‘Sealed with a Lie’ by Kat Carlton: Second in the YA spy/thriller series

sealed with a liet

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

It all began with “Two Lies and a Spy,” and Kat Carlton’s young adult spy action series continues with “Sealed with a Lie.” It continues the adventures (misadventures) of Kari, her genius little brother Charlie, and her group of friends. Not normal teenage adventures, mind you. Kari’s adventures are of the more dangerous type — like espionage. And her friends? Their talents run the gamut from computer hacking to karate.

It turns out in the first book that (spoiler alert) Kari’s parents are Russian spies. Keri and her brother refuse to go to Russia with them when they are caught. So now they are both part of GI, of Generation Interpol, in Paris. They are going to school and learning the spy trade.

When Charlie is kidnapped, Kari will do anything to get him back. And her friends are there to help every step of the way. While worrying about her brother’s well-being, Kari also has time to ponder whether she really wants her long-distance relationship with Luke to continue. Or is she more interested in Evan, the guy she really wants to hate, but who is also the guy who is there for her just when she needs help the most.

The action is truly nonstop. The characters are quirky enough and real enough to engage readers. And there’s enough violence (and some gory action) for even the most hard-core thriller buff.

There’s truly something for everyone in the series. Guys and gals alike will love the action, the danger and the changing relationships.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reviewer copy provided by the publisher, Simon & Schuster, for review purposes.

‘A Dog’s Journey’ by W. Bruce Cameron: a four tissue and five star read


Rating: 5 stars

“A Dog’s Journey” by W. Bruce Cameron will make you cry. It will make you cry often.

One might ask, why read a book where the dog dies not just once, but four times? Because, in spite of the tears, it’s a fabulous book. It’s a story that anyone who loves a dog or cat will adore. It’s a story that we want to believe is true.

Everyone who has lost a cherished pet wants desperately to believe that that pet will be reborn and find its way to them — somehow. Reading this book, nodding your head, wanting to believe that Billy, a much loved Shetland Sheep dog mix has come back as Bentley, an Aussie mix — that’s the kind of hope that this book inspires (at least in this reviewer).

Even for readers who aren’t dog fanatics, it’s just a great story. This story centers on the grandchild of Ethan, the human who was so loved by the same dog (in previous incarnations) throughout the first book, “A Dog’s Purpose.”

Although at the end of that book it seemed that there could not be a sequel, Cameron manages to create one, and he creates it so beautifully that from the first page the reader is hooked.

This time, the story begins at the end of a dog’s life instead of at the beginning. It is also the story of CJ, the daughter of Ethan’s son (who dies young), and a narcissistic woman who is probably one of the worst mothers imaginable.

It’s also the story of how a dog can make a huge difference in the life of a human. When there is no love from others, a dog can provide unconditional love.

The readers will root for CJ as she makes difficult decisions and above all, refuses to abandon her beloved dog(s).

Cameron also includes in the story a recent discovery about dogs‘ ability to smell out cancer. Dogs have shown they can smell lung cancer on the breath of people, bladder cancer from urine samples, and skin cancer. Take out another tissue!

Like the first book, this book is a fantastic gift for any animal lover. Better yet, buy both as a set! It’s a guaranteed hit.

Please note: This review is based on the uncorrected advance reading copy provided by the publisher, Forge, for review purposes.

‘Chained’ by Lynne Kelly: a fabulous middle grade book for animal lovers


Rating: 5 stars

“Chained” by Lynne Kelly is a book about a boy and an elephant. For most animal lovers, this information is enough to make them run out and buy it. But it’s also a book about humanity, about kindness, and about cruelty.

The setting is a poor village in India. Hastin, the main character, is only ten years old. He lives with his mother and sister. His father died and his mother works to support them. When his sister gets sick, his mother must take her to the hospital.

The bill is a huge amount of money. To pay it, his mother goes to work for a wealthy family. When Hastin visits her and sees her bruised and mistreated, he is desperate to find a way to make money and get his mother out of that situation.

