Children and Young Adult

The Wishing Spell (The Land of Stories, #1) written and narrated by Chris Colfer


The author plays Kurt Hummel on the TV musical show “Glee”, and he is one of my favorite characters. I had no idea that he was a writer as well, and but I love fairy tales retellings, so I figured why not give the book a try. I thought he did a pretty good job considering this is his first novel. I especially liked him singing the Magic Harp’s song. The story was a little predictable, but there were enough twists to keep it interesting. I am interested in what happens with the rest of the series.

The book is about twins Alex and Conner, who couldn’t be more different. Alex is an incredibly smart and perceptive bookworm, who most of her classmates resent and tease because of it. Conner is completely laid-back and is constantly falling asleep in class, but never lacks for friends. The twins’ dad died in a car accident about a year ago, and they had to sell their house. Their mother takes double shifts at the hospital to pay for the growing number of overdue bills, and can’t see her children as much as she would like. So the whole family is dealing with a lot. For their twelfth birthday, the twins receive the book their paternal grandmother always read to them growing up, The Land of Stories. They quickly learn that this is not the average book, as the fall into it and end up in another world. Once they arrive there, Alex does not want to leave, but feels she owes it to her brother to try. So they set out on a quest to find the mythical Wishing Spell, by following a map and journal, and meet many famous fairy-tale characters along the way. The only problem with this quest is that they’re not the only ones trying to find the items for the Wishing Spell, so the twins have to get there first. Will the twins ever be able to make it home? Recommended for ages 9-13, 3 ½ stars.

Newbery Challenge

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, narrated by Cassandra Campbell

I’ve heard about and seen this book for years, but never managed to pick up a copy until I needed one for my Newbery Challenge. This book won the 2007 Newbery Award and rightly so, as it was a great book, though a bit random. Lucky was a quirky fascinating character and I kept hoping that things would get better for her, and they eventually did. I liked how the author described in the interview after the book how she “wanted to create a book that makes you cry and hope, like Charlotte’s Web.” I know I did.

Lucky is a 10 year old girl whose birth mother is killed by a lightning strike in the beginning of the book. Her father’s French ex-wife takes up guardianship of her, and they live together in her mother’s trailer in Hard Pan, California (population 43). Her best friend is Lincoln, a quiet sincere boy who loves to tie knots. Lucky’s dog is named H.M.S. Beagle, after Charles Darwin’s exploration ship to the Galapagos, and Lucky wants to be a famous scientist like Darwin. She carries around a survival kit because you never know what will happen.

Lucky cleans up trash outside the FoundWindchimeMuseum, which is home to Hard Pan’s 12 Step programs for Alcholics, Overeaters and Smokers. She is convinced after listening in on a couple of the meetings that she needs to find a higher power, but she doesn’t know what that would be. After hitting rock bottom, she decides to run away. Will Lucky ever discover her higher power? Will she find the love she has been seeking since her mother died? To find out, read this great story. Recommended for ages 9-12, 5 stars.

Maniac Magee written by Jerry Spinelli, narrated by S. Epatha Merkerson

I probably would never have picked up this book if I wasn’t reading it for the Newbery challenge. This book was the 1991 Newbery Award winner. The description is not very appealing. However, the writing is fabulous and vividly descriptive. It is a great story for kids (especially boys), as the author made it sound like a classic tall tale, plus it has short chapters to keep them interested longer. I loved the story about McNab, the baseball pitcher at the beginning of the book and the interactions later between Grayson and Maniac. The narrator, S. Epatha Merkerson (you probably know her from the TV show “Law & Order”) did a fantastic job at getting all the nuances of how kids talk and their incredulity at Maniac’s story. I was totally drawn in by her narration of the story.

Jeffrey “Maniac” Magee’s parents died when he was little and he lived with his aunt and uncle for about 8 years before finally having enough at age 11 and leaving. He starts running and eventually ends up in Two Mills, Pennsylvania, where he starts creating his legend. He ends up staying and creating a family, first with the Beall’s in the East End of town, with a lonely old man named Grayson at the baseball stadium, with the McNab family (although this was short-lived) on the West End of town, and finally again with the Bealls.

