Monday, November 19, 2018

THE BOOK OF BOY by Catherine Gilbert Murdoch

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdoch (February, 2018, Greenwillow, 288 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the book jacket):  What a fine story this is!
                                                         For who does not want to read
                                                                about such things?
                                                          A boy who can talk to animals.
                                                          A terrifying, perilous journey
                                                                full of bravery and daring.
                                                           Knights and bandits and
                                                                ghosts and thieves.
                                                           Howling wolves, heroic
                                                                donkeys, and a bag of bones.
                                                           Lords, ladies, liars, and
                                                                 riches beyond compare.
                                                           And mysteries and miracles--
                                                                  of the sort that concern
                                                                  the living and the dead.

Why I recommend it:   The voice is superbBoy himself tells the tale in first person. Masterful writing, a compelling plot, and intriguing characters (especially Boy and Secundus, a mysterious pilgrim who hires hunchbacked Boy to carry his pack on a pilgrimage) make this a novel you MUST read. Plus, the research is most impressive and the book jacket and chapter headings are beautifully designed.

I was still hospitalized when this book came out in February, so I completely missed it, but thankfully, the publisher recently sent me a copy, in exchange for an honest review. Set in 1350 Europe, this is a compelling, funny, earthy and yet religious tale, reminiscent of Chaucer, though with a touch of magical realism. I had no trouble divining the mystery of who Boy really is, but I'm sure an 8 or 9 year old would be kept guessing.

Favorite lines: Last night's conversation flooded my mind. I carried a rib of Saint Peter, the first pope of Rome--me, a humble goatherd!  (from p. 28)

Catherine Gilbert Murdoch's website

Have you read The Book of Boy?  What did you think?

Monday, October 15, 2018

IN YOUR SHOES by Donna Gephart for MMGM

In Your Shoes by Donna Gephart (October 9, 2018, Delacorte Press, 336 pages, for ages 8 to 12).

Synopsis (from the publisher):  

Miles is an anxious boy who loves his family's bowling center.

Amy is the new girl at school, who tries to write her way to her own happily-ever-after and does not want to live above her uncle's funeral home

Then Miles and Amy meet in the most unexpected way... and it is the beginning of everything.

Why I recommend it: The publisher's synopsis doesn't tell you much, but this is one of those sort-of-sad-but-not-too-sad books about a dead mother, specifically Amy's. However, Miles is dealing with his own grief, having recently lost his beloved grandmother. But the way they meet is more like slapstick humor (his bowling shoe, tossed in the air, meets her forehead) and there's a lot of realistic middle-school awkwardness along the way. I'd almost tag this Upper MG because one of the major plot points involves a school dance and the ensuing drama. 

The characters are delightfully real, the dialogue is spot-on, and the setting is small-town Pennsylvania (woo hoo!). There's a wonderful, caring librarian named Mr. Schu (which, no doubt, some of you will understand, besides the obvious homonym). The only thing I could have done without is the nosy narrator intruding every once in a while. Just let me lose myself in the story! Don't keep reminding me it's a story.

It's not a big deal, though, because Donna Gephart has mastered this dual POV novel (in third person), and she's not afraid to delve into difficult questions of life and death, of shyness, and of overcoming odds, both physical and emotional. In lesser hands it would have fallen apart.

Favorite lines: (from p. 37)  Get up, sweets. You're not going to let a little thing like an airborne bowling shoe hold you back. Are you?

Amy shook her head in answer. She loved when her mom's voice floated into her head. It seemed to come when she needed it most, and it made her feel less alone, more brave.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The lure of the shiny new idea

If you're a writer...

You've probably had this happen to you. You're slogging away at revisions on your last manuscript (in my case, written in 2016 and revised a few times in 2017 before I was laid low by illness). And you're trying to make it better, stronger, more compelling, when you're struck by... THE SHINY NEW IDEA!

Yep. That's what happened to me. I quickly started a new notebook for ideas and scribbled down everything that occurred to me. It filled, oh, about three pages.

Then I waited....

And waited... Days went by. Then weeks.

And nothing else occurred to me. Having a shunt in my head makes me feel like all the creativity is being sucked out of my brain.

When a Shiny New Idea fizzles, what do YOU do?

