Con Quest! by Sam Maggs

Con Quest! by Sam Maggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cat is determined that this is the year she and her twin brother – Team DoubleTrouble – are going to win the Quest, giving her talented artist brother a shot at a mentorship, and giving her a whole week spending time with her favorite celebrity doing charity work. The Quest is the world’s biggest scavenger hunt. Its list of nearly impossible tasks is posted just before GeekiCon, which most definitely does not endorse the event. All they have to do is complete the most tasks without getting stopped by their parents (who are late to the panel on their own famous comic series), their older sister Fiona (who would rather be just about anywhere else), or Con staff (who take a dim view of this whole scavenger hunt business). Easy, right?

Alex would like the opportunity to be mentored by a professional artist, but the GeekiCon scene is overwhelming. He is much more interested in playing a video game to calm his anxiety about being in such a huge crowd. He’s generally let Cat lead the way, but he’s starting to feel like maybe he should stand up for himself a little more. Cat seems ready to do anything to win this year, but is victory worth the cost?

Fiona is going to watch her twin siblings all day while her parents are busy doing professional stuff at GeekiCon, in hopes that she will prove herself responsible enough for them to allow her to go on a camping trip with other teens. Spending the day cooped up inside a convention center full of obsessive fans is the opposite of her idea of a good time; she’d much rather be outdoors, playing soccer or spending time with Ethan and “the rest of the cool people in tenth grade”. When the twins give her the slip, she joins forces with an unlikely ally to track them down, and she might even have some fun.

Con Quest! is a love-letter to fandom. It is easy to identify the real world media franchises playfully presented as Star Worlds, Paranormal, and Adventure of Zenia. (My personal favorite is Whom, M.D.) Chapter narration rotates from Cat to Alex to Fiona, giving their individual takes on the action around them and each other. They all have their own flaws and strengths, as well as lessons to learn.

This is a fun romp with a big heart. Love and family are central themes, in all the glorious variety of ways human beings form families and show love. Be drawn into the story by the action, but don’t be surprised if you fall a little bit in love along the way.

Source: e-ARC courtesy of NetGalley.

Challenges: None

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Book Review: Moo by Sharon Creech

MooMoo by Sharon Creech
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The truth is, she was ornery and stubborn, wouldn’t listen to a n y b o d y, and selfish beyond selfish, and filthy, caked with mud and dust, and moody: you’d better watch it or she’d knock you flat.

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Reena has always been a city girl, and she doesn’t know what to expect when her family moves to rural Maine. She certainly doesn’t expect, along with her seven-year-old brother, Luke, to be volunteered by their parents to help out a cranky elderly lady. Mrs. Falala lives alone, except for a pig, a cat, a parrot, a snake, and a cow. The cow is Zora, and Reena and Luke are tasked with grooming her for an upcoming fair.

Review: There are a few short chapters written in prose, but most of the book is in free verse and concrete poetry. This writing style, packed with sensory details, brings the reader well into Reena’s experience. Reena and Luke are believable city kids plunked down in an unfamiliar rural setting, and Reena’s thoughts and feelings will resonate especially with (sub)urban kids who are curious about life in the country. It’s a quiet book, focused more on emotions and personal growth than action. The poetic style and short chapters make it a faster read than it appears at first glance. There is a good deal of gentle humor, but be prepared for some realistic sad moments.

Personal Thoughts: I wanted to read the book based on some information given at a Book Buzz segment at an ALA Conference. By the time I got it, I mistook this book for another book that I also heard about at the same presentation, with left me a little bit confused for a chapter or three! But I was quickly engaged by Reena’s story. I grew up in the suburbs, and I clearly remember the first few times I encountered a real, live cow; Reena’s reactions rang true. I also loved the moment Reena and Luke realize where hamburgers come from, as well as the follow-up discussions with local boy Zep, their tutor in things livestock-showing-related, and with their parents. This would be a great choice for a parent-child book club.

