Malice in Ovenland by Micheline Hess

malice-in-ovenlandINFORMATION

Goodreads: Malice in Ovenland
Series:  Malice in Ovenland Vol. 1
Source: Purchased
Published: 2016

SUMMARY

Lily Brown is expecting to spend the weekend completing the list of chores her mother left–but then she finds a tunnel leading from the back of the oven to a strange new world.  Who are the Oven Frites?  And why do they think Lily’s responsible for their recent grease drought?  Can Lily escape their prison and find her way home?

Review

The clever play on the title of Alice in Wonderland suggests that Micheline, much like Suzanne Collins in her Gregor the Overlander series, is rethinking children’s fantasy so it can star protagonists from the city.  And, of course, Hess is also featuring a girl who looks like many young readers, but who may not often appear in literature–a girl with brown skin, frizzy hair, and glasses.  Lily Brown is the fantasy heroine many have been waiting for.  Adventures aren’t just for Alice anymore!

It’s pretty cool that Lily can find adventure right in her own kitchen.  Unfortunately, however, though the characters are engaging, the artwork delightful, and the plot full of action, the premise is also…a little heavy-handed.  The story revolves around the anger of the Oven Frites when they learn no grease drips from the Browns’ oven anymore because Lily’s mom is cooking healthier meals.  But the Oven Frites don’t want to eat fruits and vegetables.  They want their fried, fatty foods back!

If you can get past the healthy eating message, the book is quite delightful.  There is some good material in here involving a haunted prison cell, a trio of elite Oven Frite rangers, and a charming traitor to the Oven Frites.  They may be kind of standard elements, but they work.  And sometimes a solid fantasy is all you really need.

[As an aside, Micheline Hess has also appeared on some panels and spoken about her art and Black women in comics.  Search her name and you can find her speaking at the Schomburg Center, with Black Enterprise, etc.]

4 starsKrysta 64

The Amazing Crafty Cat by Charise Mericle Harper

The Amazing Crafty CatInformation

Goodreads: The Amazing Crafty Cat
Series: Crafty Cat #1
Source: City Book Review
Published: April 11, 2017

Official Summary

Sometimes school can be scary, and even embarrsing, but not today.  Today is Birdie’s birthday, and everything will be perfect!  Birdie’s panda-riffic cupcakes are beautiful, and there’s one for everyone.  She will be the star of the class.  But then…disaster!  A trip and fall on the way to school means no more cupcakes!  Who can save the day?  Who can make the class smile again?  This is a job for Birdie’s alter ego…the Amazing Crafty Cat!

After a quick transformation, Birdie is ready.  She’s not afraid of sticky paws or paper cuts.  She’s not afraid of anything, not even Anya, the class bully.  It’s time to get crafting!

Review

To be clear from the start: this book is not actually about a cat.  Yeah, I was disappointed, too.  Crafty Cat is the imaginary alter ego of our human protagonist Birdie.  And while I have no idea why imagining herself as a cat of all things gives Birdie confidence or why she must envision herself as a cat whenever she does crafts to try to creatively problem solve, I grant that it works for her.  The story centers on Birdie/Crafty Cat’s quest to save an in-school birthday celebration that keeps going horribly wrong.

I really liked that this book centers around a very normal and relatable activity for a lot of children: bringing cupcakes in to share with their class on their birthday.  (Though Birdie’s class seems to have a rule that you can do any birthday activity of your choice; you don’t need to bring in snacks.)  Things go wrong for Birdie throughout the course of the school day, and while I recognize some of these things as relatively “trivial” problems as a adult, I also know I would have been equally upset/mortified as Birdie is if some of these things had happened to me when I was younger.  (Mom can’t drop everything she’s doing and bring something I forgot to school?!  Crisis!)  Chraise Mericle Harper really gets into Birdie’s mind and envisions a book that will appeal to children.

