Blog Tour: Last in a Long Line of Rebels by Lisa Lewis Tyre

LastInALongLineOfRebels

Last in a Long Line of Rebels by Lisa Lewis Tyre. Nancy Paulsen Books. 288 pp.

Hello, and welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Last in a Long Line of Rebels!

I love middle grade: kids are on the cusp of adolescence, and there are so many stories that can be told about this time in their lives. Also, it makes me a little nostalgic, because this is the age when my memories of reading independently get stronger. I mean, I learned to read (really read) in preschool (fun fact: in my kindergarten admission interview, the administrator swore I couldn’t really read and had just memorized my favorite books; my mom grabbed a magazine from the office to prove her wrong). But I don’t remember my preschool or early elementary years as much as I remember things from third grade on. And I remember having my nose in a book all the time. The Boxcar Children, Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Chronicles of Narnia…I don’t just remember the titles; I actually remember reading them. And reading a book I would have loved at that age warms my heart and makes me eager to pass it along to my sons one day. They’re one and three, and I want them to age as slowly as possible, but sharing books with them will make it bearable, I hope. (Today my son said, “Mommy, when I get bigger, I’m going to read Harry Potter, just like you” and I teared up a little.)

What I’m getting to (longwindedly, I admit) is that this is one of those books. Here’s the synopsis:

Debut novelist Lisa Lewis Tyre vibrantly brings a small town and its outspoken characters to life, as she explores race and other community issues from both the Civil War and the present day.

Lou might be only twelve, but she’s never been one to take things sitting down. So when her Civil War-era house is about to be condemned, she’s determined to save it—either by getting it deemed a historic landmark or by finding the stash of gold rumored to be hidden nearby during the war. As Lou digs into the past, her eyes are opened when she finds that her ancestors ran the gamut of slave owners, renegades, thieves and abolitionists. Meanwhile, some incidents in her town show her that many Civil War era prejudices still survive and that the past can keep repeating itself if we let it. Digging into her past shows Lou that it’s never too late to fight injustice, and she starts to see the real value of understanding and exploring her roots.

MyReview

There are so many things to love about this book that I’m not sure where to start. The format is smart: each chapter opens with an excerpt from the diary of one of Lou’s Civil-War-era ancestors. The material is vague enough to avoid giving away the plot too soon, but these entries do provide small clues and insight into the events that Lou is researching.

The cast is great as well: Lou is a member of a stable family on the cusp of change (her mother is due any day with a new baby), her grandmother is as vivacious (and flirtatious) as they come, and she has some truly excellent friends. I like that Lou’s friends are varied in their interests and personalities; although Lou isn’t a girly girl, her cousin Patty is, and this doesn’t affect their friendship in any way. Benzer (an Italian from the northeast) and Franklin (a wealthy, brainy type) round out their group, and the four of them embrace their differences instead of arguing about them. In fact, their various upbringings and skills lend themselves marvelously to their research endeavors as each kid brings his or her strengths to the table.

In other aspects of the book, diversity isn’t quite so celebrated: a local African-American athlete is overlooked for a prestigious scholarship even though he’s clearly the most qualified recipient, and Lou’s beloved grandmother often speaks condescendingly of “Yankees,” hurting Benzer’s feelings along the way. I appreciated that Lou’s world wasn’t all sunshine and perfection; her story shows that things work well when acceptance reigns, but it also shows that life isn’t always fair and that prejudice is (sadly) still a part of our world.

The themes of racial and geographical prejudice are joined by a smattering of Civil War history, mystery, and religion. There’s so much in here that I’d be thrilled for my kids to read about, and it’s paced so well that it doesn’t feel scattered or like too much material is included.

Also, the book takes place in 1999, so there’s limited technology. Franklin uses the Internet for research, but most of the kids’ snooping for facts takes place at the library, in the stacks. They spend their time outside, running around, not texting one another. Even though I value the benefits of technology, I don’t want my kids to read about characters primarily watching movies or messaging; I want them to read books about people doing things.

All in all: A smart, entertaining book with lots of heart. It shows the world as it is while remaining hopeful for further progress, and I look forward to the day I can pass it down to my son (he’s turning four soon, so I’ll add it to the ever-growing stack of middle grade books I can’t wait for him to read).

OtherInfo

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About Lisa Lewis Tyre, the author: I grew up in a small town in Tennessee surrounded by my crazy family and neighbors. I learned early on that not every child had a pet skunk, a dad that ran a bar in the front yard, or a neighbor that was so large his house had to be torn down to get him out. What else could I do but write?

