Eragon: A book with the kiddo, & a book review with a twist

EragonThis started out as a straight-forward book review, but I think it’s now turning into more of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” deal. I wrote a review. Then I thought about a completely different angle. And thought I’d include both! So, choose which version you want to read, or read both! Either way, you’ll hear my mouthy opinion, for better or for worse.

Version #1:

Eragon (book #1 of the four-part Inheritance Cycle) is a good old-fashioned epic fantasy quest, filled with dragons, monsters, good guys and bad guys, swords with names, wise old mentors, and one very special young man who spends the book discovering that he may in fact be the Chosen One.

I’ve always enjoyed reading with my son, and now that he’s 12, our reading time has changed. We still hang out and read together, but we’re often looking for books that we can read in parallel, then chat about for a while. Eragon is LONG book, well over 500 pages in our paperback copy, and I’d say it took us close to five months to get through the whole thing. Because I wanted this to be a shared experience, I did not read ahead — and when we had days or even weeks when my kiddo was distracted or just not into it, we both went without.

Consequently, I think, my enjoyment of the story was already a bit lower than it might have been if I’d just read straight through. More on this later.

In terms of plot, Eragon more or less follows along well-trodden paths. We start with 15-year-old Eragon as an ordinary boy, being raised by his uncle on a simple farm. When Eragon finds a dragon egg, it sets in motion a series of life-changing events, some tragic, some full of promise.

When the egg finally hatches, out comes a cute baby dragon with whom Eragon immediately bonds. The two share a psychic link, and Eragon discovers that her name is Saphira, and that they can have full conversations in their heads. But there are dangerous foes who want the dragon too, and when Eragon’s uncle is brutally murdered, Eragon and Saphira flee for their lives, along with the town storyteller, an old man named Brom who has plenty of secrets and wisdom to share with Eragon.

There’s a road trip of sorts, as Ergaon, Saphira and Brom chase the bad guys who killed the uncle. More than that, though, Brom starts to teach Eragon about his true heritage and calling: Eragon is a Dragon Rider, one of an ancient line with magical powers, thought to be more or less extinct. The evil king Galbatorix would surely kill him if he could, and they spend much of the book moving from place to place, pursued by nasty creatures, always in danger, and busy making sure that Eragon is transformed from simple farm boy to magic-wielding powerhouse.

So. What did I think? Well, for starters, this is a tough book to read in small chunks. Eragon is highly detailed, and the telling of the backstory and mythology is uneven and occasionally awkward. Brom tells Eragon about the Riders and how the king became so evil in a single story, about three pages long, early on in the book — and yet this informs almost everything that comes later. Should a reader really be expected to keep all the details straight hundreds of pages later? It seems a bit daunting, especially considering that this is supposedly a kids’ book.

Reading it as I did, no more than a chapter at a time, sometimes with days in between, it was hard to maintain the flow of the story. But even so, I do think I might have felt similarly if I’d read it straight through. The chapters are long, and the entire plot is one episode of danger after another, often with very little natural flow between scenes or locations.

Much has been made of the fact that the author, Christopher Paolini, was only 15 when he wrote this book, which is utterly remarkable in terms of a teen literary phenomenon. It’s pretty mind-boggling to me that someone his age could create such a large, densely packed book. But should a book be judged by the age of its author, or on the merit of its content, plot, characters, and overall effect?

If I ignore what I know about the author, I’m less impressed. Much of the story feels derivative. Young apprentice, old mentor? Check. Newly discovered magical powers? Check. Coming of age due to the death of the hero’s family/support system? Check. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Brom could be any one of a dozen or more wise, old, mysterious magical gurus from fantasy — Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi. There’s a magical elf girl, because of course there’s a magical elf-girl. Cities full of suspicious or untrustworthy residents. Dwarves, elves, mad kings… it’s like every fantasy epic, put into a blender and poured out into a new glass.

And then there’s the writing. Remember being in high school English classes, writing essays, and trying to use as many SAT-level words as possible in the attempt to impress your teacher with the power of your vocabulary, even if you had nothing much to say? Yeah. It’s like that. I stopped noticing quite so much after a while, but particularly early on, it’s irritating and distracting to be subjected to such overblown language constantly. The author’s approach seems to be: why use a one-syllable word when there’s a longer one that will do?

So did I enjoy Eragon? Yes and no. I enjoyed the experience of sharing it with my son, being able to talk about it with him, and seeing his less-jaded response to the plot and characters. He really liked it, which made me like it too. Left to my own devices, I’d probably say that it was at least a third longer than it needed to be, in dire need of editing, and overall a not terribly original remash of standard fantasy themes and plot elements.

Version #2:

I mentioned Obi-Wan Kenobi before, right? On further thought, a cup of tea and a shower later, I’ve started to think that the entire book of Eragon (and who knows, perhaps the rest of the Inheritance series as well) can be boiled down to “Star Wars with Dragons”.

