Tag Archives: family

Review: Puzzleheart by Jenn Reese

Puzzleheart by Jenn Reese

Puzzleheart
Jenn Reese
Henry Holt & Co.
Published May 14, 2024

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About Puzzleheart

Get ready to solve the mystery at the heart of this middle grade adventure about family—and a house with a mind of its own.

Twelve-year-old Perigee has never met a problem they couldn’t solve. So when their Dad’s spirits need raising, Perigee formulates the perfect road trip to Dad’s childhood home to reunite him with his estranged mother. There’s something in it for Perigee, too, as they will finally get to visit “Eklunds’ Puzzle House,” the mysterious bed & breakfast their grandparents built but never opened.

They arrive ahead of a massive storm and the House immediately puts Perigee’s logical, science-loving mind to the test. Corridors shift. Strange paintings lurk in the shadows. Encoded messages abound. Despite Perigee’s best efforts, neither the House nor Grandma will give up their secrets. And worse, prickly Grandma has outlawed games and riddles of any kind. Even the greatest of plans can crumble, and as new arguments fill the air, the House becomes truly dangerous. Deadly puzzles pop up at every turn, knives spin in the hallways, and staircases disappear.

The answer lies at the heart of the House, but in order to find it, Perigee and their new friend Lily will need to solve a long-lost, decades-old riddle… if the House itself doesn’t stop them first.

My Review

If a family drama escape room adventure was a book, it could very much be this one. This book has great moments between characters, family secrets, new friendships, and so many puzzles.

Putting puzzles (which often have really specific visual or spatial components to them) into a book without bogging it down with too many details has to be a big challenge. It’s so well done here. I felt like I could visualize the extraordinary rooms and intricate puzzles, but I never lost sight of the action and drama unfolding in the midst of trying to solve them.

The story also balances the emotional elements with fun and mystery elements. Lily has a cat and her litter of kittens in tow, and they never stop getting into trouble. The scenes alternate between scenes from Perigee’s point of view and the House’s perspective, which really emphasizes its sentience– another great element.

I think readers who enjoyed Six Feet Below Zero by Ena Jones (one of my favorites) or Deephaven by Ethan Aldridge should definitely check out Puzzleheart.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 8 to 12.

Representation
Perigee is nonbinary and has anxiety. Her dad has depression. (Maybe her grandmother, too.)

Profanity/Crude Language Content
None.

Romance/Sexual Content
None.

Spiritual Content
A sentient house.

Violent Content
A woman hits her head on a cupboard and is knocked out. The house rolls out some increasingly threatening puzzles or traps, including a floor of tiles that shock someone and a pit with spikes at the bottom.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review: The Cats of Silver Crescent by Kaela Noel

The Cats of Silver Crescent
Kaela Noel
Greenwillow Books
Published April 30, 2024

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About The Cats of Silver Crescent

In this stand-alone novel with themes of friendship and family, eleven-year-old Elsby discovers a family of talking cats living in the house next door and must help them harness the magic that made them that way. From the author of the acclaimed Coo, The Cats of Silver Crescent is for fans of Kathi Appelt and Katherine Applegate. With her mother busy traveling for work, Elsby isn’t thrilled to be spending a few weeks with her great-aunt Verity. Luckily, she has her notebook and a lush garden to sketch to help pass the time.

But a visitor takes Elsby by a cat standing on its two hind legs and dressed like a sailor dashes across the garden and into the neighboring woods! Elsby can’t believe her eyes, and Aunt Verity doesn’t seem to believe Elsby, either. But that night, the cat and three of his cat companions approach Elsby. They need Elsby’s help. While the cats can talk, think, and behave like humans, the magical spell that made them that way will revert if it’s not renewed soon. Elsby might be the only one who can save them—but every enchantment comes at a price.

A contemporary fantasy about family, friends, trust, and the magic that’s inside everyone, The Cats of Silver Crescent will captivate animal lovers and fans of Jenn Reese’s A Game of Fox & Squirrels.

