The Water Seeker, by Kimberly Willis Holt

Born with a gift that he tries to hide, Amos struggles through life with the knowledge of his water-seeking ability. His Pa was a “dowser” as well, but he thought it was a curse, tying him to his work instead of the mountains where his true calling lay as a trapper. So Amos stuffs his skill way down, trying to forget so he can be like other boys.

Except, how can he? The water both calls to and terrifies him. How can you live a life that you yourself have torn in two?

waterseeker

This book had a crazy amount of potential. Seriously. But living up to the expectation of the description is easier said than done.

The one thing I could tell about this book: the author was in love with it. She was in love with her characters so much, she couldn’t drop any ideas that came into her head. What I mean to say is this: there was too much that happened in that story. The overall plot could have been summed into maybe half as long as the book actually was. In essence, she didn’t want it to end, and she couldn’t let anything go. If I was the editor, I would have ripped out whole chunks and then flung it back at her.

Typically, the reason a book is long is because one of two things needs to happen: a. lots of plot! Or b., serious character development. In this book, I felt like it was neither; it was just filled with lots of….stuff. You could say it was plot, but instead it was just hopping from one random Western-type story to the next. His childhood takes forever to come to an end by the time they hit the Oregon trail. At that point, he should have developed lots and lots of character, but instead he is a sort of vague and generic boy.

I think the idea of a character needs to be explored by the author. It felt like she thought that character meant all this stuff that was on the outside of the character, instead of digging to the heart of the issue. Amos could have struggled with extreme loneliness, depression, abandonment, trust issues and fear of a whole slough of things. Instead the author decided to give him talents and outward random oddities like birds following him and natural artistic ability. Those things do not set Amos up for a triumphant ending by wrapping up his internal struggle full circle. It sets up the ending to be evident and clear from the beginning, thus being less climactic and meaningful.

I would have preferred to see this book structured out a little more thoughtfully, and given a major edit before publishing.

A side note: kudos to Will Patton the narrator! Switching from a Southern accent to British with ease is no small feat. We really enjoyed his voices and creative voices.

UPDATE: This post was mostly finished before I finished the book, but the ending was so badly wrapped up and killed any tension that might have been building by pulling a “Ten Years Later”….. This was going to get a 3/5, but now it is 2/5. It was so bad we were all laughing as the narrator goes into the credits.

Overall Rating: 2/5

Violence: 3/10

Language: 2/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 3/10

Audience: ??? The beginning was awfully rough for a children’s book. Maybe 12 and up?

The Many Lives of John Stone, by Linda Buckley-Archer

Stella Park (Spark for short) has found summer work cataloging historical archives in John Stone’s remote and beautiful house in Suffolk, England. She wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and her uncertainty about living at Stowney House only increases upon arriving: what kind of people live in the twenty-first century without using electricity, telephones, or even a washing machine? Additionally, the notebooks she’s organizing span centuries—they begin in the court of Louis XIV in Versailles—but are written in the same hand. Something strange is going on for sure, and Spark’s questions are piling up. Who exactly is John Stone? What connection does he have to these notebooks? And more importantly, why did he hire her in the first place?

johnstone

I picked up this book on the “new Teen release” shelf, mostly being intrigued by the cover. Well, and the description, which turned out to be a little misleading. I actually thought the book was going to be super cool and built up this whole plot line before reading it. Now that I know that that is not what the book is about, I can use it myself if I ever wanted to. Yay! Except, I didn’t pick up the book so I could evolve my own plot, I wanted the book to be about what I thought it would be about. And it wasn’t.

It felt like the book lacked substance. Spark was about the most boring person in the world, and had no motives, interest, or any other part in the story except to being an outside person trying to understand the inside lives of a group of people who seem to be stuck in the past.

The premise of this book was good. There was a lot of potential to being a mystery story, except the author blotted out all the mystery by telling you everything at the beginning. Snore. Honestly, I actually didn’t finish the book. I got about halfway through, and then flipped to the end to see what happened in the ending. Why was I not surprised? A plot twist should be, well, a twist, not something you saw coming fifty miles away.

The writing was also severely choppy; it felt like the author’s first novel. In the first paragraph about Spark, she is saying goodbye to her mummy; the second paragraph she is sitting on a train thinking insignificant thoughts; the third paragraph she is in New York City and seeing her brother; the fourth paragraph she loves New York and thinking more insignificant thoughts. A lot of stuff was soooo dry; if I had been the editor I would have thrown it back at the writers face with big “X” marks over chunks of the first few chapters.

