‘A Blind Guide to Stinkville’ by Beth Vrabel: Middle grade fiction

blind guide

Rating: 5 stars

“A Blind Guide to Stinkville” by Beth Vrabel is a middle grade book featuring an unusual protagonist, a girl with albinism. She has pale skin, light blue eyes, and nystagmus, a condition wherein the eyes flicker constantly, so it’s difficult for those with it to see. Alice, the main character, is almost blind.

When the family moves to a new town for the father’s job, they are all unhappy. The mother suffers from depression — acute depression — and she doesn’t function or care for Alice or her older brother. It’s summer, so Alice has her brother take her to the public library, where she makes a friend. Both Alice and her brother are very uncomfortable in this new town, where the very air smells from the paper mill.

Alice has many struggles there. She had grown up in a place where everyone knew who she was and also knew all about her blindness. Now she must explain her condition to everyone, and it’s difficult to explain how you are blind when you can read (even if she has to hold the book up very close). She takes her fat little dog with her everywhere, and people think it’s her seeing eye dog. Her father is too busy with his new job to pay much attention to the struggles of his family.

Alice is a beautifully conceived first person narrator. Vrabel does an excellent job developing Alice’s character and showing both her vulnerability and her strengths. The journey Alice takes that summer is one with which readers will enjoy following along. What Alice learns about those around her and herself makes this a story that is well worth reading.

The themes include not only disabilities, looking different, and trying to make friends in a new place, but also depression and senior citizens and dyslexia.

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

‘Dog Sense’ by Sneed B. Collard: The story of a new kid, bullies and a dog


Rating: 5 stars

“Dog Sense” by Sneed B. Collard III is the story of a new kid in a rural Montana town. Moving during eighth grade of middle school is a tough time for any kid, but for a kid whose father disappeared after suffering from depression, it’s tough trying to live with a grandfather and to make friends.

Guy Martinez finds that Montana is really different from California. Kids call their teachers “ma’am” and “sir,” as he was told the first day of school by the principal. His grandfather is a crusty old coot, embarrassing as can be, but obviously someone who cares about Guy and his mother. His mother left her well-paying job to move to this new town called Coffee and take a minimum wage job.

Guy’s biggest problem (aside from missing his father and feeling somehow at fault) is that Brad Mullen, a delinquent who failed eighth grade twice, is gunning for him. Guy befriends the only friendly face, a guy named Luke with a mysterious past.

Although Luke is very willing (and eager) to spend time at Guy’s house, he never wants to bring Guy to his house. Once he meets Guy’s new dog, a border collie mix named Streak, the friendship is sealed. Luke loves dogs.

Again, it’s a mystery as to why Luke had two dogs but doesn’t any more. Cryptic comments about how Luke’s family “ruined the town” add to Guy’s wonder about his friend. It all becomes clear in the end, and Guy has some difficult decisions to make.

This would be a great story to read aloud to a fifth grade or middle school class. There are many issues that can be discussed including bullying, friendship, mental illness, divorce, cruelty to animals, and moral values.

It’s also an easy book to connect to as Guy’s personality is well created and one that cries out for understanding.

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

‘The Dog Who Loved Tortillas’: An English/Spanish picture book


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“The Dog Who Loved Tortillas/ La perrita que le encantaban las tortillas” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and illustrated by Geronimo García is a charming story about how a dog changes the relationship between a brother and sister.

The story begins by introducing Gabriela and Little Diego, her younger brother. They both see a dog, and they both decide that they really, really want a dog. When their parents refuse to allow both of them to have their own dog, they must decide on a dog together.

They visit the Humane Society (Sáenz gets brownie points for having them adopt!), and both want a white puppy with brown spots. While Gabriela picks out the dog, Diego is the one who comes up with the perfect name, Sofie.

While the siblings had promised to share the dog, each of them privately thinks, “my dog.” In spite of that, they join together to train Sofie. That gets much easier when they find that nothing motivates Sofie like one of their mother’s warm, homemade tortillas. Soon the whole neighborhood knows “the dog who loves tortillas.”

It’s when Sofie gets sick, very sick, that the Gabriela and Little Diego unite in their love for her. They both sleep by her side and they comfort each other. When she gets better, she becomes “our dog.”

This story is beautifully told. Like many bilingual books, it’s English and Spanish side-by-side with illustrations. For a unique look, Geronimo makes the pictures out of clay. This is a story children of all ages will enjoy.

Please note: This review is based on the soft cover copy of the book provided by the publisher, Cinco Puntos Press, for review purposes.

