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Little White Lies (Debutantes): Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Book: Little White Lies (Debutantes, #1)
Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Pages: 400
Age Range: 12 and up

LittleWhiteLiesLittle White Lies is the first of the new Debutantes series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. The protagonist of Little White Lies is Sawyer Taft, an 18-year-old girl who was raised above a bar by her less than reliable single mother. Sawyer's life changes forever on the day she first meets her wealthy grandmother, Lillian Taft. Lillian gives Sawyer an offer she can't refuse. Live with Lillian for nine months, participating in a debutante season, and receive half a million dollars in trust for college. Also, have the chance to investigate to figure out who her unknown father might be. 

Little White Lies actually begins as an inexperienced police office named Mackie is left to cope with the presence of four white-gloved debutantes, clearly from wealth, in a holding cell. As Mackie tries to figure out their story, the action flashes back nine months to Sawyer's meeting with Lillian. The primary action moves forward in jumps, narrated from Sawyer's first person viewpoint, interspersed with brief scenes with Mackie in the jail cell. This technique allows Barnes to build suspense, and foreshadow certain aspects of Sawyer's story. 

And what a story it is: full of suspense, secrets, and yes, lies. I found Little White Lies to be compulsively readable. Although it's fairly lengthy, I devoured most of it in a single afternoon. [Luckily I have turned my 8-year-old into a bookworm. She understood and mostly let me be.] The characters aren't all particularly likable, but Sawyer is. And Lillian grows on you. The posh setting of the debutantes (country clubs, balls, charity auctions, spa days, and pearl necklaces) is nicely counter-balanced by Sawyer's much less polished manners. Here's Sawyer interacting with a man in a bike shop (where she works pre-Lillian):

"It's times like this," I told him, "that you have to ask yourself: is it wise to sexually harass someone who has both wire cutters and access to your brake lines?" (Chapter 1)

And here she is interacting with her new-found relatives:

"If there was one thing I'd learned growing up bar-adjacent, it was that sometimes, the best way to keep someone talking was to say nothing at all." (Chapter 10)

"For the record," I told my cousin, "any lock-picking ability I may or may not have acquired growing up has less to do with where I lived and more to do with the fact that I was a very weird, very obsessive little kid."

The lock popped open." (Chapter 17)

But really, I could have picked any of dozens of passages. Sawyer has a strong personality. Her rough edges are set against the knife in velvet glove mannerisms of the society set, where women cut one another down by saying sugary things that could be taken as compliments. The makes the book pleasurable to read. The twisty plot, with clues false and real planted throughout, makes it compelling.

Although Sawyer's mother's teen pregnancy is a major plot point, and there are references to teen drinking, there's no overt sex in the book. There is a blog that plays a part in the story on which someone is posting secrets written on intimate (but not too intimate) parts of her body (her face hidden). The fact that Sawyer is out of high school (via GED), and the importance of various adults to the story, makes this a book that I think will work well for adults as well as teens. 

My only complaint, really, is that I'm sure it will be at least a year until the next Debutantes book comes out. I highly recommend Little White Lies, and expect it to be a hit with teens and adults. 

Publisher: Freeform (Disney)  
Publication Date: November 6, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


House: 5 First Words Board Books: Michael Slack

Book: House: 5 First Words Board Books
Author: Michael Slack
Pages: 14 pages each
Age Range: 3-5

HouseBoardBookI don't normally review board books. But my daughter and I both thought that House: 5 First Words Board Books, illustrated by Michael Slack, was exceptional. It arrives as a box, hinged on the left-hand side, so that you can open it like a book. The outside of the box displays the exterior of a house, with a cut-out for the upstairs window. Inside, five little chunky board books are laid out face up, representing five locations in a house (and matching what you see on the cover of the box, like you are now peeking inside). The rooms consist of living room and bedroom upstairs, and bathroom, kitchen, and garage downstairs. 

The living room is the largest room (twice the width of the others) and drew us in first. Each page contains a simple labelled illustration of something that you might find in the living room: sofa, coffee table, computer, art, window, etc. The final page spread shows all of the items assembled together in a view of the whole room, with the text "living room". The other books follow the same general pattern. The bedroom is, as you would expect, a child's bedroom, so the illustrations include things like an easel and crayons. The kitchen has a high chair. The garage has a tricycle. It's definitely a family home. 

