Monday, November 28, 2016

Finding Father Christmas / Engaging Father Christmas by Robin Jones Gunn, 2016

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In FINDING FATHER CHRISTMAS, Miranda Carson's search for her father leads her unexpectedly to London with only a few feeble clues as to who he might be. Immediately welcomed into a family that doesn't recognize her, and whom she's quickly coming to love, she faces a terrible decision. Should she reveal her true identity and destroy their idyllic image of her father? Or should she carry the truth home with her to San Francisco and remain alone in this world? Whatever choice she makes during this London Christmas will forever change the future for both herself and the family she can't bear to leave.

In ENGAGING FATHER CHRISTMAS Miranda Carson can't wait to return to England for Christmas and to be with her boyfriend, Ian. She has spent a lifetime yearning for a place to call home, and she's sure Carlton Heath will be it, especially when a hinted-at engagement ring slips into the conversation. But Miranda's high hopes for a jolly Christmas with the small circle of people she has come to love are toppled when Ian's father is hospitalized and the matriarch of the Whitcombe family withholds her blessing from Miranda. Questions run rampant in Miranda's mind about whether she really belongs in this cheery corner of the world. Then, when her true identity threatens all her relationships in unanticipated ways, Miranda is certain all is lost. And yet . . . maybe Father Christmas has special gifts in store for her after all.

(352 pages)

When I saw that this pretty collection of short stories was being turned into a Hallmark movie, I snapped it up right away. I love Hallmark movies, and I thought reading the original material to one would be a great way to get geared up for the holidays!

I have to say, though, that I think Hallmark movies must be getting a little more inappropriate than they used to be. Getting over the fact that Miranda's an illegitimate child of a man who already had a family is a little hard to just roll with. Sure, there are some circumstances that temper the "cheating" aspect of it–and the emphasis on forgiveness and finding one's family is healthy in its own way–but it just doesn't seem like, for a Christian book, there's enough emphasis put on the fact that what her father did was wrong. In fact, in the second short story ("Engaging Father Christmas"), Miranda actually spends a fair amount of time trying to get the affection of her father's wife.

I kid you not, Miranda doesn't just want to be acknowledged as her father's daughter amongst the family. She also wants to join in on their Christmas, and treat her half-brother's wife and children like family, and basically be given full insider status in this posh British family. She has this strange compulsion to "make friends" with Margaret, her father's wife, and I just felt like cringing every time she approached her. I mean, it's one thing for Miranda to get Margaret's reluctant acknowledgment of her blood relationship to the family; it's another altogether to try and be friends with her. How would you like it if the walking, talking reminder of the one time your husband was unfaithful to you thirty years ago kept shoving herself in your face and making passive-aggressive moves to show how open and friendly she's being despite your standoffishness? I honestly thought Miranda was way too entitled in "Engaging Father Christmas," and I didn't even like her boyfriend/fiance to boot. There's such a thing as making a character too perfect, you know?

Anyway, for all that I honestly didn't hate the two stories. They really are very cozy reads, full of roaring fires and cozy beds and gorgeous Christmas trees and fantastic productions of A Christmas Carol. They're also set in England (which I'm traveling next week for college visits–just think, I could be living there a year from now!). This instantly makes everything about five times more cozy and warm than they would be already. I looked up the Hallmark movie, and it looks like they moved Miranda's birth family from England to Vermont. That's so disappointing because it destroys most of the cozy atmosphere I enjoyed in the books. I think the fact that the Whitcombes are English also adds a layer of complexity to the story because their high-ranking status in prim English society makes Miranda's existence much harsher for them than it would be for some random actor's family in Vermont. Also, Miranda's boyfriend has a Scottish brogue. That right there is a huge point in his favor!

Anyway, if you're willing to look past the moral iffy-ness of Miranda's situation and the sometimes really blatant cheesiness of both the plot and the characters, then you might like this story. I would honestly recommend reading "Finding Father Christmas" and just stopping there, because it's not quite as cringe-inducing as "Engaging Father Christmas."

