‘How to Speak Dolphin’ by Ginny Rorby: Fabulous middle grade book

how to speak

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“How to Speak Dolphin” by Ginny Rorby is a great middle grade book that brings in much to discuss and for kids to think about. It’s about Lily, who lives with her stepfather and half-brother. Her half-brother is autistic and is very difficult to deal with. Her stepfather, a doctor, seems distant and constantly preoccupied with Adam, the brother. Lily’s mother died a few years before, and Lily misses her horribly.

The story deals with Lily’s reluctance to make friends since the time she invited someone over to swim in their pool and the girl made fun of Adam. And Rorby pulls no punches when it comes to having a family member who is pretty severely autistic. “He’s kicking and flailing his arms, and he’s pooped his pants. Kind of like my life — the smell is awful.”

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‘The Dog Who Saved Me’ by Susan Wilson: A story for anyone who has loved a dog

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Rating: 5 stars

With “The Dog Who Saved Me,” Susan Wilson has created another touching, thoughtful and emotion-filled story about a man and a dog — both scarred physically and emotionally.

The story is about Cooper Harrison, who was a member of the Boston police department’s K-9 unit until his dog was killed, and he was injured, while on duty. The loss of his dog tore apart Cooper’s heart and soul. For reasons that become clear in the story, that loss left him unable to function. He resigned from the force and accepted a position back in his home town as animal warden.

Wilson includes other stories as well. Of course, there is the story of the dog, a sweet and eager puppy who is abused and almost killed, but who manages to escape. Living in the wild with injuries does not lead to a happy ending, and the injuries inflicted on the puppy are not just physical. He is terrified of people.

Cooper finds evidence of the dog’s existence and decides to try to help it. But he is also trying to come to terms with living in the same small town as his father and brother. Cooper led a deprived childhood for three reasons: his father was an alcoholic and never able to keep a job; his mother died when Cooper and his brother were fairly young; and his brother Jimmy was (and is) a sociopath — someone with no compassion and no moral compass.

The story is told from several viewpoint and it’s a bit confusing until the reader gets into the flow of words. Cooper tells his story in first person narrative, but the stories about his childhood and past are told in third person narrative which is set in italics. There is also a third person narrative from the dog’s point of view, and another third person narrative from Bull, Cooper’s father’s point of view.

This novel reminded this reader of Wilson’s first novel “One Good Dog.” The story is emotional and raw at times. The extra characters well written and a bit quirky. The dialogue is true and the story, including the side stories about Bull and Jimmy, are interesting and keep the pages turning.

And of course, there’s the dog. That dog alone would tear at the heartstrings of any reader who has ever loved a dog. The poor abused, frightened and lonely dog. The ending was a bit unexpected, but worked well. Get out the tissue.

Susan Wilson has also written “The Dog Who Danced” and “A Man of His Own.”

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

‘Never Say Die’ by Will Hobbs: Fabulous middle grade adventure/survival story

never say die

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“Never Say Die” is Will Hobbs at his best. His adventure books are filled with stories of kids and nature and survival. In this story, Nick lives in Canada’s Arctic. He’s fifteen years old and an accomplished hunter. In his remote Inuit village, he lives with his mother and his grandfather, Jonah, who has taught him all about the traditional hunting techniques.

When Nick’s half-brother, a photographer for National Geographic, contacts Nick for the first time and invites him to go on a river rafting journey to see the herds of caribou, Nick is excited. But his grandfather is dying of cancer, and he isn’t sure he wants to be away for weeks. His grandfather encourages Nick to go, and the trip turns into a survival story when their raft overturns, leaving them with no protection and no food.

Hobbs integrates the story of climate change into the adventure. At the beginning of the book, Nick has an encounter with a grolar, a huge bear that is the result of a mating between a polar bear and a grizzly bear. The hybrid is ferocious and frightening. Of course, any savvy reader knows that the loathsome creature is going to turn up again in the story.

Middle grade readers will love the nonstop action. Nick’s quick wit and knowledge of survival techniques save them several times but Hobbs also includes enough humor to keep the story from becoming a horror story. He shares the beauty of the Arctic as he saw it during his trip down the Firth River on an eleven day rafting trip.

Perfect for readers from fourth grade through middle school, although even high school kids would enjoy this tale of adventure and the Arctic.

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

‘The Other Daughter’ by Lauren Willig: Lovely historical fiction

other daugheter

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

Lauren Willig writes lovely historical fiction, and “The Other Daughter” is perhaps her best book yet. It’s the story of Rachel, a governess who grew up with her mother after her father, a botanist, died overseas. While caring for children in France, she learns that her mother is very ill, but by the time she returns to England, her mother has died.