My sister and I have this character test. If you took anyone else in the whole world and gave them the same set of choices, would they have done the same exact things? 1. If you answered that there were no questions asked in the whole story, then you have got a lot of plot and ideas but way not enough character development; those types of stories are ones where the character is swept into the action without any choice. 2. If the story presented complex questions but the character has an interesting backstory that conflicts or decides which they answer, then the story has a crazy amount of promise, but at that point authors often lack plot. 3. And then there are stories which often have a little bit of both, but the questions asked are sort of one-track, like yes or no, but even though this sounds a bit shallow it is these stories which often have the best balance of plot and character.

The Many Lives of John Stone perfectly describes the first example: Spark isn’t really asked any questions at all and is sort of just there as a narrator, BUT in order for this story to have worked, it would have needed a huge amount of both mystery and action. There wasn’t enough of either for the story to be a favorite.

The Hunger Games gives one good example of the 2nd type of story; while I don’t particularly find Katniss to be a complex character (most life and death questions are simple in this case), she does make one choice at the end of the first book that is a little more complex. During most of the story, she is given yes or no questions, such as, “would you give up your life to save your sister”; while this may seem like a hard question to ask, it still is a yes or no answer. However, at the end of the Hunger Games, when Katniss and Peeta are the last two contenders and are told they must kill each other, Katniss makes a more complex choice. The basic question to most people would be, “do I kill Peeta or not?” But Katniss chooses to look at the basic question in a deeper way and finds a solution that requires backstory and a small amount of emotional understanding for the reader.

Harry Potter, in general, is a mixture of the first and third example. Most of the time, he isn’t give any questions but is thrown into a situation without a choice, or is given simple, easy questions. Example: He lives with his hated Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, who mistreat him horribly. When a giant of a man shows up on your doorstep telling you you are a wizard and asks if you want to learn more about magic at a magical school, what would you say? This is one of those wishy-washy questions; anyone in his position probably would have said yes considering his terrible relatives, but a lot would have said yes even without them. However, because there is a huge amount of plot and mystery the readers can more easily forgive Harry’s depth of character and still love the book to pieces.

All that being said (and sorry for the sidetrack, but I find it really interesting), there were a couple really bright spots in the book. The other characters were brilliant and awesome, just not the main character. It felt like a lot of the plot was driven by the other characters reaction to the main character instead of other way around. You might like this book if you enjoy the idea of time travel or immortality type stories.

Overall Rating: 2.5/5

Violence: 3/10

Language: 3/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 3/10

Audience: Ages 12 and up

Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool

When Abilene Tucker shows up on a train in Manifest, Kansas by herself, the sign reads, “Manifest: A Town With a Past”. Strange; that isn’t what her daddy Gideon told her it said. In fact, there are a lot of things Gideon told her that don’t match up about Manifest, the town where he grew up. Looking for more clues about Gideon around Manifest, Abilene is surprised to find that there is more to this town than meets the eye.

Tales of the mysterious ‘Rattler’ begin to pop up after Abilene finds a box of knick-knacks under the floorboards of a church. With her two new friends, Abilene begins a hunt to find out what happened to the Rattler, and Gideon, twenty years ago. Walking down the Path to Perdition, Abilene must face the reality the maybe Gideon isn’t coming back for her.

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My first inclination with this book was yes, it was very good. Well written, with interesting background and secret pasts and mysterious dodgy citizens. A well thought out plot, and lots of research. Basically, everything that a person with refined taste in style raves over, like a librarian or an English teacher that will assign it as reading, because it contains everything they’re looking for: history, character building and ethnic diversity. While I don’t consider my own tastes “refined” in any way, I am trying to look at this book from several different angles: the critical, factual perfectionist editor angle, and the potential forced to read this in Junior High angle (which I was not, but the Newberry status of the book makes it the perfect candidate).

From the critical standpoint, I have absolutely nothing to say that was bad on a technicality. The writing style was unique, the story well-told, and an overall good feeling of coming together-ness from a town that fell apart 20 years earlier during WWI.

But (again, theoretically, I am not this kid), coming from the perspective of a kid who loves the Hunger Games and Maze Runner and all the other gripping popular teen fiction that lacks finesse, this book is going to be the book that puts them to sleep. “Why should I care about topics like character building or ethnic diversity?”

Personally, I liked this book. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, but I thought it was deep enough to enjoy, especially for a children’s book. It’s sort like the next step up from the American Girl series, but better and less girly. If you really enjoyed those books, then this is your cup of tea.

Overall Rating: 4/5

Violence: 2/10

Language: 1/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 1/10

Audience: 8 and up

The Marvels, by Brian Selznick

In 1766 a tale, told in pictures, reveals the story of the Marvels. Beginning with Billy Marvel, survivor of a shipwreck at sea, the saga of theater-bound generations are not spoken, but shown descendant after descendant.

