Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Chasing Vermeer — 4 stars

If you look back through the list of books Mountain Gal and I have reviewed on this blog together, you’re going to realize that we read fantasy, at least for the most part. However, in the interest of being a helpful resource to people who read other kinds of books, I have been trying to expand my own reading to things I wouldn’t normally pick up. Because (gasp!) there actually are other kinds of books out there.

That's why today’s review is a non-fantasy book. Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett, is set in modern-day Illinois, and it's about two 6th graders, coincidences, and the paintings of a 17th century artist from the Netherlands. A most unlikely combination, in other words.

Chasing Vermeer is a mystery kind of story, but not the whodunit, hunt-for-fingerprints kind of mystery. This mystery is one that has to be solved by believing in coincidence, in chance, and luck. Lots of luck. It has to be solved by looking for clues in everything, by finding connections between perfectly ordinary events that together have a significant meaning. Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew would never have solved this mystery—they wouldn’t have seen the clues. But for 6th graders Calder Andalee and Petra Pillay, clues jump out at them from every direction.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about Calder and Petra that makes them perfectly suited to solve this mystery, but it certainly does help that Petra is willing to believe even the most unlikely event could be a clue, and Calder is a visual thinker whose pentominoes—flat geometric figures formed of five squares—help them find many of their best clues. But besides these qualities that make them both uniquely themselves, Calder and Petra are just two ordinary 6th graders—who happen to be in the right places at the right times to solve a mystery, save a painting, and prevent a giant art fraud from taking place.

And that’s really all I’ll say. About the plot, at least.

I figured this book would be targeted toward the 8-12 range, both because of the age of the characters and because of the cover art. (NOTE: the illustrations on the inside are really great too!) However, the story is actually pretty complicated. I had to pay attention to catch all the clues and remember all the connections they had made. I also really liked the way the two characters played off each other. They’d swap ideas and put clues together really well—and they were usually way smarter about it than me. Basically, the mystery was really, really interesting, and was definitely not something you’d be able to solve until the characters did. And it was super complicated, which I think makes a mystery story that much better.

For really critical readers, here's a specific thing about Chasing Vermeer that I'd like to praise. Blue Balliett (that can't possibly be her real name!) has two very young narrators in this story, and I was very pleased with the way she handled the fact that they were solving a mystery that baffled even the FBI. At some point in the course of their sleuthing, they had to end up in danger, but I was worried that Balliett would shrink from that and keep Calder and Petra perfectly safe. But she didn’t. They ended up in very real, very serious danger, and when that happened the tension in the story went up a notch—maybe two. It made for a climax that was memorable, instead of a simple “mystery solved, bad guy in jail” kind of ending.

My final opinion of Chasing Vermeer is that it’s certainly worth reading. The story is fun, there are great characters, and a very interesting mystery! Definitely preferable to Nancy Drew. I’ve also read the sequel, The Wright 3, and that was just as good. There’s a third book that I haven’t gotten a chance to read yet, but given the track record of the first two, I’ll vouch for it being a great book.

Link to Blue Balliett’s website:
And since her website is kinda tricky to maneuver, here’s the link to her Amazon page as well:

Friday, August 21, 2015

The City of Ember (guest review) ~ 4 stars

Guest post by A.B.

The City of Ember is the first in a four book series by Jeanne DuPrau, and a book that I really enjoyed.

The story starts off on Assignment Day in the city of Ember. By order of the mayor, all citizens shall be given jobs at age 12. Lina Mayfleet hopes to be a messenger, but instead of that she draws the job of Pipeworks laborer, which no one wants because it means long hours of underground work.

However, her classmate Doon Harrow draws messenger – and afterwards, asks Lina if she wants to trade! He wants her job because the generator is underground, and Doon wants to figure out how to fix it. The enormous lights of Ember have kept the darkness back for as long as anyone in the city can remember. There is no light at all unless the electricity is on.

