Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Chloe by Design

Chloe by Design: Making the Cut
Margaret Gurevich
Brooke Hagel, Illustrator
Capstone, 2014  380 pgs
Grade 6-9
Realistic Fiction

Meet sixteen-year-old Chloe Montgomery.  She lives, breaths and sleeps fashion and design.  Imagine her delight discovering that her favorite show Design Diva (a cousin to Project Runway) will be featuring teen contestants.  After a period of self doubt, coaxed out of by her parents and best friend, Alex, Chloe begins the audition process.  After surviving several challenges, including a rodeo inspired challenge where she channels her late grandfather, who was a rodeo clown, she is asked to compete on the actual show in New York City.  Along the way she meets the cute son of a former Design Diva winner, who presents a potential, yet innocent, love interest.  Chloe travels to New York along with her high school  arch rival, who, in an unlikely turn of events also make it on the show.  The challenges come fast and furious, involving complications, non-traditional materials, surprising New York locals and uncomfortable teams.  As the competition heats up one designer is caught cheating and asked to leave the competition.  Chloe survives one challenge after another until the climax of the book...when the winner is announced!

I am a huge fan of Project Runway and was very excited to pick up this book.  I was not disappointed.  It captures the essence of the show, providing creative, inspiring, yet fun entertainment.  At 380 pages I was concerned that the book would be sluggish, that was so not the case.  Chloe by Design reads very quickly and becomes hard to put down.  The length of the book is due, in part, by the numerous sketches provided by Hagel, that are meant to be from Chloe's notebook.  The sketches are in full color and help the reader to experience Chloe's designs in a visual way.  The book also reads quickly because the action never stops.  Chloe bounces from one challenge to the next, all of which are surprising and interesting.  The book will obviously appeal to young people interested in fashion design, but is entertaining enough to grab the attention of non-sewers as well.  Chloe is an inspirational character in that she faces her fears and self-doubts and follows her dreams.  Conflict is added with the nemesis from her school and a touch of innocent romance is included.  Chloe by Design is clearly a stand alone book, yet could easily continue, following the winner to the grand prize: an internship with a fashion designer.  Both of my teenage daughters sew and the three of us faithfully follow Project Runway.  We have often mused that they should have a similar competition for teenagers.  Chloe by Design fills that bill.  Ironically, the makers of Project Runway must have also heard our wish.  At the end of October they will be launching a new show called Threads, which will feature tween and teen contestants.  Creating clothes is a great hobby for young people, as is reading.  I'm so glad Gurvich brought it all together into one fun package!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Luck Uglies

The Luck Uglies
Paul Durham
HarperCollins, 2014  382 pgs
Grades 5-8

Rye lives with her mother, toddler sister, and cat, Shady, on the outskirts of Village Drowning.  She follows the strange house rules her mother has drummed into her and always wears the beaded choker around her neck, just like her other family members.  The evil and vicious Bog Noblins, said to have been completely eliminated years ago, have resurfaced.  Only the Luck Uglies can get rig of Bog Noblins, but the Luck Uglies have been run out the village years ago for their erractic and destructive behavior.  Selfish Earl Longchance claims he can protect the village, but is only looking after himself and his pocketbook.  A stranger appears in town and Rye befriends him.  Known only as "Harmless", he reveals to Rye secrets concerning the Luck Uglies, Bog Noblins, and her own past, of which her mother is very closed lipped.  Rye is eventually kidnapped by the Earl as a way to trap Harmless and she must figure out a way to escape in order to prevent the Bog Noblins from desecrating the village.  The situation comes to a head when the Bog Noblins attack the village and Earl Longchance is willing to save only himself.  It is up to Rye, her two friends, Quinn and Folly, along with Harmless and Shady (their true identities revealed at last), to save the village, their families and their whole way of life.

This summery barely does The Luck Uglies justice.  So much goes on in this book, it is nearly impossible to condense it.  Filled with magic and legend, Durham offers fresh mythological creatures (Luck Uglies/Bog Noblins) and has them living in a believable medieval/fairy tale setting.  Rye is a spunky and brave heroine who will both inspire and relate to readers.  Her friends are loyal and also fully developed characters, as are her family members.  The story is classic good verses evil with a steamrolling plot and plenty of action and surprises.  The true identities of Harmless and Shady will be fun reveals to the reader and the book has unpredictable twists.  The Luck Uglies was a bit long for me and I had a hard time keeping characters straight, therefor I would recommend it to readers who like to bite into a complex and challenging fantasy.  There is a glossary of terms and creatures that Durham created, but I didn't discover it until I was finished reading the book.  Terms and creatures are well enough understood from context clues.  A map is also included, of which I also found no use for.  Not for everyone, this book is a great choice for smart kids who like to fall into a great read in a fully developed mythological world.  The Luck Uglies ends as a stand alone book, but could leave room for further adventures if it proves popular.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery
Deborah & James Howe
Atheneum, 1979  98 pgs
Grades 2-5

