Score: 95/100 (9.5 out of 10)
Author Conrad J. Storad continues to wow us with his incredible children's books and his undeniable, contagious passion for animals and wildlife!
We always come away from Storad's books being both entertained AND more educated, learning so much while having so much fun!
That's the way children's books should be.
That's the way education should be.
No book by Storad embodies that more than Gator, Gator, Second Grader (Classroom Pet... or Not?)!
This book mainly concerns the relationships between humans and animals, and which animals are appropriate to keep as pets and which aren't.
This book follows Mrs. Nichols's second-grade class and covers many of their fun, interesting, and, at times, exotic animal including a gerbil named Sue (AKA “Snoozer”), a cat named Nat, numerous goldfish, a bearded dragon, two leopard geckos, and even a red tarantula named Lolo!
This is clearly a class (and a teacher) that appreciates animals! We wondered what it might be like if Lolo got loose or if Nat got in and ate the goldfish. That would be a whole lot of shenanigans!
Sue/Snoozer serves as the narrator throughout the book, although in all honesty, she doesn't really talk or act differently from any other (human) narrator. She is cute, though, and does initially refer to humans as “two leggers.” Then, she kinda vanishes into the background and allows the rest of the tale to play out. She becomes a fly on the wall, which, you could argue, is what a proper narrator is supposed to become.
The real crux of this book is the incident in which some boys in the class bring a baby alligator to school! We have to admit, he's kinda cute! Seriously, this ravenous baby reptile is probably the cutest, most adorable thing in the whole book!
However, his introduction brings several things into question: Is it right to take an animal from nature? Is this a safe or appropriate pet to have/keep?
The children in the class, who are diverse and all interesting in their own ways, brainstorm different animals that are good to keep as pets and ones that aren't. These vignettes are really the highlights of the book! All of them are fun, and most of them are also quite funny!
Mrs. Nichols is able to explain to the students that the baby alligator might only be one foot long now, but could be over ten feet long in the future! It could come to see them as food rather than friends!
There's so much to like about this book. One of the best things about this book are the brilliant and vibrant illustrations by Alex Lopez, who once worked for Konami, 2K Games, and Sega! Like we said, both Sue and the baby alligator are adorable! One illustration in particular, on page 14, really stole our hearts! It's an illustration that really summarized the fascination and wonder the children have with the baby alligator while also showing off the baby alligator at its peak cuteness.
Lopez is really good at capturing the expressiveness of both the human and animal characters. There were times when we were looking at Sue's expressions and drawing comparisons to Disney animations!
The other thing that we greatly appreciated about this book is that it's more than just entertaining, it's educational. Following the story, there's an expansive bonus section in which the author teaches us about some of these different animals. We actually learned something! We didn't know that there were only two types of alligators in the world: American and Chinese alligators!
There's even an additional bonus section which presents some fun and interesting activities for teachers and parents to try with their kids!
What a great children's book!
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 95/100 (9.5 out of 10)
Breaking the Cycle: The 6-Stages of Healing from Childhood Family Trauma is an excellent self-help & psychotherapy book by Kaytee Gillis.
Gillis is an experienced and well-respected psychotherapist who specializes in helping people to overcome childhood emotional trauma, family dysfunction, traumatic relationships, and separation abuse (among other things). She even has her own blog on Psychology Today, a highly respected and often-quoted medium among scholars.
Gillis brings years of experience together to present the audience with great case studies, workbook activities, education, and inspiration that all come together to achieve one key purpose: to BREAK THE CYCLE of trauma that is keeping us from living our happiest, best, and most fulfilled life.
This is all necessary in the process of HEALING.
Like many psychotherapists, Gillis seems to focus on two key areas: childhood and relationships. In a sense, it's a classical Freudian approach, however, with a much more gentle and personal touch. While Freud obsessed over some pretty gnarly stuff (like stamping people with one complex/label or another), Gillis is much more concerned with the individual and their unique struggle outside of their sexuality and dreams.
In a sense, she presents a very grounded psychoanalytical approach.
