Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Tag: junior fiction (page 1 of 3)

Review: Fright Knight – Connie Laux

Fright Knight book coverAlthough it is part of a horror series for young readers, Fright Night has more of a feel of fantasy to it, with its cast containing both an enchanted knight and a wizard. Magic is very present in this novel and, although the foes that its protagonist, Mike, has to face might seem spooky to its readers, there is more a focus on action than on frights.

Young readers will love the setting for Fright Knight, with Mike and his sister, Carly, living with their father in a museum of spooky objects. They will possibly identify well with the squabbling between the two siblings, but also enjoy them working together against their magical opponents.

The writing here feels a little stilted, with a few too many short sentences and paragraphs for the words to flow smoothly, and it is not one of the more interesting or original tales in the Fear Street stable. It’s a quick read, though, and a young audience should enjoy the surprise villain, if not the fairly derivative plot.

Review: The Bugman Lives! – Carol Gorman

The Bugman Lives book coverThere are some fun characters in The Bugman Lives!. The competitive and snarky semi-friendship between Janet and Carl is very enjoyable, and the addition of Willow part-way through the book adds another type of friendship. There’s also a strong sense of setting, with Gorman doing a great job of conveying the feel of summer.

The Bugman himself is a little less convincing. As a villain, he’s not particularly scary, and his motivation isn’t very well described. In addition, it’s not very clear what is going on in the epilogue. It almost feels as though the story could have used another couple of chapters and, given that it’s one of the shorter Ghosts of Fear Street books, I’m sure the extra length would have been okay.

While there is definitely an audience for The Bugman Lives! I don’t think it is one of the better books in the Ghosts of Fear Street series. Nevertheless, it’s a quick and easy read for young readers who like the idea of an army of bugs!

Review: White Fright – Petra James

White Fright book coverThree books into the series, I think it’s safe to say that I’m a fan of Arkie Sparkle. Sometimes a book series will have lost its initial momentum by this point, but I found that I enjoyed White Fright more than Time Trap, which is particularly impressive given that I enjoyed Time Trap more than the first book, Code Crimson. The characters have definitely come into their own by this point, and there is little need for scene-setting, so the reader is thrust straight into the action.

While the other books have largely concentrated on brilliant technology and journeys back in time, White Fright moves away from this formula a little, focussing instead upon the mystery surrounding the kidnapping of Arkie’s parents and the clues that the two cousins have to work with. This was a change that worked well for me, as the mystery captured my interest right from the beginning, and I’ve been jumping to conclusions ever since!

A new character is introduced here, which adds a whole new dimension to the story. What seemed like a fairly simple mystery in the beginning is now becoming quite complex and interesting. There’s also a little more discussion of Arkie’s emotional reaction to the loss of her parents, as would be expected as the initial excitement of the treasure hunt wears off and the reality of the situation begins to sink in. I enjoyed the glimpses into her family’s back story and the hints at the strong relationship that she has with her parents.

Most importantly, however, the Arkie Sparkle, Treasure Hunter series continues to be interesting, educational and a whole lot of fun. The plot is thickening, the cast list is growing and there are still four more days to go. I can’t wait to see where the girls end up next.

Meanwhile, if you’re on Tumblr (or just on the Internet!) there’s now an Arkie Sparkle blog to follow, complete with fun facts and character information. You can find it at http://arkiesparkle.com.

Review: Revenge of the Shadow People – Jahnna N. Malcolm

Revenge of the Shadow People book coverRevenge of the Shadow People is a fun story with an interesting premise – shadows that are really monsters! Young readers will enjoy the building tension as the shadows begin to stalk Vinny, becoming more and more threatening as the book progresses. Vinny and his best friend, Sharon, come up with a plan to keep the shadows away, but it is unsuccessful, with a result that will surprise readers.

Along with its enjoyable plot and premise, Revenge of the Shadow People boasts a cast of characters that is a lot more three-dimensional than the usual Fear Street fare. Sharon is particularly larger than life, and Vinny’s parents are well drawn, with their focus on Vinny’s toddler brother and obvious worry about Vinny once the shadow begins to take over his world.

This is definitely one of the better Ghosts of Fear Street books and the sinister shadows should be enjoyed greatly by young readers interested in a little monster horror.