I’ve wanted to write for as long as I can remember. I think this is because I come from a long line of storytellers. I loved listening to my dad tell me about the escapades of his youth, like how he “accidentally” pushed his brother out of a two-story window, and “accidentally” shot his aunt’s chicken with a bow and arrow. Apparently he was accident-prone.
One of the stories they told me involved the name of our piece of the country. I lived in a tiny spot that the locals called Zollicoffer. When I asked why it had such a strange name, they said it was named after General Felix Zollicoffer who had camped nearby during the Civil War. One day I happened to ask my mom where exactly the camp had been. That’s when she pointed down the road and said, “Probably over there. That’s where some kids in the 50’s found GOLD.” And just like that, LAST IN A LONG LINE OF REBELS was born.

OtherTourStops

Tuesday, February 2nd: Randomly Reading
Wednesday, February 3rd: All Roads Lead to the Kitchen
Thursday, February 4th: Life is Story
Monday, February 8th: Just Commonly
Wednesday, February 10th: Shooting Stars Mag
Thursday, February 11th: Musings by Maureen
Wednesday, February 17th: WV Stitcher
Thursday, February 18th: Tina Says…
Friday, February 19th: Peeking Between the Pages
Monday, February 22nd: The Things You Can Read
Wednesday, February 24th: A Chick Who Reads
Thursday, February 25th: Just One More Chapter
Monday, February 29th: Laura’s Reviews
Wednesday, March 2nd: Absurd Book Nerd
Thursday, March 3rd: FictionZeal
Monday, March 7th: View from the Birdhouse

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Keeping It Brief #3: Some Great Early Reader & Middle Grade Books

It’s that time again: time for me to catch up on reviews after a few months of binge reading. These books were all acquired at this year’s BEA and BookCon, and I’d recommend all three.

A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano. Bloomsbury. 240 pp.

A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano. Bloomsbury. 240 pp.

It seems an exaggeration to compare a writer to Neil Gaiman; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done it before. Neil is sort of in a class of his own, because his writing is so gorgeous and chilling and magical. Lauren DeStefano’s writing is strong and magical like his, but it seems a disservice to simply say, “Oh, she’s like Neil.” She’s her own writer, a damn good one at that, and I look forward to getting my hands on some of her other books soon.

I loved Pram’s name and bravery; her eccentric, well-meaning aunts; and her gentle, devoted best friends. The narrative style is perfect: a bit of fantasy, a bit of fairy tale, a bit of dark reality. There is nothing about this book that I didn’t like…well, except for the fact that it didn’t exist when I was in elementary school. I would have adored this book as a child! (I love it now, but there’s something to be said for the love a child holds for her favorite books; it’s a different kind of relationship, I think.)

George by Alex Gino. Scholastic. 240 pp.

George by Alex Gino. Scholastic. 240 pp.

Here’s what I love about this book: it’s recommended for ages 8-12. George is the only book I’m aware of that introduces gender identity in a way that’s geared toward elementary-school-aged kids.

I was dubious of this one at first, because the synopsis sounded remarkably similar to that of Gracefully Grayson, a book I read last year. But after getting my hands on a copy at BEA, I realized that George is its own story entirely. The demographic is different, of course, but so are the writing style and the details of the story.

From the very beginning, George is referred to with female pronouns. She’s always known who she is, and the way that Alex Gino’s narrative is arranged, the reader can’t doubt this either. It’s so matter-of-fact: others see George as a boy, but she’s really a girl. That’s all. (It would be great if it was this simple in the real world, but hopefully, if enough stories are told in this manner, attitudes and prejudices will start to change.) I wonder if young readers will understand this immediately or if they will be confused at the fact that everyone else calls George “he.” Before having kids, I taught high school English; although I have very little experience with young readers, I wish I could observe an elementary school class and hear their responses to this book. We need different kinds of stories in the world, and George fills a gap that I hadn’t previously been aware of. I can’t wait to hear how kids respond to it.

Auggie & Me by R.J. Palacio. Alfred A. Knopf. 304 pp.

Auggie & Me by R.J. Palacio. Alfred A. Knopf. 304 pp.

I remember when The Julian Chapter was released as a Kindle single. I wasn’t buying Kindle books at the time and was sad that there wasn’t another way to get my hands on it. I was thrilled to see this book, a re-release of three Kindle singles all loosely related to August Pullman, the protagonist of R.J. Palacio’s mind-blowing Wonder.

