December 31, 2015

[Book Review] Play Dead (A Dog and His Girl Mysteries, #1) by Jane B. Mason & Sarah Hines Stephens

Play Dead was downloaded free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Unfortunately, I'm inclined to say this is another of those cases where the cover is quite a bit better than the book itself. I wanted to love this story, based on how utterly adorable both the cover and the concept are... but I only kind of tolerated it instead.

Play Dead, the first book in Jane B. Mason and Sarah Hines Stephens' A Dog and His Girl Mysteries, is a mystery story told in alternating POVs, swapping at varying intervals between the titular dog, Dodge, and his titular girl, Cassie. There are some cute, funny moments throughout, most of which revolve around the dog (there's a bit about dogs using fire hydrants as what's essentially a community bulletin board where they leave each other notes), and I have to give it props for being what I'm fairly sure is the first chapter book (the cover makes it look like an MG novel, but it's definitely more along the lines of elementary grade fare) I've read that acknowledges that youngsters nowadays have phones.

On the other hand, it had two major elements that I was certainly not happy to see. Most frustratingly, we have the same old tired mean girl tropes trotting by one by one here in the form of a girl named Summer and her "posse", who all have "matching haircuts, phony smiles, and lunches that they'd barely eat". I'm genuinely inclined to wonder at this point why all all these kidlit and MG authors are recycling the same tired tropes with no regard to how they don't actually reflect reality--or if I'm supposed to believe believe that every one of them actually lived through childhoods beleaguered by roving gangs of catty, pretty girls. I'm certainly inclined to think it's the former, and I've gotta say it irks, to put it mildly.

Mean Girls was funny. Pretending that Mean Girls is an accurate reflection of female relationships is not.

But that's not the biggest problem I had with this. I can handle a mean girl or two. You have to be able to handle that stereotype if you want to read books like these simply because it's so frustratingly common. No, what really pissed me off about this one is that I couldn't stand Cassie; she's a complete at utter brat, an opinion was solidified when she decides that the only reasonable response to Summer's snide comments toward the new girl is to throw her lunch on her. Is that supposed to be funny? Because it's just utterly not.

Cassie, meanwhile, seems downright offended when she's the one who gets in trouble instead of Summer--you know, the girl she attacked. As she puts it, "As a member of the faculty, [the lunch aide, Ms. Croswell] automatically assumed the person screaming was the one who had been wronged." ...all of which perfectly exemplifies how Cassie is not, as the narrative would have you believe, some kind of underdog sticking up for the other students; Cassie's a bully. At a later point in the story, she refers to Summer as a "freaky Barbie puppet" and her friends team up to pull a prank on her that's every bit as mean and unnecessary as anything Summer and her friends pull. And I'm supposed to be rooting for this kid? No, thank you.

So my verdict on that front is a very simple, "no more mean girl plots, please and thank you." Seriously. I showed up for dogs and for mysteries; I neither want nor need any of this cartoonish cattiness. Are realistic relationships--both positive and negative--between fictional girls and antagonists who are more than cardboard cutouts of a stereotype really so much to ask for?

But the point of this story was the mystery, so let me get to that. The best thing I can say about it is that most of it is a perfectly reasonable, relatively enjoyable mystery. The worst thing I can say about it is that the plot twist was ludicrous. I won't spoil it for you, but I will say that it involves a trope that is utterly nonsensical and doesn't work in a mystery--not even one for children--with these kinds of stakes. I simply cannot stretch my suspension of disbelief far enough to do anything but laugh about the ending to the Play Dead mystery. It is straight-up silly.

If you have a small child who is absolutely, super-duper addicted to reading kidlit mysteries or in possession of an overwhelming need to read about a sleuthing dog, Play Dead might be what you're looking for. But if you're just looking to introduce your kid to a solid mystery series of chapter books, I'd definitely suggest the A to Z Mysteries series instead.

As for me, I think I'll eventually get around to giving the sequel a chance. But if there's no improvement there--particularly on the front of Summer and co., since I've certainly forgiven much sillier plot twists that this one in the past (I'm looking at you, Who Cloned the President?)--I think I'm out. Plenty of other stuff to read.

If you like the sound of this book, here are some others I think you might enjoy!

[Series Review] Flower Girl World by Lynelle Woolley

Iris and the Aloha Wedding Adventure was downloaded free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


Lynelle Wooley's Flower Girl World is a series of two chapter books for young children, and the theme is exactly what you'd expect from the title. It's about a group of little girls who serve as flower girls in a wedding and decide to form a club for their not-quite-a-hobby. The series is fairly cute and I enjoy the art (it looks like something that would be at home in one of those casual Time Management games, like Diner Dash or Delicious or--more relevant here--Diner Dash's spin-off series, Wedding Dash), though I can't say I'm aware of any demographic of girls particularly interested in the idea of flower girls. I certainly didn't have any such interests when I was that age, though I imagine this series might have changed that, had it been around back in the mid-nineties!

