Friday, November 26, 2021

Ocean Planet: Animals of the Sea and Shore by Ben Rothery

What worked:

The book presents fascinating creatures that live in or around oceans from across the planet. They range from microscopic organisms to gigantic whales and sharks, and the chapters organize them by species, habitat, and the unusual. Oceans are separated by climate, as animals living around tropical, temperate, and frozen lands vary greatly. There’s a huge difference between living things found at the bottom of the ocean, those near the surface, and those found along shorelines.

The illustrations are colorful and spectacular! A world map and an ocean diagram help readers understand climate zones and ocean habitats, the locations millions of creatures call home. The book is a full fifteen inches tall, so the vibrant pictures of swimming, flying, and crawling creatures are eye-catching and detailed. The realistic illustrations enable readers to note specific characteristics of the flamboyant cuttlefish, the yellow seahorse, and the dragon moray eel.

The book is not meant to have all the information possible about all of the animals living near the oceans. It will make a wonderful introduction for readers interested in learning about things living in these parts of the planet. Each chapter presents some general information and then shares paragraphs and pictures with interesting facts regarding specific familiar and obscure species of animals. There are pilot fish living near blue sharks in the open oceans, deep-sea angler fish located near the bottoms, and sea otters found in kelp forests along the earth’s coastlines.

What didn’t work as well:

There are some science words used in the text that are not defined. Young readers might need to have definitions included in the sentences or available in a glossary. For example, the terms estuaries and cold-blooded are used when describing saltwater crocodiles. Many adults might not know the definition for estuaries, while most young readers might have an idea of the meaning for cold-blooded. However, cold-blooded is a very important term when describing sea creatures, so providing a clear meaning is equally important. In general, the author effectively provides meanings and context clues for most terms, so this issue isn’t a major drawback.

The Final Verdict:

A big, beautiful book to mesmerize young readers. The skillfully crafted, colorful illustrations provide interest and entertainment, while the text full of fascinating information isn’t overwhelming. This book is highly recommended for lovers of sea life and nature, both young and old.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Dreamweavers by G.Z. Schmidt

What worked:

The main conflict involves a curse from seventy years ago. A gifted writer named Lotus spurns the advances from a Noble General, and the general doesn’t take the rejection kindly. He frames Lotus’s husband for treason and has him executed by morning. With the help of magic from the Jade Rabbit, Lotus’s emotions get out of control and bring a curse upon the City of Blossoms. Its new name is the City of Ashes and no one from the city has been seen since that day. However, somehow the curse has started to spread to the surrounding area which includes the village where the main characters named Mei and Yun live.

The book allows readers to learn about the Chinese culture, as folklore is the backdrop of the plot. Many stories have been written about the Jade Rabbit, and his relationship with the characters expresses some Chinese beliefs. The story depicts the cultural distance between royalty and peasants, as villagers feel powerless against the emperor, his family, and the military. The book also shows the secret issues and injustices in the palace history, as the characters try to make things right. They learn to be judged by their own actions and not by the actions of their ancestors.

The twins embark on a quest to break the curse haunting their village, but their true motivations are to clear their grandfather from being wrongfully arrested and to locate their parents. Their mother and father haven’t been seen since visiting the City of Ashes years before. The author skillfully weaves the different conflicts together to create an engaging adventure mystery. The twins are aware of the truth, but proving it to people in power is a monumental challenge.

The contrast between the personalities of Mei and Yun causes clashes until they’re able to appreciate their differences. Mei typically takes action without planning, while Yun uses his knowledge and logic to analyze situations. Mei’s emotions might get them into trouble, but too much thinking by Yun might lead to nothing getting done. They’re separated once they arrive in the emperor’s palace, but their unique differences allow them to forge new friendships and allies.

What didn’t work as well:

The concept of dreamweaving is abstract and takes a while to understand. Even the twins have trouble comprehending the ability, and they’re the ones able to do it. Inferences can be made, but fully grasping the concept takes most of the book. The entertaining aspect is watching the twins learn by experience and putting the pieces together along with them.

The final verdict:

Dreams have power to change the future. Once the backstory of the curse is established, the personalities of Mei and Yun are highlighted. Their struggles to right past wrongs will entertain lovers of folklore and the Chinese culture. 

