Just Sayin’ by Dandi Daley Mackall

Disclaimer: Just Sayin’, by Dandi Daley Mackall, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Nick and Cassie almost had their perfect family: their parents were getting married, and that meant a best-friend brother and a sweet little sister for Cassie, and Nick would have Cassie as his partner in crime. When their parents mysteriously call off their wedding and Cassie is left in her Gram’s care, Cassie and Nick become “almost-step” pen pals. Through letters, they scheme about how to get on their favorite game show, The Last Insult Standing, and just maybe figure out how to get their parents back together.

My rating: 3/5 

I really enjoyed Larger-Than-Life Lara by Mackall, so seeing another children’s/MG book pop up by her on the Tyndale website was exciting to me. And, while I didn’t enjoy Just Sayin’ quite as much as I did Lara, it was still an engaging read.

I like the whole concept of the “novel of letters”—the entire book consists of letters, texts, e-mails, and what-have-you between the characters, complete with different handwritings and paper backgrounds. It’s a nice touch, though perhaps a little distracting. Mackall does a great job of giving each character a distinct voice and communicating character development through a medium that’s rather restricting in what can be described or expanded.

The plot is a bit simple and resolves simply, too, and I don’t know whether that’s a good or a bad thing. The important part of the book, to me, was Cassie’s development, not Travis and Jen’s relationship, so perhaps the simplicity of that particular aspect of the book doesn’t matter. And, speaking of Cassie’s development, I think the lessons she learned were communicated clearly and effectively, though perhaps her actions at the end during the insult contest were not quite realistic (though the actions themselves don’t contradict her character, so perhaps the realism of it is fine, after all).

Perhaps my biggest problem with Just Sayin’ is that, after the wonderful subtlety of Larger-Than-Life Lara, the straightforwardness of it falls a little flat. I mean, I think it’s great that Cassie was so profoundly affected by what she read about words and by her letter writing to Jesus, but that also could have been communicated effectively without also alienating a large portion of readers who perhaps most need to hear the message. It wasn’t preachy—perhaps cheesy, but not preachy—but I do prefer subtlety in a lot of cases. However, with or without that, Just Sayin’ still has a good message about the power of words, as well as some good things to say about friendship and family.

Warnings: Insults.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic, Christian

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2vXs53q

The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton

The House of Dies Drear, by Virginia Hamilton, was published in 1968 by Macmillan.

The house held secrets, Thomas knew, even before he first saw it looming gray and massive on its ledge of rock. It had a century-old legend—two fugitive slaves had been killed by bounty hunters after leaving its passageways, and Dies Drear himself, the abolitionist who had made the house into a station on the Underground Railroad, had been murdered there. The ghosts of the three were said to walk its rooms….Yes, the house held secrets…did it hold danger as well? Thomas was sure it did, but his obsession that the house give up its secrets led him on, through the terror entrapment in its labyrinth of tunnels and to an awesome confrontation with Pluto, the mysterious and formidable “devil” who jealously guarded the house. Then, suddenly, it was alarmingly clear—there was danger, and the Smalls were being warned to flee. But what kind of danger, and why, and what did it have to do with running slaves and the ordeals of a hundred years ago? Thomas searches, and in searching finds not only the answer to these secrets from the past, but a deeper sense of his own connection to that past.

Rating: 3/5

The House of Dies Drear is a bit of a spine-chilling suspense/mystery novel. Hamilton’s sparse writing helps contribute to the overall tension of the book, combining with the history and the mysteries of the past to create a creepy atmosphere. It’s a bit of a strange book, but you can tell how much Hamilton put into this book as it relates to her own history.

I suppose calling this book a mystery is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not really a mystery; it’s more suspense. There is some mystery aspects to it, especially at the beginning, but the mystery is solved midway through and the rest of the book is the characters dealing with what they have discovered.

The House of Dies Drear holds a lot of information about the Underground Railroad and black culture, in general, including things like the church environment which was nice to see in a novel. Most novels these days (and movies) pretend like religion (or, at least, Christianity) doesn’t exist at all, and if it does, it’s some distorted version of it that the author uses as a strawman. Hamilton’s take was both historical and respectful, detailing how important things like church and the church experience are to people, especially when in a new situation.