There is a lot in the story about race relations and prejudice, as the town is very definitively separated into white (West End) and black (East End) sections of town. These two topics are very hard to discuss, especially with children, but I think the author handled it really well. Maniac never seems to understand the term “black,” as he doesn’t see the inhabitants of the East End as such. He sees them as “gingersnap and light fudge and dark fudge and acorn and butter rum and cinnamon and burnt orange. But never licorice, which, to him, was real black.” In the end, it doesn’t matter that he is a homeless white kid, he is welcomed by everyone, and makes friends on both sides of town. Highly recommended for ages 9-13, 5 stars.

Paperboy by Vince Vawter, narrated by Lincoln Hoppe

I picked this one because it seemed the most interesting out of the 2014 Newbery Honor award winners. I enjoyed this story way more than I thought I would, to be honest. I guess it’s because I can always identify with children who are slightly different from other kids, as I was always seen as a bit of a weird loner as a pre-teen/teenager. The narrator, Lincoln Hoppe, really grew on me through the course of the books. I liked that the story was semi-autobiographical, and the main character’s real name is even closely related to the author’s name.

We are introduced to the protagonist, Vincent, although we don’t find out his name till the very end of the book, in the summer of his eleventh year. He is living in segregated Memphis, Tennessee in 1959. He has a stutter, and uses what his speech therapist calls “gentle air” to push his letters out, so he stutters less. Vincent is looked after by his African-American live-in housekeeper, Ms. Nellie, who he calls M’am as it is easier for him to pronounce. As a result of his stuttering, he is kind of isolated from other kids and most adults just think he is slow-witted. Vincent tries to pronounce his name, but has trouble with the consonants that start it. He is best friends with Art, who he calls Rat because it is, again, easier to pronounce. He is an excellent baseball pitcher, but accidently busts Rat’s lip when Rat was catching for him one day. So Vincent decided that he would take over Rat’s paper route for the month of July while Rat was at his grandparent’s farm.

The paper route is a big deal for the narrator, who is not only taking on more responsibility, but also must put up with some interesting characters on his route during the week and on Friday especially, when he is charged with picking up subscription money. He sees a young boy with his face right up against a TV and nicknames him TV Boy as he is always watching the screen. Vincent meets Mrs. Worthington, a housewife who drowns her sorrows in whiskey, with whom he is smitten (probably for the first time in his life). My favorite character is Mr. Spiro, a Merchant Marine, who spends all his spare time reading books. He doesn’t talk down to the narrator like the other adults in his life tend to do, and the narrator loves listening to him talk and having conversations with him.

The other adult that he deals with on a regular basis is Ara T, the local African-American junk man. M’am does not like him and is always warning the narrator to stay away from him, but usually his curiosity gets the better of him. He loans Ara T his knife for him to sharpen, but Ara T won’t give it back. Once M’am finds out about the knife, she disappears for a few days and comes back all beat up. What is really going on between M’am and Ara T? Will the narrator ever get his knife back? To find out, read this well-done book. Recommended for ages 9-12 (though B**** is used a couple of times), 4 stars.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd

Good Masters Sweet Ladies

I have been fascinated by Medieval History since I was probably about 12 years old or so, so I am always interested to read books about the period. This book has been on to-read list for awhile, but I’ve not managed to get around to it until I decided to do the Newbery Challenge. I think it is so cool that this 2008 Newbery Award winning book was created by a children’s librarian/storyteller/playwright whose kids were studying the Middle Ages and she wanted to create monlogues for them all to have a part. I loved the illustrations by Robert Byrd! I also find it fascinating that the author uses so many period terms and phrases. For example a “villein” is a term to describe a person who is owned by the lord and is essentially a slave and a “sniggler” is someone who catches eels.

The book follows a group of children that live in the manor, work for the local lord, and/or live in the village surrounding the manor. It’s pretty fascinating because the text of the monologues is taken from all the different children’s perspectives and backgrounds, like the lord’s daughter who gets mud on her silk dress (which is now ruined), followed by a girl who threw mud at her because she was frustrated with her lot in life (but realizes that deep down they’re probably not that different). There is  the miller’s son who no one likes because they think his family cheats them and his only friend, the village half-wit (who is actually pretty clever in some ways). It also gives informational text for the history and culture brought up in the text, like why the Crusades happened, why people in the Middle Ages went on pilgrimages and Jews in Medieval Society. Recommended for ages 7-12, 5 stars.

