To Fetch a Thief by Spencer Quinn is a non-stop rollercoaster of adventure

to fetch

Rating: 5 stars

“To Fetch a Thief ” is the best Chet and Bernie mystery yet. Although it helps to have read the first two books in the series, this book can stand proudly on its own.

Die-hard Chet fans–and there are many, just visit the website–love the books for their true-to-life narration from the voice of the dog. At least, it’s how those of us who personify our dogs imagine that they think. Mystery lovers enjoy the plot with its twists and turns and, of course, some odious (and, luckily, odorous) villains.

In this mystery, Chet and Bernie follow the trail of a missing circus elephant. Along the way they learn about the elephant goad, or hook, which is used to train elephants and keep them obedient. The elephant and her trainer have disappeared, and the trail dead-ends in the middle of the desert. Even Chet, with his superior nose, cannot find Peanut.
There are animals aplenty. From Peanut the elephant to exotic snakes, baboons, and a parrot, Chet has lots of animal company on this non-stop, can’t-stop-reading mystery trek.

The first person narration (from Chet’s point of view) works so well because Quinn has nailed down the dog mannerisms, including the segues into scratching, smelling and just thinking about food (bacon, anyone?). When Chet and Bernie are separated, the story continues from Chet’s point of view. The reader is left in the dark about Bernie and what’s happening to him.

If you don’t shed a tear by the end of the story, you have no heart. Spencer Quinn, on the other hand, has a heart—a great big huge one–although he would never include such a redundancy in his writing.

It’s interesting to note that there is an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee where retired elephants can truly live out their days in peace. Also, the concept of a bond between Peanut and Chet is not solely the product of Spencer Quinn’s impressive imagination. The story Tarra and Bella, about an elephant at the sanctuary and her bond with a dog, is proof of the inter-species bond.

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

‘In Andal’s House’ by Gloria Whelan: A story of change in India

inandals' house

Rating: 5 stars

“In Andal’s House” by Gloria Whelan is a book that can be read with two different outcomes. It’s a story about class, or caste, as it’s called in India. Although it’s a picture book, using this book with 5th grade students to illustrate how discrimination is still prevalent in many places was very valuable.

The tale begins in Kumar’s house where his family is eating dinner. If the difference in clothing that is vibrantly illustrated on the page doesn’t give away that this takes place in a different culture, the dinner consisting of dal and mango pickles will. The holiday Diwali means that there will be fireworks later, and Kumar has been invited to see the fireworks at a fellow student’s house.

Kumar’s mother asks him if he is sure he was invited to the house of his friend, Andal. Kumar assures her that although the family is high-caste Brahmin, Andal is not stuck-up. He is friends with many other students. Kumar is happy that he was one of the students invited even though his family doesn’t have much money.

Throughout the story, there are many clues about how life in India is different from life here in the United States. Kumar lights oil in clay pots along the path to their house. He feels guilty because his sister, a talented artist, is working to make money so Kumar can go to school instead of studying art the way she would like.

Kumar knows three languages (most of us know at most two). He hopes to get a scholarship so that Anika can go to school or save the money for a dowry. On the walk to his friend’s house, readers learn that the monsoon rains are gone (it’s November). The bright colorful illustrations by Amanda Hall show a town illuminated by fireworks and lamps with people out and about in bright clothing.

Standing outside Andal’s huge house, Kumar realizes that he’s never been in a high-caste Brahmin’s home. His family have no caste and were once called “Untouchables.” When he enters the house, Kumar painfully learns that caste still matters when Andal’s grandmother refuses to allow him to see his friends, telling him that they “cannot have a boy of no caste” in their home.

The holiday is ruined for Kumar. At home, his family is out watching the fireworks, and only his grandfather is still there. When Kumal tells him bitterly that nothing has changed, his grandfather disagrees. He tells Kumar about growing up and how horribly he was treated.

The only job he could get was street sweeper. He had to shout so that people had time to get out of his way; even his shadow was considered unclean. They called him “dirty dog,” and if his shadow fell on someone that person had to take a bath. He was not allowed to get water from the well but had to beg water from others. They would only give him water from a clay cup which was then broken. He couldn’t go into stores or go to school.