Fast forward to 1990. Joseph Jervis has runaway from school to find his Uncle Albert, an unknown relative who might just hold the key to the adventure Joseph is looking for. Upon arrival, Joseph finds that it isn’t his uncle, but the house he lives in, that brings more mystery about his family’s past than he even knew existed.

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When I said that the first story was told in pictures, I meant it. Brian Selznick himself sketched over 300 pages of pictures, so don’t be intimidated by this book’s size. The total amount of time it took to read this book isn’t very long, even if you take your time soaking in the pictures. Also, don’t get to thinking that this is a picture book; the plot is too big for that.

It was such a beautiful story. This is one of the books where you get so invested in characters that it’s hard to let the book end, especially the illustrations. I was really struck with the emotions which aren’t really said in the book, but once you take a minute to see what’s going on on the inside, almost a secret second plot, things like grief, overwhelming loss, and seeing things in a deeper sense even if it’s only inside your head become apparent.

One of the more interesting things about this story is that, all in all, there was a lot of plot for the amount of story that happened, but that wasn’t actually a lot. If you could pack the entire book into a summary, you could, but that awesome sense of unfolding doesn’t happen. Like I said, the actual read time isn’t long but in the end it turns out to be so simple that it makes you wonder at how well it is written.

Another fantastic book by Brian Selznick, who also wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which still is one of my favorite books of all time. The review is here. I look forward to reading Wonderstruck.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Violence: 1/10

Language: 2/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 3/10 (It is briefly stated that two men were in a relationship, but I was surprised by the way it played out. It could fly over some kid’s heads it was so brief, but then again it might not. For me it didn’t take away from the book at all.)

Audience: Ages 10 and up; the general themes are too grim for anyone younger. Personal taste can vary hugely as to what age can read this.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

Hugo has kept the secret of his notebook from everyone he knows, even if he doesn’t know many people at all. But especially from his uncle, his only living relative. Arguably, Hugo’s very existence of living among the clocks in the walls of the train station in Paris is a secret, keeping them well-oiled and running.

When Hugo’s Uncle Claude leaves and doesn’t come back to the train station, Hugo begins to wonder what will happen if the clocks stop working. He knows how to fix them, for the most part, but what will happen if the station inspector finds out he’s living alone? It would be straight to the orphanage, and then the secret of the notebook and what Hugo hides would be lost forever.

hugocabret

Have you seen this movie yet? If you’ve only just heard about it, please, please, please read the book first! The movie adaptation, named Hugo, is a relatively good movie, but it is just so much more awesome once you know the story. There is a lot left out, and the story is just told in a different way that keeps the mystery much better.

There are so many good things to say about this book! I’ve only read the book through the audio, narrated by Jeff Woodman (who is a personal family favorite), and to this day The Invention of Hugo Cabret is my dad’s favorite book and probably goes down in our history of books as ‘One of the bests’. I am looking forward to checking out the book, because it has only just now come to my attention that the book has beautiful illustrations as well. Double whammy!

Technically, this is historical fiction because it takes place sometime in the 1930’s, and there was some history involved which I would rather not say, but the story didn’t feel as involved with the rest of history as you would think. In other words, it doesn’t feel like your typical historical fiction.

The way the story unfolds is just fantastic, and even though I hesitate to say it is an action/adventure type story, it still had us on the edge of our seat as the mystery of who Hugo was is discovered. The way the tension builds into an inescapable fiasco is so perfect I don’t know what to say. Other than READ IT.

Overall Rating: 5/5

Violence: 2/10

Language: 0/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 1/10

Audience: Ages 7 and up

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

10-year old Ada and her brother Jamie live in London with England being on the cusp of WWII. With children being sent away with the threat of bombs, their mother, who doesn’t really like either of her children to begin with, decides to send Jamie away with the other children to avoid the contempt of the neighbors. Ada, however, is to be kept at home, because, as her Mam says, “No one wants to see that ugly foot”.

And it’s almost true. Ada has a twisted foot; too gnarled to be useful, and too painful to walk on. So Ada is confined to the one-bedroom apartment for most of her life. Up until now, of course. With the help of Jamie, she escapes the apartment and her cruel mother for a life with someone new. The English countryside is something completely new and different; so many new opportunities to discover who she really is, and what the world is really like.

Susan Smith, the woman who takes the siblings in, struggles with depression after the parting of her dear friend. With the arrival of Ada and Jamie, she recognizes how much care they have lacked. The only problem is that Ada fights everything; the need for help, the need for basic care, and the need for love. How can she accept everything, or anything, that Susan offers when she knows it can’t last forever?