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen

The Mushrooms from The Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night

I had already read One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia as one the Newbery Honor winners for 2011, but I love owls and poetry, so I decided to give this book a try as well. It was a very quick read, as the poems are only one page long and the opposite page is one giant print and then there is a small scientific description on what is featured in the print/poem. I loved the gorgeous illustrations by Rick Allen. They reminded me of artists like Mo Willems, not for the style but for the fact that each page and nearly every picture featured a little Red Newt (Willems always puts the Pigeon in his books, usually in the end pages). The poems, as the title suggests are about creatures that only come out at night. My favorite poem is the one about the owl, aka “the dark emperor”, because it is a concrete poem and it is in the shape of an owl. I also enjoyed the one about the baby porcupine, which are called porcupettes. I thought it was a really-well done book that is not only informative, but fun to read as well. Highly recommended for ages 6-10, 5 stars.

Young Adult

Dust of Eden written by Mariko Nagai

The Summer I Found You by Jolene Perry

One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva


The Setting Sun: A Memoir of Empire and Family Secrets by Bart Moore-Gilbert

Around the World in 80 Dishes by David Loftus

 I got to say that despite not really caring for most of the recipes, I thought the concept of this cookbook was ingenious. As you probably guessed, it is a riff off of the Jules Verne classic “Around the World in Eighty Days,” except it is 80 dishes. I’ve never read the original book, but after reading this cookbook, it is definitely on my to-read list. Each section starts with a selection from the book and the area that it details. Our voyage starts in London, goes from there to India, Hong Kong, Japan, San Francisco, across the US to New York City, and from there back to London. Loftus got his good friend Jamie Oliver to contribute several recipes, in addition to other famous chefs like Nigella Lawson, Heston Blumenthal and many more. The food photography in the book is stunning. I marked a couple of recipes including Overnight Lamb Shanks with Figs and Honey, Aouda’s Champagne Cocktail, Chilled Minted Cucumber and Honeydew Soup (would be great for the summer here in Phoenix), and Pomegranate and Persimmon Salad. 4 stars.

The Ghost and the Graveyard (Knight Games #1) by Genevieve Jack

Grateful Knight is a down-on-her-luck nurse, whose ex-boyfriend ran off with all her money. Her father bailed her out by setting her up in a house in Red Grove, a place out in the country, for her to put her life back together. The only thing he neglected to tell her was that it was right next to a cemetery. Oh yeah, and it is haunted by two ghosts, one of which helped bring her into this world. On her way to the house, she notices the incredibly hot cemetery caretaker named Rick, who is very interested in getting to know her better. The only problem is, one of the ghosts named Logan, is also very appealing to her. Who will she choose?

Overall I enjoyed the book, especially because although it was clearly a romance/erotica story, the majority of the book was about the Grateful discovering who she really is and the supernatural elements that are attached to that. My only gripes were the corny aspects of the main storyline, particularly the explanations of how she will come into her powers, the main character’s name, and the ending (it ended rather abruptly). After awhile, though the name seems to matter less, and is definitely a memorable one. I’m curious to see what will happen in the next book. 3 ½ stars.

A Fine Romance: Falling In Love with the English Countryside written and illustrated by Susan Branch

This book was recommended by my friend Rebecca because she thought I would like it, as my husband is English, I love traveling around the UK, and I am a bit of an Anglophile. I was lucky to find it via interlibrary loan from Albuquerque. It’s an interesting book because it reads like a diary, but includes drawings, watercolor illustrations, and photographs taken by author.

The book is about the author meeting and falling in love with the man who would eventually become her husband in 1987, despite the fact that she had given up on love after a messy divorce. They visited England in 2004 together and loved it, but had always wanted to go back and explore the country more in-depth. So for their 25th Anniversary, they take the trans-Atlantic ocean liner Queen Mary 2 back to England. It is a very luxurious ship and reminds me, as the author also notes, of movies from the 1930s and 40s, when everyone traveled by boat across the Atlantic.

They landed in Southampton, England and then had to tackle driving on the other side of the road and car (with no prior experience), which was rather hilarious to read. I’ve lived in Scotland, so I know how confusing the signs and roads can be at times, as a passenger or pedestrian. Susan and her husband have roughly two months to visit the country, and start driving and visiting the South (called the Garden of England), and heads up towards the Lake District in NW England, where she finally gets to visit Hill Top (the farm of Beatrix Potter, who is someone the author really admires). From there, they go to York and then the Cotswolds. They visit small villages, a lot of National Trust historic properties, and a Cathedral. They also get to stay in a lot of gorgeous cottages. The book also features recipes of food that they ate along the way, such as Roasted Shallots, Pimm’s Cup, and Orange-Lavender Polenta Cake. 4 stars.