‘The Three Ninja Pigs’ is a much improved version of the classic tale


Rating: 5 stars

“The Three Ninja Pigs” by Corey Rosen Schwartz and illustrated by Dan Santat is a tale similar to the original “Three Pigs,” but it is much, much more. This modernized, multicultural version will lead to some great discussions either at home or in the classroom.

The three pigs live in a town where a wolf has been terrorizing the residents. For protection, they each study a different form of Japanese martial arts. However, true to the classic tale, the first two piggies soon tire of all the practice and hard work involved and drop out of class.

When the wolf comes knocking at their door, although they try they are unequal to the task of sending him on his way. They all flee to the house of the third piggy.

This piggy, a hard-working, dedicated girl, has practiced long and hard to earn all her belts. She is a “weapon,” as she warns the wolf. And, of course, she is able to send him packing.

The story is told in cleverly constructed rhyme and is fun to read aloud. For example, when the wolf arrives at the third piggy’s house, the author writes, “The chase carried on to their sister’s. Pig Three was outside in her gi. ‘I’m a certified weapon, so watch where you’re steppin’. You don’t want to start up with me!'”

The moral is that hard work and dedication pay off in the end. Women and girls will love that it’s the sister who finally beats the wolf and protects her brothers in the process.

Everyone will love the Japanese themed artwork, the Japanese martial arts vocabulary, and the rhythm of the story.

Please note: This review is based on the final picture book provided by the publisher, Putnam Juvenile, for review purposes.

The Twin’s Daughter by Lauren Baratz-Logsted


“The Twin’s Daughter” by Lauren Baratz-Logsted is an historical fiction mystery for young adult readers. It really has all the necessary ingredients for an enjoyable read — especially the finely spun web of mystery.

The story is told in first person narrative from the viewpoint of Lucy. She is born into a wealthy family. Her father is a writer who has no need to work — his family has more money than they will ever be able to spend — so he spends his days in his study writing books that may never be published. Her mother dotes on Lucy, who is her only child, having suffered through two miscarriages.

One afternoon, Lucy answers the door, and the woman on the steps is an exact replica of her mother. It turns out that her mother was adopted (a surprise) when a maid became pregnant, but when twins were born, the wealthy couple only wanted one child so the other went to an orphanage.

Helen, the sister, is taken into the household, educated and dressed. She and Lucy become close. However, mysterious happenings are taking place. Lucy sees someone — either her mother or Helen — sitting on a park bench with an obviously lower-class man talking heatedly. On her return, Helen denies having seen anyone.

When Lucy arrives home one day to an apparently empty house, she comes across a hideous scene. Two women are tied in chairs, one dead and one covered in blood. Lucy does not know which one is her mother and which one is her aunt.

The reader is told that it is Helen who has died, but there is much to cast doubt about which sister is really the survivor. There is also the fact that the reader knows Helen was involved in an affair with Lucy’s father before her (maybe) death. The woman who was killed, it is discovered during the autopsy, was pregnant.

Lucy is puzzled by the change in her mother after Helen’s death. Her mother encourages Lucy’s father to eat and drink to excess and to begin smoking. Her father gains weight, is drunk much of the time, and finally dies in his forties.

Soon after his death, Lucy’s mother (or is she?) marries again, to the same man whom Lucy had seen with her aunt in the park. It is all very mysterious, and the reader comes to believe that is was actually Helen who survived the killing and Lucy’s mother who was killed.

It’s on Lucy’s wedding day that the truth becomes clear. And even then, there is a twist. This is an engrossing novel with a strong protagonist who wends her way through the plot’s many twists and turns.

Visit the author’s website for information about her many other novels.

This book was reviewed from the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Bloomsbury, for review purposes.

‘Super’ by Matthew Cody is the sequel to ‘Powerless’


Rating: 5 stars

In “Super,” Matthew Cody’s sequel to “Powerless,” he makes the point that you don’t have to have superhero powers to be a hero. The main character in both books, Daniel, is the kid with no powers in a town where many of the middle school kids do have special powers.

