Picture Book Review: Chamelia by Ethan Long

 

Title: Chamelia

Author: Ethan Long

Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers

ISBN: 978-0316086127

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Meet Chamelia! Chamelia is a chameleon. Most chameleons like to blend in, but Chamelia prefers to stand out. She just loves being the center of attention. But when standing out means being left out, can Chamelia learn to share the spotlight?

Review:

Chamelia is a very fun and colorful picture book.  Chamelia is a chameleon, but contrary to the rest of her species, she doesn’t want to blend in, she wants to stand out.  After learning that standing out makes it hard to fit in, she learns to compromise but still be herself. 

I love the illustrations and the use of bright fabrics to make Chamelia pop off of each page.  The other chameleons are shades of a very pale green, but the title character is a darker, more vivid green.  The illustrations are muted shades of pastels, while Chamelia is a bright splash.  She is also an accessory queen, with tasteful shoes and purses to prove that she truly is a fashionesta. 

In her eagerness to stand out, though, she occasionally stumbles by being too different from her peers.  This gets poor Chamelia down in the dumps, and a brightly attired but very unhappy chameleon is a sad sight indeed.  With some help from her parents, Chamelia learns how to stand out, but still fit in at school.

I loved the message in Chamelia, and hope that it helps younger readers to find the courage to be themselves. 

Grade: B+

Review copy provided by publisher

Review: The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

 

Title: The Prince of Mist

Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

ISBN: 978-0316044806

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

t’s war time, and the Carver family decides to leave the capital where they live and move to a small coastal village where they’ve recently bought a home. But from the minute they cross the threshold, strange things begin to happen. In that mysterious house still lurks the spirit of Jacob, the previous owners’ son, who died by drowning.

With the help of their new friend Roland, Max and Alicia Carver begin to explore the strange circumstances of that death and discover the existence of a mysterious being called the Prince of Mist–a diabolical character who has returned from the shadows to collect on a debt from the past. Soon the three friends find themselves caught up in an adventure of sunken ships and an enchanted stone garden–an adventure that will change their lives forever.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book.  I enjoyed reading it, and I felt a connection with Max, the main character, from the very first page.  The story is deliciously creepy and suspenseful, and I couldn’t put it down.  Which leads to my dissatisfaction; the ending is abrupt, and there were so many unanswered questions that I feel a bit, dare I say, cheated?  The other two books in the series are only loosely connected, and don’t have the same characters.  So I am at a loss here; do I get all gushy about the run-up to the ending, or do I focus on my disappointment with the not so tidy finale? 

Max and his family move from the city to a seaside village during the war, where his father, an eccentric watchmaker, believes they will be safe from the tragedy of a seemingly never ending conflict.  From the moment they arrive, Max feels uneasy in his new surroundings.  The clock in the train stations runs backwards.  The creepy garden behind their yard has eerie statues of a circus troop clustered around a clown, which seems to move and change every time Max sees it.  The house has a sad history, as well; the only child of the former residents drowned tragically in the sea. 

After some unsettling accidents happen in the house, Max and his sister Alicia are both frightened.  There’s their youngest sister’s scary cat, those freaky statues, and things that seem to go bump in the night.  With their new friend, Roland, they are determined to discover the secret behind the unsettling events that keep happening.

The tense atmosphere kept me turning the pages, and I was even creeped out a few times.  I hate clowns, they are scary and wrong, and so I was a little leery every time Max so much as glanced over at the garden of statues.  The kids find themselves in several life threatening situations, which got my heart tripping in a panic.  Why, why, why do the characters in horror stories insist on putting themselves in danger?  Max, Alicia, and Roland are all very clever, so I wanted to shake them every time they did something that got them into trouble.  Agh!  Common sense!  Please, just use a little bit of it!

I loved the setting; the sleepy coastal village was perfect for a horror story.  You’ve got the hidden dangers lurking in the waters, sudden, violent storms, an isolated beach.  Yeow!  All of the components for a scary encounter with a scary, scary villain.  While the Prince of Mist was an evil, cunning opponent, I never felt that I understand what motivated him to be so horrible.  Being evil just for the sake of being evil isn’t convincing, but that is about all of the depth that Cain is given. 

Despite my disappointment with the final resolution, The Prince of Mist is a solid, engaging MG read. 

