Book Review: Arthur and the Great Detective

Arthur and the Great Detective

Arthur and the Great Detective by Alan Coren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


“So I have been considering what kind of Englishman goes to America for a very short stay, carries a magnifying glass and a swordstick, and is well known to the New York police, and there was only one-“

“Conclusion,” finished Sherlock Holmes, nodding. “Yes, Arthur, there usually is.”

In the seventh installment of Coren’s Arthur series, young Arthur William Foskett is travelling alone on a transatlantic sailing, headed back to school in England. The early days of the voyage are plagued by bad weather, and most of the ship’s passengers take refuge in their cabins, leaving the dining room to just Arthur and two other men, who turn out to be none other than Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

Even after the weather clears and the passengers re-emerge, it’s hardly smooth sailing for the S.S. Murgatroyd, as there is a robbery on board. Not to worry, though: Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Foskett are both on the case.

This is a charming, very funny mystery for young readers, with plenty of amusing references for those already familiar with Holmes. I haven’t read any of the earlier books in the series, but I’m going to be keeping an eye out for copies of Arthur and the Bellybutton Diamond and Arthur and the Purple Panic, both of which also feature Holmes and Watson, and neither of which are held by my library.

Book Review: Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

But how was a theoretical physicist supposed to save the world?

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Three stories weave together here, all of them fascinating in their own right: the story of the scientists at Los Alamos, including Robert Oppenheimer, the man who would become known as the father of the atomic bomb; the story of the Russian spies, including the unassuming Harry Gold, who were hard at work attempting to steal the secrets to building the atomic bomb, and the efforts of Allied forces, including Knut Haukelid and a few other dedicated Norwegian resistance fighters, to prevent the Germans from building an atomic bomb themselves. The names are important, because what Sheinkin does so splendidly is put human faces to the historic events. Literally, in fact, since each section of the book begins with a scrapbook-style double-page spread of photographs. This is an epic story, and Sheinkin lists a number of consulted sources in the back matter, but he picks out details sure to capture and hold interest all the way through.

This is a fascinating read, with appeal for older kids and teens as well as adults. It has great potential for classroom use, perhaps paired with Ellen Klages’ The Green Glass Sea. MacMillan even has a Teacher’s Guide (.pdf) already prepared with pointers to the Common Core State Standards. Also check out the post at Reading to the Core, which says of Bomb, “This is the kind of book you could build an entire curriculum around.” Suggestions for how to begin to do so are included, of course. Don’t limit this book to the classroom, though. After all, who could resist a true story of international spies and “the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon”?


Recommend to: Older kids and teens (and adults) who would like a “true story” that reads like a spy thriller.


Source: Checked out from my public library

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Book Review: Janie Face to Face by Caroline B. Cooney

Stealing a car had been much more fun than stealing a credit card. But stealing a toddler!


Janie Face to Face (Janie Johnson, #5)Janie Face to Face by Caroline B. Cooney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Janie Johnson was 15 when she recognized the photo of her three-year-old self on a milk carton and discovered she was really Jennie Spring, whose family had been hoping she would come home ever since she was kidnapped from a mall. Now in college, Janie just wants to put the past behind her, stop being known as “the kidnap kid”, and move on with her life. But as her friends and family are pestered by a true crime writer and his researchers to turn her story into a best-seller, she realizes that someone out there does not want to let things go.

When The Face on the Milk Carton was first published, in 1990, it was a different world. It was a world without the Internet in every home, or a cell phone in every teenager’s pocket, or, for that matter, the Internet on a cell phone in a teenager’s pocket. Even when the fourth book in the series – What Janie Found – hit shelves in 2000, cancelled checks could still play a major part in the story. While 13 years have passed since that book was published, only a few years have passed for the characters when Janie Face to Face begins, with the action of the novel spread over the next several years. Because of this, Cooney spends some time allowing Janie and her friends and family to catch up, pondering the rapid changes since the day Janie used a public pay phone during her search for answers. The tendency to tell, rather than show, what is happening bogs down the pace a bit, already an issue with characters mentally recapping the first four books.

Janie’s story is only part of this fifth (and final) installment of the series. Before each chapter – where the third-person narration is squarely focused on the perspective of Janie or one of her friends or family members – is a vignette from Hannah’s perspective (though still third-person), beginning with “THE FIRST PIECE OF THE KIDNAPPER’S PUZZLE” and counting upward. This is the first time readers get inside Hannah’s mind and find out what really happened that day in the mall. Of course, Hannah’s recollections are neither unbiased nor, perhaps, wholly reliable, although Cooney gives no reason to doubt the sequence of events. Fans of the original series should find satisfying closure.