Palacio is a master at putting the reader into someone else’s shoes. The honesty of the three accounts contained in this book is moving; each child is affected differently by knowing Auggie, in ways both good and bad. I felt a sympathy toward each of them, to the initial shock they felt when seeing Auggie’s face, the obligations they felt to be nice to Auggie even though it made them less popular. I never would have thought I’d feel sympathetic to Julian, but his tale reminds the reader that everyone is going through more than meets the eye. This is a beautiful addition to the Wonderverse, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to read it.

Also, Christopher’s mother calls him “Honeyboy,” a term of endearment that I was sure I’d invented. It made me smile.

Review: Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. Schwartz & Wade. 240 pp.

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. Schwartz & Wade. 240 pp.

I spotted this one at Penguin Random House’s BEA booth, in a stack on the floor next to copies of Illuminae and the new graphic novelization of The Golden Compass. It seemed to be geared to middle-school-aged kids, so I hesitated before picking this one up. Also, I had no idea that “graphic biography” was a genre…but I’m thrilled to have taken a gamble on this one because I absolutely adored it!

I’m not one for nonfiction, mostly because I love fiction so much that I rarely tear myself away from a novel to read anything else. I’ll read poetry here and there, but biographies or general nonfiction typically aren’t my thing. I’ve been even worse lately because I have two kids now, and I tend to read things that don’t require one hundred percent of my focus since I’m likely to be interrupted countless times while reading. I like to annotate and note-take while reading classics or nonfiction so that the material will sink in, and it’s difficult to do that when I have to get up multiple times an hour to help my seven-month-old settle down and get back to sleep.

So, even though I’m not the target audience for this book, it was perfect for me at this stage in my life. (I’m also holding on to it in case my sons want to read it when they’re older.) The material is broken into chapters, mostly by time but now and then by topic. The material is straightforward, and the illustrations work seamlessly with the text, making the overall story of Jobs’s life easy to envision and understand. I especially liked the two-page spreads that featured technology of the decades; today’s kids wouldn’t otherwise understand just how far music, information, and communication technology advanced over Steve Jobs’s lifetime and the specific role that he played in advancing them.

One of my favorite things about this book, though, is that the author doesn’t sugarcoat things. Jobs’s brainpower, innovative spirit, and constant quest for improvement are evident, but the reader is still shown his shortcomings (his poor personal hygiene and the way he berated his employees, for example). This isn’t a glowing, eyes-half-shut endorsement of Steve Jobs, or of Apple, and I appreciated that.

I think this particular book would be a wonderful gift for kids who are interested in Apple products or technology in general. It could be a useful medium for middle school kids in particular, or for readers of any age with lower reading skills (the vocabulary is simple, and the illustrations aid comprehension). As for the format of “graphic biography,” well, I’m in love. It’s a great way to ease unwilling nonfiction readers into enjoying fact-based books. It’s also a user-friendly way to get an overview of a topic; it provides a shallow introduction to a subject and gives the reader ideas about which specific areas he wants to research further.

All in all: Excellent concept and execution. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this (and my husband loved the tidbits of information I shared with him while reading). I learned a lot while being entertained, and I have a new appreciation for the multitude of technological contributions that Steve Jobs made.

Picture Book Roundup #7: BEA Edition

Today’s entry consists of three picture books that I got at BEA. I had the opportunity to meet the authors of all three, so I’ll write a bit about that experience along with my reviews.

Turtle and Me by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Tor Freeman. little bee books. 40 pp.

Turtle and Me by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Tor Freeman. little bee books. 40 pp.

I stumbled upon this signing line accidentally, and boy am I glad I did! The author was kind, and my only regret is that I hadn’t already read the book, because I would have liked to tell her how much my son and I both enjoyed it. This is a beautiful tale of a boy who brings his stuffed turtle everywhere with him, as is evidenced by Turtle’s many stains and patches. The boy loves his Turtle until at a playdate one day a friend exclaims, “Having Turtle’s a BABY thing!” All of a sudden, Turtle (and his newest — enormous — rip) is relegated to sleeping on the floor. My heart cracked a little bit as I realized that one day my son will start to see himself the way others see him instead of allowing his enthusiasm to run free, loving whatever he wants to love. I hope that he surrounds himself with people who won’t judge him for a favorite stuffed animal (or hobby, or anything). But he will encounter opposition, and I want to help him with that as best I can. The boy’s father deals with the situation in a way that I loved: he says, “You are very big now…but not all big. Not just yet.” And in the end, of course, the boy allows himself a little more time with his beloved Turtle.

