Review / From the Desk of Zoe Washington

20210604ma_1210Book: From the Desk of Zoe Washington (2020)
Author: Janae Marks
Genre: MG, Contemporary

Basic plot: Zoe looks baking, especially sweet stuff. And her big dream is to be a contestant in a bake-off competition. But Mom and Dad want her to intern at a bakery first. Problem is, she never gets to do any baking there. Meanwhile, she comes across a letter addressed to her from her biological dad, the guy she’s never met because he’s in prison. Now she’s curious about why he’s been locked up, curious enough to start a clandestine correspondence with him. It’s a secret until her grandmother finds out and becomes Zoe’s accomplice …

Opening lines from the book …
The day I turned twelve, I was certain it’d be my favorite birthday yet, but then I got the letter.

WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THIS BOOK…

1) I loved the creativity Zoe exhibits when she decides to impress the owner of the bakery with her own cupcake recipe. It’s great how it’s partly inspired by the letters from her dad. It was fun to watch the process as Zoe figures it all out. (It kind of made me want to try baking it myself!)

2) The Little Tomato nickname is really cute. And I love how it works into the plot! I mean, it actually becomes very important to the story. It’s neat how father and daughter connect over the songs.

3) Man, that grandma! She and Zoe go behind Mom’s back. I think it’s great how she wants to keep Zoe safe (and makes sure she keeps an eye on the correspondence). Of course, you know it’s all going to blow up in their faces when Mom finds out.

4) Zoe really is a go-getter, isn’t she? She goes out of her way to find out about her dad’s alleged crime and about his supposed alibi. Then she and her next-door neighbour figure out a way to find the alibi. Not sure I’d want kids to be doing this in real life, but putting myself in the shoes of a kid-reader, I’d be all for it!

5) I do love the relationship Zoe has with her stepdad and her mom. It’s nice to read about a happy family not on the brink of divorce.

THINGS THAT BOTHERED ME…

1) And while I really like the stepdad’s reaction in the story, I also did find it a tad unrealistic. Like does he not feel any sort of jealously toward this other man who was once the love of his now-wife? Not a big deal, but I think relationships are a little more complicated. But maybe Dad is just covering it up really well!

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’ve been meaning to get my hands on this book for some time. I really did enjoy it, and I was rooting for Zoe all the way! I wish I could hire her to bake some delicious treats for my next birthday! 🙂

 


YOUR TURN…

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Note: I’m posting this for Greg Pattridge’s Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday

Review / My Life as a Potato

20210228ma_0330Book: My Life as a Potato (2020)
Author: Arianne Costner
Genre: MG, Contemporary

Basic plot: California Ben and his family have moved to Idaho. In order to fit in with the other students, he gets caught throwing a hot dog across the cafeteria and ends up in the principal’s office. His punishment? He gets to wear the costume for the school mascot, which happens to be … a potato! And that’s something Ben really doesn’t want the rest of the school to know about. And with the school dance fast approaching, he decides it’s time to keep his ‘life as a potato’ a secret.

WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THIS BOOK…

1) Ben is a sympathetic narrator. He’s quite likable, and I was definitely rooting for him through all his trials and tribulations as he navigates the middle school halls of Idaho. (I don’t think I would have wanted to be dressed like a potato either! Although, in another way, it does sound kind of fun.)

2) I love Ellie and Hunter, the bickering cousins. I’m glad Ben has such good friends at the school, especially since he’s so new to the town (and state). The whole how-to-ask-somebody-out-to-the-dance part of the plot was quite amusing. I thought Hunter’s preoccupation with the bacon was cute. All the planning. Not sure I would survive in middle school these days if this is what it’s like.

3) Which brings me to Jayla! She’s Ben’s crush and happens to be one of the popular girls and a lead cheerleader. I love how Ben gets to see a different side of Jayla while he’s incognito as the potato. There are quite a few ups and downs with Jayla during the book.

4) And then there’s Mitch the Snitch. Poor guy. I do like how Ben befriends him, even though he does it imperfectly. And it’s fun how Mitch comes into the climax of the story. Which I won’t spoil… You will have to read about it for yourself.

