Friday, July 21, 2017

Spirit Hunters (Book 1) by Ellen Oh

It’s early summer and Harper Raine, 12, isn’t very happy about the family’s move to Washington, DC. Older sister Kelly thinks the move is all Harper’s fault because of starting a fire at school and then having a terrible accident at Briarly, a psychiatric hospital, that left her with both arms broken and two broken ribs. Harper, however, has absolutely no memory of either event

The new house is unbearably hot because of broken air conditioning, except for 4 year-old MIchael’s room, which is unnaturally cold. And Michael claims to have made a new friend in his room named Billy that no one else can see. Slowly, Harper begins to see her brother change from a sweet, loving little boy to a mean, violent child who only wants to stay in his room with Billy. 

When Harper mets Dayo, a Jamaican girl who lives a few blocks away, they become instant friends. Days knows some of the odd history of Harper’s new house, and tells her it has always been considered to be haunted.

As something evil and malicious takes over Michael more and more, Harper and Dayo research on the house’s history and discover some really frightening information. And it helps when Harper reconnects with her old friend Rose, a ghost who lives in a family mirror, and who can help figure things out. At the same time, Harper begins to remember more details about the fire and her accident at Briarly. And she is beginning to see glimpses of Billy, the boy possessing her brother. But what can two 12 year-old girls and a sweet ghost do in the face of such evil?

Luckily, Harper’s estranged grandmother lives nearby and shows up suddenly.  Grandma Lee is a Korean mudang or shaman, and her belief and work in the spiritual world is what has alienated Mrs. Raine from her mother. She immediately accesses the situation with the house and especially with Michael, who by now is almost totally possessed by Billy. And she informs Harper that she too is a mudang, and it is up to her to exorcise the house and her brother. But does Harper’s understand her newly uncovered ability as a spirit hunter enough to go up against such a strong malevolence.

Spirit Hunters is a fast read simply because you can’t put it down, the need to know what happens next is just too great. Even though the story covers only 10 days, Oh manages to build the tension slowly, beginning with a playful insinuation of creepiness and working up to almost full scale horror. Some of the tropes she used are a bit cliché, like oozing, bleeding walls, or floating ghosts, but these by no means diminish the delicious pleasure of the story for fans of scary tales.

Oh's writing is friendly and pretty straight forward, but I liked that in-between the third person narrative are Harper’s first person journal entries. These allow the reader to directly know and understand what she is feeling and thinking, and which also slowly reveal the blocked events surrounding the fire at school and the accident at the psychiatric hospital as they resurface in Harper's memory.

And I liked the way Oh introduced Harper’s Korean identity on her mother’s side of the family (her father is clearly not Korean). In Spirit Hunters, Harper begins to explore more fully this part of who she is and, I hope, it will expand subsequent books in this new series. 

Spirit Hunters takes place in Washington DC and you couldn’t ask for a better ghost story location (except maybe New Orleans). There’s just something about those old homes, the sidewalks inlaid with bricks, and the heat and dense humidity of summer that can be cut with a knife that all just lends itself to a well-done scary story.

If you want a good hair-raising scare this summer, do pick up a copy of Spirit Hunters and enjoy.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss Plus

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts by Avi

One of the things I like about reading a novel by Avi is that I can (almost) always count on it being an interesting work of historical fiction and his latest novel is no exception.

The story begins on the morning of November 12, 1724. Oliver, 12, wakes up to discover that not only has a violent storm flooded his home and his town of Melcombe Regis on the Dorset coast, but his father is also missing, and Oliver has no idea where he might be. His father left a note telling him where he went, but it is too waterlogged to read.

Left with no money and no food, Oliver heads outside, and discovers a shipwreck on the beach. He decides to explore a little even though he knows that taking anything at all from a shipwreck is a death-by-hanging offense. Still, when he discovers 30 shillings, he decides to “borrow” 23 shillings, which he figures is more than enough money to live on until his father returns.

Unfortunately for Oliver, his lawyer father has managed to offend pretty much everyone in Melcombe Regis, so when those in authority discover that he is alone and his father missing, they decide the best place for Oliver is in the poorhouse.

After hiding his ill-gotten shillings, and figuring the poorhouse is at least good for food and shelter, Oliver lets himself be taken to there with plans on remaining for only two weeks. But escaping it takes longer and is harder than he had anticipated. But escape he does, and decides to travel to London, where his older sister Charity lives and works and who may know something about what happened to their father.

The road to London, however, is paved with one setback after another for Oliver, including a gang of ruthless highway robbers, led by one notorious Captain Hawkes. Kidnapping Oliver, Hawkes already knows about the shillings he stole from the shipwreck, and decides that since Oliver is already a thief, he can be used for more highway robberies.

