Review: School of the Dead by Avi

school of the dead by avi

From Newbery Medalist Avi comes the spine-tingling story of Tony Gilbert, who must solve a mystery surrounding the ghost of his uncle Charlie.

For most of Tony Gilbert’s life, he always thought of his uncle as “Weird Uncle Charlie.” That is, until Uncle Charlie moves in with Tony and his family. He’s still odd, of course—talking about spirits and other supernatural stuff—but Uncle Charlie and Tony become fast friends. Between eating ice cream and going to the movies, Tony is having more fun with Uncle Charlie than he ever could have imagined.

So when Uncle Charlie dies suddenly, Tony is devastated. So sad, in fact, he starts seeing Uncle Charlie everywhere! Tony recently transferred to the Penda School, where Uncle Charlie went as a kid. The school is eerie enough on its own without his uncle’s ghost making it worse. On top of which, rumors have been circulating about a student who went missing shortly before Tony arrived. Could that and Uncle Charlie’s ghost be related?

Full of twists and turns that get spookier by the chapter, School of the Dead is a fast-paced mystery that Avi’s fans will devour!

Description taken from Goodreads.


I’ve never been a huge fan of Avi, but the premise of School of the Dead won me over. I was curious to see what the story would be like, and I ended up enjoying it much more than I expected. However, as others have correctly noted, the twist at the end is a bit easy to guess by the middle of the novel. I’m sure mature middle-grade readers will be able to guess it fairly easily, but I still had a lot of fun with the story, so I don’t think it’ll be a major turn-off.

Even though I enjoyed the plot and the characters, two things wavered for me throughout the story. The first is the fact that the book isn’t scary. I don’t think it would be scary for anyone. It does the ghost cliché, it works within its premise, but it’s nothing shocking or wholly original.

The second is the writing. Avi’s writing doesn’t give me the voice of a middle-grader. Tony felt much older than his age much of the time. Avi’s writing tends to favor the same kind of cool detachment as Kate DiCamillo’s work. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. In fact, I enjoyed it, but I don’t know how the target audience will receive it. If you’re looking for whimsical and action-packed, this isn’t the book for you.

It’s lack of originality and it’s writing made me question how easily its target audience will fall in love with it, but I know a few kids who loved books like Anya’s Ghost that could appreciate a story like this. The rest of the book was pretty solid, and I’ll be recommending it. 3 stars.

Review: Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger and Paul Dellinger

fuzzy by tom angleberger and paul dellinger

When Max—Maxine Zealster—befriends her new robot classmate Fuzzy, part of Vanguard One Middle School’s new Robot Integration Program, she helps him learn everything he needs to know about surviving middle school—the good, the bad, and the really, really, ugly. Little do they know that surviving sixth grade is going to become a true matter of life and death, because Vanguard has an evil presence at its heart: a digital student evaluation system named BARBARA that might be taking its mission to shape the perfect student to extremes!

Description taken from Goodreads.


I’m not a Tom Angleberger fan, but that might just have to change if he continues to come out with books like Fuzzy!

The only thing I didn’t like about the story (and didn’t like is a strong phrase) is that it had a slow beginning. I wasn’t drawn in from the very first page, but maybe that’s too much to ask. It’s enough that the rest of book is superb.

Despite my pacing problems in the beginning, I quickly fell in love with Fuzzy. There were a few different reasons for that, most notably because of the world-building and plot.

Fuzzy takes place in the near-future, and it almost has a dystopia-type feel. Dystopia is much harder to come by in middle-grade lit than young-adult lit, to the point where I wasn’t sure what it would even look like. Tom Angleberger did an amazing job of answering that question for me. No, not everything felt natural. There were a few weak spots where I felt like he was over-describing, but I think that’ll do a good job of introducing the subject material to younger students and people unaffiliated with code and technology.