Although not specifically mentioned, a black cat makes a cameo in the final spread of each book. The cat is somewhat mischievous, hiding in a drawer, flushing the toilet, and getting behind the wheel of the car. My daughter and I found the presence of the cat a nice detail, and something to guess about as we read each book ("What will the cat be doing here?"). 

Slack's illustrations have a graphic design quality to them, with bold colors and simple shapes, and a robust two-dimensionality. The couch, for instance, is a flat shape with thick black lines delineating the seat, sides of the arms, and cushion divider. There's some texture to the green shape and the black lines, but it's more an abstract representation of a couch than anything else. I think this works in terms of being kid-friendly. You can tell what everything is, and the illustrations are highly accessible. I see this as a book that will make preschoolers want to try their hand at drawing household objects. Or perhaps they'll try abstract art, because the art in the living room is delightful. 

The whole package of House is simply satisfying. The way the books fit together in the box and the way the interior and exterior of the box reflect and augment what's going on in the book, works. The labels of the objects are simple and appropriate, and the illustrations are cheerful and straightforward, with just a hint of whimsical detail. My daughter would have flat-out adored these books when she was about three, and even at eight she was utterly charmed. We are at the stage of giving away a lot of books, but this one is already dear to our hearts, and going on our keep shelf. Highly recommended! This would be a wonderful gift for any preschooler. 

Publisher:  Chronicle Books (@ChronicleKids
Publication Date: September 11, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Third Mushroom: Jennifer L. Holm

Book: The Third Mushroom
Author: Jennifer L. Holm
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

ThirdMushroomThe Third Mushroom is a sequel to Jennifer Holm's The Fourteenth Goldfish (which I read at some point but apparently did not review). Both books feature a girl named Ellie and her scientist grandfather, Melvin. As The Third Mushroom begins Ellie is navigating middle school reasonably well. She's become best friends with kindred spirit Raj, and has reached a cordial state with her childhood best friend, Brianna.

Then Melvin shows up for a visit. Melvin, as the result of a previous science experiment, is an older, highly educated man who now has the body of a fourteen-year-old. Together, Melvin and Ellie undertake a project for the science fair, even as Ellie and Raj set out to understand the line between friendship and dating. The Third Mushroom is about family relationships, scientific experimentation, and trying new things, all with Jennifer Holm's pitch-perfect eye for what it's like to be in middle school. I especially admire her ability to share profound observations in a light-hearted way. 

Here is one of my favorite passages: 

"I'm heading to my first period when I run into Brianna. She's my old best friend from elementary school. We drifted apart when we started middle school. But it's strangely okay now. These days we're move like cousins who see each other at family reunions. We only remember the good times." (Page 27)

I found that passage utterly apt to my own experience. Here are a couple of middle school tidbits:

"By the time lunch rolls around, it's cold and windy. I'm tempted to go fish something out of the Lost and Found box. But then I remember my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Bennett, and how she used to call it the Lice and Found box, and I think better of it." (Page 52)

And: 

"Back in elementary school, gym was fun. We played handball and foursquare. They let us use Hula-Hoops. But gym in middle school is terrible. The teachers are mean and the uniforms stink. Literally. No one takes them home to get washed. 

Most of all, I hate running laps. They're boring, and I'm always one of the last kids to finish." (Page 99)

Yup. I also like Holm's casual, accepting take on Ellie's blended family (divorced parents, new step-dad, Melvin). And I LOVE her positive take regarding scientific experimentation. She slips in various tidbits about actual scientific discoveries (e.g. penicillin), and the benefits of making mistakes, without The Third Mushroom ever feeling didactic. Well, actually Melvin comes across as didactic sometimes, but this is ok, because he's an old man in a young, hormone-laden body, and it's funny. 

Readers will want to read The Fourteen Goldfish prior to reading The Third Mushroom. Even having read the first book several years ago, it took me a little while to orient myself to the story. But once I got settled in, I enjoyed every word, and read the rest of The Third Mushroom in a single sitting. A must-purchase for libraries serving fifth to eighth graders. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: September 4, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Skulduggery Pleasant (Book 1): Derek Landy

Book: Skulduggery Pleasant (Book 1)
Author: Derek Landy
Pages: 384
Age Range: 8-12

Skulduggery1HarperCollins is in the process of reintroducing Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant series here in the US, after the books did much better in Ireland and the UK. As outlined in a May Publisher's Weekly article, they have issued paperbacks of the first three books, which were published earlier in the US, and will be publishing books four to six in the US for the first time this  month. I agreed to take a look at the first book. I read it in a single sitting. I do think that the time is right this time, and that the series is going to be a hit.

