Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great

Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty GreatUnicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first-grader brought this one home from the school library. We all laughed and read it every night that we had it. Beyond the humor is also a great message about recognizing the great things about yourself and others that make you unique and awesome in your own way.

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Mortimer’s Christmas Manger

Mortimer's Christmas MangerMortimer’s Christmas Manger by Karma Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first grader checked this out from her school library today so we read it for a bedtime story. I will be buying to add to our Christmas library. It was sweet but not cheesy. It illuminates the Christmas story in a way that children can relate to. We all felt warm and quiet as the story progressed, particularly as Mortimer realized who the baby in the manger was. It was refreshing to read a children’s Christmas book that was about Jesus, not Santa Claus. We loved it.

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Don’t Let Pigeon Stay Up Late

Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! by Mo Willems

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We read this one for bedtime tonight and we all laughed at Pigeons attempts to convince us to let him stay up later. My kids laughed because they thought Pigeon was funny. I laughed because Pigeon sounded just like them. Very clever. Entertaining for adults and kids.

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The Winner’s Trilogy, books 1 & 2

The Winner's Curse (The Winner's Trilogy, #1)The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
AND

The Winner's Crime (The Winner's Trilogy, #2)The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary of The Winner’s Curse (from Goodreads)

As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.

One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.

But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.

Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

Book 2, The Winner’s Crime follows Lady Kestrel and Arin as they continue to decipher if they can trust each other, and if they can trust themselves. Their skills in deceit both help and hurt as they try to uncover a shocking secret affecting both their countries.

My Review

I haven’t been so wrapped up in a series since the Hunger Games. I did not want to put these books down. Only necessities like feeding myself or my children could tear me away. It’s just a good thing that I had the sequel on hand and could start it immediately after finishing book 1. But I have now finished book 2, and book 3 hasn’t been released yet!!! Goodreads shows the expected publication date as March 1st. I HATE waiting.

The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime are part of the Winner’s Trilogy. They are the perfect combination of action, intrigue, romance, and engaging prose. I enjoy the excitement, and fairly “clean” and innocent romances of YA fiction, especially when I am looking to just get lost in a story for awhile, but these books surpassed that basic entertainment value and became enthralling. They have all of the thrill of forbidden love, and palpable chemistry between the main characters; then add to that a unique world, and thought-provoking moral and philosophical situations and you get a captivating story.

The setting for these books is NOT a dystopian future, as is so popular in YA fiction these days. The world is completely a fictional one, but there are similarities to our world’s history, particularly to the days of Roman conquerings and enslavements. It is original and refreshing, and presented and described well. It feels as if it could be real.

But let’s get to what really sets these books apart for me. Never have I read a story with so much deceit, lies, half-truths, conspiracy, and stratagem on the parts of both the “bad guys” and the “good guys.” These are smart characters that have had to learn the ways of war, secrecy, stealth, disguise, in order to survive their world. Now they have to face situations that challenge everything they thought they knew and everything they thought they were committed to. I loved the believability of their reasoning, thought-processes as they were forced to examine themselves and their world. And even as the plot becomes more and more intricate the conclusions of the characters stay completely plausible and consistent within the characters motivations and knowledge.

The Winner’s world is one of “grays.” You see multiple sides to every issue and watch as characters try to do the best they can to make choices they can live with amidst a culture and civilization that makes it impossible for all sides to live the way they want. Even when unpleasant events occur because of the choice of one of the “good guys” you can completely see the logic and reasoning behind that choice and why they are still a “good guy” despite the bad things that happened. Definitely makes me glad I am not in the business of politics, war, or revolutions. Though I hope the leaders in those fields in our world are as careful and considerate with their decisions as the characters in these books.

I enjoyed the writing as well. It’s easy and fast to read, just as I like it when I’m completely caught up in a book, but there is also depth and beauty to the ideas and presentation that goes beyond your average entertainment read. These are not literary classics, by any means. This is simply a YA romance series, but it’s one that I am totally loving.

So, I say, “Well done Marie Rutkoski. Now hurry up and finish the third book!!!!”

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Age Recommendation: The are intricacies in the plot as well as moral implications that make these books for 15 and older in my opinion.

Appropriateness: There is deceit, war, murder, torture, and romance described, but none in gory detail so I wasn’t grossed out or disturbed. These could be interesting book club reads as they would give much to discuss about the choices of the characters, whether they are good or bad, justified or not, and whether you would act the same way. The state of the world also provides great discussion material – how is our world the same and different? How do we avoid the problems they are facing? How have we overcome some of these struggles? Are we heading for more?