Now, his grandfather explains, things are different. In Andal’s house there is the old, the grandmother, who will always consider Kumar’s family untouchable, but there is also the new, Andal, who wants to include others regardless of caste. And Andal is the future, which is also Kumar’s future.

Teachers from second grade through fourth can use this book to teach students how to find clues in text. Common Core Standards require deeper and closer analysis of text, and this story provides lots of material for thought and for analysis. Although this is fiction, there is a plethora of information about India and its customs, food, dress and holidays.

Students studying other countries could compare and contrast the culture described in this book with others. This is a text which can be read and re-read by students seeking more and more information from the story about the Indian culture.

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

‘Wednesdays in the Tower’ by Jessica Day George: Second in charming series


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

Tuesdays in the Castle” by Jessica Day George is a big hit with middle grade readers, and they will enjoy “Wednesdays in the Tower” just as much. The second in the series has Celie, the youngest princess in the royal Glower family (and the castle’s favorite) finding an unusual egg in a newly-created tower only she can access.

What happens with the bright orange, pumpkin-sized, super hot egg will enchant middle grade readers and adults alike. The ending of the first book leads into this plot line perfectly. The characters from the first book continue to grow in depth and breadth.

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‘The Kill Switch’ by James Rollins and Grant Blackwood: Action and dogs


Rating: 4 stars

In “The Kill Switch,” James Rollins and Grant Blackwood have managed to combine two sure-fire favorites: lots of action and a brilliant, memorable dog.

It’s a fabulous idea — to create a spin-off from Rollin’s popular “Sigma Force” series and feature a strong protagonist and his even stronger dog, Kane. The story begins over a hundred years ago in Africa during the Boer War. After taking shelter in a series of caves, a troop of Boers contract a virulent disease that is killing them quickly. The reader doesn’t find out what happens — at least not yet.

The action switches to Russia in the cold of winter. Tucker, the protagonist, is on assignment to save the life of an extremely wealthy Russian businessman. During this –rather superfluous — action, the reader learns about Tucker and Kane, his Belgian Malinois and a working military dog, and their history. It’s the reader’s first introduction to the dual narrative — Tucker’s story and the action through Kane’s eyes as related in italics.

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‘Daisy to the Rescue: True Stories of Daring Dogs…’ by Jeff Campbell


Rating: 4 stars

“Daisy to the Rescue: True Stories of Daring Dogs, Paramedic Parrots, and Other Animal Heroes” by Jeff Campbell is a wonderful compilation of stories ranging from those which are fairly well known to surprising little-known stories about animals who have rescued humans.

Many have heard about Roselle, the seeing-eye dog who led her human out of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 bombing. And many Americans grieved with Sergeant Young when Target, the stray Afghanistan dog who saved him and his fellow soldiers from a Taliban suicide bomber, was mistakenly euthanized in an Arizona animal shelter. After Target and another dog saved the group of soldiers, they raised money to bring both dogs back to the states where it was hoped they would live the rest of their lives in safety — as a much-deserved reward for saving so many lives. When Target escaped from Young’s yard and was taken to a shelter, Young contacted the shelter and told them Target was his dog. But before he could get there to pick her up, tragically, they killed her.

Not so well-known is the story of Dory the rabbit who saved the life of her human when he went into a diabetic coma. Or the dogs who helped humans by performing an animal version of the Heimlich maneuver. And Campbell shares the story about the dog who detected cancer and saved the life of his human.

Animal lovers and anyone with a pet of his/her own will love reading these stories and the possible scientific explanations of how and why these animals saved the humans they did. From kangaroo to lion, from dolphin to dog, and from horse to hamster (there really isn’t a hamster, but there is a rabbit), the stories will touch readers’ hearts and stir their imagination.

Many of the dogs and cats mentioned in the stories were rescues or stray animals. It could be hoped that by reading this book, many will be inspired to go to a local shelter and rescue their own dog or cat. One never knows when that adopted animal will save the life of the human it loves!

This book would also be a great choice for nonfiction reading in the school setting.