The day after I attended BEA, my three-year-old and I snuggled on the couch and read all of the picture books I’d brought home. He requested to read this one twice more that day, once before naptime and once before bedtime. And, perhaps most adorable of all, he asked to bring his stuffed turtle to bed with him that night. (He usually sleeps with the same two favorites, a dog and a monkey, but occasionally adds a visitor or two.) Even though he hasn’t experienced the struggle of being “too old” for a toy yet, my son enjoyed this book and continues to request it. I’m hoping that its message becomes ingrained in him and that he can recall it when and if someone decides to tease him about something being too babyish. It’s a beautiful story, with great illustrations, and I’m thrilled to have it as part of our collection.

Stream Train, Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle Books. 40 pp.

Stream Train, Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle Books. 40 pp.

My son is in love with Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site (as are my husband and I), so I was elated to see that both the author and illustrator were signing at BEA this year. (Confession: I didn’t notice this until the day of the expo; I hadn’t recognized the author’s name when scanning the autographing schedule ahead of time. That’s terrible considering the fact that I’ve read that book at least a couple dozen times.) The artwork in Steam Train, Dream Train is very similar to that in GGCS. In fact, some of the cargo on the train was delightfully familiar: the construction vehicles are part of the freight in one of the gondola cars, and my son leapt up in excitement when he recognized them.

The different items being loaded onto the train are great fun for kids, from blocks to balls to ice cream sundaes. The crew is colorful and energetic, and each two-page spread introduces a different type of train car, which is great for train aficionados like my little guy. I prefer the repetitive nature of GGCS, but this one still features some fun rhymes and sound effects. All in all, it’s a great gift book, especially for locomotive lovers. I liked it a lot, just not as much as their construction site project.

Both authors were delightful. I told Sherri how much easier her words had made bedtime for us; she said that her son used to give her a hard time going to bed, too, so she completely understands. (He’s now nine and lets her know when he’s tired, so there is hope for us one day!) I told Tom how breathtaking I find his artwork and confessed that I’m considering buying a second copy of the book just to razor out the illustrations and frame them. He recommended checking Chronicle’s site for prints, which I did, but they’re very limited in selection. I’ll probably be better off with my original plan.

Bulldozer's Big Day by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohman. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 40 pp.

Bulldozer’s Big Day by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohman. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 40 pp.

I don’t have any interesting author tales for this one, mostly because the woman in front of me was a librarian having the book personalized to the children’s department of Fletcher Memorial Library, so her inscription read “FML Kids.” We were all grinning too widely for me to think of anything clever to say.

But now I have something to say: this book is fun to read! The illustrations are simple and bright, the pages uncluttered. Each truck has a different job and repeats this task three times. My son loves this, saying that the cement mixer is “Stirring…stirring…stirring,” etc. And his face lights up every time we get to the part when Bulldozer realizes that his friends haven’t actually forgotten about his “big day.” He claps and, beaming, exclaims, “They did not forget!” Although I’d first recommend Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, this would also be a great gift for a toddler who loves trucks.

All in all: I enjoyed all three of these, though each to a different degree. They’re actually listed in order of preference, with our favorite (Turtle and Me) first. I don’t keep books that I don’t plan to re-visit, but these have all found a home on our shelves.

Series Review: The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham. HarperCollins. 395 pp.

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham. HarperCollins. 395 pp.

The Luck Uglies: Fork-Tongue Charmer. HarperCollins. 416 pp.

The Luck Uglies: Fork-Tongue Charmer. HarperCollins. 416 pp.

Let’s begin superficially: the covers on these books are beautiful. The art tingles with action, the colors and images eye-catching and the focus blurred ever-so-slightly in a once-upon-a-time-and-far-away sort of manner. It draws you in yet manages to be juuuust foreboding enough to make you linger on the threshold before embarking on your literary adventure.

These books follow the mishaps and mayhem following Rye O’Chanter (off-topic, maybe, but I love the surname O’Chanter; isn’t it charming?). Rye lives in a village called Drowning, which was long ago plagued by terrifying creatures called Bog Noblins. The citizens of Drowning once sought protection in a group of mercenaries called the Luck Uglies, but these defenders became as feared as the monsters they protected against and — like the Bog Noblins themselves — haven’t been spotted in years. When Drowning sees a resurgence of Bog Noblins, some of the citizens consider calling upon the Luck Uglies again while others cling tightly to old legends and prejudices. Rye’s history and fate are tied up with that of the outlaws’, and she finds herself thrown into a war that she struggles to navigate and understand. In the sequel, there are more monsters, more mischief, and more power plays; I don’t want to say too much because it might spoil the first book for you.