A man offers to pay off the hospital debt if he will work for his circus for one year. The man is going to be training an elephant and needs a boy to care for the elephant. Hastin accepts the job.

The job is not what Hastin expected. For any minor infraction, Timir, the cruel owner, adds three months to Hastin’s servitude. Soon, it appears that Hastin will never be able to leave.

There is also the matter of trapping a young elephant. The story hints that the action is illegal. (It would be great during a read aloud to see if readers get that inference.) Nandita, as Hastin names the young elephant they trap, is dependent on Hastin.

The characters in the story are all well drawn and would be good fodder for classroom discussion of character traits. Hastin faces many problems and makes mistakes — also good for discussion about how no hero is perfect.

This book would be a great read aloud for the third, fourth, or fifth grade classroom. Although child labor laws exist in India, they are frequently flouted, especially in rural areas. There are also elephant protection laws, but those also are ignored when it’s profitable to do so.

A great project in conjunction with this story would be for the students to do some research about countries where elephants live and how they are protected (or not). Also, how do child labor issues affect other countries?

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Macmillan/FSG, for review purposes.

‘Rags: Hero Dog of WWI’ by Margot Theis Raven: True story of a dog and a soldier

rags hero dog

Rating: 5 stars

“Rags: Hero Dog of WWI – a True Story” is a beautifully told (Margot Theis Raven) and illustrated (Petra Brown) picture book about a stray dog who gets adopted by a soldier in Paris.

Private James Donovan finds the stray and uses him to outwit the French police when he has no permission to be off base. When he takes the little stray back to base with him, the dog quickly endears himself to the soldiers. Named Rags, for his disheveled appearance, the dog accompanies Donovan to the front and learns to deliver messages and help keep foxholes free from rats.

During a huge battle near the end of the war, both Rags and Donovan are injured. Rags refuses to leave the side of his best friend. When Donovan ends up in a military hospital in Chicago, Rags stays at the firehouse but returns to the hospital each day to be with his friend.

(Spoiler alert) When Donovan dies from his injuries, Rags is bereft. But the author handles the topic beautifully. “His nose read the story of Donovan’s last day. Donovan’s lungs were tired. he was cold. He had gone west for a nap in the sun.” Rags never goes to the hospital again. “He knew Donovan wasn’t there. His best friend now lived in his heart.”

The Epilogue and “The Tail End” give information about what happened to Rags after he lost his friend. That amazing dog who lived by stealing scraps in Paris lived twenty long years and is buried in Silver Spring, Maryland, where his tombstone reads: RAGS, War Hero, 1st Division Mascot WWI, 1916 – 1936.

This picture book will appeal to readers of all ages. Young children will love the story of the brave dog, and older readers will learn about WWI and the horrors of war for both humans and animals. It’s a great jumping-off story for those doing research about WWI or animals in history who have helped humans. With the Common Core emphasis on nonfiction, this is a great way to get readers excited about reading good nonfiction books.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Sleeping Bear Press, for review purposes.

‘I Am Amelia Earhart’ by Brad Meltzer: ‘Ordinary People Change the World’

amelia earheart

Rating: 5 stars

In his new children’s nonfiction series, “Ordinary People Change the World,” Brad Meltzer includes “I Am Amelia Earhart.” Girls love reading about inspiring women who didn’t conform to the expectations of society, and Amelia Earhart is no exception.

Even as a very young girl, she refused to play with dolls, and the Earhart of this book narrates in first person how she wanted adventure and she wanted to fly. She did whatever she had to to learn to fly, and then she dared to do what no one else had done. She broke the record for crossing the Atlantic, and she broke the record for flying at the highest altitude.

As he did in “I Am Abraham Lincoln,” Meltzer closes the narration with a page that sums up Earhart’s indomitable spirit. He writes: “I am Amelia Earhart. I know no bounds. And I hope you’ll remember that the greatest flight you’ll ever take is the one no one has tried before.”

The next two pages include a quote from Earhart and several photos of her from childhood on.

This biography fills a much-needed niche for nonfiction books for young readers. The illustrations are geared for younger readers, with the children illustrated with huge heads. And even though there are adults drawn more realistically, Christopher Eliopoulos, the illustrator, keeps the main character a kid throughout the stories.