Source: Borrowed from my public library.

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Book Review: Amanda Lester and the Orange Crystal Crisis

(As part of the blog tour for Paula Berinstein’s newest book in the Amanda Lester series, Amanda Lester and the Blue Peacocks’ Secret, this week I’m reviewing the second and third books as well as the new one.)

Amanda Lester and the Orange Crystal Crisis (Amanda Lester, Detective Book 2)
Amanda Lester and the Orange Crystal Crisis by Paula Berinstein
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Life was already weird enough at Legatum Continuatum, the secret school for descendants of famous detective, in England’s Lake District. After the events of the last few months, including her father’s kidnapping, two murders, a teacher’s disappearance, an explosions, and a criminal plot to corner the world’s sugar market, she was battered, fed up, and downright depressed, especially since one of the kidnappers had turned out to be the boy she thought was her best friend.

Synopsis: As classes resume at Legatum Continuatum after the Spring Holiday, Amanda and her friends are joined by a new student: Scapulus Holmes. Nearly everyone is impressed and/or intrigued by him, much to Amanda’s disgust. But she has other things on her mind, too, as she overhears the teachers panicking over a missing object, her filmmaking idol Darius Plover asks for her input on his new film, and one of her classmates is several days late returning from the break. And then there is an earthquake, causing extensive damage and revealing some unusual orange crystals and a skeleton. Amanda and Scapulus are going to have to find a way to work together to keep the crystals out of the hands of the Moriarty gang and maybe help the school recover the mysterious missing object.

Review: The second book in the Nancy-Drew-meets-Harry-Potter-minus-magic series picks up the loose ends from the first volume and weaves them right in to a new adventure. The characters are realistically flawed, and their interactions ring true to anyone who has spent time around tween and early teens. The cast of characters is diverse without feeling forced, which is refreshing. Less refreshing is the fat-shaming that occasionally pops up in the close third-person narration, which generally reads as Amanda’s internal voice. All of the characters are facing challenges and hiding secrets, sometimes putting them at odds with each other just when they need to come together, and sometimes making their character development uneven and unconvincing. Berinstein brings in some interesting scientific ideas, taking understandable artistic license, and includes pointers to more information in the Q&A section at the back of the book.

Personal Thoughts: I want to like this book more than I did. At one point, Amanda explains that, “Voiceovers are stupid. You’re telling rather than showing the audience what you want to get across.” That rather summed up one of my issues with the book, which is that too much is told flat-out in the narration rather than revealed through dialog or action. Still, I like the world and the characters too much to stop reading.

Source: Kindle e-book courtesy of Lola’s Blog Tours

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Book Review: Roller Girl

Roller Girl
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At first I couldn’t tell what was going on – just a bunch of skating, hitting, and falling.

Synopsis: Astrid and Nicole have been best friends since first grade, after an incident involving the class Mean Girl, Rachel. They do everything together. Astrid assumes this means that they’ll spend the summer following fifth grade together at Roller Derby Camp – Astrid’s newfound passion. She is stunned to discover that Nicole has other plans, namely, Dance Camp… with Rachel. With middle school looming and things changing all around her, Astrid rolls into the toughest summer of her life.

Review: A smart and funny realistic look at that stage so familiar to anyone who was once an almost-teenager, when friends start growing into their own people, and sometimes growing apart. Astrid speaks, thinks, and feels like a regular kid, someone you might know (or remember). She likes the way things are and doesn’t want them to change, but she ultimately faces those changes with good humor and strength. There are lessons in her story about growing up, accepting yourself and others for who they are, and working hard to achieve a dream, even when it doesn’t turn out quite the way you hoped, but it avoids didactic condescension easily. Totally charming.