The forward is by Marc Bekoff, a noted scientist who was a professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and was awarded the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society for major long-term contributions to the field of animal behavior. He wrote a wonderful book, “Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed” about animals’ cognitive abilities and their ability to experience empathy, grief, humor and love.

Another must-read book, “The Genius of Dogs” by Brian Hare, is about the intelligence of dogs, and while most dog lovers believe their dog is smart, this book explains that dogs can do much more than we’ve ever thought possible. And it explains why.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, Zest Books, for review purposes.

‘Running Out of Night’ by Sharon Lovejoy: Middle grade historical fiction

running out of night

Rating: 4 stars

“Running Out of Night” by Sharon Lovejoy is middle grade historical fiction about a girl growing up in rural Virginia in 1858. Her mother died giving birth to her, and her father and brothers are uncaring and cruel to her. So cruel that they never even give her a name — calling her “Girl.” Her grandfather (her mother’s father) is the only loving person she has contact with, and when he dies, she is alone with no one to care for her, and the abuse becomes even more intense.

When a runaway slave shows up, Girl decides to help her, and the slave opens her eyes to the abuse she is living with. She runs away with the slave. Zenobia, the slave, points out that even though she’s a slave, she has a name. Then Zenobia, noticing how Girl relates to the birds, names her Lark.

It’s the story of Lark and Zenobia’s escape and the story of Lark’s maturing. She begins to see what’s right and what’s wrong and she grows strong — in spirit and in temperament. She is determined to help her new friends, the escaped slaves, reach freedom. Whether she will reach freedom is questionable. Her father wants back his servant — Girl.

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Brad Meltzer’s ‘Ordinary People Change the World’: ‘I Am Abraham Lincoln’


Rating: 5 stars

“I Am Abraham Lincoln” and “I Am Amelia Earhart” are the first two books in Brad Meltzer’s new series, “Ordinary People Change the World.” Of course, the people featured in the books are now famous people, but they each began in the world as ordinary people with a special character trait that made them change the world.

The stories include little known facts — some are facts that have never been heard before. Especially touching was the story about when Abe was ten years old. He saw some boys playing with turtles. But when he got closer, he saw that they were placing hot coals on top of the turtles to see them run. He made the boys let the turtles go and wrote one of his first essays — about how hurting animals is wrong.

And while he only attended school for less than a year, he taught himself by reading all the books he could find. He once walked six miles to get a book. That’s dedication.

What resonates throughout the book is Lincoln’s determination to stand up for himself and what he believed in. He lost four elections before he won one. Lincoln tells his story in first person narrative, and while what Meltzer includes is stirring and inspiring, he also includes a touch of humor (Lincoln tells everyone, “I’m going to be on the penny.”)

The last page “narrated” by Lincoln sums it up: “I am Abraham Lincoln. I will never stop fighting for what’s right. And I hope you’ll remember that when you speak your mind — and speak for others — there’s no more powerful way to be heard.”

While some may quibble that the book has Lincoln fighting the Civil War solely to free the slaves (which is not the case), the book is one that students will enjoy reading and one that will show students an historical figure who is truly inspiring.

The illustrations by Christopher Eliopoulos will also appeal to young readers. The main character, Abraham Lincoln, remains a kid throughout the story although he also wears his signature stovepipe hat. The last two pages include a quote and some photographs.

With Common Core State Standards in the schools, this book will be appreciated by teachers looking for nonfiction reading for younger grades.

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

‘Each Kindness’ by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E. B. Lewis: Fantastic!


Rating: 5 stars (or more)

Each Kindness,” by the prolific author Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by the incredibly talented E. B. Lewis, is a book that should be required reading for all elementary students. Every year. Without fail.

What book could possibly be that important, that profound that every child should read it? In “Each Kindness,” Woodson presents two girls, one who is gentle and reaches out to others and the other who, with her friends, rebuffs that offering of friendship and is cruel. It’s bullying at its best (or worst).

Woodson explains that she wrote the story because she had witnessed simple acts of unkindness in her daughter’s third grade classroom. After seeing the unthinking cruelty that young children can perpetrate on others, she felt this was a book that needed to be written.

Woodson also goes on to state that this story should make each and every one of us look inside. We all are both Chloe, the mean girl, and Maya, the object of the cruelty. And although this book is written about girls, boys of almost any age should be able to relate to the story as well.

