Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race by Chris Grabenstein

Information

Goodreads: Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: Sept. 2017

Summary

When Mr. Lemocello’s reputation is threatened by a woman who claims he stole her intellectual property, it’s up to Kyle and his friends to find the truth.  They’ll go on a fact-finding mission throughout the U.S. to check their sources and do the research no one else seems to care about.

Review

Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race is a book that seems to be written for librarians and teachers.  With its focus on doing research, double-checking facts, and not believing everything you read online or see on the news, it is a timely addition to the conversation surrounding “fake news.”  Whether kids care about this message remains to be seen.  Luckily, the book provides all the ridiculous fun that made the first installment a bestseller.

I admit myself slightly disappointed in this book because it has a flaw that I am seeing increasingly more of in both MG and YA: a premise that makes zero sense.  I am not saying that I was simply unable to suspend my disbelief.  My favorite genre is fantasy and I can accept a lot of strange things–provided they adhere to some sort of logic.  In this book, however, as with the second installment in the series, logic is out the door.

The crisis comes when Mr. Lemoncello’s reputation is threatened by a woman who claims he stole a board game idea from her.  Immediately, the mayor of the city tosses everyone out of Mr. Lemoncello’s library and briefly closes it.  He then installs Lemoncello’s rival gamemakers as the heads of the library. Unstated is that the library is not funded by tax dollars but by Mr. Lemoncello himself.  So the mayor cannot close down the library just because of some unproven allegations (“innocent until proven guilty” in the U.S., remember!), nor can he install someone else as the owners of the property.  In fact, people who live out of state typically are not installed as directors of local libraries.  But does the law or logic matter in this story.  Of course not!  Why let little things like that get in the way?

My firm belief is that a really masterful writer does not have to hand wave away logic in order to write a good story.  Instead, they overcome the obstacles to write a story that makes sense.  To me, the increasing disregard for logic makes this series a bit of a disappointment, even if the puzzles are fun and even if Mr. Lemoncello is no doubt amusing to middle-school audiences.  However, I pretty sure I am alone in this opinion–it sells well and, as I said, teachers and librarians tend to eat it up.  So don’t let my ridiculous love for logic stop you from picking it up.

3 Stars

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The Glass Town Game by Catherynne Valente

Information

Goodreads: The Glass Town Game
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: Sept. 2017

Summary

Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë have spent countless hours imagining stories in the room at the top of the stairs.  Now, however, Charlotte and Emily must go off to school–where their two older sisters died from fever.  But just as it seems separation is inevitable, they find themselves in a magical world where the Duke of Wellington still fights Bonaparte.  Even stranger, the world seems to be the one they themselves have created and it is populated with their toys.  At first they imagine they can stay there forever.  But when Branwell and Anne are kidnapped, the siblings realize that this world may be out of their control.

Review

Catherynne Valente is one of my favorite authors.  She possesses a talent for creating whimsical worlds and for writing breath-taking prose.  For her to write a fantasy based on the juvenilia of the Brontë siblings is thus a dream come true.  And The Glass Town Game does not disappoint.  It takes readers to a magical land where toy soldiers come to life, words are surprisingly literal, and romance and danger intermingle.  Any fan of fantasy will be sure to enjoy it, but fans of the Brontës may also be surprised at how engrossing Glass Town can be.

A caveat before we begin: hardcore fans of the Brontës who feel that any imaginative work based on their lives and writings is a desecration will probably not be amused. The playfulness of a land where Brown Betsys are actual women, “Old Boney” is made of bones, and the Duke of Wellington rides a lion made of water may be lost on these individuals.  I delighted in the creativity and the oddity of it all–but if you’re looking for madwomen in the attic or a brooding Rochester, you may be disappointed.  This is first and foremost a fantasy–one with nods to the writings of the Brontës and one based on their lives–but still a fantasy.

But, oh, what a fantasy!  I wish I could return to Glass Town already!  It may be full of danger and death and deception, but it also has the handsome Duke of Wellington and the alluring Lord Byron.  Jane Austen, Marie Antoinette, and a host of other historical characters intermingle with women made of flowers and of metal, luggage that can come to life, and a potion that raises people from the dead.  The “real” and the fantastic coexist in the chummiest way.  It makes you believe in magic all over again.