I'm going to say that Rosie and the Wedding Day Rescue, the first book in the series, is definitely the weaker of the two. I picked up my copy for free from Amazon during a promotional period (I keep up with Kindle freebies over at /r/FreeEBOOKS), but I didn't get around to reading it until now. It's short and it's cute, though it's not exactly the most fascinating or logical thing I've ever read.

It's really exactly what you'd expect it to be. Three cute little girls (making up your typical white/blonde, white/brunette, and ambiguously brown/brunette trio) are invited to be flower girls at a wedding, and they get to pick out their clothes, deal with insecurity, and solve all the bride's problems along the way. Because of the low page count, though, there isn't much time devoted to any of these issues, and I'd say the "helping the bride" bits suffered the worst for that; but then, I always find these kinds "the kids save the day" plots kind of ridiculous--but I'm sure a kid within the age of the target audience will get a kick out it no matter what I think.

Iris and the Aloha Wedding Adventure was more fun. While the first book revolved around the brunette tomboy, Rosie, Aloha Wedding Adventure shifts focus over to the blonde, Iris, and gives her a new friend when she travels to Hawaii to be in another wedding. Unlike Wedding Day Rescue, which revolved around the typical "kids save the day" course of events with some wedding trappings as flair, the wedding here served as a set-up for something I find much more interesting.

Iris' new friend, Hana, is a mixed-ethnicity girl of Chinese, Japanese, and Hawaiian descent, and her Tutu--her grandmother--introduces the reader to some Hawaiian mythology in the form of the Menehune. It really helped to make the Hawaiian theme seem less like empty trappings thrown on for the sake of exotic flavor and more like actual cultural diversity, and I loved it. Had I read this as a kindergartner, I don't doubt that I would've adored it.

At the moment, the Flower Girl World website has no information about any upcoming books in the series, but if any more do come out, I definitely hope Woolley keeps going in the direction she took with Aloha Wedding Adventure. As for me, if I spot any more FGW books on Netgalley in the future, I'm definitely going to give them a chance. I'd love to see this series go further with the cultural exploration and get into different wedding traditions around the world.

If you like the sound of these books, check out the rest of the Flower Girl World line!

December 30, 2015

Picture Books 2015: Part Two

This review contains spoilers.

All books reviewed below were downloaded free from either Netgalley or Edelweiss in exchanged for an honest review.

Made in China: A Story of Adoption by Vanita Oelschlager
This is a sweet, rhyming story about a Chinese-born, adopted little girl with a white older sister who teases her about being "made in China", just like the label reads on so many American products. Concerned, the girl approaches her (also white) father, who tells her the story of her birth mother and her adoption while reassuring her of his love. It's another beautifully illustrated picture book focusing on a specific type of a parent-child relationship from the author of A Tale of Two Daddies and A Tale of Two Mommies. I recommend all three to anyone looking for pro-diversity children's book.

Baby Santa by M. Maitland DeLand
I read and reviewed Baby Santa and the Gift of Giving, another book in this series, last year, but somehow I failed to snatch up the other Baby Santa books available at Netgalley! I'm fixing that this year, and Baby Santa, this first book in DeLand's series, is much the same as the most recent. It's another quick little story about Santa's and Mrs. Claus's young child, Baby Santa; while Gift of Giving had, as its title implies, a charity theme, Baby Santa introduces its main character and, as so many children's books do, lets him save the day--but only after he's put it in peril. If you're looking for a Christmas story, this is a perfectly reasonable choice.

Baby Santa's Worldwide Christmas Adventure by M. Maitland DeLand
Baby Santa saves the again in this second Baby Santa book; this time, Santa's sleigh is in the repair shop when it needs to be heading off toward rooftops, and it's Baby Santa's encouragement that gives Santa and his elves a plan. With the day saved, the father-son duo head out to deliver presents all over the world in various vehicles, from race cars and motorcycles to kayaks and blimps. If your small child enjoyed the first book, he or she will enjoy this one.

Baby Santa and the Lost Letters by M. Maitland DeLand
Once again, Christmas is in peril. A whole bunch of letters to Santa are missing from his mailbox, and this time, Baby Santa gets help from not only Santa and the elves, but Prancer and Prancer's network of animal friends around the globe. I'm not gonna lie, that's a fairly cute element that I can't say I was expecting. Thinking about myself as I was when I fit the demographic for this series, Baby Santa and the Lost Letters definitely would have been my favorite of the series.