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Henry Hunter and the Beast of Snagov by John Matthews, 2014

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Adolphus Pringle lived a relatively normal life before he met Henry Hunter, but being the best friend of a twelve-year-old millionaire genius certainly makes life interesting. He has accompanied Henry on adventures all over the world and encountered dozens of supernatural creatures. Henry has a penchant for paranormal mysteries, and he never fails to drag his trusty sidekick, Dolf, into adventures to track down the truth in these mystical legends.

Henry announces one morning that he and Dolf are going to go in search of a creature more terrifying than Dracula himself: the Beast of Snagov. The pair of supernatural investigators travel from where Bram Stoker stayed in Whitby to Transylvania. Along the way they come across some strange things such as Dracula’s daughter, Bella, and an organization called the Order of the Dragon that wants to sacrifice Henry Hunter to the Beast of Snagov. When Henry is taken, it’s up to Dolf and Bella to team up and rescue him!

Will Henry survive this supernatural adventure? Get ready to discover the world of the supernatural through the eyes of our spooked narrator as he tags along on the first adventure in the Henry Hunter series!
(240 pages)

This is the second Halloween-themed book that I've read in the past week, the first one being Monsterville. As I wrote in my review, I really loved that book and was totally in the mood for another creepy Halloween-type novel. Luckily, I had another monster-themed Sky Pony Press book sitting on my shelf: Henry Hunter. I jumped right into it after finishing Monsterville, and was expecting great things.

Honestly, though, it just didn't really hit me the right way. Maybe it felt too much like a dumbed-down Sherlock Holmes (with monsters instead of an actual crime, and a stereotypical twelve-year-old genius millionaire robot rather than the brilliant, enigmatic and flawed human being we get in Sherlock). Maybe I couldn't get over the unrealistic premise of two young boys wandering into all sorts of terrible danger, with no adult ever even attempting to stand in their way. Maybe I didn't like how vanilla and clueless Dolf was–like the worst of Watson and Hastings and movie-Ron all jumbled together.

Maybe I'm just too old for this book. I think that's really the bottom line, I've simply reached the age where I want more subtlety and dynamism than Henry Hunter could offer. Honestly, I think it's quite a good book for kids who are in middle school. It's got vampires and backwoods Transylvania, cool creepy ancient castles, and a big ole' monster that the main characters need to defeat in the end. If I were five years younger, I think I'd probably have loved reading about the wealthy, independent Henry who spoke dozens of languages and knew practically everything. I would have lapped up the story just as quickly as I devoured, say, the 39 Clues series–which also featured hyper-intelligent children entrusted with large sums of money and zipping around the planet practically on their own.

I don't know, there's probably a pretty good chance that your kid would like this if they're in middle school. If you're looking for some slightly creepier books to give them that aren't really macabre, then this might be just the thing. I can't say I really recommend it to anyone older than middle school, though, just because there are so many other books out there. I don't know that it really stands out from the crowd enough to demand the attention of anyone over the age of about twelve.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Monsterville: A Lissa Black Production by Sarah S. Reida, 2016

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Thirteen-year-old Lissa Black is miserable when her parents force her to move from New York City (the perfect home for an aspiring writer/director/actress) to Freeburg, Pennsylvania, nowhere capital of the world. There’s nothing to do there, except play her little sister Haylie’s favorite new game, Monsterville, and hang out with her new neighbor Adam.
But when a walk in the woods lands her face-to-face with a swamp monster hungry for brains and then a Sasquatch that moos, even Lissa can’t call her new home totally boring. With Adam’s help, she catches the culprit behind the drama: a shape-shifting goblin who’s fled from the monster world of Down Below.
And what do you do with a creature that can be literally anything? Make monster movies, of course! Lissa is convinced that Blue will be the secret to her big break.
But when Haylie goes missing on Halloween, Lissa, Adam, and the monster must venture Down Below to stage a rescue—and face the real Monsterville, which is anything but a game.
Monsterville is a fusion of The Boxtrolls, Jumanji, and Candyland, weaving together friendship, family, and monsters into a funny fantasy-horror brimming with heart from a great new middle grade voice.

