Book review: Dactyl Hill Squad, by Daniel José Older

Older, Daniel José. Dactyl Hill Squad. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018. $16.99. ISBN 9781338268812. 256 pgs. Ages 8-14. P7Q8

What do you do when you are on your way to the theater with a few fellow orphans, riding in a triceratops wagon, and a riot breaks out? You fight back of course! Thus begins the story of Magdalys, a 12 year old girl from Cuba, orphaned and living in New York City during the Civil War. In this story, dinosaurs and humans coexist, and both the North and the South use the dinosaurs for transportation, to deliver mail, and to fight. Magadalys discovers she can communicate with the dinosaurs, and becomes involved with the war effort. During the Draft Riots, the Colored Orphan Asylum is burned down, and all the orphans who were not on the field trip have been captured by Richard Riker, an evil, white city magistrate. With no home to return to, Magdalys and crew flee to Brooklyn and settle in the Dactyl Hill neighborhood where black and brown New Yorkers have set up an independent community. Knowing they must help their mates, they form the Dactyl Hill Squad. A plan is set to rescue the orphans left behind, and with the help of Magadalys’ dinosaur connection the adventure begins! With historical facts woven throughout the story, this fantasy novel is fun and informational at the same time. By the end of the story the orphans have been safely rescued from Riker and the Kidnapping Club, but a new journey is on the horizon. Magdalys’ brother, Montez, has been injured after joining the Union Army and the Dactyl Hill Squad is heading south to find him.

Verdict: This story has it all! A lively adventure with a brown heroine, set during the U.S. Civil War where dinosaurs still exist! What a great book to read to a middle age classroom to ignite their interests on so many relevant topics. I highly recommend this book for the classroom, for the library, and to have at home.

February 2019 review by Denyse Marsh.

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Book review: The House with Chicken Legs, by Sophie Anderson

Anderson, Sophie. The House with Chicken Legs. Scholastic, 2018. $16.99. 262p. ISBN 978-1-338-20996-9. Ages 9-12. P8Q8

Orphaned Marinka, 12, loves her grandmother, a Yaga who guides the dead into their afterlife, but she wants friends her own age. Doing this is difficult because her grandmother restricts her from going far from the house, and the house keeps going from place to place—on its chicken legs. Anderson has taken the Eastern European folklore of Baba Yaga to create a gentle, loving woman who tries to protect her granddaughter. Marinka’s adventures begin when she breaks Yaga’s rules, leaving the perimeter of the house and trying to make friends in village near the latest house settlement. Her discovery that she is one of the people who came back from the afterlife lead her danger, loss, and the development of relationships as she decides to follow the path that her grandmother chose for her.

Verdict: A beautiful rendition of an old folktale takes the characters throughout different places in the world and shows an acceptance of death. Marinka’s attempt to befriend some of the girls in the village also demonstrates the difficulty of trust and the ability to move on from cruelty. A lovely book to be shared.

February 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: The Tale of Angelino Brown, by David Almond, illustrated by Alex T. Smith

Almond, David. The Tale of Angelino Brown. Illus. by Alex T. Smith. Candlewick, 2017. $16.99. 258p. ISBN 978-0-7636-9563-7. Ages 8-12. P8Q9

In this delightful tongue-in-cheek tale, a tiny angel lands in the pocket of a grouchy bus driver and changes his life. Bert Brown takes the little creature home to his loving wife, Betty, and she names the angel, makes a bed for him, and the next day takes him to the school where she works in the cafeteria. Although one theme of the book is the way that Angelino brings light into the lives of a couple who have lost their son, young readers will also enjoy the sour attitudes some faculty members have toward him and their other students and the ensuing adventure when villains decide to make money by selling him to the highest bidder—including religious leaders.

Verdict: The funny scenario, the dry humor of the language, and the acceptance from those around Angelino, including his art teacher, provides a great read for middle schoolers. Whimsical pencil drawings extend the understanding of the action and characterization. This would make a wonderful read-aloud.