While going through her mother’s belongings, she finds a newspaper clipping with a picture of her father, who appears to be healthy and — shaking up Rachel’s world — not a botanist but an Earl, with a daughter of his own. Rachel searches out the truth, and when she realizes that her father abandoned Rachel and her mother, she decides to have her revenge.

The story is beautifully told about Rachel then pretending that she is one of the idle rich peerage. While practicing her charade, she meets her half-sister and discovers that all is not as it might appear. There are twists and turns aplenty, and Rachel must decide who she can trust and who deserves her love. Did her father really abandon them?

The final twist is beautifully done and — at least for this reader — totally unexpected. The book is fascinating in the glimpse it offers of the lives of the British upper class and how their closed society and snobbishness worked (and probably works to this day). From the start to the last page, the reader will be hooked. Willig writes wonderful historical fiction and this particular character, with her combination of feisty personality and moral compunction, is an especially wonderful protagonist.

Please note: This review is based on the advance review copy provided by St. Martin’s Press for review purposes.

‘Gone Cold’ by Douglas Corleone: the third Simon Fisk thriller

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Rating: 4 stars

“Gone Cold” is the third Simon Fisk thriller by Douglas Corleone, but it will certainly not be the last. We know that because all these novels are too good for Corleone to stop now, and also because the ending of this one virtually screams for a next one.

Simon Fisk is a complex and compelling character. He is a brilliant investigator who has made it his life’s work to find and rescue abducted children. But the reason for that occupational choice is the real nerve center of all the books about him, and it is the driving force of this novel in particular.

Simon’s six-year-old daughter was taken from him and his wife twelve years before the action of this installment begins. Since that abduction, he has led a tortured and twisted existence. He lives his life under a cloud of despair and guilt, all of which is complicated further by the suicide of his wife shortly after their daughter’s disappearance. So this is not a happy story. But it is extraordinarily moving and totally absorbing. Corleone’s protagonist reaches out and grabs the reader by the throat and pierces the heart.

Unlike the earlier Fisk novels, his search here is for his own missing daughter, who is now eighteen years old. His friend has found a picture of a young woman who matches the projections of what his daughter would look like as an eighteen-year-old. So the search and the mysteries begin. Could this young woman — who has been accused of murder — really be his daughter? Is she a murderer? Who took her? Why? So “Gone Cold” is at least four mysteries in one. And Simon’s search educes as many thrills as you are likely to find in any example of this genre.

But it also will evoke for many readers sympathy for and identification with this deeply flawed hero’s plight — with his rage, his despair, his self-doubt, the emotional roller coaster from which he cannot escape — and his determination to find that young woman regardless of the violence and the dangers his search engenders.

“Gone Cold” is a superb mystery/thriller and a profound character study. It is, in every way, worth the time it takes to read it — which may be one very long night. (JK)

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

‘Villainous’ by Matthew Cody: Last in the ‘Supers of Noble’s Green’ series

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Rating: 5 stars

Readers first learned about the idyllic town of Noble’s Green in Matthew Cody’s first book in this series, “Powerless!” It told the story of Daniel Corrigan, a newcomer to the town. He soon found out that many of the kids he befriended were very different from other kids he had known.

In Noble’s Green, kids have superpowers for some mysterious reason. In that first book, Daniel solved a mystery, and in the second book, “Super,” he solved yet another one. Daniel is destined to solve at least one more important mystery in this, the last of the “Super” books, “Villainous.”

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‘Dearest’ by Alethea Kontis: Third in ‘The Woodcutter Sisters’ series

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Rating: 5 stars

“Dearest” by Alethea Kontis may be the best of the three stories in the series thus far. Kontis’ clever writing and small connections to other fantasies that float throughout the story keep a smile on the face of the reader. This story is about Friday, the magical seamstress, who becomes part of a fairy tale told by both Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

Featured in this story are several of the other magical sisters, including Sunday, the protagonist of the first book, “Enchanted,” which is about the frog and the princess. The days-of-the-week names are a bit confusing, but it all works. The story also begins with the messenger from the second book in the series, “Hero,” who had been a minor character but ends up playing a fairly large role in this story.

Friday is one of the most likable of the sisters — she is loving, warm and compassionate — and she cares for the many children orphaned by the ocean her sister Saturday created in “Hero,” the second book in the series. Three of the orphans are her Darlings: Michael, John and Wendy.

The love story between Friday and Tristan, one of the swans, is beautiful. And Kontis includes several effective plot twists throughout the story. These fairy tales are closer to the violent Grimm tales than the laundered Disney versions. But they are also more compelling because of that extra dose of the harshness of the real world.

“Dearest” will be a difficult book to put down. This reader finished it in one sitting. Enjoy.