Baby Santa and the Missing Reindeer by M. Maitland DeLand
I'm going to say this is the weakest of the Baby Santa series; it opens with its issue already in progress--Santa's team of fun-seeking reindeer have scattered off, and they need to be back in time for Christmas. So Baby Santa, whose whole family is unexpected change in this installment into ethnic Africans (from ethnic Europeans), and while I enjoy a children's book that presents a Santa Claus altered from the common variant displayed on the majority of America's Christmas products, I'm a bit thrown by the switch (especially since the change is reverted for the next book, Gift of Giving).

In any case, the story follows Baby Santa on his journey around the globe and presents us with the rather disturbing image of a reindeer dancing on his hind legs in The Nutcracker--costume included, in case you're wondering--while another is seen playing professional, Christmas-themed American football. All in all, it's kind of a weird experience, and I'd say that in terms of plot, it's a bit weaker than the others in the series, which all had more build-up and involvement from the other characters before diving into the 'round-the-world sleigh ride. But if your kid enjoys the Baby Santa series, I'm sure they'll enjoy this one, too.

Magic Words: From the Ancient Oral Tradition of the Inuit by Edward Field
Magic Words is a short poem about Inuit mythology--a little too short for my tastes, actually. But the illustrations are beautiful, and if you're trying to spark or nurture your child's interest in Native American cultures and mythologies (specifically Inuit or in general), this might be a great choice for you.


Does an Owl Wear Eyeglasses by Harriet Ziefert
Does An Owl Wear Eyeglasses? is a nonfiction book that teaches kids about eyes and eyesight by asking the titular question for various species. I think that aspect of it is undeniably well-done, but I have to admit that I'm a bit put off by "dear parents" letter preceding the book. I found it rather condescending, in all honesty. But it doesn't detract from the value kids will get from the book!

A Storm Called Katrina by Myron Uhlberg
A Storm Called Katrina is about a musical little boy and his family as they survive and ensure the hurricane Katrina and it's aftermath, even adopting a little dog presumably stayed by the storm. It's a bittersweet family story that will serve very well for today's young children; though the target audience is now much too young to have experienced the disaster themselves, many will surely have relatives who were affected, and A Storm Called Katrina is a great way to begin introducing a child to the reality of the storm--and natural disasters in general.

How the Meteorite Got to the Museum by Jessie Hartland
How the Meteorite Got to the Museum is a picture book with a repeating element, a la The Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly. I think there's a bit of a disconnect between the target audience's age and the reading level of some of the diction, so this is probably better read to a child than by a child (unless that child is particularly intuitive four-year-old capable of discerning definition from context or inordinately fond of consulting their dictionary). It's not a bad story or an unenjoyable book by any means, but it might also require its child audience to have some preexisting knowledge of what exactly a meteorite is, because that's not really covered here. Pair it with Magic School Bus' space episode, though, and I think you've got a solid, fun educational experience for your kid(s).

Want to buy one of these books? Refused by the Call is an Amazon Affiliate!

December 28, 2015

Picture Books 2015: Part One

This review contains spoilers.


Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson
In a black and white, nearly colorless world displayed in worldless panels of sequential art, a little girl in a red coat finds the titular colored sidewalk flowers while walking with her father. As they walk, she distributes them and slowly spreads color throughout her world--metaphorically, no doubt, but nevertheless. I can't say I'm fond of worldless picture books; I can't shake the feeling that I should be watching a short film, not flipping through a book.

Your Baby's First Word Will be Dada by Jimmy Fallon
There's really not much to it. Every page save the last two features a different father-and-child animal pair, on one side of which the father animal firmly insists "Dada!" in hopes of persuading his youngster to chose it for his or her first word… and every single one is rejected. On the last two pages, however, the fathers band together, and the kids all finally declare, "Dada!' in unison. Honestly, I'm not sure what the point of this is; because of the simplicity, it's clearly intended to be one of a child's very first experiences with books. So, is it simply trying to make a joke about children not giving their parents the first word the parents want to hear? Is it actually intended to encourage children whose parents read the book to them to ultimately decide "Dada" is a first word worthy of them after all? Am I putting too much thought into a book that has, at most, thirty words within it? Almost certainly.

Float by Daniel Miyares
Another wordless picture book, this time about a boy in the rain with a newspaper boat. Unsurprisingly, it meets a soggy ending in a storm drain… but once the rain clears, the boy returns to the outdoors with a newspaper airplane and is every bit as thrilled as he was before the sinking of the S.S. Newspaper. The best feature of the book is actually the inside cover decorations; the front displays pictorial instructions on how to fold a paper sailboat, while the back teaches one to fold a paper airplane.