Just when you think that Oliver couldn’t possibly have more adventures and misadventures, Hawkes takes him to London, and next thing Oliver knows, he is reluctantly involved with the (real life) criminal Jonathan Wild. But will he ever find Charity and his father and get out of this mess?

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts is a very exciting story. Each chapter ends with such a strong cliffhanger, that I couldn’t help but turn the page and keep reading. And I did finish the book in one sitting because of that. 

Avi is really a master at placing his characters in difficult situations, and then following them step-by-step as their story plays out. In this way, it makes it so easy and rather understandable as we watch Oliver’s life spiral into crime.

Oliver narrates this engaging tale in language that authentically reflects the time in which he lives, but not so much so that it will put young readers off. Besides, Oliver is just too appealing to leave him to his fate without taking the journey with him.

I also feel that some of the novel's real strength lies in the vivid descriptions of life in early 18th century England. The abusive treatment of even very young children is part of Oliver’s experience in the poorhouse, where cold, underfed regimented children are forced to do hard, menial work for long hours and faced cruel punishment for any act of disobedience. 
In Melcombe Regis and in London, there are depictions of the farce of 18th century "justice" as practiced in the Old Bailey and the prisons of the period (where prisoners are charged for the privilege of being incarcerated).

All in all, The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts is an exciting adventure. It is the first book in a series and I personally can’t wait to read Book 2 and see what else life holds for Oliver Cromwell Pitts.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Algonquin Young Readers

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is a weekly event hosted by Shannon Messenger at Book Ramblings, and Plenty of Shenanigans

Friday, July 14, 2017

National Geographic Kids Almanac 2018

When I was growing up, every year a book was published called Information Please Almanac and I couldn’t wait to get a copy and spend the rest of the year reading all the difference kinds of information bytes that were included in it. So I was pretty excited to receive a review copy of National Geographic’s Almanac 2018.

Fans of previous Almanac’s will be happy to see this newest edition, and newbies to it are in for a real treat. Beginning with some interesting and cool things to expect in 2018, the Almanac goes on to looks at eleven more chapters that are chockablock with interesting and fascination information. There is a chapter on explorers and Awesome Exploration, on Amazing Animals, Going Green (very important for today’s world), Engineering and Technology including inventors and their inventions. The Wonders of Nature includes weather, gardens and life zones. 

Chapter Seven could be seen as a seventh inning stretch. It includes boredom-busting jokes, games, puzzles and other fun stuff. This is followed by a chapter on Space and Earth, then one on Culture Connection, where, for instance you can discover which Chinese Zodiac you are based on the year of your birth, and explore holidays around the world. And lastly, there is a chapter on Life Science, History Happens and Geography Rocks. There are also pages in each chapter with fun quizzes, funny-fills, and homework help suggestions, like the one on how to write an essay. 

The National Geographic Kids Almanac 2018 has so much information in it, it is sure to keep kids busy and entertained all summer long, and who knows, maybe something found inside will spark a deeper interest in something. Just in case that happens, there a list at the back of the book for kids who want to learn more. And one of the things that makes this a really nice book is that it is interactive.

July 14th is Shark Awareness Day and although that shark on the cover is pretty formidable looking, lots of kids are fascinated by these large creatures of the deep anyway. You can find lots of information in the Almanac about sharks because the 2018 Almanac Newsmaker Challenge is about saving them. Kids can find more information about this and about sharks, including a shark mask to color and cut out and two posters that can be downloaded HEREMy personal favorite shark is Mary Lee the Shark, a great white that is tracked by OCEARCH who likes to cruise the East Coast. I like to see her travels as she swims the Atlantic Ocean. You can find Mary Lee on twitter @MaryLeeShark and track her pings along with the scientists. There is also a nice article about Mary Lee and sharks in general in the New York Times that may be of interest to budding sharkophiles. 

Going on a road trip with the family this summer? This is the ideal book to take along in the car, train, plane, or boat to keep the kids busy with all kinds of fun stuff.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, National Geographic Kids

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Mapping My Day by Julie Dillemuth, illustrated by Laura Wood

I’d always found that summertime was the perfect time for teaching my Kiddo some life skills in between the fun stuff as she got older - things like how to tie her sneakers, how to cross the street, how to find her way around. This was a tough one because it turned out, my Kiddo didn’t have a great sense of direction. How I wish we had had Mapping My Day to make things easier.