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

‘The Edge of the Shadows’ by Elizabeth George: young adult mystery

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Rating: 4 stars

“The Edge of the Shadows” by Elizabeth George is the third book about Whidbey Island, a real island near Seattle, and a girl who took refuge there. Becca King went there after she and her mother fled from Becca’s stepfather after Becca, who can hear the thoughts of people, heard him thinking about the death of his partner. She and her mother thought that he had killed his partner, and they ran. The stepfather knew about Becca’s ability to read thoughts and had used that to fleece clients who invested with him.

Becca’s mother told her to go to a cousin on the island while her mother would go to Canada and get them set up in a new home. Then she would come back for Becca. That didn’t work out in the first book because the cousin died the night Becca arrived. She managed to eke out an existence, and by making friends she found a place to live. She has now been on the island for over a year, going to high school, and with many friends including a boyfriend.

In this story, there are a series of fires set by an arsonist. The mystery is who is setting the fires, and there are several logical suspects. True to a fine mystery, the real arsonist is unexpected. The story does not end with the third book. At the end, Becca is still waiting to hear from her mother, but as time passes she grows less convinced that her mother will return.

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‘The Fate of Ten’ by Pittacus Lore: 6th book in the ‘I Am Number Four’ series

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Rating: 4 stars

“The Fate of Ten” is the sixth book in the series that began with “I Am Number Four” by mysterious author (and character) Pittacus Lore. He is one of the Elders from Lorien, the planet that was destroyed by the Mogadorians led by a former Elder from Lorien, Setrákus Ra. Now Setrákus Ra has set his sights on Earth, and his troops have destroyed cities in his determination to gain control over the planet.

But the Legacies are spreading to humans, and he may be getting more than he bargained for when the Lorien teenagers who are still alive and fighting him are joined by others. Sam, John’s (Number Four) best friend, gained his power at the end of the last book, “The Revenge of Seven.” They were joined by Adam, a Mogadorian who hates Setrákus Ra and everything he stands for.

In this book, John comes to some realizations about his Legacy that will change the balance of power in the future books in the series. As with all the books in the series, the action is nonstop. Not all the kids from Lorien are on the same side, and there is the problem with Ella. She is one of them, but she is also the great-granddaughter of Setrákus Ra, and he is determined to keep her close.

The real author of the books could be any of the many anonymous writers who are employed by James Frey, famous for his publication of the “memoir” “A Million Little Pieces.” His company, Full Fathom Five, employs ghostwriters who write young adult books that will have commercial appeal. This series does that, certainly, and several of the books in the series have spent time on bestseller lists.

This is not a stand-alone book and readers must have read the previous stories to know what is happening. But for those who have not yet begun this action-packed, science fiction, middle grade series, it’s a chance to start a new reading adventure. Strap yourself into your favorite seat because you are in for a rocky ride! Enjoy.

“The Power of Six” is the second in the series; “The Rise of Nine” is the third; “The Fall of Five” is the fourth; and “The Revenge of Seven” is the fifth.

Please note: This review is based on the paperback book provided by the publisher, HarperCollins for review purposes.

‘Half Wild’ by Sally Green: Sequel to ‘Half Bad’ young adult fantasy

half wild

Rating: 5 stars

“Half Wild” is a young adult fantasy by Sally Green about witches, good and evil. It’s the sequel to “Half Bad” and written in first person narrative. Nathan, the narrator, is a young witch who was imprisoned by the White Witches (the good witches) and tortured and trained to kill his father, Marcus, a ruthless and infamous Black Witch.

During Nathan’s captivity, he was tortured and experimented upon. Tattoos were placed on his body with the idea that he could be controlled and forced to kill his father.

A prophesy (actually, a vision his father had) says that Nathan will kill his father with the Fairborn, a knife. In the first book, Nathan is imprisoned because his father is a Black Witch who has killed many, many White Witches. Nathan’s mother was a White Witch, so he is looked down upon because he is not a pure blood. As in other witch books, there are pure witches (Black and White), and mixes of the Black and White and mixes of witch and human.

While Black and White might imply that White Witches are the “good” witches, and that is what the witches in the book believe (at least most of them), in the reality of the story, many of the White Witches are far more evil than the most evil of Black Witches. The White Witches have a group of specially trained witches called Hunters. Their job is to kill Black Witches. They also are not above torturing and experimenting on Black Witches.

Nathan does not meet his father until the end of the first book. It’s his father who gives him the three gifts that every witch needs to enable his “gift.” By the end of the first book, Nathan’s longtime love, Annalise, is in the clutches of Mercury, an evil Black Witch who has put Annalise in a state of suspension. She will only release her when Nathan brings her his father’s head or heart.