My Review

First of all, I love Elsby’s name. I’ve never heard that as a nickname for Elisabeth before, but I love it. (In the book, it’s something Elsby has made up, which is even better!)

I also enjoyed the fact that Elsby is a young writer. She has a problem, though, where she only writes the first chapter of a story before getting stuck. I love the way the story resolves this.

I also like the cat characters. They’re a bit whimsical with their Victorian clothes and Marzipan’s love for poetry. They were very cute.

Elsby has a hard time connecting to others. She keeps to herself a lot and doesn’t seem to trust her feelings. I really identified with that and the obstacles it presented in relationships. That said, I thought it was really cool the way her aunt builds a relationship with her, and even the way Elsby connects with Penelope.

The playful storytelling and magical elements of the story reminded me a little bit of The Hunt for the Hollower by Callie C. Miller. I think readers who enjoy that kind of magical adventure with some nonhuman characters will enjoy The Cats of Silver Crescent.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 8 to 12.

Representation
Elsby is white.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
None.

Romance/Sexual Content
None.

Spiritual Content
Some characters can perform magic. In the book, there’s a difference between a magician, a sorcerer, and a witch. The cats have some magic on them that needs to be periodically renewed, or they’ll lose the ability to speak.

Violent Content
Situations of peril.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review: Tree. Table. Book. by Lois Lowry

Tree. Table. Book.
Lois Lowry
Clarion Books
Published April 23, 2024

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About Tree. Table. Book.

Everyone knows the two Sophies are best friends. One is in elementary school, and one is . . . well . . . in a little trouble of late. She’s elderly, sure, but she’s always been on her game, the best friend any girl struggling to fit in could ever have. The Sophies drink tea, have strong opinions about pretty much everything, and love each other dearly.

Now it seems the elder Sophie is having memory problems, burning teakettles, and forgetting just about everything. It looks like her son is going to come and get her and steal her away forever. Young Sophie isn’t having that. Not one bit. So she sets out to help elder Sophie’s memory, with the aid of her neighborhood friends Ralphie and Oliver.

But when she opens the floodgates of elder Sophie’s memories, she winds up listening to stories that will illustrate just how much there is to know about her dear friend, stories of war, hunger, cruelty, and ultimately love.

My Review

I read this book cover to cover in one sitting. Sophie’s voice drew me in immediately. She’s chatty and clever, and I loved the connection she shared with the other Sophie. Her neighborhood was also really neat, with families that had close connections and looked out for one another.

Sophie’s desire to prove that her friend is not unwell drives the story forward. She looks up information about cognitive testing and then proceeds to try to walk her friend through the questions in the test. As she does this, she begins to see her friend in a new way, and her friend shares stories with her about her childhood in Poland.

I was a little older than Sophie when my grandmother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of dementia. It happened so quickly that I missed those beginning days, and by the time I understood what was happening, it was too late for her to tell me the stories she still needed to share.

Reading about Sophie having those moments and sharing those memories brought me back to those early days of my grandmother’s illness and made me wonder what stories she would have told me about her childhood.

Sophie learns a lot about how to support a friend gracefully and what it means to work to stay connected. Her family also supports her connection with her friend, and I loved that, too.

This is a bittersweet story about the power of intergenerational friendships and the importance of passing stories from one generation to the next. I loved it.

Content Notes for Tree. Table. Book.

Recommended for Ages 8 to 12.

Representation
Elderly Sophie is Jewish. One of the neighbor boys is neurodivergent.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
On one page, a word is written with the first letter and the rest marked with asterisks.

Romance/Sexual Content
None.

Spiritual Content
References to Catholic beliefs. References to Sunday church services.