And the Brontës are excellent guides through this new land.  You just have to fall in love with them, from the moment you learn about the stories they create and the way they wish they could bring back their dead sisters and avoid potentially sharing the same fate.  Glass Town is bizarre, but so, so much better than those terrible boarding schools!  But the Brontës do not really feel sorry for themselves.  Not for long.  They are brave and bold and daring–and maybe just dishonest enough to get themselves out of Glass Town alive.  Even Branwell, who typically comes off as annoying loser in these types of tales, is sympathetic.  He wants to be bold and bright.  He wants to be admired.  He just…isn’t.  He’s too self-absorbed to really be the type of man anyone could depend upon.

If you have already read Valente, you will not need my recommendation to read her again.  If you have not, you are missing out.  She is one of the best fantasy writers out there today, one whose prose is as magical as her worlds.  So whether you enjoy fantasy or Valente or the Brontës–pick up this book.

5 stars

The Fog Diver by Joel N. Ross

Information

Goodreads: The Fog Diver
Series: The Fog Diver #1
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

Years ago the Fog rose.  Humanity escaped to the highest peaks in order to avoid its deadly embrace.  Now Chess and his salvage crew live in the slums in one of the only two pockets of civilization said to be left.  They spend their days steering their raft through the air while Chess dives into the Fog to find items to sell.  But Chess hides a secret.  And the evil Lord Kodoc is looking for him.

Review

The Fog Diver is a fun, fast-paced read set in a fascinating world where humanity has built their last hold-outs on the highest mountain peaks.  There they hide from the Fog that covers the earth–Fog that has the ability to kill.  Only the most daring venture into its depths to scavenge for the food and riches that remain.  And Chess our protagonist is one of the  most daring.

The book opens in an action-packed scene that follows Chess as he explores the earth below.  He’s a little full of himself, but he’s good enough at his job that readers might feel he really can’t be blamed.  And he’s joined by a crew equally skilled and equally compelling from Hazel his fearless captain to Bea their genius mechanic.  They’re all orphans (of course) but they have formed a family.  Readers may be hard pressed not to cheer them all along.

The Fog Diver is a satisfying middle-grade fantasy with an original world, likable characters, and plenty of action.  (Actually, it reminds me slightly of Castle in the Air with its ship-filled skies and its lovable if fierce pirate crews.)  If you’re looking for an entertaining way to pass the afternoon, this might just be the book for you.

4 stars

Littler Women: A Modern Retelling by Laura Schaefer

Information

Goodreads: Littler Women: A Modern Retelling
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: Sept. 2017

Summary

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March receive a modern makeover in this retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s classic.  They attend school dances, go to sleepovers, and have jobs babysitting.  As they grow up, they hope to make their father, on active duty overseas as part of the National Guard, proud upon his return.

Review

When I read a retelling, I hope for something that strikes me as original, something that makes me see the work it is based on in a new light. Unfortunately, Laura Schaefer’s Littler Women, while a pleasant read, does not do anything new with the story.  Rather, it follows Alcott’s work pretty faithfully, slightly reworking episodes and even paraphrasing parts.  It also greatly shortens each episode, giving the characters little space to change.  I wanted to love Littler Women, but it falls far too short from the original text to impress.

From the first page, it becomes apparent that this story has a largely one-to-one correspondence with Alcott’s work.  The dialogue is moved around a little and modernized, but the girls express the same emotions and even do the same actions such as putting their mother’s shoes to the fire.  The rest of the book follows suit.  Their father is away, but as a member of the National Guard and not a chaplain.  Their mother works for social services instead of volunteering for the Union Army.  Meg is a babysitter instead of a governess.  She and Jo attend a school dance instead of a dance at someone’s home.  And so on.  Jo’s poem in their homemade paper (now a “zine”) even appears in paraphrased form.  The book follows Little Women so closely that it feels like you might as well read Little Women itself.

There are two major changes, but neither does much service to the story.  The first is that episodes are greatly shortened.  This makes the girls’ temptations seem less serious and their changes less evident.  After all, is one instance of Jo containing her temper really evidence that she has had a character arc?  The shortened episodes also mean readers have less time to get to know and love the characters.  Beth falls ill (with the flu instead of scarlet fever) and I did not even care because I barely felt like I knew her, much less realized how sweet and caring she is.  I really have no emotional attachment to any of the characters and so never felt invested in their stories.