Paul Durham has created a series with the power to last. The world-building is done so smoothly you almost don’t notice that this isn’t our world. There are similarities in the holidays and politics, but they’re just far enough removed to seem new and exotic (for instance, leaving one’s shoes at the doorstep on Silvermas eve to have them filled with treats by Good Harper, a philanthropist of sorts who collects coins for charity). There’s a hint of magic in the plot, but Durham’s words hold a power all their own. He is a gifted storyteller, creating a varied cast of characters with problems that will keep you turning the pages. The action scenes surround the reader, and the quieter scenes focus on small details; nothing ever feels contrived or forced.

I don’t think there should be a designation between “girls’ books” and “boys’ books,” and it drives me crazy to think that boys may not want to read a series fronted by a young girl. I’m thrilled to see an adventure series with a main character that could have universal appeal; Rye is feisty enough to win over boys who would normally be dubious about reading a book with a female protagonist.

I’m in my thirties but enjoy reading books geared toward all ages (I read middle grade largely to bank recommendations for when my sons are older, but I enjoy a good story no matter the age of the protagonist and often enjoy my “research” far too much). There are certain books that I figure my sons will like when they’re a bit older but that don’t necessarily appeal to me. The Luck Uglies books fall into a different (and entirely superior) camp: Durham’s use of language makes them a joy for older readers as well.

Another pleasant surprise with these books is that the second one is as good as the first. Far too often nowadays, authors are given multiple-book contracts when they could really tell their story in a single volume. It seems that publishers are trying to find the next big series, and in so doing, they order a series when it’s entirely unnecessary. This frustrates me more than I can say because the first installment can be great, a live spark that dims by book two and fizzles out entirely by book three. I love a good series that I can get behind and recommend; I hate having to say, “Oh, that book was great. But don’t read the rest of the series because you’ll get angry at having wasted your time.” I don’t need to say that in this case, though: both of these books are recommendation- and gift-worthy.

All in all: These books would be a great gift for a young reader; they’re full of action and adventure while also slipping in some bits about family, love, and loyalty.

Picture Book Roundup #6

It’s that time again: time to tell you about the picture books I’ve been enjoying with my toddler. We make frequent use of our local library to take picture books for a test run; if we didn’t try books on for size before buying, my house would be overrun. (I’ve always lived with books piled high in corners of my living space, but my husband doesn’t appreciate this system of storage as much as I do. He’s built me a few extra bookshelves, but we’re still running out of space.) This installment contains three great finds: books that are purchase-worthy and stand up to multiple re-readings.

Little Blue Truck by Alice Shertle, illus. by Jill McElmurry. HMH Books for Young Readers. 32 pp.

Little Blue Truck by Alice Shertle, illus. by Jill McElmurry. HMH Books for Young Readers. 32 pp.

Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle, illus. by Jill McElmurry. HMH Books for Young Readers. 40 pp.

Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle, illus. by Jill McElmurry. HMH Books for Young Readers. 40 pp.

We received Little Blue Truck as a gift a year or so ago. My son adored it then and still requests it from time to time. I was impressed by the whimsical illustrations, the catchy rhymes and meter, and the typography (sounds are larger and more brightly-colored, swooping across the pages). It’s a larger board book, ideal for little ones who are ready for longer books but not careful enough with paper pages, and it was such a hit that we added the second book, Little Blue Truck Leads the Way, to our collection as well. Both books deal with parent-pleasing topics such as friendliness, politeness, and manners in the toddler-friendly format of trucks and other vehicles (and, in the case of the first book, farmyard animals).

I'm a Big Brother by Joanna Cole, illus. by Maxie Chambliss. HarperCollins. 32 pp.

I’m a Big Brother by Joanna Cole, illus. by Maxie Chambliss. HarperCollins. 32 pp.

I found a copy of an older edition of I’m a Big Brother at a local library book sale while pregnant with my second child. After flipping through it, I realized that it was the perfect way to introduce my older son to the idea of having a baby in the house. It reminded him that he was once a baby, unable to do lots of things, and that he has more abilities and privileges now that he’s “big.” It gave him a crash course in what to expect with a newborn; crying is covered matter-of-factly and explained, not as a negative behavior, but simply as a means of communication. My favorite thing about this one is that it ends by reminding my firstborn that he is still special and that my husband and I still love him for him. I didn’t want him to feel threatened by the baby, and this book did a great job paving the way for open discussions about what it would mean to have a new little one in our home.

Note: This is the cover for the edition that I purchased. I’ve since spotted this book at Barnes and Noble and flipped through it, and the boys are now much fairer and, if memory serves correctly, blond. I prefer the older edition because these boys look more like my own kids, but the content seems to be the same.

Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss. Random House. 72 pp.

Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss. Random House. 72 pp.

This is one of the most fun children’s books I’ve read…and I’ve read quite a few!

My husband has been all about Dr. Seuss lately, and he loves reading Seuss books to our son, so I grabbed this one when I spotted it at the library since we hadn’t read it yet. (My mom swears she read it to me when I was a kid, and I’m sure she did, but I don’t remember it.)

The tongue twisters in this book are tricky and silly and great fun to read aloud. My two-year-old (and his parents!) giggled all through the first reading — and the second! He enjoyed it so much that we bought a copy to add to our permanent collection. I’ve since read it to him many, many times and there are still a couple of pages where I really have to focus to say the right words. It’s tricky!

This one is so much fun that my husband asked me to read it to him last night…after we’d already put our son to bed! 🙂

Review: Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky. Disney-Hyperion. 250 pp.

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky. Disney-Hyperion. 250 pp.

What if who you are on the outside doesn’t match who you are on the inside?

Grayson Sender has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body. The weight of this secret is crushing, but sharing it would mean facing ridicule, scorn, rejection, or worse. Despite the risks, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Will new strength from an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher’s wisdom be enough to help Grayson step into the spotlight she was born to inhabit? 

Debut author Ami Polonsky’s moving, beautifully-written novel about identity, self-esteem, and friendship shines with the strength of a young person’s spirit and the enduring power of acceptance.

At first glance, Grayson Sender is a twelve-year-old boy who gets good grades but keeps mainly to himself. [Note: Eventually, Grayson will probably choose to be referred to as “she,” but since that decision wasn’t made during the course of this book, I’ll use the pronoun “he.” I’m not thrilled with this designation because I feel like “she” is more fitting, but I’m trying to stick with the plot as it’s been covered so far.] Orphaned at a young age, he lives with his aunt, uncle, and cousins and flies below the radar as much as possible. Grayson’s big secret is one that he struggles to understand, one that involves drawings of princesses in castles; longings for soft, colorful clothing; and auditioning for the role of Persephone in the school’s stage production.

When Grayson actually gets the female role, the drama teacher is supportive but it seems that no one else is. The reactions of Grayson’s family, teachers, and fellow students are varied and sadly realistic. During an admission that is already terrifying for Grayson, it is heartbreaking to see the way he is treated (especially his aunt’s response).Classmates’ reactions range from teasing to outright physical assault as they rage vehemently against something that they don’t understand. A few girls in the drama club, though, embrace Grayson for who he is, and these girls are a breath of fresh air throughout the book.

All in all: Moving and definitely worth reading. If you enjoyed Wonder, you’ll likely enjoy this.

Interview & Book Review: Jim Morgan and the Door at the Edge of the World by James Matlack Raney

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Jim Morgan and the Door at the Edge of the World by James Matlack Raney. Dreamfarer Press. 396 pp.

An Ancient Temple… 

An Unimaginable Power… 
The Final Chapter of the Jim Morgan Saga! 

Jim Morgan and his friends, Lacey and the Brothers Ratt, have so far managed to keep their half of the Hunter’s Shell safe from the Cromiers, preventing them from finding the Treasure of the Ocean. But the danger is far from over. The Count and Bartholomew are closing in on the Spectre. And an old enemy from the past has returned, armed with dark plans of his own. A desperate battle is brewing – one Jim can’t outrun forever. 

From the underwater kingdom of the Merfolk, to a desolate stretch of ocean called the Wastewaters, Jim and his friends will seek the aid of new allies and risk their lives against villains more wicked than they have ever faced before. 

In his heart, Jim knows the journey will end only once he has taken possession of the Treasure of the Ocean, and only once he has faced the ultimate test, before a door at the edge of the world, with the fate of more than he ever imagined at stake…

It’s that time again: time for me to tell you all about how much I love the Jim Morgan series. (Missed my posts on books one and two? Check them out here and here, respectively.) Before I dive into my review of the third and final book, though, I’ve got a special treat: an interview with author James Matlack Raney!

Interview

When you were writing book one, did you know how things would end for Jim? Or did Jim’s fate reveal itself as you were writing? 

That’s a great question, because it actually changed as the books went along. Without giving away too many spoilers, when I first started, I had a vision for where I wanted Jim to go as a character and what I wanted him to learn. The whole story is really just about a boy who loses his father and has to discover who he is all on his own. The theme of weathering the storms of life was, to me, essential to that story. So the ultimate villain was actually going to be an earlier version of the Crimson Storm. He made it into the stories, but not in quite the same capacity. As I kept writing, I realized that Jim’s greatest threats would always come from within and that he and Bartholomew were actually mirror images of each other, struggling with many of the same choices and failures. So that really shaped how the third book unfolded.