Violent Content
Sophie learns some information that she pieces together to realize is about the Nazi occupation of a Polish village during World War II. She hears a description of men rounded up and shipped somewhere to work.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review: One Big Open Sky by Lesa Cline-Ransome

One Big Open Sky
Lesa Cline-Ransome
Holiday House
Published March 5, 2024

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About One Big Open Sky

Three women narrate a perilous wagon journey westward that could set them free—or cost them everything they have—in this intergenerational verse novel that explores the history of the Black homesteader movement.

1879, Mississippi. Young dreamer Lettie may have her head in the stars, but her body is on a covered wagon heading westward. Her father, Thomas, promises that Nebraska will be everything the family an opportunity to claim the independence they’ve strived for over generations on their very own plot of land.
But Thomas’ hopes—and mouth—are bigger than his ability to follow through. With few supplies and even less money, the only thing that feels certain is danger.

Right after the war ended/and we were free/we believed/all of us did/that couldn’t nothing hurt us/the way master had when we were slaves/Couldn’t no one tell us/how to live/how to die.

Lettie, her mother, Sylvia, and young teacher Philomena are free from slavery—but bound by poverty, access to opportunity, and patriarchal social structures. Will these women survive the hardships of their journey? And as Thomas’ desire for control overpowers his common sense, will they truly be free once they get there?

Coretta Scott King Honor-winning author Lesa Cline-Ransome’s striking verse masterfully portrays an underrepresented historical era. Tackling powerful themes of autonomy and Black self-emancipation, Cline-Ransome offers readers an intimate look into the lives of three women and an expansive portrait of generations striving for their promised freedom.

My Review

I had all these grand plans to read and talk about so many novels in verse this month, and instead, here I am, talking about the first one on the last day of April. Alas. It’s a book worth talking about, though, so I’m not sorry about that!

I picked up a copy of One Big Open Sky on Netgalley. After reading the description of the story, I was hooked. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about the Black homesteader movement, so I love that this book explores that part of history.

Three women tell the story. First, we meet Lettie, the oldest daughter in her family, who has just learned about her parents’ plans to move from Mississippi to Nebraska, a journey of about 1500 miles. Lettie’s mom, Sylvia also shares her perspective, listening as her husband complains about the group’s leadership choices and dreams for the future. Philomena, a single woman on her way to Nebraska for a job as a teacher, joins the group, sharing space with Sylvia, Lettie, and their family.

It took me a few chapters to catch that Sylvia was Lettie’s mom. At first, I thought they were in two different families. Once I understood the relationship, though, the two perspectives on the same family gave me a more complete picture of what was going on and how each person felt about it.

Sylvia and Lettie have very different relationships with Thomas, Sylvia’s husband and Lettie’s dad, for example. They also have different fears and worries about leaving Mississippi.

The story takes place in 1879, meaning the Civil War and emancipation happened within the lifetimes of many characters. Sometimes they reference back to life as an enslaved person, their expectations for freedom and what turned out to be true, and their hopes for life in the West.

One of the sweet threads of the story is the relationship between Lettie and another group member’s dog, Sutter. He’s an old dog with a limp, but Lettie takes to him, and they form a sweet friendship. I loved the way that plays out.

Conclusion

I liked this book a lot. It made me remember playing Oregon Trail in school (I’m not sure I ever successfully forded a river or escaped dysentery) and long to know more about the Black homesteader movement. The character perspectives were obviously carefully chosen and each added a lot to the tale.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 8 to 12.

Representation
Major characters are Black.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
None.

Romance/Sexual Content
A man appears interested in courting Philomena.

Spiritual Content
The group prays together and sings hymns sometimes. Several times the story references the story of Moses in the Bible, leading the Israelites to freedom.

Violent Content
A man accidentally shoots himself. A group of white men attack someone in the night, but are successfully chased off. A man drowns during a river crossing. A violent hail storm causes injuries to those caught in it.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review: Fake Chinese Sounds by Jing Jing Tsong

Fake Chinese Sounds
Jing Jing Tsong
Kokila
Published April 30, 2024

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About Fake Chinese Sounds

A middle-grade graphic novel about a Taiwanese American girl navigating identity, bullying, and the messy process of learning to be comfortable in her skin.

