Book Review: The Austere Academy

The Austere Academy
A Series of Unfortunate Events #5
by Lemony Snicket
read by the author

My rating: 2.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

The three Baudelaire orphans have been sent to boarding school. Except Sunny isn’t old enough for school, so instead she works as an administrative assistant. Yeah. But Count Olaf is there, along with some of his henchmen, and even though the kids have been proven right each time they’ve made that claim in the past, Mr. Poe doesn’t believe them.

The author continues to be redundant, I suppose in an attempt at humor, but it’s done so often it’s just started to bother me along the way. But then again, this is not my kind of humor anyway—far too much injustice and even child abuse, none of which gets addressed or remotely amended, for my taste.

The formula that’s been so frustratingly followed for this series so far is broken slightly, in that the kids actually get to make some friends. But if you think that will work out well, you don’t know this series at all. It didn’t go the way I feared it would, and actually, I didn’t mind the way the story was left in the end, regarding the two friends. What I didn’t like is that the author nearly ruined the mild suspense provided by that ending, what made me feel, for a moment, at least, that I actually have an interest in the next story. Ah, well. I’ll continue on either way, because Tim Curry comes back with the next installment, and his narration is the only reason I got into any of this. I wouldn’t be continuing with this series if I wasn’t being read to by Tim Curry while I go about my day (except for the last 3 books, which I endured for the sake of…well, you get it).

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Book Review: The Miserable Mill

The Miserable Mill
A Series of Unfortunate Events #4
by Lemony Snicket
read by the author

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

The three Baudelaire orphans have been set up with a new guardian, name unpronounceable, who sets them to work in his lumber mill. Yes, including the baby. And they get only gum for lunch. Count Olaf is in there somewhere, but he’s barely needed to make this stop on the Baudelaire journey a terrible one.

I can’t get a handle on these books—since the beginning I’ve struggled to understand if they’re meant to be serious or not. I mean, clearly there’s humor injected here and there, or at least parts that I can tell are supposed to be funny. But is the world the stories take place in meant to be remotely realistic? Is it modern or some time in the past? How does it make any kind of sense that the kids are put to work in a lumber mill? That the workers of this mill are given only gum for lunch and paid in coupons? The absurdity level is too high for me to find any humor in it, especially with the overall serious tone. If there were some kind of payoff, it might work better, but there really isn’t.

One break in the formula in this book, which I did appreciate, is the way the older two kids had to fill the other one’s role in order to escape Count Olaf’s evil scheme. But I still feel like I’m just hanging in there for the series to get good, as some reviews still promise. Handler (the book author’s real name) is not the best at the narration. He’s soft-spoken for the kids’ voices and normal narration, then gets loud for most everyone else. There is something to be said for hearing how a character’s voice sounds to the actual creator of the character, though, and the unnamed caretaker’s voice in this book is certainly unique. Now I’ve got 1 more book to listen to before I can get back to Tim Curry, which was my whole point in starting this series.

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Book Review: The Smartest Kid in the Universe

The Smartest Kid in the Universe
Book #1
by Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure

When 12-year-old Jake eats some jelly beans left sitting on a table, he never expected there to be consequences. Before long, though, he’s become the smartest kid in the universe, because the jelly beans were actually indigestible knowledge! Not only does he know a lot of things he hasn’t studied, he also learns faster when he does study new things. But will this newfound intelligence be enough to help him and his friends save their middle school from destruction, not to mention solve an old pirate legend?

This is an adventurous book that pushes the boundaries of modern technology in a fun way. Jake starts out as a kid who is too lazy to do much of anything, including learn new things. The jelly beans certainly give him a new outlook on life, and even though they do give him information without him having to learn, they don’t give him all information. Some things he needs to know he still has to study like the rest of us. Well, not quite like the rest of us, because his brain learns a lot faster than normal, but I do like that he’s not just handed everything he needs to save the day. I also like that he’s not the only smart one when he joins the quiz team with his friends. He may be the smartest kid in the universe, but he still needs some backup.

Jake’s best friend, Kojo, has recently become obsessed with old detective shows, which leads him to use the catchphrase of one of those old detectives a lot throughout the story. I grew up on Matlock, Columbo, and Murder, She Wrote, but Kojo was hung up on Kojak, which was a little before my time. I was just hoping for one, “Oh, just one more thing,” when Kojo was about to leave a room. Still, the way Kojo’s obsession plays out later in the book is pretty great.