February 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

Anderson, M.T. and Eugene Yelchin. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge. Candlewick, 2018. $24.99. 530p. ISBN 978-0-7636-9822-5. Ages 10+. P8Q10

Highly-strung historian Spurge, an elf catapulted into hostile territory, thinks that he’s delivering a peace offering from Lord Ysoret Clivers of the Order of the Clean Hand to the lord of the goblin kingdom, Ghohg the Evil One, and spy on them for his government, but his mission has a darker errand. His goblin host, unfailingly polite Werfel the Archivist, tries to protect the elitist elf, but their blundering cultural miscommunications sends them into a diplomatic crisis and journey of great danger in a place of murderous ogres and bandits. The scholars’ adventures come from opposite perspectives—the myopic perception of naïve Spurge and the unbiased viewpoint of Werfel. Yelchin’s richly detailed black and white drawings of Spurge’s visual dispatches to his demanding ruler present Spurge’s misconceptions about his environment, a place that no elf has escaped in over 100 years of the 1,000-year warfare between the two kingdoms. The satiric social commentary can be read on different levels from just fun to a greater understanding of the difficulties in crossing barriers set up by lies and desire for control from leadership.

Verdict: Exciting past-paced absurdities in both text and multi-page wordless illustrations will fascinate readers of all levels.  Think the fantasy of Tolkien combined with the terrors of a Cold War with a Brian Selznick feel. Just remember that nothing is as it seems!

Fall 2018 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Stone Mad: a Karen Memory Adventure, by Elizabeth Bear

Bear, Elizabeth. Stone Mad: a Karen Memory Adventure. “A Tom Dougherty Associates book.” Tor, 2018. 183 pages. $14.99. ISBN 9781250163837. Ages 14-up. P6Q7

An evening not long after the end of the first Karen Memory adventure finds Karen and Priya celebrating ownership of their own house and ranch with dinner at a fancy restaurant and a magic show.  When suspect spiritualist sisters and a tapping table interrupt their dinner—and the hotel begins to tear itself to pieces around them—Karen throws herself heedlessly into the adventure, endangering herself and her friends. As the night’s events lead not to the anticipated homecoming, but to the couple’s first major fight, Karen and Priya have to decide what they each want in life and what they each owe the other as partners and lovers.

Verdict:  For me, much of the joy of reading the first book in the Karen Memory series was carried by the steampunk tropes.  Though the novella Stone Mad still features steampunk touches such as a reappearance of the sewing machine which functions as wearable armor, the major focus of the story is on another Victorian fascination, the supernatural.  And, though interrupted by action and adventure, the crux of the story is on discussions of how two people can relate to each other honorably.  I think this would have been a stronger story as a novel; the shorter form of the novella made it difficult for the author to balance the action sequences with the philosophical bits.  Still, this second book in the Karen Memory series is well done and I recommend it for high school and public library collections.

September 2018 review by Jane Cothron.

Book review: A World Below, by Wesley King

King, Wesley. A World Below. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2018. 261 pgs.  $17.99. ISBN: 978-1-4814-7822-9. Gr. 6+. P8 Q8

Mr. Baker has decided that this year the final class outing will be to the Carlsbad Caverns. This is something that the 8th grade class do not want to do. All other 8th grade classes have gone somewhere to dine and have fun. The caves trip they all feel is not going to fun. It is the beauty of the caves that makes several change their minds and they seem to enjoying the trip when a sudden earthquakes seals them inside. The class is plunged into a hidden world several hundred feet below where the tour started. This is a word of hidden dangers and people. A place where they overcoming their differences and new friendships are formed.

Verdict: The reader is left wondering what will happen to those that were left behind. It is also a story of survival and the wonders of what could be hidden below Earth’s surface.

June 2018 review by Carol Bernardi.

Book review: The Last Namsara, by Kristen Ciccarelli

Ciccarelli, Kristen.  The Last Namsara.  HarperTeen, 2017.  ISBN 978-0-06-256798-7. $17.99. 416 pages.  Ages 13 to adult.  P9 Q9

A unique and powerful story based on one girl’s ability to attract dragons by telling stories based on truth.  At one point in time Dragons and Man worked together, now the king is using his daughter, Asha, who has the gift of storytelling, to hunt Dragons and kill them, thus eliminating the only thing that is keeping him from complete dominance.  Love the cover art!

Great detail in a multi-storyline novel (the king and his daughter and the magic their lives are built on, the king’s son who is mysteriously ill and bringing an enemy envoy to the castle, the slave who loves Asha, and the story of the dragons themselves) that is believable, cohesive, and surprising.

Verdict:  A wonderful and wonderfully written story for teens and up.

May 2018 review by Terri Lippert