The second major change is the excision of religion from the story.  The girls’ faith is integral to their lives in the original book, inspiring them to do better.  In Alcott’s story, they play Pilgrim’s Progress and read their Bibles regularly.  However, it appears that religion is not modern enough to appear in a “modern retelling.”  Or perhaps having characters live out their faith was seen as embarrassing or alienating.  So Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible s are gone, as is any indication that their father is a chaplain or their family religious at all (aside from a vague reference to “church” at Christmas).  Yet, with it gone, much of the heart has left the story.  It is also unclear what motivates the characters or why they want to do better.

Little Women was my favorite book while I was growing up, so I was looking forward to this retelling.  However, though I enjoyed passing a few hours with it, I find that the story lacks depth and the characters do not possess enough character to convince me to care about them.  I wish I could say that I loved this book, but I am mostly disappointed.

3 Stars

The List by Patricia Forde

Information

Goodreads: The List
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: Aug. 2017

Summary

Years ago climate change caused the waters to rise and the earth to flood.  Only the believers escaped into the city of Ark, along with a few others who now live destitute outside the walls.  In Ark, Letta works as the apprentice wordsmith, collecting and keeping all the words until the people are ready for them.  For now, they are permitted to speak only 500 words.  Speaking others results in banishment.  But then one day Letta’s master dies and she is suddenly promoted.  Questions about his death lead to only more questions.  Is Ark really the utopia its founder says?

Review

The marketing and reviews for this book suggested that The List is a thoughtful look at the power of words and the perils of censorship.  However, even though the citizens of Ark are only legally allowed to speak 500 words–the language of List–the book does not really focus on the implications of this system.  Rather, it turns into a pretty standard dystopian novel in which the protagonist attempts to thwart the experiments of a tyrant.

Notably, Letta does not really develop any deep understanding of the implications of List.  Her actions are primarily driven by the discovery that her friends ,and later the people of Ark, are facing violence at the hands of Ark’s leader.  Interestingly, Letta, like all the people of Ark, is aware of much of the violence and corruption.  She just doesn’t care until people she knows are left to be devoured by wild animals.  Or until, apparently, the violence becomes more violent than she thinks acceptable. It’s impossible not to wonder if Letta does not care about List because List does not affect her much, either.  As an apprentice wordsmith, she can speak the old language with her master.  She can also speak it with the leaders of Ark.  Letta, as a bit of snob, does not associate much with the “common” people.  Thus, her world is not really the world of List.

List, then, does not play as pivotal a role in the story as the summary might suggest.  Letta typically does not speak List and neither do the people she associates with.  It might have been interesting if the book itself had been written in List, really illustrating the implications of attempting to communicate meaning with only 500 words (and no tone or body language!).  However, it seems like the author was so well aware of the limitations of List, that she did not want to use it much either in the narrative or through her characters.  This means that Letta never really has to engage with List, never has to wonder what emotions or ideas people are lacking because they do not have the words.  Letta has the words.  And she’s not overly concerned with the people who do not.

The List ultimately disappointed me.  I was promised a book about censorship, but received a book about a girl joining (sort of) a secret organization that promotes paintings and music, and sometimes rises up if they perceive an immediate threat to their survival.  Any conclusions about the perils of List, however, must be drawn by readers thinking about the implications beyond those depicted in the story.

3 Stars

Skeleton Tree by Kim Ventrella

Skeleton TreeINformation

Goodreads: Skeleton Tree
Series: None
Source: City Book Review
Published: September 26, 2017

Summary

When Stanly discovers the skeleton growing in his yard, he knows immediately that he has the perfect entry for the Young Discover’s Competition.  The skeleton is also apparently his younger sister Merin’s new best friend, able to make her laugh when nothing else can. As Merin gets sicker and sicker, however, Stanly begins to wonder if the mysterious skeleton isn’t more of a curse than a blessing.