We’ve got the story of a young man raised on a farm by his uncle. Parentage unknown. He unwittingly comes into possession of something sought after by the Empire. Agents of the Empire slaughter his uncle and destroy the farm. He has to flee. He receives a vision of a beautiful young woman who desperately needs his help. He is guided by an old man with mysterious knowledge and powers, who tells him that he himself has abilities he was unaware of, and that he belongs to a group with special abilities and — can we call magic “the force”? He begins to learn to use his powers and becomes a skilled flyer and fighter. His mentor ultimately dies, after setting the hero on his path. The hero allies himself with a rogue with a heart of gold, whose skills help him avoid capture…

Okay, it gets a bit murkier after that, since there’s no Death Star. But there is an epic battle at the end, and our hero emerges triumphantly, but with the knowledge that he needs further training in order to prepare for the challenges still to come. Which nicely sets us up for the next installment in the series.

So does this mean that Eragon’s father is really the evil king Galbatorix? It would fit. After all, Galbatorix was originally a Rider, before going mad from grief and pursuing total domination and dark powers.

Wow. Mind blown.

But do me a favor! If you’ve read the rest of the Inheritance series, don’t tell me if my Galbatorix theories are correct! I need to leave some mysteries to look forward to.

Wrapping it all up:

I tried to get my kiddo to contribute to this review, but apart from saying “it was good”, he wasn’t willing to play along. He does like my Star Wars theories! The kiddo, for all his middle-school cool, was actually pretty enthusiastic about the story, except for when it bogged down in chapters full of traveling from point A to point B to point C. He enjoyed it enough that he insisted that we start the second book, Eldest, right away… and so we have.

Sigh. We’re one chapter into Eldest so far, and I can tell we’re in for a long haul. 600+ pages! I don’t love this series so far, as you can probably tell, but it also hasn’t turned me off completely, and at this point, thanks to the kiddo, I’m involved enough to keep going. I’ve just got to see how it all works out!

And hey, who knows? Maybe there’ll be some Ewoks along the way.


The details:

Title: Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle, book #1)
Author: Christopher Paolini
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 2002
Length: 528 pages
Genre: Fantasy (kids/teens)
Source: Purchased


A book with the kiddo: Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear

Book Review: Dinosaur  Summer by Greg Bear

dinosaur summerDinosaur Summer takes the 1912 novel The Lost World (by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) as its starting point, imagining a world in which The Lost World is not fiction, but rather a history of a real discovery of dinosaurs living in an isolated world on a South American plateau.

It is 1947 when Dinosaur Summer opens, and the world has pretty much lost interest in the marvels of Conan Doyle’s discoveries. Dinosaurs had become so commonplace in the years since 1912 that all circuses had to have them — but in the post-war years, there just isn’t enough public demand to keep the dinosaur circuses running, and finally, the very last one is about to close for good.

15-year-old Peter Belzoni lives with his father Anthony, who is wild, impetuous, and prone to drinking too much. Anthony decides to bring Peter on the adventure of a lifetime by securing gigs for both of them with National Geographic, to photograph and write about an epic undertaking: the return of the last circus dinosaurs to their original homes on the El Grande plateau. Accompanying the expedition are filmmakers, trainers, and various local guides and authorities — and as the team sets sail and then journeys through the jungles and rivers of South America, the trip becomes more and more dangerous.

I read this book with my 11-year-old son, based on the recommendation of an old friend who is a terrifically well-read sci-fi connoisseur. But note: Dinosaur Summer is not a kids’ book! As far as I can tell, this is adult science fiction — but with an angle that definitely appealed to my kiddo.

We enjoyed the action, the drama, the danger, and the humorous dialogue. In Dinosaur Summer, the lost world of El Grande has evolved on its own, in isolation from the rest of the world. Consequently, the animal species are unique (and fictional, for the most part). The author helpfully includes a “What’s Real, and What’s Not” afterword, and the kiddo and I had a good time looking  up illustrations of similar dinosaur, reptile, and mammalian species. Most memorable (and life-threatening) are the death eagles (yikes), and weirdest are communisaurs, mole-like dinosaurs who live in hives serving a queen.

Dinosaur Summer has drawings throughout by illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi. You can see a few from the book on his website.

A few minor quibbles: The story occasionally bogs down in details about political conflicts between the Venezuelan government, the army, the indigenous tribes, and the oil companies. Likewise, much of the catalyst for the expedition has to do with Hollywood interest, and there are a lot of characters introduced connected to the movie studios, to the point that the action drags a bit as we are introduced to producers, cameramen, studio heads, and more. Frankly, the names become overwhelming at times — although it was amusing to see some real-life Hollywood folks included here as characters in the story. (Most notably, special effects pioneer and movie great Ray Harryhausen is featured prominently as both a member of the expedition and a mentor to Peter, and I can only imagine how much he must have enjoyed the tribute when the book was published.)

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the draggy bits mentioned above wouldn’t have been an issue if I’d just sat and read this book on my own. It’s just that in reading it aloud, the passages and chapters that were so crammed with Hollywood names and political drama just didn’t flow. I will say, however, that this didn’t seem to bother my kiddo in the slightest — I think he just ignored the parts that he didn’t get, and focused on the action… of which there is plenty!

Some of the scenes toward the end are on the gory side for a bed-time story, not that my son seemed to mind. Still, I felt a teeny bit like a bad mother reading to him about dinosaurs chomping and eviscerating right before tucking in his blankets and turning off the light!