Personal Thoughts: I happen to love roller skating, and I am a little sad that I didn’t encounter the whole roller derby phenomenon at an age/time/place when I might have joined in. I’ll just have to live vicariously through Astrid, I suppose. I loved everything about this book, from the painfully realistic depictions of the way pre-teen girls interact to the wonderful relationship between Astrid and her mother. (There’s a fourth-wall-breaking moment in which Astrid literally winks at the reader about an interaction with her mother that cracked me up.) I adore this book.

Recommend to: Fans of Raina Telgemeier… and pretty much any tween girl, actually. (Although I’d *love* to see some tween boys reading this one.)

Source: Checked out from my public library.

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Book Review: The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes #1)

The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes Mysteries, #1)The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would very much like to know why my mother named me “Enola,” which, backwards, spells alone.

Synopsis: Enola receives three fourteenth birthday gifts from her mother: a drawing kit, a copy of The Meanings of Flowers: Including Also Notes Upon the Messages Conveyed by Fans, Handkerchiefs, Sealing-Wax, and Postage Stamps, and a small hand-made book of ciphers. The same day, her mother vanishes without a trace, and Enola must contact her much older brothers in London – Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes. Dismayed by the way the grounds of the estate (and Enola, in his opinion) have been left neglected, Mycroft makes plans to send his sister to boarding school for an education befitting a proper young lady of the late 1800s. Enola has no interest in such an education (or, for that matter, being a proper young lady), so she makes her own plan to escape to London and search for their mother on her own. As if eluding her brothers and keeping herself out of danger weren’t enough, she quickly finds herself tangled up in the mystery of a missing young Lord as well.

Review: With a smart and feisty teen-age heroine, this historical mystery is a pretty easy sell. Enola’s free-thinking ways stand out against her brothers’ much more of-the-time views on women. The period as well as the varied settings are evoked with strong, carefully chosen details. My only complaint is the choice of “Marquess” for the missing boy’s title, since that term is particularly confusing for American kids, but that’s a bit of a nitpick. The very real dangers faced by a young girl (and a young boy) in London are portrayed in an age-appropriate yet suspenseful way. This first volume of six wraps up one mystery while leaving enough dangling ends to make the reader want to have the next volume handy.

Recommend to: Historical and mystery fans ages 8 and up.

Source: Checked out from my public library.

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Book Review: The 100-Year-Old Secret (The Sherlock Files #1)

The 100-Year-Old Secret (The Sherlock Files #1)

The 100-Year-Old Secret by Tracy Barrett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Please allow the SPFD to welcome you more formally. Go to The Dancing Men (if you’re hungry, they make an excellent ploughman’s lunch) and ask for a saucer of milk for your snake. Then all will be revealed.

Twelve-year-old Xena is sitting on the front steps of a London hotel with her little brother, Xander, when a strange man presses a note into her hand. The kids barely have time to read the peculiar message before the ink disappears from the paper. Once they learn that “The Dancing Men” is a nearby pub (and that a “ploughman’s lunch” is something they might actually like), they can’t ignore their curiosity about it. The clever siblings might be a bit more curious than most, though, since they happen to be the American descendants of the famous Sherlock Holmes. After inheriting his casebook of unsolved problems, they quickly find themselves on the trail of a century-old mystery the Great Detective himself never solved.

Barrett introduces a pair of protagonists with immediate appeal for young readers. Like any siblings, Xena and Xander occasionally bicker and even embarrass each other, but when push comes to shove, each has the other’s back. Because they are American kids newly arrived in London, explanations of British culture and customs come up naturally in the narrative, rather than as awkward exposition for the reader. Nods to the original Sherlock Holmes stories are sprinkled throughout and sometimes explained (the saucer of milk for snake reference slips right by, but the Irregulars get a quick description). The mystery itself is very simple, and the characters never face any real danger or violence, making this a great selection for newly independent chapter-book readers as well as slightly older mystery fans. Once they’ve finished this quick-paced adventure, readers can continue to follow the Holmes siblings in three more series installments: The Beast of Blackslope, The Case that Time Forgot, and The Missing Heir.