Grade: B

Review copy provided by publisher

Picture Book Review: Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell

 

Title: Me…Jane

Author: Patrick McDonnell

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

ISBN: 978-0316045469

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

In his characteristic heartwarming style, Patrick McDonnell tells the story of the young Jane Goodall and her special childhood toy chimpanzee named Jubilee. As the young Jane observes the natural world around her with wonder, she dreams of "a life living with and helping all animals," until one day she finds that her dream has come true.

One of the world’s most inspiring women, Dr. Jane Goodall is a renowned humanitarian, conservationist, animal activist, environmentalist, and United Nations Messenger of Peace. In 1977 she founded the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), a global nonprofit organization that empowers people to make a difference for all living things.

With anecdotes taken directly from Jane Goodall’s autobiography, McDonnell makes this very true story accessible for the very young–and young at heart.

Review:

Me…Jane caught my attention for two reasons.  First, it is illustrated by Patrick McDonnell, and I love his Mutts series.  Second, it is about Jane Goodall, and she’s a woman whom I admire very much.  She proved that women could conduct meticulous research in difficult conditions, and she made many startling discoveries while observing chimpanzees in Tanzania.  When I was in high school, I wanted to be like Jane Goodall, until I figured out that the bugs in the jungle were the size of soccer balls. 

Told with charming illustrations, Me…Jane follows the title character as she and her stuffed chimp explore the environment around her home.  Always fascinated with the outside world, Jane studied her backyard, taking detailed notes and making drawings of her observations.  I’m impressed by how hard she worked at cataloging the flora and fauna around her, perfecting skills that would become so important later in her life.  I love the theme of this picture book, too, and think it is an important one for kids to constantly be exposed to.  Everyone has dreams, and everyone has the ability to make them come true, if they are willing to work hard enough.

The visuals are delightful and capture Jane’s sense of adventure and wonder as she explores the world around her.  To compliment the simple, yet expressive illustrations, the narrative is sparse, but the prose carefully emphasizes the importance of following your dreams.

Grade: B+

Review copy provided by publisher

Review: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

 

Title: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Author: Grace Lin

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

ISBN: 978-0316038638

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

This Newbery Honor book features magic, adventure, friendship, and even a dragon who can’t fly!

In the valley of Fruitless Mountain, a young girl named Minli lives in a ramshackle hut with her parents. In the evenings, her father regales her with old folktales of the Jade Dragon and the Old Man on the Moon, who knows the answers to all of life’s questions. Inspired by these stories, Minli sets off on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man on the Moon to ask him how she can change her family’s fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest for the ultimate answer.

Grace Lin, author of the beloved Year of the Dog and Year of the Rat, returns with a wondrous story of adventure, faith, and friendship. A fantasy crossed with Chinese folklore, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a timeless story reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz. Her beautiful illustrations, printed in full-color, accompany the text throughout. Once again, she has created a charming, engaging book for young readers.

Review:

What a treat it was to read this book!  I hadn’t heard of it prior to receiving a review copy, and I am confused as to why.  It was just released in paperback, and it is one of the best MG books I have read.  Ever.  It made me laugh.  It held me enthralled.  It made me cry.  Why?  Because it came to an end.  It takes a special book to make me cry just because I have read the last page!  I loved Minli and Dragon, and was spellbound for the entire book.

Life for Minli and her parents is hard. They are poor, they struggle to grow enough food to feed themselves, and they live in the shadow in of barren mountain.  When Minli sees how hard her father works, and how her mother sighs with despair, she wants to do something, anything, to improve their fortune.  What she doesn’t expect is that a goldfish will send her on an epic journey, and that she will face more dangers than she could have imagined, and make friendships that will last a lifetime.

I don’t know how to explain how much I loved this book.  The format is different than anything I’ve read; each character has a story to tell, and all of these stories are interconnected and have a bearing on Minli’s quest.  These little vignettes add depth to the plot, and kept me even more engaged in Minli’s journey.  I started to look forward to reading all of short stories within the larger story, and learning how all of the characters’ lives were interwoven together.   All of the stories within the story meshed together to seamlessly as Minli risked everything to improve her parents’ lives.

I loved Minli and her bravery, and the way she decided that something needed to be done, and then she went out and did it.  I loved her kindness the best, though, and how she cared about others.  She never puts herself first, not even when it puts her quest in doubt.  As she moves from one adventure to the next, and meets new characters, she also changes and matures.  The Minli at the end of the book is an even kinder and much wiser Minli than the young, idealist girl we are first introduced to, whose most rebellious act was to purchase a goldfish from a traveling peddler.

To add to the charm, Grace Lin’s full-color illustrations are peppered throughout the book, and the chapter headers have simpler images rendered in different colors.  The images added so much personality to the story, and the flashes of color worked together to create a visually appealing book.  Once I picked it up, I didn’t want to put it back down.  I wanted to uncover all of the illustrations, page by page, as I journeyed along with Minli.

I can’t recommend Where the Mountain Meets the Moon highly enough.  This is an all-ages book, and it will appeal equally to boys and girls.  Even if you don’t normally read Middle-Grade novels, give this one a try.  You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A – Highly Recommended!

Review copy provided by publisher

Review: Huntress by Malinda Lo

 

Title: Huntress

Author: Malinda Lo

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

ISBN: 978-0316040075

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance.

To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Tanlili, the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magic, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherworldly. And yet the two girls’ destinies are drawn together during the mission. As members of their party succumb to unearthly attacks and fairy tricks, the two come to rely on each other and even begin to fall in love. But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart forever.

The exciting adventure prequel to Malinda Lo’s highly acclaimed novel Ash is overflowing with lush Chinese influences and details inspired by the I Ching, and is filled with action and romance.

Review:

Malinda Lo’s Huntress takes place in the same world as Ash, but the events take place centuries in the past.  This is very much a stand alone novel, and though the characters are mentioned in Ash, they do not have an active role in that book.  In Huntress, Kaede and Taisin are sent on a quest to bring spring back to their world, and end the darkness that is closing in on their kingdom.  The winter seems endless, crops are not growing, and people are starving.  A mysterious invitation to visit the fairy court adds another piece to the puzzle of a world out of sync, and the two young women are tasked with putting things right again.

Huntress is a fantasy novel where the characters are sent on a quest.  I enjoy these types of stories, because there is a diverse cast of characters who have to learn to get along with each other.  If they don’t, they don’t have much chance of success, and the odds of them living a long and happy life are pretty much nil.  Both Kaede and Taisin are students at the Academy, but that is where their similarities end.  Kaede is hiding from her family and the burden of her expected obligations, while Taisin is a gifted sage in training.  The two barely know each other, and they have little in common.  Kaede’s father is the King’s right-hand man, and she has known a life of privilege and wealth. She wants more out of life than the political marriage her father has planned for her, and she doesn’t hesitate to make her will known.

Taisin comes from a family of farmers, and all her life she has longed to be a sage.  She is the most gifted student the Academy has seen in decades, and it looks like her dreams will become a reality.  Except for the vision she keeps having about Kaede, where Taisin sends her off to her death.  Taisin can’t shake her feelings of dread and grief.  She knows she is seeing the future, and in this future, she is desperately in love with Kaede, but in order to save the kingdom and bring balance back to the world, she must sacrifice the person she loves the most.

The journey to the fairy kingdom is perilous, and comes at a great cost.  Deadly encounters and death occur suddenly, tripping up our group of intrepid travellers.  While full of danger and tension, there were times when I felt that the journey bogged down the rest of the plot.  I guess I can only take so many times of the characters setting up camp, starting a fire, and then packing up their supplies again the next morning.  The last Harry Potter book soured me on stories with camping sequences, because too much time was devoted to the particulars of that activity.  And I hate camping.  I admit it!

There is one aspect of the romance between Kaede and Taisin that didn’t ring true for me, and that was Kaede’s overly shy demeanor.  She is such a bold girl, who doesn’t hesitate to let her powerful father, or even the King, know what’s on her mind.  She was so timid and awkward with Taisin, to almost the end of the book, and that seemed out of character for her.  Taisin’s personality worked much better for me.  She has been having visions of sending Kaede to her death, so it made perfect sense that she would try to keep herself distant from her companion, and that she would hesitant to return Kaede’s advances.

Likable characters and a compelling fantasy world make Huntress a satisfying read.  I would love to spend more time getting to know the Fairy Queen and her magical city.

Grade: B

Review copy provided by publisher

Review: Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

 

Title: Ninth Ward

Author: Jewell Parker Rhodes

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

ISBN: 978-0316043076

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. She doesn’t have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya’s visions show a powerful hurricane–Katrina–fast approaching, it’s up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm.

Ninth Ward is a deeply emotional story about transformation and a celebration of resilience, friendship, and family–as only love can define it.