As an elementary school teacher, I see children who are both Chloe and Maya on a daily basis. If sharing this book causes even one child to stop and think before acting cruelly, then it has served a noble cause.

Every teacher should have this book on his or her bookshelf. It should be read aloud, often, and discussed. Chloe, the mean girl, learns that her actions have a ripple effect. And the final thought? That once missed, a chance to be kind is gone, just like the ripples. The time to be kind is now.

School Library Journal gave this the “Best Book of 2012” award. With good reason.

Also, each illustration in the book is a work of art. E. B. Lewis is a supremely talented watercolor painter, and his touching illustrations add another dimension to this marvelous piece of work.

Please note: This review is based on an final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Nancy Paulsen Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, for review purposes.

‘The Peddler’s Road’: Book One in ‘The Secrets of the Pied Piper’ series


Rating: 5 stars

“The Peddler’s Road” is the latest book by wonderful children’s author Matthew Cody and the first book in his new series, “The Secrets of the Pied Piper.” This story is based on the original Grimm fairy tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. As in the Grimm fairy tale, the pied piper in this story magically lures the children of Hamelin away from the town when they refuse to pay his fee for ridding the town of rats. In Cody’s version, one crippled boy is left behind when he can’t keep up with the other children as they run after the piper and his enchanted music.

Cody then bring the readers to modern-day Hamelin where a brother and sister from New York are visiting with their professor father. Max, a tough girl with pink hair, feels very protective of her brother Carter. Max is 13, two years older than her brother who was born with a genetic problem that causes him to walk poorly. He has a brace on his leg. And that’s the connection with the last child of Hamelin who didn’t get lured away with the piper.

Max and her brother end up lured to the music of the piper and find themselves on magical Summer Isle, a place where the original children of Hamelin have never aged and it never is winter nor night. But things are changing on Summer Isle, and the place that was once idyllic (most of the time) has grown increasingly threatening. Winter comes with more frequency when the sun does disappear and night arrives. Where it used to occur rarely and for only one night, the icy cold has been happening more frequently. Worse than the chilling temperature are the monsters and gigantic rats that appear in the dark. Creatures that try to kill the children.

With the arrival of Carter, who with his limp is seen as the “last child of Hamelin,” or the one who was left behind, the children of Summer Isle think that there might be a way for them to escape and go home. However to do that, they must follow the cryptic wording on a magical map and go to the Black Tower where the piper has been imprisoned. On the way they meet another magical figure, the peddler. The peddler is the magician who created the road that crosses Summer Isle and helps keep evil at bay.

Over the course of the story, the adventurers learn that the peddler and the piper were once good friends. Now they are enemies. Will the peddler help them find the Black Tower where the piper is imprisoned? What will happen if the children of Hamelin are able to escape after centuries on Summer Isle? Find the answers to these questions by reading this enchanting and clever novel. But be forewarned — there are just as many new questions that will arise before the story is done.

This is a great book for middle grade lovers of adventure and magic. It would be a wonderful read aloud for the classroom and a great addition to any classroom library.

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

‘The Key’ by Simon Toyne is the second in the ‘Sanctus’ trilogy of thrillers


Rating: 5 stars

“The Key,” the second entry in the “Sanctus” trilogy by Simon Toyne, continues the eerie, scary, and exciting story of a heroine bedeviled, as it were, by her mystical spiritual attachment to an extremely important female biblical character. More about that attachment shall not be revealed herein.

It must suffice to say that the heroine, Liv Adamsen, is a brave, brilliant, and befuddled recipient of the soul of that biblical character, and she must carry that albatross not around her neck, but through the whole of her body and being. And she must escape the wrath of the Brothers of the Citadel (and the Catholic Church), who believe that her survival means their destruction.

But the real commission to which she has been entrusted (possible semi-spoiler) means finding the exact spot of the original Garden of Eden. If she fails in that mission, it is not only she who will die. So, almost surely, will most of humankind.

She is aided in her quest by her co-hero, Gabriel Mann. Note the clever symbolic significance of the characters’ names, which reveal much about their character traits, their functions in plot development, and their relationships to biblical namesakes.