The first four books in the series have remained popular with a new generation of teens, and they were re-released in 2012 with new coordinating cover art.

Recommend to: Teens looking for suspense without gore, and adults who fondly remember the original series and always wondered about Hannah

Source: Checked out from my public library

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Book Review: Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

My family name was once Fayleure. But somebody changed it. I’d ask that you get your “failure” jokes out of the way now. I am anything but.

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Timmy Failure has a lot going for him, really. A successful business with an unparalleled partner, his own transportation, and all the answers. Okay, so his business partner is a polar bear named Total, so their business is officially named Total Failure, Inc. And “successful” might be stretching things. And his transportation – the Failuremobile – is his mom’s Segway, which she has said he is allowed to use “Never. Ever. Ever.” And his answers might be a little, well, not quite correct. But he has big plans for the “Timmy Empire” and world domination, if he can just get his business off the ground.

Well, and his mom’s Segway out of the hands of his arch-nemesis.

To tell the truth, when I first saw this cover, I rolled my eyes a bit. Another Wimpy Kid read-alike, I thought. But Timmy has a certain charm in his complete obliviousness of the world around him, and his irrepressible optimistic nature. He is absolutely determined that he is going to conquer the world. He is convinced that he is the smartest detective ever, even though the reader can hardly help but laugh out loud at the conclusions Timmy draws from the clues he gathers. Pastis slyly reveals the reality of Timmy’s life at home and at school, as much as Timmy lives in denial of the facts, and the side of Timmy that is a really sweet kid underneath his tough talk. By the end, I was completely won over, and I can hardly wait to get this first volume of the series into the hands of middle-graders at my library (not mention my own hands on volume two).

On shelves: February 26, 2013

Source: ARC provided by the publisher at ALA Midwinter Meeting 2013


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Review: The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

Girls should never be born in the year of the Fire Horse; they are especially dangerous, bringing tragedy to their families.

 The Fire Horse Girl
The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jade Moon dreams of leaving home, of escaping the tiny Chinese village where she lives alone with her father, her grandfather, and their faithful servant, surrounded by gossiping “Aunties” who are all too familiar with her many faults: clumsiness, stubbornness, and – perhaps worst of all – a longing for independence. All she can see is a future married off to a local brickmaker, but that changes with the arrival of a stranger. Sterling Promise arrives from Hong Kong with news that an uncle Jade Moon never knew she had passed away recently, leaving behind papers that could allow Sterling Promise and Jade Moon’s father into the wide open promised land of America. If she could just get to that new country, Jade Moon thinks, what possibilities could await her?

The United States of 1923, though, is wary of admitting more Chinese immigrants, and Jade Moon’s long sea journey is followed by detainment on Angel Island. Getting to San Francisco will take cunning and bravery, and surviving there will be even harder.

Fire Horse Girl is a complicated piece of historical fiction. Honeyman explores the life of a girl in early 20th-century China, the San Francisco of the 1920s, and the Chinese immigrant experience on Angel Island, a bit of American history little known outside the West coast. The stories aren’t so much woven together as tacked onto one another, which may be why the pace drags in places. Jade Moon is a likeable character because of – rather than despite – her prickliness, as the independent nature that seems to offend her contemporaries has strong appeal for twenty-first century readers. Story-telling is a theme that recurs throughout her narration, and she is determined to tell her own story.

A lengthy author’s note tells how Honeyman came to the tale and provides further information on the historical events, people, and places that inspired her, as well as a paragraph on Chinese astrology. “The next Fire Horse girls,” she notes, “will be born in 2026.”

Recommend to: teens who like strong heroines and a mixture of action and history with a dash of romance.

Source: e-ARC via NetGalley

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Book Review: Losing It by Erin M. Fry

There’s something about a belly button sweat stain that’s just really gross.

Losing It

Losing It by Erin M. Fry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since Bennett’s mom died when he was five, it’s just been him and his dad. And the best times with his dad have been hot summer afternoons parked in front of the tv, watching their beloved Dodgers and munching on burgers and fries, their “game food”. As much as Bennett loves baseball, though, he knows he could never really play, because he is too fat. His dad is fat, too, and when Bennett comes in last during P.E. class runs, his best friend P.G. is right there beside him, so Bennett is mostly okay with his lack of physical fitness.