Skulduggery Pleasant, Book 1, begins when a horror author named Gordon Edgley dies unexpectedly. Gordon leaves his home and most of his property to his favorite niece, Stephanie. Left alone at Gordon's house through circumstance,  Stephanie, who has always craved adventure, finds herself under attack and drawn into an unexpected world of magic. She is aided by, and becomes something of a sidekick to, Skulduggery Pleasant, a walking, talking skeleton. Together with a cast of not-necessarily trustworthy allies, Stephanie and Skulduggery fight to save the world. 

Though full of dangerous escapes, epic battles, and magical books and artifacts, what I liked most about Skulduggery Pleasant was Landy's lightly ironic voice. The byplay between Stephanie and Skulduggery, and particularly Skulduggery's occasionally world-weary remarks, made the pages fly by. There is a bit of Irish syntax here and there (the hood of the car is a "bonnet", etc.), but nothing that will be difficult for anyone who has read the Harry Potter books. 

Here are a couple of snippets, chosen from early in the books, so as to avoid spoilers. First, a paragraph that gives you a feel for Stephanie:

"There was an extra door in the living room, a door disguised as a bookcase, and when she was younger Stephanie liked to think that no one else knew about this door, not even Gordon himself. It was a secret passageway, like in the stories she'd read and she's make up adventures about haunted houses and smuggled treasure. This secret passageway would always be her escape route, and the imaginary villains in these adventures would be dumfounded by her sudden and mysterious disappearance. But now this door, this secret passageway, stood open, and there was a steady stream of people through it, and she was saddened that this little piece of magic had been taken from her." (Page 3)

She's a great character, stubborn, outside of the mainstream, and a creative problem-solver. And here's Skulduggery:

"Skulduggery put his gloved hands in his pockets and cocked his head. He had no eyeballs so it was hard to tell if he was looking at her or not. "You know, I met your uncle under similar circumstances. Well, kind of similar. But he was drunk. And we were in a bar. And he had vomited on my shoes. So I suppose the actual circumstances aren't overly similar, but both events include a meeting, so... My point is, he was having some trouble and I was there to lend a hand, and we become good friends after that. Good, good friends."" (Page 43)

Skulduggery Pleasant, Book 1, carries a blurb from Rick Riordan, and this is no coincidence. This would make an excellent next series for fans of the the Percy Jackson books. Skulduggery and Stephanie are an unusual pair of heroes, but one that kids will find easy to root for. Highly recommended, and well worth adding to elementary and middle school library collections. 

Publisher:  HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: May 1, 2018 (reprint edition, original copyright 2007)
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute: KJ Dell'Antonia

Book: How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute
Author: KJ Dell'Antonia
Pages: 320
Age Range: Adult Nonfiction (Parenting)

HappierParentI rarely review books for adults on this blog, but KJ Dell'Antonia's new parenting book How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute inspired me to say a few words. I've read and enjoyed a number of Dell'Antonia's articles over the years, and so was interested to hear her voice in book form. I've also been on something of a personal quest to be happier in my own parenting, so this book had the potential to be a good fit.

I was not disappointed. It seems that Dell'Antonia, working (journalist) mother of four children, has been on a similar quest for quite a while. She read extensively on parenting, talked to a variety of parents and other experts, and conducted a survey. Her emphasis for the book is on changes that parents can make to their parenting styles, hacks of various sorts, that will make the parent happier. And happier parents will, she believes (as do I) ultimately lead to happier kids. 

Dell'Antonia cites a number of books that I had already read and enjoyed, like How to Raise and Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haimes, It's OK Not to Share by Heather Shumaker, and The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. I felt early on in the book that KJ and I we were philosophically aligned, and I marked a number of other books for future reads. I also got a kick out of the fact that two of the parents she cited were people that I knew (Marjorie Ingall and Jason Kotecki), at least in the sense of having met them in person and shared a meal. 