The House of Dies Drear is an effectively creepy novel, and though it’s not the best thing I’ve read, it was certainly interesting and informative. I appreciated it for the passion so subtly conveyed by the author and for its historical worth. I probably won’t read it again, as it was a little too strange and not quite engaging enough for me, but it’s a good book.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

As soon as Thomas had entered the room, he understood what old Pluto had tried to do. He had arranged the furniture in a rigid progression, with the two long windows, not the open fireplace, as its focus. Thomas’ eyes swept from the fireplace to the windows, then out into the gray day, on and on, until he could see no farther.

It’s his warning, thought Thomas. He means for us to flee.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2fr64TF

The Emperor of Nihon-Ja by John Flanagan

The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, by John Flanagan, was published in 2011 by Philomel. It is the sequel to Halt’s Peril.

In his brief time as an Araluen warrior, Horace has traveled the known world and fought countless bloody battles. All for his country, his king, and his friends. For all that is right. When Horace travels to the exotic land of Nihon-Ja to study the Senshi fighting technique, it isn’t long before he finds himself pulled into a battle that is not his—but one he knows in his heart he must wage. The Nihon-Ja emperor, a defender of the common man, has been forcibly dethroned, and only Horace, Will, and their Araluen friends, along with a group of untrained woodcutters and farmers, can restore the emperor to the throne.

Rating: 3/5

The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is the last Ranger’s Apprentice book I’ve read before. And, at least in the edition I read, it’s marketed as the last book. As there are two more books after this one (though one is, I think, a prequel), clearly Flanagan returned to the series due to popular demand. I’ll be looking forward to reading the eleventh and twelfth books and experiencing them for the first time.

But, back to this book. It’s a stand-alone, which is good after the somewhat tiring formula of most of the other books, but I don’t think it’s as solid and engaging as Erak’s Ransom. There are new characters, new obstacles to surmount, and new enemies to defeat, but there’s never once the possibility that the characters might fail. Even when they’re at their lowest point, it’s never doubtful that they will come out on top in the end. Erak’s Ransom at least separated the characters and had them overcome individual obstacles, especially towards the end. Emperor’s separation of characters is not handled as well, with the girls essentially going to fetch a Deus ex Machina to save the day while the rest just waste time until they get back. There’s not really any sense of urgency because by this point, the reader knows that the rescue will come at the last minute.

There’s also some weird sort of time displacement, where Horace’s point of view is actually several months behind the others, but it’s often forgotten and seems as if it’s happening in real time with what’s happening with Will. In addition, since Horace’s chapters pretty much go over the same ground that was covered when the characters explained why they were going after Horace in the first place, some of his chapters feel meaningless, especially the chapter that depicts George going to send a message right after the chapter where Evanlyn explains that George sent a message.

So, perhaps the Ranger’s Apprentice formula is starting to wear a little thin, after all. I’m not saying The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is a bad book. I enjoyed reading it, as I enjoy reading all the Ranger’s Apprentice books. And this book is still better than the first two books in the series. But the formula is starting to get a little bit tiring, which is perhaps the reason why Flanagan switched to writing The Brotherband Chronicles after book twelve (also, there’s a moment in this book where Flanagan clearly took inspiration when writing the Brotherband Chronicles). As a stand-alone, it’s better than most of the Part 1’s in the series, but not as good as any of the Part 2’s or the other stand-alone, Erak’s Ransom (which is still my favorite of them all). I still enjoy the adventures of Horace, Will, Halt and Company, but ten books (or twelve, in this case) is a good time to start wrapping up a series or thinking of something new.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

“What’s this Kurokuma business?”

The Senshi looked at [Horace] with a completely straight face.

“It’s a term of great respect,” he said. Several others within earshot nodded confirmation. They too managed to remain straight-faced. It was a skill the Nihon-Jan had perfected.

