Book review: The Secrets of Winterhouse, by Ben Guterson, with illustrations by Chloe Bristol

Guterson, Ben. The Secrets of Winterhouse. (Winterhouse series, #2). With illustrations by Chloe Bristol. Henry Holt, 2018. $16.99. ISBN 978-1-250-12390-9. 371 pages. Ages 9-13. P7Q7.

A year after the thrilling events of Winterhouse, Elizabeth finds herself returning to her grandfather’s notorious Winterhouse Hotel for Christmas break. She delights in learning that this move will be permanent. The value of friendship is highlighted between Elizabeth and her mutual-anagram-loving inventor friend, Freddy. The perks of living in a hotel with its own candy factory, colossal library, mountains and lakes for skiing and ice skating are charmingly detailed. Anagrams are included in every chapter title and there is an intriguing seal that includes clues to be discovered leading to mysterious doorways. Moreover, there is some dark magic lurking with two sets of unpleasant guests who are behaving suspiciously and the remnants of grandfather’s sorceress sister, Gracella, who may not be dead as originally portrayed in the denouement of the first installment.

Verdict: This book is a blend of mystery, magic, and perplexing puzzle-solving that will keep the readers seeking more.

April 2020 review by Penny McDermott.

Book review: The Good Thieves, by Katherine Rundell

Rundell, Katherine. The Good Thieves. Simon & Schuster (BYR), 2019. $17.99. ISBN 9781481419482. 264 pages. Ages 8-12. P7 Q7

We all know that it is wrong to steal, but what if you are stealing something that belongs to your family? In 1920 New York, Vita finds out that Victor Sorrotore has swindled her grandfather out of his Castle and that a valuable jewel necklace with an emerald pendant is hidden inside. It proves much harder than Vita thinks to get the pendant back. Along the way, she meets some unusual friends who help her. Will she be able to recover the necklace and restore the castle to its rightful owner? Vita’s story includes a bout with polio that left her with a limp, her father being killed in the Great War, and being an orphan who is left to take care of herself. I looked up information about the circus in the 1920’s and the facts matched.

Verdict: Readers will be entertained and held in suspense as Vita meets new friends and tries a variety of things to retrieve her grandfather’s emerald pendant. The ending holds unexpected opportunities for some of the characters. This is a good read aloud for families or teachers.

May 2020 review by Tami Harris.

Book review: Spindrift and the Orchid, by Emma Trevayne

Trevayne, Emma. Spindrift and the Orchid.  Simon and Schuster, 2018.  ISBN 978-1-4814-6259-4.  $17.99.  256 pages.  Ages 11-13.  Q8 P8

Spindrift is a middle school student whose been orphaned since she was a baby.  Her grandfather has cared for her since the day she floated to shore in a boat by herself.  The ship her mother was captain of sinking in the distance.  The adventure begins when a man comes to her grandfather’s magical trinket shop asking for a black orchid.  Around the same time Spindrift’s grandfather shares letters to him from Spindrift’s mother detailing her parent’s quest to unite the orchids (7 orbs that contain the essence of a powerful sage.  Whoever controls the orb gains the power of the sage) and gain their power.  Ultimately ending in their demise.  On Spindrift’s quest to find the orbs to keep them from someone who would abuse their power, she follows in her mother’s footsteps.  On her journey she takes her two best friends who wouldn’t think of letting Spindrift go on such a dangerous mission alone.  Their friendship is challenged when it becomes apparent Spindrift is putting the quest for the orchids above their friendship.  All three have tough choices and have to ask themselves: Is power worth more than friendship and is forgiveness possible in the most unforgivable situation?

Verdict:  Lots of adventure, magic, and discovering the true meaning of friendship in this book.   A great addition to middle grade libraries.

December 2019 review by Terri Lippert.

Book reviews: The Portal, by Kathryn Lasky

Lasky, Kathryn. The Portal. (Tangled in Time series, book 1). Harper, 2019. $16.99. ISBN 9780062693259. 361 pages. Ages 8-12. P7 Q8

You know that feeling you have when you are holding a book that has a magical adventure just waiting for you? From the cover until the last page, I was drawn in and enraptured. This historical fantasy follows the life of Rose who is orphaned and sent to live with her grandmother. Unfortunately, her grandmother does not always know who she is, which adds to Rose feeling displaced and not connected with family. Her grandmother’s greenhouse becomes a refuge for Rose. Unbeknownst to Rose, the greenhouse contains a portal which transports her back in time five hundred years to Hatfield palace. While living in the past, she meets Franny who has secrets of her own. I enjoyed the mix of present day and past intertwining. While Rose is in present time, she has to deal with three mean girls and her few friends band together to stand up to the girls. In the past, she finds a locket with her mother, a man and herself. Could this locket be a clue to her past and could it affect her future?  The three illustrations are black and white and include Queen Elizabeth’s dress, shoes, and an old bag and dress. I checked the facts about King Henry VIII and princess Elizabeth and the facts in the novel are true. This is book 1 of two in the Tangled series by Lasky, a New York Times bestselling author. The sequel, Tangled in Time : The Burning Queen, was released October 29th, 2019.