Anyway, How to Be a Happier Parent consists of chapters dedicated to each of nine parenting areas that Dell'Antonia and the people she talked with have found to particular sources of unhappiness or stress for parents. She starts with getting everyone out of the house in the morning and progresses through things like enforcing chores, mediating between siblings, and monitoring homework.

Her basic approach is guided by a set of ten mantras for happier parents that she explains early in the book and then repeatedly refers back to. For instance: "What you want now isn't always what you want later" (you have to take the long view when doing things like enforcing chores, even when being the fun, easy parent is more appealing in the short run). I especially liked "You do you", as in, you don't have to be the Pinterest-perfect parent, your family can do what your family likes.

I highlighted passages in basically every chapter (except for the one on siblings, which I skipped because my daughter doesn't have siblings). In truth, a lot of the recommendations in the book consist of things that I already believe, like staying as far out of your children's homework assignments as you can and using natural consequences to teach them to pack their backpacks properly (by refusing to bring something to them later). But there's a difference between believing philosophically in doing something and actually doing it. And for me, at least, there's value in repetition and the validation of hearing advice that you in your heart want to hear. (Like "you do you.")

The piece of advice that stood out the most for me, and that I feel like could actually change how I do things, was regarding discipline. The general idea is to treat discipline not so much as enforcement but as teaching kids how to enact certain behaviors. And to remind yourself that it takes kids a long (long, long, long) time to learn things sometimes, so you just have to keep repeating yourself over and over again. You should try to do this without beating yourself up over having failed to get this across in the previous 100 times, which will help in staying calm. Here's a section of the text on this that I highlighted:

"“but you’re not here just to stop him in the moment.” You’re here, she says, to teach your child to make the right choices for himself, so offer that option first, even if it seems as if he should know better by now. Some things take a lot of saying...

That whole sequence of connecting, teaching, and then, if necessary, ending a behavior is one you will repeat again and again, especially with a younger child, so make your words positive ones, even if the behavior is anything but. “If I’m going to say it a hundred times,” says Faber, “I figure it might as well be something I want my child to learn.”...

That kind of repetition is where a lot of us fall down. Consistency is hard, and it’s especially difficult when we’ve become so accustomed to an on-demand world...

When we accept discipline as a long-term teaching process, it gets easier. Instead of thinking, I’ve asked him hundreds of times to do this and he still doesn’t do it, parents who are happier in their disciplinary role think something more along the lines of I’ve asked him a hundred times and I’ll ask him a hundred more and that’s how we get there." (Chapter 7)

I'm going to try to remember this. I think it will help. And really, that's why I read parenting and other self-help type books. I'm looking for those ideas that resonate with my own personal philosophy and that might, if implemented, help in some way. 

So, even as someone who has read a lot of books on related topics, I found How to be a Happier Parent useful. This book is not for the mother who is looking for validation in her quest to get her child into Stanford at all costs, or for the father trying figure out how to push his lazy child to practice more so that he can get that football scholarship. (Though these parents could learn a lot if they did read it.) But if you are a busy parent and you are looking for some tips on taking a deep breath, slowing things down, taking off some of the pressure and enjoying your family more, this is the book for you. Highly recommended! 

Publisher: Avery  
Publication Date: August 21, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian: Jacob Sager Weinstein and Vera Brosgol

Book: Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian
Author: Jacob Sager Weinstein
Illustrator: Vera Brosgol
Pages: 48
Age Range: 4-8

Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian, written by Jacob Sager Weinstein and illustrated by Vera Brosgol, is fabulous. The subtitle tells you all you need to know: "Saving the world with the right book at the right time!". It's basically a graphic novel in picture book format, which perhaps explains the excellent choice of Anya's Ghost and Be Prepared author Brosgol as the illustrator. Perhaps this also explains why my "I only read graphic novels and picture books" daughter adored it. 

An evil genius, Doctor Golckenspiel, escapes from the Depository for the Criminally Naughty. He demands a huge ransom from the world, otherwise his "army of giant moths will eat the world's books!!!". The world's best secret agents are sent in, but fail. It's up to someone "who loves books so much that she would risk her life to save them." 

Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian, using a giant book as a kite/parachute, sneaks in to the evil doctor's lair, bearing a set of books and a backpack full of disguises. She uses these to execute a carefully thought out plan involving distraction, misdirection, and information. For instance, disguised as a jail guard she provides the trapped secret agents with a book about how to pick locks, enabling them to escape. 