All in all, both my son and I were fascinated by Dinosaur Summer, which nicely blends high-stakes adventure with a surprisingly touching story of a boy growing up, figuring out who he is, and developing a more adult relationship with his difficult father. I recommend this book for adults looking for an old-school adventure, as well as for middle school to teen readers who don’t mind having to work a bit for a good story.


The details:

Title: Dinosaur Summer
Author: Greg Bear
Publisher: Warner Books
Publication date: 1998
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen: A book & a movie with the kiddo

Book Review: Hoot by Carl Hiaasen


Perhaps you’re familiar with Carl Hiaasen’s smart-ass, Florida-centric books for grown-ups — all 22 of them! — that include bestsellers such as Strip Tease, Nature Girl, Star Island, and Skinny Dip. But the way this author found his way into my heart was through his books for kids, now totaling four — and here’s hoping there are many more to come!

Hoot was Carl Hiaasen’s first book for kids, aimed at the middle school crowd and featuring some fun, fearless, and memorable characters with just enough gross-outs and goof-ball mischief to appeal to 10 to 13-year-olds. Hoot certainly appealed to my 11-year-old, who isn’t the easiest kid to please when it comes to books. (Video games are a different matter, but I digress.)

In his younger days — oh, say at age 10 — my kiddo would help me out on my blog from time to time with “Q&A with the Kiddo” posts, where I’d write about books that we’d read together, ask him questions, and then share some thoughts from each of us. Alas, now that he’s reached the ripe old age of 11, he’s no longer willing to indulge me. Luckily, though, he still enjoys a good book, and has not yet decided that he’s too old for a read-aloud at bed time. So for as long as he’ll let me, I continue reading him a chapter or two once he’s tucked in (knowing that our days of reading together are probably numbered, although I’ve told him more than once than I’ll come to college with him if he wants).

Hoot is our most recent reading adventure, and it was a big success. We’d thoroughly enjoyed the author’s most recent kids’ book, Chomp, last year (my review is here), and reading Hoot was actually the kiddo’s idea — he’d seen part of the movie at his after school program recently, and wanted to know the rest of the story.

hoot owlSo what’s it about? In a nutshell: Roy Eberhardt moves to Florida from Montana when his dad gets reassigned for work, and boy, is Roy unhappy about being the new kid all over again. After getting bullied by the meanest kid in school, he encounters a mysterious barefoot boy running down the street, and quickly becomes fascinated by figuring out who the kid is and why he’s running. Meanwhile, Mother Paula’s Pancake House is about to open a new franchise location in Roy’s small town… but someone keeps playing pranks and causing mischief at the construction site, and the Mother Paula’s people are not happy about it. The storylines come together as Roy and his new friends Beatrice Leep and Mullet Fingers try to find a way to save the rare burrowing owls who live at the construction site before the bulldozers start to roll. Hoot is filled with a host of amusing supporting characters, from the well-intentioned but bumbling Officer Delinko to construction manager Curly to the oozily nasty corporate tool Chuck E. Muckle. As the various plotlines and people converge, Carl Hiaasen doesn’t skimp on humor, pranks, or bizarre human behavior.

In both Hoot and Chomp, a dominant theme is the natural wonders of Florida and how greedy humans are encroaching on natural habitats. In both books, the author’s love for nature shines through, and the kids who are heroes are the ones who stand up and fight against the careless, thoughtless, or just plain mean grown-ups who value money over beauty. While the main characters in both books come from homes with supportive and loving parents, the author doesn’t shy away from showcasing kids who come from troubled homes or less wholesome environments. One of the things he does best is dig beneath the surface and show why a kid might be weird, or dressed funny, or be reluctant to trust or share secrets. At the same time, no mercy is shown to the bullies, whether kids or adults: The characters who mistreat others, who are mean and nasty, who like to hurt people for their own glory, or who just don’t care — well, they do tend to get what’s coming to them, and then some.

After reading the book, kiddo and I decided to watch the movie as well — and while I almost never, ever, ever sayhoot this, in this case I’ll admit to liking the movie just a smidge more than the book. The book was great, don’t get me wrong — but the movie just did a better job of showing the natural beauty of the Florida coastlines and waterways, as well as the vulnerability of the little owls (awwwww… baby owls!) being threatened by the big construction machinery. This is one instance where a picture really is worth a thousand words, because the one thing I really didn’t get from the book was enough description of the construction site and the landscape, and that made it harder to visualize the nature of the threat. The movie is mostly faithful to the book, up until the ending — where again, I have to admit that I found the movie ending a bit more exciting and dramatic than the final confrontation and big finale in the book.

The cast was very good, with a young Logan Lerman in the role of Roy, and a nice cameo by Jimmy Buffett as well. Plus, the geek in me and my kiddo (call us Mama Geek and Geek Junior, I suppose) did a little happy dance when Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson!) appeared in the sleazy role of corporate bad guy Chuck Muckle.

Should you read the book or watch the movie?

Yes to both! Why choose?