Verdict: Historical fantasy is one of my favorite genres and this novel delivered. With a balanced blend of the present–cell phones and texting–along with past, this novel is sure to keep a readers’ interest. Themes of mean girls, being an upstander, searching for one’s biological parent, and trying to find one’s place in life flow through this historical fantasy.

October 2019 review by Tami Harris.


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.

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 Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, retold by Elizabeth Goodnight, illustrated by Toko Hosoya

Goodnight, Elizabeth. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, retold by Elizabeth Goodnight. Illustrated by Toko Hosoya. (10 Minute Classics series). Flowerpot Press, 2017. $16.99. ISBN 978-1-4867-1199-4. 32 pages. Ages 4-8. P7/Q9

A classical story, The Secret Garden, is retold for young children in this beautiful version illustrated bu Toko Hosoya. The story of a young girl named Mary who goes to live with her uncle and finds the house holds many surprises is a true classic. Putting it into a version that even young readers can enjoy is a brilliant idea and Elizabeth Goodnight does a masterful job of giving a complete and concise version.

Verdict: This book would be a wonderful addition to any elementary school library. It presents an opportunity to engage young readers and get them interested in a classical piece of literature. I also think it would be enjoyed by readers who have already read the original novel as it gives a new take and wonderful illustrations accompany it.

November 2018 review by Michelle Cottrell.

Book review: The Orphan Band of Springdale, by Anne Nesbet

Nesbet, Anne. The Orphan Band of Springdale. Candlewick Press, 2018. $18.99. ISBN 9780763688042. 435 Pages. Ages 9-14. P7 Q8

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be an orphan back in 1941? With the Second World War looming and tough times in New York, Gusta’s mother is not able to keep her. Gusta is put on a bus by her German born, labor activist, fugitive father and sent to her grandmother who runs an orphanage in Maine. Gusta brings along a suitcase and a much-loved French horn. When she arrives at the orphanage, she meets Josie, the first and oldest orphan in the house. Gusta and Josie become friends and have adventures. Their grandmother values things that receive a gold ribbon, so Gusta and Josie decide to start a band so they can enter a contest and win a gold ribbon. This historical fiction is an easy read, full of adventure, family, secrets, bravery and standing up for others. Nesbet wrote this story based the stories her mother told about her life growing up. To make the fiction as true as possible, she spent some time at the Sanford-Springvale historical Society in Maine and read through old issues of the local paper. This book is true to life in the 1940’s.

Verdict: I recommend this book for public libraries. Readers will learn what life was like in the 1940’s along with teaching one to be brave, to include others, to stand up for themselves and the importance of kindness and family.

April 2018 review by Tami Harris.

Book review: Orphan Island, by Laurel Snyder

Snyder, Laurel.  Orphan Island.  Walden Pond Press, 2017.  ISBN 978-0-06-244341-0. $16.99.  269 pages.  Ages 10+.  Q7P6

An island where nine orphans, ranging roughly in ages from 4 to 13, raise themselves.  At 13ish the oldest has to leave the island.  Jinny is the oldest, therefore has the responsibility to raise/teach the newest orphan, Ess, but due to her empathic nature, struggles to put Ess through any ordeal which makes Ess uncomfortable.  Luckily, others on the island help her by taking over some of the responsibilities.  It appears everything will work out until Jinny decides she is not going to leave the island like she is supposed to when she turns 13.  The author does a great job capturing the insecurities and strength of the youngest and the emotional inner turmoil of the oldest with the onset of puberty and the knowledge she’ll have to leave the island.  I also like the unknown almost science fiction reason they are on the island, an experiment perhaps?  What I don’t like about the book is you never find out why these select children were put on the island, and how the island “works”.  The island “masters” seem to know all that is going on and change the island experience accordingly.  Although the book is filled with a beautiful setting and much soul searching, the book is flawed by the unknown.

Verdict:  The thought process I’ve spent on the “unknown” is similar to the exercise in futility of contemplating the meaning of life.  I don’t necessarily want to do that with my reading material.  Perhaps a bit philosophical for the target audience?

March 2018 review by Terri Lippert.

Book review: Thornhill, by Pam Smy

Smy, Pam. Thornhill. Roaring Brook, 2017. $19.99. 539p. ISBN  978-1-626-72654-3. Ages 13+. P9Q10

Darkness, both in narrative and illustrations, highlight the tragic story of Ella Clarke, a lonely girl in a new town who slowly learns about the misery of another teenage girl living in an orphanage across from her house 35 years earlier. As the girl looks out the window at the deserted building and onto its untended surrounding land, she is drawn to investigate Thornhill and discovers the reason for the fire that destroyed the facility just days before the last few girls were to be moved to foster homes. The story is one of cruel bullying, horrific neglect by adult caretakers, and the loss of hope leading to the end of lives. Each brief chapter from the orphan girl’s diary is prefaced by magnificent two-page spreads that extend the plot and characters.

Verdict: Smy’s debut novel is an engrossing tale of harrowing persecution leading to revenge, an unforgettable and chilling revelation of abuse and desperation. An excellent choice for Neil Gaiman fans of Coraline and The Graveyard Book.

December 2017 review by Nel Ward