“Great respect,” one of them echoed. Horace studied them all carefully. Nobody was smiling. But he knew by now that that meant nothing with the Nihon-Jan. He sensed there was a joke that he was missing, but he couldn’t think of a way to find out what it might be. Best maintain his dignity, he thought.

“Well, I should think so,” he told them, and rode on.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2eSpv7w

The Blackhope Enigma by Teresa Flavin

The Blackhope Enigma, by Teresa Flavin, was published in 2011 by Candlewick Press.

For centuries, Blackhope Tower has remained an enigma. Rumors abound that skeletons have been known to mysteriously appear in the middle of a labyrinth found in the most famous of its rooms—The Mariner’s Chamber. When fourteen-year-old Sunni Forrest visits the tower and watches as her stepbrother, Dean, disappears, seemingly into the painting itself, she goes in search of him—and finds herself drawn into the heart of the Blackhope Enigma.

Rating: 2/5

I very nearly stopped reading The Blackhope Enigma about a third of the way through it. The writing is amateurish (needless descriptions and explanations, melodramatic villain lines, clunky action and lots of telling rather than showing), the characters are forgettable (also, don’t ask how many times I pronounced Sunni’s name as SOON-EE rather than SON-EE because of the spelling), and the whole thing hinges on a premise that is barely explained and not incorporated well.

However, the story does pick up a little and gets slightly more interesting once the characters make their way into the inner-inner painting (there’s the surface painting, then the inner painting where things are alive, and then apparently an inner-inner painting). Of course, then the book adds another melodramatic villain character and the obligatory mysterious handsome sorcerer, so it doesn’t really get any better in quality. But it became interesting enough for me to read it all the way through, though it never passed beyond merely bearable.

I like the idea that Flavin is trying to get across, but unfortunately, she executed it poorly. I think the concept of an enchanted painting is a good one and if Flavin was a better writer the book as a whole would have been a much better success. But Sunni, Dean and Blaise never become more than stock characters, stumbling around a world that is a good idea conceptually but poorly designed and implemented. I never get any sense of real danger from the villains or the world and the ending is clunky and contrived. The Blackhope Enigma is certainly an enigma—I still don’t know how I managed to finish reading the entire thing.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Middle Grade

“All you knew was that we had disappeared—not how we got in.”

“Well, let’s just say we looked at it from a new angle and got a result.”

“But I asked Mr. Bell about Corvo and the painting after Sunni and Dean had disappeared, and he didn’t tell my anything. Why would he do that?”

“Knowing Lorimer, it was so you wouldn’t get too curious and follow the others into the painting,” Angus said. “He was trying to protect you.”

“From what?” asked Blaise.

“From never getting out again.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2ukyoKO

Stolen Magic by Gail Carson Levine

Stolen Magic, by Gail Carson Levine, was published in 2015 by Harper. It is the sequel to A Tale of Two Castles.

Elodie, the dragon Masteress Meenore, and the ogre County Jonty Um are all on their way to Elodie’s home island of Lahnt. Just five weeks before, Elodie left for the town of Two Castles with nothing but a single copper in her purse, and now she is returning a professional dragon detective’s assistant and friend to a count! Elodie has barely set foot on Lahnt before she learns that it is in terrible danger. The Replica, a statue that keeps a deadly volcano from erupting, has been stolen from its mountain home. If the Replica isn’t found in three days, a mountain will be destroyed and its inhabitants will be killed. And when Elodie is left without her companions, she has to use her wits to try to unravel a tangled web of lies and save her island home.

Rating: 2/5

I didn’t think Stolen Magic was half as good as A Tale of Two Castles. It has that “tacked-on sequel due to popular demand” feel to it, where the author tries to recapture the essence of the first novel and fails. The plot tries to be a decent mystery but there are so many characters introduced all at once that it’s hard to follow and the world seems small and cramped compared to the first novel. There’s also way too many logical leaps done at the very beginning, with Elodie immediately jumping to “The Replica’s been stolen!” even though there’s really no believable way she could have reached that conclusion as quickly as she did. In addition, the entire book pretty much takes place in one area, and most of the time the characters are simply talking at a table.