Review: Boys Beware – Jean Ure

Boys Beware book coverBoys Beware is not a particularly realistic novel. Generally, parents do not leave two twelve-year-olds and a thirteen-year-old in their own flat to fend for themselves for eight weeks. Even if their aunt is downstairs, it isn’t exactly an advert for good parenting. Or good sense, for that matter!

Of course, such pragmatic observations are of no interest at all to this book’s young audience, for which it serves as a wonderful wish-fulfilment fantasy. For the age group Boys Beware is aimed at, nothing could seem more exciting than getting to live on your own for a couple of months. No doing what you’re told. Eating whatever you want. Holding unsupervised parties. Fantastic!

As the title indicates, however, Boys Beware isn’t just about three sisters living by themselves. Largely, it recounts the endless quest of Emily and Tash to meet boys and capture them make them their boyfriends. There’s also a lot of time spent discussing their sister, Ali, who they feel is a hopeless case when it comes to making the most of herself and finding her own boy toy.

The best thing about Boys Beware is easily the wonderful first-person voice of Emily. It really makes the novel stand out from other books with a similar focus. Chatty, slangy and completely believable, the narrative is just spot on. Tash and Ali are also great characters. I really enjoyed Emily and Tash’s relationship – with the occasional short-lived tension quickly smothered by their genuine supportive friendship – and the clever characterisation of Ali. The book is very much told from a flawed perspective, and this is why Ali works so well. The reader can see her assets, but her sister, the narrator, struggles a little!

Boys Beware is a fun novel that should be enjoyed by middle grade readers – and by older readers looking for a quick and entertaining read.

Review: Time Trap, by Petra James

Time Trap book coverThese books are just so much fun. I read the first book in the series, Code Crimson last month, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and Time Trap is even better. Because there’s no need to set up the situation, the book can launch right into the next adventure, which means that the same exciting momentum is maintained throughout. Anyone who missed the original will not be completely lost, however, as the two main characters, Arkie and TJ, sum up the vital points at the beginning of this instalment.

After heading to Egypt in Code Crimson, Arkie and TJ are off to ancient China in Time Trap. I hadn’t been expecting to enjoy the new location quite as much, but I was proven wrong, with the plot providing plenty of interest even without a pre-existing interest in China to build upon. What’s more, I felt like I actually learnt something, without it ever seeming like I was being taught. I really enjoy the way the Arkie Sparkle series presents its readers with snippets of information about the places that the girls visit – both in terms of their present and their history. The little facts at the end are particularly good, and just the sort of thing that is enjoyed by young readers.

Arkie and TJ are still very likeable characters, and the new characters introduced in Time Trap are well chosen, with the First Emperor and his Chief Advisor being worthy villains and the scholars Lu Sheng and Fu Su providing insight into life at that time. I really think the amazing technology that Arkie and TJ use is the real star of the series, however. The inventions are just so quirky and fun.

My only disappointment with Time Trap was the fact that the ending felt a little abrupt. I would have liked the danger to be a little more imminent, to add to the excitement. That’s a minor quibble, though. I really do enjoy this series, and would happily recommend it to all young readers.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Ooze – Stephen Roos

The Ooze book coverLike all of the Ghosts of Fear Street books, The Ooze is fairly basically written, with no real flair of style, but it stands out a little from the pack due to the very fun idea at the centre of its plot. Al and his friend accidentally create an ooze that makes anyone that it touches stupid – even animals. Of course, Al himself is dumbified by the ooze, along with several of his classmates, which leads to a fun scene involving a poorly-contested Science Bowl at his school. Young readers are sure to enjoy the premise and the effect the ooze has on its victims, along with the secret to its defeat.

Less enjoyable, however, was Roos’s portrayal of Al’s parents. They are completely focussed upon ensuring he lives up to his sister’s academic example, to the point of ignoring his needs. A lot of times, such characterisation in books is offset by the eventual revelation that the parents are being seen through the child’s biased eyes, but here the parents are truly awful and, I think, the true villains in The Ooze. Not fun to read about at all.

Overall, though, this is definitely one of the better Fear Street books. The plot is original and enjoyable and there is a lot of humour to be found in Al’s struggles with his loss of intelligence. One that young readers that should enjoy.

Review: The School at the Chalet – Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The School at the Chalet book coverFrom the opening pages of this novel, there’s no escaping that it was written in the 1920s. The slang is an instant giveaway, and the ongoing casual racism throughout the book ensures that you never forget that this is children’s fiction written for a now-distant generation of children. The page about the Romany people is particularly gasp-worthy. Enid Blyton’s gypsies have nothing on Brent-Dyer’s “religious” superstition!

