Monday, January 1, 2018

The Amber Amulet by Craig Silvey

The Amber AmuletI am the Masked Avenger, and I protect the citizens in the homes along my street. I have knowledge about the power stored within different stones, and I use them to enhance my own personal characteristics. Recently, while on patrol in the middle of the night, I've been concerned about the woman living in the house at the end of the street. I heard yelling and screaming, and her husband stormed out of the house. I know she's sad, and it's up to me to change that. I know amber has the power to bring happiness, so I gave her an amulet I found in my mother's room. However, I didn't know the amulet belonged to my mother's grandmother, and now my mom is devastated. The Masked Avenger can't ask the woman to return the jewelry, so I must use my powers to think of another solution. 

The endearing part of the book was the way the author described Liam, the Masked Avenger. In the beginning, it was unclear if he actually had superpowers or only a vivid imagination. The boy had a creative mind. As I read the book, I tried to figure out if middle grade readers would enjoy it. Liam was a cute, young boy and will appeal to elementary-age readers. His alter-ego was only concerned with the happiness and well-being of his neighbors. On the other hand, the book had some serious thoughts about love and marriage, and I'm not sure young readers will be interested. Liam's father divorced his mother, and Liam feared his father had fallen out of love with him. Liam was able to get the woman at the end of the street to reflect on her own marriage. I also questioned a situation where a young boy was able to wander his neighborhood at night and would give away a valuable amulet from his mother. It would be different in a fantasy novel, but I had some problems with it in a realistic fiction. Overall, the book will be fine for the right audience; I'm just not sure it's right for followers of my blog. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Button War by Avi

The Button WarJurek is a crazy idiot! The Russian soldiers have left our town, the Germans have moved in, and he thinks his button war is the most important thing in the world. He's challenged us to find the best button from a soldier's uniform, which is dangerous to do while they're still wearing it. I should ignore Jurek, but I can't back down from his dares. Things will get really bad for our group of friends if he wins the contest. I thought the German bomb that blew up our school was the worst thing, it killed our teacher, but this button war has made the danger of war even more personal. Two of my friends have been killed because of it! All Jurek can think about is who has the best button, which makes me keep searching for them. However, I just found something different on the body of a dead English man. I shouldn't have taken the pistol, but I did, and now I know Jurek has his eye on it.

I don't normally read historical fiction, but the plot in this book moved quickly. As you might infer from my description above, Jurek's character drives the conflict. From the beginning, he displays a need to be the best at everything. The reason for this obsession is unclear, but Patryk, the narrator of the story, knows early on that Jurek is dangerous. Patryk doesn't want to look like a coward, so he accepts the challenges. As the plot moves along, Patryk's decisions are motivated by a need to protect his friends more than beating Jurek. Jurek is already a pain in the butt, but he would become dangerous if he were to win the button war; he's declared the winner of the contest will rule over everyone else. His callousness is a little upsetting, especially when his "friends" are hurt or killed. I used quotation marks, because I'm not sure Jurek actually has any real friends. The power he has over the group is amazing, since they all know he's crazy. I'm not sure how middle grade readers will react to the button war, it may not hold their interest, but the plot becomes much more interesting once the Germans arrive. The Button War is a thought-provoking tale about innocent kids caught in the middle of World War I.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Death and Douglas by J.W. Ocker

Death and DouglasMy name is Douglas, and I've lived with death all of my life; my parents own a funeral home. However, my thoughts about dying have drastically changed since the monster struck for the first time. The victims of the serial killer have had letters cut into their cheeks, apparently to show the days of the week they were killed. My best friend Lowell and I are determined to discover the identity of the Day Killer; kids are easily able to listen in on conversations and sneak around the town collecting clues. I didn't expect to become the target of the murderer. I haven't gotten a good look, but I know someone has been hiding in the shadows, waiting to get me. My dad says I know more about death than other kids, probably more than most adults. I hope Lowell and I can help the police catch the serial killer before I become his next victim.

I've got to admit that I thought a middle grade book with a focus on death and a graveyard had to be in the fantasy genre. Nope. As I've described above, the plot's all about the kids searching for the murderer stalking the town, and Douglas trying to understand this new type of death. He's grown up understanding that death is a natural part of life, but murder is unnatural. He also tries to understand how his family's business fits into death and grieving, and he wonders about his own feelings. Does he want to go into funeral services when he grows up? These questions seem to be the actual focus of the book, as there are some questions left unanswered. The killer's no longer a problem in the end, but the author chooses to not reveal much about his identity or past. The character had no identification on him, and no one knew for sure why he committed the crimes. Also, there were two women who expressed concern about Douglas's living situation; they felt it wasn't healthy for him to grow up around death every day. They hinted that they might contact children's services, but nothing ever came of it. Douglas and his dad seemed to come to the conclusion that Douglas was okay, but there wasn't any information that the women had accepted it. There was an indication on the book's cover that this it included humor, but I didn't find much of it.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Swirl #1: Pumpkin Spice Secrets by Hillary Homzie

Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Swirl, #1)My name is Maddie, and my seventh grade year has become very complicated. I bumped (literally) into the cutest boy a few days before the year started and instantly had a crush on Jacob. However, before I could tell my best friend Jana, she announced she had a crush on him. Now, we all know the BFF Code, right? You can't steal your BFF's boyfriend, so I couldn't tell anybody how I felt. I had hoped Jana would quickly lose interest, like always, but she didn't. I think I could have handled the problem, except Jacob and I were paired together for a Social Studies debate and had to work closely for two weeks. We got along great, and I knew he liked me. I've lied to Jana to save her feelings, but I'm afraid of what will happen when she finds out. Can you help me? What should I do?