‘The Searcher’ by Simon Toyne: A thriller that is real literature

the searcher

Rating: 5 stars

The very beginning of Simon Toyne’s new novel (and series), “The Searcher,” pictures a man desperately escaping a fire in the desert. The fire was caused by a plane crash, and that lone man has no earthly idea why the plane crashed, whether he was a survivor of the crash, whether he was in any way responsible for the crash — or, in fact, who he is. He is a victim of near-total amnesia, especially in terms of his own identity.

But “The Searcher” is much more than your typical hero-amnesiac-who-am-I-mystery-adventure novel. In fact, the book poses so many mysteries that it may well require more than one very careful reading in order to even discover what the mysteries ARE, let alone solve them.

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‘The Prom Goer’s Interstellar Excursion’ by Chris McCoy: Crazy YA scifi Use your key for the next article


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

If “The Prom Goer’s Interstellar Excursion” sounds like a crazy mish-mash of a book title, then it accurately reflects the novel it names. Chris McCoy’s young adult adventure is an exciting, wonderful, and very silly combination of just about every contemporary literature genre you can think of: Lonely Boy Nerd Searches for Identity; Romance Wrecked and Regained — and Wrecked and Regained a few more times; Science-Fiction; Science-Fact; Fantasy; Alien Invasion; Horror and Monsters; Rock’n’Roll Docu-Drama; and, above all, Madcap Comedy.

Bennett Bardo is the heretofore hapless hero. Sophie is his apparently hopeless crush and the love of his life. She is kidnapped by space-monster aliens. He must follow her and save her. He, too, is (sort of) kidnapped by aliens, who will eventually help him in his quest. His kidnappers, however, are the members of a washed-up, egomaniacal, intergalactic rock band comprised of beings from several planets. The spaceship on which he joins them is their outer-space tour bus. The band used to be a Top Ten Attraction in the entire galaxy. Their rank now is number one billion and sixteen. They used to be the closing act at every concert at which they performed. Now they open the bill for everyone else, so they play before the crowd arrives. Therefore, their audience is usually about five aliens who are ready to hate them. Their band leader and lead vocalist is a rather strange-looking monster-ish glam-rock wannabe whose best days are far behind him — about 20 billion miles behind him, as a matter of fact.

So! Will Bennett rescue his love? Will her courage and fortitude allow her to survive until he can find her? Will the band regain its lost stature and prominence? Will the band leader rescue his own ego and long-lost talent? Will Bennett and Sophie live happily ever after?

The ending answers all those questions, and it’s pleasingly mushy. So if you’re on the edge of your seat, waiting for all those critical issues to be resolved, read this book. Now. By doing so, you will quite obviously save the world from the imminent danger of a hilarious alien invasion. (JK)

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

‘Whatever After: Beauty Queen’ by Sarah Mlynowski

baeauty queen

Rating: 4 stars

“Whatever After: Beauty Queen” is the seventh book in the lighthearted middle grade series (for younger middle grade readers) comprised of fractured fairy tales. In this delightful series, Abby and her brother Jonah go through a magic mirror into a fairy tale story. What Mlynowski does with the stories is clever and thought-provoking.

Each story with its different fairy tale brings a different message to the reader. In this story, Abby is jealous of a friend’s painting and destroys it on purpose. She feels terrible about it and thinks she must be an awful person. When she and her brother go back in time to the story of “Beauty and the Beast,” she learns an important lesson. And as in most of the stories in this series, the happy ending is changed. Although it’s still a happy-ever-after, Beauty and the Beast are not together.

This is the first story in the series in which her brother plays a rather important role. He, as well as Abby, learns about what is important in life. In this story as in the others, Abby isn’t the only character who grows and matures and learns a lesson.

Mlynowski is also clever in the hints she drops in each book about the fairy in the magic mirror, Maryrose. The magic mirror and the fairy tie the stories together. Mlynowski also does a great job telling just enough of the story for new readers to feel that each book can be read as a stand-alone novel.Read all the “Whatever After” books starting with “Fairest of All, ” “If the Shoe Fits,” “Sink or Swim,” “Dream On,” “Bad Hair Day,” “Cold as Ice,” “Beauty Queen,” and “Once Upon a Frog.