The story is told in panels, half page to full spread size, with boxed text from a narrator, and lots of speech bubbles. Like this:

"(Narrator:) But who was that janitor?
Who knew just the right book
to mop away boredom."

and this:

"And now that his plans, like his 
clothes, were in tatters ..."

It's a fun read-aloud, with lots of places to add dramatic emphasis. There's also humor, as when the bored security guard is distracted by a sewing book, and ends up doing embroidery. Brosgol's comic-like illustrations include some ethnic diversity, as well as plenty of multi-size shapes and unusual angles to add movement and drama. The evil doctor looks basically like a clown. Lyric's various costumes are hilarious.

One detail that my daughter noticed that I thought was a nice touch was the use of different colors around the dialog bubbles for the different characters (magenta for Lyric, etc.). This wasn't really necessary to follow the story, but it added something nevertheless. 

Overall, the mix of humor, drama, and celebration of books should make Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian a hit with teachers, librarians, and kids alike. It is certainly destined to be a favorite and a re-read in our house. Highly recommended, and a great addition to school and public library collections. 

Publisher: Clarion Books (@HMHKids) 
Publication Date: September 4, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Imposters: Scott Westerfeld

Book: Imposters
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Pages: 416
Age Range: 12 and up

ImpostersImposters is a new book set in the world of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies/Pretties/Specials/Extras series (links go to my reviews), a generation or so after Tally Youngblood and her friends changed the world. Frey and Rafi are the motherless twin daughters of a powerful, ruthless ruler. Frey, the younger by 20-some minutes, is kept hidden. Only a few trusted advisors know of her existence. Her role is to provide protection for her sister. She is trained to kill enemies, and poses as her sister in riskier public appearances. Rafi is the public face, focused on politics, society, and her appearance. Despite their different roles, the two sisters are close, viewing themselves as two sides of the same knife. 

Imposters is Frey's story, however. When the leader of a rival city asks for a "visit" from Rafi, as a guarantee of safety during a business arrangement, Frey is sent in Rafi's place. Separated from her sister for the first time, and living more publicly (though incognito) than she has before, Frey blossoms. She develops an alliance, and possibly more, with rival scion Col Parafox. Then violence ensues and Frey and Col find themselves in peril and on the run. 

Imposters is the first of a new four-book series, and ends on something of a cliffhanger. The tone of Imposters is similar to that of the Uglies series, though the world has changed significantly in the aftermath of Tally's overthrow of the Pretties regime. Westerfeld explores the fact that freedom isn't the same as utopia. Corrupt leaders can arise. Tensions can flare. Scarce resources can cause conflict.

There are references to the pre-Pretties civilization (Rusties = our world), and there are rebels who long for the return of Tally Youngblood. As in the Uglies books, there are advanced technologies for surgery and generation of food and clothing. There are also advanced technologies for spying, and avoiding being spied upon. There are echoes of the Hunger Games series as well as the Uglies series (calorie blockers, for instance, to allow people to eat to excess).

But the premise of being a hidden twin, who no one knows about, is fresh and compelling. Frey is a strong protagonist, physically and mentally, one who is easy to root for. I found Col a little bit of an enigma, but hope to see his personality fleshed out more in future installments, along with those of some of the supporting characters. 

Imposters is a fast-paced read. I tore through it in a day. I didn't mind the unresolved ending because I was expecting it, but I do look forward to the next book. It's not necessary to re-read the Uglies series first to follow Imposters. Westerfeld provides just enough background to refresh the reader's memory. But it certainly couldn't hurt, for those who like to prepare. It's an engaging world in which to spend time. I am certain that fans of the Uglies series will enjoy Imposters, as will anyone who likes reading about Machiavellian conflicts set in future worlds. Recommended!

Publisher: Scholastic
Publication Date: September 11, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Goodnight Train Rolls On! by June Sobel and Laura Huliska-Beith

Book: The Goodnight Train Rolls On!
Author: June Sobel
Illustrator: Laura Huliska-Beith
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-8

Did you know that there is a sequel to The Goodnight Train coming out in early September? It's true! The Goodnight Train Rolls On! is set to roll. The Goodnight Train was a family favorite and regular bedtime read in my household for years. I can still recite much of it by heart. My 8-year-old was SO excited when I unwrapped the sequel. We both thought that it was fabulous. 