Monday, September 17, 2018

SQUIRM by Carl Hiaasen (yes, it's about snakes, but very funny)

Squirm by Carl Hiaasen (on sale Sept 25, 2018, Alfred A.Knopf Books for Young Readers,  278 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the publisher)

Some facts about Billy Dickens:
* He once saw a biker swerve across the road in order to run over a snake.
* Later, that motorcycle somehow ended up at the bottom of a canal.
* Billy isn’t the type to let things go.

Some facts about Billy’s family:
* They’ve lived in six different Florida towns because Billy’s mom insists on getting a house near a bald eagle nest.
* Billy’s dad left when he was four and is a total mystery.
* Billy has just found his dad’s address–in Montana.

This summer, Billy will fly across the country, hike a mountain, float a river, dodge a grizzly bear, shoot down a spy drone, save a neighbor’s cat, save an endangered panther, and then try to save his own father.

Why I recommend it:  Like all of Carl Hiaasen's middle grade novels, this is hugely entertaining and hilarious. Billy displays just the right amount of middle-school sarcasm, without being annoying. There are non-stop shenanigans, each wilder than the last. This is exactly the kind of book MG readers LOVE.  And in his slightly snarky way, Billy makes you care about his missing Dad, and about endangered species and other wildlife. You'll learn a lot about Florida wildlife, especially birds and snakes, and--bonus!-- you'll learn just as much about Montana wildlife, like grizzly bears and caracaras. You'll also learn about the modern-day Crow native Americans and enough about quad-copters, or drones, to wish you owned one. They're very cool.

Personally, I hate snakes, but Billy has a healthy respect for them and knows how to handle them properly, leading to his reputation at school as "Snake Boy."

Favorite lines:  (from pg. 9) 

I google a picture of a wild-hog hunter who got bitten by a diamondback over near Yeehaw Junction. That's a real place, you can look it up. The hog hunter's arm is swollen thick as a pine stump. His fingers look like boiled purple sausages. I hold up the phone so that Kyle and his all-jock posse can see the photo. 

"That's what can happen," I say, "When you're not careful."

Kyle goes pale and edges back his chair. "Dude, you are a total psycho."

Visit Carl Hiaasen's website

Monday, August 27, 2018


THE THIRD MUSHROOM by Jennifer L. Holm (on sale September 4, 2018), Random House, 240 pages, for ages 8 to 12. Includes 17 pages of back matter, like the author's note about the discovery of penicillin, a list of recommended reading, and a gallery of scientists, which is fun because it reads as if Ellie wrote it.

Synopsis (from the publisher): Ellie’s grandpa Melvin is a world-renowned scientist . . . in the body of a fourteen-year-old boy. His feet stink, and he eats everything in the refrigerator–and Ellie is so happy to have him around. Grandpa may not exactly fit in at middle school, but he certainly keeps things interesting. When he and Ellie team up for the county science fair, no one realizes just how groundbreaking their experiment will be. The formula for eternal youth may be within their reach! And when Ellie’s cat, Jonas Salk, gets sick, the stakes become even higher. But is the key to eternal life really the key to happiness? Sometimes even the most careful experiments yield unexpected–and wonderful–results.

Why I recommend it: This breezy and hilarious sequel to THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH  is almost better than the first book. It's funny, of course, but there's more to it this time, with even a slyly age-appropriate hint of romance, er, two romances (I won't spoil anything for you, but they may not be what you expect!). And, besides, it's just plain fun. I read the review copy in one day and then had a whopping headache. But it was so worth it.  (And don't worry! The headache went away by the time I went to bed.) Sometimes you just need a book like this. The characters are perfect, the dialogue spot-on, and the premise fascinating. Put it all together and you have a rollicking MG novel which is a sheer delight to read.

Favorite line:  (from p. 5) Middle school is like jail: the food is terrible, you're forced to exercise, and it's the same boring routine every day.

Monday, July 23, 2018


The Girl with More than One Heart by Laura Geringer Bass, (2018, Amulet Books, 233 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the book jacket):  When Briana’s father dies, she imagines she has a new heart growing inside her. It speaks to her in her Dad’s voice. Some of its commands are mysterious.

Find Her! it says. Be Your Own!