5) The best part of the story, in my opinion, were the potato mascot scenes! Oh, the fun of Ben trying to figure out how to be the best potato dancer possible. And yet, also maintain the secret of his identity. And when things go wrong, well, that’s part of the enjoyment of reading about it, rather than living it in real life!

THINGS THAT BOTHERED ME…

1) While I appreciated the creativity that went into the asking-people-out-to-the-dance, I do think it feels a little more high school to me. That is just way too much pressure for middle school kids! (Raises my adult hand. But I’m sure the kids wanting a little romance in their books will enjoy this one.)

FINAL THOUGHTS

You know with a title about potatoes, it’s got to be a fun book 🙂


YOUR TURN…

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Note: I’m posting this for Greg Pattridge’s Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday

Review / Class Act

20210212ma_0275Book: Class Act (2020)
Author: Jerry Craft
Genre: MG, Graphic Novel
Companion to: New Kid

Basic plot: Drew is in eighth grade this year. He’s got new hair and even a girlfriend. But he’s having trouble figuring out where he fits in. There’s his friends, Jordan and Liam. But after a visit to Liam’s amazing house, he’s not sure if he and Liam are really cut out to be friends. He definitely doesn’t think he can invite Liam to his own home. I mean, what would happen if his friends saw the little apartment he lives in with his grandmother? He’s not sure he’s ready to find out.

WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THIS BOOK…

1) While the first book was Jordan’s book, this one features Drew. Jordan and Liam are definitely part of Drew’s world, but the POV really focused on Drew this time. Drew and his new hair! I enjoyed seeing his perspective, especially over his uncertainty about where he belongs. (The ending works well, IMHO.)

2) One of my favourite scenes is when the kids go to Jordan’s house. I love this family! Loved seeing them in action, including as they interact with Jordan’s neighbourhood friends. It was a nice break from the school scenes.

3) I love it when the kids are at the assembly and the movie comes on: “Sad-Faced Pictures Presents: The Mean Streets of South Uptown.” This is a little nod to the first book (New Kid) that explores the idea that the Black experience is often summed up or portrayed in only one light: street life, gangs, trouble. What I love about THIS book is that we get to meet kids (two of them Black) who are living a different experience… even though that life isn’t always easy. I taught kids like Jordan and Drew. I would have loved to have put these books (New Kid and Class Act) into their hands.

4) There are some nice running jokes. One is about body odor (especially with regards to sweet-smelling Jordan)! And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I thought it was nicely done! (Although, I’m glad I didn’t have to actually smell it…) And the joke about everybody thinking Mr. Pierre was Liam’s dad (because he came to all his games) was a nice (if slightly sad) touch. 

5) I love the journey Drew goes on, especially with regards to Liam…  (SPOILER) to realize that maybe Liam isn’t his parents. Another great scene is when Drew finally invites Liam over to his house to meet his grandmother. And then they look out and admire the view. (End Spoiler)

6) Best Comic: “I Lost the Bet: Written by Chuck Banks (Dad) and art by Jordan Banks” wherein Dad explains that kids today are weirder than kids in his day… especially when it comes to social media. (But I’m biased since I’m probably Dad’s age!)

THINGS THAT BOTHERED ME…

1) Alexandra and the nose thing! Argh! The book makes such a big deal about people touching Drew’s hair, but not so with Alexandra??? 

2) The title. I thought with a title like Class Act that it’d be about a talent show or theatre. Nope. And the juggling is just metaphorical!

FINAL THOUGHTS

A good sequel to the Newbery Winner, New Kid! Definitely recommend this one. 🙂


YOUR TURN…

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Note: I’m posting this for Greg Pattridge’s Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday

Review / Three Keys

Book: Three Keys (2020)
Author: Kelly Yang
Genre: MG, Historical [1990s]
Sequel to: Front Desk

Basic plot: Mia and her parents are now running the Calivista Motel on their own. But California is headed for an election and on the ballot is a threatening new immigration law, a law that is making everybody in Mia’s world question who needs to be in America and who shouldn’t. While Mia has trouble with a new teacher at school, Jasonnow Mia’s friend—is having trouble with his parents. And then there’s Lupe and her family…

WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THIS BOOK…

1) Mia! Such a fun and enthusiastic voice. It was great to be back in her world as she navigates through new challenges. She still wants to be a writer, but her new teacher keeps giving her low grades! Oh, and she’s back to writing letters… of course! This time, she’s writing to VISA and letters to the editor.