The seafaring chapters are great. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were raised on a pirate ship! Where does your sailing knowledge come from? 

I wish I could say that I was a sailing master, but the truth is, all I had going for me were some brief memories of sailing on my grandfather’s boat when I was very young. I’ve been on several boats between then and now, and I have a fascination with the ocean and sailing, but most of the sailing scenes were informed by books or the trusty internet.

Tell me about the decisions regarding which characters to keep through the entire series. Was it difficult to have certain characters die or part ways? 

It was difficult, because even though they’re fantasy, all of my characters represent a little piece of myself or my past, so there’s an emotional connection. I will say that there was one character who was not going to make it, and was killed in the official outline for book three. But my good friends and readers politely informed me that it was an awful decision, so I changed it back. But I did think it was important to bring many of the characters from book one back, because how Jim and his friends interact with them shows how much they’ve grown and allows them to come back full circle, especially with the King of Thieves.

If you could experience a literary adventure, which book would you choose to be transported to? 

Wow! Too tough to call! But I’ll go with a trip through the wardrobe into Narnia for now. That would be pretty amazing.

What project(s) are you working on now? 

I’ve started a new novel for young readers, and I hope to have a first draft finished by the end of February. It’s not set in the world of Jim Morgan at all. In fact, it may not be set in the world of people at all! But I also have some more grown-up fare working its way out there. I have a horror short story set to be published in Hello Horror in April, so that’s exciting.

And finally, my favorite question to ask my favorite writers: What are you currently reading? 

Right now I’m still reading The Kite Runner. It’s an amazing, emotionally powerful book. I tend to read very slowly while I’m writing, then after that first draft is finished I gobble up about eight or ten novels and books in short order before it’s on to revisions and the next project.

MyReview

The final installment of the Jim Morgan series lives up to the promise of the first two books. There’s just as much magic, just as much adventure and excitement, and just as much (if not more) heart.

Jim and his friends have grown older and a bit wiser as the series has gone on, but they haven’t changed so much as to be unrecognizable: Peter and Paul are at one another’s throats from time to time, Lacey is fiery and loyal, and Cornelius alternates between sharing helpful facts and boring everyone (nearly) to tears. My favorite new character was Captain Sharpe, a Jack-Sparrow-esque pirate who alternates between infuriatingly manipulative and admirably savvy.

None of Raney’s characters are perfect, and that makes them all the more endearing and believable. They have backstories that provide motivation for their actions, both right and wrong. This allows readers to really get to know the characters and sympathize with them. It also gives the story a level of depth that kids’ stories sometimes lack but that gives them staying power.

Since the beginning of book one, my heart broke for Jim, as it did for Harry Potter, because he had to grow up far too soon. However, he’s learned and grown quite a bit over the course of the series, and I am proud of how far he’s come. I was moved by his interactions with his various “father figures” and loved it when he started to become the sort of man he admired. I was also happy to gain a glimpse into the thoughts of the other characters, particularly Lacey and George.

This book has a lot more going for it than great characters, though. There’s tons of adventure on land, ship, and sea (even under the sea!). There’s magic — and magical creatures — galore. There are pirates and battles and danger. There’s even a touch of romance. (It was refreshing to see that Jim’s first crush was included once he was a little older; too many try books to force the love stuff to happen when the characters are still so young that it’s unbelievable.)

All in all: A wonderful conclusion to a series filled with memorable characters, tons of adventure, and great lessons in friendship. I can’t wait to read these with my boys when they get older!

Lots of gratitude to James Matlack Raney, both for the opportunity to read and review his books and for taking the time to answer my questions. (I can’t wait to hear what his next project will be!)

Summer Reading List: Miscellaneous, Part Two

Wrapping up my Summer Reading List catch-ups today (phew!). Here goes.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford. Clarion Books. 384 pp.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford. Clarion Books. 384 pp.

This was a Goodreads win that I was more than happy to receive. It has a sort of Westing Game feel, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s smart and engrossing, with a fun mystery to solve, a colorful cast of characters, and a bit of holiday charm. I can’t wait to read it to my son when he gets a little older. (There’s no inappropriate subject matter; it’s just that he’s two, and this is middle grade. He’s bright, but not that bright.) The only thing I found disappointing was the weird, all-too-convenient ending. Overall, though, a great book, one that kids and parents can enjoy together.

Black Crow White Lie by Candi Sary. Casperian Books. 160 pp.