When it really comes down to it, I was completely in love with the world-building of Fuzzy. The entire book did feel a little immature, so it was a bit awkward. I didn’t love the world for its writing or the way it was described, but because of its ideas. For the most part, Angleberger brought together his world spectacularly. I loved the way he (subtly) pointed out the flaws in where we’re heading with education, and his vision of technology-driven schools was fascinating.

As for the plot, it brought the story together. This may seem like a no-brainer, but beyond the obvious, the plot made the book. What I mean by that is it gave life the characters. It provided the world of Fuzzy a home. Not every book does that, and I was impressed by the chain of events in the book.

All in all, I loved Fuzzy. It had a relatively weak beginning, but it gained speed (and a place in my heart). The world was one I could dive into, and the storytelling was refreshing. I’ll be recommending this one! Hopefully, I can make some young STEM-lit fans :D 4 stars.

Review: Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard

lucky strikes by louis bayard

With her mama recently dead and her pa sight unseen since birth, fourteen-year-old Amelia is suddenly in charge of her younger brother and sister, and of the family gas station. Harley Blevins, local king and emperor of Standard Oil, is in hot pursuit to clinch his fuel monopoly. To keep him at bay and her family out of foster care, Melia must come up with a father, and fast. And so when a hobo rolls out of a passing truck, Melia grabs opportunity by its beard. Can she hold off the hounds till she comes of age?

Description taken from Goodreads.


Two words that, when put together, are immediate turn-offs for me in any book: rural South.

As soon as I cracked open Lucky Strikes, I wanted to stop reading. The narration style just doesn’t do it for me. I figured I would get into the book and see if I could get past it, but it was an issue for me throughout the entire story.

Sure, it’s sad. It’s sweet. It’s quirky. It’s got a nice cover. Theoretically, it’s got the makings of a mainstream MG novel. But no. I can’t see myself recommending to anyone for two reasons. The first is that it wasn’t for me. I can’t try to sell off books I know that I dislike. And the second is that this doesn’t read like a middle-grade novel.

Lucky Strikes is a perfect representation of books that adults think middle-graders will be drawn to. On top of the setting, Amelia didn’t actually feel like a middle-grader and there was next to nothing going on. And when things were happening, they were weird to the point where I couldn’t take the plot seriously. For this one, I would recommend reading a sample before buying or borrowing. 1 star.

Review: The First Last Day by Dorian Cirrone

the first last day by dorian cirrone

The magic of summer comes to life in this enchanting middle grade debut about an eleven-year-old girl who must save the future by restarting time after she realizes that her wish to relive the last day of summer may not have been such a great thing after all.

What if you could get a do-over—a chance to relive a day in your life over and over again until you got it right? Would you?

After finding a mysterious set of paints in her backpack, eleven-year-old Haleigh Adams paints a picture of her last day at the New Jersey shore. When she wakes up the next morning, Haleigh finds that her wish for an endless summer with her new friend Kevin has come true. At first, she’s thrilled, but Haliegh soon learns that staying in one place—and time—comes with a price.

And when Haleigh realizes her parents have been keeping a secret, she is faced with a choice: do nothing and miss out on all the good things that come with growing up or find the secret of the time loop she’s trapped in and face some of the inevitable realities of moving on.

As she and Kevin set out to find the source of the magic paints, Haleigh worries it might be too late. Will she be able to restart time? Or will it be the biggest mistake of her life?

Description taken from Goodreads.


This concept has been multiple times over, most notably in my mind with the movie Groundhog Day, but I think The First Last Day does a good job of keeping it fresh. After all, Kevin and Haleigh are just kids, and they end up foreseeing a huge tragedy with the option to never face it. The actual plot was much more compelling than the premise gave it credit for, and I think Cirrone did an amazing job of displaying the emotional aspects of this book.

What I was even more impressed by was the magical realism. It’s easy to make average magical worlds and average realistic worlds and bring them together, but it’s difficult to make great magical worlds and great realistic worlds collide. In the story, there’s next to no disappearing parent syndrome. Kevin and Haleigh both depend on their parents a lot, and they both have really supportive adult figures in their lives. In a world where middle-grade grows increasingly unrealistic, The First Last Day was a breath of fresh air.

All in all, this was a great book that I would recommend. The writing wasn’t exceptional and the beginning was weak, but certain elements to it were fun and well thought out. The world-building and the characters were done very well, and I ending up loving the concept way more than I initially thought I would. It tugged on my heartstrings without being overly emotional, and all in all, I thought it was a well-rounded story. Will be recommending. 3 stars.

Review: It’s Not Me, It’s You by Stephanie Kate Strohm

it's not me, it's you by stephanie kate strohm

One high school girl’s comedic examination of her dating past as told by the friends, family, and boys who were involved!

Avery Dennis is a high school senior and one of the most popular girls in her class. But a majorly public breakup with the guy she’s been dating causes some disastrous waves. It is right before prom and Avery no longer has the perfect date. She runs the prom committee, how could she not show up with somebody?

Post-breakup, Avery gets to thinking about all of the guys that she has ever dated. How come none of those relationships ever worked out? Could it be her fault? Avery decides to investigate. In history class she’s learning about this method of record-keeping called “oral history” and she has a report due. So Avery decides to go directly to the source. Avery tracks down all of the guys she’s ever dated, and uses that information, along with thoughts from her friends, family, and teachers, to compile a total account of her dating history.

Avery discovers some surprises about herself and the guys she’s spent time with — just in time for prom night!

Description taken from Goodreads.


Even though this is categorized as YA, I can’t take it completely seriously as YA. It had much more a mature MG feel to it, and I loved it for that. Many people have compared this to the movie Clueless, and I definitely see 8th grade girls falling in love with the drama, structure, and plot of it all.

It wasn’t exactly for me. I didn’t realize going in that it’s told interview-style, and that system almost never works for me. I like my stories told straight, and this veered off the path by a lot. Because of that, I struggled to get into the novel, but when I did, I found a really cute story underneath all of this. Avery is a lovable heroine who is just a little, well, clueless, and I loved reading about her throughout the course of the novel.

Overall, I did think it was a little too much. In all honesty, it sounds like the author took a bunch of overly stereotypical teens, interviewed them about a certain girl, and put it into a book. It worked at times, and it didn’t work at times. I’ll be recommending this one, but only to the right people. I can’t see this book branching audiences very well. 2 stars.

ARC Review: The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart by Lauren DeStefano

the peculiar night of the blue heart by lauren destefano

Lionel is a wild boy, who doesn’t much like to be around other people. He’d rather be a purring cat or a wolf stalking the woods.

Marybeth is a nice girl. She doesn’t need to be told to comb her hair or brush her teeth, and she’s kind to everyone at the orphanage . . . Lionel most of all.

Different though they are, Lionel and Marybeth are best friends in a world that has forgotten about them. So when a mysterious blue spirit possesses Marybeth—and starts to take control—they know they must stop it before the real Marybeth fades away forever.

Description taken from Goodreads.


As short as this story is, I think it could’ve been a little shorter.

That aside, this is definitely one of the best middle-grade novels I’ve read this year. It has this sleepy quality to it, in the next way possible. I loved DeStefano’s writing throughout the novel, from the world to the descriptions to the underlying humor in some scenes.

 

Oh, and the relationships in this story.

Middle-grade friendships tend to drive me crazy because they can be fragile or ridiculous. Sometimes I get sick of how shallow they are, and very few middle-grade books make me think wow, this is it is to love someone.

The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart did that in a way that was strange and lovely and utterly magical. I loved getting to know both Marybeth and Lionel and follow them on their journey. All of the relationships in the book were spot-on, and I was thoroughly impressed by this story. I haven’t been very interested in DeStefano’s writing up until now, but I’m going to be checking out her other works in the near future.

