Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Review: Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

Title: Fortunately, the Milk
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publication Date: September 17, 2013
Target Age Group: Middle Grade
My Rating: 5 out of 5

Book Description (from back cover)

Jason When a father run out to buy milk for his childrens' breakfast cereal, the last thing he expects is to be abducted by aliens. He soon finds himself transported through time and space on an extraordinary adventure where the fate of the universe depends on him, a time-traveling Stegosaurus (in a balloon), and, fortunately, the milk.

This is quite possibly the most exciting adventure ever to be written about milk since Tolstoy's epic novel War and Milk. Also it has aliens, pirates, dinosaurs, and wumpires in it (but not the handsome, misunderstood kind), not to mention a Volcano God.

My Review

This is a Book Expo America 2013 book. Many thanks!

I have no clue what I could possibly say that you can't already gather in the description above. This is a purely fun romp and pays homage to all those dads out there who are being heroes to their kids, whether their families believe it or not, and whether they're simply buying milk for their kids' milk or out thwarting aliens bent on taking over our world. *wink wink* 

I love how the story starts out crazy - the dad gets accosted by aliens - and then gets crazier and crazier as the story goes on. I also love how the kids interject throughout the story, trying to call him out, and then he gets creative and adds a new twist into the story. The craziness reminds me of a Douglas Adams story.

I should also mention the illustrator - Skottie Young. I love the illustrations, which capture the fantastical images the dad relates to the kids perfectly. Some of the illustrations have a kind of Dr. Seuss look to them, if Dr. Seuss was haunted by nightmares of aliens, pirates, wumpires, and deadly piranhas. There's actually a seemingly explicit reference to Dr. Seuss in an image of a pony with a star on its side.

There are also a few other fun references in the book. For example, there was a reference to Twilight when the girl in the story asks if the wumpires were "nice, misunderstood" wumpires. Also, there are some fun timey-wimey loops in the story, which seem even funnier when you see that the dad is dressed in what is clearly the 4th doctor's scarf (from Doctor Who, for those who don't know what I'm referring to... is there such a person?).

Oh, and let's not forget the brilliant move of making milk a key plot element in the story!

Very fun book. Check it out!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Beyonders: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

Title: Beyonders: A World Without Heroes
Author: Brandon Mull
Publication Date: February 14, 2012
Target Age Group: Middle Grade
My Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

Jason Walker has only wished his life could be a bit less predictable—until a routine day at the zoo ends with Jason suddenly transporting from the hippo tank to a place unlike anything he’s ever seen. In the past, the people of Lyrian welcomed visitors from the Beyond, but attitudes have changed since the wizard emperor Maldor rose to power. The brave resistors who opposed the emperor have been bought off or broken, leaving a realm where fear and suspicion prevail.

In his search for a way home, Jason meets Rachel, who was also mysteriously drawn to Lyrian from our world. With the help of a few scattered rebels, Jason and Rachel become entangled in a quest to piece together the word of power that can destroy the emperor and learn that their best hope to find a way home will be to save this world without heroes.

My Review

This is a book I received from the author at Book Expo America 2013, so thank you, thank you, to BEA and the author.

First of all, I loved this book. For starters, it has to have one of the most unique ways a character has ever been transported to another world in all the books I've ever read. That gets bonus points from me.

Second, this book is an epic quest, which is also high on my list of favorite types of books to read. Jason and Rachel enter this strange world of Lyrian unwillingly, and are only interested in returning home. However, they are drawn into a quest to find a magic word that will destroy Maldor, an evil wizard who rules over this broken land. At first, they both embark on the quest in order for it to lead to their way back to our world, but the more people they meet who are dedicate to the cause of destroying the evil wizard, the more involved they become. In contrast, coming across the many un-hero-like people in Lyrian also cause them to strengthen their resolve. Lyrian needs heroes, and Jason and Rachel step up nicely as the story progresses.

Third, keeping with the epic theme for a moment, the scope of the world of Lyrian is epic as well. Reading this book reminded me of playing a computer game called Myst. For those who have never seen this game, it's an amazingly detailed game where you navigate a fantasy world, solving puzzles along the way. I felt this book was very similar in that Jason and Rachel had to solve puzzles in order to find the pieces of the magic word that would destroy Maldor. Plus, Brandon Mull's skills at world-building made this book as vivid as that game was. 

Fourth... twist ending! Which I won't give away.

Fifth, there is lots of action, and many supporting characters whose alliances are always in question, which makes for interesting reading.

I could go on.

Why didn't I rate this a 5? I was very close. There was one thing that kept nagging at me, so I had to dock a few decimal points. I did notice there was some filler in this book, much of which involved either traveling from place to place, eating, or going to sleep or waking from sleep. Some of that probably could've been trimmed. 

Other than that, a very satisfying read, and one I recommend to everyone who likes fantasy, adventure, and mystery. This book is part of a series, so I can't wait read more! The copy I have has a small section of book two, which definitely piqued my interest.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Review: Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit by Octavia Spencer

Title: Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit
Author: Octavia Spencer
Publication Date: October 15, 2013
Target Age Group: Middle Grade
My Rating: 5 out of 5

Book Description (from back cover)

When Randi Rhodes moves to sleepy Deer Creek, she certainly isn't expecting the kinds of adventures she had in New York City. In the city she used her detective (and ninja) skills to solve mysteries. Nothing can compare to that.

