Book Review: Cold Cereal by Adam Rex

He steered toward the local park, down the storm drain shortcut he’d discovered yesterday, dodging broken glass and a man with a rabbit head, up the embankment toward the gap in the fence, and — was that a man with a rabbit head?

Cold Cereal
Cold Cereal by Adam Rex
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Life for Scott Doe has always been a little odd, from his full name (Scottish Play Doe) to his mom’s new job with Goodco (what does a cereal company need with a physicist?) and the family’s recent move to the company town of Goodborough. So, maybe he just should have expected to start seeing weird things, like a man with a rabbit head in the park.

Erno and Emily Utz have always lived in Goodborough, in the same house but with a series of foster parents. Their current foster father regularly gives them tests in the form of brain-teasing puzzles. (Emily always solves them first.) Erno has never really thought about the reason behind the tests, but he is just about to find out.

In the town of Goodborough, very little is really as it seems, and there are goings-on that (literally) the people don’t see. Erno, Emily, and Scott are more important than they know, and there are forces at work that would love to keep them from discovering the truth about themselves, the town, and Goodco.


Rex brings his trademark satiric sensibility to this fantasy mystery for the middle grades. From Scott’s dad – John Doe – to the Goode and Harmliss Toasted Cereal Company to Merle Lynn (C.P.A.), the puns come fast and furious, along with delightfully twisted takes on cereal commercials, conspiracy theories, and Arthurian mythology.  The shifting third-person perspective includes Scott, Erno, and an unnamed narrator who provides some background information and sometimes cracks just a bit too wise. When focused on the kid’s-eye view, Rex excels; when he zooms out, the lighthearted wit gets bogged down. (In The True Meaning of Smekday, Tip’s first-person “essay” narration keeps the story a bit more grounded, if I can use the word “grounded” in relation to a story of aliens coming to Earth and relocating the human population of North America to Florida.)

I thoroughly enjoyed trying to solve the riddles alongside Erno and Scott, although I wasn’t quite clever enough. My e-ARC includes incomplete artwork (as did the paper ARC I thumbed through at ALA Midwinter), so I am looking forward to seeing the final product. The illustrations I could see were just the right complement to the text; I expect good things to come. There are even a few sneak peeks available at the author’s blog (KoKoLumps, anyone?)! By the book’s end, the immediate crisis has been solved, but there is a wide opening for the next volume in the planned trilogy.

On shelves February 7, 2012.


Final Word:
Fantasy, mystery, and satirical humor all swirled together in a tasty treat for middle grade readers (and maybe some grown-ups, too).


e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request.



View all my reviews

Book Review: The Invisible Tower (Otherworld Chronicles #1) by Nils Johnson-Shelton

Arthur “Artie” Kingfisher — twelve, rail thin, and not nearly tan enough for a kid in July — had just finished slaying Caladirth, a female green dragon with sharpened rubies for teeth and curved golden spikes for horns.


The Invisible Tower (Otherworld Chronicles #1)
The Invisible Tower by Nils Johnson-Shelton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Artie Kingfisher is a pretty average kid. He likes Mountain Dew and video games. He has a close relationship with his older sister, Kay, and their dad, Kynder. (Since he was eight years old, when he learned that he was adopted, Artie has called his father by his first name.) As Nitwit the Gray, he slays dragons and finds treasure in a game called Otherworld, but he knows wizards and magic only exist in fantasy. Or do they? Searching for a last-minute replacement game controller for Kay, Artie visits a store called the Invisible Tower, where he learns his own unbelievable true story: he is King Arthur, and he must journey to the real Otherworld to retrieve Excalibur and complete a quest that just might save the world.


This modern-day retelling of Arthurian legend features smart, sassy middle-schoolers tackling quests worthy of the Knights of the Round Table. The concept is good, which makes the execution all the more disappointing. Other than Artie and, to a lesser extent, Kay and Merlin, the characters are flat and lifeless. Because the situations are so bizarre – as even Artie notes – it should take more than a bit of hand-waving to get the characters to cooperate. The writing is clunky, with a heavy dependence on flat-out telling rather than showing. Things happen “suddenly”: while describing his first encounter at the Invisible Tower to Kay, Artie “couldn’t explain why it all made sense, but suddenly it did.” During their trip to the Lake to claim Excalibur, “[t]he sky suddenly got much darker”, a few short paragraphs later, “[t]he flock of birds suddenly dispersed”, a few pages after that, “suddenly [Artie] found two swords pointing straight up at the sky”, and once he holds the sword in his hand, Artie “suddenly knew some Welsh and a fair amount of Latin.” (Emphasis mine.)