Meanwhile, I have no hesitation about recommending this author’s books for kids. Carl Hiaasen’s writing is funny and fast-paced, with strong messages about family connections, loyalty, and respect for the environment. I can pretty much guarantee that kids will love these books, and their parents will too.


The details:

Title: Hoot
Author: Carl Hiaasen
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date: 2002
Genre: Middle grade
Source: Purchased

Q&A with the kiddo: A kid’s-eye view of the books of Narnia

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia, #1)Prince Caspian (The Chronicles of Narnia, #2)The Horse and His Boy (The Chronicles of Narnia, #5)

Proudly presenting Q&A with the kiddo, courtesy of my 10-year-old son, in which I ask my kiddo to describe a book he’s enjoyed recently and he gives his opinions, more or less unfiltered by mom.

Kiddo and I are in the midst of our Narnia read. Neither of us had read these books previously. In fact, I consider my childhood somewhat deficient due to its lack of both Narnia and Anne of Green Gables books. It’s never too late, I say! I read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for the first time about ten years ago, but it’s a whole different ballgame reading it as part of a greater body of work. So far, we two have read The Magician’s Nephew (discussed earlier, here) and have now finished TLTW&TW, Prince Caspian, and most recently, The Horse and His Boy.

Let’s see what the kiddo has to say. Without further ado:

Q: Of the four Narnia books we’ve read so far, which was your favorite?

A: My favorite was The Horse and His Boy. I like Shasta, the main character, and I like the ending. In the end, everything turned out good. Aslan actually saved them, and Shasta turned out to be Prince Cor. I like how Rabadash (the bad guy) was punished in the end and got turned into a donkey. I like how they (the main characters) traveled through all the places and how Aravis got scratched by the lion to punish her for causing her servant to get whipped. Bree and Hwin (the talking horses) were cool. They should have gotten married, but at least they’re still best friends. I liked Prince Corin because he always knocked people down and later became a champion boxer. I liked King Lune too. The battle scenes were cool. I wish they’d make a movie from this book.

Q: What did you think about the other books? What parts or characters did you like the most?

A:  I liked King Peter, King Edmund, Queen Susan, and Queen Lucy. They brought light into the story. They were the most important in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and were also important in Prince Caspian. I liked them better in TLTW&TW because they were more active in the fighting and in controlling what happened. In Prince Caspian, Prince Caspian was the most important, and Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy were just there to support him.

Q: What did you think of Prince Caspian?

A: He’s okay. I liked the book. I especially liked all the talking animals and the fight (battle) scenes. I liked how they (the Pevensies) got called back to Narnia by Susan’s horn. Reepicheep (the warrior mouse) was cool with his uncut tail.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: It’s a good series. I definitely want to continue with the other books. I want to see the movies.

Mom’s two cents:

Well, we’ve managed to mess up the order of the books, but it’s actually all turning out fine anyway. From what I understand, you can either read them in order of publication (starting with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe) or in what is supposed to be C. S. Lewis’s preferred reading order, going by the chronology of the story itself. [Note: In trying to figure out which way is “right”, all I could find was reference to a single letter by the author in which he states that it would work to read the stories chronologically rather than by publication date. It didn’t sound like he was terribly insistent upon it though, which made me think that C. S. Lewis  might not really have had a preference after all. But I digress.]

In any case, we started out going by the story chronology, then inadvertently switched a couple of books, but it doesn’t seem to matter in the slightest in terms of following the story. So far, we’ve read The Magician’s Nephew, then The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and finally The Horse and His Boy.

I’ll agree with my son on this one, and say that we both thought that The Horse and His Boy was the most fun of the lot. Perhaps it’s because it reads like a great adventure story — all about a boy who doesn’t fit in, who runs off with a stolen war horse rather than be sold as a slave, and in seeking his freedom, discovers his own bravery and encounters courage, kindness, treachery, and danger along the way. There are hidden and mistaken identities, twins separated at birth, chases across the desert, royal viziers and high princes, a siege, a great battle, and a variety of odd and interesting creatures, including talking horses and other beasts of Narnia, giants, and the great and noble Lion Aslan.

Not to say that we didn’t enjoy TLTW&TW and Prince Caspian quite a bit as well. We love High King Peter and his brother and sisters, King Edmund, Queen Lucy, and Queen Susan. It was a bit disconcerting at the start of Prince Caspian to see them back in their old lives as English schoolchildren, but quite fascinating once they return to Narnia and realize that centuries have gone by since the time of their reign, despite it only being one year later in their world. The story of Prince Caspian and his rise to power, overthrowing his evil uncle in order to restore the magic and wonder of the kingdom of Narnia, is exciting and action-packed, and introduces us to many memorable magical creatures. There’s quite a bit of humor as well, so the moments of suspense and danger are nicely balanced by laughter and light-heartedness.

All in all, we’re having a great time reading the Narnia books together. The pacing of the story makes for a good read-aloud, and the chapters are just the right length for reading one each night before bed without a) me losing my voice (like I did with Harry Potter) or b) being too short to be satisfying.

At this point, we’re in. We’re definitely planning to read the three remaining books this summer, picking back up with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as soon as the kiddo gets home from sleepaway camp.

As Bree the horse frequently exclaimed, “Narnia and the North!” Onward we go.