‘Smek for President!’: Hilarious sequel to ‘The True Meaning of Smekday’


Rating: 5 stars

“Smek for President,” Adam Rex’s sequel to “The True Meaning of Smekday,” is another phenomenal piece of work by that author/illustrator. Okay, Okay. The sequel may or may not be quite as beautiful and significant as its predecessor, but it is surely equally funny, perceptive, silly, and brilliant. As a matter of fact, here is my ranking of the top five greatest novels ever written:

1. The True Meaning of Smekday
2. War and Peace
3. Smek for President
4 and 5 (tie) Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye

What other novel in the history of the world combines fantasy, science-fiction, political satire, contemporary commentary, everyday rules for loving and living, wonderful thematic material, and a new English dialect (Boovish) which is far more fascinating than even Yoda-talk. Which plot ever before created by humankind is so silly and profound and profoundly silly? None, I submit.

And what other novel so cleverly skewers world political leaders and their ubiquitous amorality, immorality, vapidity, stupidity, and general failure to lead anybody on this or any other planet to anyplace worth going?

The plot, you ask? Here goes: After their failed invasion of earth, the Boov have moved to a new planet and society which they have called New Boovworld. But in this glorious anti-utopia, there is growing political unrest as the forever-President — Smek — is being challenged by dissatisfied young rebels who can see what an empty-headed schmendrick he is. But he will use any nefarious means at his disposal to rid himself of these disgusting upstarts. Into the breach step Gratuity (human) and JLo (Boov), who had saved earth from not one but two full-fledged alien invasions in “Smekday.”

Their adventures, their derring-do, their wit and their courage comprise the rest of the hilarious, absurd plot, all of which leads to an entirely satisfying climax and (even) denouement — presented in both words and pictures.

Where else could you possibly find such delightful craziness? Certainly not in “War and Peace,” I assure you. You should to read this novel novel, as JLo might aver.

Both books would be perfect for middle grade readers, although because of the satire and sophisticated thematic elements, middle school and high school readers (and adults, for that matter) will immensely enjoy this series. (JK)

Please note: This review is based on the advance review copy provided by the publisher, Disney – Hyperion, for review purposes.

‘The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party’ by Shannon and Dean Hale


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“The Princess in Black” was followed by “The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party,” both by Shannon Hale and her husband, Dean Hale. Both books are much loved by early chapter book readers, and local librarians report that they can’t keep the books on the shelves.

That’s wonderful for many reasons. The Princess in Black also happens to be Princess Magnolia, a princess who adores pink, tiaras, glass slippers and high tea. She loves all things girly — until her glitter-stone ring sounds the monster alarm. Then it’s time for Princess Magnolia to step into the broom closet, shed her glass slippers and pink dresses, and become the Princess in Black. As her alter-ego, she saves the kingdom’s goats from goat-eating monsters. She wrestles and fights them in very un-princessy moves while Duff, the goatherd, watches.

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‘The Rescue at Dead Dog Beach’ by Stephen McGarva: Not for the faint of heart

rescue at dead

Rating: 5 stars

In his memoir “The Rescue at Dead Dog Beach: One Man’s Quest to Find a Home for the World’s Forgotten Animals,” Stephen McGarva pulls no punches. It’s not a story filled with feel-good vignettes or lots of tales about cute dogs that get happy homes. This book is about the nitty-gritty poor area of Puerto Rico where dogs are viewed as nuisances or something for target practice.

While living in Puerto Rico where his wife had been transferred, McGarva happened on a beautiful beach. He didn’t realize that it was known as Dead Dog Beach, a place where locals would dump their unwanted dogs. It was also a place where the hapless dogs were killed — either poisoned, hacked to death by machetes or burned to death. Unwanted dogs in the poor areas don’t have painless deaths. The ends of their lives are filled with terror and cruelty.

McGarva began to feed the dogs and try to care for them and their many wounds. When dogs he had helped died, he buried them. He became a target himself because of his concern and caring for the dogs. The police turned a blind eye to those who targeted him, so McGarva was often threatened.

Frankly, the book is terribly heartbreaking. While McGarva accomplished a lot, the constant violence and death of the dogs is very disheartening, especially to a dog lover. This author rescues dogs and cats and knows firsthand how dire are some of the situations from which dogs are rescued. Because of that very fact, this is not a book that would likely be first on a list of must-read books.

But for those who aren’t aware of the plight of dogs in countries like Puerto Rico or Mexico — or China for that matter — this book is highly recommended. It’s an eye-opener for those who go through life assuming that all dogs are pampered like those we see in movies, or those who do not think about the issue at all.

The book is also inspirational in that it showcases how sometimes just one person can make a huge difference. If one person, after reading this book, stops to feed a hungry animal or help a dog or cat get to the safety of a rescue, then McGarva will have accomplished something grand. He will have spread the word about compassion towards those who need it.