This book does a great job at addressing those suffering from various kinds of trauma. However, we wanted to mention that we felt like this book would be most useful for parents, particularly new parents. Why? Well, it focuses so heavily on the relationships between parents and their children, particularly in child-rearing. It is a powerful and important reminder why parents should be attentive, compassionate, patient, and loving.
That sounds simple, but it's easier said than done. The temptation to be neglectful, severe, or even abusive can be great due to the fact that these methods seem to “work” faster and more efficiently. Yes, you might be able to get the results you want if you beat it into someone, but there are far-reaching consequences to that. Children of parents who are neglectful, severe, or abusive are more likely to develop psychological and personality disorders. They are more likely to be depressed or anxious. They are more likely to turn to drugs (and other addictive behaviors like drinking) as a means of coping. Furthermore, they are more likely to be distant, detached, and opposed to forming/keeping relationships, that includes their relationships with you as a parent.
So, while you might think that forcing a child to do things your way through severe discipline is a shortcut to their compliance and success, think again! It might come around to bite you. If you think it's easier just to leave your child and walk away from your parental responsibilities, think again! It might come back to bite you. In fact, it very likely will.
One of our favorite aspects of this book are the discussions of a concept called “family dysfunction.” We've all heard of dysfunctional families. Some of us have felt like we live in one (or have lived in one).
However, it's actually comforting to note that this isn't weird, strange, or even unusual. In fact, it's fairly normal for a family to experience imperfections, conflicts, and dysfunctions. It's not the end of the world.
Some of our favorite quotes from this book are:
“All families are different, and no family is perfect or completely void of dysfunction” and “All families are dysfunctional” (although this latter quote is treated as wrongfully dismissive). However, there's truth and some comfort in knowing this.
Now, that's not to say that families have to continue to be so dysfunctional and conflict-prone. In fact, the author encourages families to work through their problems/issues rather than ignoring, dismissing, or bottling them up. Families, like all groups, all teams, and people in all relationships, should be working to do better and better each day. Acknowledging, addressing, and working on problems/issues is part of the healing process, and it's good for everyone's overall outlook on life.
The same is true for feelings and emotions. Don't ignore them. Don't bottle them up. Don't think that they'll just go away. Develop positive, healthy ways of expressing and working through these feelings and emotions.
Having read a lot of autobiographies and memoirs about trauma and abuse, we've developed a unique appreciation of dealing with these things. Of course, a few of us have had traumas of our own such as car accidents and violence. So, we could appreciate this book from a personal perspective as well as form the perspectives of other sufferers.
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 93+/100 (9.3+ out of 10)
Wow! Well, this book was absolutely, positively nothing like we expected!
It was actually FUN, exciting, vulgar, hard-hitting, action-packed, and—quite frankly—a bit goofy. This was not the super-serious, realistic, gritty drama that we were expecting based on the title and the cover. It's actually an imaginative, experimental mind-bender that marries the seemingly uncompatible subjects of martial arts, artificial intelligence, medical science fiction, daoism, and tai-chi!
The author puts these [totally unlike] ingredients together in a blender, then hits the puree button. It is wild. It is silly. It is goofy. It's over-the-top. It's a bit nonsensical, but—like a typical Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, or Van Dan movie—it's dang entertaining.
The author is clearly passionate about martial arts, particularly tai-chi. Many of the concepts, a lot of the moments, and even the very MOOD/TONE of some of chapters is supposed to reflect aspects of tai-chi. We're surprised because we, like the majority of people, don't usually view tai-chi as a serious fighting art, rather as a practice done by geriatric people in the park (which the author acknowledges). Well, apparently, tai-chi does have combat applications which characters demonstrate throughout this winding, weaving tale.
Speaking of this tale, it features the badass, titular Girl from Wudang, Yinyin. Look, we're a little confused due to how chaotic and wild this book got, but from what we gathered, Yinyin is the living, breathing manifestation of a powerful, legendary, mythical female tiger, possibly related to the tiger from the Chinese zodiac. For this reason, she is often referred to as “Tigress” which she seems to also adopt as her ring name when she becomes a professional fighter in California.