Even Levine seemed to realize how inactive the plot was, and so interspersed the mystery aspect with snapshots of Jonty Um, andeventually Meenore, helping the inhabitants of Lahnt escape to safety. But those are so obviously placed there to increase the pace that it makes the book seem sloppily put together. It also makes it so that the reader knows some things before the characters, which I never like because that sort of anticipation as the reader waits for the characters to catch up is rarely done well. It tends to become more irritation than anticipation.

Stolen Magic is, in a way, aptly named, because it steals the magic found in the first book right out of existence and turns it into a trudge of a mystery that’s only slightly interesting. All the “bee” characters introduced all at once made things hard to follow, there was too much talking across tables and too many back-and-forth accusations, and the whole thing felt rushed and poorly done. Sequels written years after the first book are rarely done well, because they often tend to reek of fan service and poorly-conceived thinking and plotting. And, unfortunately, it looks like even Gail Carson Levine, as divine as some of her books are, is not immune to this sort of blunder.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Might the thief escape in your absence, Madam, now that the blizzard has ended?”

“He wouldn’t get far on foot in this snow. If he wanted a horse, he’d have to come here.”

“He or she wouldn’t get far. If he or she wanted…Lodie, can you forgo sleep tonight?”

She nodded. She’d done so before for IT.

“High Brunka, can you show Lodie in secret where the Replica had been kept?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2t1XQqV

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly, was published in 2009 by Henry Holt.

The summer of 1899 is hot in Calpurnia’s sleepy Texas town, and there aren’t a lot of good ways to stay cool. Her mother has a new wind machine from town, but Callie might just have to resort to stealthily cutting off her hair, one sneaky inch at a time. She also spends a lot of time at the river with her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist. It turns out that every drop of river water is teeming with life—all you have to do is look through a microscope! As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and learns just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.

Rating: 4/5

For some reason, I wasn’t expecting The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate to be as good or as engaging as I found it to be. It was humorous, interesting, and surprisingly much lighter in tone and material than I expected it to be. I kept expecting something sad or dangerous to happen throughout (perhaps because of its Newbery Honor status) and—spoiler?—nothing did.

I was worried going in that the book was going to be very heavy on Darwinian evolution and I had no interest in reading a book that very clearly pushed an agenda (*cough*ScottWesterfeld*cough*). However, the book focuses mainly on natural selection and general observation and scientific method, and while some mentions of the clash between Genesis and Darwin’s theory are in the book, they’re dealt with much more matter-of-factly and historically, and less politically, which I liked.

What I didn’t like is the whole “girl hates what girls did back then and tries to be more progressive and feels stifled by her unprogressive society” trope. I’m thinking it’s because I’m an adult and so this sort of thing doesn’t really jive with me anymore. I’m past the point where I need to be told that I can be a naturalist if I want to. I’m past the point where I need to be told that it’s fine if I don’t know how to cook (but, seriously, housekeeping skills are dead useful. Where are the books where boys learn how to sew?). At least the grandfather states how he had to learn to knit during the war. That redeemed the trope for me a little.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is surprisingly (at least, for me) light-hearted, which actually made it a little disjointed for me. I kept expecting something bad to happen and kept seeing hints of things cropping up, only to find out that I was completely wrong. However, I still enjoyed the novel, despite the prominent archetype/trope present, which, to give credit where it’s due, is at least historically rooted and it make sense for Kelly to include it. I just wish it wasn’t also combined with “wild child” at the same time. I don’t see why Callie couldn’t have sewed well and also wanted to be a naturalist, but perhaps the uneven balance is necessary for a book aimed at middle-grade readers.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

“Anyway, as a thank-you, the great man sent me the bottled beast you see on the shelf next to the armadillo. It is my most prized possession.”

“Excuse me?” I said, looking up from the trilobite.

“The bottled beast you see there on the shelf.”

I looked at the monster in the thick glass carboy, with its freakish eyes and multiple limbs.

“It is a Sepia officinalis he collected near the Cape of Good Hope.”