Q&A with the kiddo: A kid’s-eye view of The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis

Book Review: The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis

The Magician's Nephew (The Chronicles of Narnia, #6)

Proudly presenting Q&A with the kiddo, courtesy of my 10-year-old son, in which I ask my kiddo to describe a book he’s enjoyed recently and he gives his opinions, more or less unfiltered by mom.

Without further ado:

Q: What book do you want to talk about?

A: The Magician’s Nephew

Q: What was it about?

A: It was about these kids . They were friends, and the boy’s uncle was a magician, and they got sent to another world. They went into two different worlds. In one there was an evil queen who took over and then tried to take over Earth. Then they teleported into soon-to-be Narnia. There was a lion that was singing and made Narnia. His name was Aslan. Everything they buried turned into a tree. He gave speech to the chosen animals and the especially chosen of the chosen animals were in the high council. The boy and the girl eventually get back to their own world.

Q: Who was your favorite character?

A: Fledge, who is basically a Pegasus, a horse with wings. And King Frank, because his name is weird.

Q: What was the best part?

A: My favorite part was when they planted toffee candy and it grew into a toffee tree. I wonder if you dropped a part of a refrigerator on the ground, would there be a refrigerator tree?

Q: Would you recommend this book?

A: Yes. I’d recommend it for people who like Harry Potter, adventure stories, and talking animals.

Q: Do you want to read the rest of the series?

A: Yes! I want to read the rest of the  Narnia books.

Mom’s two cents:

Somehow, I made it through childhood without ever reading any of the Narnia books. Even as an adult — and a big fan of fantasy writing — I never got around to Narnia until my daughter was old enough for The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, which we read together many years ago. Neither of us ended up pursuing the rest of the series, and it wasn’t until last month when my son came up with the idea of checking out Narnia that I came back to these books.*

*Although there have been several Narnia movies released in the last few years, neither of us has seen them, so we approached reading the books from scratch.

I decided that we should read the books not in publication order, but in the order which author C. S. Lewis later said was his preferred reading chronology — which meant starting with The Magician’s Nephew.

So what did I think? This rather slight book was actually quite fun. The story is rather simple: Neighbors Polly and Digory, looking for adventure, stumble upon the secret room of Digory’s uncle Alexander, who has been working to become a skilled magician all his life. Through Alexander, the children come into possession of magical rings which transport them from their own world into other worlds. They have the misfortune of awakening an evil witch, who follows them home to London for starters, then onward to a brand new planet just in time to see the mighty lion Aslan create all life in this beautiful new world. Digory is responsible for bringing evil into this new world, via the witch, and so must make amends by performing a special quest for Aslan in order to prove his worth.

It’s all quite lovely, with bits of humor and silly adventure, as well as much heavier moments of pondering the nature of good and evil. I liked very much how the story lays the foundation for The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I think one of the reasons I avoided reading the Narnia series all these years is because of the religious allegory woven into the story. For The Magician’s Nephew, at least, I chose to willfully ignore those parts (the creation myth, the Garden of Eden, the fruit of the tree of knowledge, etc) and just focus on the fantasy — in essence, try to read it from the same perspective as my son.

As a book to read together, The Magician’s Nephew worked very well, and we both enjoyed the story quite a bit. We laughed at the funnier parts, we peeked ahead when a chapter ended with a cliffhanger. I asked my son whether he would have wanted to read this one on his own. His response was that while he liked the story quite a bit, he didn’t think he would have wanted to deal with the “old-fashioned” words that he was unfamiliar with throughout the story (“hansom-cab”, “frockcoat”, and the exclamation, “Well don’t keep on gassing about it!”, for example).

We’re moving right into The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Narnia, ho!

Q&A with the kiddo: A kid’s-eye view of Stranded by Jeff Probst

Book Review: Stranded by Jeff Probst and Chris Tebbetts

From Amazon:

A family vacation becomes a game of survival!
It was supposed to be a vacation–and a chance to get to know each other better. But when a massive storm sets in without warning, four kids are shipwrecked alone on a rocky jungle island in the middle of the South Pacific. No adults. No instructions. Nobody to rely on but themselves. Can they make it home alive?

A week ago, the biggest challenge Vanessa, Buzz, Carter, and Jane had was learning to live as a new blended family. Now the four siblings must find a way to work together if they’re going to make it off the island. But first they’ve got to learn to survive one another.

Proudly presenting Q&A with the kiddo, courtesy of my 10-year-old son, in which I ask my kiddo to describe a book he’s enjoyed recently and he gives his opinions, more or less unfiltered by mom.

Without further ado:

Q: What book do you want to talk about?

A: Stranded

Q: What was it about?

A: It’s about these kids who get stranded on an island. They were on a boat and there was a boat wreck. The adults were gone, so there were just four kids on an island surviving for themselves.

Q: Who was your favorite character?

A: Carter and Jane. They’re the most adventurous and outdoorsy and fun and not scared.

Q: What was the best part?

A: My favorite part is when they get sucked in [by strong currents in] the water. They’re in the water and they finally pop out and Carter catches Jane and they swim back to shore.

Q: Would you recommend this book?