Review:

Ninth Ward is a wonderful book about a young girl who finds strength in adversity.  In the middle of the worst natural disaster in our country’s history, she learns to be true to herself and learns to accept who she is.  I loved Lanesha, and as Katrina approached, I started to feel just as uneasy as she did.  As her  guardian, Mama Ya-Ya, becomes more and more unsettled by the approaching storm, there is a frightening shift in their relationship.  Lanesha has always thought that Mama Ya-Ya was the strongest, wisest woman she knew, but the impending disaster makes her see that she needs to step up and be strong herself.  Lanesha didn’t have much in the way of material goods, but boy, this girl has such a strength of spirit and such a kind heart that you begin to wonder with growing dread – how will this terrible disaster change her?

The description of the storm is terrifying – loud, impossibly powerful, frighteningly intense, this is like something from your worst nightmare.  It is a monster raining havoc on the helpless Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya, as they cower in their ancient house and pray that it isn’t reduced to rubble around them.  It came to life and made my heart pound.  But what really scared me while reading about Katrina was knowing what happens next.  How will Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya survive what happens after Katrina’s fury passes, when the storm surge devastates the levees and lets the waters from the Mississippi pour into the already battered Ninth Ward?  The gates of hell have opened; how much can one young girl live through?

I was a little nervous about picking up this book because I remember Katrina so vividly.  I, however, was blessed to be an outsider looking in with horror at the damage done by this horrible storm.  I remember the rage and frustration I felt that our government couldn’t get it together enough to quickly and efficiently get relief supplies to the people who so desperately needed them.  The scenes from the Superdome are a travesty – how could a disaster of this magnitude happen here, in the wealthiest country in the world?  We were supposed to be prepared.   This was the best our leaders could do?  And to blame the victims for their own misery?  What kind of compassion is that?

Ninth Ward puts a very human face on the awful events that tore New Orleans apart. It’s a book about love, hope, and friendship.  It’s about the strength of a community, strength in adversity, and the very powerful will to survive in the midst of a disaster.  It’s also about learning who you are and never giving up.  This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Grade: A

Review copy obtained from my local library

Ash by Malinda Lo YA Novel Review


Title: Ash

Author: Malinda Lo

Publisher:  Little, Brown

ISBN:  9780316040099

Reading Ash is like taking a walk through a magical, mysterious forest.  Once you venture into the enchanted Wood with Ash, there is no guarantee that you’ll ever free yourself from the bewitched embrace of the trees.  Once you start reading this book, you won’t even want to escape; instead, you’ll remain spellbound until you reach the last page.  If you enjoy Patricia A. McKillip or Robin McKinley, you will like this book.

This is powerful retelling of Cinderella, and though much of Ash’s existence is bleak and lonely, the girl never allows herself to wallow in self-pity.  When she is still reeling from the death of her mother, Ash’s father remarries, bringing the Lady Isobel and her two daughters home after a trip to the city.  When he dies unexpectedly not long after, he leaves the family deep in debt.  He frittered away Lady Isobel’s fortune by making poor business decisions, and now her cruel step-mother has determined that Ash will pay back the debt by working as their servant.  Even the prospect of a life of drudgery can’t destroy Ash’s spirit.  She takes pleasure from roaming in the Wood behind the house, and cherishes her odd friendship with the fairy Sidhean.  When chance introduces her to the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, her life will never be the same. Will she find the strength to follow her heart and chase her dreams?

While this is not a happy book, it does manage to remain uplifting, because Ash never gives up.  Her step-mother is demeaning and abusive, and she tries for the entire length of the story to trap Ash into a cage of misery and hopelessness.  If her spirit is destroyed, it’s all the better to control her.  Ash’s life really sucks, but the girl never allows herself to give up and be the mindless servant her step-mother is trying to make her.  Instead, she finds ways to revitalize herself, to sneak small pleasures into her lonely life.  Her friendship with Sidhean, a dangerous, magical being, gives her an escape from her solitude.  But it’s her friendship with Kaisa, the free spirited huntress, that gives her hope.  Hope that she can rise above the cruel circumstances she’s trapped in, and hope that she can free herself from Sidhean’s seductive spell.

Old magic mixes uneasily with a more modern mode of thought, but Ash still holds to the old ways.  She believes in fairies and fairy spells, and as she gets older, she learns that there is a chilling truth to the fairy tales she loves so much.  While Lady Isobel and her step-sisters scoff at Ash’s quaint country ideals, Ash knows that there is more to the Wood than most can see.  Ash believes with her whole heart in fairies and their magic, and perhaps that is why magic is drawn to her.  Like the new, harsh reality of her life, she just accepts that magic is real, and it gives her the strength to face it head on.  I think that after you read this haunting, enchanting tale, that you, too, will believe.

Highly recommended.

Grade: A

Review copy provided by publisher