Monday, October 29, 2018

Louisiana's Way Home by Kate DiCamillo, 2018

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From two-time Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo comes a story of discovering who you are — and deciding who you want to be.

When Louisiana Elefante’s granny wakes her up in the middle of the night to tell her that the day of reckoning has arrived and they have to leave home immediately, Louisiana isn’t overly worried. After all, Granny has many middle-of-the-night ideas. But this time, things are different. This time, Granny intends for them never to return. Separated from her best friends, Raymie and Beverly, Louisiana struggles to oppose the winds of fate (and Granny) and find a way home. But as Louisiana’s life becomes entwined with the lives of the people of a small Georgia town — including a surly motel owner, a walrus-like minister, and a mysterious boy with a crow on his shoulder — she starts to worry that she is destined only for good-byes. (Which could be due to the curse on Louisiana’s and Granny’s heads. But that is a story for another time.)

Called “one of DiCamillo’s most singular and arresting creations” by The New York Times Book Review, the heartbreakingly irresistible Louisiana Elefante was introduced to readers in Raymie Nightingale — and now, with humor and tenderness, Kate DiCamillo returns to tell her story.

(240 pages)

I've been enjoying Kate DiCamillo's books for many years now, ever since we did Because of Winn-Dixie as a read-aloud in second grade. From her picture books to her novels, she always crafts a story that is accessible to younger readers, enjoyable, and still somehow meaningful.

She has definitely continued this trend with Louisiana's Way Home. The book may skate dangerously close in parts to the "Southern quirky charm" cliche that I've grown really sick of, but it never crosses that line to become annoying. DiCamillo does a wonderful job of blending quirky-funny characters with situations (and even other characters) which are legitimately frustrating/challenging, rather than just playing off their charms. Louisiana meets many adults over the course of her attempts to return home, some of whom try to help her and others who look down their noses and suspect her of ulterior motives.

I should talk briefly about Granny's role in the book. She's one of those "quirky" characters whose actions become quite questionable, and I appreciated that DiCamillo had Louisiana struggle with her problematic behavior. I would have liked even more discussion of how some of Granny's actions were completely irresonsible and dangerous, but I suppose that would have been too much of a drag for a book ultimately written for children.

Honestly, my main complaint is that the book is too short. This is a common issue I have with books written for younger readers, and I think my frustration with the book's length just serves as evidence that it was good enough that I wanted to read more! Fans of Because of Winn-Dixie will definitely enjoy this newest novel from DiCamillo.

Have you read any books by Kate DiCamillo? If so, comment below which is your favorite!

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

Friday, October 26, 2018

Good Rosie! by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Harry Bliss, 2018

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Beloved storyteller Kate DiCamillo and cartoonist Harry Bliss introduce some delightfully doggy dogs in a warm, funny tale of a timid pup who needs a friend.

Rosie is a good dog and a faithful companion to her owner, George. She likes taking walks with George and looking at the clouds together, but the closest she comes to another dog is when she encounters her reflection in her empty dog bowl, and sometimes that makes Rosie feel lonely. One day George takes Rosie to the dog park, but the park is full of dogs that Rosie doesn’t know, which makes her feel lonelier than ever. When big, loud Maurice and small, yippy Fifi bound over and want to play, Rosie’s not sure how to respond. Is there a trick to making friends? And if so, can they all figure it out together?

(32 pages)

What a cute book!

I don't usually go for childrens' books, but when I got the invitation to review this new little comic book by Kate DiCamillo I thought it looked great and snapped it up.

It's definitely a lot shorter than my usual fare, but it's still fun! The story is a simple one but a very sweet one, about a lonely little dog with a lovely old owner and her attempts to make friends at the dog park.

When I think about the story a little more, I realize that it's also a great entry point into a conversation with children about how people from very diverse backgrounds, or with very different personalities, can still respect each other and become good friends. The fact that it opens that door so subtly, as one of many possible things you could talk about rather than overtly making it the Main Point of the story, is actually a huge point in its favor in my book.

The artwork is very pretty, in the same style as the cover. I have to admit that at the time of writing this review I don't have access to my copy, so I can't flip through it again and go into much detail, but suffice it to say that I really liked the cute depictions of the characters. They were sweet and not overly cartoonish or exaggerated.

