Book Review: The House in Poplar Wood

The House in Poplar Wood
K.E. Ormsbee

My Edition:
ARC Paperback, 333 pages
2018, Chronicle Books
ISBN: 9781452149868 (hardcover)

I won a copy of this book from LibraryThing in exchange for my honest review.

Felix and Lee Vickery live separate lives in the same house. Lee and his mother serve Memory and Felix and his father serve Death and while the boys can meet, neither can see the parent they don’t live with, nor can that parent see them. This has been the Agreement for their whole lives and the boys have done all they can think of to break it. When Gretchen Whipple comes into their lives stirring up trouble, the twins believe they might have finally found someone who could help them break the Agreement. If, that is, they can outsmart Death.

The cover caught my eye when I was browsing the LibraryThing Early Reviewers page (I mean, come on, isn’t that color combination gorgeous?!) and when I saw it was a dark middle-grade, I slammed the request button. I’m so happy I won a copy! This was a great read, perfect for the fall/Halloween season.

Continue reading

Book Review: A Little Taste of Poison

A Little Taste of Poison
By R.J. Anderson

My Editon:
Paperback, 362 pages
2016, Atheneum
ISBN: 9781481437752

Isaveth is a talented spell-baker, but as a poor Moshite she never dreamed she’d see the inside of Tarrenton college to learn advanced Sagery – especially not after the recent scandal surrounding her father. When she’s offered the chance to attend on a scholarship, she accepts, though she knows it will be difficult given her background and the attitudes of the rich, elites who attend the college. Now, however, she has the chance to meet with her friend Esmond so they can continue to uncover the plot behind the crime Isaveth’s father was framed for. Attending classes turns out to be more difficult than she imagined and Isaveth soon finds herself in more trouble than ever before.

It’s a struggle to talk about this book without giving away too many details. You should, of course, read its predecessor, A Pocket Full of Murder, first. Then we can talk about how spectacular this middle-grade duology is!

Continue reading

Book Review: The Swallow

The Swallow
By Charis Cotter

My Edition:
Paperback, 317 pages
2017, Tundra
ISBN: 9781770495920

Rose and Polly are neighbors, opposites in many respects. Polly is energetic, boisterous and fair-haired and her house is loud and full of family. Rose is quiet, ghostly pale and wears dark clothing and her house is mostly empty with the exception of the housekeeper. But when the two girls meet they discover what they have in common – the constant feeling of isolation and the desperate desire for a friend to call their own. While their friendship forms, Polly begins to suspect that Rose might be a ghost; after all, she’s pale, quiet and no one else seems to notice her aside from Polly. When the girls find a tombstone bearing Rose’s exact name, they set out to unravel a dark family secret.

We all know I make grabby hands at any middle-grade that sounds remotely dark and I was tickled pink to find that I’d won The Swallow from Librarything. This book didn’t disappoint!

Continue reading

Book Review: Liesl & Po

Liesl & Po
By Lauren Oliver

My Edition:
Hardcover, 307 pages
2011, Harper
ISBN: 9780062014511

Liesl has been locked away in the attic by her stepmother since her father’s death. She is lonely but it gets harder and harder to remember life before the attic, she’s been up there so long. Then one night a strange shadow appears – a ghost, Po, who is inexplicably drawn to her side and who enjoys the artwork she makes by candlelight. What starts out as a request from Liesl to for Po to bring a message to her deceased father, takes Liesl and Po on the adventure of their lives.

Liesl & Po has been on my radar since Richard over at Books and Bullshit recommended it (if you enjoy middle grade recs, foul language and lots of snark, you’ll probably enjoy his channel – he’s one of the few Booktubers I subscribe to.) I was very happy to find it while book shopping on vacation in Arizona – in brand new condition for only a few bucks!

First, let me say, I love the design of this book! The jacket is gorgeous and I was happy to find the cover beneath is fully illustrated in color as well – I won’t be covering this book with my library plastic, as I want to be able to see both designs. There are also very detailed illustrations throughout the book, some taking up two-page spreads (keep an eye out for my Judging post this Friday) and I just think it’s fantastic. I don’t have enough complimentary adjectives to describe this book.

Ok, now on to the story. Liesl is trapped by her ugly, evil stepmother (total trope, but I didn’t mind so much) until she meets a genderless ghost, Po and its strange cat-or-maybe-dog pet, Bundle. Po has crossed over from the Other Side out of curiosity and continues to come back because of its budding friendship with Liesl. Liesl asks for news of her father and Po explains that it may not be able to find him, as not all ghosts stay on the Other Side and it’s a very busy place. But Po attempts the message anyway, which sets them off on their adventure to bring Liesl’s father peace.

It was hard for me to think of Po as an “it” – it’s natural to want to classify a character as what we know, either male or female (or even transgender) and so mentally I kept referring to Po as he, even though I was reading “it”. Bundle was easier to handle, as I just made up a sort of creature in my mind, though I also thought of it as male. I’d be curious to hear if a younger reader struggled to classify Po the way I did; perhaps someone less used to doing it would find it easier to imagine the character as truly genderless.

I enjoyed this aspect of Po however, especially with the way Oliver has it describe itself in the book when Liesl poses the question of whether it is a boy or girl and when it replies with neither she says it must be one or the other:

“I don’t have to be anything. I am what I am and that’s all. Things are different on the Other Side, you know. Things are…blurrier.”

I also enjoyed the way Oliver handled the Other Side – a bustling, shadowy place with a mixture of less defined ghosts like Po and others who look much like their old selves when they first cross over. Po seems to enjoy the Other Side, with no intention of passing to Beyond, yet does not make either choosing to stay or go seem like a bad decision.