A: Yes. I’d recommend it for adventurous kids and kids who like stories with cliffhangers.

Q: Do you want to read the rest of the series?

A: Yes! I want to read the next book when it comes out.

Q: Do you have anything else to say about this book?

A: It’s funny, it’s fun to read. You should read it or it’s your loss.

Mom’s two cents:

My kiddo and I are big fans of Survivor on TV, and so when I heard that Survivor host Jeff Probst was writing a book series for kids, I knew we had to get it! My son read Stranded on his own, and thought the reading level was perfect. He like the book so much that he pretty much insisted that I read it as soon as he finished. Stranded is really a lot of fun, with a good solid lesson in there as well (although without any preachiness or heavy-handedness). The four children in the book are step-siblings who are being treated to a sailing adventure while their parents are on their honeymoon. While my son mostly focused on the adventure aspects of the story, I liked the portrayal of two sets of brothers and sisters forced to figure out how to redefine their family and accept one another’s quirks, talents, and weaknesses. When the two adults on board are separated from the kids during a sudden storm at sea, they have to rely on themselves, their bonds, and their skills and knowledge to figure out how to survive — and hopefully, how to get themselves rescued.

The blended family aspect provides a nice layer of complication to the high-adrenaline disaster and adventure story. Stranded is the first in a trilogy, and ends — as my son mentions — with a big cliffhanger. We’ll both be back for the next installment!

Stranded is a good choice for middle grade readers, especially those just gaining comfort with reading chapter books on their own. It’s not very long, but it’s certainly engaging and exciting. Any time my kiddo asks for “5 more minutes!!” while he’s reading, I know we have a hit on our hands.

My only complaint? Nowhere in the book does anyone say, “The tribe has spoken.” Maybe in the next book? One can only hope.

Stranded 2: Trial By Fire will be released in June.


Q&A with the kiddo: A kid’s-eye view of Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow

Book Review: Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow

From Goodreads:

Welcome to Ratbridge. But beware — for there is skulduggery afoot. Young Arthur has fallen foul of the appalling outlaw, Snatcher, and is trapped alone in the town with every way home sealed. Meanwhile Snatcher and his men are working tirelessly in secret on a fiendish and dastardly plan to take over — and destroy — the entire town. With the help of Willbury Nibble, QC; some friendly boxtrolls and cabbageheads; Marjorie the frustrated inventor; and the rats and pirates from the Ratbridge Nautical Laundry, can Arthur thwart Snatcher’s evil plans — and find his way home?

Proudly presenting Q&A with the kiddo, courtesy of my 10-year-old son, in which I ask my kiddo to describe a book he’s enjoyed recently and he gives his opinions, more or less unfiltered by mom.

Without further ado:

Q: What book do you want to talk about?

A: Here Be Monsters!

Q: What was it about?

A: [Mom’s note: This is apparently a dumb question, answered only by an eye-roll.]

Q: Who are the main characters?

A: Arthur, Willbury, Fish, Egg, Titus, Tom, Kipper, Grandfather, and Herbert. Arthur is this kid that lives underground and has to come up to steal food every night for him and his grandfather. At the beginning, Arthur comes out of his tunnel to steal food but he gets caught by Snatcher. Willbury helps Arthur.

Q: Wait, who’s Snatcher?

A: Snatcher is an evil guy who wants to take over Ratbridge and then the world

Q: Okay, so what’s Ratbridge?

A: It’s the city where the story takes place. It’s a normal town but with lots of fashion and inventions and evil people and monsters.

Q: What kind of monsters are there?

A: Boxtrolls (trolls that are in boxes) that fix stuff. There are cabbageheads — who have cabbages on their heads. There are trotting badgers that are really vicious. Fresh-water seacows. Also, rabbit women who are really human women who live in rabbit tunnels and knit a lot. There are running cheeses who live in the woods who look like giant marshmallows with legs. There’s also a giant rat.

Q: What else can you tell me about the book?

A: This is an adventure and action story. I liked the whole thing. It was suspenseful and there were tons of cliffhangers. The pictures of the monsters and Ratbridge were really cool.

Q: Who do you think would like the book?

A: I recommend the book for anybody who likes monsters, funny stuff, action, and adventure.

Q: Final words of advice?

A:  It is really funny. Good for all ages.

Mom’s two cents: Here Be Monsters! was another successful read-aloud. The kiddo and I both found it funny and hard to put down. I’d say that it was perhaps a tad confusing at the beginning, as the story just jumps right in with a kid with mechanical wings, a bizarrely run-down town with mean townsfolk, and a group of mysterious men on pretend horses hunting wild cheeses in the woods.  Before long, though, we were hooked. The story is a bit weird and verges on steampunk in some ways, with a strong focus on scientific inventions and contraptions. In the world of Here Be Monsters!, some of the biggest “monsters” are people (such as the evil members of the Cheese Guild), and talking rats — who are also pirates — who also run a “nautical laundry”  — can be heroes. This books is illustrated throughout with amazingly detailed — and often very funny — black-and-white drawings, which add to the fun and were definitely a big draw for my kiddo.  All in all, we both give Here Be Monsters! a big thunbs up and recommend it for kids and parents alike. A sense of humor is required, and a willingness to believe in trolls who wear cardboard boxes definitely helps.