I wish that this super-smart kid would have had some opponents that were a little smarter themselves; the villains were pretty stupid, especially Mrs. Malvolio. But maybe Grabenstein will step that up in the 2nd book in the series. There are also still parts of the author’s writing style (especially in dialog) that rub me the wrong way, but I did my best to ignore it. Like the Lemoncello series before it, my 11-year-old daughter strongly recommended this book to me, because she loved it! That’s the strongest endorsement I can ever give for a middle grade book, so make sure to check it out for your kids (or you)!

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Book Review: Winnie-the-Pooh

Winnie-the-Pooh
by A.A. Milne
narrated by Joel Froomkin

My rating (for this version): 4.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s classic

It can be difficult to review a beloved classic, and that is the case for this book, even though I haven’t read it before myself. I’ve read parts, but never the whole thing. Of course, I’ve seen many of the different cartoons, especially the older ones that were more based on this book. So it was nice to read it all the way through and see the source material for the first time. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

My rating is specific to the audiobook version releasing from Dreamscape Media in 2022. The story itself was wonderful, and the narrator did an overall great job. Of course, it can be difficult to let go of the voices we’re used to after so many viewings of the movies and television show, but I did my best not to compare it to that, as that really wouldn’t be fair. For most of the characters, and for the narrator voice itself, I thought it was done well. My only issue was with his voice for Piglet, which was a little unpleasant.

Thank you to Netgalley and Dreamscape Media for providing me a copy of this book to review.
Publication date for this version: January 4, 2022

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Book Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Chronicles of Narnia #3 (original order)
by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s classic fantasy

This is my favorite of the series so far. There’s so much adventure to get caught up in, even if one doesn’t look past the surface, and it’s full of magic and fun. It was nice to be able to see characters from the previous book this time (besides the Pevensies and Aslan), namely Caspian and Reepicheep, and the search for the seven Narnian lords who’d been sent off into the east was an good backdrop to the story.

The end to the story was emotional, and I really felt for the Pevensies in their loss. I wonder if it’s similar to what the disciples must have felt when Jesus left them on Earth. My favorite part of the book, though, was Eustace’s arc. It was brilliant, a true redemption story, and even realistic in that he certainly wasn’t perfect afterward, but he certainly was changed. While I’m sure I’ll need to go back through the series again to catch things I didn’t pick up on this first time through, I loved this book and am curious to see how things will change with the four Pevensies all “retired.”

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Book Review: The White House

The White House
I, Q #2
by Roland Smith

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s spy thriller

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the first book in the series, Independence Hall.

New step-siblings Q (short for Quest) and Angela delve deeper into the world of espionage as they try to help Angela’s mother, who was until recently believed dead, work against the terrorist cell she has infiltrated. Q and Angela are staying at the White House while their newly married rock-star parents prepare for a show for the president. Can they help flush out the bad guys in the White House and keep the first family safe?

This book really hits the ground running, with not much in the way of reminders from the first book, either about plot or about who’s who. I’m glad I made some notes and also didn’t wait too long to continue the series. It was a fast-paced story, building on what the first book set up, and even giving us Angela’s mom’s perspective throughout. Angela and Q were a little less involved this time, more watching, listening, reacting, even lucking into things, but on the other hand, it’s a little more realistic. Still, I like seeing Q’s and Angela’s smarts and abilities come into play.

I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes from here, and I would recommend this for younger readers who want something exciting or thrilling, or even adults who don’t necessarily care for adult spy thrillers but enjoy a good adventure story. This series is the type where the whole thing tells one long story (from what I’ve seen so far, at least), so keep that in mind if you consider reading it—start with #1.

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Book Review: The Wide Window

The Wide Window
A Series of Unfortunate Events #3
by Lemony Snicket
read by the author

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

The three Baudelaire orphans have been set up with a new guardian, Aunt Josephine. She’s afraid of everything, including cooking food, and thus only serves cold food, insists on correcting everyone’s grammar, and lives in a house that’s nearly falling into a lake, of which she’s also afraid. Count Olaf trying to get the kids out of her guardianship seems like a blessing this time, except that he’s happy to commit murder to do so.

I do not get what people have seen in this series that it went as far as 11 books and spawned 2 adaptations. I’m not necessarily against formulaic series—sometimes the formula is what makes something work well, but not when the formula is held to this strictly. Not nearly enough changes, and the “dark” tone is just unpleasant, in my opinion. After the first book, I thought surely it would get more interesting or creative, but it’s really just a rinse and repeat of the book before it. Except that while the guardian in the previous book was a nice, somewhat normal-seeming guy, Aunt Josephine was an over-the-top, ridiculous loony.