The School at the Chalet suffers from first book in a series syndrome, in that it’s very slow to get started. The initial discussion of the school is understandable, but then follows a boring account of three characters’ tourist outings in Paris, which seems completely unnecessary and indulgent. The book picks up once the school is actually founded, though, and soon settles into a cozy pattern of anecdotal stories about the school’s first few months.

One of the problems with The School at the Chalet, from a reader’s point of view, is that the character focus is too wide. At times, it seems like Joey is intended as the protagonist, but the perspective flits from one character to another, which becomes very confusing, especially given the long list of unusual names and names that sound quite like each other – Grizel and Gisela are particularly easy to confuse. Few girls are given distinct personalities, which adds to the confusion. Joey is very likeable, although her health issues are forgotten for most of the book, and Grizel and Simone are also a little more three-dimensional than most of the characters, but one would hope that there is more development in later books – or at least more of an effort to focus on one or two of the school’s students.

There is something to be enjoyed here for lovers of school stories, with several fun tropes being represented and the necessary level of unwitting homoeroticism. (Poor Simone has such a crush on Joey – or a “violent affection”, as Brent-Dyer puts it.) The writing leaves a lot to be desired, however, and there’s an overall attitude towards women and foreigners (running the full gamut from exoticism to demonisation) that is quite uncomfortable for a modern reader. And the final chapter? Well, that was just plain bizarre.

I wouldn’t refuse to read more in this series, but I wouldn’t rush to do so either.

Review: Absolutely Normal Chaos – Sharon Creech

Absolutely Normal Chaos book coverAbsolutely Normal Chaos is a lightly-styled novel, with a deeper message about family and belonging. Its protagonist, Mary Lou, has a strong voice, which is emphasised by the narrative being presented in the form of a journal. Her perspective is pleasantly flawed, and the reader views the other characters through her eyes. This is most obvious in the case of Carl Ray, who is represented in an ever-changing manner throughout the book.

Sharon Creech has a capable writing style and Absolutely Normal Chaos was an easy enough book to read and keep reading, but I’m afraid I came away from it with no real feelings about her universe or the events the characters were involved in. I didn’t care enough about any of the characters to feel any emotion for their disappointments and successes, which meant that I read the novel on a very surface level. I enjoyed the budding romance between Mary Lou and Alex in the opening stages of the novel, but quickly grew disinterested, and found a few aspects of the plot a little melodramatic.

There’s nothing really wrong with Absolutely Normal Chaos, but there also wasn’t anything in it that really grabbed me, either. A light summertime read for middle grade readers who like diary-style fiction and who don’t mind an over-abundance of double-barrel Christian names!

Review: Code Crimson – Petra James

Code Crimson book coverI was sold on the new Arkie Sparkle, Treasure Hunter series the moment I read that it involved archaeology and a treasure hunt that spans all seven continents. I’d have been all over these books as a kid, and they hold a good deal of appeal for me as an adult, as well. So many books aimed at young girls seem to take femininity to extremes. There’s a place for fairies and princesses and pink satin dresses, but when I was that age I wanted to read tales of great adventure, with female protagonists who solved mysteries and climbed mountains, instead of waiting around to be rescued by a prince.

Code Crimson is just that kind of novel. Aimed at ages seven and up, it’s a chapter book with fun illustrations, handwriting-font interjections and additional information such as the NATO phonetic alphabet. There’s even a short factual section at the end of the book, which gives just the right amount of information about the real people and archaeological finds that formed the inspiration for the book’s action.

The action itself is very fun, with Arkie and her cousin heading off to Egypt in the family supersonic jet in order to hunt treasure and eventually achieve the return of Arkie’s kidnapped parents. If the jet isn’t exciting enough for young readers, the treasure hunters are also equipped with time travelling technology and umbrellas that act like helicopters – plenty of gimmicks and gadgets to add a strong science fiction element to the adventure plot.

Although it’s only a short tale, as you’d expect for the audience it’s aimed at, Code Crimson manages to fit in a lot of action and does a great job of introducing the series’s main characters without it ever feeling forced. I think the Arkie Sparkle, Treasure Hunter books will prove a hit with young readers – and the low price point of the first book should prove just as pleasing to the parents who will be buying it!

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

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