Crazy Horse and Custer-Born Enemies by S.D. Nelson

What worked:

The book tells the histories of the two title characters in alternating chapters. This format allows readers to compare and contrast their lives, and there are more similarities than most people might think. Custer’s father teaches him to see non-whites as savages and lesser-humans than himself, and this attitude lasted throughout Custer’s life. Crazy Horse despised whites for trespassing into Lakota lands, killing buffalo, and forcing his tribe to move. Both leaders were energized by battle, so they thrived in times of war. Custer preferred fighting in close combat with his sword, while Crazy Horse led the Lakota on horseback to engage the enemy with his bow and arrows. Their personalities made them natural leaders, however, they each had lapses in judgment that undermined their efforts.

Other historical events are shared to let readers know what is happening across the United States during these years. The Civil War is happening, and the battles give Custer many opportunities to make a name for himself. The government encourages settlers to move west, invading Indian lands, so Crazy Horse is motivated to discourage those efforts. He continues attacks on wagons and settlements even as other Indian leaders sign peace agreements. However, the government continually changes these pacts and stokes the frustrations and anger of the Indians.

The book is full of photographs, illustrations, and quotations to add clarity and credibility to the information. Fellow Indians, soldiers, and other personalities provide their own words to describe Custer and Crazy Horse in detail. Using exact words from the actual people is more impactful than an author paraphrasing those same words. Photographs show Custer at various stages of his life, and they show other soldiers and Indians that impact the story. Crazy Horse never allows himself to be photographed, and the many illustrations represent other people and events that were never recorded on film. Maps, battles, villages, and settlements are depicted in these pictures to help readers fully grasp the stories.

What didn’t work as well:

The book is nonfiction, so it’s meant to inform readers without necessarily developing an entertaining story. The story of Little Big Horn has its own built-in drama to create interest. The aspect of the book that doesn’t work as well is how the author uses different names for the two main characters. George Armstrong Custer is called Autie as a boy, but he is usually referred to as Custer in the book. However, it is momentarily confusing when one of the other names randomly pops up instead of common pronouns. He's referred to as Armstrong on one page. Similarly, Crazy Horse has multiple names, but it’s unnecessary to switch back and forth between all of them and create temporary distractions.

The final verdict:

The countdown to a brutally tragic confrontation. The story moves quickly through the lives of Custer and Crazy Horse and doesn’t get bogged down with unnecessary details. Readers gain an appreciation for the mindset of the times, as well as the motivations of both men. This book is sure to interest lovers of American history and those wanting to know the truth behind Custer’s last battle at The Little Big Horn.

Thunderpaws and the Tower of London

My name is Teufel, and I wasn't prepared for my move to the Tower of London, the most haunted place in the world. I'm slowly realizing the birds and mice are different around here, and I've met some strange ghosts. They don't seem to understand how special I am, but I'll be sure to remind them constantly. It's not like I'm some silly human! The ghosts say trouble is coming, and I'm the only cat that can save England. I'm sure to become famous if I can only figure out who to trust and what I'm supposed to do.

What worked:

The highlight of the book is Teufel’s personality. He’s a church cat and just wants to hunt and kill mice and birds. He’s snooty and independent like most cats, but it’s fun reading his thoughts. He’s slow to adapt to life in the Tower of London, seeing as he’s surrounded by ghosts from England’s history and he’s attacked by ravens all over the grounds. Throughout it all, he maintains his cocky disposition full of snarky comments. Phrases unique to the English culture make some conversations tricky to understand, but they’re always colorful and enjoyable.

The book shares information regarding England’s long history. The Tower of London is an infamous penitentiary and the imprisoned home and execution site for many of England’s past rulers and personalities. King Richard, Queen Anne, Sir Walter Raleigh, and other English ghosts are characters in the story, and British folklore has an important impact on the events. The Tower is protected by ravens, and magical lions will be summoned when Big Ben’s bells toll thirteen times.