There are many versions of the Arthurian saga available for young readers, from White’s classic The Once and Future King to Cammuso’s hilarious Knights of the Lunch Table. The standards are high. Otherworld never quite measures up.

On shelves January 3, 2012.

Final Word:
This modern-day middle-schooler King Arthur and his Knights are appealing in concept but fall disappointingly short of their potential.

e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

View all my reviews

One More 5-Star Read

Welcome to Bordertown

Here’s the trouble with putting out that 5-Star List before the year actually ends. I should have known I’d end up adding one more!

Just as well, since I think Welcome to Bordertown deserves special attention, anyway.

The first three Bordertown anthologies – Borderland, Bordertown, and Life on the Border – came out in the mid-80s and very early 90s, just early enough to have passed out of print right at the time I would have loved them as a teen. (The Essential Bordertown came out later and is still in print, so I don’t really have any excuse for having missed it.) So, I’m a latecomer to the party. The one good thing about that is that I have some great books to track down and read now, and it looks like the editors are working on getting e-book editions out.

This is an absolutely fantastic collection. There’s a bit of everything: short stories, poems, a comic, even a faerie jump rope chant. My expectations were high going in, since the list of contributors includes some really big names, and I was not disappointed. My personal favorite was Tim Pratt‘s “Our Stars, Our Selves”. I love when an anthology introduces me to a great author I somehow missed. I love the whole world of Bordertown.

Book Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

ChimeChime by Franny Billingsley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: ARC giveaway via GoodReads

There are several kinds of silence. There’s the silence of being alone, which I like well enough. Then there’s the silence of one’s father. The silence when you have nothing to say and he has nothing to say. The silence between you after investigation of your stepmother’s death.

Briony Larkin has a secret, a secret she must never tell. Because of her secret, her twin sister was injured, her stepmother is dead, and if she tells her secret, Briony will be dead, too, hanged as a witch by the people of the Swampsea. So, she keeps quiet, keeping to herself in a town where she feels like an outsider despite having lived there all her life. It takes a newcomer to the Swampsea, handsome, cosmopolitan Eldric, to uncover secrets even Briony never knew she was keeping.

After reading rave reviews of Chime all over the place, I was a little nervous. What if it didn’t live up to the hype? I needn’t have worried. Briony is clever and self-deprecating, and her humor shines in the first-person narration. The setting is a rural village in early twentieth-century England, but an England in which the Old Ones are known to be present. In the dark swampland, mysterious creatures threaten humans who venture too far. In the village itself, there are brownies and Dark Muses. Most of the creatures remain unseen to those without the Second Sight. Briony can see them and wishes she could not, because she knows that it means she is a witch.

Briony knows many things, but as the reader learns, not all of them are true. She is a wonderfully developed unreliable narratorm and her distinctive voice is a pleasure to read. It is easy to be swept right up into the world of Chime. Billingsley blends fantasy and magic with the almost-magic real technological advances of the turn of the (twentieth) century, along with elements of mystery and romance. Recommend to fantasy lovers looking for something new and different.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The False Princess by Eilis O’Neal

The False PrincessThe False Princess by Eilis O’Neal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

I was a good, quiet, and rule-following girl. The perfect princess, if not for my clumsiness and sometimes painful shyness.

Just after her sixteenth birthday, the Princess Nalia is summoned to meet with her parents. What they tell her could not have come as more of a shock. She is not their daughter, not the Princess. She is a commoner, brought to court as a baby to stand in for the real Nalia, in an attempt to keep the royal heir safe from a prophecy that she would die before the age of sixteen. Now, the real Princess is coming home, and her stand-in will be sent to her only living relative – a previously unknown aunt in a small village – and expected to make a new life for herself. But it is not long before Sinda (as she is now known) discovers that there is much more going on than the King and Queen know, and it just might fall to her save the kingdom itself.

There is a little bit of everything in this debut novel: fantasy, mystery, romance. O’Neal brings the elements together with a master’s touch. The plot is intricate, yet it avoids getting muddled. Characters are developed so that they show both strength and weakness, good and bad. In flowing prose, O’Neal creates a world that pulls the reader in and refuses to let go until the last page. Highly recommended.

View all my reviews