Book Recommendations: If you like The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime you should read The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, The Books of Bayern Series by Shannon Hale, Eruption by Adrienne Quintana, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, and Graceling by Kristin Cashore

 

An Uncommon Blue

An Uncommon Blue (Colorblind, #1)An Uncommon Blue by R.C. Hancock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

In Télesphore, the glowing color of a person’s palm determines their place in society, and touching hands with another mixes the colors permanently. When sixteen-year-old Bruno accidentally kills a royal soldier, he goes from favored to fugitive. Now Bruno’s only chance at survival is to become someone else. That means a haircut, a change of wardrobe, and most important, getting rid of his once cherished Blue. Now he’s visiting parts of town he never knew existed, and making friends with people he would’ve crossed the street to avoid only weeks ago. At the last minute, Bruno’s parents arrange a deal to clear his name and get his life back. All Bruno has to do is abandon those in the Red slums that look to him as a leader and let an innocent Green boy die in his place.

My Review

The first word that comes to my mind to describe An Uncommon Blue is fast-paced. It starts out with the action and conflict right away and it just keeps moving. I was enthralled at the get-go and I didn’t want to put it down until I had read the last word. This is absolutely a dystopian novel, but the world created in it is unique and fresh; it stands out in the very popular genre.

I appreciated a main character worthy of admiration, one who is trying to do good and make a difference as he faces the harsh realities of his world. However, I did feel there were some holes in his character motivation and development that left me wondering why, exactly, he was so generous and cared so much for the unfortunate people he met. With his privileged upbringing and naivety when it came to the “lower classes” in his society, I would have thought it would have taken him more time to be ok with sacrificing his privilege for the sake of those beneath him. But he was willing to risk his reputation and coming to bodily harm right from the beginning, even for the kid that had pretty much just ruined his life. Just made me wonder how he got to be so caring, especially while it was also clear that his main concern up to that point had been keeping his privileged status and easy life as a star athlete.

This unclarity in character motivation didn’t keep me from devouring every page, however. The writing style is simple, no stand-out prose, but it’s well-done. I wasn’t distracted at all by awkward phrasing or overly flowery description. Easy to read. The rules of the fictional world were conveyed through the story-telling; I appreciated that I didn’t have to get bogged down or interrupted from the story to read long explanations. In fact, the story may have even moved a little too quickly for me. I would have like a little more time spent on introducing the world and its rules, and the people and their motivations. There is a sequel so I hope that more will be explained because there were quite a lot of unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries at the end. I will definitely be getting my hands on the sequel quickly after it is released.

Overall though this is just a fun, fast, interesting, read. If you are looking for a book to get lost in for a few hours, I recommend An Uncommon Blue.

Age Recommendation: I suggest 15 and older. There is some killing and harsh inequalities in the book, and while the description isn’t graphic it could be disturbing to younger readers.

Appropriateness: Clean with great examples of selflessness and kindness. It would be of particular interest to boys. It has great book club discussion material too. The prejudices and inequalities based on the color of a persons’ light in their hand gives an interesting way to talk about the difficulties in our society as well. The sacrifices and rewards of selflessness and kindness would also be fitting topics.

Book Recommendations: If you like An Uncommon Blue you should read The Uglies series by Scott Westerfield, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, Eruption by Adrienne Quintana, The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima, Beyonders series Brandon Mull, and Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins.

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Everything on a Waffle

Everything on a Waffle (Coal Harbour #1)Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary

When Primrose’s parents both disappear at sea in the middle of a vicious storm, she is forced into a new life which includes a new home, new friends, new conflicts and adventures, new insights, and new recipes. It really does take a village in this case to take care of 11-year old Primrose. Some of the townspeople think they know best, like the snobbish and socially awkward school counselor Miss Honeycut. While others truly are just what Primrose needs to keep her hope alive, like her impulsive Uncle Jack, and Kate Bowzer, the owner of the local restaurant where all the food is served on a waffle. But the true joy in this story is how Primrose and her hope is just what the town, and all of us, need to approach the world and all of its challenges with courage, wit, kindness, fun, and love.

My Review

This is the kind of book I would want to write, but the genius to do so hasn’t hit me yet. I am inspired by the unique and accurate way in which life and people are depicted. I love the vibrant and varied characters and how each of them reveals wisdom to Primrose and to us as readers through both their follies and their successes.