Black Crow White Lie by Candi Sary. Casperian Books. 160 pp.

Another Goodreads win, one that sat on my shelf for months before I finally got around to picking it up. It was…so-so. The writing was okay, the plot was okay, and the character development was — you guessed it! — okay. I was tempted to stop reading this one, but I plowed through…and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix. Quirk Books. 243 pp.

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix. Quirk Books. 243 pp.

This one was being given away at BookCon. I love the cover, the way the ghost in the picture frames doesn’t pop out at you immediately but has a sort of time-release fright effect. The story is clever, a sort of ghost-possessed Ikea (except it’s Orsk, not Ikea, because…you know…lawsuit potential!). It’s a quick, easy read with fun-and-eerie product descriptions at the beginning of each chapter. I don’t read much horror, but I found this one to be creepy enough. It’d make a good scary movie.

Rumpelstiltskin, retold by Edith H. Tarcov, illustrated by Edward Gorey. Scholastic. 48 pp.

Rumpelstiltskin, retold by Edith H. Tarcov, illustrated by Edward Gorey. Scholastic. 48 pp.

I grabbed this one at a book sale; I’m a sucker for fairy tales and picked this one up even though it’s yellowed and crumbling. It’s a simple, straightforward retelling, which I enjoyed (although I’m partial to the version in which Rumpelstiltskin splits himself in half at the end of the story…). The illustrations are what you’d expect from Edward Gorey (I mean that in a good way, because I enjoy his style), but I’d prefer them to have been either entirely black and white or to incorporate more colors. (The cover is colorful, but the interior illustrations are black and white with bits of yellow — and only yellow. It seemed like a budget-friendly way to incorporate color, but I didn’t love it.) I try not to keep every book I buy, especially if I think I’ll never read it again, but I’m holding on to this one. I’ll give it a good tape job and read it with my son!

Summer Reading List: Did. Not. Like.

I always feel a little guilty when writing a poor review. But if I raved about everything it wouldn’t be honest, so here we go.

The Little Prince, written & illustrated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Scholastic. 111 pp.

The Little Prince, written & illustrated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Scholastic. 111 pp.

I picked this one up at a local book sale. I grabbed it because I was looking at literary tattoos a while back and noticed that a lot of people had tattoos from this book. I figured that if it meant enough to that many people it would be worth checking out. Well…I don’t know if I’m remembering things wrong (maybe there were far fewer tattoos than I recalled) or if this book just wasn’t for me, but I pretty much hated it. It’s just over 100 pages but it took me forever to get through it.

It’s written in a grand storytelling style that makes it seem like it will have something mind-blowing and important to say, but in the end, it’s a series of not-that-deep observations about humanity held loosely together by a character that I didn’t find all that interesting. I’d say skip it.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Wordsworth Classics. 245 pp.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Wordsworth Classics. 245 pp.

Maybe I’ll be lambasted for this one, but I thought this book was highly overrated and…well…awful. It’s billed as a classic love story with sweeping descriptions of the moors, but I didn’t get that at all. Catherine and Heathcliff’s love is talked about more than shown, and the one time it is shown, it’s poorly done. I didn’t care about their “relationship” at all, so I didn’t care about whether or not they ended up happy and whether or not Heathcliff got to exact his revenge. And the depiction of nature? Nonexistent, except to say things along the lines of “We walked through the field and there were mountains in the distance.” (Okay, a bit more eloquent than that, but not half as much as you’d think.) Also, there’s not a single likable character in this book (apart from maybe Hareton). I don’t always need to like characters — sometimes I love to hate them — but when I don’t care at all about them, one way or the other, the book falls flat for me. This is one of the worst classics I’ve ever read, and I’d advise you to stay far, far away.

Unraveled by Gennifer Albin. Farrar Straus Giroux. 286 pp.

Unraveled by Gennifer Albin. Farrar Straus Giroux. 286 pp.

In my review of Crewel a while back, I mentioned that the second book, Altered, didn’t hold up to the promise of the first installment. I still wanted to know how the trilogy ended, though, so I was thrilled when I won a copy of this book via a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. However…it’s even worse than the second book. Why do publishers insist on writing up contracts for trilogies in instances when a single, finely-tuned novel would be much better? (I know, I know: Selling three books is far preferable to selling one. But they’re filling the world with crappy books!) There wasn’t much of interest in this book: the predicament wasn’t frightening enough, the characters were all flat and boring, and the ending was laughable. Not worth reading.

That’s it for today, folks. Here’s hoping that I have some good books coming up soon! 🙂