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I checked this audio out from the library for a road trip, and the whole family enjoyed it. Even though it wasn’t a story that is usually my dad’s cup of tea, we all agreed that this book singularly has the best character depth and development of all time. We all cared so hard, and got pretty wrapped up in the story. This also has to be the most highest rated book on Goodreads, with almost every single review being 4 or 5 out of 5 stars.

Not only does Ada struggle with PTSD (not labeled as such in the book, but that was basically it) from her past with an abusive mother, she also can’t see any worth to herself. Being told she was the most hideous person on the face of the planet and that she wasn’t good for anything is probably the hardest thing for her to overcome. Over time, she begins to recognize that she isn’t exactly worthless, but the fact that her Mam will eventually come back and take them back to their dreaded past life seems to ruin everything as she tries to hard to NOT enjoy herself, and NOT to get used to the kind Susan.

It was all so satisfying; with each triumph of Ada finding new ways with which she can be useful and discovering new things she can do, it felt so justifying. The ending was very good; the only thing I didn’t like about the entire story was that I wanted to see some kind of reconciliation or explanation of Mam’s hatred towards them. It doesn’t ever really come around. To give you a little bit of perspective, she was a little like Miss Hannigan, but a bit worse.

All that good stuff being said, I don’t think that every single person will be interested in this book. While it is well done, it isn’t for those who can only read action/adventure type stuff.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Violence: 3/10 (cruelty from the mother, and also the war finds it’s way to the town they stay in, but it isn’t really graphic)

Language: 0/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 0/10

Audience: Ages 10 and up

Seer of Shadows, by Avi

The year is 1872, and Horace Carpentine is apprenticed to the Enoch Middleditch, a ‘society photographer’. Photography is a subject of fascination to Horace, but Mr. Middleditch is strict about Horace NOT taking any pictures. Yet.

When a wealthy woman comes to Mr. Middleditch wanting her picture taken to present at the grave of her dead daughter, the clever photographer cooks up a scheme to create a scam photo, a “spirit image”. Horace must play a part in the get-rich-quick plot by taking pictures of pictures of the dead girl, but is torn by his conscience as to whether the Mr. Middleditch’s self-righteous excuses are valid.

The plan to create the spirit image goes horribly wrong when Horace realizes that the pictures he takes are somehow correlated to the ghost of Eleanora Von Macht, who begins to show up in ways that he never expected. The scheme spirals downward as more and more photos turn into near-fatal accidents, and Horace realizes his photography may have brought Eleanora back to life.

seerofshadows

If you have children who like to occasionally be frightened, but not scared completely out of their wits, this is a great book! Just creepy enough to send shivers down your spine, but not enough to keep you up at night, but still not a good choice for sensitive kids.

I keep saying that I’m waiting for Avi to surprise me, and this book has made it’s way near the top of the list of favorite Avi books. It isn’t technically perfect; in the same Avi fashion, the characters are kind of blah without any real growth, but the plot and setting are just perfect! It’s kind of a short read, which is weird to me because it could have been made far longer. If you’re analyzing the book (like me), there were a couple small plot holes which can be willingly suspended by my disbelief, and the ending seemed a little….easy. The beginning takes a little while to make it’s point, but afterwards it pretty fast-paced. I finished the whole book in about 5 hours.

The process of early photography is discussed, which is fairly interesting, and whole idea of a ghost image scam is fascinating in itself. Definitely recommended. I might have possibly categorized it in horror, but I don’t think that any real children’s book should ever be put in horror.

Overall Rating: 4/5

Violence: 4/10 (creepiness also contributes)

Language: 0/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 1/10

Audience: Ages 11 and up.

Crispin: Cross of Lead, by Avi

“Asta’s Son” is all he’s ever been called. The lack of a name is appropriate, because he and his mother are but poor peasants in 14th century medieval England. But this thirteen-year-old boy who thought he had little to lose soon finds himself with even less – no home, no family, or possessions.

Accused of a crime he did not commit, he is proclaimed a ‘wolf’s head’, meaning anyone may kill him on sight. To remain alive, he flees his tiny village, his only possessions being a newly revealed name – Crispin – and his mother’s cross of lead.

crispin

There are a couple of interesting parts about this story that make Avi stand out.

I couldn’t figure out what Avi’s intentions were with Crispin. His character was a little confusing, and also a little passive. He’s supposed to be that way though, but it makes character growth tough because he suddenly comes across as caring a little too much all at once. However, Crispin’s companion takes the cake in his world philosophy, and thought provoking ideas.