The Monroes return home from the movies with a strange box: the contents of which contain a rabbit they found at the theater.  Since it was a Dracula movie they name the new addition Bunnicula.  Family dog, Harold, and cat, Chester, find the new guy hard to get to know.  Suspicions arise when all of the color and liquid from the family's vegetables begins to disappear over night.   Could Bunnicula be a vampire bunny?  Chester is very distrustful of the little guy and begins to block the entrance to the kitchen at night.  Realizing that Bunnicula is slowly starving, Harold concocts a plan to get his new friend some much needed veggies.  Unfortunately the plan goes awry, resulting in mayhem, mess, and a trip for all the family pets to the dreaded vet.   All's well that ends well, as Harold does not need any shots, Chester is allowed to talk out his neurosis with a kitty therapist, and Bunnicula is put on a liquid diet, eliminating the need for vampire-like behavior.  Written in the form of a manuscript delivered to the book's editor by Harold the dog, Bunnicula is sure to please readers who like their mysteries with a touch of humor.

I love Bunnicula.  I loved it when I first read it over twenty years ago and still love it today.  What reader can resist dopey, lovable Harold the dog and precocious and suspicious Chester the cat?  Throughout the book Bunnicula remains a bit of an enigma (why do Chester and Harold talk, but Bunnicula doesn't?), but by book's end we feel sorry for the hungry little guy and relieved when Harold takes him under his wing.   The mystery is light and is never fully solved (we never see Bunnicula in action sucking the veggies dry),  but readers won't mind.  There is much humor in the book, keeping the mood light.  Although the book deals with a vampire bunny and much of the action takes place at night, it never gets too scary.  The concept is great, making the book an easy sell.  Reluctant readers will pick this book up, especially if they need to read a mystery.  It will appeal to both boys and girls and will especially be appreciated by animals lovers.  At less than 100 pages Bunnicula is not too long and is generously sprinkled with illustrations to break up the text.  For fans of the book, there are other titles to follow in the series, the second being Howliday Inn.  It is no accident that Bunnicula has been continuously in print for thirty-five years.  Hopefully it will stay in print for at least thirty-five more!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25

Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25
Richard Paul Evans
Simon & Schuster, 2011  326 pgs
Grades 6-9
Science Fiction/Adventure

Michael Vey is an "almost" normal boy living an unassuming life with his mother in a small town in Idaho.  "Almost" because he is plagued by Tourette's Syndrome, a condition that causes uncontrollable ticking and flinching, plus the fact that he is electric.  He can shock people by touching them and can even work his electricity through a metal conductor.  Only his super-smart best friend Ostin knows about his secret abilities until he meets classmate and popular cheerleader, Taylor, who has the ability to "reboot" people's minds.  They form a club called the "Electroclan" to dig into research to try to figure out the cause of their abilities.  Taylor discovers that both she and Michael were born in the same hospital within days of each other.  Further research uncovers the testing of a new electric machine at the same location and time.  Then: Taylor disappears.  Next, Michael's mother is kidnapped and he must ban with the school bullies (who can drive and have a car) and Ostin to travel to California to try to save her.  At this point in the book the point of view alternates between Taylor, who is being held prisoner by the evil scientist Dr. Hatch, and Michael, who travels to and tries to break into the same facility.  By the end the two stories come together as Michael and Taylor and their friends try to escape from Dr. Hatch and save the other kids with similar electric powers who are under Hatch's thumb.  But where is Michael's mother?  Will Dr. Hatch succeed in gathering the remaining electric kids and achieving world domination?  Who is Dr. Hatch working for?  These and other questions will be answered in the following books in the series, the second being Rise of the Elgen.

