Review: The Blind Side

“The holes in his mind were obvious enough. He was still working well below grade level. He would probably never read a book for pleasure.” page 211

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis.
W.W. Norton and Company, New York, orig. pub. 2006, my edition 2009.
Adult nonfiction, 340 pages.
Lexile: 980L .
AR Level: 7.2 (worth 19.0 points) .

The story of how the blind side revolutionized football, and a personal story giving one example of the new kind of recruit who is most highly sought after these days in American football.

The Blind Side (movie tie-in cover) by Michael Lewis.

Before getting into the review, I’ll tell you that I’ve read some of Michael Lewis’ other books – a relative is a fan.  This one deals with race and adoption, which is part of why I’ve chosen to review it here.  I was given a free copy of this book and decided to read it in part because of the sport enthusiasts I know who enjoyed it, but I myself am not much of a sports fan, which surely colors my opinion.

I think the major problem I had with this book was that Lewis starts out from a white perspective, and really never leaves that viewpoint, even when he’s purportedly trying to get into the minds of his POC characters.  The point where this was startlingly clear to me was the first paragraph of Chapter Three, where Big Tony is dramatically driving the boys out of poverty.

Lewis states “Memphis could make you wonder why anyone ever bothered to create laws segregating the races.  More than a million people making many millions of individual choices generated an outcome not so different from a law forbidding black people and white people from mingling.” (page 45).  The ignorance is startling – clearly Lewis has never heard of redlining and didn’t bother to do even basic research on Black history before writing a book where race has a major influence!

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Review: Dream Magic

“He nocked an arrow. Their armor looked good, but there were gaps he could aim at. Except he’d never shot at a man before. He wasn’t sure he could.” page 197

Dream Magic (Shadow Magic #2) by Joshua Khan, illustrated by Ben Hibon.
Disney Hyperion, New York, 2017, my edition 2018.
MG fantasy, 340 pages.
Lexile: 580L .
AR Level: 4.5 (worth 12.0 points) .
NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the previous book.
FURTHER NOTE: Pictures on this review are part of the pink posts.

Lily and Thorn are back in the gloomy sequel, with added trolls and spiders and sinister intent!

Dream Magic by Joshua Khan, illustrated by Ben Hibon

While we were teased a lot about Lily doing forbidden magic, it didn’t really have any consequences in the first book – she was easily able to pretend it wasn’t her and the focus was more on the murders and political intrigue. This time around, there’s still plenty of court politics (now with actual courting, since Lily’s assumed to be available again) and a few murders (which sort of have the edge taken off by Lily’s ability to revive the dead). But Lily is also properly studying magic, and Thorn is doing more regular squire work, and the social mores and consequences of their situations start to catch up with them.

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Review: Arrow Over the Door

“Samuel tried to remember what his father had told him about Indians. The Light of God was in them too. He struggled to keep that in his mind, but it did not ease his fear.” page 66

The Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by James Watling.
Puffin, Penguin Random House, New York, 1998.
Historical fiction, 104 pages (including excerpts).
Lexile: 810L .
AR Level: 5.2 (worth 2.0 points) .

Set in 1777 and told in alternating views from the perspectives of Quaker boy Samuel Russell and Abenaki teen Stands Straight, this novel is based on real events during the American Revolution.

Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by James Watling.

Joseph Bruchac, although not without error, is one of the handful of Native authors consistently writing historical fiction for children. (Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series is another notable example; Eric Gansworth and Tim Tingle have also written more than one book each. At the time of this writing, any others I know of only have one.) Also, I have so far been able to find only one work of children’s historical fiction by another Native author set before 1800. I hope others exist and are published set in all time frames, especially given the promising new Heartdrum imprint.

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Review: Double Trouble

“I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. Because as soon as her hand touched me, I was plunged into another vision.
Real Lavender faced away. Overlaid on top of her was a brighter version of Lavender, this one dressed in a a white polka-dotted two-piece swimsuit.” page 111

Double Trouble (Twintuition #2) by Tia and Tamera Mowry.
Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy, 202 pages +excerpt.
Lexile: 590L .
AR Level: 4.2 (worth 4.0 points) .
NOTE: Review contains mild spoilers for the previous book in the series.