The history aspect was fairly good, although I felt that some of the small details included may be uninteresting to non-history lovers, even though it set a good picture of Medieval poverty in my head. I would probably only recommend it to people who like historical fiction.

I didn’t feel like it was Newberry award-winning material, mostly because the plot is not particularly original for Avi. He has quite a few other books that touch on the subject of innocent-accused (True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, City of Orphans, etc.), so I’m still waiting for an Avi novel to surprise me. That being said, it is still a good story and one that kids will enjoy.

Note: it does have some violence, and some gruesome descriptions of several people, long dead. He did a careful job of making it kind of gross, but nothing that would probably stick in your head forever.

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Violence: 3.5/10 (some people, long dead, are gross; one part in which a man is impaled (very brief), and one part in which a man is stabbed (also very brief))

Language: 1/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 2/10 (nothing horrible, but there is a little bit of talk about the illegitimate children of a great Lord, which comes into play later)

Audience: Ages 10 and up, as long as they don’t mind a little violence.

Woven, by Michael Jensen and David Powers King

Nels, the son of a widowed seamstress, has always dreamed of becoming a knight. The whole village agrees…except his mother, who needs his help just to stay alive.

That was before he died, of course, murdered by a stranger. Now Nels, as a ghost, must haunt the Princess Tyra, the only person who can see him, to convince her to save him. By helping him find an object which will bring back to life, it may cost Tyra more than she bargained for as they begin a perilous journey to weave Nels back into the Great Tapestry of time.

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Hmmm….I honestly don’t have anything bad to say about the story. It was really well-paced, but there were a few quirks I personally would have changed if I had written the book myself.

This book scarily reminded me of my first attempt at a novel, most particularly the writing style. Or, should I say, lack thereof. When writers write a lot, they develop a certain way of telling a story. If you read a lot of one author, or if you write, you may know what I’m talking about. I’m not saying that a lack of writing is actually bad, I just felt that the author has not yet developed his own particular way of writing. Excuse my nit-picking, but most people aren’t going to notice this.

I am happy to report that this book is pretty clean, and I’d feel comfortable handing this book to mostly anyone. I was a little disappointed how hard they pushed the romance in this book; it wasn’t inappropriate at all, but it could have been a little more subtle. I knew this book was going to be more romantic than I usually read even before they met. For this reason, I can’t say this book is for everyone, particularly those who will only stand for a little romance.

I’m sorry if the book description sounded a little cheesy, but…it was, just a little.

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Violence: 3/10 (nothing horrible)

Language: 1/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 3/10

Audience: Ages 10 and up

Harry Potter #3: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter is lucky to reach the age of thirteen, since he has already survived the attacks of the feared Dark Lord on more than one occasion. But his hopes for a quiet term concentrating on Quidditch are dashed when a maniacal mass-murderer escapes from Azkaban, pursued by the dark guards who can’t seem to know the difference between a prisoner and an innocent student. It’s assumed that Hogwarts is the safest place for Harry to be, but is Harry really safe anywhere? And is it a coincidence that a black dog has popped up, following him as an omen of death?

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This particular book is a little disconnected from the other books, just because Voldemort isn’t really a part of the story. It also happens to be my favorite, and apparently everyone else’s, in the series 🙂

Between the 1st two books and this book is a vast difference in how scary it is. While in the first two, the only scary thing was a walk in the woods at night, and a descent into the Chamber of Secrets with a giant snake, this book is very dark, even without Voldemort.

The guards who come to Hogwarts to ensure the murderer doesn’t come onto the school grounds are the creepiest part about the story. They aren’t really human, and without giving anything away, their dark intentions may freak out some more sensitive kids. Other scary creatures come into the story as well. If your kids finished the first two books with no trouble, don’t assume the third book may be fine for them as well.

I loved how the story was a little off-beat from the others in plot. While the other six books are part of the bigger picture with Voldemort, this book sort of breaks up the rest and allows for a more complicated plot unto itself. The whole mystery within this story keeps you hanging on the edge of your seat, and you won’t be able to put it down. I read it on a road trip…..read it all, the whole nine hours, and then most of the 4th one on the way back.

Somehow, Rowling manages to keep it mostly light-hearted. From flunking divination class and making up faux-predictions of Ron’s future, to wandering around the castle at night, to Uncle Vernon’s meltdown when he gets a call from Ron, the book is not entirely serious, just like the other books.

Overall Rating: 5/5

Violence: 5/10

Language: 2/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 1/10

Audience: Varies through personal taste; I would have said 12 and up, but so many kids much younger than that have read it that my opinion doesn’t matter.