(368 pages)

Wow. This was . . . very different from what I was expecting it to be. In the best possible sort of way! I'm really regretting not reading it around Halloween time because it would have been gotten me into the perfect spooky mood. It's definitely got a very high creep factor in it, but not in an over-the-top unpleasant sort of way.

The first thing that really made the story for me, right from the first few chapters, was Lissa's narration. She's absolutely obsessed with filmography, so half the time she describes a scene she compares it to some classic film or describes how she would film it if her life were a movie. These extra details add a very creative angle to the novel and provide many instances of picturesque imagery that we wouldn't get otherwise. Besides enjoying Lissa's narration, I also just really connected with her as a character. It's all too rare to find a main character who loves small children and is great at babysitting. For Lissa, though, acting as a "mini mother" seems to come naturally. In fact, especially toward the second half of the novel, she often behaves more like Hailey's mother than her older sister! Lissa's reaction to moving from New York to middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania is also very realistic: she's mad, and grouchy, and at first refuses to admit that there might be anything good about the entire state of Pennsylvania. Honestly, that's how I usually feel when I move somewhere new. Lissa's evolution of emotions (and the reliable, yet increasingly distant, support she gets from her friends back in New York) ring true to my own moving experiences.

So basically, Lissa is exactly like me with a love for movies swapped out for my obsession with books. Good. That right there guarantees I'll enjoy at least a large part of the book. But did I love it? Yes, absolutely. I adored Adam, Lissa's next-door neighbor who allows himself to get dragged along for the ride in exchange for nothing more than the opportunity to show Lissa reasons why she shouldn't hate Pennsylvania. The cynical part of me says he's a little too perfect to be a real person, but I'm not in the mood to listen to it. He's awesome. Hailey herself is adorable, very realistic (if a tad too cooperative at times–but then, maybe my younger siblings are just wilder than most). The side characters we meet from Lissa's new and old school all ring true in the small roles that they're given.

But now for the monsters. And I have to say, this is one of the more horrific premises for a novel that I've read in a while. The further you get into the story, the worse it gets; by the time the main characters are stumbling through Down Below, facing terrible monsters in their quest to find Hailey, things are pretty hard-core. If you stop and think about the reason Hailey's been kidnapped, they're positively horrific.

At the same time, though, like I said: I really loved reading Monsterville. Maybe it's just the fact that it's a middle-grade novel, but no matter how dark things got I never felt like it was going to end in total tragedy. I'm not usually one for horror, but I actually adored Monsterville. It had just the right mixture of family (including not-dead, emotionally-invested parents!), friendship, love, and tension. It also ended on a sort-of cliffhanger, and I am definitely ready for the sequel. Someone please tell me it will be out in time for next Halloween!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Be Light Like a Bird by Monika Schröder, 2016

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After the death of her father, twelve-year-old Wren finds her life thrown into upheaval. And when her mother decides to pack up the car and forces Wren to leave the only home she's ever known, the family grows even more fractured. As she and her mother struggle to build a new life, Wren must confront issues with the environment, peer pressure, bullying, and most of all, the difficulty of forgiving those who don't deserve it. A quirky, emotional middle grade novel set in Michigans Upper Peninsula, Be Light Like a Bird features well-drawn, unconventional characters and explores what it means to be a family and the secrets and lies that can tear one apart.
(240 pages)

This is a fairly melancholy book, but not in an overpowering way. I was a little worried about reading Be Light Like a Bird right now, just because I'm already emotionally overextended from stressing out about college stuff, but it actually turned out to be an almost cathartic read for me. Nothing like reading about a girl with a dead dad to put things in perspective, you know?