That changes one beautiful summer day when his dad collapses in front of the television. Bennett doesn’t know when – or if – his dad will recover. In the meantime, he has to move in with his bossy Aunt Laura and her family. And Aunt Laura has a mission: get Bennett healthy.

I didn’t hear much about this book (which shares a title with another 2012 book about losing an entirely different “it”) when it came out, but I was intrigued by the description. It is set in my adopted city of Los Angeles, and I wondered how Fry would tackle the issue of childhood obesity, which was clearly central to Bennett’s story.

As it turns out, she handles it very, very nicely. Bennett is a thoroughly believable and sympathetic eighth-grade boy. He knows he is out of shape, and he knows his dad is unhealthy, but he’s a kid, you know? It’s not his job to worry about that stuff. His dad has to work a lot to make ends meet, and watching baseball games while eating tasty food is their thing. It’s how they bond. His dad wants him to be happy. And Bennett is happy, mostly. His weight is just part of who he is.

Another part of who he is has to do with losing his mother. The realistic and sensitive portrayal of Bennett’s grief was a lovely surprise. It’s a common thing is children’s books for one (or both) parents to be out of the picture, whether dead, missing, or just neglectful. It lets the child protagonist get on with being the lead of the story. But all too often, the loss of parent(s) seems to have no lasting effect on the character. For Bennett, it’s formative. The loss of his mother has left a gaping hole in his heart and home. It shapes his view of the world.

Bennett’s physical transformation is believably gradual, and Fry shows the effort it takes in a realistic way. He changes not only physically, but mentally, becoming stronger and more capable of handling the challenges coming his way. Despite the serious topics addressed, the narrative resists becoming didactic. It is contemporary realistic fiction for middle graders that will appeal to both boys and girls on several levels.

Recommend to: Fans of realistic fiction and tales of the underdog

Source: Checked out from my public library

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Book Review: Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn

The city’s comedians have been out writing signs. One says: WHAT ARE YOU ALL RUNNING FROM? Another says: YOU’VE GOT GREAT STAMINA. CALL ME. 1-834-555-8756. Yet another reads: IN OUR MINDS, YOU’RE ALL KENYANS.

Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth

Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth by Adharanand Finn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the world of distance running, athletes from a single country have been getting a lot of attention over the last several years. The East African nation of Kenya has produced some of the fastest runners on the planet. English journalist – and runner – Adharanand Finn wanted to find out what the Kenyan secret was, so he packed up himself, his wife, and their three young children and moved the family to a village in Kenya. There, he met runners. He interviewed them, he observed them, and he trained with them. Through it all, he puzzled over what element could be the key to the success of Kenyan runners (genetics? diet? culture?), and he wondered whether it was possible to improve his own distinctly non-Kenyan performance.

I am a big fan of the whole “quirky memoir” genre, in which the author tries out some experience and writes about it. Through Finn, I got to explore Kenya and take a peek inside the lives of runners whose names I see all over the running magazines. I enjoyed the easy, conversational tone of the first-person present-tense narration. Each chapter is headed with a small black-and-white photograph of people or events discussed in the book. This is not a book to help you improve your own running times, or even really one that thoroughly explores every facet of Kenyan running (a subject of academic research in its own right). It is an enjoyable tale of what one man’s attempt to understand what it means to be a Kenyan runner.

Source: checked out from the public library

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Book Review: Past Perfect by Leila Sales

There are only three types of kids who get summer jobs at Colonial Essex Village instead of just working at the mall, like the normal people do.

Past Perfect

Past Perfect by Leila Sales

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chelsea Glaser has spent every summer since she was six years old acting the part of Elizabeth Connelly, Virginia colonist eternally stuck in 1774. This summer, all Chelsea wants is to get a job at an air conditioned shop at the mall, but her best friend talks her into another summer at Essex. Unfortunately for Chelsea, the boy who broke her heart has also joined up. A crush on a new guy would be the perfect distraction, if only she hadn’t fallen for someone she can’t be with. Chelsea soon realizes she is going to have to come to terms with her past or be doomed to keep reliving it.

From the first page of this contemporary teen romance, the reader is brought into Chelsea’s world. From her daily duties as a Colonial reenactor to her not-quite-comfortable leadership role in the battles with the Civil War reenactors across the road, little details bring the scenes to life. Her interactions with her parents are laugh-out-loud funny and oh-so-familiar. Her heartbreak is painfully apparent early on, although the facts of her recent relationship are left vague until well into the book. Sales works in some serious thoughts about memory, history, and “what really happened” in a way that feels completely natural. This is a sweet tale perfect for summer vacation.