The characters in this book were all fairly compelling, especially Liesl and I devoured this book in a day. The plot had plenty of action, a whole lot of darkness and just a touch of nonsense – which is how I prefer my middle grade. The ending was sad but satisfying and overall I think Oliver handles the subject of death and what might come after very well. It is especially touching to read the afterward where Oliver provides insight on why she wrote this book.

I highly recommend this book for all lovers of dark middle grade with a healthy dose of feeling.

You can visit Oliver’s website, Tweet at her, follow her Tumblr and even watch her videos on YouTube!

Book Review: The Book of Elsewhere – The Shadows

The Book of Elsewhere: The Shadows
By Jacqueline West

My Edition:
Paperback, 241 pages
2010, Puffin
ISBN: 9780142418727

Olive and her parents move into a large, somewhat creepy old house, complete with all the furniture of the previous (and now deceased!) resident. As Olive tries to adjust to her new surroundings, she notices something odd about the paintings in the house – there are things moving inside them! After finding a pair of old glasses that allow her to travel into the paintings, along with three talking cats, Olive realizes there’s something sinister lurking within the magic house.

I love dark middle grade, and while Elsewhere wasn’t as morbid as I’d hoped, it still had a sinister vibe and a fun concept. It opens with neighbors speculating about whether or not the previous owner of the house was eaten by her cats after death and as Olive runs in and out of paintings, builds up a sense of dread about what dark magic is lurking in the walls.

The concept of being able to move through the different paintings after finding a pair of magic glasses pleasantly reminded me of Sixty-Eight Rooms and I think young Millie would have loved to be able to jump into paintings and explore alongside a snarky talking cat or two.

I think the villain was a little under-developed – we get a sense of why they’re doing what they’re doing, but not until the end of the book. I would have liked a better glimpse of them, but I’m hoping there will be more to discover in future books. Olive shines as a character and my favorite aspect was her battle with loneness and self-doubt. Her family moves a lot and Olive faces some inner demons during the final boss battle, if you will, and it solidified her.

There were three talking cats and perhaps the book could have done with two (yes, this coming from a cat lady!). They were flat and cliché. Their personalities were over-the-top and added a silliness to the book that detracted from the darkness, which was a bummer for me, but is probably a nice change of pace for younger readers.

Also, I love the shiny cover.

I will certainly be reading the rest of the series and can’t wait to see where West takes this. I’m glad my friend happened to notice this when we were out book shopping. I would recommend this to all lovers of middle-grade with a darker, magical touch.

You can visit West’s website here.

Book Review: The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden

thomas marsden

The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden
By Emma Trevayne

My Edition:
Hardcover, 247 pages
2015, Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781442498822

“Thomas Marsden was eleven years old when he dug up his own grave.”

I mean, let’s just leave the blurb at that, shall we? If a middle grade book about a grave robbing kid who finds himself buried isn’t intriguing enough, then you don’t need to know more about this book.

I love dark middle grade, and the cover of this book probably would have sold me by itself, but I have to say, I expected a little more than what I got from this book.

Thomas is a good kid – yes, his father has him assist with grave robbing, but they’re basically living hand to mouth and it’s not like Thomas can really do anything about it. He’s well-meaning, curious, brave and intelligent…but I have to say he was a little boring. He felt underdeveloped and I think part of that was due to the short page count of the book. It’s a slim 250 pages, with fairly large print, and overall, I wish that Trevayne had dug deeper (haha omg, pun intended) into Thomas and the faerie world she created. The ending was wrapped up in a neat bow and felt a bit rushed, though I do think she left the door open for future works in this world.

That being said, I didn’t dislike this book by any means. I think after being so impressed by Beastkeeper (despite a somewhat semi-confusing curse which I’m totally willing to overlook because I just adore that book), I might have self-hyped this book a bit. But it’s a fun read and I still love the premise. I don’t recall ever reading about a character whose profession is a grave robber, and especially not in a middle grade book.

Then you throw in some faeries, who aren’t your traditional, winged, sparkly, flitting things – in fact, in my mind, some were quite creepy based on the descriptions Trevayne gave me – and Victorian London and I’m happy. I liked the atmosphere and I could believe the situation in which the faeries were forced to live in London. The villain (Mordecai…a suitably, though predictable, evil name for a villain in a children’s book) was also a little shallow, which was disappointing because I think his character could have been fascinating.

I also really enjoyed how Trevayne handled why the faeries needed Thomas’ help in the first place – I don’t want to spoil anything, but I think she posed an interesting moral question and while I’m not one to  explore the themes of a book, I tend to find it easier (and even enjoyable) to do with middle grade works.

I’m not going to rave about this, but if you’re looking for something a little different from your usual middle grade fantasy, I’d check this out. And it’s actually not as grim as you’d think, considering the hero is a grave robber, if you’re concerned about younger readers.

Book Review: Beastkeeper

Beastkeeper
By Cat Hellisen

My Edition:
Paperback, 224 pages
2016, Square Fish
ISBN: 9781250073648

Sarah is thirteen when her mother walks out of her life. Her father becomes distant and wild and soon leaves her in the care of her grandparents, whom Sarah didn’t know she had. Abandoned, living in a crumbling castle tower, Sarah discovers the curse that has tormented her family for generations and drove her mother to leave. Sarah is the only one willing to break the curse on her family, but it proves to be more difficult than she ever imagined.

This book. I can’t even. Sorry in advance for what’s going to be a mostly gushy review.

Continue reading