All in all, this is a very sweet children's book. I'm sure there are going to be children out there who have their parents read it to death, if for no other reason than because of the adorable dogs, and it's a story with only good messages that parents likely won't mind reading (at least the first few times). If you're looking for a children's book for a kid in your life,  you definitely can't go wrong with Good Rosie!.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Edge of Yesterday and Da Vinci's Way by Robin Stevens Payes, 2017/2018

Edge of Yesterday:
When thirteen-year-old geek-girl Charley Morton decides to build what she believes is Leonardo da Vinci's design for a time machine for the middle school science fair, she has two thoughts in mind: to win first prize and to travel back in time to meet her idol, Leonardo. Her goal: to find out how the Renaissance artist, engineer, scientist, musician, anatomist, and inventor managed to do it all.
(123 pages)

When the author's publicist reached out to me to about reviewing these two books, I was intrigued by the description of Payes's Edge of Yesterday learning platform focused on bringing girls to STEM/STEAM. As a second-year female computer science student myself, I am always interested in developments in that area.

I'm afraid that I was pretty disappointed, though. For starters, the books were both pretty short and moved jerkily. The plot moved slowly in some ways and way too fast in others, and the main characters' personalities are pretty roughly sketched out.

My main issue with the books has less to do with the writing than it does with its central purpose: encouraging girls to enter STEM. I can tell that Payes means well, but Charley basically comes across as a slightly ditzy girl with lots of half-hearted interests and a soppy fangirl attraction to a historical figure. She doesn't invent the time machine, or even the idea for the time machine–she literally just follows clues left behind by a vision and a male time traveller from the past to figure out approximately what should happen, then hands the materials over to her genius friend Billy to actually construct it. Then she accidentally triggers it and winds up in the past.

I'm serious. In a series meant to be about female empowerment, the female main character follows the lead of one guy and literally hands over the technical part of the construction to another guy. How is that empowering? Why couldn't Charley have been the one to do the wiring and figure out how to make the time machine work? I've read fantasy novels set in entirely different worlds with girls who do more hands-on technical work, and yet this is touting itself as a platform for encouraging girls to go into STEM.

And that's not even going into the issues I had with Charley's (often idiotic) behavior in the past, and her new "friend" who happens to look and often behave exactly like a friend from her own time who's been acting catty lately. Because of course the only female friendship in the entire series has to be a negative one.

Gah. I'm just done with this. We could argue about whether "rah-rah girls in science!" books are even necessary, but if you're promising to offer an empowering story then you need to come through on that promise.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of these books in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Bigfoot Files by Lindsay Eagar, 2018

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The Loch Ness Monster. The Frogman. Bigfoot. Twelve-year-old Miranda Cho used to believe in it all, used to love poring over every strange footprint, every stray hair, everything that proved that the world was full of wonders. But that was before her mother's obsession with monsters cost Miranda her friends and her perfect school record, before Miranda found the stack of unopened bills and notices of foreclosure in the silverware drawer. Now the fact that her mom's a cryptozoologist doesn't seem wonderful -- it's embarrassing and irresponsible, and it could cost them everything. So Miranda agrees to go on one last creature hunt, determined to use all her scientific know-how to prove to her mother, once and for all, that Bigfoot isn't real. Then her mom will have no choice but to grow up and get a real job -- one that will pay the mortgage and allow Miranda to attend the leadership camp of her dreams. But when the trip goes horribly awry, will it be Miranda who's forced to question everything she believes?
(384 pages)

Um . . . okay.

I mean, I don't believe in the Loch Ness Monster or the Frogman or Bigfoot or any other fantastic creature for that matter. I like books that play with their existence, or that work them into the plot, but I don't believe they're real.

Miranda's mother does, and she's gone really nuts about proving that they are. And that's great and all, and the book is a nice story about mother-daughter bonding, but at the same time I still don't really agree with the mother at all.

Like, just because something exists doesn't mean you need to prove it's real (especially when it's clearly trying so hard to stay hidden). And you definitely should not be dragging your young daughter around to do it, continually disrupting her education and messing with her plans and making her panic your failing finances just because you need to go on yet another search for a crazy creature. But somehow they both think that if these creatures are real, what Miranda's mother has done make sense. It doesn't.

I couldn't really get over that. I also thought that Miranda's attempts at using the scientific method were kind of spotty, and I actually really related to her love for list-making but even I thought her approach to planning everything down to the nano-detail was a bit much.