As identical twins Caitlyn and Cassie get closer to their twelfth birthday, their unexpected visions of the future are only getting stronger. Can it have something to do with the father who died when they were young? In Double Trouble, the girls have reconnected, made peace with their new hometown and between their two very different friend groups, and are now planning their birthday party. They receive a strange package that seems to have something to do with their powers…

Twintuition: Double Trouble by Tia and Tamera Mowry.

True confession: after finishing my review of the first book, I originally accidentally picked up the third book instead of this second installment. It was slightly confusing but I was excited that the plot moved forward so vigorously… until noticing the 3 on the spine. My main complaint here is the same as the previous book – the pace is incredibly slow and the plot oversimplified. I’ve been struggling to get a handle on what the intended age range for these is – the stories seem a bit simple even for lower MG, but I don’t see elementary students wanting to read about football games, crushes, and tween interpersonal drama. Maybe hi-lo readers?

The two voices didn’t bother me as much in this book. It’s still not my favorite, but at least I can tell the twins apart now. Caitlyn also stopped being quite so saccharine and showed her opinions. While most kids this age would probably have more interest in the friendship drama, I’m more interested in the fantasy aspect, which only mildly develops in this particular installment.

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Review: Making Your Human Smarter

“But when you’ve ridden a dragon, had lunch with Nessie, and fought monsters, it would take more than a fussy hotel clerk to scare me away. I gave him my best imitation of Miss Drake’s glare.” page 249

A Dragon’s Guide to Making Your Human Smarter (Dragon’s Guide #2) by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrations by Mary Grandpre.
Yearling, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
MG fantasy, 296 pages + exerpt.
Lexile: 790L .
AR Level: 5.4 (worth 9.0 points) .
NOTE: This review contains spoilers for the previous book.

Miss Drake’s training of her pet human is starting to pay off. Winnie has been accepted into the local magical school and seems like she is starting to enjoy life. Miss Drake and her magical friends will take any precaution to keep her beloved pet from harm. But Winnie seems to think Miss Drake is her pet!

A Dragon’s Guide to Making Your Human Smarter by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrated by Mary Grandpre.

I wasn’t sure what to expect – the last book was good but not overly compelling. One of my biggest concerns was if the series was sustainable. The idea of a dragon and her pet human is a fun take on a fantasy trope, but not enough for a whole series.

Yep and Ryder get around that in two ways for this second book. First, this is a novel in two voices. Regular readers will recall I generally prefer books written in the third person or with a single narrator. The authors here make it bearable several ways: clear plot reasons necessitate the two voices; rather than always alternating chapters, the two trade off as needed (headers indicate the switch); our narrators may share many common events, but generally have distinct voices.

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Review: Care and Feeding of Humans

“Ah, dear Winthrop! I called him Lucky, because that was what he was, after wandering away from his father’s hired riverboat and into the Malaysian jungle.” page 11

A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans (Dragon’s Guide #1) by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrated by Mary Grandpre.
Yearling, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015.
MG fantasy, 152 pages + excerpt.
Lexile: 840L .
AR Level: 5.6 (worth 5.0 points) .

Ms. Drake is mourning the loss of her beloved pet Fluffy when a near-feral new critter barges rudely into her den. She’d planned to spend a few decades in retirement before getting a new pet, but will Winnie convince her otherwise?

A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrated by Mary Grandpre.

So, first I need to clear up a mistake I made back in my review of Dragon of the Lost Sea. That book is the first in the Dragon Quartet, and at the time I reviewed it, I’d started this trilogy but hadn’t decided whether to review it for this blog. The voice of the dragon Shimmer from that book, and Miss Drake in this story, were so markedly similar that I thought they were the same character in two different stories. However, upon rereading this book it’s clear that couldn’t be the case – because they are different colors!

For the record, I still think it would have been neat if this was the same character appearing across different settings and time periods. Even the naming (Ms. Drake is basically a word for dragon with an honorific) led me to think these were the same characters, and that would have been a nice nod to his previous work. However, it’s also understandable that across publishers and editors, Yep may not have been able to include the same character even if that was his desire.

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Review: Cattywampus

“The weight of Delpha’s secret tugged at her gut, promising to rearrange her life nine ways to Sunday if she’d let it.” page 5

Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo.
Scholastic Press, New York, 2020.
MG fantasy, 280 pages.
Lexile: 810L .
AR Level: not yet leveled

Delpha’s strict mother’s biggest rule is a total ban on magic. But as they sink deeper into poverty, Delpha is ready to break any rule to prevent more of her beloved grandmother’s treasures from being sold off as tourist souvenirs.