But she finds that the small town's only hope for survival is the success of their Founders' Day Festival. And the time capsule that many people believe holds the town's treasure has gone missing.

So, along with her new best friend, D.C., Randi is determined to solve the case. Even if it means investigating in haunted cabins and facing mean old Angus McCarthy, prime suspect. The future of their whole town is at stake! Will these kids be able to save the day?

My Review

This is a book I received from the author at Book Expo America 2013, so once again, many many thanks to Ms. Spencer and BEA for the opportunity to review it. 

First, a little about my experience at BEA 2013 as it relates to this book. Ms. Spencer had the most awesome marketing campaign. Send a bunch of women out on the floors of the convention hall dressed as ninjas, and get people walking by to don their own ninja masks and take pictures. Brilliant!

But my 5/5 rating is not based on this experience, however fun it was. It's based on the fact that this is a really great, satisfying book for middle grade kids! 

The main character, Miranda "Randi" Rhodes, is someone you can care about. She has lost her mother, she thinks her father just doesn't understand her, and she's moving from New York City to a tiny town somewhere in Tennessee. She also happens to be a junior detective and a black belt in karate, which is kind of a fun combination. If you can't relate to her, I'm sure girls wish that they could be LIKE her. I also love the fact that, unbeknownst to her dad, she's been fighting crime and solving mysteries at her old home in New York City, all on her own.

If she didn't have enough trouble, when she arrives at her new town (a town she has visited often as a kid), she has to deal with a snotty girl who seems to have it in for her. Not a way to feel welcome in your new home, that's for sure. 

So there is lots of internal conflict for Randi in this story.

As for external conflict: not long after Randi arrives, she attends the Founders' Day Festival, where a time capsule, buried by the town's founders, is about to be opened. Legend has it that whatever is inside will save the town from it's slow decline. However, during a distraction at the opening ceremony, the time capsule is stolen. There is no shortage of suspects in this story. The ancestors of the founders don't get along with each other, so they have motives for taking the time capsule. There are also suspicious newcomers to the town.

The mystery part of the story is amazing. It's well-plotted. There are lots of red herrings. There are also lots of clues scattered about that, once you reach the end, fit together well enough that you could solve the mystery on your own (although I've never really been good at that myself). I also like the fact that Randi DOESN'T have all the answers, even though she is pretty bright and observant, and goes down the wrong path a few times in solving the case. She also has help from a cast of characters who are very well-developed and you wind up liking by the end, even the ones who appear to be suspects. She even gets to show off her ninja skills during the course of the story. There's plenty of action, a little spookiness, some real danger for Randi and her friends, and humor. And, some nice, heart-felt moments between Randi and her dad.

As an extra bonus, there are footnotes throughout the story linking it to Randi's "ninja tasks" (including how to cast footprints and how to conduct a stakeout), which is a fun way of bringing the reader into the story.

In short, this book has it all for middle graders (and for this kid at heart). :-)

Very highly recommended.

Now go out, find this book, read it, and give in to your inner ninja detective!

(Yes, that's me, the ninja detective wannabe in the middle of this picture.)

Friday, May 1, 2015

Review: Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman

Title: Make Good Art
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publication Date: May 14, 2013
Target Age Group: Adult
My Rating: 4 out of 5

Book Description (on inside cover)

In May 2012, bestselling author Neil Gaiman stood at a podium at Philadelphia's University of the Arts to deliver the commencement address. For the next nineteen minutes he shared his thoughts about creativity, bravery, and strength; he encouraged the students before him to break rules and think outside the box. Most of all, he urged the fledgling painters, musicians, writers, and dreamers to MAKE GOOD ART. This book, designed by renowned graphic artist Chip Kidd, contains the full text of Gaiman's inspiring speech. Whether bestowed upon a young artist beginning his or her creative journey, or given as a token of gratitude to an admired mentor, or acquired as a gift to oneself, this volume is a fitting offering for anyone who strives to MAKE GOOD ART. 

My Review

This is a book I received from the author at Book Expo America 2013. Thank you to Mr. Gaiman (whom I had the pleasure to listen to while I was there) and BEA for the opportunity to review it. 

I wish there were a way I could rate this book using two different ratings, one for the text and message of the book, and one for its presentation, but I'm not about to break my rating system to do so. So let me explain my only negative points right off the bat as they all relate to the book's presentation.

While I do commend the graphic artist's creativity and ability, I did have two distinct problems with the way the book was presented:
     * the white text on light blue background combination that was periodically used in
       the book made the text difficult to read
     * in some cases, the presentation of the text on the page (such as writing one line of text 
       both upside down and backward while everything else was written normally) was 

To give him credit, however, there were other cases where I thought the creative layout of the page worked very well. I especially loved the page where Mr. Gaiman's positive message, "Make Good Art", is juxtaposed on top of text describing negative things that you might be experiencing in your life.

As for the text and message of the book, I cannot say enough good things about it. Mr. Gaiman shares little tidbits of his own personal journey in a way that is sure to inspire anyone about to embark on, or is currently engaged in, a career in the creative arts. In his own unique way, he tells people it's OK to not have a plan, to break the rules, to make mistakes, and to emulate others yet have your own style. In fact, he has engaged in all of these things on his own career path and attributes all of these to his own success. Above all, he encourages people to enjoy the journey itself and to MAKE GOOD ART.

A highly recommended little book when you need a little creative inspiration.