For teachers looking for books to use when creating lessons for Common Core State Standards, this book, and the others in the series, are must-haves. (JK)

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Dial Books for Young Readers for review purposes.

‘A Good Killing’ by Allison Leotta: Entertaining crime thriller


Rating: 5 stars

Allison Leotta has written this fourth book in the series that started with “Law of Attraction,” and which series features Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis. Curtis is a well-rounded protagonist. She loves her job, she’s feminine, but she’s also tough enough to go toe-to-toe with the worst criminals. That’s what she does — she puts the bad guys away.

So the premise of this book turns the tables on reader and main character. Anna’s sister, Jody, is accused of killing the high school football coach in their small town of Holly Grove. And as in many small towns, football reigns supreme, and the coach was revered by all particularly because he brought their high school team to state championships often.

Anna knows right away that she wants to defend her sister. She is still reeling from the emotional trauma that occurred in the last book when her fiancé’s first wife (long thought dead) reappeared into his life. The wedding was called off, but Anna’s emotions are still delicate. (One teeny complaint is that Leotta might have given the reader a bit more details about what happened between Anna and Jack so that new readers just picking up the series might not feel lost.)

Leotta creates wonderful tension between Anna and Jody. There are things that Jody refuses to tell Anna, and Anna doesn’t push. Jody didn’t go to college; she stayed in their small suburb and worked in Detroit at a GM plant. But there are things that happened in Jody’s life that Anna missed because she was in college.

Leotta does a great job telling two stories at the same time. In bold print every second or third chapter, Jody tells her story in first person narrative. It’s very well done and the voice of Jody comes through loud and clear. The other chapters are in typical third person narrative and are from Anna’s point of view.

Who killed Owen Fowler? As the story progresses and Leotta slowly spreads the crumbs of truth across the pages, the reader finds that many might have wanted him dead. But did Jody Curtis actually do it? The mystery is well done, and while clever readers might guess at the ending, it’s fun all the way to the last page.

There’s also a bit of romance. Not so much as to make it something that guys wouldn’t want to read but enough to keep Anna’s personal life important and fluid. And while the ending is no cliff hanger, readers will certainly want to know about the next chapter in Anna’s life.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Touchstone Books for review purposes.

‘Must Love Dogs: Fetch You Later’ by Claire Cook

fetch you later

Rating: 5 stars

Fans of both the movie and book “Must Love Dogs” by Claire Cook will be thrilled to be updated on Sarah and John and their on-again-off-again romance. “Must Love Dogs: Fetch You Later (Book 3),” features the now-ubiquitous dog on the cover, and Horatio — the dog who hated Sarah in the last book — is a prominent character in the story (in a passive sort of way).

This third book in the “Must Love Dogs” series incorporates Cook’s brilliant sense of humor throughout — in the superb dialogue, in certain plot twists, and even in some of the locations of the story. John decides, and Sarah acquiesces, to go on vacation to a doggy camp. Is Sarah enough of a dog-lover to make that work? Can there be romance amidst doggy training and doggy sing-alongs? Who will show up to make that a less-than-stellar experience?

Cook’s imagination and creativity give readers a chance to learn even more about the characters they’ve come to love from the first two books. She ably, adroitly, and entertainingly further develops their characters, providing her trademark humor and wit along the way. It’s always comfortable to read about that which you know, and readers will feel at home with the characters they know as well as some very interesting new ones.

Sarah’s father is one of the wonderful characters (in the sense of “what a character!”) in the story. He’s funny — both when he means to be and when he doesn’t. He gets himself into situations from which his daughters must extricate him, leading to some really clever — and heartwarming — scenes. And some of the characters, both old and new, turn out to be surprisingly different from what we expect. They are deliciously human, imperfections notwithstanding.

The love and affection between Sarah and her family is, as usual, very apparent, as are the typical family squabbles. They are a close-knit group, but just like every family, they ride the emotional roller coaster of personal relationships.