But now, not only are supplies in the city running low, but there have been frequent blackouts. Everyone in the city is afraid that some day, the lights will go out and never come back on.

Lina eagerly trades jobs with Doon, and the two of them go their separate ways. Until one day, Lina finds a secret message, which was inside a box buried deep in her grandmother’s closet. When she finds the message, it’s full of holes, but Lina thinks it could be something important. She shows the message to Doon, and together the two of them try to figure it out...

I liked The City of Ember partly because of the setting of the story. Ember is very different from our world in many ways. Something that was unusual there is that Ember has no animals, just insects. This means that the people do not eat meat, but they eat a lot of vegetables and canned foods. Also, there are no trees in Ember, and the only plants are in the Greenhouses, outside of the city. I also found it interesting that citizens of the city received no more education after age 12.

Of course, the fact that all of Ember depends on the electricity provided by the generator, is also strange in a way. When the lights go out, people are helpless. They can't do anything but wait, terrified, in the dark.

Another thing I liked were the main characters, Lina and Doon. They were believable, which I liked, because they’re not perfect. Their plan
s didn’t always work out, and they had to come up with different ideas, which is something I appreciate in a story.

Overall, I’d say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading The City of Ember. It was a clean book, with no bad language, and it was pretty well-written, making for an exciting read. I would say that it was probably written for readers about ages ten and up, and since I'm a little older than that, I think it was a little below my reading level – but nonetheless engaging and fun. I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the series, The People of Sparks!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Hank the Cowdog (series review) ~ 4.5 stars

Time for a fun review of a very fun series that’s great for just about any person of any age. I haven’t met anyone so far who doesn’t like these books, and since I love them so much, it’s high time I wrote a review.

John R. Erickson is a author from Texas who has written 65 books (and counting) about a fictional dog called Hank the Cowdog. Since I have yet to read a Hank the Cowdog book that isn’t worthy of at least 4 stars, this review will be a general one that can apply to any one of the books.

Hank the Cowdog, the narrating character, is the Head of Ranch Security on a ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Basically, his job is to keep the entire ranch running and safe from coyotes, monsters, and whatever else might pose a threat. He also barks the sun up every morning, herds cattle, helps the cowboys bale hay, and keeps his screwball assistant Drover from causing too much trouble.

Hank is a real character—you can’t always trust everything he says. Half it is exaggerated or completely made up, and the other half is the result of a garbled conversation with Drover. According to Hank, he’s a blue-ribbon, papered, pedigreed cowdog—the truth is that he’s just a ranch mutt with an inflated opinion of himself. But Hank’s adventures are not exaggerated—while he may not fight Laundry Monsters in Sally May’s front yard, he does have some narrow shaves with cannibal coyote brothers Rip and Snort. And there’s the time when he ends up in the dog pound, and the time when he’s stranded in town, and, well, you get the idea. Plus Hank thinks he’s a big favorite with the lady dogs, which adds another level of hilarity to every encounter he has with them.

Drover, Hank’s assistant, is the source of a lot of the humor in the Hank the Cowdog books. He spends most of his time daydreaming, watching the clouds, and otherwise behaving in what Hank would call a “frivolous manner.” Drover has a hard time dealing with reality, and his preferred response is to run to the safety of the machine shed until things blow over. He spends most of his time confused, and this has led to a lot of misleading conversations with Hank that have caused some pretty spectacular mix-ups. Take, for instance, the time Drover thought the world was coming to an end after Sally May went to a clearance sale in town.

There’s a mixed bag of other recurring characters in the Hank the Cowdog books that are just as important as Hank and Drover. There’s Slim, the bachelor ranchhand and Loper, his boss. There’s Sally May, Loper’s wife, and Pete the Barncat, Sally May’s pet. There’s also the buzzards, Wallace and Junior, a tribe of wild coyotes, J.T. Cluck the rooster, and a whole bunch of others. They all add up to make the Hank the Cowdog books some of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Hands down.

