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: A Map of Days

A Map of Days
Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children #4
by Ransom Riggs

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA fantasy

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the previous books in the series.

After their victory over the wights and hollows, Jacob and Miss Peregrine’s peculiar children are disappointed in the assignments they’re given in the Devil’s Acre as part of the reconstruction process. Jacob, in particular, really wants to follow in his hollow-fighting grandfather’s footsteps, so he does whatever he can to make that happen. But peculiardom in America is vastly different from what he and the others are used to in Europe, and there’s a whole new menace to defend against.

It was really nice to see these “kids” who have been through so much have a chance at a little rest. Certainly not as much as they want or deserve, but the book started out more leisurely than the 2 before it. The explanation for why America’s peculiar community is so much wilder than Europe’s makes complete sense, and I loved the overall change of scenery from the first 3 books. I’m also perfectly okay with Jacob and Emma’s relationship cooling off, considering that it always weirded me out anyway.

This book was a lot longer than the previous 3, but it didn’t feel all that long. I don’t remember at any point thinking that something could have easily been cut out. It’s the set up to another 3-book arc in the series and unsurprisingly ends with a cliffhanger. I wasn’t sure how much I’d like continuing on in this series, but I’m excited to see what comes next!

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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: The Twelve Dogs of Christmas

The Twelve Dogs of Christmas
Andy Carpenter
#15
by David Rosenfelt

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Mystery

When Martha “Pups” Boyer, long-time dog rescuer, is accused of murdering a man she threatened after he complained about her dogs, Andy Carpenter takes her case. Even as he pulls on threads and begins to find the truth behind who really killed Pups’ neighbor, he can’t put his finger on what motive the murderer would have. But that won’t stop him from digging.

This book sort of fell into my lap when I was looking for more Christmas reads. I haven’t read any of this series before, but saw someone say that wouldn’t be a problem, and it really wasn’t. It also wasn’t exactly a Christmas story—it just happened to take place at Christmas time. All of that being said, I really liked the book. It felt a lot like an old detective show, like the kind I watched when I was younger—Matlock springs to mind. I enjoyed the main character’s wit and snark and the colorful cast he gathers around himself to help him do his work, both long-term and short-term. The way the case unfolded made for a good story, and even the courtroom scenes, where we get to see into the mind of the defense attorney using his tricks to get the jury to see things a certain way, were interesting.

Though I’m sure that some of what was shown in this book is a spoiler for past books in the series, and while author pushes dog love way too much for my taste (I’m a cat person through and through), I do believe I’ve found myself a new series to read after plunging in at book 15.

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Book Review: Chapter and Curse

Chapter and Curse
The Cambridge Bookshop Series #1
by Elizabeth Penney

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Cozy mystery

When American Molly Kimball and her recently widowed British mother move to Cambridge to take over the running of a bookstore that’s been in their family for generations, the last thing they expect is to get caught up in a murder investigation. But within days of their arrival, someone dies near the bookstore, and Molly’s great aunt, who invited them to England, is the prime suspect. Now, amidst trying to help the bookstore get back on its feet, learning about and meeting members of her previously estranged family, and getting to know the good-looking guy who works next door, Molly is determined to clear her aunt’s name.

Overall, the book was decent. The plot drags in some places, and the mystery seems a little watered-down to me, which is certainly not what you want in a book from this genre. I liked most of the characters, though Molly herself is sort of “meh,” in my opinion. The bookstore and the community around it were a lot of fun to read about. Aunt Violet’s friends are a little on the bizarre side, and I had a difficult time pinning down what age anyone was supposed to be. I can figure it out with some math, but a lot of the characters act similarly to each other, so it was difficult to imagine age differences between some who I assume should have been in different generations.

I don’t go into a cozy mystery expecting to figure out whodunit by the end, though that doesn’t stop me from speculating. I have a tendency to take things at face value and get too caught up in the red herrings. The resolution to this mystery wasn’t a total surprise to me, though, even while I didn’t expect it to go that way simply because it felt so bland. The resolution to the mystery and motivation behind it seemed weak, like much more effort went into setting up this location and cast of characters for future stories than into making the mystery interesting. That’s my opinion, however, and it’s not enough to keep me from being interested in the continuation of this new series, due to how much I liked the setting and characters.

Thank you to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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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: Princess in Love

Princess in Love
The Princess Diaries #3
by Meg Cabot
read by Anne Hathaway

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA contemporary fiction

Still preparing for her impending trip to the country for which she has recently discovered she’s a princess, Mia Thermopolis finally has a boyfriend. The only problem is, she doesn’t really like him that way. When he claims to love her, all she can do is thank him. And she doesn’t really enjoy kissing him. In fact, she’s in love with someone else…who has a girlfriend of his own.

Mia’s dire, the-world-is-ending proclamations are less common in this book, compared to the previous ones, which is nice. She still complains a lot though. Overall, it seems like a fairly simple high school (overly)dramatic story, but where the MC is also adjusting to being princess of a small European country. I really don’t think I would have liked it nearly as well if I hadn’t listened to the audiobook that was narrated, or really more like acted out, by Anne Hathaway. I did enjoy it, though, but I don’t think I’ll read any more of this series, since this is the end of Anne Hathaway’s narration.

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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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