This book is definitely for middle grade girls. It addresses many common problems they face at this age, and first crushes is the main focus of the plot. All middle grade students experience these feelings. In addition, Maddie's parents have high academic expectations, her sister is a high-achiever with a secret of her own, and Maddie has a fear of public speaking. My feelings? Well, I'm a grown man reading about the problems of a seventh grade girl, so I had some trouble connecting to her character. The plot was easy to follow, and the author told it from Maddie's point of view. This was obviously a great choice, since Maddie's feelings were the most important part of the plot. I understood Maddie's reluctance to hurt her friend's feelings, but things would have been so much easier if she was honest in the first place. A lesson learned for all! Overall, middle grade girls should enjoy this book and might get some hints on how to survive their early teenage years.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Mysterium #1: The Black Dragon by Julian Sedgwick

The Black Dragon (Mysterium, #1)My name is Danny Woo, and I don't really know what's going on. Aunt Laura brought me to Hong Kong to see where my mother was born, but now my aunt's been kidnapped. She was writing a story about a violent gang called the Black Dragon, but Zamora and I have heard stories about a super-secret international crime syndicate called the Forty-nine that may be controlling all the gangs in the world. I'm still trying to get over the sudden deaths of my parents, but I'm slowly realizing that my dad may have had a secret life. He was too careful to make a mistake and drown during his most famous escape trick. Isn't it suspicious that my mother died in fire less than a week later? The gas explosion at my school now doesn't feel like an accident. Is someone out to get me? I'm not sure who I can trust in Hong Kong, certainly not the police. What about Sing Sing and the man in the white suit? I must find some way to rescue my aunt.

This book was a pleasant surprise from my local library. Danny's parents were performers in the Mysterium circus, and the book frequently brought up memories from that time. Some were pleasant, but others revealed questions about his parents deaths. Danny learned magic tricks, escape skills, and other circus hints from his father that were used throughout the plot. However, his escapes were literally life or death. Zamora was a dwarf strongman in the circus, and he protects Danny during the frequent dangers. He likes using his muscles, so Danny usually comes up with the safer ideas. The book is full of adventure, as the pair follows clues all over the city. The added twists of a corrupt police force and shady characters caused me to doubt the motives of almost everyone. The leader of the Black Dragon was a bit of a surprise. I'm still not sure why criminals want Danny so badly, so I hope to get more clues in the sequel.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Mysterium #2: The Palace of Memory by Julian Sedgwick

Mysterium: 2: The Palace of MemoryMy name is Sing Sing, and we still don't have any idea why the Forty-Nine want Danny dead. I found him in Barcelona where the Mysterium circus is being revived, and now someone has attempted to kill his best friend Zamora, the strongman dwarf. Danny is convinced the same person who killed his father is responsible, and he thinks decoding his father's messages will help solve the mystery. Danny also thinks someone in the Mysterium is involved; I agree his suspicions about the Klown may be correct. It wasn't until later that we learned a hired assassin has been stalking Danny, and she has never failed an assignment. However, the secret uncovered in his father's hidden stash is a life-changer!

I think followers of Alex Rider and Young James Bond will enjoy this series too. Danny is a normal kid with unusual talents who is caught up in dangerous adventure. He's developed his skills by growing up in the circus family, and his abilities to escape locks, mesmerize people, and notice details come in very handy when solving the mystery. The book doesn't utilize the special weapons of Alex Rider novels, but Danny's talents seem almost magical. Zamora was his main sidekick in the previous book, but Sing Sing fills the role this time. She was raised by an "uncle" and learned to practice kung fu, but she also has unknown circus talents that are useful. She didn't say much about her family, but this book uncovered a big secret about her mother. The resolution of the plot still didn't explain why the Forty-Nine are so determined to kill Danny, so it looks like that will be the on-going conflict throughout the series. It seems the books were actually released in Great Britain, but they're slowly being published now in the United States. I recommend the series, but I'm not sure when the next book will be available.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Murder Is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens

Murder Is Bad Manners (Wells and Wong, #1)My name is Hazel Wong, and the Wells & Wong Detective Society has uncovered its first murder mystery. Don't tell anyone, but I found the body of Miss Bell on the academy's gym floor, but it was gone moments later when I returned with Daisy. The staff thinks Ms. Bell hurriedly quit and left the school, so there's no police investigation. Daisy and I were still sorting out suspects when Ms. Tennyson was murdered too! Does this have anything to do with the student found dead in the gym last year? The killer must be a staff member, and several teachers have motives and were around the gym when Ms. Bell died. I can't believe any of them would actually kill a person, but one of them obviously did it. We are getting closer to solving the crimes, but are our lives now in danger?

This book would make a nice starter story for young readers who are interested in moving up to a murder mystery. The case is easy to follow, and clues pop up everywhere. However, experienced readers of mystery won't care for it. Daisy makes many assumptions about evidence that real detectives would never make. Ms. Bell must have died from a fall off the balcony, because her body was right below it. One teacher couldn't be a suspect, because Daisy didn't think there was any way the teacher could hurt someone. Hazel and Daisy make a good team, although I don't like Daisy's character. Daisy is bossy, doesn't respect Hazel's ideas, and makes the evidence fit her preconceived notions. It's not until later in the book that Daisy realizes Hazel has some insightful thoughts and considers the evidence like a detective. Their investigation becomes much more focused and logical once Daisy starts listening to Hazel. Cute title for a book!