2) I love her relationship with her BFF, Lupe. And I like how Jason is now a friend. But, as complications go, there’s a nice tension that exists between Lupe and Jason. Since the plot revolves around immigrants, it’s nice to see the three different types of immigrants side-by-side.

3) Lupe’s story is particularly interesting in this book. Seeing her navigate through some trying times, especially with what happens with her parents. I do like how Mia’s family (and Hank too!) take her under their wing. 

4) And then there’s Mia’s new teacher, Mrs. Welch. She is extremely unlikeable at the beginning of the story, especially when we see her give out those C’s to poor Mia. At first, I was a little worried that she was going to turn out to be a one-dimensional ‘bad guy’ character. But Kelly Yang had a trick up her sleeve. We do get to see her as a real person, more complex than young Mia realizes when they first meet.

5) And the motel setting is great. I love the weeklies (although, they don’t seem to be featured as much in this book). And Hank is definitely a star in Mia’s world! I love how the family and friends work so hard, banding together to save the motel.

THINGS THAT BOTHERED ME…

1) Okay… the title. I was expecting something more prominent with this title. What are the three keys? Are they metaphorical? Are they real? I was intrigued, hoping for a little bit of both but… I kind of forgot about the title until near the end of the book. Then… BAM! (SPOILER!) It comes out of the blue in an off-comment by Hank (I think). It does come near the climax, however, I felt nothing when I read it. I don’t think it was set up well enough. (End Spoiler) *Sigh*

FINAL THOUGHTS

A good sequel to Front Desk! It was nice to be back in the world of Mia and her letter-writing. Definitely recommended for fans of the first book. And even if you haven’t read the first book! (Although, if you do read this one first, you will get some spoilers.)


YOUR TURN…

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Note: I’m posting this for Greg Pattridge’s Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday

A Two-for-One Book Review

sincerelyI read this as a two-for-one book. Both stories are separate but connected through the penpal letters of each of the main characters.

Sincerely, Sophie // by Courtney Sheinmel (2010)

In this book, we meet Sophie. She’s entering sixth grade, and her class takes part in a nation-wide penpal program. That’s how she meets Katie (from all the way out in California). But instead of telling Katie what it’s like living in New York City, she starts to pour out her worries and fears to this new friend. But what she won’t tell Katie is the worst fear of all. That her parents are getting a divorce!

Divorce books make me sad. I can handle one every now and then, but I had trouble with this one. Not because of the topic. I think it’s more that I’ve read several books featuring this topic already. On the other hand, in this one, Sophie refuses to give her father the time of day after he moves out, and I fully empathized with her! (Maybe it was just all the emotional energy I felt while reading the book!)

What I did like is the relationship between Sophie and her little sister. And I like how the relationship with the dad is restored to a certain extent. (Although, I’m still kind of angry at the dad for leaving in the first place!!!) [3 stars]

Sincerely, Katie // by Courtney Sheinmel (2010)

This time, we get to meet Katie! We already know a little about Katie from the first book. In this book, the story here revolves around a big community project that Katie organizes after she hears about an earthquake in Mexico. When her friend Jake starts paying attention to another girl, Katie gets a little jealous. She starts to do some things that she later regrets (like lying to the other girl about Jake!)

Of course, there’s still the pen pal thing going on and Katie and Sophie continue to exchange letters. And in this book, we also get to see Sophie and Katie meet. [*slight SPOILER] I did expect a little more to that meeting, but it wasn’t as crucial to the plot as you could imagine. [end Spoiler]

Overall, I did like the book. I definitely like the pen pal angle. [3 stars]


Have you read either of these books? What did you think?

*Note: I’m posting this for Greg Pattridge’s Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday

Newbery Verdict: Dear Mr. Henshaw

dear-mr-henshawDear Mr. Henshaw // by Beverly Cleary (1983)

Newbery Winner (1984)
Genre: MG, Contemporary/Epistolary
Rating: 5 Stars

Basic Plot: Leigh Botts loves the book Ways to Amuse a Dog so much that he decides to write the author: Mr. Henshaw. Through a series of letters (and later a diary), Leigh finds an outlet to work through his problems that range from a lunch-thief to his absentee dad.

MY THOUGHTS…

This is probably my second read-through of this book. And while I knew the ending, I found this book just as interesting to read this second time around. (For some odd reason, I never read Beverly Cleary’s books when I was a kid. Yes, I saw them everywhere, but for some reason, I never picked them up. Not until I was an adult!)

I love a good epistolary novel… when it works. And this one works very nicely. My favourite letter is the first one, which reads as follows:

Dear Mr. Henshaw,
My teacher read your book about the dog to our class. It was funny. We licked it.
Your friend,
Leigh Botts (boy)

I love how Cleary is able to capture the voice of this boy, misspellings and all. Another section I really enjoyed was when Leigh gives Mr. Henshaw a list of questions, and Mr. Henshaw replies with a list of his own questions… which Leigh does NOT want to answer! But, of course, his mom makes him.

I like how it also deals with the hard topics in Leigh’s life, like the divorce of his parents. Now, I like a book where divorced parents get back together (Parent Trap, anybody?) And of course, that is Leigh’s own wish. While the ending of this book does present this as an option, it remains realistic. Most couples don’t get back together. As Leigh says in the final line: “I felt sad and a whole lot better at the same time.”

NEWBERY VERDICT…

This book deserved every inch of its Newbery award. It’s wonderfully written, has a likable protagonist. And yes, I licked it very much. (P.S. Now I want to read Mr. Henshaw’s books, but for some reason, I can’t find them anywhere!)

YOUR TURN…

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments!


Newbery Verdict Reading Challenge: This is a personal challenge for me to read books that have either won the Newbery Medal or are a Newbery Honor book. The Newbery is named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. Since 1922, this annual award has given to the author of the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” A Newbery Honor book is given to the runners-up.

Note: I’m posting this for Greg Pattridge’s Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday

Review: Nerd Camp

camp-nerd.jpgBook: Nerd Camp (2011)
Author: Elissa Brent Weissman
Genre: MG, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars

Basic Plot: Gabe is a nerd and proud of it… that is, until he meets his new stepbrother, Zack. Now, in order to seem cool, he has to hide that part of him, including the fact that his sleepaway camp is really a nerd camp! So when he writes home, Gabe only highlights the things that don’t make him sound quite so nerdy. How’s Zack to know, right?

WHAT’S COOL…

1) I love how each chapter ends with Gabe’s list of “Things I Can Tell Zack” and “Things I Can’t Tell Zack”. These lists are all prefaced showing how Gabe is using the scientific method… “Problem: Am I a nerd who only has nerdy adventures? Hypothesis: No. Proof: (See list.)”

2) I like the friendship Gabe develops with the two boys at camp: Nikhil and Wesley. It was cute how the boys figure out an algorithm to predict when Color War will break (based on when it broke in past years). Yes, despite Gabe’s efforts not to be nerdy, he is indeed very nerdy!

3) Which brings me to Color War itself. This was a fun addition to the story. It brings in some activities that don’t involve a classroom full of nerds learning about rocket science. Like the Scavenger Hunt.

4) There’s a nice little celebrity cameo (from one of the nerdiest shows on the planet) that happens near the end. I won’t spoil it. It’s kind of fun, even if it’s unlikely.

5) The letters are a nice way to show how Gabe interacts differently with the different people back home… with his friends from school, his mom and dad, and of course with Zack.

6) The ending wraps things up quite nicely. I wasn’t really surprised as I figured the story would eventually lead to what does happen. (I won’t spoil it.)

WHAT’S NOT COOL…

1) The scenes with the lice! My head was itching the entire time!! Yuck.

2) The midnight canoe trip was a little disconcerting to my adult soul. It’s crazy how Gabe talks about Swallows and Amazons (one of my favourite books that contains a similar event!), but then, unlike how the Walkers and Blacketts get into big trouble with the grownups, Gabe doesn’t seem to learn any lesson from this dangerous activity. I didn’t really like that.