Between homework, studying, and Chinese school, Měi Yīng’s summer is shaping up to be a boring one. Her only bright spots are practice with her soccer team, the Divas, and the time spent with her năi nai, who is visiting from Taiwan. Although Měi Yīng’s Mandarin isn’t the best and Năi Nai doesn’t speak English, they find other ways to connect, like cooking guōtiē together and doing tai chi in the mornings.

By the end of the summer, Měi Yīng is sad to see Năi Nai go—she’s the com­plete opposite of Měi Yīng’s serious professor mother—but excited to start fifth grade. Until new kid Sid starts making her the butt of racist jokes. Her best friend, Kirra, says to ignore him, but does everyone else’s silence about the harassment mean they’re also ignoring Sid . . . or her? As Sid’s bullying fuels Měi Yīng’s feelings of invisibility, she must learn to reclaim her identity and her voice.

My Review

One of the many reasons I wanted to read this book is that my older daughter is studying Chinese in school. I thought this book would be something we would enjoy talking about—and we did!

Since Měi Yīng attends Chinese classes on Sundays, some of the panels show her working on what appear to be homework assignments or journal entries. They contain Chinese characters positioned with context clues so that even readers unfamiliar with the language will be able to piece together what’s being said. The panels also show conversations between Měi Yīng’s mom and grandmother. Standard speech bubbles show when characters speak English to one another. When characters speak Chinese, the speech bubbles have a different background color, and the text appears in all uppercase letters. I love that this simply and visually cues readers that the characters are not speaking those lines in English.

The pages in which Năi Nai teaches Měi Yīng Chinese words are also cleverly done. The panels set up the idea that Měi Yīng’s grandmother is teaching her the Chinese words for things. Then, a page shows Měi Yīng in its center, with the things around her labeled with Chinese characters and pinyin (phonetic spelling of the characters) for the objects around her.

I loved that. It’s so immersive, and it perfectly captures that experience. Měi Yīng’s relationship with Năi Nai is also super cool. They practice tai chi and cook together and develop a connection wholly different than Měi Yīng’s relationship with her mother, who is more buttoned up and stoic.

The other theme the story focuses on is bullying. Měi Yīng overhears people making fun of the way her mom and grandmother speak. Then, a classmate begins regularly harassing her. People tell Měi Yīng to ignore the cruel comments, which leaves her feeling as though her friends are ignoring how those statements affect her.

The author presented this aspect of the story really well, too. It was easy to see how deeply the racist comments affected Měi Yīng, and how betrayed she felt when her friends didn’t speak up. Eventually, Měi Yīng does find a way to resolve the conflict, but it doesn’t happen easily.

Měi Yīng also plays soccer. While the story isn’t about her prowess on the field, her role on the team and performance in the games does impact the story. I liked that the author included sports as a part of Měi Yīng’s interests.

All in all, this is such a smart book! I love how accessible it makes speaking Chinese, and the character relationships and conflicts play out in believable and engaging ways. I highly recommend this for readers who enjoy graphic novels about fitting in, playing sports, learning another language, or family relationships.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 8 to 12.

Representation
Měi Yīng is Taiwanese American.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
None.

Romance/Sexual Content
None.

Spiritual Content
None.

Violent Content
Some racist comments directed at or about Měi Yīng and her family.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Marvelous Middle-Grade Mondays

I’m sharing this post as a part of a weekly round-up of middle-grade posts called Marvelous Middle-Grade Mondays. Check out other blogs posting about middle-grade books today on Marvelous Middle-Grade Mondays at Always in the Middle with Greg Pattridge.

Review: This Is Me Trying by Racquel Marie

This Is Me Trying
Racquel Marie
Feiwel & Friends
Published

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

About This Is Me Trying

Perfect for fans of Nina LaCour, This is Me Trying is a profound and tender YA contemporary novel exploring grief, love, and guilt from author Racquel Marie.