In this sequel, Daniel continues to be the intellectual and moral compass for the group of his superhero friends. The family of the evil Plunkett moves into town and Daniel is convinced that something strange is going on.

When shadows begin to menace the group, Daniel realizes that he needs to investigate. Strange things are happening to him, also. Why is he able to “steal” the powers from his friends? How much does the new family know about the town and its history of superheroes?

In the first book, Daniel is tempted with the opportunity to gain real superpowers of his own, and he is faced with the same temptation in this story. But Daniel is a superhero in his own right, lack of superpowers notwithstanding.

This book is a great choice for reluctant readers and fantasy lovers. There are questions that arise in the story that would make for great classroom discussion and for writing responses.

If you could have a superpower, which one would you want? Would Daniel be able to save the others if he had his own superpower, or is the fact that he doesn’t what makes him able to rescue them? Do you think Daniel made the right decision in the end? Did he have any other options? And much more…

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

‘Animals Welcome’ by Peg Kehret: A must-read book for anyone who loves animals

animals welcome

Rating: 5 stars

Animals Welcome” is award-winning Peg Kehret’s book about her life with animals. Readers who are fans know that almost all of her books include animals — and some even have animal main characters! It’s obvious that she loves animals, and she makes no secret of the fact that she is involved in rescue in her home state of Washington.

This book may be one of her most touching stories because it comes from the heart — and Peg Kehret has a big heart. Although it receives a “Kramer” rating of 5 stars, I wish with all my heart I could add a few for this book. Not only did it leave me in tears, I actually get teary just remembering what she wrote.

The story isn’t fancy. There is no mystery, no twist at the end. It’s just simple and sweet. In it, she admits to mistakes she’s made in her efforts to help animals. And, of course, anyone in animal rescue will tell you about mistakes they’ve made. (I still regret letting that feral mama out of the trap when I couldn’t abide her struggling.) Peg made mistakes, and she reflects honestly on them.

The book also illustrates Peg Kehret’s humility. She doesn’t boast or brag. She just tells the stories; stories about dogs, cats, elk, bear, deer, and even ‘possums. She talks about the ones she could save and the ones she couldn’t.

She wrestles with the moral dilemma about turning in a poacher who is a neighbor. She does the right thing (for the animals, not the poacher).

In short, after you read this book, Peg Kehret may become your hero (I know she became mine). She’s not just a fantastic children’s book author — she’s a fabulous person.

‘Papa’s Backpack’ by James Christopher Carroll: Picture book for military dads


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“Papa’s Backpack,” written and illustrated by James Christopher Carroll, is a simple but powerful — and very touching tribute to parents everywhere who become soldiers in order to protect their loved ones, to defend their communities, and to preserve their way of life. They are the ones who sacrifice all the comforts of home in order to serve, to fulfill their deeply held belief that they must make that sacrifice.

A papa bear who shares the profound love of his son and family must go to war, and his cub, who knows that Papa must leave so that he “can stay and play,” would love most of all to go with his dad. He wants to travel with him in his backpack so that he can offer the love, support, and comfort that a child can bring to a parent as that parent tries to survive the horrors of war.

And that’s it. That is the story. But the book offers so much more to its young readers than that profoundly simple story. It teaches about the joy of sharing and showing one’s love. It illustrates the courage of those who are willing to defend their beliefs. And it implies equally significant lessons about why we must honor all those who serve.

The heroes are a bear cub and his loving, courageous father. But Carroll’s illustrations depict bears that don’t look quite like real bears. They look like some kind of mixture of strong but kind animals. They need not be bears, in other words, to be soldiers. His fellow soldiers, in fact, as viewed mostly in shadows, are a tiger, a chicken, a rabbit, a mouse, a deer, a duck, a dolphin. There are all kinds of people who are brave, and there are all kinds of bravery. The courage of soldiers may be found in abundance in men, women, children, Americans, Africans, Russians, Spaniards, Palestinians, Australians, and anyone else your mind can conjure.