“Who collected it?”

“We are speaking of Mr. Darwin.”

“We are?” I couldn’t believe it. “He sent you that?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2tOgzpD

Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke

Dragon Rider, by Cornelia Funke, was published in 2004 by Chicken House.

Firedrake, Ben, and their furry friend, Sorrel, are in search of the mythical place where dragons can live in peace forever. Together they embark on a journey that takes them to magical lands where they meet marvelous creatures—and one ruthless villain. Along the way, they will discover allies in odd places, courage they didn’t know they had, and a hidden destiny that changes everything.

Rating: 3/5

Dragon Rider is not a bad book by any means. It is a fairly entertaining, suspense-filled tale of a dragon’s search for a home and the people, animals, and magical creatures that help him along the way. There’s a villain who is suitably villainous, a spy, a djinn, and lots and lots of travel. There’s nothing remarkably wrong with it nor are there any large flaws beyond character likeability (a subjective area, anyway).

However, Dragon Rider lacks something which makes it truly great. I’m not sure if it’s wonder, charm, imagination, or what, but there is a flatness that runs throughout the book that makes it one step short of enticing. It never goes beyond; it always stays comfortable and safe. I’m not sure if it’s because this is one of Funke’s first books (okay, more like fifth, but it’s still one of her early ones), if it’s the translation barrier (this was first written in German), or if this is just how Funke writes, but there is definitely some depth or something missing that is noticeable to someone who reads as many books as I do.

I remember quite liking this book as a kid, and I think I read it a couple of times, but, strangely, I barely remembered it—it didn’t have nearly as powerful an impression on me as some of the other books I read when I was younger. Maybe it has something to do with the flatness of the whole book, the rote-ness of it, the imaginative aspect of it that is so formulaic it loses its imaginativeness, if that makes sense.

Also, Sorrel was annoying.

I enjoyed Dragon Rider, but it didn’t grab me. It did nothing to make me remember it and, sadly, it did nothing to make me want to grab another book by Funke and dive in. I’ve actually read The Thief Lord, Inkheart, and Inkspell, many years ago, but I don’t have an inclination to reminisce; I didn’t before reading Dragon Rider and I don’t now. That doesn’t mean I won’t read another Funke book; it just means I’ll be hard-pressed before I pick one up.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Gilbert leaned slightly forward and whispered, “You’re not the only ones looking for the Rim of Heaven.”

“What?” gasped Sorrel, taken aback.

“Ravens have been turning up here for years,” Gilbert went on, still in a whisper. “Very peculiar ravens, if you ask me. They ask questions about the Rim of Heaven, but what they’re really interested in is the dragons said to be hiding there. Naturally I haven’t told them anything about the dragons in my dear cousin Rosa’s part of the world.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2sn4qE3

Halt’s Peril by John Flanagan

Halt’s Peril, by John Flanagan, was published in 2010 by Philomel. It is the sequel to The Kings of Clonmel.

Rangers walk the line between life and death every day, but never before has that line appeared so thin or death felt so certain. Hot on the trail of the Outsiders—a cult that’s been making its way from kingdom to kingdom, connoting the innocent out of their few valuables—Will and Halt are ambushed by the cult’s deadly assassins. Pierced by a poisoned arrow, Will’s mentor is near death and in dire need of the one antidote that can save his life. Time is not on Will’s side as he journeys day and night through the harsh terrain to Grimsdell Wood in search of the one person with the power to cure Halt: Malkallam the Sorcerer.

Rating: 3/5

The Kings of Clonmel may have been, in my opinion, the best of the “Part 1’s” of Ranger’s Apprentice, but Halt’s Peril may be the worst “Part 2.” That’s not to say the book isn’t good—it’s Ranger’s Apprentice; of course it’s good. But it lacks the intensity of some of the earlier books and the relatively slow pace throughout the middle of the book—despite the fast paced events dealing with Halt being poisoned—drags the plot on a little. It’s weird to say that a book is slow-paced when it’s at its most intense, every-second-counts moment, but something was certainly off about the pacing of this book. Or maybe the problem is that I found the resolution with Tennyson to be unsatisfying and anti-climactic after the exciting parts that came before it.