Recommend to: Fans of mystery and adventure ages 8-12.

Source: Checked out from my public library.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Childhood Favorites

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. I love this topic! I had a lot of difficulty picking out 10, though. I went with the ones that stand out in my memory today, and I decided to stick with middle-grade fiction and skip the picture books and the YA. Ask me tomorrow, and I’ll probably give you a different set.

Except Phantom Tollbooth will still be on it. Always.

Top Ten Childhood Favorites

Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum

In elementary school, we went to the school library once a week. My closest friend, D*, and I raced each other through this whole series. I remember having a big discussion with the Librarian to convince her I would, in fact, read more than one book over the course of the week before she would let me check out two books.

I loved the whole series, but Ozma is the one that stands out in my memory. It’s that whole scene with the Nome King.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume

I worked my way through just about all of Blume’s books as a kid (Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great is also a stand-out memory). Growing up in the suburbs, I wanted more than anything to live in a Big City. I was fascinated by Peter’s New York City life.


Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary

I loved all the Ramona books. As an older sister myself, though, I always had a certain sympathy for Beezus (and Judy Blume’s young Peter Hatcher). Ramona and her Father was also a favorite in the series. I remember reading that one during the summer at my grandparents’ house. I wanted to make coffee can stilts like Ramona and Howie. My Grandpa went one better and made me a set of wooden stilts instead.


Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Ah, Harriet. Always observing, writing down everything in that little notebook. Since I was a rule-following sort of kid, I got a vicarious thrill from Harriet’s sneaking into Mrs. Plummer’s house via the dumbwaiter. (And, for that matter, I learned what a dumbwaiter was.)



The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

What can I say about my very favorite children’s book? From King Azaz the Unabridged to the Princesses Rhyme and Reason and everything in between, I enjoy Milo’s adventure more every time I return to it.

And any time I hear the phrase “killing time”, I think of Tock the Watchdog.



Lottie and Lisa by Erich Kastner

This is the book that inspired the movie The Parent Trap, but I didn’t know that when I first read it. I stumbled on it in the library because I was looking for books about kids going to summer camp. The story of twins trading places was a bonus.



From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

What bookish kid  didn’t fantasize about running away to the museum after reading this one?




A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

The books in this trilogy were the topic of many playground discussions with D*. I’d like to reread this one sometime soon.



Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald

She could solve any problem with some clever reverse psychology. I still want to visit her upside-down house.




Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I’m not sure I ever actually read all the books in the series, but I loved this one. Wendy McClure’s Wilder Life is on my TBR list. I think it’ll be interesting to revisit Wilder’s books from my adult perspective.




What are your top 10?

Book Review: Nerd Camp by Elissa Brent Weissman

Nerd CampNerd Camp by Elissa Brent Weissman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Problem: Am I a nerd who only has nerdy adventures?
Hypothesis: No.

Ten-year-old Gabe is finally getting what he always wanted: a brother. His soon-to-be-stepmother has a son, Zack, who is his age. Gabe is sure that he and Zack will be best friends, but their first meeting is less than promising. Gabe quickly realizes that all the things he likes – math team, reading, museums and libraries – Zack sees as “nerdy”. The only thing about Gabe that seems to impress Zack is that Gabe is about to go to sleep-away camp for the summer. What Zack doesn’t know is that the camp is the Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment, a gathering of nerdy kids from across the country. Over the course of the summer, in between kayak trips and Color War, logic proofs and poetry writing, Gabe keeps a list of his adventures as evidence for whether or not he really is just a nerd, or if he might be something more.