It was an interesting enough read, but for my tastes it was a little too zany to be a good realistic novel and a little too realistic to be a fun zany novel. By all means do give it a go if you're curious about it, though.

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

Monday, October 15, 2018

Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan, 2018

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On the night that Aunty dies the Raggedy Witches come for Mup's mam. Pale, cold, relentless, they will do anything to coax Mam back to Witches Borough. When they kidnap Mup's dad, Mup and her mam must leave the mundane world to rescue him. But everything is odd in the strange, glittery Witches Borough, even Mam. Even Mup herself. In a world of rhyming crows, talking cats, and golden forests, it's all Mup can do to keep her wits about her. And even if she can save her dad, Mup's not sure if anything will ever be the same again. First in a new trilogy by Irish author Celine Kiernan, this tale of family and forbidden magic charts a fresh path through the landscape of beloved fantasy tradition–and promises to bewitch any reader in search of stories to love.
(288 pages)

I used to gulp down books by the dozen about girls who discover their family has secret ties to a fantasy realm and they have to go on some sort of quest in it. You know the type: there's usually a unicorn involved, and/or a couple of fairies or other fantastic creatures, and someone is always related to royalty.

Begone the Raggedy Witches uses some of these tropes, but plays with them so much that they're nearly unrecognizable. I really love the fact that Mup's mother is the "special one," rather than Mup herself being it. For most of the story Mup is basically a distraction/side character on her mother's quest. That sounds like it would be boring, but it's not. Because Mup's innocent, childish observation of the strife in Witches Borough, and her mother's role in returning to save her husband, is a wonderful way to lighten what could have very easily turned into a depressingly dark book.

It's still quite dark in places, with some death and discussion of child abandonment and questions about what it means to be family. Mup's aunt died right before the book began, but her ghost accompanies the family on much of its quest; Mup sees the moral conflict that her aunt's decision to run away from home entailed, as she saved herself and her sister but left the rest of her friends and people behind to face her mother's wrath.

There are people who can turn into animals and men who are forced to say everything in rhyme, and the magical world is just so interesting and miserable at the same time that I was fascinated by it. Even when the story veered into predictable territory (as it did, essentially, follow the pattern left by many books before it), it did so in a way that was still novel and intriguing.

All in all, Begone the Raggedy Witches is an interesting new story that I enjoyed reading (even when it got rather dark). I'm looking forward to continuing the trilogy!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Voices from the Second World War from Candlewick Press, 2018

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In an intergenerational keepsake volume, witnesses to World War II share their memories with young interviewers so that their experiences will never be forgotten.

The Second World War was the most devastating war in history. Up to eighty million people died, and the map of the world was redrawn. More than seventy years after peace was declared, children interviewed family and community members to learn about the war from people who were there, to record their memories before they were lost forever. Now, in a unique collection, RAF pilots, evacuees, resistance fighters, Land Girls, U.S. Navy sailors, and survivors of the Holocaust and the Hiroshima bombing all tell their stories, passing on the lessons learned to a new generation. Featuring many vintage photographs, this moving volume also offers an index of contributors and a glossary.

(320 pages)

I both really loved this book and also didn't really like it.

I really love what it's doing. It takes the stories of people alive during WWII and records them in a format that is accessible for children (though perhaps sometimes a bit too heavy for them, for obvious reasons), saving them for posterity. There are stories from all different angles, from people who were soldiers during the war and people who were children, Jews and Germans and Poles and Brits and Americans and more telling their individual slivers of the grand narrative of the war.

On the other hand, I didn't really like it in parts because some of the stories–especially toward the beginning–were kind of boring: basically, "I was evacuated and lived on a farm for a while." Plus there was clearly some strong editing done, because most of the narratives were told in the same way, even though they came from vastly different people and were recorded in the first-person narrative.

I flipped forward after a while, and once we get into the later parts of the war and its end, then the really impactful stories begin. There are stories from several Jewish children who survived death camps, or whose parents went into them. There are pictures of the people back then, too, which made the stories so much more real. The one that is absolutely most shattering is a two-page spread of Hungarian Jews fresh off the cattle trucks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, waiting to be sorted. The caption informs us that only the strong were spared from being immediately sent to the gas chambers, and it's a thousand times more horrifying than just reading the fact because you can look into the faces of all these people about to be murdered.