Why are they funny? It’s hard to explain, but John R. Erickson takes full advantage of all the screwy characters in his books and uses them to create situations that are funny in a way that makes you laugh out loud. It’s not slapstick humor, and it’s not a dumb kind of funny. Hank the Cowdog is always hilarious in new ways every time, and it’s good, clean humor that everyone can laugh at because it really is funny. Hank’s adventure’s are also just plain entertaining, and they’re just as fun to read the eighth time as they were the first time. Basically, I’d suggest you get the first five of these and start reading them. We bring them along to read aloud in the car. If you’re that kind of person, I bet you could read them to the kids before bed. And if you’ve got kids who are starting to get interested in reading, these are definitely good books to put into their hands. I really can’t recommend the Hank the Cowdog series highly enough.

This isn’t the first Hank the Cowdog review I’ve written either. I had one published in my local newspaper, and also posted a short review on my other blog, Too Hick To Be Square. But trust me, they all say the same thing. Hank the Cowdog is a great series. They’re fun, they’re funny, they are really, really good books. Enough said. Now get yourself to a library and check one out.

Link to author website:

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Seer of Shadows — 5 stars!

I’m not usually a horror type of person. I don’t like read or watch things that are bound to give me nightmares. But I have to admit that I do read some scary stuff. For instance, The Spook’s Apprentice series has some pretty frightening imagery in it, and The Screaming Staircase by Johnathan Stroud was a poor choice of reading material right before I went to bed. But I liked both of those series despite that, because although they scared me, they didn’t deliberately set out to terrify me permanently right from the beginning. A good scare was just part of the story.

I say this because recently I read another book that was good, but at the same time a little scary. The Seer of Shadows, written by award-winning children/YA author Avi, was a book I picked up for totally casual reading. It’s under 200 pages in hardcover, and I fully expected it to be a quick read on a rainy afternoon that would be forgotten in a few weeks.

Not so. The Seer of Shadows is a story told by Horace Carpentine, and despite his (I think) disastrous name, he’s actually a really good guy. Horace is apprenticed to a little-known photographer who thinks very highly of himself, Enoch Middleditch. One day, Middleditch is approached by a wealthy woman called Mrs. Von Macht who requests a photograph to be taken of her, and for some very curious reasons. Her claim is that she wishes to comfort the spirit of her dead daughter Eleanora by placing the photograph upon her tombstone. But the Von Macht’s black servant girl, Pegg, tells Horace just enough to make him wonder if her story is entirely true.

Strange things begin happening to Horace as soon as Mr. Middleditch is employed to take Mrs. Von Macht’s photograph. Horace is allowed to take his first photographs while at the Von Macht’s lavish home, and when he develops them, a frightening figure is revealed—Eleanora’s ghost! The more photographs he takes, the clearer her figure becomes. Worried, he seeks out Pegg to find out more about Eleanora, and too late they realize that his photographs are evoking Eleanora, allowing her to return as a spirit. And Eleanora’s spirit is bent on one thing—revenge upon the Von Macht’s! If she goes unstopped, she will murder them both. Horace may be the only one who can save them, if he can just find a way to send Eleanora back.

This story is set in New York during the year 1872, a time when photography was still a pretty young art. I really liked how Avi captured the mechanics of early photography in this story, right down to the chemicals that were used to develop the pictures, and even how those early cameras were put together. It was very impressive and very authentic to the time period, which is part of what made the story so easy to get sucked into. Photography was very important to the story, and by getting it right, Avi makes you feel like you’re there, in the story.

As for the scare factor, here’s what I have to say. Obviously, The Seer of Shadows is a ghost story, and some people are scared by that kind of thing. I didn’t think ghost stories could really get to me (then again, I don’t read many) but the last fifty pages of The Seer of Shadows were definitely scary. I can’t lie about that. There actually was a point where I had to shut the book and do something else for about five minutes before I could bear to go back to it. So, yes, I would say The Seer of Shadows definitely had some horror elements in it. Words are powerful. There are some books you just can’t read before bed.