Once the overall conflict is sorted out, the second half of the book is quite entertaining. Evil ghouls are on the verge of escaping, and Teufel is coerced into helping this happen. He thinks he’s outsmarted his foes, but things don’t go as planned. He’s forced into unexpected alliances and teams up with a “traitor”. The conflict has a countdown, so the suspense grows as that moment draws near.

What didn’t work as well:

Unraveling the main conflict of the plot takes more effort than many books. Teufel is frequently told by ghosts and ghostly creatures that there’s a prophecy implying he’s the cat that will save the world. On the other hand, another group of ghosts tells him most of the things he’s heard are lies, and he should help them with their plot. Readers are left in the middle trying to figure out what’s really going on, but that’s what makes the story engaging.

The final verdict:

An eerie clash of ghosts in one of England’s oldest landmarks. The early parts of the book are a bit confusing, as the direction of the plot is unclear. There’s certainly a problem, but defining it and knowing which characters to believe is tricky. Overall, the build-up to the climax is exciting, and the resolution elevates Teufel to new levels. 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Furious Legacy #2: Dungeon of Hades by Meadoe Hora

My name is Erin, and my brother Cass and I must venture down to Tartarus to free our mother and our aunt from their imprisonment. Our grandfather Apollo has offered to help, but he can't be trusted. I wish Cass and our father could see that, but they both seem enchanted by him. I'm sure some of my own decisions and alliances are flawed, but my anger, fueled from growing up without parents, steels my determination. No one can believe we want to go to Tartarus, but it's something we need to do.

What worked:

The book is heavily based on Greek mythology and the shaky relationships between the gods and goddesses. The underlying conflict driving the whole book is Apollo’s obsession to defeat Zeus in order to rule everyone and everything. The complication with the main characters, Erin and Cass, arises from the fact that Apollo is their grandfather. Apollo is good at manipulating others, so it’s safe to say he can’t be trusted whenever he speaks. This lack of trust spills over to other characters since readers are never sure if they’re secretly working for Apollo. In addition, there are other hidden disputes that result in surprise consequences.

The major plotline follows Erin and Cass as they venture down to Hades to free their mother. She’s been captive for years, but now two of the twins’ aunts are prisoners too. The quest leads to Tartarus, and the twins are frequently reminded that no one ever wants to go there. It’s a land of misery and doom where spirits are trapped for eternity. The twins haven’t seen their mother in years, Cass has never even met her, so the suspense surrounding their reunion creates anticipation for that moment in the story. The abilities of the twins are uncertain since there’s never been offspring with the blood of a Fury and a god. Of course, readers will eventually discover what makes the twins special.

The book has plenty of battles between the characters and mythical monsters. Hades is full of creatures and spirits that are looking for ways to release their anger and anguish. Then, there are other monsters tasked with keeping the spirits imprisoned, but they're equally likely to attack two kids trespassing where they don't belong. There are also Furies involved, and their whole purpose for existing is to punish others for their sins. 

What didn't work as well:

This book is the second in the series, and it's important for readers to understand what's happened so far. This book doesn't share many details about past events, so it's imperative that book one is read first. The events stories of the Furies, the twins’ parents, and Apollo are pretty important to know. Clues can be picked up along the way, but there will still be gaps in the backstory that readers may miss. The easiest solution? Read Curse of the Furies first!

The Final Verdict:

The early part of the book is a little slow, but the action and suspense amp up once the kids head down to Hades. The setting and characters create a mysterious atmosphere that will captivate readers. A surprise twist is presented near the book’s conclusion that will have a huge impact on the next book in the series.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Danny Chung Sums It Up by Maisie Chan

My name is Danny, and I was so happy when my parents said I'd be getting a new bunk bed! I could now have my best friend over for sleepovers! However, I then found out I'd be sharing my room with my grandmother from China, and she couldn't even speak English. My life was ruined and was going to get enough worse.

What worked:

The book provides a glance at aspects of the Chinese culture, as Danny experiences conflicts with his American upbringing. The first incident occurs when he suggests doing nothing on a Saturday, like his other classmates. Danny’s father goes into another lecture about how they never take days off, and they expect Danny to have a better life than slaving away in the family restaurant. Danny is often given a talk about the Chinese Way and how he should work hard, respect his elders, and be grateful for his life. His grandmother’s appearance exhibits the diversity of Chinese culture, as her dialect of the language isn’t understood by Chinese from other regions of the country.

