‘The Fourteenth Goldfish’ by Jennifer L. Holm: Middle grade scifi about life




Rating: 5 stars

Jennifer L. Holm addresses the eternal question in “The Fourteenth Goldfish.” If you could live forever, would you choose to do so? What would the implications be for society?

Cleverly, the book begins with eleven-year-old Ellie learning that the goldfish she thought hadn’t died since preschool was really a series of thirteen goldfish — each one replaced by another before she could learn about its death. Soon after Ellie finds out that her goldfish didn’t have an extremely long life (for a goldfish), her grandfather moves in with Ellie and her mother.

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‘The War that Saved My Life’ by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: Don’t miss this

wartht saved

Rating: 5 stars

“The War that Saved My Life” by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is the kind of book that doesn’t come along often. It’s a very special treasure that will be loved by kids and adults alike. This historical fiction takes place in England during World War II, but the history involved is just part of this touching tale of what it means to be a family.

Ada is ten years old. She cannot remember ever being outside her family’s one room apartment in a poor part of London. While her six-year-old brother Jamie can run outside and play, Ada must remain inside, a prisoner to her clubfoot and her abusive mother. Her mother ingrains in her from a young age that Ada is an imbecile, stupid and a horror. Her clubfoot makes it impossible for her to walk like other children.

When the children of London are evacuated to the countryside, Ada’s mother does not plan to send Ada. But Ada has plans of her own. The day of the evacuation, she and Jamie make it to the train. Once at the other end, no one wants to take in the two — especially since Ada looks awful from her efforts to get there by crawling part of the way.

They are taken in reluctantly by a single woman who makes it clear that she doesn’t want children. In spite of that, she is kind and caring. Children reading this will be shocked by how Ada cringes whenever Susan, her new caretaker, raises her hand. Ada also has nightmares from when her mother had forced her to spend nights inside a cramped cabinet as punishment for some minor infraction — like eating too much or talking to someone out the window.

Slowly, Ada begins to heal. She finds that she can ride the pony that lives in the barn behind the house. That helps her feel mobile. Susan also gets her crutches, so for the first time in her life she can move around with ease. Susan, whose best friend had died years before, also slowly appears to escape from the depression that had held her in its iron grip ever since.

The story causes the readers to examine what it means to be a family. Susan and her friend had lived together in the pretty house as a nontraditional kind of family, and Susan, Ada and Jamie are certainly not a traditional family grouping either. But as they all change and grow together, it’s certainly a family that is created. And when something happens that threatens to break up the family, each of them must decide what they will risk to keep the family together.

Older readers will notice that Susan’s friend, whom she loved more than anything, was a woman. And they met at Oxford and lived together. It’s noted that the women in town (as well as Susan’s father, a vicar) didn’t approve of their relationship. Susan’s father was disappointed that she never married. Nothing is overt, but it would seem that one would only grieve the way Susan grieves for a person with whom one was in love.

Another aspect of the novel worth classroom discussion time is the difference in the lives of the poor and the rich in the story. The girl whom Ada eventually befriends speaks differently and lives in a manor home. She goes to boarding school because the local public school is not good enough for her.

But Ada and Jamie’s new life is one of relative comfort when compared to their life with their mother in the tiny apartment with little to eat. Each day with Susan brings new revelations: sheets, napkins, baths, silverware. The story also includes the small cruelties that siblings occasionally inflict on each other.

A book is so touching, so filled with real, believable characters, that the reader will be reluctant to begin another book for days. It’s the kind of book that demands thoughtful processing and remembering. It’s the kind of book that will change readers and leave them better people for having read the story.

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

‘Unleashed’ by David Rosenfelt: Another mystery/comedy masterpiece


Rating: 5 stars

David Rosenfelt’s “Unleashed,’ the eleventh in the Andy Carpenter Mystery series, is, we are happy to announce, just like the first ten. Terrific.

This time, Andy, the unwilling but extraordinarily able criminal defense attorney, once again gives up his preferred lifestyle of wealth and leisure to take on the impossible-looking defense of an accused murderer.

In “Unleashed,” it is an apparent murderess, Denise Price, who appears to have done away with her very rich husband Barry by expertly botoxing him into oblivion. He pilots (in this case un-pilots) his private jet into a fatal crash because he is rendered unconscious by the lethal dose of botox he has ingested.

Denise is a former nurse who knows how to administer poisons. She and Barry have been unhappy together for years and have had terrible arguments in public. She is quite attractive and quite willing to use her looks to manipulate men. It looks like an open-and-shut case. So of course, Andy Carpenter decides to defend her.

Andy is urged to do so by his long-time friend, accountant, and official computer hacker, Sam Willis (who appears in all the books in the series). But Sam may have some ulterior motives (though certainly not evil ones) for persuading Andy to defend Denise. He has had a crush on her since their high school days together. And Sam is going to get very involved — with the case and with Denise. Way TOO involved.

Meanwhile, the parallel plot, the one with a third person narrator (Andy always tells most of his own stories), features a suspenseful and exciting evil plan to commit a 9/11-type series of simultaneous murders of high-profile Americans.

Oh yes, the title. Of course, there is a very important dog, too. Wouldn’t be Andy and wouldn’t be Rosenfelt without it.

Now, the real perplexing question is, How does Rosenfelt manage to construct such clever and complex plots, tie them all together, make you love Andy more with every novel, and bombard you with non-stop humor, all at the same time? Only Rosenfelt can pull off that kind of quadruple-play. His is an absolutely unique mystery/comedy talent. Do not miss “Unleashed.” Don’t miss any of them.

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

‘Moving Target’ by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

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Rating: 4 stars

“Moving Target” by Christina Diaz Gonzalez is a middle grade through young adult adventure novel that is fast-paced and filled with unforgettable characters. It’s basically a Dan Brown novel for young readers.

Almost from the first page, the reader is thrust into the life of Cassandra Arroyo and her adventure. Her father picks her up at midday from her private school, and he tells her that she is in danger. He also gives her instructions on what to do if something happens to him, and when he is shot, he begs her to run.

Cassie runs to the house of her best friend, Simone, and together they begin the adventure. It turns out that Cassandra is the descendant of an ancient bloodline that is linked with a special spear — the spear that killed Jesus. If the spear is combined with a person who has the “mark,” as Cassie does, then that person can change the future.

Cassie learns that there are those who would kill her to keep her from having the power over the spear and the power to change the future. Those who have had that power have become crazed by the spear. The last holder of the spear decided that the best way to make the world a better place was to kill most inhabitants and start over. This person is in a coma, and when he dies, the next person with the mark who touches the spear will control its power.

Cassie is determined to find the spear and give it to those who would protect it from abuse. But fate may have other plans. She and Simone are joined by Asher, who has been trained by his uncle to protect those who might have the power over the spear. Asher is only two years older than Cassie, but he is very resourceful.

While the ending is fairly predictable, the ride is enjoyable. Readers will be anxious to read the next book in the series to see what adventure Cassie is on next. Perfect for readers from fourth grade through high school, it’s a book that will have a wide audience.

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

‘Endangered’ by Eliot Schrefer: Gripping adventure about bonobos and the Congo


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“Endangered” by Eliot Schrefer is available in paperback. This engrossing fictional tale of a teenager’s adventure (a life-and-death adventure) trying to get to safety with her young bonobo is a book that is difficult to put down. Be forewarned, once you’ve read this book you will be fascinated with the subject of bonobos and will want to read more and learn more about these gentle relatives of ours.

Sophie, the protagonist, is the daughter of an Italian father and a mother who cares so much for bonobos that when her husband’s work meant returning to the United States, she stayed in the Congo to care for the bonobos who had no one else. Sophie went with her father, visiting her mother on vacations.

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‘Must Love Dogs: New Leash on Life’ by Claire Cook: Sequel to best seller


Rating: 5 stars

Claire Cook brings back the charming and zany Hurlihy family in this sequel to “Must Love Dogs,” “Must Love Dogs: New Leash on Life.” Here, Sarah Hurlihy’s story continues to develop her funny but frustrating romance with John Anderson. Their relationship grows increasingly difficult partly because her brother Michael and his dog Mother Theresa are camped out in her house.

The Hurlihy family sticks together, and Sarah is there for her brother when he needs her. Of course, the reader wants to shake her and tell her to leave her brother alone. He’s a grown-up, and John (or Jack, as her father calls him) is waiting — but may not wait forever.

Another problem is that John’s dog, Horatio, doesn’t like Sarah, and hilarious complications ensue. Of course, to fully appreciate them, you — must love dogs.

John gets Sarah a summer job at his company teaching social skills to computer nerds, and she befriends a young woman who works at the company. Of course, as in any fine novel, things are not as they appear to be.

Between family and romance, her part-time job and the computer geeks, and a very sly and attractive rival, Sarah has her hands full. But she has pluck and is determined to get things right — not only for her brother and father (who is still serial dating), but for herself.

Cook’s ability to create strong characters through dialogue and actions is textbook writing: show, don’t tell. She excels at writing scenes that leap to life, wherein the reader feels almost a part of them. I was walking the beach in Savannah with Sarah and smelling the ocean breeze and feeling the heat. I was also laughing a lot. And I was also very moved by the entire story — especially the events at the end. Movie sequel next?

“Must Love Dogs: New Leash on Life” will further endear readers to the characters in the story, and they won’t want to wait to see what happens next. Will Sarah and John make a commitment? Will her father find happiness? What about the other siblings?

And animal lovers will appreciate the plug for adopting a shelter dog contained in the story.

If you haven’t read a Claire Cook book yet, start with this one. You don’t need to have read the first book, but why not grab that one, too, and read it? Her books are like potato chips — you can’t have just one!

Please note: This review is based on the final paperback book provided by the author for review purposes.

‘No Year of the Cat’ by Mary Dodson Wade and Nicole Wong


Rating: 5 stars

“No Year of the Cat” by Mary Dodson Wade and illustrated by Nicole Wong is a lovely retelling of a Chinese folktale explaining why the Chinese calendar features the animals it does — and no cat. The illustrations are beautiful — pastel with an Eastern feel.

The emperor decides he needs to find a way to remember the auspicious year when his son was born. He decides to have a contest in which animals will race across a river. The first twelve to reach the other side will have a year named after them.

Many animals compete in the contest. The story tells of cat and rat, friends, who hitch a ride on ox. Through trickery, rat pushes cat off ox. Cat arrives after twelve other animals and does not get to be included among the calendar animals.

And that is why, to this day, cat hates rat.

Children will enjoy reading the folktale and discussing why it’s considered a folktale. Any teacher doing a unit on folktales should make sure this is included in the unit.

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

‘It’s All About Me-ow’ by Hudson Talbott: Life instructions for any new kitten


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“It’s All About Me-ow” is the perfect book for anyone considering adopting a cat or anyone who has a cat or two (or more). The author, Hudson Talbott, as might be expected, has two cats. Surely this book was inspired by their utterly depraved albeit luxurious lifestyle.

Buddy, the cat, introduces the new kittens (one of whom is adorably drawn with huge round eyes and large pink ears) to the science of living with “those tall creatures” called humans. Talbott cleverly plays with words that sound like “meow.” For example, “Now’s the time to take control! You’re probably saying, ‘Me? How? Me? How?'”

There are diagrams comparing the body parts of cats and humans. Cat eyesight: laserlike; human eyesight: dim. Cat nose: cute and powerful; human nose: big but feeble. There is a double spread titled “A Catwalk Through History,” with the history of cats from the first mammal that walked out of the ocean through Egyptian times when cats were worshiped, and the Dark Ages when cats were almost wiped out, ending with modern times where cats are, for the most part, hogging the family bed.

Perhaps my favorite page is “Play With Your Humans,” wherein Buddy instructs the kittens in how to teach the humans games like “sit” and “stay” and “fetch” for hours of family fun. “Sit” is when the cat sits on the human. “Stay” is when the cat lies down on the human, thus preventing the human from getting up. (It’s true. When a cat lies down on your lap, you don’t move for fear of making the cat leave.) “Fetch” is when the cat knocks over a container of pencils or vase of flowers or pile of books — cat owners know this game well — and the human picks up the pencils, flowers or books.

Dining out “dos” and “don’ts” include “do” catch the mouse, but “don’t” catch the gerbil. “Do” catch the fish in the creek, but “don’t” catch the fish in the goldfish bowl.

Cat lovers and wanna-be cat lovers will enjoy this book. Children with cats will understand the book and want to read it over and over. Adults, too.

‘Jackpot’ by Gordon Korman: A fabulous addition to the ‘Swindle’ series


Rating: 5 stars

Just when you think it can’t get any better, Gordon Korman takes the middle grade series “Swindle” to a new level with “Jackpot.” This book includes the characters readers love from the previous books but brings in a new character. In addition to the usual madcap adventures and misadventures, there are interactions between the friends that could lead to thoughtful classroom discussion.