But I still liked it—and I mean, really liked it. I think that has to do with the fact that Avi could scare me, using nothing more than words on a page and my own imagination. The fact that he could do that, and do it to the point where I had to remove myself from the story before I went on, is really a testimony to the quality of his writing and story-telling. Not many books can get you emotionally involved in the lives of completely fictional characters in completely fictional events. The ones that do are the ones that you’re not going to forget, and that you’re going to read and reread over and over again. And to me, The Seer of Shadows is one of those books.

That said, I will admit that The Seer of Shadows is probably not for everyone. The scare factor is very real, and for some people it would be overwhelming. It’s taken me a while to get over being scared enough that I could admire the fact that I was scared. It’s probably not the best book to give your twelve-year-old right before bedtime unless you want to give them nightmares. But for a mature reader who can handle it, I’d say: “Go for it. It’s worth it.” Horace and Pegg are great characters, and the mystery of who Eleanora really was and what happened to her adds a lot of depth to the story.

Link to Avi’s website:
Link to Avi’s blog (I’ve read it—great stuff for fans and writers):

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Girl with Ears and Demon with Limp — 2 stars

A couple months back I took a writing class. My teacher was, of course, an author, and over the course of the class I got interested in his books. I ended up buying his fourteen-page short story, Girl with Ears and Demon with Limp. It’s only available as an e-book, but I thought it would give me a taste of his writing so I’d know whether I wanted to read more. Plus, he’s a fairly new author, and I figured a local author would be a nice change from someone who's been published by one of the big publishing houses. Call it an experiment.

Girl with Ears and Demon with Limp is about a girl with wolf ears who is thrown into a castle that has gateways to other worlds and other dimensions. Wandering through the castle, she comes across a lame madman from another worlds who knows the way out. Together, they fight their way through monsters and worse until at last they stumble through a door that leads back to the wolf girl’s home. The adventure is brief but packed with action and eventful occurrences. Emotion is running high, the pace is fast, and the story never stops or slows down for the entire fourteen pages.

Unfortunately, I had several problems with the story. Besides the fact that I was somewhat surprised to find the girl with ears was only seven years old—and killing monsters left and right—there were things about the setting and style of writing that prevented me from really getting into it.

A castle that goes on forever? Filled with doors leading to other worlds and populated by monsters and outcasts? It sounded like a really intriguing setting. In actual fact, it was kind of confusing. I had a hard time keeping track of where the wolf girl was and what her surroundings looked like. I couldn’t really envision what was going on in my head, and so to a certain extent, I felt like I was just reading words on a page. And the words themselves were probably my biggest issue. Rathke chose his words, grammar, and even punctuation to create a strong sense of surrealism that borders on meaninglessness. As far as I can tell (from sampling a few other short stories he’s written) this is just his way of writing. And for a short story, this is a great way to make the story stand out and be memorable.

Unfortunately, it was these same qualities that made Girl with Ears and Demon with Limp impossible for me to connect with. I was so distracted by the unusual punctuation, irregular grammar, and word choice that I couldn’t stay in touch with the story itself. I’m very, very used to reading books that pretty much follow the rules of English grammar and punctuation. To me, Rathke’s book was visually shocking because it looked so strange on the page. And, to be honest, I don’t really read short stories a whole lot, so I’m not used to the brevity and small scope of fictional works that size.

For those of you who enjoy books with that surreal quality, Girl with Ears and Demon with Limp or pretty much any of Rathke’s books are probably right up your alley. He writes surrealism very, very well. I will point out that his writing is all pretty adult, and even Girl with Ears is on the mature end of YA fiction. Just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it was written badly, though, because it wasn’t. Rathke did an excellent job with that story—it just didn’t strike a chord with me, and I found his writing style distracting. But for only a dollar on Kindle, it was worth reading to for something that isn’t mainstream.

Link to author website: (kinda mature)
Link to Amazon author page: