'm going. (And very excited about. I'm also planning on making time to get to the beach. Which I am also very excited about.) And so, those take precedence. But I've also grabbed a few at the library which I need/want to read and that's pushing the backlist ones further down. Thankfully, I've got plane flights coming up (I love reading on plane flights; I get so much of it done), and I'm hoping I can knock out a bunch of these.

Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley
Bayou Magic, by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Not if I See You First, by Eric Lindstrom
The Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin
The Wrath & the Dawn, by Renee Ahdieh
Skyscraping, by Cordelia Jensen
Black Dove White Raven, by Elizabeth Wein
Roller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson
Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby
The Darkest Part of the Forest, by Holly Black
I'll Meet You There, by Heather Demetrios
The Golden Specific, by S. E. Grove
Dash & Lily's Book of Dares, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (I'm starting to doubt that I'm going to read this one)
Jinx's Fire, by Sage Blackwood
Moonpenny Island, by Tricia Springstubb
The Kidney Hypothetical, by Lisa Yee
The Door in the Moon, by Catherine Fisher (I really need to read this one!)

What's on your TBR pile this month?

April 10, 2015

The Trap

by Steven Arntson
First sentence: "The last day of summer break before the start of my seventh grade year was the first time I ever got punched in the face."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It's some pretty dark subject matter -- kidnapping and out-of-body experiences. Plus there's romance, but nothing too mature. It's in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though it'll probably be of interest to the older end (and maybe into the 6th grade).

It's the summer of 1963, right before seventh grade, and Henry Nilsson is pretty sure nothing exciting is going to happen. His dad is being laid off at the railroad and they're having to tighten their belts at home (they even sold the TV!). Henry like-likes his twin sister's best friend, Nikki, but has no idea what to tell him. And his best friend, Alan's, brother bullying has increased.

Then, two things happen to change the trajectory of Henry's summer: Alan's brother goes missing. And they discover a book to teach them how to have an out-of-body experience, called "subtle" travel. Once they figure out how, they enter the subtle world, where things aren't as nice as they seem. And where there's some pretty scary things going on in them thar woods.

On the one hand, I enjoyed this one. I liked the historical detail, which was never the point of the book, but rather just background to give it some weight. I liked the friendship between Henry and the rest, including his sister. I liked that both Nikki and Alan were people of color -- Nikki is Asian; Alan, Latino -- but that it was never really an issue. (Well, it is, once.) I liked the mystery, the discovery of what was going on with Alan's brother, and the realization that even though he's often mean, he has some good in him.

What I didn't like was the whole speculative fiction part of it. The subtle travel was weird (Seriously.) and I was never really able to suspend my disbelief enough to make it work for me. There was just too much left underdeveloped, that was just plain weird.

But, perhaps, those are adult concerns creeping into a middle grade book. It is a dark book, one that's kind of creepy, and for those who like a slight creep factor to their book, it's a good one. And perhaps, the positives outweigh the negatives.