When we first meet Yinyin, she spends about thirty minutes (maybe 20 pages) beating up a lecherous man who disrespects her and another girl at a venue. We're not sure if the author realized this, but it was actually hilarious and comedic how detailed, specific, and drawn out this one-sided brawl was. If you thought Goku and Frieza's duel on Namek was drawn out, you haven't read the opening fight in this book.
However, what's clear about Yinyin from the beginning is that:
What's interesting is that we get a little more context for this throughout the book, such as during her mentorship under Shifu. So, she doesn't hate all people and all men after all. In fact, she even explores a relationship with a man named Simon, someone who begins to chip away at her hard exterior and melt her cold heart.
But that's beside the point... back to fighting! We get a bunch of action scenes of Yinyin as a professional fighter beating up everyone like she's Alice from the Resident Evil movies or Beatrix from Kill Bill. She is clearly the best, most awesome, and most unstoppable fighter ever in the history of everness. And she don't need no man.
Anyway, Yinyin's supernatural/nigh-supernatural fighting prowess garners the attention of the scientific community. In particular, the unscrupulous Dr. Lamberechts seeks to take the very best of humanity (supposedly) and put it into an AI program that can solve all of humanity's problems (supposedly). He targets Yinyin as the ultimate template for his AI as far as a physical, fighting specimen with top-notch martial arts instincts and knowledge. In other words, Dr. Lamberechts is Dr. Wheelo from Dragon Ball Z: The World's Strongest.
Dr. Lamberechts and his associates seem more concerned with using this AI to gain a military and technological advantage over the east, particularly China, Yinyin's home. What's interesting is that this book actually seems plausible in this regard, even providing precedence for this by referring to Meta/Facebook's ongoing AI program(s).
In case you're wondering: what does any of that have to do with anything else that happened at the beginning of the book? Just stop. Just enjoy this for what it is.
This book has a lot of style and pizzazz. For example, the author's name, subtitle, and a lot of the text throughout the book has a kind of technical, serif-like font, almost as if it were part of a computer program. Also, we can't help but comment on the fight choreography in this book. It's both awesome and ill-advised at the same time. You don't normally want a play-by-play in action scenes because it becomes clunky and bloats the length of the text. However, the author still managed to make those moments interesting, if a bit unnecessary (or unnecessarily long).
Do you know what this book reminded us the most of?
No, it wasn't Kill Bill, Resident Evil, or any other female power fantasy. It actually reminded us the most of The One with Jet-Li from 2001. Do you remember The One? It's a movie that seemingly ended before it began. However, it was so over-the-top and awesome with its action scenes that you almost forget that the movie had a plot. It also featured a sci-fi element to it that married itself with the idea that dao is finite and split between people (and universes).
Anyway, this is a worthwhile book if you like martial arts and action stories with a sci-fi edge.
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 95+/100 (9.5+ out of 10)
Every Other Weekend: Coming of Age with Two Different Dads is a compelling, fascinating, and emotionally gripping memoir by Judge Anthony Mohr. It explores themes like love, fairness, growing up, relationships, keeping promises, and what it means to be a family. This book spans several decades that defined our country (and our world), providing us with a glimpse of what it's like to be a boy in a world evolving and changing as rapidly as he is.
Anthony Mohr, who served as a judge in the Superior Court of California (Los Angeles County) for nearly three decades, came of age in the middle of the 20th century—a time rife with sociopolitical change and the looming threat of a nuclear disaster in the middle of the Cold War.
The 1950s and 60s saw the rapid transition from radio as the primary form of media and information transmission (from which Mohr's biological dad made a career) to the television. It also saw the escalation of a nuclear arms race between the USA and USSR, leading directly into the space race—humankind reaching heights that the ancients had only dreamed of.
However, in the midst of all of this, Mohr was facing more personal and immediate issues. He grew up with two dads—one a biological father and the other a step-father—both of whom would go on to greatly impact him, shape his character, and influence the course of his life.