Growing up, Bryce, Beatriz, and Santiago were inseparable. But when Santiago moved away before high school, their friendship crumbled. Three years later, Bryce is gone, Beatriz is known as the dead boy’s girlfriend, and Santiago is back.

The last thing Beatriz wants is to reunite with Santiago, who left all her messages unanswered while she drowned alone in grief over Bryce’s death by suicide. Even if she wasn’t angry, Santiago’s attempts to make amends are jeopardizing her plan to keep the world at arm’s length―equal parts protection and punishment―and she swore to never let anyone try that again.

Santiago is surprised to find the once happy-go-lucky Bea is now the gothic town loner, though he’s unsurprised she wants nothing to do with him. But he can’t fix what he broke between them while still hiding what led him to cut her off in the first place, and it’s harder to run from his past when he isn’t states away anymore.

Inevitably drawn back together by circumstance and history, Beatriz and Santiago navigate grief, love, mental illness, forgiveness, and what it means to try to build a future after unfathomable loss.

My Review

I can’t resist a new book by Racquel Marie, so I knew I would have to read this one. It’s different than her previous two books, both of which had only female narrators. Different doesn’t mean bad, though. I liked both Santiago and Beatriz as narrators. On the surface, this book seems like a simple story, but the author weaves in so many layers that it takes us the whole book to unwind them all.

Both Santi and Bea have complicated relationships with their parents and are raised by one parent. In Santi’s case, his supportive guardian is his grandfather, and his dad flits in and out of his life, pursuing his dream to be a professional musician. Bea’s mom is kind of the opposite. Having a child very young made her curve her life around her daughter and devote herself to making sure Bea had everything she needed.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the death of Santiago’s best friend and Bea’s boyfriend, Bryce. It’s been nearly three years, but those wounds remain fresh for both of them, and they avoid or deal with their grief in different ways.

One of the things I really liked about the book is the descriptions of Bea’s hair, makeup, and clothes. She has a very goth style going on that reminded me of someone I went to school with. I liked that even though the people who know her can see through her prickly exterior and realize that she’s lonely and hurting, they don’t blow through her boundaries. They make their case. They offer. But ultimately, if she asks them to leave her alone, they do.

As the story progresses and the layers unwind, I couldn’t help getting more and more caught up in the story. Grief is hard, even when it’s not as complicated as this. The author does a phenomenal job bringing that complexity to the page and making room to celebrate relationships and beauty as well.

Also: bonus for having an adorable black cat named Lottie to flit in and out of scenes the way cats do! The scenes in which Bea walks her cat with a leash are awesome.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
Important characters have depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and intrusive thoughts and behaviors fueled by obsessive-compulsive disorder OCD. Beatriz is biracial, with a Colombian American mom and white dad. Santiago is Latino American. Beatriz identifies as pansexual. Santiago identifies as queer. A couple minor characters are lesbians. One is nonbinary.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used somewhat frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between boy and girl. References to kissing between two boys and sex between two girls. References to sex between a boy and girl. (All sex happens off-scene.)

Bea’s mom got pregnant as a teenager. Bea imagines what that life was like and how it impacted her mom’s plans.

Spiritual Content
People gather for a memorial service for a boy who died. Later, someone comments that he is looking down on his friends.

Violent Content
References to a boy who died by suicide (the method is never disclosed). Characters discuss suicidal ideation and morbid ideation. The story focuses on grief from this loss as well as the loss of parents due to a car accident or cancer.

In one scene, a boy behaves in a predatory way toward another person, pursuing them when the person makes it clear they do not want the attention. The person’s friends stop the boy from harassing them.

A boy and girl (minor characters) have an emotionally abusive relationship operating around the fringes of the story.

A girl hurts her hand punching a boy.

Drug Content
Teens drink alcohol at a party. A drunk boy calls a girl to give him a ride home. Some characters smoke.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.