Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

sistersINFORMATION

Goodreads: Sisters
Series:  Smile #2
Source: Library
Published: 2014

SUMMARY

Raina always wanted a little sister, but when Amara came, she wasn’t what Raina expected.  She typically wants to play alone and she and Raina are always having fights.  But then they take a road trip with their mother.  Can they find a way to get along and survive the trip?  A companion novel to Smile.

REVIEW

I admit I found this book even less engaging than Smile, even though I recognize that Telgemeier has an excellent sense of humor and that she depicts the relationship between the sisters excellently.  For reasons I find difficult to articulate to myself, I just did not find myself invested in the story.  It doesn’t help that the official summary promises more drama than the book actually contains.  I kept waiting for something major to happen, but it never did.

Sisters is a companion novel to Smile, taking place the summer before Raina enters high school.  The story of  the Telgemeiers’ road trip is interspersed with flashbacks of Raina and Amara’s relationship.  We get to see how Raina longed for a sister, only to have the grumpy and isolated Amara come along.  Worse, Amara ends up being an artist just like Raina.  And Raina feels like her sister is stealing what makes her special.

Sisterhood can be complicated and Telgemeier expertly captures the nuances of such a relationship as the girls argue, tease, storm, and support each other.  But the ending feels all too easy and takes something away from the previous story.  Perhaps it’s because Amara has seemed to be reaching out in various ways all along and it’s not clear why Raina suddenly notices.  Perhaps because it suggests that sisterhood from here on out is smooth sailing, even though readers know it is not.  Perhaps it’s because the cover blurb suggests for reasons unknown that they are banding together to save their parents’ marriage, imparting the final pages with far more significance than the pages themselves seem to suggest.  For some reason, it does not work for me.

Still, I recognize that many readers find this book special and that the depiction of sisterhood is sure to appeal to many.  Fans of Smile will certainly enjoy it.

3 starsKrysta 64

Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye by Tania Del Rio & Will Staehle

Warren the 13th

Information

Goodreads: Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye
Series: Warren the 13th #1
Source: Quirk Books
Published: November 2015

Official Summary

Warren the 13th is the lone bellhop, valet, waiter, groundskeeper, and errand boy of his family’s ancient hotel. It’s a strange, shadowy mansion full of crooked corridors and mysterious riddles—and it just might be home to a magical object known as the All-Seeing Eye. Can Warren decipher the clues and find the treasure before his sinister Aunt Annaconda (and a slew of greedy hotel guests) beats him to it?

This middle-grade adventure features gorgeous two-color illustrations on every page and a lavish two-column Victorian design that will pull young readers into a spooky and delightful mystery.

Review

Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye is a creatively creepy middle grade novel that invites readers into the mysterious Warren Hotel–a business that once was prosperous but seems to have traded customers for monsters and ghosts.  Captivating red and black artwork draws readers into the story and invites them to help solve the story’s mysterious: Who is the silent, bandaged-wrapped guest? What’s lurking in the boiler room?  And what is the legendary All-Seeing Eye?

The book does imply several tropes common to middle grade novels: an evil stepmother aunt who makes Warren complete ridiculous chores,  a kindly chef who sneaks Warren treat, and other such characters. However, the story puts just enough twist on the tropes to make them seem interesting and new.  There’s also the fact that Warren the 13th is not a stereotypical protagonist–described as toad-like and hunched and perhaps liable to be mistaken for a monster himself. (Except that he has glamorous hair.)

The mysteries are not really interactive, which I was somewhat expecting based on the artistic nature of the novel and the jacket copy. Middle grade books with actual solvable puzzles and such are becoming a trend (and one I like).  However,  the story does provide readers with enough clues to solve the mysteries as Warren does, which is great.  There’s nothing worse than a mystery the reader isn’t given enough information to figure out, in my opinion.  The ending was also genuinely surprising to me, despite some foreshadowing.

Overall, Warren the 13th is just fun.  It has a creepy vibe, but it’s often more quirky than scary, particularly since many things are not what they initially seen.  It’s also a really beautiful. Even the trim size is unique, since the book is square.  I loved reading this and would love to continue on with the series to share in Warren’s and his friend’s adventures.

4 stars

Bonus Story

Warren Friday the 13th

To celebrate Friday the 13th, Tania del Rio has written a bonus story about Warren that you can read free! Quirk Books has the story and activity book about Warren’s unlucky day available to download here.  Book #2 in the series, Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods, will be out in March 2017.

Briana

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

smileINFORMATION

Goodreads: Smile
Series:  Smile #1
Source: Library
Published: 2009

SUMMARY

In sixth grade, Raina trips while racing and suddenly her life is filled with dental appointments, braces, fake teeth, and a whole lot of embarrassment.  How can a girl feel like she belongs in high school when she feels like everyone is staring at her mouth?

Review

It’s not difficult to see why Smile won an Eisner award and regularly flies off the library shelf.  Semi-autobiographical in nature, the book tells the story of Telgemeier’s tween and teen years, after she trips during a race and injures her two front teeth.  Faced with the possibility of having a misshapen smile for the rest of her life, or having to wear embarrassing dental equipment, Raina finds herself lacking self-confidence and struggling to fit in at high school.  It’s a coming-of-age story many will surely relate to.