Which is why I find the cover so completely odd. It has nothing at all to do with the book. And it looks like she’s trying to catch bits of chalk on her tongue, which just sets my teeth on edge.

Final Word:
Laugh-out-loud funny contemporary teen romance with a little bit of historical trivia tucked inside – a just about perfect summer read.

Checked out from my public library

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Book Review: Sisters of Glass by Stephanie Hemphill

The Barovier family furnace / has molded glass on Murano
for nearly two hundred years, since 1291 / when the Venetian government
required that all furnaces move / to my island home.

Sisters of Glass

Sisters of Glass by Stephanie Hemphill

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When Maria was just an infant, her father declared that she would one day marry a nobleman, even though such a fate should rightfully belong to her elegant older sister, Giovanna. Maria would much rather learn to blow glass in the family fornicas, but that work is for men only, even after her father’s death and the onset of financial trouble for the family. Trapped by tradition at 15, can Maria simply ignore her feelings forever, especially the feelings she has for the orphaned young glassblower who has joined the family business?

Fifteenth-century Murano provides the historical backdrop for this story of two sisters caught between what they wish they could do and what they feel they must do. Hemphill’s prose poems are full of fine details, but they never capture the intensity of emotion Maria ought to feel. Rather than bringing the reader closer to Maria – as in Caroline Starr Rose’s May B. – the terse narrative leaves the reader distant from the action. The form works in May B. precisely because May is alone for most of the novel; the poems read as her thoughts rather than as formal writing, particularly because the reader knows May isn’t actually writing anything down. Maria, on the other hand, is surrounded by people, and her interactions with them lose immediacy as conversations are rendered
in short bursts
rather than as
meaningful discussion.

Despite this weakness, the unusual setting, the timeless themes of sibling rivalry and familial duty, and the star-crossed romance (with its slightly-too-convenient conclusion) are sure to appeal to more than a few tweens and teens looking for something light and lovely.

On shelves March 27, 2012.

Final Word:
A light and lovely novel-in-verse for t(w)een fans of historical romance.

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

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Book Review: Article 5 by Kristen Simmons

Beth and Ryan were holding hands. It was enough to risk a formal citation for indecency, and they knew better, but I didn’t say anything.


Article 5 (Article 5, #1)

Article 5 by Kristen Simmons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There was a war. It destroyed the major cities and left the United States of America under the control of the Federal Bureau of Reformation, its citizens policed by soldiers nicknamed the “Moral Militia”. The guiding laws of the country are the Moral Statutes, which demand compliance with the Church of America, strict gender roles, and an even stricter definition of family. At seventeen, Ember Miller has been caring for her rebellious single mother for years. She keeps quiet and gets what they need. But when Ember’s very existence is deemed “noncompliant” and her mother is arrested by a group of soldiers including the boy Ember once loved, her world is quickly turned upside-down.

I went back-and-forth a bit in my feelings for this book. It started off strong, dropping the reader straight into a world reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale in its government-enforced religious beliefs. Since she is old enough to remember how things were before the war and the rise of the FBR, she can detail the changes with a minimum of awkward exposition. I found her wry humor endearing. And then came the line that never fails to yank me right out of a good immersion in a fictional world: “I felt as if I were in a science fiction story.” (45)

Well, yes, I can’t help but think, that’s because you are a character in a story. And then, just a couple paragraphs later, she looks in a mirror before describing herself for the reader. That particular cliche moment is a pet peeve ingrained from college fiction-writing workshops. There is also the fact that the news that so utterly shocks Ember toward the end of the book came as no surprise to me, but I think the reader was supposed to figure that bit of information out long before Ember does.

I kept on with the book, because I was intrigued by the world Simmons created, and I wanted to know what would happen next. The plot moves along at a thundering pace, carrying the reader right on past the fact that the backstory is really quite vague. Who exactly were the sides in the war? Why do the Statutes seem to be so unevenly enforced? Who are the players in power now? And why is Ember so clueless?

In the end, I enjoyed the book, and I’ll definitely be seeking out the sequel. There are (clearly) plenty of open questions to be addressed in the middle and final parts of the trilogy.

Final Word:
A decent debut in the crowded post-Apocalyptic teen genre.

Checked out from the public library

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