Monday, July 7, 2014

Book Review of "Return to the Willows"

Return to the Willows, by Jacqueline Kelly

5 stars!!!

Description: This may look like an idyllic English countryside, but trouble brews along the riverbank. Toad has conquered his motorcar phase only to move on to hot-air balloons. The Stoats and Weasels are grumbling about revenge. And Toad's nephew Humphrey is moving in for the summer with all of his gunpowder and fireworks! Badger, Ratty, and Mole have their hands full averting one disaster after another... until Humphrey suddenly disappears without a trace, and the riverbank creatures discover there is more at stake than they realized.

Concerns: (Rare, but there) instances of English language.

Summary: Until the amusingly frenzied scramble at the very end, this book mimics its predecessor's slow pace, but it is wonderfully satisfying. For those who loved the original, Return to the Willows is a masterfully written and humor-filled jaunt back through a beloved classic... with plenty of messing about in boats. My favorite line: "Of cors he brushs his teef. Do you take us for savidges?"

Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review of "The Year Money Grew on Trees"

The Year Money Grew on Trees, by Aaron Hawkins

4 stars

Description: Jackson knew better than to let his neighbor talk him into the deal. But it sounded like such a good deal. One year working the apple orchard, and it was his for the cheap price of $8,000! Once he drags his siblings and cousins in as his hired hands, Jackson and crew embark on a year of adventure -- pruning 300 apple trees (THUD. Sam's down again!), learning to drive an ancient tractor (yes, even the 9-year-old), and the intricacies of irrigation (sorry about the flood, Mom!). But as time wears on, Jackson begins to realize they won't make it... and they have worked for an entire year only to lose the orchard and every penny they made.

Concerns: One crude part near the beginning as the school jerk... puts out a fire. Jackson keeps the deal a secret from his parents (and lies by omission to his sibling/cousin helpers).

Summary: The Year Money Grew on Trees is a great story about teamwork, perseverance, and friendship.  The book is not an action-packed read, but for farm kids -- or anyone who wants to be a farm kid -- it is reminiscent of real life, only with higher stakes than usual! Jackson learns his lesson about trusting other people to help him out, and everything comes out right in the end... even if "coming out right" didn't mean what Jackson and his crew were expecting.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Book Review of "Pie"

Pie, by Sarah Weeks

4.5 stars

Description:  The little town of Ipswitch, Pennsylvania was put on the map by the world's Pie Queen – Polly Portman. Polly's pie shop is famous the world over for the luscious pies that are Polly's signature. When Polly shocks the town by suddenly dying, Ipswitch experiences deep grief (not to mention pie withdrawal). The person who misses Polly the most is her niece, Alice. Alice seems to be the only one in Ipswitch who doesn't care why Polly mysteriously “gave” her worth-millions pie crust recipe to her cat. Instead, she investigates the various enigmas surrounding the town after Polly's death, even though it means encountering the more shady characters of Ipswitch.

Concerns: None.

Summary: This short book titled appropriately as Pie is about recognizing one's talents and making friends. Pie accomplishes that goal by weaving a tale of intrigue, suspense, and humor (with plenty of delicious descriptions of pies thrown in!). The amusing happenings in this story will certainly not be forgotten soon by readers; the town's thirst for fame parallels the get-rich-quick mentality in our society, yet approaches that greed with truth. Three cups of humor, two cups of mystery, and one cup of truth: the perfect recipe for Pie.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Book Review of "Raiders from the Sea"

The Viking Quest: Raiders from the Sea, by Lois Walfrid Johnson

4 stars

Description: Briana O' Toole is an ordinary thirteen-year-old Irish girl living in an extraordinary age - the Viking era! When she meets a boy named Mikkel, she knows the stranger is hiding a dark secret, and the O'Toole family prepares for a savage Viking invasion. But all the preparation in the world can't daunt the ferocity of the Norwegian Vikings on the rampage, and Briana and brother Devin soon find themselves captives on a Viking ship. Escape doesn't seem to be an option, but Briana and Devin learn to put their faith in God through all the trials in their new lives, while they wonder if they will ever see their family again.

Concerns: None.

Summary: Perfect for reading aloud, The Raiders from the Sea is a Viking epic that seems to stand alone as one for young readers; it has historical interest while the plot still holds the reader's attention. I also appreciate that the main focus for this story is trusting God in the midst of trouble. All in all, this Viking tale is a unique and enjoyable read that most 8- to 12-year-olds will love!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Book Review of "The Tale of Despereaux"

The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo

-- stars (unrated; content issues)

Description: It doesn't matter if they live in castles; mice just are not meant to be heroes. Especially not undersized, absent-minded mice like tiny Despereaux. His family doesn't understand him. The King doesn't understand him. Only Princess Pea, the lovely girl who shines like purest light, understands Despereaux's mighty heart. But an evil plot of bitterness and revenge is creeping like darkness from the dungeon, threatening Pea's very life -- and the only one that understands the danger is Despereaux, the mouse that is too small stop it.

Concerns: Big warning. For a story aimed at younger readers, this tale gets very dark and nasty; the theme of overcoming evil is a worthy one, but the story's evil is emphasized over-much. The villainous rats are vile things that delight in tormenting prisoners and mice; people/mice can be (and are) heartless to their own children; one girl is constantly getting slapped (to the point where she goes nearly deaf); it can be depressing. 

Summary: The many morals of this story are fantastic. Forgiveness, consequences, and steadfast love; and yet, this story is not for everyone. The writing is beautiful and the courage of Despereaux is truly inspiring, and will stay with you long after the final pages have closed... but the raw evil that the little mouse confronts is grimly realistic. As a book for teens, it is fascinating; but for younger ones? Kids, get Mom or Dad to preview it first.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Book Review of "A Way Through the Sea"

A Way Through the Sea, by Robert Elmer

4 stars

Description: Although bombs aren't exploding over their heads, World War II is still very real for Danish twins Elise and Peter. Nazi soldiers occupy their harbor town, and although the occupation seems peaceful, there are rivers of tension running just beneath surface... especially since the twins' best friend is a Jewish boy named Henrik. Whispers about the resistance movement abound, but shiny German boots around every turn have persuaded Peter that he just wants to stay out of trouble. When danger strikes in the night, not only Peter but his sister and friend must draw on every ounce of wit and courage they possess to live to see the morning.

Concerns: None.

Summary: This terrifying and yet wistfully triumphant moment in history deserves more acclaim than it has been given. It's not always easy to make history an easy read, but Elmer's book is fascinating -- and there's enough action mixed in with the carrier pigeons and fishing boats to keep everybody happy.  It takes some time for the story to start rolling, but once it does, this is a tense nail-biter that is well worth the wait.

**Note: This book is the first in Elmer's"Young Underground" series about Denmark during and after WWII.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Book Review of "Hank the Cowdog and The Case of the Measled Cowboy"

Hank the Cowdog and The Case of the Measled Cowboy, by John R. Erickson

5 stars!!!

Description: Slim the ranch hand, Hank and his sidekick Drover, and Little Alfred are instructed to hold down the ranch when the boss leaves town for a few days. But when a blizzard strikes and Slim comes down with the measles, it’s up to Little Alfred and the dogs to take care of him and the ranch – a recipe for disaster. (Hank does all he can to clean up but alas, dogs can only lick up the edible messes.) After trying to start a fire and feed the invalid, things get even more complicated when the five year old boy drives Slim’s pickup in a rescue attempt and Slim falls asleep at the wheel! Will the sick cowboy, Little Alfred and the two dogs be able to make everything right again before Sally May returns?

Concerns: None.

Summary: This, in my opinion the best in the Hank the Cowdog series (and I’ve read most of his 50+ books) because it is such a thoroughly entertaining read! (Not to mention hilarious!) My favorite quote is when Loper says to Slim: “All you bachelors have to do is decide which kind of jelly you want on your peanut butter sandwich.” Classic.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Book review of "Brown Sunshine of Sawdust Valley"

Brown Sunshine of Sawdust Valley, by Marguerite Henry

4 stars

Description: It's not fair. The neighbors' only child has TWO horses. Molly is an only child who doesn't have any. She doesn't even have a dog, for Pete's sake. But on her tenth birthday, her parents spring a surprise -- they're taking her to an auction! Excited, overjoyed, thrilled that her dearest wish has come true, Molly heads the the auction with her head in the clouds, dreaming of the perfect little colt or filly she will be bringing home to dazzle her school friends. After years of hoping and waiting, Molly is finally going to get a horse of her own... or is she?

Concerns: None.

Summary: A well-told tale from the reigning queen-authoress of all horse stories, Sunshine is a fun story that will satisfy young horse-lovers (and especially the mournfully horseless horse-lovers) who dream of silky manes, oats, and the smell of freshly-mown hay in their own barn. Molly puts in a lot of hard work before her dream is fully accomplished, but it's the kind of work that is a reward in itself, aside from being a rewarding read!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Book Review of "Little House in the Big Woods"

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

4.5 stars

Description: The Big Woods might be lonely, but it's never boring for young Laura and Mary Ingalls. There's housework to do, cheese-making, churning the butter, smoking the meat, and a thousand other chores to keep their house snug with food on the table. Unfortunately for Laura, she seems to hit a snag around every turn; it's so hard to be good, and Mary makes it look so easy! But despite the pretty pebbles that ruin her best dress and the disastrous argument over curls, Laura muddles through -- and in this tale, we follow the her family through fall harvesting, maple-sugaring, trips to town, and even as Ma slaps a bear (eeeek!). 

Concerns: One song lyric struck me as racially inappropriate.

Summary: Everybody has heard of the little Ingalls girls growing up in their log cabin, but how many know what a spunky character Laura really was? Aside from the fascinating anecdotes about life with no electricity, her story is hilarious to anybody familiar with cranky kids. Young Laura is no angel, and her memoirs don't sugarcoat her attitude or the spankings she so richly deserved! This isn't a suspenseful or action-packed read, but it is a lovely story and very engaging.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review of "Basil and the Lost Colony"

Basil and the Lost Colony, by Eve Titus

4 stars

Description: Basil of Baker Street, that quick-witted sleuth of the world's mouseholes, is at it again! This time, he is off on a globe-trotting adventure to Switzerland to uncover the secrets of an lost colony of mice -- but he soon finds he is not the only one chasing those ancient secrets. His arch-nemesis, Professor Ratigan, has concocted another scheme for seizing brutal control of the world of mice, and will stop at nothing to beat Basil to the scene! Can the great sleuth defeat ambushes, avalanches, and even kidnapping to win the day?

Concerns: A superstition (found to be false) that the mountain-top hosts evil spirits; talk that mice may someday evolve thumbs.

Summary: The Basil of Baker Street stories are short but action-packed, and this one is no exception. There's enough of danger and mystery to capture the attention of younger kids, while older readers will have fun catching the similarities to the Sherlock Holmes stories, including the climactic waterfall duel between Ratigan and Basil himself. A easy read with plenty of twists along the way.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Book Review of "The Rebel"

The Williamsburg Years #1: The Rebel, by Nancy Rue

4 stars

Description: The American Revolution has been dragging on for years, but for young Thomas, the war seems far away. As the spoiled son of a Virginia plantation owner, Thomas does whatever he pleases -- but suddenly discovers that even a remote war can change his life! Transplanted from his posh surroundings to the mundane town of Williamsburg where he has to do horrible things called chores and schoolwork, Thomas must face his own faults if he wants to do more than just survive. In a young country still in turmoil over Loyalists versus Patriots, he has run out of time to decide who he wants to be.

Concerns: None.