I also love the humor! Parents disappearing at sea and a child wading through the foster system certainly doesn’t seem like the setup for a comedy, but that just makes it all the more impressive when you find yourself smiling all the way through. It’s not a silly humor or irreverent either. It’s a look at the bad things that can come in life through the eyes of a girl who is open to the good in everyone and in everything. But she also calls things like she sees them with the innocence and directness of childhood. She’s wades through major change with youthful adaptability and so perfectly communicates what she learns without ever letting go of the hope and knowledge that anchors her. I loved the recipes that were included as well and how they reveal Primrose’s state of mind. And there is humor and wit found even in the recipes.

Everything on a Waffle makes it into my top 20 list of favorite children’s books for sure.

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Age Recommendation: 10 years and older, though if you had a mature reader 8 years old would probably love it too.  Some of the wit and experience would be better understood at 10, however. And obviously despite it’s children’s book genre I would absolutely recommend it for adults as well.

Appropriateness: I found nothing offensive or questionable at all. There are some traumatic events for sure, but because of the approach to them I don’t think a child would be impacted negatively.  Instead, I think children can learn about hope, attitude, and faith through Primrose’s example. They can also learn how to better understand the adults in their life as well.

This would be a great book club discussion book! Scroll down for a list of discussion questions.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like Everything on a Waffle then you should read A Little Princess and The Secret Garden both by Frances Hodgson Burnett,  Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, Matilda by Roald Dahl, Frindle by Andrew Clements, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard Atwater, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, and Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

Favorite Quotes

“Sometimes you get tempted to make something wonderful even better but in doing so you lose what was so wonderful to begin with.”

“You can be sunk low or as a skunk and still have a joy in your heart. Joy lives like one of those spinning things—a gyroscope in your heart. It doesn’t seem to have any connection to circumstance, good or bad.”

“All my life I had wanted to travel but what I discovered that year was that the things that you find out become the places that you go and sometimes you find them out by being jettisoned off alone and other times it is the people who choose to stand by your side who give you the clues. But the important things that happen to you will happen to you even in the smallest places…”

“The only really interesting thing about someone that makes you want to explore them further is their heart.”

“There’s something about sports. You can be setting fire to cats and burying them in your backyard, but as long as you’re playing team sports, people think you’re okay.”

“I want someone who puts the whole ball of wax at risk. I want the kind of marriage where we would follow each other out into the stormy fatal sea or I’m not marrying at all.”

“You can’t replace one dog with another any more than you can replace one person with another, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t get more dogs and people in your life.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Primrose never doubts that her parents are alive. Did you agree with her throughout the story? Did your opinion change?
  2. Primrose keeps a positive attitude throughout the book even when not so positive things happen.  How does she do it? Why does she do it? Do you think this is wisdom or just naivety?
  3. Which of the adult characters were your favorite? Why? What were their follies? How did they help Primrose?
  4. Miss Honeycut was certainly the least helpful adult to Primrose. How did you feel about her?
  5. Despite Miss Honeycut’s misguided intentions, Primrose seems to keep patience and understanding for her. How does she do this?
  6. Primrose says, “Miss Honeycut didn’t tell anecdotes because she was interesting; she told them because she wasn’t”. Have you ever known someone like that?
  7. Does seeing Miss Honeycut  and the other adults in the story through Primrose’s eyes change your opinion about any of the people you have known in your life?
  8. Was Miss Perfidy “good” or “bad” for Primrose? Do you think they cared about each other?
  9. Do you think Uncle Jack and Kate Bowzer will ever become romantically involved? What evidence did you see to support your opinion?
  10. Have you ever felt changed by traveling to a new place? Have you ever found big changes in even the “smallest places?”
  11. Primrose seems to relate better to the adults in Coal Harbor than to the children her age. Can you relate to that? Is this healthy for her?

The Magician’s Elephant

The Magician's ElephantThe Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads: When a fortuneteller’s tent appears in the market square of the city of Baltese, orphan Peter Augustus Duchene knows the questions that he needs to ask: Does his sister still live? And if so, how can he find her? The fortuneteller’s mysterious answer (an elephant! An elephant will lead him there!) sets off a chain of events so remarkable, so impossible, that you will hardly dare to believe it’s true. Here is a dreamlike and captivating tale. In this timeless fable, the author evokes largest of themes — hope and belonging, desire and compassion — with the lightness of a magician’s touch.

My Review:

What a pleasant visit I had in the city of Baltese. I met a bright assortment of characters, each looking for the place they were meant to be and the people they were meant to be with, and who were all connected by the magical appearance of an elephant. I read other books by Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn Dixie) years ago and I remember enjoying both of them which is why I wanted to give this one a try. The Magician’s Elephant lives up to the same clever wit, delightful characters, and pleasing prose as DiCamillo’s other books.

This book was a pretty quick, easy, and cute read, totally fitting it’s children’s literature classification, but it has a deeper message about hope, faith, human connection, and achieving the impossible. It read a little like a fable to me and reminded me of the Canterbury Tales, not that I have actually read Chaucer’s work in its entirety, but I do remember what I learned and read of it in a Humanities class. Just as Chaucer assembled a variety of pilgrims to tell their stories, DiCamillo introduces readers to several of the residents of Baltese: the Magician, the Lady, the Soldier, the Policeman, the Orphan, the Nun, the Countess, the Beggar, the Dog, the Servant, the Boy, and of course the Elephant. The chapters alternate between these characters’ points of view and we learn about their strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams, and the elements that stand in their way of achieving them. I admire how the author reveals so much about the characters and their stories in so few words. Their unique and endearing quirks make them memorable and entertaining.

Their are some bleak aspects to the plot, but the charming writing portrays an underlying humor and hopefulness in the events. The pages aren’t necessarily action-packed, but desire to reveal the mystery of how all of these individuals will overcome their misfortunes, and how they are all connected made it a page-turner for me. It may not appeal to all readers, but the strong characterization, uplifting themes, and the smart writing left me with happy ponderings and that feeling of contentment that comes from enjoying warm moments with old and new friends.

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Age Recommendation: The actual words are easy and the book is not long, but the themes have some depth to them, so while 3rd graders and some 2nd graders could likely read the book easily enough I think your average 4th grader would comprehend the message more easily.

AppropriatenessNothing to worry about here unless you have a particularly sensitive young reader who might have a hard time with the hardships of orphans and animals.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like this book you should read The Tale of Despereaux also by Kate DiCamillo, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, The BFG and pretty much all other books by Roald Dahl.

Topics and Questions for Discussion: This section may contain spoilers so if you haven’t read the book and don’t want anything to be given away stop here.

1. Leo Matienne, the Policeman is described in chapter 3 this way, “Leo Matienne had the soul of a poet and because of this he liked very much to consider questions that had no answers. He liked to ask ‘What if?’ and ‘Why not?’ and ‘Could it possibly be?’ ” Why are these questions “poetic?” Why do they have no answers? How does asking these questions make Leo different from some of the other characters?

My thoughts: Leo’s questions allowed him to consider the impossible and to think through ways to achieve it. It gave him a more hopeful attitude, a new perspective and he was later in the book able to inspire the same thoughts in others.  That is what poetry can do as well which makes him a poet.

2. In chapter 3 Leo Matienne stands at the top of a hill and watches the lamplighters do their work on the street below. This reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Little Prince and the lamplighter that the Little Prince visits. The Little Prince says he thinks the lamplighter is the least absurd of the grownups because his occupation is useful and beautiful. Would Leo agree with the Little Prince? What about his character supports your answer?

My Thoughts: Leo would agree with the Little Prince. He stops at the top of the hill to view the lamplighters at work because it is beautiful which is indicated by the fact that watching the lights spring to life inspire his poetic thoughts about the elephant. In the dark of the city the lamplights must have been a relief just as the Little Prince found comfort in sunsets.

3. Baltese is covered in clouds and darkness and cold, but the real problem with the weather is that it won’t snow. How does the weather relate to the feeling of the characters and the events in the book? How does weather and light or dark affect you?

My  Thoughts: The dark oppressive clouds are full of the potential for snow but it doesn’t come just as the people of the city are full of hope and dreams for their future but unable to fulfill them. The exciting newness of the elephant spark an ember of hope that their dreams may be possible, and as soon as the main characters begin to fulfill their potential the clouds release their oppression and the snow falls. I love how snow changes a world, makes it softer, new, quiet, bright with whiteness, and clean. The snow-covered Baltese held the same hope and possibilities for the people.

4. Sister Marie has no doubt that “all God’s creatures have names.” What is the significance of names in the book? Every major character has one, even the dogs. What is the significance of names in life?