I'm moved tons of times, so I know how hard it can be to let go of a past home and live somewhere new, but Wren's moves are like a thousand times worse than any I've ever done. She lived in one place–one house–her entire life, and suddenly she's forced to leave all of that behind and start completely from scratch! Add to that the reason for their sudden move (her father's plane crash, which didn't even leave behind a body to be buried), the fact that she didn't even have anything of her father's to remember him by, and things become extremely bleak.

Considering how horrible her experiences were, I can completely understand Wren's anger at her mother and her desperation to put down roots and be absorbed into a support system–any support system. That's why I really kind of despised her mom for most of the book. Even at the end, when we learn a little more about the reasons for her actions, I'm still not really okay with them. Wren shouldn't have had to befriend strangers just to talk about how much she missed her father.

Now that we're on the topic of Wren's new friends, though, I have to say that I really loved them for the most part. I didn't particularly like Carrie, the popular girl Wren decides to befriend as a way of fusing herself into the social hierarchy at school, but I thought the way Wren responded to Carrie's nastiness was much more mature and realistic than the ways characters in other books have handled similar situations. Theo was another slightly stereotypical character (the nerdy unpopular boy who's secretly an ideal best friend for the main character), but somehow I didn't really mind. He and Wren bond over interesting things like bird-watching and photography, and Theo–who's mother died a few years before–is as a compassionate friend who knows exactly what Wren is going through. I hope the two of them stay side-by-side for a very long time.

Honestly, though, I can't put my finger on it but I just wanted . . . more from Be Light Like a Bird. I don't mean more in the sense of having a heavier dosage of Wren's grief, because I think Schröder handled that aspect of the story beautifully, but I just mean more details. If Wren lived her entire life in that one town, why does she barely even think about it? You'd think she'd feel the loss of her old classmates, who were at least familiar even if they weren't her best friends, and that she'd spend more time comparing her old home with this new one. More than anything, though, I honestly felt like we don't get a very good description of her father. We get flashbacks and memories with him in them, but I never feel like I truly know him as a complex and nuanced human being.

To be fair, the focus of Be Light Like a Bird really isn't on Wren's father or her old town, or even on her mother. The focus is on Wren's struggle to move on from her father's death, and I think it does a great job of that. Be Light Like a Bird is a beautiful book in its own way, and I recommend it to anyone who thinks they'd like it.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, November 14, 2016

How to Avoid Extinction by Paul Acampora, 2016

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For fans of Gary Schmidt and Joan Bauer, a laugh-out-loud intergenerational road trip story from acclaimed author Paul Acampora!

Since the death of his grandfather, Leo's number one chore has been to chase after his grandmother who seems to wander away from home every few days. Now, Gram's decided to roam farther than ever. And despite his misgivings, Leo's going along for the ride. With his seventeen-year-old cousin, Abbey, and an old, gassy dog named Kermit, Leo joins Gram in a big, old Buick to leave their Pennsylvania home for a cross-country road trip filled with foldout maps, family secrets, new friends, and dinosaur bones.

How to Avoid Extinction is a middle-grade comedy about death and food and family and fossils. It's about running away from home and coming back again. For Leo, it's about asking hard questions and hopefully finding some sensible answers. As if good sense has anything to do with it. Against a backdrop of America's stunning size and beauty, it's also about growing up, getting old, dreaming about immortality, and figuring out all the things we can -- and can't -- leave behind.
(208 pages)

Honestly, my gut reaction when closing the book was "man, this needed to be longer!"At barely 200 pages, there didn't seem to be much room for the story to stretch as long as it needed to go. I did really like the characters and the path that they took, but I was also yearning for more.

If I'm being completely honest, actuall, I did have a little trouble with some of the characters: namely, Leo's mother and grandmother. Mainly his mother. She's not actually around for most of the book, so it's hard to get a pin on her personality, but from the little we do get she seems like a rather unpleasant mother. I get that there were reasons for her behavior, that her life hasn't been all roses and sunshine, but she's been very closed-off and hasn't mentioned any of the major parts of her life to Leo (even the parts that include his own birth father). Leo, for his part, seems remarkably nonchalant about all the information she's hidden from him–but grows increasingly curious to find out more as the book progresses. It's a bit peculiar, really, that he hadn't wondered much before about what his gone-away dad was like.