Since finding out she’s intersex, Katybird has desperately wanted magic to prove she’s the successor to her family’s magical traditions. When that longed-for Hearn magic doesn’t manifest as planned, she’s desperate for a magical fix – even from a McGill like Delpha.

Together the girls unleash a terrible curse – threatening not just their families, but the whole valley.

Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo.
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Review: Fish in a Tree

A plethora of problematic details ultimately ruin this widely hyped pro-dyslexic novel. See review for quotations.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
Puffin, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015.
MG realistic fiction, 276 pages + sketchbook of impossible things and excerpt.
Lexile:  550L  .
AR Level:  3.7 (worth 7.0 points)  .
NOTE:  This review is a lot longer than my usual.  If you’d just like a general opinion, scroll down to the final paragraphs.

Ally’s been to half a dozen different schools.  With a military dad and working mom, it’s easy to hide things from teachers, like not being able to read.  If trouble arises, she just goes with the laughs and builds on her trouble-making reputation.  But the new teacher is bringing light to her gifts and might illuminate her struggles also, if she lets him.

Fish in a Tree

I wanted to love this book.  It’s been on my wishlist for ages and I hoped this would be a good book to share with the kids.  Instead, I feel ambivalent.  None of the individual issues alone were major enough to ruin it; some parts I liked, but many aspects were problematic.

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Review: Gloom Town

“One melancholy voice rose in the air and he smiled. It was his mum, singing a sad sea ballad, one that she had sung to him when he was a child, and he knew the tune well” page 25

Gloom Town by Ronald L. Smith.
Clarion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York 2020.
MG fantasy, 274 pages.
Lexile: 650L .
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 7.0 points) .

Rory’s mother has two jobs, is taking as much extra work as she can, and living cheaply, but they still have simply run out of money. With the landlord taking their last cash and still threatening eviction, it’s clear that the only choice left is for Rory to work – but town rules won’t allow him in a seafaring job for another two years. So when a position at Lord Foxglove’s creepy mansion is advertised, he doesn’t see any option but landing the position, even if it turns out to be not quite what he thinks.

I’ve reviewed just one of Smith’s books before, Hoodoo. That one takes place in the American South in the 1930s, so I was mildly surprised, and impressed, to find that this book takes place in an atmospheric near-Britain seaside town in a vaguely Victorian (but more progressive) time. Most of the women in this novel work in some form or another. Some wear skirts while others choose pants, and women are aboard ships at the harbor. In fact, while Rory is certainly capable himself, his friend rescues him from physical danger multiple times, in a pleasant turn on the normal damsel in distress storyline.

Smith has certainly worked out the bumps in his writing now – this is his fifth novel, and clearly I need to go back and read the other three. His format here is many relatively short chapters, exactly the style my sons most enjoy. While some segments understandably have more action than others, none felt slow or irrelevant.

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Review: Into the Tall Tall Grass

“Yolanda squeezed Rosalind Franklin to her chest and nuzzled her nose in the dog’s fur. She was not going to get rid of her dog, and she and Sonja were not going to foster care. There was no way she was going to let any of that happen.” page 59

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon.
Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon & Schuster Children’s, New York, 2020.
MG fantasy, 330 pages.
Lexile: 660L .
AR Level: not yet leveled.

All the women in Yolanda’s family have some sort of magical gift, including her twin sister, but not her. Her father is away in the military, she’s become estranged from her best friend and her twin, her grandfather has died, and her ailing grandmother asks Yolanda to take her to the only pecan tree left standing on their property after the grass starts growing taller and taller…

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon.

Occasionally I run into a book that seems to be severely underhyped. Sometimes, like with The Secret of the Blue Glass, I can look objectively at the book and see why it might have trouble finding an audience or why it might not appeal to everyone even if I personally loved it. Others I can’t understand why it hasn’t been popular! My only thinking for this one is 2020, or perhaps that some readers disliked the lesbian aspect which is not immediately apparent.

I’ve written about “diverse-adjacent” books before; this one is more stealth diverse. The cover is gorgeous and represents the characters well, but even reading the synopsis, other than the names Yolanda Rodriguez-O’Connell and Wela, nothing that stands out as Latina, and particularly not LGBTQ.

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