In Mapping My Day, kids can follow Flora, a girl who loves maps, from sun up to sun set and learn the basics for understanding how to read maps and how to make their own. Beginning with the basics, the cardinal directions north, south, east, and west, Flora maps out the floor plan of her house. In the yard, Flora shows how to make a buried treasure map in case kids want to hid their valued possessions from younger siblings, and most important, how to find their buried treasure.

Flora manages to make a map for everything she does during the day. And shows us the different routes her parents take when they drop Flora and her brother off at school. There is even a map of her aunt’s backyard obstacle course for her dog. Each map teaches something new to readers so that by the end of the book, they know all about map symbols, the concept of scale, the use of legends, how to use landmarks and map out a route, the significance of a compass rose, and the importance of cardinal directions.

Mapping My Day is a great way to teach kids concepts of spatial thinking and problem solving. This book makes these things so much easier to learn by bringing these ideas to a level that kids can understand - their own lives. One of the things I did when I taught this to my Kiddo was to buy her an nice big compass, and taught her how to read it in relation to all these other ideas (I actually bought a nice easy-to-read Girl Scout Compass). 

At the end of the book, there are four pages of activities for kids to practice their newly acquired mapping skills. If you make copies of the Draw Your Own Map activity, kids can really map their lives in the same way that Flora does. You can also download these activities HERE.

Did it pay to teach my Kiddo these mapping skills? You bet, she has managed to find her way around the block, but also around Britain, Europe and China, even when the map she’s using isn’t in a language she knows. 

I can't recommend this book highly enough. And just in case you need a little more convincing about importance of teaching kids about maps, HERE is a recent article from PBS Parents about just that subject.

This book is recommended for readers age 4+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Magination Press

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Cyclone by Doreen Cronin

Nora couldn’t wait to be tall enough to ride the Coney Island Cyclone, and now, at age 12, she is about to achieve her dream. It wasn’t easy talking her cousin Riley, 13, into going on the Cyclone with her, but Nora finally managed to do it, not really hearing Riley’s protestations and brushing aside her clearly apparent fear. And that ride was everything Nora dreamt it would be, right up until she and Riley were walking away and Riley collapsed on the sidewalk.

Rushed to a nearby hospital, Riley is treated for a stroke caused by an undiagnosed heart condition. Nora is riddled with guilt, convinced that she was the cause of Riley’s stroke with the ride on the Cyclone. After all, she did finally have to resort to blackmail to convince her cousin to get on the ride. Luckily, Riley is young and got to the hospital quickly, so her prognosis is somewhat hopeful that she will recover her speech and use of her paralyzed right arm and leg.

Riley’s mother Maureen, and Nora’s mother Paige are soon joined by their sister Elayne, but not Riley’s father. When he left, Riley had told Nora, he was as good as dead to her. But, as the family gathers at the hospital to support Riley, as Riley struggles to recover her ability to communicate, old family tensions mount as new ones are created, and secrets and truths are revealed. 

One of the things Cronin does really well in this novel is to look at problems of communication within this family’s dynamics, a dynamic Nora is just becoming part of when she uses blackmail to get Riley on the Cyclone. I liked that way she used Riley’s stroke to take them all back to square one and begin to learn how to communicate with each other openly and honestly. And it is through this process that Nora realizes the she needs to start listening to what people are saying to her and not be so wrapped up in herself. A case in point is Jack, a boy Nora meets in the CICU (Children's Intensive Care Unit) family room. Jack tells her he is there for his brother Colin, who has leukemia. But Jack is a boy she never really listened to until she is forced to learn his truth.

I did find the many, many footnotes a little annoying and a lot pedantic. But our narrator is Nora, a 12 year old, who tells the story of what happens in her youthful way. So, while I was able to skip most of them, I realize Nora, like most of her readers, would not have the experiential knowledge an older person has. And, the footnotes do serve to let readers appreciate the seriousness of what happens to Riley (and other hospitalized kids). 

Cyclone is Doreen Cronin’s debut middle grade novel. I found her writing to be clear and straight forward, her characters are believable, and her plot well constructed, so much so, that I read the novel in one sitting. I also thought that using the Cyclone as a symbol for the ups and downs of family relationships was brilliant. This is a book I would recommend to young readers who are looking for good realistic fiction.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC received from EdelweissPlus

PS - if you like roller coasters, the Cyclone is one you shouldn't miss, if possible. It's not the biggest, but it is 90 years old, and made of wood, so it really does make the click clack sound as the cars go over the wooden track ties. I have ridden it three times in my life as a child while my mother was in the hospital giving birth to my brother. Years later, my brother proposed to his wife at the summit of the first drop. 

Imagination Designs