The Goodnight Train Rolls On!, like the first book, uses the journey of a train as a metaphor for the journey towards sleep. In this case most of the passengers are already asleep as the story begins, but they are moving into dreams. Members of the crew sprinkle "dream dust" (a mix of moons and stars of varying sizes) all around them as they sleep. Meanwhile, the train's crew has to deal with sheep invading the track, and a particularly mischievous sheep causing all sorts of over-the-top problems (like a pillow fight with a giant teddy bear). By the end of the ride, however, the train ends up safe at home, with the naughty sheep finally cooperating, and pretty much everyone else asleep and dreaming. 

Here's a snippet (over two page spreads):

"Clouds blow in. The night turns gray.
The Goodnight Train is on its way!

Chugga! Chugga!
Shhhhhhh! Shhhhhhh!

Down Midnight Mountain, race along
until something seems very wrong!

A naughty sheep has switched the track.
Uh-oh! There's no turning back!

On Wild Dream Hill, whistles blare
Warning of a great, big bear!"

So well-done! It's rhyming without being at all grating or clunky (as I find many rhyming picture books these days), and full of things that are fun to read aloud. What kid won't enjoy an exaggerated "Uh-Oh!" or a whistle "blaring"? 

The "dream dust" filled illustrations are, if anything, even more lovely than those of the first book. There are a couple of page spreads where you have to turn the book sideways to read, lending some visual excitement to the middle of the book. The sheep are joyous, and the bedtime imagery is everywhere (sleeping caps, cookies, etc.). There's a nice mix of soothing images and silliness, with the occasional slightly darker dreams. The final image shows a sleeping girl holding a book and a sleeping cat, sharing her bed with a sleeping skunk crew member and a sleeping formerly naughty sheep, with dream dust floating happily above. Immensely satisfying all around. 

I can't think of a much better baby gift (or birthday gift for a preschooler) than a pairing of The Goodnight Train and The Goodnight Train Rolls On! Though the book held up for my 8-year-old, I think a lot of her joy in the sequel was due to nostalgia for the first book. The sweet spot for reading these books is around 3-5, I would say. Old enough to happily repeat the "Chugga! Chugga! Shhhhhh! Shhhhhhh!", and then fall asleep. The Goodnight Train Rolls On! is a highly recommended and welcome addition to the canon of picture books. Don't miss it!

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids) 
Publication Date: September 4, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Walrus in the Bathtub: Deborah Underwood and Matt Hunt

Book: Walrus in the Bathtub
Author: Deborah Underwood
Illustrator: Matt Hunt
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

Walrus in the Bathtub is an over-the-top tale about a family who moves into a new house and find a walrus living in the bathtub. This causes all sorts of "bad things", like "bathtub tidal waves" that result in "soggy suppers" (the water leaking right through the dining room ceiling), and "toothpaste troubles" when the walrus uses it all up. The extremely loud walrus songs are a particular problem, at least for most of the family. The little sister seems to take it all in stride. But when the family gives up and decides to move out, a misunderstanding is revealed, and common ground is eventually reached. 

This is just pure silliness, of course. They ask a firefighter for help and he tells them "Call us if he gets stuck in a tree." They try dressing up to somehow entice the walrus out of the tub, and of course that utterly fails. And so on. But the writing style is fun. The book is written mainly in the form of lists produced by the older brother, together with some dialog. Most of the lists are of three items, but my favorite was this one:

"Things that are louder than walrus songs:

1) Nothing"

The above is on a page where you see "AAAAHHHROOOOOOOOOOOHHHHH!!!!!" weaving across the page, and the parents and brother trying to drown out the noise with headphones, hats, and pillows. The little sister seems to be singing along, gleeful. Matt Hunt's illustrations are colorful and cheerful, filled with details like "Walrus Weekly: Home Edition" set casually atop some boxes of clams. I especially liked the sister, with her red glasses and gap-toothed grin, and the way the brother carries a little notebook around everywhere for his lists. 

A note on diversity. The dad and the brother are clearly white, with brown hair and freckled faces. The mom and the sister, though, looked a little Asian to me, with darker skin and straight back hair. It's hard to say for sure, because of the informal style of the illustrations. But I took the liberty of telling my daughter that this might be a blended family. I thought that would be cool to see represented and unremarked in the text. But I can't say for sure. 