The book touches on different types and levels of prejudice. Despite the different Chinese dialects, Danny’s teacher can’t understand why Danny can’t communicate with his grandmother, Nai Nai. A classmate’s parents inform him that all Asians are good at math, while Danny clearly doesn’t fit that stereotype. This classmate doesn’t miss a chance to embarrass Danny, although he displays a suspicious kindness midway through the plot. Some Bingo players are upset that Danny’s grandmother is taking a seat even though she can’t speak English. Danny’s aunt thinks Bingo players are trashy, and Nai Nai should be lawn bowling with more cultured people. The aunt is very conscious of social status and doesn’t hesitate to share her thoughts with Danny and his parents.

Several characters undergo transformations, as they either reevaluate their prejudices or they finally get the guts to change their actions. Danny’s feelings about his grandmother, parents, cousin, math, and friendship change as he faces new experiences with each of them. That’s a lot of mind-changing, but it’s all for the positive. Danny’s parents slowly realize the Chinese Way might need some tweaking once they fully understand the relationship between Danny and his grandmother. Even Danny’s cousin changes her behavior once she finally rebels against her overbearing mother.

What didn’t work as well:

Danny’s bad feelings keep piling on during the first half of the book, and authors usually include some positives to provide balance to the character. Danny loves to draw, but even that takes a couple of negative turns from home and school. Danny must share a bunkbed with a Chinese-speaking grandmother he’s never met, he’s subtly demeaned by his aunt and cousin, and he’s teased at school. His parents tell him he should be grateful for his life, and his teachers aren’t overly sympathetic either. Even though characters in other books have been treated much worse, these events create empathy for Danny. This moment in the middle-grade boy’s life is a bummer, but it’s the starting point for his transformation.

The final verdict:

Love can bond generations. Danny’s struggles make the book’s opening pages less entertaining, as his life seems taken out of his control. However, his experiences with Nai Nai are humorous and heart-warming, and their connection grows. This book is highly recommended for lovers of friends, family, and growing relationships with grandparents.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Night Frights #1: The Haunted Mustache by Joe McGee

What worked:

If you like STRANGE mysteries, this book is for you. As the title says, this small town is being haunted by a mustache, and the people tremble in fear every October 19. Men grow mustaches, and women and children tape on facial hair for protection against the curse. It seems a man’s factory exploded and the only thing they found of him was his top lip and mustache. The ghostly bristles attack bare faces that are foolish enough to leave their homes on the fateful date. Legend says the mustache has killed before.

Lucas and Parker have formed The Midnight Owl Detective Agency. Their class is told the true history of October 19, and they don’t react in fear like most of the citizens. The plot unfolds into a mystery for the kids to solve, as they try to break the curse that’s plagued the town for decades. They have the enthusiasm to get it done, but they lack the essential knowledge needed to get the job done. A know-it-all girl from class has the information, so the boys reluctantly allow her to join their team. Presumably, other Night Frights books in the series will find the kids solving new mysteries in the small town of Wolver Hollow.

The plot contains all of the common elements readers might expect in a ghost story. It has a malicious ghost, a spooky graveyard, a creepy haunted house, and it takes place on a dark and stormy night. The kids use familiar defenses against creatures of the night, such as salt, moving water, and light. The mustache has unexpected abilities readers will not believe, and its evilness is combined with a bit of playfulness, much like a cat toying with a mouse.

What didn’t work as well:

The ending of the book was a bit confusing. Without trying to give away too much information, the conflict was resolved, kind of. Several times during the plot, a character states that ghosts may seek revenge, and they have long memories. The idea of the haunted mustache targeting the kids and returning in the future is offered as a possibility throughout the story, but the epilogue then muddles things up. The purpose of the epilogue is clear, but it adds more confusion to the resolution than anything else.

The final verdict:

Menacing facial hair may be stalking you! This book will appeal to young readers, as it presents an unusual, threatening “monster”. The action moves quickly through a free-wheeling encounter with the spirit that generates enough suspense and fear to entertain kids.