Even so, I admit I did not really see myself in Raina.  I never understood why so many students hate braces because it seems like most people wear them at some point.  And it was difficult for me to understand why Raina took so long to realize that her friends were treating her badly, or why she cared that she had to wear awkward orthodontia at night in the privacy of her own home.  I suppose in many ways I was a much more self-assured and self-confident teen than Raina.  But I think her struggles at fitting in can still be relatable to readers.  Perhaps Raina is self-conscious about her mouth.  Most readers will be able to understand her self-consciousness in some way or another.

I was not totally blown away by Smile, as I expected to be based on its popularity.  However, it’s a nice story about one girl learning to find her way through high school.  And it’s engaging with its bright colors and the well-timed sense of humor.  I understand why younger readers like it so much, even if I didn’t feel particularly invested in the story myself.

4 starsKrysta 64

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne Valente

fairyland-5INFORMATION

Goodreads: The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home
Series: Fairyland #5
Source: Library
Published: 2016

SUMMARY

A Dodo’s egg has restored what was lost to Fairyland, meaning all the dead rulers have retuned to claim the crown for their own!  To prevent them all from slaughtering each other (at least immediately) the Cantakerous Derby is called.  Whoever finds the heart of Fairyland first and reaches the finish line wins–but what is the heart?  And where is the finish line?

Review

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a magical tale, mostly whimsical, sometimes quirky, just a bit romantic.  It feels original and it feels alive–a difficult feat in a market so full of books.  It seemed only natural that the next few books in the series would not live up that charm.  How could they?  Catherynne Valente seemd so taken with her own complexity and fondness for wordplay that she tangled herself up trying to replicate it.

The final book in the Fairyland series, however, comes very close to recapturing the original magic.  The premise itself is so outrageous it seems that it must succeed.  All the dead rulers of Fairyland resurrected and ready to fight for the Crown?  Let the drama begin!  But despite the huge cast of characters, Valente never loses sight of our protagonist September and her dearest friends.  She takes us along with them for a final whirlwind tour of Fairyland and all its oddities.  It is a fitting farewell.

Admittedly at times, Valente still seems trapped by her own word weaving.  For pages the text will go on, trying to highlight for readers just how eccentric and strange this world can be.  Do you get it? the text asks.  Do you understand how weird and wonderful this is?  Do you see my wordplay?  Do you get it?  Do you get it?  It gets old fast and I regret that I often found myself skipping passages that were unable to contain their descriptive excess.  A little editing would have done much.

But aside from this, the story works very well.  We see new places and visit old ones.  Former characters readers have come to love make their final appearances.  The hint of romance, developed from the start, starts blooming into something a little more.  Our dear September has grown up and she is wise and weary and just a little annoyed that no one takes a seventeen-year-old girl very seriously, no matter how much she has seen and done.  It feels right that we should say good-bye.  It is time to let her fly.

So is it worth it?  If you’ve kept up with the Fairyland series, you won’t regret finishing.  Valente sometimes seems unsure how to end her books, but this one feels complete.  Perhaps not all readers will be satisfied by the ending, but this is Fairyland, after all, and endings there are always bittersweet.

Krysta 644 stars

Nooks and Crannies by Jessica Lawson

Nooks & Crannies book coverINFORMATION

Goodreads: Nooks & Crannies
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: June 2, 2015

SUMMARY

Tabitha Crum can think of worse than having parents who hate her and only a pet mouse for a friend.  But, still, when a mysterious envelope arrives inviting her along with five other children to the manor a mysterious countess, she cannot help but be excited.  Could it be that her life is about to become just a little less miserable?

But something at the manor is not quite right.  The countess seems erratic.  The servants are frightened.  And the other children are talking about ghosts.  Can Tabitha solve the mystery before it’s too late?

Review

Nooks and Crannies is an absolutely delightful middle-grade mystery–the kind that makes you want to curl up under the covers with your book and a cup of hot cocoa.  The characters are quirky, the mystery compelling, and the prose…well, the prose is a treat.  It possesses a certain dry humor that immediately feels somehow very historical and very British, as if we are indeed in one of the protagonist Tabitha’s favorite mystery novels.

Spooky houses and the reclusive individuals who inhabit them are staples of middle-grade fiction, but Jessica Lawson makes it all feel very new.  From the opening pages when Tabitha speaks to her only friend, her pet rat Pemberley, about her hopes for a better life, the story gains a warmth that sets it apart.  The book will not only be about the need to escape very real danger in an isolated house.  It will be about family, friends, and the ties that bind us all together.

This warmth, as well as Tabitha’s lively intellect and endearing personality, make it easy to want to keep reading, even if experienced readers will anticipate the plot twists.  The story does not rely on surprise to keep things interesting; the characters themselves are so engaging that readers will want to keep them company, regardless of the predictability of events.  A solid offering from Jessica Lawson.