I'm not sure how well Walrus in the Bathtub is going to hold up to repeat readings, but my 8 year old thought that it was hilarious, and I enjoyed it myself. I liked the list-centered approach, and I thought that the ending was creative. I liked how the family stuck together, with the exception of the little sister, who silently formed her own option. I think Walrus in the Bathtub would make a nice library purchase - the eye-catching cover will have kids eagerly grabbing it from the shelves. Recommended and a lot of fun!  

Publisher: Dial Books (@PenguinKids)  
Publication Date: July 10, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Not If I Save You First: Ally Carter

Book: Not If I Save You First
Author: Ally Carter
Pages: 304
Age Range: 12 and up

NotIfISaveYouNot If I Save You First is a recent thriller by Ally Carter. 10-year-old Maddie, daughter of a senior secret service agent, is best friends with Logan, son of the recently elected President. The two children are inseparable and the White House is their fiefdom. After a near-kidnapping of the first lady, however, Maddie's dad moves her to a remote cabin in Alaska, with basically no outside human contact. Six isolated years and hundreds of unanswered letters to Logan later, Maddie is furious with both Logan and her father. When Logan is sent on a visit to the cabin as a punishment, she has every intention of making him pay. When Logan is kidnapped, however, Maddie finds herself with no choice but to go after her childhood friend. A thrilling chase and quest for survival follows, full of twists, turns, and tidbits about the Alaska wilderness. 

Maddie is a resourceful, if somewhat bitter, character. Her life in Alaska has taught her various survival skills, though she maintains hints of her previous glam-loving self (such as a bedazzled hatchet). She is more than a match for her enemies, but is vulnerable to Logan's charms. Logan, despite a reputation as a rebel, turns out to have some self-defense skills, too. Here's Maddie:

"... Maddie walked to the river and gathered the biggest rocks she could then placed them like an arrow, pointing the way. She piled a few smaller stones on top, just high enough to be noticed in a few inches of snow and ice, but not so high that they might topple.

Then Maddie lowered her hood. She brought her hand to the side of her face and pressed her palm against the largest of the rocks until her bloody handprint shone like an eerie beacon, announcing the world: Trouble came this way.

But trouble was Maddie's family's business, so she did the only thing that made sense. She followed it." (Page 89)

And here's Logan:

""So what's your name?" Logan wanted to sound casual, maybe crazy. A sane person would be terrified by now, he knew, ranting and rambling and promising to give the man with the gun anything he wanted. 

But Logan had learned a long time ago that there was nothing you could give a man with a gun to make him happy. Men with guns were only satisfied when they took. And Logan was going to hang on to the last of his self-respect for as long as he possibly could." (Page 101)

Not If I Save You First is a bit far-fetched in terms of the plot, but the details about survival in the Alaskan wilderness feel authentic. The conflict and growing attraction between the characters rings true, also (though I never really understood why Logan didn't write back to Maddy). Anyone who has enjoyed Ally Carter's other books while certainly want to give it a look, as will fans of teen survival or spy stories. Not If I Save You First is a fast-paced read that you'll want to devour in a single sitting - ideally on a warm summer day, or beside a cozy fire. Recommended!

Publisher: Scholastic 
Publication Date: March 27, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Willa of the Wood: Robert Beatty

Book: Willa of the Wood
Author: Robert Beatty
Pages: 384
Age Range: 9-12

WillaWilla of the Wood by Robert Beatty is the first book that I've felt compelled to review in quite some time. Honestly, not many books are capable of making me stay up late to finish these days, but this one did. It is suspenseful, beautiful, and thought-provoking, while featuring unique and memorable characters. The end brought a little tear to my eye. Willa of the Wood is set in the same Great Smoky Mountain region as Beatty's Serafina series (see reviews here and here), but features a brand new protagonist.

Willa is a Faeran, or night-spirit. She lives with her clan, most notably her grandmother, Mamaw, deep in the wood. She's been trained to be a jaetter, which is basically a thief, stealing money, food, and artifacts from the humans who are starting to populate the area. But unlike most of the jaetters, Willa possesses ancient abilities once common among her people. She can change skin color, and blend in with the forest. She can speak to plants and animals. She can ask a tree for help as she climbs, and find branches bending to help her. She knows little about the "day-folk" (homesteaders), but much about the problems that have arisen within her clan over her lifetime.  