The Michael Vey series is the perfect pick to put into the hands of middle school boys, though girls will like it too!.  Michael Vey: Prisoner of Cell 25 reads like a comic book with breath-taking action and cool super-powers.  Kids will identify with Michael as he turns from regular guy to superhero.  Michael begins the book as an underdog nerd, who suffers from Tourette's and shyness.  As the book progresses he gains confidence and mastery over his electrical powers.  Michael leads the rag-tag group of electric kids who are against Dr. Hatch to a full-scale jail break, destroying the evil lair in the process.  Meanwhile, by books end, it is intimated that his relationship with the popular cheerleader is heading towards romance.  Not bad for a boy who cannot utter a sentence without practically going into convolutions at the beginning of the story.  The electric powers are most definitely cool and its interesting that all the kids have a slight variation on how their powers work.  The back story is almost believable and kids will buy it with no questions asked.  The story steamrolls ahead and the action never stops, making this a great choice for reluctant readers.  The book ends with the now expanded Electroclan venturing to save Michael's mother, which will be an easy hook to lead readers to the next installment.  The cover is intriguing and will help to sell the book to its audience.  Richard Paul Evans is an adult best-selling author and he knows how to reach readers.  Hand this one to fans of Alex Rider, the Maze Runner series or James Patterson books for teens.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Iron Trial

The Iron Trial
Holly Black & Cassandra Clare
Scholastic, 2014  295 pgs
Grades 5-8

Veteran fantasy writers Black & Clare launch the new Magisterium series with this exciting volume.  The setting is present United States, but in a current reality where magic co-exists with the real world.  Callum has been trained all his life by his father to dislike magic and to distrust the mages who run the Magisterium, a training school for future mages.  Against his father's wishes and despite his efforts to fail, Call is excepted into the elite school and selected to apprentice with the head mage, Master Rufus.  Two other appretices are also selected to work with Master Rufus, Tamara and Aaron and the trio becomes unlikely roommates, teammates and, eventually, friends.  Callum surprises himself by his abilitity to work magic and slowly begins to gain acceptance at the Magisterium, while eventually it begins to feel like home.  Even though he has a severe limp which slows him down, Call manages to find adventure and danger while exploring his new school.  In two separate occasions he befriends magical creatures, which is against school rules.  Jasper, a bully, repetitively give Call a hard time, until a plot-twist takes care of the problem.  As the training continues it is discovered that Aaron possesses rare magical powers that will help the good mages win the war against the mages who work evil magic.  Aaron is kidnapped and it is up to Call and Tamara to rescue him.  A midst the rescue attempt Call comes face-to-face with his past, his true identity, and the real reason his father is against the Magisterium.  Will Call reveal to his friends and mentors what he now knows?  How will the battle play out?  Stay tuned for the next installment when Call and his classmates return to the Magisteruim for year two: the copper year.

I wasn't sure how I felt about this book going into it.  I love both Holly Black and Cassandra Clare and was afraid of being disappointed.  Both authors generally write for a teen audience, so I was apprehensive of a middle grade fantasy, of which, I felt, the concept was done before.  Happily, I was not disappointed or anywhere near bored.  The parallels to Harry Potter become obvious at the on-set: an unlikely anti-hero who rises to prominence at magic school, complete with two best friends, a boy and a girl, and a bullying student who give him a hard time.  This is not another Harry Potter read-alike.  The Magisterium is much grittier than Hogwarts and Call is way too flawed and unpredictable than Harry.  I stopped making the comparisons pretty early on as I fell into the story.  The plot is fast moving, exciting, believable, and offers surprises.  The action moves so quickly that the characters beyond Call are not very well developed, but readers won't care.  It is a great story and the most entertaining and consuming book I have read in a while.  The cover looks very scary.  There are scary moments, but not as bad as the cover implies.  Even though the book is plot intensive, many themes are explored, including bullying, overcoming handicaps, the importance of friendship and loyalty, and, the ever-present, good verses evil.  Not an easy read, it will appeal to both boys and girls who like a "thinking", but fun book.  Non-fantasy readers will like it, fantasy readers will LOVE it.  I, personally, can't wait until next year when the next installment is released and we can see how Call and friends handle their copper year.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Raven Boys

The Raven Boys
Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic, 2012  408 pgs
Grades 8-Up

Blue lives in a house of female psychics in rural Virginia.  She is growing up under a shadow of a strange prophesy: that one day she will kiss her true love and he will die.  Her strange, yet predicable life changes when a distant aunt moves in from California.   The aunt predicts that she will meet her true love soon: and then she comes in contact with the Raven Boys; a group of friends from an exclusive all-boys prep school in her town.  Sweet and down-to-earth Adam is immediately interested in her, but it is the leader of the pack, Gansey that Blue knows is her destiny.  Other members of the group include angry bad-boy Ronan and ethereal dreamer Noah.  Gansey is leading the group on a quest to find the legendary Glendower, who is rumored to be buried in the area.  Once awakened, Glendower must grant a wish.  Blue joins the boys on their search aiding them in discovering ley lines and magical spaces.  Meanwhile, former student turned Latin teacher, Mr. Whelk, has been on the same quest for ten years and will do anything to get there first.  By book's end, it is revealed that all characters are not what they seem.  Deaths take place, the quest is partially fulfilled and, at the very end, a character discloses the ability to pluck objects from dreams--leading us straight towards the next book in the trilogy The Dream Thieves.