What made it all worse for me was that I started into this series primarily because the books were narrated by Tim Curry, but the places I have access to audiobooks for free only have a version narrated by the author for this one and the next 2. I almost ended the series right there, and maybe I should have. But they’re short, quick listens, so I figured I’d stick it out. For now. We’ll see how it goes from here on.

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Book Review: Poison at the Pump

Poison at the Pump
The Imagination Station #25
by Chris Brack & Sheila Seifert

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical children’s fiction, Christian

In this first of a 3-part story arc, cousins Beth and Patrick are tasked with finding a mystery liquid in London during the cholera epidemic of 1854. They are separated at first and meet historical figures like Dr. John Snow and Curate Henry Whitehead who played important roles in history. But when Patrick learns that he drank water from the contaminated pump, he’s not certain he’ll be able to make it back from 1854 alive.

I actually read part 3 of this story arc (which, in turn, is part of a much larger series) first, then decided to go back and read the preceding stories. I did not like this one quite as much as the third in the arc, which might have been due to the respective subject matters as much as anything. I did still like it, though, and appreciate the way these stories bring somewhat lesser-known pockets of history to life for children. The doctor who first posited that cholera was spread by contaminated water, rather than through the air, for example, is certainly not one that kids this age are likely to have heard about. For that matter, I didn’t know about him either, though I can’t guarantee I didn’t read about him in passing during a history class in school and simply forgot about him. But that’s all the more reason this story is a nice way of making historical events and figures more memorable.

I’m a little confused about the premise for the series, the Imagination Station, and how it works. That’s likely due to not having read the rest of the series, but I did think I knew enough about the Imagination Station from Adventures in Odyssey as a whole to know that it’s…well…all in the imagination. And yet, this story made it seem like the kids were actually sent back in time. So I’m not sure if I misread the book/it was just confusing in that area, or if they’ve changed the way the Imagination Station works (though then the name wouldn’t really make sense either). That confusion aside, I think the book is a great read for kids up to age 12.

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Book Review: Skylark

Skylark
Sarah, Plain and Tall
#2

by Patricia MacLachlan

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s historical classic

While Sarah settles into her new home, the looming drought makes her miss her home in Maine more and more. The children, especially little Caleb, worry that this means Sarah won’t be happy with them. The drought eventually poses enough danger, not just due to lack of water, but also due to fire outbreaks and thirsty coyotes, that Jacob sends his new wife and 2 children to Sarah’s family in Maine while he stays to try to take care of the land.

After how much we both enjoyed the first book and subsequent movie-watching, my daughter and I both listened to the audiobook for the 2nd installment in the series, since it was narrated by Glenn Close, who played Sarah in the movies. I liked the second book as much as the first—it’s sweet and emotional, and I’m surprised how attached I can get to characters in such a short story. The author’s style of short, simple sentences makes the reading even quicker, but I never felt like it was lacking.

Caleb remains an incredibly curious and insightful little kid, as shown through the POV of his big sister. And I loved the juxtaposition of the Midwest and New England area, seen a little through Sarah’s explanations in the first book, but shown more fully in this one. My daughter (age 11) and I really enjoyed listening to this book and look forward to watching the movie.

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Book Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
by Roald Dahl

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s fantasy

I grew up with the Gene Wilder movie by the same name, still love it to this day. I remember reading Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator when I was young, but do not recall whether I’d read this first, or read it as a follow-up to the movie. I’ve seen the re-make, and was really interested to discover that many of the things that were different in that movie, compared to the original, were actually in the book.

Anyway, about the book—I really enjoyed reading it. My eleven-year-old daughter read it before me, and she liked it a lot too. The characters and situations are often over the top, which certainly adds to the fantastic feel that the factory and Wonka’s inventions provide. It makes me sad to see how many people claim that Wonks is a slaver, considering that if you actually read the book, it’s clear that the Oompa Loompas were living terrible lives when he found them. They are fed and housed and seem to be genuinely happy. Anything past that is something we read into the story, as we have no way of knowing if they even want to leave this massive factory complex, nor what would happen if they did.

That’s my take on it, at least—I prefer to enjoy the story for what it is, not think about what kind of OSHA violations Wonka would have to deal with if the story took place in real life. I recommend it to kids who are up for a dark-yet-fun read.

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