I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
It's a very simple "story" (I say this with quotations because there's no plot to speak of) written from the perspective of a parent speaking to his or her child, outlining all the things he or she wishes for the child, each metaphorically meaning that the parent wishes their child to live a fruitful, enjoyable life. And I do mean that it genuinely expresses that hope, without the added caveat of pointing out that many, many children do not, in fact, live such lives or else will not any longer upon reaching adulthood; for better or for worse, there's no cynicism or stark realism to be found here.


Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
This one's a very sweet story about a little boy and his nana on their way to volunteer at their local soup kitchen. The boy is as curious as his grandmother is wise and compassionate, and ultimately it's a story of her efforts to impart these virtues unto him. The illustrations go out of their way to show people of varying skintones, body types, subcultural identities (when was the last time you saw a man with tattoos in a picture book?), and physical abilities (including a blind man who plays a brief but large role in the short plot).

Goodnight, Already! by Jory John
I'll admit, I was a bit worried this was going to be a deeply misguided G-rated version of Go the Fuck to Sleep, but I'm pleased to say that's definitely not what this is. Instead, it's the story of a busybody duck who utterly refuses to let its Bear neighbor sleep, and the entire time I was reading it, I could not stop picturing this exact same scenario playing out between Spongebob and poor Squidward; this plot would have been right at home in an episode of Spongebob Squarepants. It even ends on the kind of note the show would; when the Bear finally gets angry enough to deter the Duck for any significant length of time, the Duck returns home… and promptly falls asleep. The Bear, meanwhile, has been annoyed into insomnia. Such is life. Poor Squidbear.

The best books in this batch were definitely Goodnight, Already! and Last Stop on Market Street, but the others were all enjoyable enough--as they should have been, considering each was a 2015 Goodreads Choice nominee. Though none of these won (that honor went to Drew Daywalt's The Day the Crayons Came Home, which I have yet to read), I think Last Stop on Market Street would've gotten my vote, had I found the time to read it before voting closed. But then again, I haven't yet read all the nominees; perhaps there are a few other gems involved.

Picture Books 2015: Part Two should be up sometime before the first!

Want to buy one of these books? Refused by the Call is an Amazon Affiliate!

I'm Back!

Shame.
Alright, Internet. I've been gone a while. So long, in fact, that I think it would have been perfectly reasonable to assume that I wasn't coming back. But here I am! I'm not dead, I'm not missing, and I'm finally ready to get back into this.

So, where the hell have I been? What could have prompted me to take an almost year-long, unannounced hiatus? Well, I'd like to say I've simply been too busy, that I've been doing fun and exciting things that left me absolutely no time to blog--not a single second within all the drama to even drop a line here pointing out that, yeah, someday I'd wander back into these parts again.

But, in all honesty, that's not really the case. I have been doing stuff, devoting my free time to other pursuits and hobbies besides reading and blogging... but the reason Amara's Eden dropped off my 2015 schedule almost entirely--without me posting a single thing between the months of February and December!--isn't that I didn't have the time. I could have made the time, I'm sure, to occasionally read a book and write up a review. It was the energy that I didn't have, not the time. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was the enthusiasm. I was totally and utterly burned out with blogging; it wasn't fun, and I really wasn't getting anything from it but stress--am I posting enough? am I reading enough? fuck, when did I last post? can I put something together really quick to make up for it?--and eventually, what began as a bit of procrastination turned into a long period of irresponsible abandonment, and by the time that said period had grown into a span of months that's honestly fairly worth of some shame--who lets a blog just sit unattended for almost a year!?--the idea of trying to get back into this with that added stressor in mind was increasingly less likely.

Now, though, it's December. NaNoWriMo is over (and was great for me this year!) and 2016 is looming on the horizon. I have reading challenges sitting around unfinished, plenty of ancient eARCs still waiting to be read and reviewed, and heaping hordes of both library and owned books that are calling my attention.

Anyway, I'm back, at least for the foreseeable future. I can't say how frequently I'm going to post because I can't say how frequently I'm going to read; reading isn't my primary hobby anymore, I have to admit, and 2015 was a year almost entirely devoid of it. But I have so many great-looking books waiting in the wings that it's entirely unfair for me to neglect reading as a hobby--and, by extension, this blog--any longer.

At the very least, if I ever need to take another break like that in the future, I hope to leave with a hiatus post at least; the only excuse I have for not doing so this year was that by the time I realized I'd accidentally gone on hiatus, it seemed like too much time had passed to make a hiatus announcement reasonable. I definitely don't want to do that again, and while I'd like to at least something every week, I'm definitely going to try to post at least once or twice a month. (But hopefully much more?)

All that said, I'm going to be wrapping up my reading challenges from now until 2016 arrives, and then I'll think about declaring some new challenges to try to keep me motivated throughout the next year. So, without further ado, enjoy my first review in about ten months.