Anyway, I'm not always the biggest fan of quirky stories: sometimes they just feel forced, like someone is trying to hard to be "meaningful" by being bizarre. I think Acampora legitimately knows how to pull off a touching and off-beat story, as he did in his debut Defining Dulcie (my review) all the way back in '06. It definitely works in How to Avoid Extinction as well, though I have to admit Extinction didn't quite connect with me on the emotional level that Dulcie did.

This is a meaningful and interesting book, full of interesting and colorful characters facing up to some pretty tough truths about life. I will admit freely that there was one scene about three-fourths in that made me sob like a baby, and I definitely came out of the book wishing it hadn't ended. I get the general vibe from the book, though, that it could have gone a little deeper. The material felt a little rushed at times, because (as I said at the beginning of this review) it honestly just felt too short. Maybe it's just a shortcoming inherent in the middle-grade genre, but I can't help but bemoan all of the amazing things Acampora could have done with the plot if he'd only taken another hundred pages to write it.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary ARC of this novel from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Tales of a Fifth-Grade Knight by Douglas Gibson, 2015

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One day, Isaac Thompson is just your average fifth grader playing the part of a porcupine in the school play. The next, he has strayed into a mysterious subterranean realm that has been lurking beneath his school Castle Elementary and launches his quest to knighthood. When Isaac's little sister Lily goes missing from their school's creepy basement, he and his best friends Max and Emma set out in search of her. Their search takes them to the Underground, where they encounter an army of spear-wielding rats, a talking human-sized bat, and a thumb-nosed prison guard. But humans who stay in the Underground too long transform into weird, unpleasant creatures and are forced to work for the horrible Elf King. Can Isaac and his crew escape the Underground before it's too late for them to ever return home?
(160 pages)

Wow. This was such a fun book. It kind of reminded me of a Rick Riordan novel, in the way that it takes everyday kids and puts them into crazy scenarios. It's also like Suzanne Collins's Gregor the Overlander books, with its fantastical underground world and societal flaws.

What I really appreciate about Tales of a Fifth-Grade Knight is that, despite being part of a genre known for its repackaging of tired old adventure formulas (and despite threatening to follow those cliches during the first few chapters), it not only manages to create an original and interesting world but it also poses some thought-provoking moral questions along the way. The characters make a series of increasingly dark discoveries as the book goes along, exposing the dark side of what seemed at first like such an exciting and ideal kingdom. I don't want to go too much into exactly what those discoveries are, because the book is short enough that I'd be spoiling quite a large percentage of it for you, but suffice it to say that I really enjoyed being taken along for the ride.

Okay, though, now all of you who actually have middle schoolers are thinking that Tales of a Fifth-Grade Knight is going to be too dark for your kids. I can't speak for every reader out there, but one of the things that actually impressed me with Tales of a Fifth-Grade Knight was that the author managed to pack some thought-provoking scenarios into it while still keeping the story extremely PG. The actual violence is very minimal, and the sense of danger as the kids hunt for Lily is present but never overwhelming. Tales is definitely much less violent than the Gregor the Overlander books I mentioned earlier (and less violent than some of Rick Riordan's books too, now that I think about it). I don't read a huge amount of books in this genre, so I can't tell you how it stacks up among its peers, but I at least enjoyed it. As soon as I hit "publish" on this review I'm passing it on to the best judge of all: my ten-year-old brother, a member of its actual target audience. If his opinion of the book is radically different from my own, then I'll come back here later and add his thoughts to this review.

When's the last time you read a middle-grade fantasy novel? I hadn't read one in ages, and I think I'm getting hooked again. I don't know what to read next, though–comment below with your favorites so I can check them out!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the author in exchange for my honest review.