And it would be to the ultimate benefit of us all if we could begin to understand the universal heroism of those who sacrifice to defend their very way of life, whatever their origins and wherever their deeply held beliefs lead them.

And the young readers of this book should also understand that it is our responsibility to make sure that those who are fortunate enough to return home, like Papa Bear, deserve the best lives we can possibly give them. (JK)

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

‘Truth Be Told’ by Hank Phillippi Ryan: A Jane Ryland novel

truthbe told

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“Truth Be Told” by Hank Phillippi Ryan features Jane Ryland, an intrepid journalist who has lost her job and is working for an online edition of a newspaper. She stumbles on a mystery involving foreclosures, murders and bank fraud.

At the same time, her sometimes-boyfriend Jake Brogan, who inconveniently (or conveniently, at times) is a cop, is investigating a recent confession to a twenty-year-old murder. He’s invested in solving the murder because it was one that his grandfather, the police commissioner, never solved. But why would someone confess after twenty years? The clues don’t add up.

As usual, Ryan does everything right in this murder mystery. She brings in a new character, young Lizzie McDivitt, the daughter of the bank president, who works in the loan department. Lizzie also happens to have a soft heart — not only for those who are in danger of foreclosure, but also for handsome young men.

Jane is torn between the job that she loves and her relationship with a cop — a big no-no, especially for him. Ryan is a master at ending the chapters on a high note, at points at which most readers will not want to put the book down. That makes reading this book in one sitting a real possibility.

Good mystery, lots of clues, a few red herrings, the main character in real danger, a bit of unrequited love — add it all up and it makes for a great read. While it is nice to have read some of the previous Jane Ryland books to have background on some of the repeating characters, it’s not necessary. Each book certainly stands on its own.

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

‘The Dog Master: A Novel of the First Dog’ by W. Bruce Cameron


Rating: 5 stars

Dogs and W. Bruce Cameron go together like peanut butter and jelly, and his latest book, “The Dog Master: A Novel of the First Dog” just proves that point. It’s different from his other (wonderful) novels, and it must have been a challenging book to write. The story has different storylines that alternate between several time periods — which is a bit confusing at first, but once the reader gets the pattern, it works.

The first part of the story begins in the present day with a professor teaching freshman college students about the Upper Paleolithic Period. He tells them about his theory that man at the time was probably just as violent and aggressive as we are today. He tells the students (and readers) about the struggle to survive. Then, in the middle of his lecture, his assistant comes in with the cryptic words, “They found her.”

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‘Garden of Lies’ by Amanda Quick: Historical romance/ mystery


Rating: 4 stars

“Garden of Lies” is pure Amanda Quick. Pure Quick in the sense that there is an extremely intelligent and independent female protagonist as well as a strong male protagonist who has definite issues. Of course they both are vulnerable in their own ways, but together they become stronger.

The romance is every bit as tender and nuanced as one might expect from Quick, and the mystery is filled with enough exotic adventures, twists and turns, period language, and great secondary characters that it keeps the reader entertained until the end. And the end?

Well, what’s a romance without a “happily ever after,” which is certainly the case in this story. No disappointments in this cleverly written, carefully plotted love story.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons for review purposes.

‘Who Let the Dog Out?’ by David Rosenfelt: 13th in Andy Carpenter Mystery series

wholetthe dogout

Rating: 5 stars

In David Rosenfelt’s new mystery/comedy, “Who Let the Dog Out?” that Carpenter man is back again. But this Carpenter, of course, does not build houses out of wood or fix all kinds of things so they work right. Nope, attorney Andy Carpenter builds strong cases for the defense of his unfortunate (and almost always entirely innocent) clients, and all he fixes is the set of injustices which threaten those poor and desperate souls he decides to represent.

In “Who Let the Dog Out?” the first murder victim turns out to be the unfortunate fellow who has, for reasons not yet clear early on in the story, just stolen a beautiful large dog from the animal shelter owned by Andy and managed by his pal and former client, Willie Miller. When the dog thief is found murdered, the dog is found right at the victim’s feet — perfectly happy and apparently healthy.