How can Briana “be her own” when her grieving mother needs her to take care of her demanding little brother all the time? When all her grandpa can do is tell stories instead of being the “rock" she needs? When her not-so-normal home life leaves no time to pursue her dream of writing for the school literary magazine? When the first blush of a new romance threatens to be nipped in the bud? Forced by the loss of her favorite parent to see all that was once familiar with new eyes, Briana draws on her own imagination, originality, and tender loving heart to discover a surprising path through the storm.

Why I recommend it: The writing is superb. It gives this book a luminous and lovely quality, one you can't tear yourself away from.  Briana is so compelling a character, you feel every bit of her grief, working through all the stages with her. She could easily be a real 13-year-old. Perhaps one you know.

The northern Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood becomes a vibrant character in this book. Although I lived in Manhattan for two years, I never went to Inwood. But the author brings it fully to life here, making me wish I'd seen it for myself.

Favorite lines (oh, there are so many! I'll try to limit myself)

p. 23  When he was tired or upset he always drooped like that, as if his skull were heavier on that side. It made him look like a dandelion someone had stepped on but not quite crushed.

p.44  Mom shows me how to paint and glue paper wings on the clothespins. We work with our heads close together. Mom's curly hair brushes my cheek. Clamped down tight with little handmade guardian angels, our clothes dance on the line, casting long shadows.

p, 66  I settled in next to him, fitting comfortably into the shape his shadow made as he leaned against the wall. It was good to have a friend big enough to make shade.

Visit Laura Geringer Bass's author page.

Monday, June 4, 2018


From the publisher

JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS by Melissa Sarno  (June 5, 2018,  Knopf /Penguin Random House, 240 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

SYNOPSISIS (from the publisher):

Can you still have a home if you don't have a house?

Always think in threes and you'll never fall, Cora's father told her when she was a little girl. Two feet, one hand. Two hands, one foot. That was all Cora needed to know to climb the trees of Brooklyn.

But now Cora is a middle schooler, a big sister, and homeless. Her mother is trying to hold the family together after her father's death, and Cora must look after her sister, Adare, who's just... different, their mother insists. Quick to smile, Adare hates wearing shoes, rarely speaks, and appears untroubled by the question Cora can't help but ask: How will she find a place to call home?

After their room at the shelter is ransacked, Cora's mother looks to an old friend for help, and Cora finally finds what she has been looking for: Ailanthus altissima, the "tree of heaven," which can grow in even the worst conditions. It sets her on a path to discover a deeper truth about where she really belongs.

Why I recommend it:

I love finding a new MG author and a new book that touches me deeply while also appealing to readers who are looking for "issue books". This one is so much more than an issue book. It's bursting with character, voice, and a gorgeous sense of place. Even if you've never been to Brooklyn, you'll feel you've known it forever. Mostly, though, it's Cora who will grab your heart from the first page.

Imagine how thrilled I was to receive a review copy from Knopf of JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS. I've been following Melissa for many years on social media and I could tell by her posts that she's a wonderful writer. Now you can find out for yourself by buying and reading this lovely book. The story line is captivating. The characters feel ultra-real, the metaphors and similes are gorgeous. I can't wait to see what Melissa comes up with next.

Favorite lines:

From p. 3: Adare was born special, Mom always says. She tells the story like it's a legend. She talks about the wind that night, in its quickening swirl... She talks about the moment Adare came into the world without a sound ---Not blue, no, more like lavendar, like sunset--and in that moment all the oxygen gone from the world, the trees forgetting to breathe their gift, Adare forgetting, too.

From p. 86: Meredith Crane parades past, her friends cascading behind her like a frilly gown draping the floor.

Visit Melissa Sarno

Monday, May 14, 2018

THE PENDERWICKS AT LAST -- the final installment of the Penderwicks series!

Image result for the penderwicks at last

THE PENDERWICKS AT LAST by Jeanne Birdsall, (May 15, 2018, Alfred A. Knopf, 294 pages,for ages 8 to 12 )

I loved every minute of this delightful novel for middle grade readers. If you're looking for gentle (but not prissy), funny (but not goofy) family stories, and especially if you devoured the first four books from Jeanne Birdsall, you'll adore this lovely middle grade novel. Perhaps even more so because it's the last of the five-book series.  It's ostensibly about Rosalind's upcoming wedding -- a homemade event that the Penderwicks decide to hold at Arundel, where it all began. Rather fitting, I'd say.. There's also an important subplot about making new friends when you're a shy tween.