Speaking of exciting parts, I haven’t read this book in ten or so years and I vividly remembered one scene dealing with Will and the Genovesan right at the tail end of the poisoning plot. As in, I remembered what happened and what the characters said almost exactly—it was such a pivotal, stand-out moment in the book that it stood out to me and remained in my memory even after ten (or so) years. That part of the book shows just how far Will has come—as well as how far he will go to protect the ones he loves. And that ice-cold statement at the end of that particular chapter. Dang. No wonder it stuck in my brain.

I wouldn’t say Ranger’s Apprentice is declining in quality, but Halt’s Peril was a bit of a misstep in several respects. While it featured a gripping, tense plot midway through the book, the lead-up to that part, and the resolution that followed it, weren’t as good, resulting in me having an oddly dissatisfied feeling when I finished. After all that tension, the ending could not stand up to the rest and felt anticlimactic and overly prolonged. I suppose it was only natural that Ranger’s Apprentice would falter a little bit, and I’m glad it happened nine books in as opposed to sooner, but it’s still a little disappointing.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

Horace swung the cloak around him delightedly. Even though it was made for Halt’s smaller frame, the Ranger cloaks were of such a capacious design that it fitted him reasonably well. It would be far too short, of course, but on horseback that didn’t matter too much.

“I’ve always wanted one of these,” Horace said, grinning at the cloak. He pulled the deep cowl up over his head, hiding his face in its shadows, and gathered the gray-brown folds around him.

“Can you still see me?” he asked.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2sOIG6M

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss, was first published in 1812. I read the 1992 Bantam Classic version.

“For many days we had been tempest-tossed…the raging storm increased in fury until on the seventh day all hope was lost.” From these dire opening lines, a delightful story of adventure begins. One family will emerge alive from this terrible storm: the Robinsons—a Swiss pastor, his wife, and four sons, plus two dogs and a shipload of livestock, hens, pigeons, and geese! Inspired by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, this heartwarming tale portrays a family’s struggle to create a new life for themselves on a strange and fantastic tropical island. There each boy must learn to control his own nature—such as Ernest’s bookishness and Fritz’s hot temper—as their adventures lead to amazing discoveries, danger, and tantalizing surprises, including a puzzling message tie to an albatross’s leg. But it is the authenticity of the boys’ behavior, the ingenuity of the family, and the natural wonders of this exotic land that have made The Swiss Family Robinson, first published in 1812-1813, one of the world’s best-loved and most enduring stories of shipwreck and survival.

Rating: 4/5

I owned the Children’s Great Illustrated Classics version of The Swiss Family Robinson and read it many times when I was young. The entire concept of an island paradise where a family has to live off the land and does so successfully (and lives in a tree house!) fascinated me. I knew as I got older that the book I owned was abridged, but I wasn’t sure of how much had actually been cut out. So, I decided to pick it up to read the full thing for the first time—and also I wanted to relive that island paradise fantasy of mine.

Now, reading the original as an adult, I can see how silly that fantasy was—not because it’s wrong to imagine things like that, but because—realist that I am—I had a hard time believing that so much variety in animal and plant life would be on that island. I know there are penguins on Madagascar, so it’s not too much of a long shot to have penguins on an island in the Indian Ocean somewhere, but penguins and ostriches and lions and bears and seals and capybaras and jackals and hyenas and the myriad of other animals that are living on this apparently very large island? That’s a bit of a stretch. And yes, it makes for a great and fascinating tale, fulfilling all the “wild animal tamer” fantasies of many children (who doesn’t want to ride an ostrich?), but as an adult, it’s a bit harder to swallow.

That’s not to say I didn’t like the book. Even if the exact descriptions of planting, killing, skinning, crafting, cooking, etc. were a little wearing after a while, I still enjoyed the basic message and plot behind all the (oftentimes boring) details. Even if the tree house wasn’t as big or as majestic as I remember (thanks, Disney), I still liked the concept of a family surviving and thriving after what could have been a deadly accident.