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‘The Tower’ is Simon Toyne’s exciting final novel in ‘Sanctus’ trilogy


Rating: 5 stars

“The Tower” is the finale of Simon Toyne‘s “Sanctus” trilogy, also called the “Ruin” trilogy, and it is a worthy successor to its two predecessors. As a matter of fact, it is the best of the three novels, no mean feat considering that the first two, “Sanctus,” and “The Key,” were also exciting and thoughtful mystery/ action/ suspense thrillers.

The “Sanctus” trilogy is still another in the ever-expanding genre of works that combine elements of mystical and primitive religious practices with scientific explorations of the mysteries of the universe. Conflicts and contradictions inherent in the religion versus science controversy abound.

But Toyne builds beautifully developed plots and fascinating thematic elements that separate his work from run-of-the-mill Dan Brown-ish or Michael Crichton-ish efforts.

In this novel, a new protagonist emerges. He is Joe Shepherd, a rookie FBI agent with a mysterious past, who is assigned to help cover an emerging and puzzling series of events. The Hubble space telescope has been kicked out of its orbit and is nearing the earth. Famous astronomers are disappearing after receiving threatening messages warning them to stop exploring the universe.

And things get weirder as the plot unfolds: the rhythms of life are gradually being turned upside-down. Birds are migrating to the wrong places at the wrong time. Millions of people feel and act on an inexplicable urge to return “home” — either the place they were born or the place in the world that is most important to them.

Soon, the main characters from the first two trilogy entries join the eerie proceedings, and all the religious elements of the first two novels become inextricably bound-up with these new events and mysteries. And two of the first two novels’ main characters, Liv Adamsen and Gabriel Mann, again become major figures. [Note the religious significance of the names of these three characters — Liv (life) Adamsen (descendant of Adam — as in descended from his rib); Gabriel (archangel) Mann (Man the meaning of Adam); and Joseph Shepherd (Joseph and the many shepherds associated with New Testament events)].

The “end of days” is approaching. The Apocalypse. But perhaps that event will not be quite what we have all learned to expect. And the ending of the novel and the trilogy bring it all together in a way that is exciting, suspenseful — and really lovely. A beautiful surprise.

That beauty is based first on the simple but profound observation that the universe has been expanding since its birth; second on the question, What if the whole universe suddenly did a U-turn — started shrinking? And third, on Toyne’s remarkable answer to that question. To see that answer, do not fail to read this unique and extraordinarily inventive novel. (JK)

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

‘Nimona’ by Noelle Stevenson: Gripping graphic novel for young adult readers


Rating: 5 stars

“Nimona” by Noelle Stevenson is her debut graphic novel based on the popular web comic series. One caveat first, this reviewer rarely reads graphic novels. In fact, when this one arrived in the mail, it went in a bag for reading several months in the future. But one day, I opened it to the middle and just started reading.

I couldn’t put the book down. I stopped reading, turned back to the first page, and was pulled into a story where the “good guy” is not necessarily the good guy and the “bad guy” might just really be the good guy. Add in a super-evil sidekick, evil directors and other crazy characters, and this is a really good story.

Although the publisher recommends this for kids 13 and older, it seems to this reviewer (and teacher) that there is really nothing in appropriate in the story for children as young as eleven.

This is a great choice for reluctant readers and for those who enjoy super-hero stories. Lots of thoughtful discussion could be had regarding the character traits of the main characters and about protagonists and antagonists.

This review is based on the advance review copy of the book provided by HarperTeen, the publisher.

A Big Little Life by Dean Koontz is a joyful memoir

Wonderful memoir of a writer and his dog

Rating: 5 stars

Dean Koontz loved his dog Trixie. There can be no doubt of that. In his memoir about life with Trixie, A Big Little Life, Koontz uses humor, passion, love and just good storytelling to describe life with this unique creature.

Trixie was a “release” dog from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), an organization that trains service dogs and provides them to those in need for free. Most dogs bred for the program do not make it through training; the statistics are about two or three out of every ten puppies graduate. The dogs who do not meet the stringent standards for service dogs are released from service.

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