Birdie is also a very realistic character. She’s kind and creative and cares about her friends.  But she also gets grumpy when things don’t go her way and has reasonable flaws.  The side characters are also nicely outlined, considering how little page time they get in the story.  I would have only liked to see more of Anya the bully, or at least more resolution of her role in the story.

The artwork is pastel and somewhat sparsely drawn.  Personally I tend to be a fan of more lavish artwork, things I can spend a long time looking at and still find more detail to appreciate. However, the art here is clean and easy to follow.  There are also a few whimsical touches in the background.

It took me awhile to get into the story and I think the structure could be stronger, but the plot is very relatable and Birdie is a realistic protagonist.  There are also some fun panda crafts in the back of the book, so readers can be more like Birdie.

Briana

Witch Switch by Sibéal Pounder

Witch Switch

Information

Goodreads: Witch Switch
Series: Witch Wars #2
Source: Gift
Published: February 27, 2017 (USA), 2015 (UK)

Summary

Tiga Whicabim is settling in to the witchy, glitzy world of Ritzy City. Peggy is Top Witch, and Tiga is enjoying life at the Brews’ house with Fluffanora. But when Fran the Fabulous Fairy visits Linden House and finds Peggy has gone – leaving behind only a note to say she is ‘AWAY WITH THE FAIRIES’ and has left the evil Felicity Bat in charge – the girls realise something is very wrong. And then witches all across town start to disappear. Tiga and Fluffanora set out to investigate and discover an old, unsolved Sinkville mystery that might just be the key to it all.

Review

I absolutely loved Witch Wars, so I was excited to continue following the adventures of Tiga, Peggy, and Fluffanora in Witch Switch.  The series is a silly one, always upbeat and quirky even when  the heroines are in a bit of danger, and it’s a great choice for those looking for a fun and lighthearted read.

I admit that Witch Switch did not impress me quite as much as Witch Wars.  The story does not seem quite as cohesive as Book 1, and I think it’s missing a bit of the glamour of the reality TV premise that helped Witch Wars come alive.  There’s also a lot of revisiting characters and places, rather than the novelty of seeing them for the first time.  However, Tiga and her friends do delve a bit more into some of the seedier parts of town, which does add something new to the book.

Furthermore, the book is still immensely entertaining.  It’s part mystery, part adventure, and always a bit on the cleverly ridiculous side, which is just what I love.  The plot is not too obvious, which I find is sometimes a problem with middle grade mysteries, and while Pounder does give reasonable hints and leads, there’s also a nice element of surprise. It’s also cool to see a focus on friendship in all of this, particularly as the focus here switches from Peggy (she is missing, after all) to Fluffanora.

In my review of Witch Wars, I said that my only complaint about the book was that there were not enough cats.  After all, apparently witches adore cats, but somehow they were not really present in Witch Wars.  Witch Switch definitely picked up the slack on this matter and provided me with plenty of cats including, dare I say, wearable cats.  I am all about the cat fashion that Witch Switch proposes.

This is a great installment in the series, and I am eagerly looking forward to getting my hands on Book 3.  (And on Pounder’s new series, which will feature mermaids!)

4 stars Briana

Twisted True Tales from Science: Insane Inventors by Stephanie Bearce

Insane Inventors by Stephanie BearceInformation

Goodreads: Insane Inventors
Series: Twisted True Tales from Science
Source: City Book Review
Published: February 1, 2017

Official Summary

Nikola Tesla was crazy smart. He invented the idea for cell phones in 1893, discovered alternating current, and invented a death ray gun. Of course, he also talked to pigeons, ate only boiled food, and was scared of women who wore jewelry. He was an insane inventor. So was Henry Cavendish, who discovered hydrogen, calculated the density of the Earth, and was so scared of people that he had to write notes to communicate. Sir Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravity, believed in magic, and thought he could make a potion to create gold. These stories may sound twisted, but they’re all true tales from science!

Review

This installment in the Twisted True Tales from Science series takes on “insane inventors,” men and women who took large risks, often with their health and safety, to test their theories and advance scientific knowledge.  The book is divided into three parts—Don’t Try This at Home, Anything for Science, and Strange Days of Science—though it is not clear what the divisions are based on or what order the stories are presented in since they all have the same general theme of “extreme things people did in the name of research.”  The stories are interesting, however, and young readers will enjoy discovering how interesting and daring science can be.

Bearce covers a good range of scientists, including both more and less well-known ones.  I am always delighted to learn about historical figures I hadn’t heard of before.  The book could have been more diverse, however. There are two women (both, I might note, who didn’t actually know what they were doing—working with radiation and x-rays—was dangerous…unlike some of the men who seemed like they might be actively trying to die).  The featured scientists were generally European and American men, and Garrett Morgan seems to be the only person of color in the book.  Somehow Tesla is featured twice.  (I like Tesla.  He’s quite interesting.  But I didn’t see the point of repeating part of his story in such a short book.)  Bearce has a whole series of science books, however, so it’s possible that some of the other ones (Disaster Discoveries, Explosive Experiments, and Medical Mayhem) are a bit more wide-ranging in the people they feature.

In addition to the anecdotes, Bearce provides a selection of fun science activities and experiments kids can do themselves, ranging from building their own flashlight to experimenting with blacklights to looking up optical illusions online.  And since many of the stories are about people dying or getting seriously injured, she makes sure to end the book on a positive note: the invention of the supersoaker and you can make your own out of a water bottle.  Illustrations also add to the fun of the book, and there are some insets with quotations, though personally I didn’t see the point of quoting something that was written in the text itself.  I would have loved to see the insets feature new information, like something the featured scientists had said.

This is a great book for middle schoolers, particularly those interested in the weird and the gross.

4 stars Briana

Drama by Raina Telgemeier

dramaINFORMATION

Goodreads: Drama
Series:  None
Source: Library
Published: 2012

SUMMARY

Callie is so excited to be the set designer for her middle school’s production of Moon Over Mississippi.  But now she’s having trouble getting the cannon to fire and, even worse, it seems like half the cast is involved in drama over dating.  Can the show go on?

REVIEW

I enjoyed Drama mainly for its quirky protagonist and its lovable cast of characters.  The drama of Drama, however?  Not so much.  Raina Telgemeir crams in so many crossed loves that the book feels more like a soap opera than the story of a seventh grader’s involvement in school theatre.  In some cases, less really is more.

YA has become somewhat infamous for love triangles, but here we have what seems to be a love pentagon. Maybe even a hexagon.   It’s hard to keep track of who likes whom because none of them apparently know what their feelings are, either.  The kids are all kissing and dating each other in what almost seemed to be some sort of incestuous muddle as half the characters seem to be semi-involved with each other throughout the course of the book.  But isn’t it normally a bit of a taboo to kiss someone right after they’ve broken up with someone else, or to start dating someone the week after a break-up?  Isn’t there usually some sort of unspoken rule about that?  I kept waiting for a character to get upset about their previous girlfriend moving on so fast, or finding out that they were a rebound, but generally no one cared.

Aside from the weird romantic dynamics, however, the story is engaging.  I loved seeing someone write about the people who usually stay behind the scenes during a show.  Their enthusiasm for tech and theatre is contagious, and the characters themselves are quite endearing.  I wanted to join Callie’s circle of friends because they always seem like they’re having a good time.  It’s a shame the plot didn’t quite live up to the characters.

3 starsKrysta 64

The Princess and the Page by Christina Farley

The Princess and the Page

Information

Goodreads: The Princess and the Page
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: March 28, 2017

Summary

Keira has no idea that her family are Word Weavers, who can make stories real by using a magical pen.  All she knows is that her mom hates stories; only lists, facts, and the “the truth” are allowed in their home.  So when Keira stumbles across a beautiful pen hidden in her parents’ bedroom, she takes it and begins to write a fairy tale,  But she has no idea what her words will unleash or the danger she will find herself in.

Review

Magical pens and stories springing to life sound like the perfect middle grade fantasy, so I was excited to read this one.  Who wouldn’t want the stories they put on the page to take on a life of their own?  Unfortunately, The Princess and the Page did not capture my attention the way I thought it would, and I closed the covers with some disappointment.

I thought the prose jarringly clunky and unsophisticated in general, and I considered DNFing because of it. I’ve talked about before how I think that many modern authors simply do not have great prose (Sorry!), but there’s neutral prose and prose that’s grating; Farley’s leans toward being the latter, and this is one thing I really cannot stand in books.  It’s also one thing that an editor cannot really fix for you, short of hiring a ghostwriter to redo all your sentences.

However, I continued powering through, only to discover that the book also contains one of my other least favorite things: ridiculous sounding pseudo Middle English. Farley lays it on thick, and the result is cringe-worthy.  The medieval character (technically French, but the book is in English so….) runs about spouting gems like this: “Thou art most certainly not what I was expecting, but that is nary a worry…Come hither!”  Worse, Farley is not consistent with the grammar.  (Seriously, Middle English has actual grammar rules you should look into if you want to emulate it.)  So the character says “Dost thou” but “thou can” instead of “thou canst.”  I simply couldn’t take a character who speaks like this seriously.  Think of writing medieval dialogue like writing accents in fiction; you want to give readers a taste of it, not write a character who sounds like a hilarious stereotype.

Beyond these issues, I was not a huge fan of the plot.  There are aspects of it that are interesting, since Keira has to deal with a story she wrote coming to life.  It also has a great setting, a mysterious castle in France, and the glamorous set-up that Keira has won an all expenses paid dream vacation there.  However, the novel is meant to be part mystery, as it takes Keira and her friends a while to figure out what’s happening in the castle, how the actions are related to the story she wrote, who is responsible for certain actions, etc.  The issue is that Farley relies on the trick of artificially withholding information in order to create suspense.  For instance, readers are never told how Keira’s fairy tale actually goes, so they have to wait for actions to happen in the text and Keira to reveal pages later that real life is mirroring her tale.  This also means the story is sometimes choppy because it’s not always clear what is going on.

There are things that I like about The Princess and the Page, but since I considered DNFing a couple times due to the prose and the jumpy plotting, I decided to give it two stars.  It has a pretty high overall rating on Goodreads, however (books about stories always seem to be a hit), so others might enjoy it even though I did not.

Briana

The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

INFORMATION

Goodreads: The Mysterious Howling
Series:  The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place
Source: Library
Published: 2009

SUMMARY

Miss Penelope Lumley attends her first job interview hoping to become a governess.  What she did not expect was to become a governess to three children raised by wolves.  But how did the children come to be found in the woods of Ashton Place?  And is someone deliberately trying to scare them away?

Review

The Mysterious Howling is a quirky middle-grade book that delights in upending the conventions of Victorian society by introducing that most horrific of things into its stories–unmannered children.  Found in the woods of Ashton Place and apparently raised by wolves, the three Incorrigible children–Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia–need a governess.  But before they can learn Latin, geography, and music, they must first learn English.  And how to eat at the table and wear clothes!  Fortunately, fifteen-year-old Miss Penelope Lumley is up to the task.  But will Lady Constance ever accept that her husband has adopted three howling children?

The prose is quite witty and often when the plot seems too incredible (yes, even a plot based on the adoption of three wolf children sometimes strains credulity), the narrative voice carries the book.  The ridiculous asides to the reader, the commentary on customs then and now, Miss Lumley’s fondness for the stories of Rainbow the pony–all of it combines to attempt to keep the readers laughing.  Anyone who delights in seeing proper Victorian men and women nonplussed by unusual circumstances will surely find this story a treasure.

Although marketed as middle grade, The Mysterious Howling really follows the adventures of Miss Penelope Lumley and seems to be an irreverent take on governess stories such as Jane Eyre (which also merits a a humorous allusion).  It is a story that can appeal to readers young and old alike.

4 stars