Final word of note: Right when we got to the 75% finished mark, I happened to read that a movie version of this book — working title The Boxtrolls — is being planned. From what I’ve read, the movie makes some key alterations to the plot, but I hope the film will retain the book’s quirky humor and smarts. It’ll be interesting to see how this complicated adventure translates to the big screen. You can read more about the movie here.

So there you have it. We’ll be back with more book opinions from my kiddo, whenever I can get him to talk books again.

Q&A with the kiddo: A kid’s-eye view of The Haunting of Granite Falls by Eva Ibbotson

Book Review: The Haunting of Granite Falls by Eva Ibbotson


From Amazon:

American millionaire Hiram C. Hopgood will stop at nothing to make his daughter, Helen, happy—even if it means buying her an ancient Scottish castle and shipping it back to Texas. Assembling the castle isn’t a problem for the oil tycoon . . . it’s the ghosts that worry him. Hopgood has made up his mind: the ghouls have got to go. But these spirits don’t spook so easily. Instead, they make their way to America, where they meet up with a magical severed hand and three fiendish, cross-dressing kidnappers for a Texas-sized adventure with a ghostly Scottish flair.

Proudly presenting Q&A with the kiddo, courtesy of my 10-year-old son, in which I ask my kiddo to describe a book he’s enjoyed recently and he gives his opinions, more or less unfiltered by mom.

Without further ado:

Q: What book do you want to talk about?

A: The Haunting of Granite Falls.

Q: What was it about?

A: [Note: The kiddo didn’t feel like giving a plot summary, so here’s the mom version: An American millionaire buys a Scottish castle for his sickly daughter, has the castle shipped to America to be rebuilt in the heart of Texas, and unintentionally gets a handful of castle ghosts to go with it. Scottish orphan Alex and the millionaire’s daughter Helen form a fast friendship, and need to call upon the ghosts for help when a dastardly kidnapping plot threatens their safety. Much mayhem ensues.]

Back to the kiddo:

Q: Who was your favorite character?

A: The Severed Hand [a ghostly disembodied hand who haunts the local cinema and the mineshafts underneath]. He’s really fun, he can cook, he’s an author, and he’s also a Hand of Glory.

Q: Who else did you like?

A: Flossie [the ghost of a 5-year-old girl, currently wreaking havoc as a poltergeist]. She’s really funny, and she messes up everything.

Q: What was your favorite part of the book?

A: When all the action was happening [towards the end] in the theater and in the mineshaft. [Note: A scary kidnapping in the mines, a daring rescue by the ghosts, much chasing about, shouting, scaring, and… heroic ghosts!]

Q: How would you describe the book overall?

A: Lots of cliffhangers. A tiny bit scary. Mostly funny, silly, weird, and mysterious.

Q: Who do you think would like the book?

A: My friends. If you have a sense of humor, you’ll like this book.

Q: Did you think this was a good reading level for you?

A: There were some words I didn’t understand [Note: that’s where moms come in handy], but otherwise it was fine. I probably could have read it on my own but it would have taken a lot longer.

Q: Would you want to read more books by this author?

A: It depends what they’re about.

Q: Would you want to read more ghost stories?

A: Maybe. It depends what kind. If they’re scary, then I wouldn’t want to read them before bed-time. That would give me nightmares.

Mom’s two cents: This was one book that we both could enjoy. It worked well as a read-aloud, but a kid who’s comfortable reading chapter books solo should be able to handle this one just fine. The kiddo and I found The Haunting of Granite Falls to have just the right combination of funny elements (a Viking ghost named Krok Fullbelly is good for all sorts of laughs) and dramatic action. 12-year-old Alex makes a fine hero as well, a nice mix of sensitivity and loyalty, with a dash of Scottish laird in him as well. I was a bit uncomfortable with the bad guys, who were more seriously threatening than I typically expect in a book aimed toward ages 8 – 12; in particular, the ringleader, a woman with many awful traits, among them a fondness for souvenirs of Hitler, was especially distasteful. Still, the book overall was a success. Author Eva Ibbotson has a delightful writing style, humorous and exciting, that really appeals to my son and keeps me entertained as well. We both give this one high marks.

So there you have it. We’ll be back with more book opinions from my kiddo, whenever I can get him to talk books again.

Q&A with the kiddo: A kid’s-eye view of Merits of Mischief by T. R. Burns

Book Review: Merits of Mischief: The Bad Apple by T. R. Burns


From Amazon:

The start of a mischievous new middle-grade series has trouble written all over it.Twelve-year-old Seamus Hinkle is a good kid with a perfect school record—until the day he accidentally kills his substitute teacher with an apple.

Seamus is immediately shipped off to a detention facility—only to discover that Kilter Academy is actually a school to mold future Troublemakers, where demerits are awarded as a prize for bad behavior and each student is tasked to pull various pranks on their teachers in order to excel. Initially determined to avoid any more mishaps, Seamus nonetheless inadvertently emerges as a uniquely skilled troublemaker. Together with new friends Lemon and Elinor, he rises to the top of his class while beginning to discover that Kilter Academy has some major secrets and surprises in store….