“Jackpot” begins as most of the series does, with Griffin Bing, aka “the man with the plan,” creating a plan. This plan is to get even with their archenemy Darren Vader. The plan backfires, and Griffin’s friends are not happy with the fallout. Darren plays the victim and accused Griffin of being a bully.

Just then, a new kid arrives in town. Victor Phoenix is determined to make friends at his new school. When he must find a new home for his cat (he claims his dad is allergic), Savannah the animal lover immediately offers to foster the cat until Victor’s dad gets help for the allergies. Her beloved Doberman, Luthor, does not take kindly to the newcomer.

What makes the plot of this book fresh and different is what happens to the group. Griffin is terribly angry when Victor is cruel to him (because he thinks Griffin is a bully) and his friends don’t see the cruelty, so he distances himself from them.

Of course, there is a new plan, and it’s one that all the characters are involved in — even if they all aren’t aware it’s Griffin’s plan. A winning 30-million dollar lottery ticket is missing. It was purchased in the next town, and no one ever claimed the prize. The clock is running on the one-year time limit to claim the ticket, and the group decides that they want to find it.

Korman manages to include the subjects of bullying and forgiveness in this book. Each of the “Swindle” series is more than just a middle-grade adventure (although they are adventures). They show kindness and generosity in action. This book is no different. There is a bad guy, and there are good guys, and there are bad guys who are maybe not so bad and good guys who may make mistakes. Just like real life.

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

‘Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom’ by Lynda Blackmon Lowery: memoir about Selma

turning 15

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March” by Lynda Blackmon Lowery is a riveting story about a teenager during the Civil Rights Movement and more specifically during the march From Selma, Alabama to Montgomery.

It was a time of unrest and civil disobedience, and young readers of this story will learn that blacks in the South who wanted to register to vote might be fired from their jobs and then have no way of supporting their families. The price to vote was just too high for most people. Unlike white people, who just registered, black individuals were forced to answer ridiculous questions to “prove” they should be able to vote. “How deep is the Alabama River” or “How many jelly beans are in this gallon jar?”

So even though Lynda Blackmon was only 14 when the rallies and protests were being organized, she wanted to participate. She tells about how the kids arranged to miss school so they could take part. She describes being incarcerated over and over again because of her participation. She describes her fears — very real fears.

At the end of the book is a listing of those who died during the protests. Policemen punished the protestors with tear gas and beatings. Some were shot. But in the end, the Voting Rights Act was passed. Many had sacrificed their lives for that.

Photographs and illustrations help to make the story more real and immediate to young readers. This nonfiction book should be a part of any study about the African-American struggle for Civil Rights and the discrimination and unashamed but shameful hatred that characterized — defined — the attitudes and behaviors of white bigots.

A good classroom teacher will also point out, as does the book, that parts of the Voting Rights Act were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The Court held that discrimination is no longer an issue. Those who are not allowed to vote unless they have a government photo identification card (which costs money) might disagree with that decision. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissenting opinion in the case that the decision was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” The struggle for equality and Civil Rights, it seems, continues — unabated.

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

‘Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed’ by Marc Bekoff: Animals lovers MUST read


Rating: 5 stars

“Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship and Conservation” by Marc Bekoff is a must-read book for anyone who professes to love animals.

Forget the cutesy title — the book is filled with essays written by the animal lover and professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology. Bekoff knows his stuff. He has written over 800 popular essays on animal emotions and scientific theories. He writes about research by other scientists, including Brian Hare, author of “The Genius of Dogs,” and explains why we need to think about nonhuman animals’ feelings.

Some of the essays are quite esoteric while others are very practical and informative. Bekoff explains animals’ cognitive abilities and discusses their ability to experience empathy, grief, humor and love.

Most animal lovers know that our dogs and cats experience pain and emotion. But did you know animals can experience PTSD?

In his essay entitled “I’ll Have What She’s Having: Dogs Do It, Too,” Bekoff explains that often dogs will emulate humans and copy their actions. Many of us have seen our dogs copy other dogs’ actions. My own dogs refused to eat a piece of grapefruit that was offered to them. But when my foster dog, PT, eagerly gobbled it up, the others followed suit. Every one of them.

Another essay is about Jasper, a moon bear rescued from a cage where he was kept immobile for years so that his bile could be extracted. Animals Asia, started by Jill Robinson, works hard to change the fate of moon bears (and other bears) in China and other countries in Asia. She and Bekoff wrote the picture book “Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears,” which I cannot read aloud without choking up at the end. Every time I read it. (It’s a wonderful book for children ages six and up about forgiveness and compassion.)