It’s been a long time since a middle-grade novel truly spoke to me, and The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart did that perfectly. It’s also paced well, though some of the scenes were too drawn out for my taste, and the author did a good job of spreading out the plot events. I was never bored. Although I think it may be a tough sell for boy readers, I’ll be recommending this one.

And, as I mentioned on The Silver Words, if the author is interested in writing another book for Lionel and Marybeth, I’d love to check it out! 4 stars.

pg count for the hardback: 208

Review: The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

the wild robot by peter brown

When robot Roz opens her eyes for the first time, she discovers that she is alone on a remote, wild island. Why is she there? Where did she come from? And, most important, how will she survive in her harsh surroundings? Roz’s only hope is to learn from the island’s hostile animal inhabitants. When she tries to care for an orphaned gosling, the other animals finally decide to help, and the island starts to feel like home. Until one day, the robot’s mysterious past comes back to haunt her….

Description taken from Goodreads.


This is an adorable, strangely relevant kind of story. It’s scatter throughout with graphics, making it feel like it’s targeted for a younger audience, but I can easily see kids 7 to 13 enjoying this book, give or take a year depending on reader maturity.

The Wild Robot manages to be mature and entertaining despite its child-like voice, and I loved following Roz on her adventures. Honestly, the entire thing struck me as a My Side of the Mountain told from a robot’s perspective on an island.

I don’t know if he had an agenda in writing this, but Brown did a remarkable job of fitting in current issues into the context of The Wild Robot. In my opinion, regardless of whether he did or not, he handled those issues very well. There’s not too much bias throughout the story.

One thing I was very surprised with was how engaging the story was. It would’ve been easy enough to let the potential of the story run through the cracks and right out of his hands, but Brown held onto the book. It almost reads like a slice of life, where every chapter or so is its own adventure. This kept the plot fresh and interesting.

Overall, I’ll be recommending. I was really excited for this one, and it lived up to my expectations. The writing was a bit distant, but I’m almost never a fan of the oh dear reader, Roz was not yet out of her troubles yet type narrative anyway. All in all, it was very well-done. 4 stars.

Review: Mrs. Ravenbach’s Way by William M. Akers

mrs. ravenbach's way

Being a new student at the McKegway School for Clever and Gifted Children is crummy enough, but when Toby Wilcox is stuck in the fourth grade homeroom of Mrs. Ravenbach, a vainglorious German tyrant who worships “the order and the discipline,” he faces a much bigger challenge—fight back or be ground to goo in the gears of Teutonic efficiency.

Toby upends Mrs. Ravenbach’s perfectly ordered universe and risks everything to strike a blow for free-thinkers everywhere!

Mrs. Ravenbach’s Way is the first book in the series: The Amazing Escapades of Toby Wilcox.

Description taken from Goodreads.


Don’t go into this expecting a Roald Dahl-like read. If you’re looking for the Trunchbull, go read about the Trunchbull, but don’t try to find it here.

I went into this story wanting another horrible teacher the likes of which I’ve only ever found in Matilda, and it didn’t really work out that way. Akers’ writing lacks the signature wit and humor of Dahl’s books, and there was nothing remotely endearing about the teacher, the students, or the plot.

Mrs. Ravenbach’s Way is told from the perspective of the teacher, which was surprising. When I found this out, I hoped that Akers would try to justify why Ravenbach is the way that she is. What ended up happening was completely different. This book reads like an angry student wanted to get back at a teacher in a way that was embarrassing (for both parties) and wholly juvenile.

There was no one to champion in the book. The students were horrible, and the teacher was equally so. I’m not even quite sure what the author was trying to prove by writing this. I had hoped for more, maybe a little emotion, some kind of lesson even. Something. But all in all, there are a lot of students v.s. teacher books out there, and there’s nothing to be gained from this one.

1 star.