Proudly presenting Q&A with the kiddo, courtesy of my 10-year-old son, in which I ask my kiddo to describe a book he’s enjoyed recently and he gives his opinions, more or less unfiltered by mom.

NOTE: THIS Q&A CONTAINS SPOILERS! You have been warned.

Without further ado:

Q: What book do you want to talk about?

A: Merits of Mischief.

Q: What was it about?

A: It was about this boy, Seamus, who threw an apple at a teacher named Ms. Parsippany. He thought she died but she didn’t. He went to this reform school that was actually to teach the kids to be bad. Then he met lots of new friends and pranked all the teachers.

Q: What did you like about the book?

A: There were funny parts. I liked that the kids were supposed to get into trouble [at the school]. I like all the characters except Abe. My favorite character was Lemon, because he always makes fires. Also, because he stands up for people. My favorite teacher was Mystery, because he’s mysterious and really hard to prank.

Q: What didn’t you like about the book?

A: The Good Samaritans [mom’s note: the GS are the school’s police force], because they try to stop the kids from doing bad stuff.

Q: What did you think of the ending?

A: It was stupid. Seamus got an email from outside the school, but all along they said you couldn’t get emails from off-campus. Also, because you find out Ms. Parsipanny’s not really dead, and if she’s not, then Seamus shouldn’t have gotten sent to the school in the first place.

Q: Are you glad you read Merits of Mischief?

A: Yeah.

Q: How would you describe the book?

A: Funny, with lots of action.

Q: Who do you think would like the book?

A: I think most kids would like it. If they’re bad, they’ll love it!

Mom’s two cents: My kid and I are usually in sync about our read-aloud books. We tend to either both enjoy a book, or both be bored or unimpressed. Merits of Mischief was one of the rare books we’ve encountered where we had vastly different experiences reading it. I’ll be back with the mom point of view in a separate review. In terms of reading levels, this book is listed as ages 8 and up, although I think it would be a bit much for an 8-year-old.

So there you have it. We’ll be back with more book opinions from my kiddo, whenever I can get him to talk books again.

Q&A with the kiddo: A kid’s-eye view of…

Book Review: The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson

From Goodreads:

A forgotten door on an abandoned railway platform is the entrance to a magical kingdom–an island where humans live happily with feys, mermaids, ogres, and other wonderful creatures. Carefully hidden from the world, the Island is only accessible when the door opens for nine days every nine years. A lot can go wrong in nine days. When the beastly Mrs. Trottle kidnaps the prince of the Island, it’s up to a strange band of rescuers to save him. But can an ogre, a hag, a wizard, and a fey really troop around London unnoticed?

Proudly presenting Q&A with the kiddo, courtesy of my 10-year-old son, in which I ask my kiddo to describe a book he’s enjoyed recently and he gives his opinions, more or less unfiltered by mom.

Without further ado:

Q: What book do you want to talk about?

A: The Secret of Platform 13.

Q: What was it about?

A: The king and queen of this island had a child. It was the happiest day on the island. The three babysitters took the baby through the gump into the real world (kind of like teleporting). One of the girls got knocked out by car exhaust and a woman took the baby. Now the people on the island are trying to get the baby back.

Q: What’s the gump?

A: The gump opens every nine years and stays open for only nine days. If you step through, you go to a cove and can take a ship to the island. It opens at platform 13 at King’s Cross Station in London. There are ghosts who watch over the opening. If you go through and you don’t get back in time, then you’re stuck for nine years.

Q: What’s special about the island?

A: There are different animals and there’s a king and queen. It’s a magical island. There are creatures called mistmakers that makes mist when you play music, so when ships and planes pass by, they can’t see the island.

Q: How do they try to get the baby back?

A: The king and queen send a giant, a wizard, a fairy, and a hag through the gump the next time it opens. They think they find the right kid but he’s really just a spoiled brat.

Q: Who is your favorite character?

A: My favorite character was Ben. Ben is an honest boy who knows how to do work and is really cool. He is very nice and tries to help people but he’s also kind of gullible.

Q: How would you describe the book?

A: 4-star book. It’s funny and exciting.

Q: Who do you think would like the book?

A: I think kids my age would like the book if they like adventure stories, exciting stories, and cliffhangers.

Q: Are you glad you read it?

A: Yes, I am.

Mom’s two cents: We read The Secret of Platform 13 as a bed-time read-aloud, and it was quite a success. My kiddo was very involved and got excited about the story to the point that he was jumping in with comments and conjectures each time another plot twist was introduced. In my opinion, this was a nice option for a middle grade reader. The magical elements were fun, there was tension, drama and a little bit of menace, but nothing too scary. I was a little put off at first by the similarities in the early chapters to elements of Harry Potter (note: this one came first!), but fortunately the overlap didn’t carry all the way through the book and thus wasn’t too distracting. I had a great time seeing my son get caught up in this book, and I enjoyed it myself as well. All in all, a good choice for a mom/kid reading adventure!

So there you have it. We’ll be back with more book opinions from my kiddo, whenever I can get him to talk books again.