It’s all great fun, and Cook’s subtle plot twists lead to a very happy and rather surprisingly satisfying ending. Also, Cook includes many tips and creative ideas for preschool/primary teachers. It’s obvious that when she left teaching to write full time, the world lost a caring and thoughtful teacher.

Here’s hoping for a movie that encompasses books #2 (“Must Love Dogs: New Leash on Life) and #3!

Please note: This review is based on the advance review copy provided by the author.

‘Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century’ by Carole Boston Weatherford

leontyne price

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century” by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Raul Colón is another picture book perfect for those who need books for elementary students which will help with teaching Common Core State Standards and its demand for nonfiction literature.

This biography of Leontyne Price is written with beautiful figurative language. It grips the reader from the first page. “1927. Laurel, Mississippi. The line between black and white was as wide as the Mississippi River was long.”

Weatherford’s frank narrative, while painting a lovely picture of Leontyne’s home life (“Leontyne had plenty to be thankful for. A mama and daddy who made sure Leontyne had two pairs of shoes and knew she was as good as anyone — black or white.”), is painfully frank about the limits a young black girl faced (“With her suitcase, she rode a bus to college in Ohio, aiming to be a teacher, the concert stage out of reach for a black singer then.”).

Much is made of the fact that Marian Anderson led the fight for black opera singers to be recognized and admired not only in the US, but also elsewhere in the world. Again, beautiful figurative language and imagery are used to display that idea throughout the story. “Led by song, she cracked the door that Marian had opened years earlier,” and later “…she blew open the door that Marian left ajar.”

The “Author’s Note” at the end tells the story without metaphor.

The illustrations are by Raul Colón. Those who have seen his other picture books, including “Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes,” will recognize his style. The pictures are filled with texture and color.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for review purposes.

‘I Am Princess X’ by Cherie Priest: Great YA fiction/graphic novel


Rating: 5 stars

“I Am Princess X” by Cherie Priest is the first book I’ve read in a few days (I read a lot) that I’ve really been unable to put down. The story gets exciting pretty quickly when May’s best friend Libby is killed in a car accident. She and her mother die when their car goes off a bridge.

Or does it?

Three years later, May sees a sticker with the character that she and Libby had created in their comic strip. Only they knew about it, and the sticker, of Princess X, is exactly like their character. Blue hair, puffy pink dress, red Chucks, gold crown, and a katana sword. There’s no mistake.

May must decide what that means. She finds the website for Princess X and realizes that the site belongs to her friend, Libby. But as she reads the online comic, she begins to understand what happened to Libby and why she must find her friend. But it’s not that easy.

The book is not only fascinating, it’s fun to read with the alternating text and graphics. The reader is reading about Libby’s life through the comic while seeing what May is doing to try to find her.

The story moves at breakneck speed, just like some of the chase scenes. It’s a book that will be enjoyed by kids in middle school or high school, but also by adults who want a quick, fun read.

It’s just very well done. Read it twice. Enjoy.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic Press) for review purposes.

‘Walk on Earth a Stranger’ by Rae Carson: Fabulous YA historical fantasy

walk on earth

Rating: 5 stars

“Walk on Earth a Stranger” by Rae Carson has a title that didn’t grab me. But once I picked up the book, the story and the characters reached out, grabbed me by the throat, and immersed me in a story that took over my thoughts every waking minute until I turned the last page.

And it’s a book with staying power. Long after the last page is turned, the reader will still be thinking about the powerful characters and the themes of independence and the importance of friends. The protagonist, Leah Westfall, has an uncanny, magical ability. She can sense the presence of gold. In her home of Georgia, that comes in handy occasionally. But most of the gold that caused the gold-rush that ended with the removal of the Cherokee (which is obliquely referred to) has been removed from the ground. All that is left are some nuggets and flakes.

It’s the time of the California Gold Rush, and the brochures are all over town. When Leah’s best friend, Jefferson, decides to leave his abusive father and head west, he begs Leah to join him. She can’t leave her parents, but when they are killed a few days later, and her uncle comes to claim the land and Leah, she knows she must leave.