4 starsKrysta 64

The Door to Time by Pierdomenico Baccalario, Trans. by Leah D. Janeczko.

the-door-to-timeINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Door to Time
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2004

SUMMARY

Eleven-year-old twins Julia and Jason have just moved with their parents into the old Argo Mansion, situated on an isolated cove.  There they discover the house is full of old treasures and that its previous inhabitant Ulysses Moore may have left a series of clues leading them to a grand adventure.

Review

The book presents itself as the files of Ulysses Moore and only if you read the copyright material do you discover Pierdomenico Baccalario as the actual author.  This presentation, coupled with the narrative structure of the book, initially had me convinced that Scholastic had hired a series of ghostwriters to churn out quick time travel series to make money.

The premise of the book is nothing new.  Twins Julia and Jason move to a house full of antiques and secret passages.  A local boy, Rick, becomes their friend and volunteers to show them around and help them explore the old mansion.  Rick then starts crushing on Julia.  All of this is very standard.  (Indeed, I could not help but think of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Prince of Mists.)  Then, of course, they begin a treasure hunt as it seems previous owner of the house Ulysses Moore has left a trail of coded messages for them.  And there’s a standard villain who wants to stop them.

The cover material suggests that this series is clever and engaging and will have readers solving puzzles.  But the readers themselves are seldom offered any puzzles to solve; this is mostly done by the characters and the story does not really feel interactive.  Besides, the characters solve every puzzle with astonishing ease.  It’s all very much as if the author just wants to hurry up this preliminary junk already and get to the time travel stuff.  Seriously, if the characters are stuck for more than ten minutes on a clue they start sniping at each other and dramatically declaring they want to give up.  Fortunately for them, I suppose, none of the puzzles are difficult or, if they are, a magic clue ends up in their hands or someone among them randomly possesses the specialized knowledge to solve the problem.

Normally a book like this would help draw out the drama by adding in bits of everyday life.  Perhaps the treasure seeking must stop for bedtime or a family trip to town.  Maybe someone is going to have a friend over or will go on a date.  But no outside characterization happens here; everything revolves, uninterrupted, around the puzzle-solving.  This means that we mostly see the characters in context of their ability to solve puzzles and do not otherwise learn much about them.

What we do see of them is a little awkward.  Jason is established as a dreamer who very often has flashes of convenient insight that allow him to solve a problem without any work.  Rick is…well, the author tells us he’s a natural leader, so I guess it must be true.  We certainly do not see enough of him in action to judge for ourselves.  Julia is somewhat problematic.  I think she’s supposed to be relatable as a girl because she’s into the city and friends and she does stuff like sunbathe while the boys explore.  But every time you think she’s falling into a female stereotype, the author goes, “Just kidding!  She’s sunbathing but only for a short time because she can’t sit still!  She’s full of action!  She’s athletic!  She does stuff!”  But also, she’s a girl.  And she’s going to whine like a girl and do other stuff that apparently females do.  It’s as if the author is not entirely sure how to write a female character.  And it doesn’t help that the only other female characters are 1) the overly protective mother stereotype, 2) the female villain stereotype, and 3) a shop owner who would be interesting if she only had a larger role.

This story simply is not original enough to make me want to read twelve more books in the series and the characters aren’t compelling enough, either.  I suppose it must have sold well or there would be no point in publishing twelve more installments.  The series, however, simply is not for me.

Krysta 643 stars

Leepike Ridge by N. D. Wilson

leepike-ridgeINFORMATION

Goodreads: Leepike Ridge
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2007

SUMMARY

Eleven-year-old Thomas Hammond floats down the stream and over a waterfall one day, then finds himself trapped underneath Leepike Ridge.  With only a few sardines and a light, Tom will have to find the courage and the wits to stay alive long enough to find his way out.  But up above a gang of treasure hunters is thwarting the search efforts.

REVIEW

N. D. Wilson’s first book for children differs from his later selections in that it features no fantasy magic, and yet it still suggests something of the magical, or at least the wondrous.  Tom Hammond, after all, finds an adventure right in his back yard–the kind of adventure that tests one courage and changes one forever.  It’s the type of thing any young reader secretly longs for–the chance to prove themselves a hero.

It’s true that a gang of treasure hunters, or perhaps just thugs, ups the stakes a little and makes the adventure just a little more than the type of thing one could reasonably expect if also whisked down the river to an unknown subterranean world.  They give an old-timey Western feel to the whole, which almost provides comic relief, even though they’re capable of murder.  This weird balance between comical and dangerous almost makes their presence seem extraneous to the story, as if they were not fully thought out.  But they certainly relief the tedium of watching a character walk around a dark cave system, which is probably the point.

Tom’s story underground takes up just enough space in the book to keep it interesting, though I admit that descriptions of him climbing about did bore me a little.  Still, Wilson adds in his signature philosophy to lighten these scenes–that is, he provides somewhat cryptic but high-sounding phrases and allusions to make it seem like something Big and Important is happening here.  Which, it is.  Tom is going to find out if he’s a hero.  He’s also going to find out if he’s a dead hero or a live one.

Altogether, the book is fast-paced read that is classic Wilson-a boy, an adventure, and a hint of something greater behind it all.  Fans of 100 Cupboards and the Ashtown Burials series will find a lot to love here, even if the book is not fantasy.

Krysta 644 stars