Nathan decides that he must find Gabriel, his best friend. “Half Wild” is filled with sexual tension between Gabriel and Nathan. Gabriel is desperately in love with Nathan, and while Nathan is in love with Annalise, he also really cares for Gabriel. Gabriel’s adoration is painful at times, and Green deftly handles Gabriel’s hurt when Nathan talks about Annalise. It’s a definite love triangle, albeit an unusual one for a young adult novel.

In this story, the White Witches are set on exterminating the Black Witches. There is a group of joint Black/White and mixed witches determined to get rid of the new head White Witch, Soul O’Brien, and his evil experimenter assistant, Wallend. The Alliance, this group, have few weapons and fewer members. They are truly the underdog against the White Witch world. But when the White Witches extend their control to Europe — where traditionally Black and White witches have co-existed with the adage “live and let live” — something has to be done so that all Black Witches are not killed.

Like “Half Bad,” “Half Wild” is exciting, beautifully written and clever. There are moral issues, moral dilemmas, and lots of thought-provoking scenes. Nathan is a protagonist who is both kind and compassionate and at the same time ruthless. Yet he is about to forgive, or at least co-exist with, some former enemies. Green shows how easily love can turn to hate when at the end of this second book Nathan has only hate to push him on.

Readers will hate having to wait for the third and final book in the trilogy. But at the same time, looking forward to rereading the first two books before starting the third will be a very pleasant task.

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

‘A Fistful of Collars’ brings back the great detective duo – Chet and Bernie

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Rating: 5 stars

Spencer Quinn has done it again. “A Fistful of Collars,” with the detective duo of Bernie Little and Chet the dog, solves a cold murder case that is so old and cold it’s encased in ice. Chet, the real brains (or should I say nose) of the operation, is in his prime.

Fans of Spencer Quinn’s quirky mysteries written from Chet’s point of view will enjoy this fifth edition of the series. The story teems with mysteries. Big mysteries and small ones. Mysteries that are solved (the murder) and mysteries that will not be solved until future books are written. (Hurry up, Spencer!)

Bernie, for all his foibles — like really, really poor financial planning — is truly a decent, upstanding kind of guy. When a movie actor he is babysitting (guarding) has self-destructive tendencies and acts really guilty, Bernie smells something fishy.

Between Chet and Bernie, the bad guy doesn’t stand a chance. With the help of Suzie, Bernie’s now long-distance girlfriend, and a few others, the mystery (and the cold case murder) are solved. But it’s not simple and there are a few deaths along the way.

Those who enjoy Chet’s lightning-quick responses and Bernie’s somewhat slower reactions will love this book. One of Spencer Quinn’s ancestors must have been a dog — he gets what one can suppose are their thought patterns perfectly. Dog owners will love hearing Chet’s thoughts.

Now, even cat lovers can enjoy the series because this book features (in a secondary role, of course) a cat. Not a permanent character, but at least a feline gets a guest appearance.

Make sure to visit Chet’s website for information about appearances.

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

‘The Sound of Life and Everything’: Middle grade historical scifi

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Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“The Sound of Life and Everything” by Krista Van Dolzer is an interesting mix of historical fiction and science fiction. It’s set in post-WWII in a suburb near Los Angeles. The story begins when Ella Mae Higbee, the twelve-year-old protagonist, and her mother discuss an article, or rather a want ad (young readers will have to be told what those are) about a researcher claiming he can grow a person from practically anything — a lock of hair or some blood. Aunt Mildred’s son’s dog tags have some blood on them from when he was killed in the war.

So when Ella Mae and her mother accompany her aunt to a secret research facility, they are surprised that others are also there to witness huge “horse pills” opening and people emerging. One of the people emerging is not Robby, Aunt Mildred’s son, but a Japanese young man. Aunt Mildred is shocked and disappointed and they leave.

But Ella Mae’s mother is made of sterner stuff and after leaving the boy at the facility, she decides that he should be in a home. So they bring him home. Miraculously, the “engineered” people are created as fully functional beings. At least that’s the idea. So Takuma, the Japanese boy, speaks Japanese but not English.

His addition to the household creates all kinds of difficulties. Ell Mae’s father is not happy with the idea of a Japanese living in their home. The Japanese were so recently the enemy that almost all the people in town are not happy about this. The time period is beautifully described from the effects of living before having air conditioning to how prejudiced many people at that time were. Difficulties going to church and even buying Takuma a pair of pants in their little town are documented.

Ella Mae learns about how difficult it is to do the right thing, but she’s lucky to have a mother who leads the way. The book is a great book for bringing up big ideas in a classroom. There are so many big ideas to discuss, including racism and bigotry, themes of family, what makes someone human, and friendship.

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.