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

‘The Island of Dr. Libris’ by Chris Grabenstein: Middle grade scifi


Rating: 4 stars

“The Island of Dr. Libris” is a cleverly conceived story that kids from fourth grade through middle school might enjoy. It’s by Chris Grabenstein, author of last year’s popular “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.” It’s a perfect summer read — the whole story takes place during twelve-year-old Billy Gillfoyle’s summer vacation.

The prospect of a summer spent with his mother, who is working on her dissertation, in a cabin with no television or even a computer, is not a cheerful one. And when Billy breaks his only electronic device — his precious iphone — he knows it’s going to be a long summer. His father is not with them — and it looks like his parents just can’t get past their differences.

The cabin belongs to Dr. Libris, a professor at his mother’s school. In Dr. Libris’ study are bookshelves filled with all kinds of books — mostly classics. So he finally resorts (at his mother’s suggestion) to reading books. But the strangest thing happens when Billy begins to read.

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‘Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer’ by Rick Riordan


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer” by Rick Riordan will not disappoint his many fans. The creator of “Percy Jackson and the Olympiads” and many other very popular children’s series brings a new set of myths to life. This time, instead of Greek gods, Magnus Chase is a descendant of a Norse god, Frey. His untimely death (he’s dead before page 50) leads him to Valhalla.

Riordan irreverently creates a Valhalla which is called Hotel Valhalla, complete with room service and a game room. Riordan also creates a wonderful group of characters who help Magnus. As a perfect device for our time and political climate, Magnus’s Valkyrie, who takes him to Valhalla, is Muslim. Her hijab is magic, and she wears it like a scarf just as often as she covers her hair. She is not religious, but it’s clear that her grandparents are.

The other two sidekicks are a dwarf and an elf. Blitz and Hearth, dwarf and elf, have been watching over Magnus for the two years since his mother died protecting him from wolves. Her dying warning was for him to hide and under no circumstances go to his uncle for help. So Magnus has been homeless, dirty, and hungry a lot in the past two years.

Magnus realizes that his uncle is trying to find him, and when he sees his uncle, he’s told that it’s his sixteenth birthday (it’s easy to lose track of time when you are homeless), and he needs to retrieve an artifact left to him by this father. The artifact is the Sword of Summer, and it’s at the bottom of the Charles River. Right after retrieving the magic sword, Magnus is attacked and killed by an entity called Surt, who is destined to have the sword.

While the action fills the book — almost on every page — Riordan’s trademark humor also peppers the pages. His chapters have clever titles like “Come to the Darkside. We Have Pop-Tarts” and “My Funeral Director Dresses Me Funny” and “My Sword Almost Ends Up on Ebay.” The humor is not limited to the chapter titles, and even the bloodiest and grimmest of scenes are also good for a chuckle.

There is magic galore, sacrifice, gallantry and good deeds, and lots and lots of adventure. While the book ends the first adventure perfectly, it’s very apparent — and exciting — to think about the future adventures of Magnus, the character whom readers will think fondly of for the next year. Until the next adventure is available.

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

‘brown girl dreaming’ by Jacqueline Woodson: Brilliant and memorable memoir


Rating: 5 stars

“brown girl dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson is her memoir about growing up during the time of the Civil Rights movement. She began life in Ohio but moved with her siblings and mom to her grandparents’ home in South Carolina for a large part of her childhood. Then her mother moved them all to New York.

The narrative technique is free verse, and while the limited text on each page makes the story seem, at first, like easy reading, the continual (and beautiful) use of metaphor makes this a very sophisticated read. For example:

“I am born in Ohio but
the stories of South Carolina already run
like rivers through my veins.”

Just like life, there is happiness and sorrow, birth and death in her story. Children are cruel to each other, but she makes a best friend in New York, and that friendship has lasted almost 50 years. Readers will meet her siblings, including her little brother Roman, who gets sick from eating lead-based paint, and her Uncle Robert, who ended up in prison.

Most of all, readers will learn about Woodson. She was a child for whom reading did not come easily. But writing did. She began writing stories almost before she could really write. It’s apparent that the skill — and the art — are truly in Woodson’s blood.

This memoir comes at a perfect time. With Common Core State Standards, well-written nonfiction material is being sought by teachers for use in the classroom. Woodson’s memories of history and historical figures, including Jesse Jackson (who went to high school with her mother), can be used for comparing and contrasting with other nonfiction and fiction books about that time period.

Every middle grade classroom — from fifth grade through middle school — should have a copy of this book in the classroom library.

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