Summary: Thomas has more than his share of character flaws, and this book chronicles his struggle to find his place in a world gone topsy-turvy. The historical snippets are intriguing (I liked the mysterious bottles in the apothecary shop!), the characters are great fun, and the story has a liberal sprinkling of adventure and suspense. This book is a great start to a well-written series about colonial life during the war. (The series is currently out-of-print, but discounted copies still float around online.)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Book Review of "The Champion of Merrimack County"

The Champion of Merrimack County, by Roger Drury

4 stars

Description: Whoever heard of a mouse that could ride a bicycle? Certainly not the bicycle repairman. Or the blacksmith. Or the watchmaker. Or the doctor. Or the dentist! But all of these folks are roped into helping fix the damage when an extraordinary mouse who CAN ride a bicycle takes a spectacular crash in young Janet Berryfield's bathtub! Will this unlikely collection of fix-its be able to repair the embarrassed mouse's bicycle and dislocated tail before the championship race? And what will happen when professional mice exterminators are called in by Janet's unsuspecting father?

Concerns: The Dad is the grouchy "villain" of the story, which is annoying.

Summary: An un-apologetically silly romp through the shops, medical offices, and bathtubs (!) of Merrimack county, this little tale is both amusing and intriguing -- and it must be admitted, the death-defying bicycle rides around the rim of the bathtub sound wonderfully exciting! If you've read and enjoyed anything by Dick King-Smith (Babe, Smasher, A Mouse called Wolf, etc.), you'll love this one. So fly me to Jupiter on a bumblebee, let's go!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book review of "In Grandma's Attic"

In Grandma's Attic, by Arleta Richardson

4.5 stars

Description: Growing up in the early days of America -- complete with horse and buggy, one-room schoolhouses, and a barn full of cows -- sounds idyllic. Not so for young Mabel. Unhappily for her but luckily for us readers, her growing up years were chock-full of mistakes, mishaps, and just plain embarrassing moments. As the grown Mabel recounts tales of her growing-up years, she treats her readers to a riotous romp through the fields, forests, and schoolhouses of yore in this series of short stories. Who knew hoop skirts could cause such horrors in church, of all places???

Concerns: None.

Summary: If you set down the irrepressible Anne from Green Gables into the setting of Little House in the Big Woods, you would be rewarded with something like this book. The series is wonderfully funny, none the less so because our hapless heroine just never quite seems to come out on top. But although the stories usually feature the embarrassing consequences of her own silly choice, "Grandma" takes the lesson  in stride, and can even laugh at her old mistakes. If you've ever wondered how to lose a buggy, bake a cake, or even bake your clothes (yup!) don't miss these humorous but sweet tales from yesteryear.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Review of "Escape to Murray River"

Escape to Murray River, by Robert Elmer

4 stars

Description: Patrick McWaid isn't looking for trouble. Neither is his family. But when Patrick's father is accused of a crime he didn't commit, the entire family is thrown into an adventure that will take them half-way around the world to the prison colony in Australia! From desperate attempts to communicate with his jailed father to a lost-at-sea brush with sharks, Patrick's escape to Murray River is an adventure he never could have imagined ... and it only gets worse when he realizes he is being followed by his family's worst enemy.

Concerns: None.

Summary: The first in an eight-book series, Escape to Murray River is a enthralling journey. The time and place aren't familiar topics in children's literature, and the snippets of Australian life can catch you off guard (um, no, those tasty things aren't almond sausages!). It was a favorite when I was younger, and I remember being sad to see it end. It takes the author some time to hit his stride in this book, but once he does it is high adventure all the way.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Review of "The Cabin Faced West"

The Cabin Faced West, by Jean Fritz

4.5 stars

Description: The West might be a land of opportunity, but Ann Hamilton isn't impressed. For her, the West is ... lonely. Ann longs for the comfort of her Gettysburg hometown, the companionship of her cousin Margaret, for any occasion special enough to use a tablecloth and real china -- highly unlikely in a forsaken wilderness. As time progresses, Ann's attitude begins to change; even though she understands the lure of western promise for her parents and brothers, which "home" has a stronger pull on her heart when she has the opportunity to make her own choice?

Concerns: None.

Summary: The trials and tribulations of Ann's everyday life on the frontier make for a fascinating read. Although readers aren't likely to find themselves in a quandary over fetching a coal from the neighbors to start a fire or fighting a monster-storm to bring in food from the garden, Ann's own personal failures and triumphs are still easily relatable to today. This is a fast read and a rewarding one, so join Ann as she stumbles and grumbles her way to discovery of... contentment!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Book Review of "Princess Academy"

Princess Academy, by Sharon Hale

4 stars

Description: Miri is a small girl growing up in a tough mountainside village. Winters are hard and life isn't always easy; but Miri loves the unbounded freedom of the mountain -- except for one thing. While her father, sister, and neighbors contribute useful work in the village quarry, Miri is always the one left behind to tend the goats. When the girls of the village are coerced into joining a Princess Academy, Miri begins to wonder... is there more to life than goats and pickaxes?

Concerns: Quarry-speech is somewhere between an innocent fantasy along the lines of the-dog-can-talk... and something a little more supernatural. Hard to tell.

Summary: It's a little formulaic, but formulas are around because they work, right? Miri lives a tough life, but the challenge makes her stronger, and it's fun to see her grow and learn to use her wits to better the lives of herself and her village. It's not an idyllic journey; the Princess Academy challenges everything Miri has ever known, and her new-found confidence is tested when she comes face with a life-and-death situation for her and her classmates. This is a fun read for those who enjoy stories of discovery, family and friendship with a little adventure mixed in.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book Review of "Charlotte's Web"

Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White

4 stars

Description: Although it may seem like a spring pig should have known better, Wilbur is horrified to discover he is bound for the dinner table! The world looks like a hopeless and heartless place to live in, but the game isn't over yet; led by the brains and resourcefulness of a remarkable spider named Charlotte, all Wilbur's barnyard friends pitch in to hoodwink the farmers and give their favorite pig a second lease on life. Even the scurrilous rat Templeton gets in on the effort, and from the barnyard to the fairgrounds, crafty creativity reigns!

Concerns: None.

Summary: It's amusing to see the quirks and foibles of humanity brought out and exaggerated in animal characters. Poor Charlotte is endlessly exasperated by her less-than-brilliant accomplices, but in the end -- just like in real life -- they need each other to achieve their goal. From Wilbur's hopelessly comical efforts to spin a web to Charlotte's lucky escape through the help of a rotten egg, the story manages to handle a heavy subject matter in an entertaining way. For those who like animals, this book is a solid win.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review of "Number the Stars"

Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry

5 stars!!!

Description: The year 1943 was a dangerous time to be a Jew. Especially in Nazi-controlled Denmark. The war has taken so much from young Annemarie; food is scarce, pink frosted cupcakes are a distant memory, and the only "fireworks" that the five-year-old Kristi has seen are the explosions from the harbor. But cupcakes suddenly aren't important anymore when Annemarie realizes that her friend Ellen is Jewish -- and the Nazi "relocation" of Jews has just begun. Will the war take her best friend, too?

Concerns: Ethical questions about lying in wartime; a kitten is named "Thor, the God of Thunder"; one swear word towards the end.

Summary: Annemarie, Ellen, and Kristi are everyday girls living in a world of uncertainty, but even though that war-time tension is stark on every page, there is also warmth and laughter of humanity. The story is a fast and suspense-heavy read, but this is no cheap thriller; Annemarie's choice sends a message about life and loyalty, even when things looks hopeless. Lois Lowry has created a beautifully written story of true bravery  in a time when standing up for what was right could -- and often did -- cost that person their life.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Book Review of "Peter Pan in Scarlet"

Peter Pan in Scarlet, by Geraldine McCaughrean

4.5 stars

Description: Wendy, John, and the Lost Boys of Neverland have grown up... but darkness is leaking out of their dreams. As they sleep, Neverland is calling them, and that call is a cry for help. Convinced that Peter needs them, the group sets out to do the impossible: turn back into children, find fairy dust in smoggy London, and travel back to Neverland. But when they do arrive, Neverland is no longer an isle of joyous summer. Somehow, their precious island has transformed into a dark, evil, and dangerous place, and the League of Pan must set off on a quest to restore their world before it is too late.