With an eye for quirky detail, Weissman develops Gabe as a sensitive, hyperintelligent 10-year-old boy. In the first chapter, Gabe recalls staying up on New Year’s Eve with his math team friends, when they calculated the number of seconds from 8:00 p.m. to midnight. He then thinks about calculating the number of seconds until his train in the morning, but he decides that it will just make him too excited to sleep. From his love of math to his cluelessness about girls, we hear Gabe’s perspective on everything. It’s a slyly funny narrative, with humor that even clever Gabe probably won’t pick on until he’s a little older. This is a fabulous contemporary realistic middle grade novel filled with humor and adventure, a great combination. A kid doesn’t have to think he might be a nerd to enjoy this book, although he might finish it thinking that such a thing might not be so bad.

Book Source: Checked out from my library

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Book Review: Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger

The truth is, I’ve been waiting for this book to hit my library pretty much since I heard it was coming out. The fact that I sort of had to read it now, since it was nominated for this year’s Cybils was just icing on the cake. A really good cake, I’m happy to say.

Darth Paper Strikes Back (Origami Yoda #2)Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was kind of like that scene where Han and Leia think they’re going to breakfast with Lando. And they’re walking down the hall thinking, “I’d like some chocolate chip pancakes,” and then they get to the dining room and all of a sudden… there’s Vader. (And no chocolate chip pancakes.)

Welcome back to McQuarrie Middle School. Tommy, Kellen, Sara, Dwight, and their old nemesis, Harvey, have started the seventh grade. Dwight’s maybe-magical finger puppet, Origami Yoda, has a new nemesis as well: Harvey has introduced his own origami puppet, Darth Paper. And Darth Paper is on a mission: get everyone to admit, once and for all, that Origami Yoda is just a piece of paper. If Dwight gets expelled from school and sent to the Correctional and Remedial Education Facility along the way, well, that’s just how it is. Tommy is determined to save Dwight (and Origami Yoda), so he is compiling a new Case File of student accounts of how Origami Yoda (and Dwight) helped them since the events detailed in The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.

Angleberger puts the form established in the first book back to good use here. The voices of the different students are clear and distinct, and there is just enough explanation of previous events to bring the reader up to speed. The lively depiction of the drama and humor of middle school life will delight readers from the middle grades on up. While waiting for the next installment (predicted for sometime in 2012), they can work on their own origami skills at Angleberger’s website,

Book Source: Checked out from my public library

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Book Review: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

WonderstruckWonderstruck by Brian Selznick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ben wished the world was organized by the Dewey decimal system. That way you’d be able to find whatever you were looking for, like the meaning of your dream, or your dad.

With The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznick smashed open the category of “picture book”, using his fabulous pencil illustrations to tell the story of early cinema in an organic way. In this book, his innovative style is perfect for simultaneously telling two stories.

In 1977 Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, Ben Wilson is feeling lost six months after the death of his mother. He has never met his father, but a chance discovery makes Ben think he might be able to find him.

In 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey, Rose Kincaid is trapped in a lonely world. Her father keeps her cooped up at home, convinced the world is too dangerous for a Deaf girl to venture out alone. Determined Rose does just that, running away with no plans to return.

After an opening illustrated dream sequence, Ben’s story is told in conventional prose, alternating stretches with almost-wordless scenes from Rose’s life. The two tales, originally separated by 50 years and over a thousand miles, intertwine and become a single narrative by the end of the book.

Selznick appends a note on his inspiration and historical liberties taken, plus a bibliography for more information. He has clearly done his research on the various topics woven into Ben’s and Rose’s stories: the history of museums, the cities of Gunflint Lake and Hoboken, and Deaf Culture, as well as details specific to life in 1927.

It is a spectacular book, truly unlike anything else out there, with the possible exception of Hugo Cabret. Which is a bit of a shame, really, as it would be a mistake to come to Wonderstruck thinking, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this sort of thing before.” This is even better. Let yourself be amazed.

And, if you happen to find yourself in Queens between September 2011 and January 15, 2012, make sure to catch Wonderstruck in the Panorama: Drawings by Brian Selznick at the Queens Museum of Art. It looks like an exhibition not to be missed.

Book Source: Checked out from my Public Library

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