Maggie Stiefvater offers another atmospheric, supernatural adventure, laced with romance.    The Raven Boys has a cool plot line with many twist, turns, and surprises.  The big plot twist fooled me, which doesn't always happen, so that was fun.  The book reminds me a bit of Beautiful Creatures (Garcia, 2010), but I think it is just because of the mystical, southern setting.  I loved the well developed characters, particularly those of the aunts and the mother's friends/housemates.  Blue is a little drab, but that is typical for the genre and reader's won't care. The book is well written with enough of a satisfying conclusion, yet clear segue to the next installment.  It was a little long for me, a bit too quiet, and sometimes went over my head, but I know plenty of die hard fantasy readers I can recommend it to. The Raven Boys will appeal to girls more than boys, but the cover and multiple male characters and multiple points of view from both male and female characters make this selection also boy-friendly.  Not for fantasy dabblers, Raven Boys will find its audience among serious readers.  Will Blue and the Raven boys succeed in finding Glendower?  Will Blue and Gansey's platonic relationship evolve into romance, even at the risk of Gansey's death?  Will Adam and Ronan ever find peace?  What is it that Gansey plans to wish for?  What happened to Blue's father?  These and other questions will hopefully be answered in the following two books in the trilogy.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Brixton Brothers: The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity

The Brixton Brothers: The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity
Mac Barnett
Adam Rex (ill.)
Simon and Schuster, 2009  179 pgs
Grades 3-6

Mac Barnett, better known for his clever picture books (Oh, No!, or How My Science Project Destroyed the World, 2010, etc.) began his career with this tongue-in-cheek mystery series paying homage to the Hardy Boys.  Steve Brixton is an amateur detective and antiquated mystery series, The Bailey Brothers', biggest fan.  While researching early American quilts for a research project, Steve sets off an alarm, waging a full-on librarian ninja attack.  It turns out that librarians have a secret and elite spy society, in fact the most powerful in the world (the secret's now out!).  He must outwit the librarians, the local police, including his mother's new bumbling boyfriend, and an anonymous searcher appropriately named Mr. E (get it: Mr E mystery).  Everyone is trying to locate a very valuable antique American quilt which has all of America's secrets sewn into it.  After much adventure and misadventure, involving kidnapping, near drowning, and conflicts with various thugs, Steve, with his best friend Dana along for the ride, manage to locate the missing quilt and reveal the identity of Mr. E.  A proper detective at last, Steve decides to open the Brixton Brothers Detective Agency (no, he has no brother, but likes the name).  Three more mysteries follow in the series.

Having grown-up reading Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys I really enjoyed The Brixton Brothers.  Barnett takes the sensibilities of the 1950s/1960s kids detective series genre and applies it to modern day, adding humor to a great effect. The mystery is solid with enough possible suspects to make it interesting, but not too many to make it confusing.  Adventure abounds in Steve's escapades.  He is constantly facing life-threatening and melodramatic situations, which he pulls himself out of by his wits and ingenuity.  The story always stays on a cartoon-like level and never gets too scary or realistic.  Boys especially will enjoy this book, but girls will like it too.  The chapters are a comfortable length, end in a cliff-hanger, and contain at least one illustration from the illustrious Adam Rex.  Not being familiar with The Hardy Boys, today's readers may not get the humor.  Its subtle and feels almost like an inside joke.  That said, kids won't notice or care.  The Brixton Brothers works great as an adventurous mystery and no prior knowledge of fifty-year-old children's detective books is necessary.  Super cool spy librarians are icing on the cake!