This book reminded me of my own childhood. And of spring melting into summer.. The child you first met as a toddler in THE PENDERWICKS IN SPRING, Lydia or Lids, as her older sisters call her, is now a tween.

And wow! All the girls from the first books are actually... grown up.  Or growing up. Even Batty, who's now in high school. The return to Arundel and the presence of Jeffrey and even Mrs. Tifton (the villain of the first book) made me smile. Best of all, Rosalind's getting married! But we see it all from Lydia's point of view.

A well-developed plot, realistic characters who feel like people you know, and cameos from all your favorite characters, like Hitch, the three-legged dog, add to the charm. Picking up this book each time (I can no longer read a book in one sitting, unfortunately -- see previous post) was like joining a fun gathering of loved ones. Every day,  I eagerly looked forward to my precious afternoon reading time.

Jeanne Birdsall's website

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Part 2 of What Happened to Me


There's a very good reason I never responded to those comments (thank you all for your good wishes) from my last post  about what happened to me in the six months prior to that.  I posted that on January 22, 2018. And I remember feeling pretty good then.

Within days I was back in the hospital with a shunt infection. Since then I've been through another five months of illness and recuperation, including a month in the hospital (three different operations and I now have shunt #4) and a few months in rehab.  I don't remember most of it. Then I finally came home and had about six weeks with home health care -- physical and speech therapists who came to our house at our convenience to work with me. They all just discharged me this week and all told me I made amazing progress. A few even admitted they weren't sure I was ever going to come back to what I had been.

I'm thankful to be back. To be able to talk. To know what year it is, what day it is. And besides everything you would expect me to be grateful for (family, friends, etc), I'm thankful I can still type. And I can still read. But I won't be posting reviews very often because I find reading (and writing) for more than ten to fifteen minutes at a time gives me nasty headaches. And anyone with my history needs to pay attention to headaches.

But I read some gorgeous children's books this spring as I've recuperated, so I'll be telling you about them in my next few posts. 

Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers reading this post!

Monday, January 22, 2018

Where I've been and what happened to me

"I would really rather feel bad in Maine than feel good anywhere else."  
                                  E. B. White

Where I've been and what happened to me:

I'm going off topic here. Anyone who knows me or has followed this blog for a while knows that I survived a ruptured brain aneurysm in 2005. I always felt lucky, not just because I survived something most people don't but because it was the only aneurysm in my brain.

Until recently.

On September 29, 2017, my husband and I were enjoying the first full day of another vacation in Maine (we wanted to see the fall foliage) and at dinner I said to him, "I think you better take me to the hospital". Not that I have any memory of this. 

Nor do I remember that next eight weeks.

Doctors at Maine Medical Center found two more aneurysms on the basilar artery (the same artery as my 2005 rupture) and one had ruptured. They coiled it and later also installed a shunt, to drain the excess blood in my brain. 

It was a long recuperation (in fact, I'm still recuperating, even though I'm home now). After a month in the hospital, I went to a rehab center in Maine. And after six weeks there, they allowed us to come home to Pennsylvania and transfer to a different rehab center. This second rehab center is the only part I remember. 

I don't know if those lost memories will ever come back to me, but in a way I'm not sorry. Who wants to remember being in pain, having your head cut open, and being hooked up to multiple machines?

When I look at these photos my husband took I feel like I'm looking at a stranger

I know that I'm extremely lucky -- to have survived a rupture not once but twice in twelve years. I also had wonderful nurses and doctors and a supportive husband who visited me every day (my kids came when they could).

So my purpose today is to not only raise awareness of brain aneurysms but to let you know the blog is going to change. I will no longer be reviewing children's books on a regular basis. I'll still talk about an occasional superior book (how could I resist?) but I also want to share photos and thoughts on other topics. So it'll be "my brain on" other topics, not just books.

Bear with me as the blog reinvents itself.

And for more information on aneurysms, visit the Brain Aneurysm Foundation's website.