It's - it's pretty hard, to be honest. Some of the material in this book is extremely horrifying and depressing. Add in a little bit of bad language (mainly a couple of "hell"s) and this is definitely not a book you should be handing off to your young children any time soon. But it is a pretty good collection of stories from across the war, tied together with explanations of the historical context, and I think it is important that we carry these stories with us into the future generations.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Make It Rain! by Areva Martin, 2018

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What if you could get in front of millions of prospects with the avid endorsement of famous influencers--without spending a dime?

It's happening right in front of you every day. Guest experts on TV, radio, podcasts, blogs, and live streaming are getting local and national exposure for their business and brand that they could never have afforded to reach with ads.

For a decade, Areva Martin has used the media to build a huge platform that expanded the influence and power of her brand exponentially. Media appearances on Dr. Phil, Anderson Cooper 360, The Doctors, CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and more have virtually eliminated the need of a marketing budget for her thriving law firm and non-profit organization, while securing her place as one of America's most sought after thought leaders.

Make It Rain! Areva breaks the silence to reveal what insiders know about the power of media appearances to revolutionize a business and brand and get your core message out to the people who need it most. You'll learn how to:

Match your brand to the right audience and media venues
Craft pitches producers can't resist
Jump on breaking news shows
Pivot and speak in soundbites like the pros
Amplify every interview with social media
Turn appearances into platform and become a rainmaker

Never before have there been more ways to build a presence that matters. Whether you are the executive of a corporation, the author of an upcoming book, the owner of a rapidly growing small business, or the public face of a local nonprofit or association, if you have a business to build or people you want to help, nothing beats using the media to create the visibility, influence, and power you need. Are you ready to
Make It Rain!?
(272 pages)

Since I've been blogging for years now, I figured it was time to read a book about how to market yourself effectively.

So far, my approach has been to post two reviews a week, copy-and-paste them into Goodreads, set up Bloglovin to automatically post links to my reviews on Twitter, and occasionally post pictures of books and/or my Scottish university on Instagram. According to Areva, I'm doing everything wrong.

I don't have a cohesive brand, because I'm split between talking about books and my international university. I don't interact with people much on social media (in fact, I usually forget to even check in on my accounts). I don't plug myself nearly enough, and I'm not marketing myself nearly so aggressively enough.

After reading Make It Rain!, I can say with some definity that I have no interest in changing my habits to conform to Areva's advice. But that doesn't mean it's not good advice–in fact, for people who really want to establish themselves as experts in a field and bring themselves into the public eye, I think this book is an absolute goldmine! Areva doesn't tell any warm, fuzzy stories about wandering into fame. This book is full of tips for projecting an aura of professionalism, convincing tv producers to invite you onboard, keeping on top of pop culture to see if you can find an in, etc. She talks about following hashtags on Twitter, tweeting about relevant topics early in the morning so producers will see you. She talks about watching hours of different talk shows, seeing how they interact with their interviewees and what tone they keep. Her road to fame is not an easy one; it involves hours of daily grunt work to keep on top of things, to stay relevant, and to get your name out there.

Honestly, I think I would hate trying to become a "tv professional" the way Areva is. I don't want to whittle my personal brand down into a few bullet points, or constantly try to insert myself into every national dialogue that comes across the front page. But for people who might be interested in such a pursuit, this book seems like a wonderful starting point. Areva is a goldmine of resources as well as tips, and I think anyone starting out in the self-publicity arena will gain quite a bit from reading Make It Rain!.

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

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Royal Order of Fighting Dragons by Dan Elish, 2018

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Born to... Fight?

Ike Rupert Hollingsberry is haunted by the past because complete strangers won’t let him forget that his famous father died on the set of The Fighting Dragons, a cult favorite that still has people talking. But when he’s attacked by a large locust, like the one that killed his dad, Ike is helped by the geekiest nerd of all, Elmira Hand. Killing the giant locust is only the beginning of the surprises in store for Ike as he is whisked away from New York City to an isolated Florida compound to assume his role as the next in line to lead the Royal Order of Fighting Dragons—that are NOT supposed to exist—and learns his dad’s death was a cover-up for a far greater purpose…

(300 pages)

Oh, gosh.

There is so much to cringe at in this book, but I had so much fun reading it that I'm not going to pick at it too hard. Sometimes, a goofy book about kids finding out they are part of an ancient tradition, getting onto dragons, and fighting massive bug beasts just hits the spot, you know? This was a very nice break from my otherwise intense first few weeks back at university.