Friday, September 5, 2014


Stuart Gibbs
Simon & Schuster, 2014  330 pgs
Grades 5-8

Teddy Fitzroy is the only young person residing at FunJungle, an amazing zoological park and tourist attraction in Texas.  His parents both work for the park, which affords him privileges not available to the common patron.  As in his previous adventure (Belly Up, 2010), Teddy become involved in a mystery.  This time new and rare attraction Kazoo the Koala, who is on loan from Australia, goes missing.  Unfortunate for Teddy, all the evidence points to him.  He must try to figure out the identity of the koala kidnapper all while avoiding the head of security, Large Marge, who is out to get him.  Making matters worse, Teddy is struggling to fit in at school and dealing with the school bully.  His investigation involves many suspicious characters, behind the scenes zoo activities and running around in an over-sized koala suit.  After a perfectly hair-raising and hilarious climax the perpetrator is satisfactorily captured and Teddy found innocent.  More adventures in the FunJungle series are hinted at by book's end.

Poached is a perfectly satisfying and readable mystery.  It is the second in the FunJungle series, but stands on its own and does not require previously reading Belly Up.  The many possible suspects help to make the book fun to try to guess the kidnapper, but there are not too many to keep straight.  The mystery is lightened up by moments of humor, bumbling security officers and madcap chases.  This is not a scary mystery or one too complex to figure out.  The mystery is solid, the kidnapper is "gettable", and Gibbs never gets too intense.  Poached is a great choice for kids who have to read a mystery, but don't think they like them.  It will appeal to all levels of readers and both boys and girls.  Animal lovers will be especially attracted to this title.  Who doesn't love a koala?  The koala is certainly a draw and readers will learn all about their behaviors and life style; I know I did!  Wild animals do not make good pets, especially koalas, who have a very specific diet.  I only wish FunJungle really existed.  It sounds like a great place to visit!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Egg & Spoon

Egg & Spoon
Gregory Maguire
Candlewick, 2014 475 pgs
Grades 5-8

The final days of tsarist Russian finds peasant Elena starving while nursing her dying mother in her depressing rural village.  A long abandoned train surprisingly arrives in the village and with it Ekaterina, a wealthy young lady on her way to meet the Tsar 's nephew as a possible marriage candidate.  The two strike up an unlikely friendship mostly out of boredom.  The story really gets rolling when the girls mistakenly trade places, placing Elena in the now moving train and Ekaterina abandoned in the starving village.  Elena manages to fool her elderly poor-sighted aunt and begins to learn the ways of the gentry.  She discovers the legendary Firebird on route to Saint Petersberg and witnesses it laying an egg and dying.  Meanwhile, Ekaterina, while lost in the woods, gets picked up by Baba Yaga, her talking cat, and house moving about on chicken legs and presents to the famous witch the Fabrige egg meant as a gift for the Tzar.  The girls are reunited in Saint Petersberg at the ball in honor of the Tsar's cousin, Prince Anton.  Anton is a restless soul and befriends the two girls.  Saint Petersberg is suffering from extreme flooding brought about by the awakening of the legendary Russian ice-dragon.  The three young people travel with Baba Yaga in her unusual house to retrieve the Firebird's egg, put the ice-dragon back to sleep and to restore Russia back to its natural harmony, meeting more unusual characters and facing life-changing challenges along the way.

No one knows their way around a folktale quite like Gregory Maguire.  He is well known for his renderings on famous folktales for adults (Wicked) and humorous stories for kids.  Egg & Spoon is a mixture of the two.  Russian folklore is fabulous and fascinating and often over- looked.  Its really cool that Maguire brings it to the public consciousness.  Egg & Spoon reminds me of a Russian American Gods (Gaiman), bringing together many Russian legends.  There is humor throughout the book, which helps to lighten the very serious themes.  Baby Yaga certainly steals the show and is the most interesting character I have come in contact with for some time.Throughout the folktale weaves history, specifically the events leading to the Russian Revolution and class struggle.  Coincidentally I am simultaneously reading The Family Romanov (Fleming), a superbly written account of the family of the last Tzar of Russia and the revolution.  I love it when my reading overlaps like this!  Egg & Spoon is Maguire at his best.  It is brilliantly written and every word is intentional.  Several time I had to stop reading to re-read a brilliant passage.  My only question with this book is: who is the audience?  Like Wicked and other adult titles by Maguire the book is dense and reads very slowly.  I don't think many kids would have the patience to get through it or understand much of what is going on.  This book would never have been published pre-Wicked, but Maguire can write what he likes now.  I bought this book for my library because I serve a Russian community who may be interested in it and Maguire's adult fans will be looking for it.  I don't think kids will pick it off the shelf and dig in.  This said, I can answer my own question concerning Egg & Spoon's audience.  Its crusty old children's librarians, such as myself, with an interest in folklore.  It certainly works for me that Maguire can now write what he likes, because we both like the same things.  I just don't know any young people that share our sentiments.