The book gets a little preachy at times, but that’s common in a lot of 19th century literature. For the most part, Wyss devotes his time to describing how the family survives with a few interludes from the father about thankfulness and providence—not a bad thing to emphasize, just delivered a little clumsily.

The Swiss Family Robinson wasn’t as thrilling and imaginatively fantastic as I remember it being, but it still hits all the “shipwrecked on a deserted island” boxes—and then some! The emphasis on the technicalities of how the Robinson’s survived is, perhaps, a bit much at times, and it’s hard to believe that any island could be as varied in flora and fauna as the one the Robinson’s are on, but there’s still wonder and fascination to be had when reading it. However, even after reading the original, I think the Children’s Illustrated Classic edition will still be the one that has the biggest stamp on my mind and memory—it was just that fascinating to me.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

“Stop, stop, my boy!” cried I. “All will be done in good time. Tomorrow and the day after will bring work of their own. And tell me, did you see no traces of our shipmates?”

“Not a sign of them, either on land or sea, living or dead,” he replied.

“But the sucking pig,” said Jack, “where did you get it?”

“It was one of several,” said Fritz, “which I found on the shore; most curious animals they are. They hopped rather than walked, and every now and then would squat down on their legs and rub their snouts with their forepaws. Had not I been afraid of losing them all, I would have tried to catch one alive, they seemed so tame.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2rI2vtD

Poison is Not Polite by Robin Stevens

Poison is Not Polite, by Robin Stevens, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster. It is the sequel to Murder is Bad Manners.

When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong visit Daisy’s sprawling countryside estate for the holidays, Daisy’s mother throws her daughter an extravagant birthday tea party. Then one of the guests falls mysteriously ill—and everything points to poison. With wild storms preventing anyone from leaving (and the police from arriving), Daisy’s home is suddenly a very dangerous place to be. Everyone is keeping secrets. When someone very close to Daisy look suspicious, the Wells and Wong Detective Society must do everything they can to reveal the truth…no matter the consequences.

Rating: 4/5

Poison is Not Polite (Arsenic for Tea in the UK) continues the fun, charming yet surprisingly deep at times story that I found so delightful about Murder is Bad Manners. Daisy and Hazel are back with another murder mystery, this one establishing a bit more character for Daisy as her family members are all suspects.

I didn’t know whether or not I liked Daisy in the first book, and although this book gave her a bit more development I still don’t know how I feel. I found her a little less annoying in Poison because I understood her character better, but she’s not a character type I’ve ever really liked so the jury’s still out on her. Hazel, however, is delightful and Kitty and Beany are great additions to the detective society as well.

I found the mystery in this one a little more obvious than Murder—as well as some of the other reveals—but I also fell into the same kind of thinking that Daisy and Hazel did, which meant the reveal was still a surprise, if only in its execution as opposed to its “whodunit” value. Stevens is a remarkably good mystery writer, not just in putting together the pieces of a puzzle but also in having her characters figure it out. Hazel and Daisy never take logical leaps or stretch the evidence more than is warranted; everything is carefully thought out and executed by Stevens, which makes for a nice, natural flow to the book as a whole.

I’m still going to hold out on a 5/5 rating for this series until one of the books completely blows me away. Poison is Not Polite is great, but not excellent, and even though I’m thoroughly enjoying the series so far, the “wow” factor is not quite there yet. Good mystery and characters aside, there’s still something missing—and I’m not quite sure what it is yet.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade

“How handsome!” Aunt Saskia was staring at the watch, and her eyes were glinting. She looked as though she wanted to lick her lips.

“Oh—this?” asked Mr. Curtis jauntily. “A memento. I do like having beautiful things around me.”

“Do you indeed?” asked Uncle Felix, in his most silky voice.

They stared at each other down across the table. Everything had suddenly become very tense.

“Goodness!” cried Lady Hastings. “What has got into you all? We ought to be celebrating. Let’s have a toast. To the party! May this weekend be absolutely perfect!”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2sybnmL