Leah dresses as a boy to escape her uncle’s search. He knows about her ability and is determined to use her to get rich. Leah believes that he killed her parents to get control of her. As she heads west to meet Jefferson in Independence City, she learns to be strong. And that’s a theme in the book — Leah’s strength. At times, she is stronger than the men around her. But even in her male disguise, she is kind and moral.

Just like in real life, the characters in the story grow and develop. Characters who are not nice change, but some people, just like in real life, don’t. There are many themes for discussion throughout the story. Prejudice (racial and gender), manifest destiny, the importance (or not) of riches, and the importance of friendship are a few topics that could make for great classroom conversations.

Carson is a strong writer. One scene during which a person’s leg gets amputated without anesthetic is so real and so horrifying that readers will grimace in sympathetic pain while reading about it. Carson makes the scenes come to life.

The biggest disappointment of the book? Finishing it and realizing that it will probably be a year before the sequel is in print.

Please note: This review is based on the advance review copy provided by the publisher, Greenwillow Books, for review purposes.

‘Skink – No Surrender’ by Carl Hiaasen: Master storyteller’s young adult debut


Rating: 5 stars

“Skink — No Surrender” is Carl Hiaasen’s first young adult novel, and one can only hope it will not be his last. In this novel, Hiassen brings back one of his greatest character creations — Skink. Skink is the nickname for Clinton Tyree, a one-time governor of Florida who disappeared in the middle of his term. He has since been spotted eating roadkill, wearing a shower cap, and punishing those who deface or harm Florida’s wildlife.

Richard, the protagonist of this story, is a teen with angst. He misses his father terribly since he was killed in an accident several years previously. His stepfather is more like a brother, and his actual brothers are at college. When his cousin disappears, Richard is bereft.

An unlikely encounter with Skink on a beach (Skink is trying to catch those who dig up turtle eggs to sell them) leads them both on a rescue mission to save Richard’s cousin, Malley, from the person she ran away with.

Readers will alternately laugh and cry as the pair struggles through storms, wild pigs, monstrous alligators and loaded guns to rescue Malley. Skink becomes like a father (or grandfather) figure to Richard and helps him learn about the right thing to do. While Skink may be a crazy “old fart,” as his mysterious buddy calls him, he’s as honorable and moral as any literary hero.

Skink is one of the great fictional characters, and it’s wonderful that Hiaasen decided to share him with younger readers. While his adult novels are filled with passion, violence, Florida ecology and lots of humor, his middle grade books like “Chomp” and “Scat” contain younger-style adventures with plenty of Hiaasen’s trademark ecology lessons built in.

With this young adult book, Hiassen has possibly found a perfect niche. He can reel in young adult readers who will enjoy his adventure and sharp wit and then, in a few years, begin reading the adult Hiassen novels.

Hiassen, for those not in the know, began as a reporter at the Miami Herald. His bio says, “Since 1985 Hiaasen has been writing a regular column, which at one time or another has pissed off just about everybody in South Florida, including his own bosses.”

Readers of all ages will enjoy this adventure filled with crazy Florida characters.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Knopf, for review purposes.

‘The Edge of the Water’ by Elizabeth George — sequel to her first young adult


Rating: 4 stars

“The Edge of the Water” is the sequel to “The Edge of Nowhere,” by Elizabeth George, a mystery that takes place on Whidbey Island.

It includes characters from the first book: Becca, a girl who can read the thoughts of others but not always clearly; Derric, a Ugandan orphan with whom she developed a close relationship; and a few others who helped Becca when she found herself alone on the island.

She and her mother were on the run from her murderous stepfather (Becca found out when she accidentally read his mind). Her mother was going to get settled, and she had Becca stay with a friend on the island in the meantime, but when Becca arrived (in the first book), the friend had just died. Becca has not been able to contact her mother since.

In this book, Whidbey Island is getting ready to celebrate the yearly arrival of Nera, a coal black seal, who visits the island on the same day every year. What kind of seal she is and why she visits the island on the same day each year is another part of the mystery.

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