Review

I originally wanted to read this book in October because it seems like an appropriate Halloween read; after all, there’s a mysterious skeleton growing in two kids’ backyard, which may or may not have nefarious intentions.  The book itself even takes place around Halloween and features a Halloween party.  However, I realized quickly while reading Skeleton Tree that basically none of this is the point; the real story is about family relationships and dealing with a terminal illness.

I’m not going to get into any arguments about whether a book about death is “too dark” for middle grade.  Some readers will appreciate the book and some will not, and parents/educators can feel free to make judgments about that for individual readers.  However, the reality is that children do frequently have to deal with death in their own lives, whether we like it or not, so addressing the topic in a book for this age level does not feel inappropriate to me.  I do find the approach to dealing with death in Skeleton Tree a little odd, particularly because it’s wrapped up with magic and mystery that, for lack of a better word, leaned a little towards the frivolous for me.  However, it’s totally possible this approach will work for other readers, so I don’t want to dismiss it completely.

Personally, I found the family dynamics most compelling.  The relationship between older brother Stanly and his sister Merin seemed very realistic to me; Stanly vacillates between enjoying hanging out with his sister and being annoyed by her.  Sometimes he’s annoyed because she does things she can’t help because, well, she’s younger than he is.  Sometimes his annoyance really feel merited.  (Merin is that sibling who has to tell Mom everything. You know the one.  Even when she promised not to.  Even when telling Mom is going to get everyone into trouble.)  Their underlying love for each other is apparent, though.

The relationship between Stanly and his mother is more complicated because, as a parent, she’s obviously more fixated on her sick daughter and seems to take Stanly for granted.  She trusts him to take care of Merin while not totally recognizing how much she relies on him.  I was grumpy with her at times, but this is also something that felt realistic to me.  It doesn’t seem fair, but parents sometimes do do this to their kids.  Again, I don’t think it’s “too dark” to represent that faithfully in a middle grade book.

Mostly, however, Skeleton Tree just feels unique.  The family dynamics are realistic, perhaps even recognizable for many readers.  The magic skeleton plot line, however, is completely wild, and it helps the book stand out.  This book is definitely worth looking into for readers of middle grade.

4 stars Briana

The Magic Misfits by Neil Patrick Harris (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: The Magic Misfits
Series: The Magic Misfits #1
Source: ARC
Published: November 21, 2017

Summary

When Carter runs away from his thieving uncle, he runs into something far worse–B. B. Bosso’s circus, which seems to be a front for conning people out of money.  Now it’s up to Carter and his new friends to use their talent for magic tricks and save the day.

Review

The Magic Misfits seems to include all the ingredients for a quirky middle-grade read along the lines of The Mysterious Benedict Society–except with magic tricks.  Unfortunately, however,t he characters feel lifeless and two-dimensional and the narration strives to be funny but only is sporadically.  Initially I wondered if the book had in fact been ghostwritten, but the prose, which feels like a list of events more than a story, convinced me that the story probably was written by someone who had a great idea but lacked the skill to carry it out to its full potential.  Still, I suspect that my opinion will be an outlier and the book will sell very well.

The plot seems like just the kind of plot I would enjoy.  Young Carter runs away from his dishonest uncle and arrives in a new town where he meets a group of children also interested in magic tricks.  They use their various talents to confront and defeat the thieving operator of a circus.  Sounds fun, right?  And the story is interspersed with instructions for children to try magic tricks of their own.  But somehow the story just never came alive for me.

The characters theoretically each possess a special skill that should enable them to form a complementary team.  However, they are so forgettable that I can only remember one of their names.  In fact, I had to look up Carter’s name again just to write this review.  And their skills never really seem indispensable.  It’s not clear to me that another team of children could not have also defeated the villainous B. B. Bosso.  All they have going for them to make them a team is that they each feel like people make fun of them–for being poor, for being smart, for liking magic, etc.  But readers never really see the children being made fun of or feeling like outsiders.  We only see them happily meeting in their secret hideout to be friends.  That is, they have a place in society where they hang out with like-minded people and have fun.  But we’re supposed to feel sorry for them because…they tell us to?

It’s difficult for me to feel invested in a story if I do not feel invested in the characters.  And, really, I don’t care about them.  Certainly not enough to want to read the sequel.  But that’s okay.  I think  the series will be successful even without my enthusiasm.