Bekoff takes on the subject of zoos and talks about a dark secret. Many zoos kill animals that are not “needed” because they don’t fit into the zoos’ breeding plans. They wait to kill the animals until after the parents care for them through the infant stages. Is that because baby animals draw visitors? They claim it’s so that the parents have the experience of parenting. He also clarifies what that should be called. “Euthanasia” is mercy killing of a living being who is suffering. Unwanted animals who are healthy are not suffering. It should be called “zoothanasia” instead. Killing healthy animals.

Bekoff simply does not shy away from telling it like it is.

About SeaWorld he writes, “SeaWorld is really a SeaJail and a whale mill and should be ashamed of how they keep highly sentient beings and for continuing to deceive an unknowing public about what they really do and why they do it. Simply put, SeaWorld heartlessly abuses amazing animals, forces them to perform stupid and unnatural tricks, forces them to breed, and doesn’t allow them to retire, all in the name of money.”

Bekoff’s vision for the future: “Phasing out zoos in favor of sanctuaries where individuals can live out their lives with respect and dignity should be the focus of future efforts to enrich and honor the lives of the numerous animals who find themselves languishing in captivity.”

Marc Bekoff is a hero. The animals in this world are extremely lucky to have such a compassionate, prolific writer on their side.

Please note: This review is based on the final paperback book provided by New World Library for review purposes.

‘Gray Mountain’ by John Grisham: Wonderful legal drama in Virginia coal country


Rating: 5 stars

John Grisham reliably writes exciting legal thrillers. “Gray Mountain” will make you feel many emotions: anger, passion, admiration, and maybe even the desire to go to the Appalachia mountains to take a hike in its natural beauty. Just stay away from the coal mines.

In Virginia, coal is king. And huge corporate coal companies rape the beauty of the mountains to extract the valuable coal. The resulting destruction fills previously lovely valleys with timber and detretis from the removal of the mountaintop, fills ponds and holding containers with huge lakes of toxic sludge, and contaminates water tables with toxic chemicals.

The damage to the bodies of those who labor in the mines is just as horrifying. Miners die after a few decades in the mines of black lung disease and many of their family members die from cancer — according to Grisham, the rate of death from cancer in Virginia is higher than in other parts of the country.

The story (on Grisham’s website): The Great Recession of 2008 left many young professionals out of work. Promising careers were suddenly ended as banks, hedge funds, and law firms engaged in mass lay-offs and brutal belt tightening.

Samantha Kofer was a third year associate at Scully & Pershing, New York City’s largest law firm. Two weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed, she lost her job, her security, and her future.

A week later she was working as an unpaid intern in a legal aid clinic deep in small town Appalachia. There, for the first time in her career, she was confronted with real clients with real problems.

She also stumbled across secrets that should have remained buried deep in the mountains forever.

Samantha Kofer is not a perfect protagonist. But then, no one wants to read about someone perfect — a few flaws make everyone more interesting. Grisham makes her a real person with divorced parents. Her parents are not perfect parents, either. Her father got too greedy as a high-flying litigator and ended up in jail; her mother is a lawyer at the Department of Justice and still bitter about not getting a fair share of the money during the divorce. Samantha is caught between them.

Her father is disappointed when after graduating from a prestigious law school, she chooses to work for one of the biggest law firms in New York in real estate. Samantha spends her days proofing huge stacks of documents and getting yelled at by self-important wealthy real estate moguls.

All that changes with the recession. The firm lets many of its associates go with the charge to work for a year at a non-profit, basically as an intern and for no pay, and then perhaps be recalled to the firm to work. In the meantime, their health insurance will be paid for.

Samantha ends up at a small free legal clinic in rural Virginia. There she encounters all kinds of quirky characters — from lawyers to litigators and coal miners to thugs.

The story is gripping. The anger that the injustice delivered to those who work in the mines will engender is real. It’s the anger that many feel against huge corporate organizations who don’t care about the people who get trampled in the corporation’s quest for more and more profit. Lung disease? Stall long enough and the miner will die. Polluted water supply? Cheaper to pay a few million in judgments than hundreds of millions in cleaning up the environment or changing the way that coal is mined.

New to Grisham? This book will have you hooked. Grisham fan? You won’t be disappointed.

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