Series: The Amazing Escapades of Toby Wilcox #1

ARC Review: The Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen

the scourge by jennifer a. nielsen

As a lethal plague sweeps through the land, Ani Mells is shocked when she is unexpectedly captured by the governor’s wardens and forced to submit to a test for the deadly Scourge. She is even more surprised when the test results come back positive, and she is sent to Attic Island, a former prison turned refuge — and quarantine colony — for the ill. The Scourge’s victims, Ani now among them, can only expect to live out short, painful lives there. However, Ani quickly discovers that she doesn’t know the whole truth about the Scourge or the Colony. She’s been caught in a devious plot, and, with the help of her best friend, Weevil, Ani means to uncover just what is actually going on.

But will she and Weevil survive long enough to do so?

Description taken from Goodreads.


First things first: Jennifer A. Nielsen is a solid fantasy writer, and I’m very much a fan of hers. However, I can’t go into every one of her books expecting it to be like The False Prince. That’s only going to leave me disappointed in another good (but different) story.

Second things second: The name Weevil drives me crazy. It’s what you name a pokémon, not a book character, but I’m being petty.

The Scourge is a great book that draws attention to the stigma associated with disease and the depths of friendship. I’ll focus specifically on the second part of that, because it was my favorite part of the book. I love it when stories go into friendships, and Jennifer did it beautifully. I loved the relationship between Weevil and Ani, and I was rooting for them every step of the way. They face many trials, but they get through all of them together.

Speaking of trials, this isn’t like The False Prince. You shouldn’t go into it expecting lots of action and adventure and a fast pace. The Scourge has none of those things. It took some getting used to, but I came to love this story for what it is versus what I hoped it would be.

All in all, I would recommend this one. It’s not quite so action packed. In fact, I think it resembles the last book in Jennifer’s Ascendance trilogy the most with its political focus and steady plot. The storytelling was great, as always, and I loved seeing the exploration of each character and his or her relationships. The Scourge wasn’t what I thought it would be, but I’ll definitely still recommend this one and maybe use it to get more girls into Jennifer’s writing! 3.5 stars.

ARC Review: The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg

the great shelby holmes by elizabeth eulberg

Meet spunky sleuth Shelby and her sports-loving sidekick Watson as they take on a dog-napper in this fresh twist on Sherlock Holmes.

Shelby Holmes is not your average sixth grader. She’s nine years old, barely four feet tall, and the best detective her Harlem neighborhood has ever seen—always using logic and a bit of pluck (which yes, some might call “bossiness”) to solve the toughest crimes.

When eleven-year-old John Watson moves downstairs, Shelby finds something that’s eluded her up till now: a friend. Easy-going John isn’t sure of what to make of Shelby, but he soon finds himself her most-trusted (read: only) partner in a dog-napping case that’ll take both their talents to crack.

Sherlock Holmes gets a fun, sweet twist with two irresistible young heroes and black & white illustrations throughout in this middle grade debut from internationally bestselling YA author Elizabeth Eulberg.

Description taken from Goodreads.


Like I said in my snapshot reviewThe Great Shelby Holmes is adorable. I loved the backdrop of New York City, and Eulberg transferred over her skills in YA to MG remarkably well. The story has a diverse cast of characters, and I loved each and every one of them. Watson in particular was a great side character that I had a lot fun getting to know.

An aside on that: there’s some disappearing parent syndrome in this book, but it’s not too bad. The parents are very much present in their lives, and I enjoyed getting to hear their backstories as well.

The only thing I would say is that this story is a little bland. It almost reminds me of Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures, minus the magic and the paranormal elements. I ended up feeling like the pace was off (even though it was fine) because I was bored with the plot, and I was disappointed because I felt like Eulberg could’ve done a lot more. That being said, I don’t think that’ll be an issue, especially for readers who usually read contemporary or realistic lit.

Overall, not a bad story at all. I loved the humor and the mystery of it all, and I fell in love with Shelby as a protagonist. Would recommend. 4 stars.