Book review: The Eye of the North, by Sinéad O’Hart

O’Hart, Sinéad. The Eye of the North. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 346 pgs. $16.99. ISBN 9781101935033. Ages 8-12. P7Q7.

Emmaline grows up in a creaky old house, mainly kept company by the butler and house keeper. Her scientist parents are often away for work, but have now disappeared for real! She is put on a boat to Paris to ask a family friend for refuge, meets the stowaway boy Thing, and then the fun really begins! Criminals try to kidnap her, and she and Thing end up on a crazy adventure to the far north in an attempt to rescue Emmaline’s parents from the villainous Dr. Sigfried Bauer and his evil plan (which involves a kraken). The story is fast paced and exciting, and I enjoyed the watching Thing’s character develop. It has a bit of a steampunk quality in places, and a variety of interesting characters.

VERDICT: Middle grade readers will find this a fun adventure.

April 2018 review by Carol Schramm.

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Book review: Peter & Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths, by Graham Annable

Annable, Graham. Peter & Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths. First Second, 2018. $17.99. 119p. ISBN 978-1-6267-2561-4. Ages 5-8. P9Q9

Peter and Ernesto are the odd couple of sloths. One wants to hang around in his tree with the other sloths, and the other wants to see the sky from every part of the world. The separation between the two of them stretches their limits as Peter decides to follow Ernesto despite quaking when he crosses the swinging bridge and meets the scary tapir. Ernesto loves his adventures—a ride on a whale and seeing the aurora borealis—but meeting the polar bear convinces him to return home. The alternating adventures between the two friends show the fretting Peter perched on a monolith where he finds help from crabs and monkeys to guide Ernesto back to the fold. The safety may not last long, though; the planned sequel for the two friends is The Lost Sloths.

Verdict: Clear Photoshop panels with simple artwork in the graphic novel show the movement, body language, and diversity of animals throughout the adventures. Silly charm highlights the value of friendship and concern about each other without being didactic. Absolutely delightful!

March 2018 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Bobby Lee Claremont and the Criminal Element, by Jeannie Mobley

Mobley, Jeannie. Bobby Lee Claremont and the Criminal Element. Holiday House, 2017. 229 pgs. $16.95. ISBN 9780823437818. Ages 8-12. P8Q8

Bobby Lee Claremont, age 13, decides to leave New Orleans after losing his mother to consumption and realizing that he has no future in that city. He embarks on a life of crime by robbing the poor box at the Sisters of Charitable Mercy Orphanage. He buys a train ticket to Chicago, since it looks like the best bet for a clever kid who wants to join a gang and cash in on the illegal alcohol business that prohibition created. His plans don’t quite work out though- he gets thrown in with some nasty gangsters on the train, and finds that the life of crime may not be for him. Together with two quick witted African American boys (the grandsons of a train employee), Bobby Lee gets to the bottom of a murder mystery. I really enjoyed this fast paced adventure, with its villains, believable characters, jazz musicians, and train culture. Bobby Lee learns a lot about the Jim Crow laws that were in place at the time, and comes to believe that segregation and racism are very wrong. The author’s note gives further information about Jim Crow laws, segregation on trains, and gangsters in the 1920s.

VERDICT: I think young readers will find this a fast and fun read. It could be used in the classroom to provide background in a history class as well.

January 2018 review by Carol Schramm.

Book review: La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman

Pullman, Philip. La Belle Sauvage. (The Book of Dust, volume 1). Knopf, 2017. $22.99. 449p. ISBN 978-0-375-81530-0. Ages 11-15. P7Q10

The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights), the first book in Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials is 22 years old, and the author is celebrating it with a companion “equel,” a trilogy that begins with Compass protagonist Lyra Belacqua as an infant hidden in a priory in the country. Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead, an innkeeper’s son, takes on the responsibility of protecting Lyra while he learns about a secret Church society from Hannah Relf, a spy who is training herself to read the alethiometer, a method of communicating with Dust. The plot builds when Malcolm takes the baby away from her would-be evil capturers with the help of sour teenage kitchen worker, Alice. The book is replete with villains—disgraced theologian Gerard Bonneville, the children who follow a Church cult, the Consistorial Court of Discipline, and the children’s protective society. Much of the book is consumed with the children’s escape in Malcolm’s canoe, La Belle Sauvage, which was refurbished by Lyra’s father after Malcolm helped him escape early in the book. Joy, humor, and help for the humans come from their daemons, animal-like creatures that represent the subjects’ souls and cannot be separated from their humans while they are alive.