Because really, it's a great premise. Sure, variations of the "kids saving the world from disaster" story have been done to death, but they are told so often because they are genuinely appealing. I quite liked Ike, who was a genuinely good kid, and the other kids were fairly typecast into specific roles but I thought they were interesting enough that I still enjoyed reading about them. I particularly liked the Australian girl, who was so outrageously and stereotypically Australian (think: wrestling alligators and wearing a snake as a belt) that she was just hilarious to read.

At the same time, I don't want to pretend that this is a perfect book. The basic idea that only Ike and his teammates can save the day seems forced, since there must be so many other descendants of the necessary knights and their dragons. Ike's tech-genius friend is ridiculously overpowered (a trait that annoys me more and more the longer I study computer science), and the idea that Ike has to be the leader of the group because of who his ancestor was seems ridiculous at best and almost harmful at worst (because seriously, we are not entirely defined by our ancestors!).

Since I live in Scotland during term-time, I also want to briefly address the Arthurian origin of the conflict between the Royal Order of Fighting Dragons and the locusts. Basically, I thought it was a really cool idea to root the conflict throughout history, but I found it pretty obvious that Elish has not spent much time in the U.K. There is a list partway through the book of all the locations of previous attacks; for those that happened in England, the town or general area is specified (usually London). But when it's in other countries, it basically just says the name of the country (Ireland, Scotland, and "South Wales"). These places are, in fact, also split up into towns and cities! Also, one character is described as having a "strong British accent." I literally laughed out loud when I read that, because there is no such thing. Britain is made up of Scotland, Wales, and England, which all have very different accents from each other and even regionally within their own borders.

This is something that really only bothers me because of my experience living over here, though, so I really can't hold it against the book too much. If you see a copy, and you're looking for a fun, cheesy, and slightly ridiculous adventure story, then do give it a go! I may have some nit-picks, but I still enjoyed it.

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

Monday, October 1, 2018

Tiny Infinities by J.H. Diehl, 2018

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When Alice's dad moves out, leaving her with her troubled mother, she does the only thing that feels right: she retreats to her family's old Renaissance tent in the backyard, determined to live there until her dad comes home. In an attempt to keep at least one part of her summer from changing, Alice focuses on her quest to swim freestyle fast enough to get on her swim team's record board. But summers contain multitudes, and soon Alice meets an odd new friend, Harriet, whose obsession with the school's science fair is equal only to her conviction that Alice's best stroke is backstroke, not freestyle. Most unexpected of all is an unusual babysitting charge, Piper, who is mute—until Alice hears her speak. A funny and honest middle-grade novel, this sharply observed depiction of family, friendship, and Alice's determination to prove herself—as a babysitter, as a friend, as a daughter, as a person—rings loud and true.
(352 pages)

My parents haven't gotten divorced, thank goodness, but I imagine that if they did I would probably behave a lot like Alice does.

I mean, running away to the backyard and swearing to live in a tent until your dad moves back in totally seems like a reasonable response to learning that your parents are separating. Is that just me? Maybe? Ok.

Anyway, I feel like Alice is a very normal girl in many ways. Besides her strong response to her parents' separation, she tries to keep the summer as normal as possible. She focuses on her passion for swimming, and her goal to get on the swim team record board, and on babysitting her young neighbor.

I think my favorite storyline was the one with her parents, just because it was so sad and frustrating and . . . real. Beyond that, I liked the babysitting storyline just because Piper is such a precious little girl and I was rooting for them to figure out how best to help her (though the way they did was so cheesy/unrealistic I had to swallow some serious disbelief). I wasn't a huge fan of her big brother Owen, the illegitimate pre-marriage son of her father who seemed nice enough but also like kind of a player (and seriously, does a MG book need a character with such a morally iffy backstory?).

As for Harriet, I didn't really like her at all. I'm kind of tired of the trope of "quirky best friends" who say whatever pops into their head and acts like kind of a jerk but gets away with it because they're so "smart." Harriet just really annoyed me, probably more than was entirely reasonable. But I really appreciated that she kind of annoyed Alice too, and that Harriet didn't entirely get away with everything she did and said.

All in all, I liked reading Tiny Infinities. At places, I was really swept away by it; at others, I was merely entertained (or vaguely annoyed with characters in it). But it's a good book, and if you're interested then I do recommend you pick it up.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.