Like “Sanctus,” “The Key” provides — and this is a pretty tricky task — believable and sympathetic characters in a framework of fantasy, suspension of disbelief, and continual plot twists and turns. Plus surprises. The dialogue is crisp and appropriate. The thematic development is quite profound. And the horror, gore, fear, and suspense are all chilling and imaginative. You will cringe.

And you will probably stay right at the edge of your seat in anticipation of the very effectively-set-up third installment. Many frightening issues to be resolved.

Visit Simon Toyne’s website to learn about the series. (JK)

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

‘Lessons from Tara’ by David Rosenfelt: A must-read if you’ve ever loved a dog

lessons tara

Rating: 5 stars

“Lessons from Tara: Life Advice from the World’s Most Brilliant Dog” by David Rosenfelt is so enjoyable it should be illegal. Anyone who has ever loved a dog will be touched by the stories of the many, many dogs that Rosenfelt and his wife, Debbie, have saved. But what makes Rosenfelt’s writing brilliant is his ability to infuse humor into every page he writes.

This reviewer has never read a book wherein every page — every page, mind you — has caused her to burst out laughing, stop, and insist that her husband stop whatever he is doing so that she could read the funny parts to him. He certainly does’t feel that he needs to read the book now. He’s listened to most of it.

While those of us who rescue know many sad animal stories (because we’ve experienced them), Rosenfelt’s stories consistently amaze, entertain, and disgust — all at the same time. There is an incident recounted, for example, on page 118, in which a golden retriever is abandoned in front of a high-kill shelter in California one morning. “The attached note described her as fifteen, and the owners said that they were going on vacation and didn’t want to pay to board her, so the shelter should put her down.”

That dog lived what must have been three more wonderfully happy years in the Rosenfelt zoo, er, house. Rosenfelt pulls no punches. He continues, “Tessie lived to eighteen with us, and hopefully it was long enough to make her forget the assholes she had lived with all those years. I hope wherever they went on their vacation, they contracted dysentery, and there was no indoor plumbing.”

Rosenfelt’s ubiquitous self-deprecating humor also permeates the anecdotes and is guaranteed to leave the reader, just as it did this reviewer, laughing, loudly and frequently. He even makes fun of mistakes he’s made in his writing. I’ll give away just one: “…they found the victim ‘lying facedown on his back.'” Obviously those mistakes are editing errors, not to be pinned on Rosenfelt — hero to many. Especially his dogs.

Please note: This review is based on an final hardcover book provided by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, for review purposes.

‘Dead Air: The Kat Sinclair Files #1’ by Michelle Schusterman for middle grades

kat sinclari

Rating: 4 stars

“Dead Air” is the first novel in the new series by Michelle Schusterman, “The Kat Sinclair Files.” As might be expected from the name of the series, the protagonist in this clever story is Kat Sinclair. Her father is a talk-show host who needs a new job. At the beginning of the book, readers learn that his new job is with a reality ghost-hunting show called “Passport to Paranormal” in which the cast and crew travel to various “haunted” locations to find ghosts. Kat decides to travel with the show to be with her father while they investigate claims of ghosts all over the world.

Of course it’s all fake — or is it? Kat is ready to deal with anything that might come her way. She’s grown up watching the many vintage monster/ghost/zombie movies that her grandmother starred in. It takes a lot to scare Kat. But she’s also dealing with the fact that her mother has left Kat and her father to “pursue her career.” Her grandmother lives with Kat and her father, and a more ungrandmotherly-type character might be hard to find (she’s a great character). Of course, none of the characters are created with much depth except for Kat, but there are future books in which that might happen. And what Schusterman starts with makes many of them worthy of more detail.

Schusterman fills the story with everything that makes a story good. There are quirky characters, a fast-moving plot, spooky scenes, mysteries (are there really ghosts?), and family issues. There is a boy on the tour with them who is not what he first appears to be — and that might be a good thing. Kat learns a lot about life and matures over the course of this first book. Can’t wait to see what happens from here.

Four stars for this book that will hook readers!

Please note: This review was based on the final review copy provided by the publisher, Grosset & Dunlap, for review purposes.