Verdict: As in his other books, the writing and the characters shine, and the world-building is fascinating. Woven into the plot are non-didactic discussions of physics and religion. The striving for free speech and thought against a totalitarian theocracy ring true in a way that readers can identify with the philosophical concepts. The next book in La Belle Sauvage, The Secret Commonwealth, begins ten years after The Golden Compass, making La Belle Sauvage a “surround” for His Dark Materials. The Book of Dust is highly recommended.

December 2017 review by Nel Ward

Book review: Bones of the Sun God, by Peter Vegas

Vegas, Peter. Bones of the Sun God (Pyramid Hunters Series, Book 2). Aladdin, 2017. $17.99. ISBN 9781481445825. 401 pgs. Ages 10-14. P8Q7.

Although I haven’t read the first book in the Pyramid Hunters Series, I enjoyed this fast paced book, which is reminiscent of Indiana Jones. The reader follows 14 year old Sam and his good friend Mary through a crazy quest to find out what happened to Sam’s parents when they vanished five years before. The first book was set in Egypt, and this one is in Belize- the series features pyramids and arks (the Ark of the Covenant was one), that together protect the word from a catastrophe. There are ancient legends, maps, clues, artifacts, crocodiles, scar faced villains, shady priests of ancient religions, jet skis and modern technology mixed up in an adventure that is sometimes on the bloody side- a combination that might catch reluctant readers. Sam Force is an appealing character- he was bullied at school at the beginning, he doubts himself sometimes, but he is brave and fast thinking when it matters. Mary’s character is less developed, but she isn’t the main character. Some of the events aren’t believable (where do they get the money to run around the world? How does Mary know how to hack and hide her tracks online? Maybe those questions were answered in the first book.)

VERDICT: Middle grade readers who like a good adventure will find this a fun read.

October 2017 review by Carol Schramm.

Book review: Snowize & Snitch, Highly Effective Defective Detectives, by Karen Briner

Briner, Karen. Snowize & Snitch, Highly Effective Defective Detectives. Holiday House, 2016. $16.95. ISBN 9780823435678. 283 pgs. Ages 8-12. P8Q7.

Ever Indigo Nikita Stein is a student at the School for Children of Gifted Parents, where the other students tease her about the gap between her teeth, her name (they call her Einstein), and her poor performance on tests. She has lived with Doc since her parents disappeared nine years before, but now he is missing too! Ever, a strong and intelligent young woman, embarks on a quest to find Doc and figure out what has happened. She joins forces with Harry Snowize, a has-been spy, his partner Snitch, an African giant pouched rat, Melschman, an angry robotic refrigerator to eventually find answers to her many questions, including the whereabouts of her parents. They travel the globe and encounter some wonderfully wicked foes.

VERDICT: I enjoyed this humorous, fast paced book, and would recommend it to middle grade readers who want something entertaining to read.

September 2017 review by Carol Schramm.

Book review: Frogkisser!, by Garth Nix

Nix, Garth.  Frogkisser! Audible Audio Edition. Listening Library, 2017. $19.25. 11 hrs 6 min. Ages 10-13. P8Q8

Although my favorite Garth Nix books are the darker YA Abhorson series, I thoroughly enjoyed this humorous fairy tale. Spunky Anya is the younger princess of the kingdom of Trallonia. Her evil stepstepfather is a tyrant sorcerer who “transmogrifies” anyone who bothers him- that is, he turns them into frogs or other animals. Anya prefers to read in the library, but to help her sister and to escape from her stepstepfather, she reluctantly sets out on a quest to gather the ingredients for a magical lip balm that will allow her to kiss a frog (one of her sister’s suitors) and restore him to his human form. She is accompanied by one of the royal talking dogs and a want-to-be thief boy who has been turned into a newt. She finds diverse help along the way (though she says she won’t need help, because she’s not that kind of a princess), and learns some good lessons. I liked that while this was a light children’s story, there were some serious themes like how sometimes we don’t want to do something, but we must help when we can, that people have rights and responsibilities, and that being a leader means thinking about what is good for the people before doing what you want for yourself.

April 2017 review by Carol Schramm.