My Thoughts: Names give identity and individuality. They separate us and depending on our behavior can be known for good or bad in the world. They can also indicate our background or ancestry. The character’s names certainly made me think of them from different countries or gave me an indication of their status in society. Knowing a name indicates a connecting with someone or something. Even the elephant’s name was important to her though she couldn’t communicate it. She wanted to be back home where people would be able to call her by name. Once Hans Ickman remembers his dog’s name he is truly able to connect with the feelings from his boyhood and get on board with the seemingly impossible task of sending the elephant back in order to achieve healing for the city.

5. Why is Madame LaVaughn’s presence necessary for the Magician to undo the magic? What does he need from her? What does she need from him? Why do they say the same things to each other each day she visits the prison? Have you ever felt the power of forgiveness either by forgiving yourself or others?

My thoughts: They each want to be seen and recognized. They want validation of their problems and of their worth. They were each asking for something of the other in their repeated conversations, but they weren’t clear and were so focused on what they wanted that they couldn’t see what the other needed. The Magician forgiveness and Madame LaVaughn needed an apology and regret. When the Magician finally let go of the idea that his magic would be his legacy, when he finally forgave himself and communicated his sorrow  Madame LaVaughn could finally see that she mattered to someone and was able to forgive him. they both had a weight lifted.  The Magician could finally perform the magic needed to send the elephant back and Madame LaVaughn could see good in other people again despite her injury.

Eruption

I have had a great couple of days wrapped up in this book. I am excited to share my review!  And even more excited for my friend Adrienne Quintana who wrote it.

Eruption

Eruption by Adrienne Quintana

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads: “Jace Vega has finally landed her dream job—working for Omnibus, an up-and-coming tech firm. But a mysterious message from her future self sets Jace and her old friend Corey racing to piece together clues before Omnibus destroys their future—and their past. This fast-paced thriller will keep you guessing till the very last page.”

My Review

I have waited eagerly for almost a year to get the published copy of this book into my hands. It was completely worth the wait. If only I didn’t have to wait for the next book now!

Eruption is unique in many ways; I love that Jace Vega is not an annoying teenager still trying to figure out how to not care what the cheerleaders will think of her. She is a young professional with smarts and drive and confidence. Of course there are some deep-rooted issues that she is trying to figure out, otherwise where would we find a plot? But rather than bumbling around whining about all her problems she has coping strategies that allow her to still function and contribute to the world. The coping strategies don’t solve it all; she does have to face her problems and deal with them, but it was so refreshing to have a capable adult’s perspective rather than a teenager’s while also enjoying all of the excitement, drama, suspense, and romance that we have come to love from the current popular young adult fiction.

You won’t find a storyline and plot like Eruption anywhere else. It is an intricate science fiction techno thriller with a large dose of psychological insight and just good clean romance. From page one it draws you in and the pacing and plot revelations are perfectly timed. As each mystery is introduced the suspense builds gradually. Pieces of the puzzle are presented at just the right moment to keep your interest. Then there is the action peak and it’s full speed ahead. You won’t want to put it down until all has been revealed.

The smarts in coming up with this plot and arranging it to make sense and keep the suspense is admirable. Reminds me of the workout my brain had after watching the movie “Inception.” Eruption will keep your mind busy for days after as you think and rethink about how it all fits together. The implications of this unique take on time travel will give you plenty of food for thought as well. I enjoyed the use of social media in the plot and character development. Problems and benefits of social media are presented in a completely “non-preachy” way. Instead readers can simply evaluate and draw their own conclusions about what’s good and bad and how it all fits into their own relationships.

The writing style is enjoyable too. Interesting and consistent characters with a great mix of dialogue, description, 1st person narrative, and action sequence allow you to get caught up in the story and lose all track of time. It is an easily entertaining read, but with substance. It sticks with you and gives you the opportunity to ponder more than just who will end up with you; though rooting for your favorite suitor has its pleasures too.

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Age Recommendation: The writing is not difficult to read, but the time travel concepts may not be understood by younger or immature readers so I would recommend it for 14 and older.

Appropriateness: Clean and suspenseful. No immorality or profanity or anything else  offensive in my book, but plenty of excitement including a scene in which my needle phobia kicked into high gear. Anyone else ever almost faint from reading about cuts and stitches?

Book Recommendations: If you like Eruption you may also enjoy Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville, The Giver by Lois Lowry, City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, or A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle