Friday, July 18, 2014

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein is a fun kids' book set in a fantastical, puzzle-filled library.

Kyle hasn't really bothered with that extra-credit assignment to write an essay about the town's new library -- big deal, it's just a library, right? But when he learns that the library was designed by Luigi Lemoncello, the eccentric millionaire game designer, and the twelve students who win the essay contest will get to be part of a lock-in with the potential for all kinds of wacky fun, he scribbles something down and hands it in. He spends the rest of the day trying to work on and then submit a better essay, even going so far as to locate Mr. Lemoncello's email address. The game's not over until it's over, he figures -- and sure enough, his last-ditch efforts get him the final spot in the library lock-in . . . which turns into a competition with difficult puzzles and fabulous prizes ("Like The Hunger Games, but with plenty of food and no bows and arrows," quips Mr. Lemoncello). Kyle and his friends form a team, working against the snotty rich kid who "never loses," but can teamwork and cooperation triumph over sneakiness and cunning?

This book is a lot of fun for its intended middle-grade readers. The library's attractions are described in a way sure to inspire envy, and the kids' adventures keep the plot moving briskly along. I'll be sure to recommend this to readers who like this sort of puzzle-based mystery story.

(Reviewed from an e-audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

Friday, July 4, 2014

Pure Dead Magic by Debi Gliori

Pure Dead Magic by Debi Gliori is a wacky juvenile fantasy adventure.

Titus and Pandora Strega-Borgia have problems. Their father has left the family, their mother is preoccupied with her witchcraft classes, and they have a no-nonsense new nanny. When they manage to accidentally shrink their baby sister and zap her into cyberspace, can they find a way to get her back? And has their father really left them, or did something much more sinister happen?

It's hard to summarize the plot of this book, because it's so wacky and interconnected. I can see kids really liking this series, as there's lots of action and gross humor. It's not one of those children's books that I'd recommend to other adults -- there's little character development, and the plot leaps around a bit in ways that don't always make logical sense. I won't be continuing with the series, but I'm glad to have read it so now I know what it's about.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord is a summer story about photography, loons, and friendship.

When Lucy's family moves to a lakeside cottage in New Hampshire, she is apprehensive about making new friends. When she meets Nate, the boy next door, she is relieved to find him friendly, though sad to discover that he is only visiting for the summer. Lucy joins Nate in a variety of summer activities, including kayaking out to observe a pair of nesting loons. Nate's Grandma Lilah has always loved the loons, but she is no longer able to go on the observational trips. In fact, Grandma Lilah is in the early stages of dementia, and this is probably her last summer at the lake, Lucy, an enthusiastic amateur photographer, captures images of the loons and of other activities she shares with Nate, in order to help Grandma Lilah feel included in the summer activities. Lucy plans to enter her summer photos into a competition -- but when she takes a telling photo that reveals Grandma Lilah's emotional state in a moment of distress, Lucy and Nate disagree about whether Lucy should use that photo. If Lucy wins the competition, she plans to use the prize money to rent a pontoon boat to take Grandma Lilah out to see the loons -- but is that a good enough reason to disregard Nate's feelings and risk her friendship with him?

This brief book really captures the feeling of a lakeside summer. That, and the complex emotional interactions between the characters, are its strongest points. The plot is a little scant, but the story is more about feelings and relationships than about events and adventures. Not even touched on in the above summary are Lucy's complex relationship with her father who is a professional photographer, and her interactions with Megan, a longtime friend of Nate's who obviously struggles with jealousy and becomes something of a frenemy to Lucy. This is a nice summertime read, but not a favorite of the year for me.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The World Outside by Eva Wiseman

The World Outside by Eva Wiseman is the story of a Hasidic girl in 1991 Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Chanie Altman loves to sing, but she knows she will never be able to perform. In her strict Lubavich community, women are not allowed to sing in front of men unless they are related to them. Chanie has always accepted the strictures of her community and religion, but when she meets David, a Jewish boy from a more progressive background, she begins to imagine what could be possible for her. David encourages her to apply to Julliard, and against all odds, she is granted an audition. Now Chanie must choose: will she leave everything she knows to follow her dream?

I found this book interesting, as I know very little about Chabad or Orthodox Judaism, or about the 1991 Crown Heights Riot which figures prominently in the book. I think this serves as a good introduction to these topics; it certainly inspired me to do a little more reading about them. On the other hand, I had a hard time believing in the instantaneous attraction between Chanie and David, and the lengths to which he went in order to see her. There were also a few spots where the dialogue was a little stilted.

To really discuss this book, I find I need to spoil the ending, so if you are interested in reading it and wish to remain unspoiled, stop here!

In the end, Chanie decides to remain with her family and not go to Julliard, even though she has auditioned and been accepted. This decision is partly due to a conversation with her mother, and partly due to other circumstances. I thought it was an interested authorial decision to have Chanie make the choice with is unexpected for readers of this sort of coming of age story, where the main character usually follows her dreams despite any sacrifices she might have to make. I would have found it a bit more believable if I'd had more of a sense that Chanie loved her religion and community; in the book she is mostly shown chafing at the restrictions placed upon her. The ending is definitely bittersweet.

(Reviewed from a finished copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud, not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis is a Newbery Medal winner that I found entirely deserving of its honors.

Ten-year-old Bud has been passed from orphanage to foster home since he was six years old. When things go wrong at yet another foster home, he sets out on his own with just an old suitcase full of his most treasured belongings -- mostly mementos from his mother. After a few adventures and misadventures around town, Bud sets out from Flint, Michigan to Grand Rapids. He's off to find Herman E. Calloway, the man Bud believes to be his father. You see, his mother never told him who his father was, but she left behind some clues, including a handful of flyers for Herman E. Calloway's jazz band. Will Bud make it to Grand Rapids, and will he find a home there? You bet -- but neither of those things will happen in the way Bud expects!

This is a great book, both funny and heartwarming. Curtis always writes with such an authentic voice, you can tell he's one of those authors who remembers what it's like to be a kid. The story flows along with perfect pacing, and the period and setting are well-researched without being obtrusive. This is an excellent book which I highly recommend.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)