The home of Willa's clan, and her abilities, reminded me a little bit of the world in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Green Sky trilogy. Here's a description:

"She was part of this clan, and it was part of her, as inextricable as root and soil. Willa looked up, beyond the throng of the Faeran that surrounded her, toward the ceiling. The hall had been built for many thousands of people to gather here, but far fewer than that remained. The walls of the great hall rose up all around, vast expanses of dark brown woven sticks reaching to a large gaping hole broken to the sky above. What was left of the decaying ceiling and walls was held aloft by the ancient, massive woven-stick sculptures of giant trees, the columns of their trunks soaring upward to spreading canopies above. Thousands of hand-curled leaves glimmered with emerald green, and brilliant kaleidoscopes of ornately woven birds of all shapes and sizes and colors seemed to be flying through the branches of the trees." (Page 93, ARC)

I don't want to give away anything about the plot. Suffice it to say that Willa finds herself in peril on several occasions, and has to call on both her inner resources and special skills to survive. Parts of the story, as with the Serafina books, are quite dark. Although this book is certainly middle grade, I will personally wait until my eight-year-old is a bit older before recommending it to her. 

Other things worth knowing about the book: 

  • There is diversity. In addition to the Faeran, the humans include both white homesteaders and Cherokee tribe members. 
  • There are also loggers, and quite chilling depictions of the evils of clear-cutting old growth forests (as seen from the perspective of someone who knows the trees personally, and thinks of them as if they were people). The loggers were a bit one-note as villains, but I doubt most kids will mind that. 
  • A caring adult (human) plays a major role in the story, as he and Willa help one another. I found this refreshing - in so many children's books adults are either absent or presented as villains or buffoons. Beatty offers a nuanced treatment of the different viewpoints of Willa (who would never harm an animal) and the man (who has cut down trees to build his home, etc.). She is baffled, for instance, over the idea that he can own land.
  • Animals also play important roles in the story. 

In short, Willa of the Wood is wonderful, and has my highest recommendation. It is not necessary to have read the Serafina books to read this one. Though I certainly recommend those, too, Willa tugged more at heart. 

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication Date: July 10, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Time Bomb: Joelle Charbonneau

Book: Time Bomb
Author: Joelle Charbonneau
Pages: 352
Age Range: 12 and up

TimeBombTime Bomb is a standalone young adult thriller about a high school bombing. The story begins with a brief scene in the afternoon in which the reader learns that several teens are trapped in the school, and that the bomber is one of them. The time frame then moves back to the morning, with short chapters from the perspectives of each of six kids. As the book progresses, the reader (and the other kids) has to figure out who the bomber is. Each of the six main characters has gone to school planning something desperate, but their individual motivations are only gradually revealed.

Time Bomb  reads as a combination of suspenseful thriller and The Breakfast Club. The carefully balanced diversity of the students (in terms of race, religion, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, popularity, and body types) struck me as a bit contrived, but the survival story and the mystery both held my interest. I did have a guess as to the identify of the culprit by mid-way through the book, but I wasn't sure, and I appreciated Charbonneau's continued planting of clues. 

In a ripped from the headlines touch, one of the kids is the daughter of a senator who is trying to enact legislation that "would require that students and teachers inform the administration if they thought someone in the school might be interested in doing harm to students, teachers, or school property. Any students reported would then have to hand over their passwords to social media and email accounts of face suspension and a potential investigation by federal authorities." (Page 7-8)

It's the interactions between the students, most of whom don't know one another prior to the bombing, that give the book its heart. This is constantly balanced with efforts towards survival, however. I do think that the combination works, and will keep kids reading. 

I'm not sure whether the timing of this book, released one month after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, will end up good or bad for readership. I personally had to wait a couple of weeks before I was ready to read it. But it certainly does offer insights into the struggles that are going on inside the hearts and minds of high school students, and the ways that some of them may respond. There are characters offering both windows and mirrors for any teen reader. I had a hint of the feeling that I had after reading Thirteen Reasons Why, that somewhere, some reader of this book might be inspired to reach out to fellow students. And if not, well, most will still enjoy solving the mystery, and wondering what they might do to survive. Recommended!

Publisher:  HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: March 13, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).