Concerns: The violence isn't nearly as bad as the original, but is still flippantly treated. Also, fairies admire the biggest liars and the children are told a group of women are witches -- which is eventually discovered to be a lie. Tootles turns into a little girl, which is played solely for humor but may still give readers a pause.

Summary: The story hinges around Neverland's link between imagination and reality, so if you liked the original, this is a great sequel -- but if you find play-pretend hard to follow, this book will drive you crazy. Give it a try! The characters (including a marvelously voracious new fairy) are great, and the plot is gripping: there are pirates, treasure maps, wild animals, bands of vengeful ragamuffins, fairy-wars, and a fantastic journey to uncover the poison that is killing Neverland. It's a great yarn -- ravelling good fun!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Book Review of "The Sign of the Beaver"

The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare

5 stars!!!

Description: Picture a log cabin, rifle and a clearing, lots of wilderness, and one twelve-year-old boy guarding the homestead until the rest of his family arrives. Living alone for one short summer sounded easy enough, but when complications arise and young Matt finds himself making an impromptu treaty with the local Indian chief, he gets into more than he bargained for. Suddenly thrown into comradeship with an Indian boy, the two grudgingly resign themselves to sticking it out... but soon Matt finds out that the discoveries packed into one short summer are beyond anything he could have imagined.

Concerns: Some Indian customs (Attean seeks the spirits).

Summary: Half the fun of this book is discovering Attean's way of doing things, whether carving fishhooks out of sticks or greasing down a bow with oil skimmed off leftover stew. Although they got off to a rocky start, the two boys' mutual distrust grows into an unlikely friendship, and their adventures in the wilderness are not to be missed. As Matt realizes, life on the frontier makes Robinson Crusoe look like a sissy!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Book Review of "Old Yeller"

Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson

5 stars!!!

Description: Ever since Bell died, Travis hasn't wanted another dog... but tough luck. The scruffy, wily, stray dog dubbed "Yeller" has picked Travis's family cabin to call home. Over one short summer, Travis and Old Yeller grow past their distrust and forge a deep bond of friendship as they fight together through a series of hair-raising (and sometimes deadly) dangers that come with living in frontier Texas; vicious killer hogs, drought, wolves, bears, and the dreaded plague of hydrophobia.

Concerns: Frontier life is rough; expect some blood. Also, little Arliss tends to get away with a lot (including throwing rocks at and bashing his older brother with a stick).

Summary: Old Yeller is both an adventure and a poignant coming-of-age story. Life on the frontier is a struggle for survival, and although Travis has his share of wild and happy romps through the cornfields, he also experiences the harsh land's real-life heartaches. But even though the rough country takes its toll on those who dare to call it home, hard work and fierce determination are rewarded by the promise of a good life. This little book (reportedly based on tales of real frontier dogs) should take its place as one of the best frontier novels of all time.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Book Review of "Captive Treasure"

Captive Treasure, by Milly Howard

4 stars

Description: Young Carrie Talbot is traveling with her parents to minister to an Indian mission out west. When the deadly cholera casts a shadow over the group, Carrie and other children trail the wagon train driving a separate wagon for quarantine reasons. But pandemonium breaks out when the small unguarded wagon proves an easy target for Cheyenne and Sioux warriors. Carrie alone is taken captive and she is made to journey back to the Cheyenne camp. She struggles with loneliness for her family, but she appreciates the fact that the Indians are surprisingly kind to her and she find herself growing close to them. If Carrie’s dream of rescue comes true, will she be able to leave her new family?

Concerns: The Indians think that Carrie’s Bible has special powers and there is a brief description of some Indian rituals.

Summary: Having read this book numerous times, I can say with complete candidness that it is well worth the time! Readers will be intrigued by Carrie’s unfailing courage in the face of danger, her steadfast trust in God that changes the lives of many in the Cheyenne tribe, and her gradually dawning love for her captors. This story blends with impressive success its elements of action/adventure with a strong development of the main characters; accomplishing a feat many books today lack. In short, Captive Treasure is, well, a treasure!