FINAL THOUGHTS

My rating is 4 Stars (out of 5) – A fun look into the struggles of being nerdy; worrying what others will think about it. As a nerd myself (I’m more of a history nerd), I definitely empathized with Gabe!


YOUR TURN…

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

5 Reasons Why I Loved 84, Charing Cross Road

When I finished reading this book, I was overwhelmed. I’m actually giving this book a 5-star rating. (And I NEVER give out 5 stars. Well, hardly ever.) This is definitely on the list of the Best Books I’ve Read This Year! Note: It’s an older book, originally published in 1970. But I hope that won’t stop you from reading this wonderful peek into the past.

So, in honour of those 5 stars, I’ll give 5 reasons why I loved this book…

84, Charing Cross Road // by Helene Hanff

#1 – The Letters

84-Charing-Cross-Road.jpgIf you’ve never read this book, then let me tell you that it is written in a series of letters. What makes this so unique is that the letters are between a woman writer who lives in New York City and a bookseller in post-World War II London. Why is she writing to a bookseller across an ocean? She wants books! (Yes, these are the pre-Amazon days. She apparently was ahead of her time.)

This is probably one of the best epistolary book I’ve ever read. First, because it uses the art of letter-writing so well. And second, it doesn’t fall into the trap of most epistolary books… where letter-writing characters write about things for the sake of us (the reader), thus creating unrealistic correspondence. The reason for this is probably due to the fact that the letters are indeed real. (This is a non-fiction book, after all.)

#2 – The Books

This is really a must-read if you love books or bookstores or … well, anything related to books. (Come to think of it, if you like books, you’ll probably like bookstores and anything related to books!) I love how Helene talks about her favourite books. And in one letter, reveals how much she despises novels. Then in a later letter, well… I’ll let her words say it all:

Favourite Quote: “You’ll be fascinated to learn (from me that hates novels) that I finally got round to Jane Austen and went out of my mind over Pride & Prejudice which I can’t bring myself to take back to the library til you find me a copy of my own.” (p.51)

#3 – The Unanswered Questions

I love that there are unanswered questions in this book. Just like in real life. People come and people go out of that life. (Often I think of a person from my past and wonder “What ever happened to them?”)

And there are missing letters in this exchange of correspondence. But I was never confused. I felt that it all gave an air of reality. Yes, I loved the reality of this book.

#4 – The Friendship

If you’re looking for a romance in this story, you won’t find it. Now, I love a good romance as well as the next person. But I LOVED that this book was about friendship. A friendship chronicled in letters.

The correspondence starts with Helene addressing a letter to the “Gentlemen” at Marks & Co. (Bookstore), 84, Charing Cross Road, London. The response is to “Dear Madam”. In subsequent letters, we see the salutations evolve to “Dear Helene” and “Dear Frank” (or sometimes, in Helene’s case, she’ll address him as “Hey, Frankie” or “SLOTH”.

Favourite Quotes: “[Letter from Helene] I hope ‘madam’ doesn’t mean over there what it does here.” (p.3)

AND

“To All at 84, Charing Cross Road: Thank you for the beautiful book… Would you believe it arrived on my birthday? I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf… And why didn’t you sign your names? I expect Frank wouldn’t let you…” (p.27)

#5 – The History

The historian in me was in heaven as I read this… realizing that this book is written in letters by REAL people at the time in which this story is set. This book is actually categorized as non-fiction. Which means it really happened! And knowing that the book-Helene is the same as author-Helene, well, I can certainly believe she didn’t fiddle with artistic license. (With her disdain for fiction!)

While I love a well-written historical novel, there’s something wonderful about a book that actually comes out of experience of the time period. And this book has that in spades. We have the post-war rationing; the death of the King George; the re-election of Churchill; the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth…

Favourite Quote: “11th June, 1953… Dear Helene, Just a note to let you know that your parcel arrived safely on June 1, just in time for our Coronation Day celebrations…” (p.59)

Finally, after reading this book, I wanted to go to 84, Charing Cross Road! But alas, the bookstore is no longer there… (I read somewhere that it’s a MacDonald’s now??? Say it ain’t so!)


Have you read this book? Did you love it as much as me? Let me know in the comments!