Both of Mohr's fathers were fascinating and unique people, and we're not just being hyperbolic when we saw that. Gerald Mohr, Mohr's biological father, was a Hollywood actor known for his Westerns and TV shows. He was named “Best Radio Actor” by one of the leading media magazines of the time. Mohr's step-dad, Stanley Dashew, is considered the father of plastic credit cards and a founding father of the credit card industry.
These are two very different people—one a boisterous, playful actor, the other a stoic, no-nonsense businessman.
But before you write this off and assume that it's going to be like every other “evil step-parent” story, stop. It's far from that. In fact, this book surprised us with its innocence, naivety, sense of wonder, and humanity. The author skillfully and powerfully brings us into the mind of a child of the time—confused, bewildered, curious, and searching.
Mohr, a powerful voice of authority in his community for three decades, is still able to capture the youthful and vulnerable spirit of a boy in a unique and challenging situation. It's really sobering and eye-opening!
Something we really loved about this book is how it focuses on these relationships and how they differed. You can really tell that Mohr made a powerful emotional connection with both men, but in different ways. Furthermore, the book never takes the perspective that one of these men is bad, abusive, neglectful, or evil (something we often read in memoirs, sadly). No, neither is perfect, and there is at least one incidence which could be considered abuse, but the author always gives these men the benefit of the doubt. Remember, these were very different times. Children were to be seen not heard. Corporal punishment was normalized. That doesn't make it good or right, but it does provide a different perspective for a modern audience.
The relationship between Mohr and his biological dad (the actor) is particularly touching and powerful, setting up the audience for the heartbreak that is to come in the form of the inevitable divorce. Gerald Mohr's personality is infectious. His sense of humor is contagious. Even though he is rough around the edges, you can tell why people love and are attracted to him. He is the life of the party, and a joker with perfect dramatic timing. He is also incredibly friendly and playful. In fact, Anthony Mohr often considers him a friend or a “pal.” One precious, sentimental memory of Gerald, involving soap, stands out in the author's mind, reverberating later in the book.
In contrast to Gerald is Stan or Stanley, the step-dad. Stanley seems to be a cold, stoic, cutthroat businessman at first, but it quickly becomes evident that he isn't an “evil step-parent” or a bad guy. In fact, rather than pushing Anthony away or displaying jealousy, Stan seems to genuinely accept, care for, and even love Anthony, the son of his beloved. This was a breath of fresh air to read.
Stan demonstrates interest in Anthony's schooling and wants to see him do well. He also invites him to do things with him like sailing. For the most part, he supports Anthony and proves that you don't need to be blood-related to care for someone.
With that said, Anthony shares at least one troubling incident with his step-dad, suffering a series of blows. This is an incident that haunts Anthony and does continue to affect their relationship long after it happens.
What we thought was the most interesting thing about this book is how moments like these (and various other moments in the book) helped to shape the author's character and even what he went on to do as a judge.
One of our favorite lines in the book is:
“Maybe that’s why I like the law. The law lags progress. It trails behind everything, as do most judges.”
In context, this is referring to the slowness of some things to change in comparison to others—a way of holding on to the past. This is a consideration for “Best Quote.”
You also really get immersed into the spirit of the times from the culture, the technology, the conflicts, the music, and even the TV shows (like the now-obscure 50s TV show Half Pint Panel on which Anthony Mohr appeared).
We couldn't help but think about what other autobiographical authors like Richard Saillant and R.C. Larlham were going through and experiencing while Mohr was living out his own story around the same time.
Speaking of time, this book does an excellent job at putting forward the idea that our time with people is precious and finite. Treasure every moment you get to spend with your loved ones because you never know when it might end. Lastly, there's something very special about the weight that the author gives the words of his fathers. For example, both fathers make statements about giving the author something (like a book) or teaching them something (like how to tie a tie). However, there's a weight and power to the fact that they sometimes weren't able to fulfill their promises because of the circumstances and the relentless passage of time.
This is a really fascinating glimpse into a child's life in the middle of the 20th century!
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 8.8/100 (8.8 out of 10)
When a Phoenix Rose Nevermore is an interesting and thought-provoking novella by C.A. Nicholas. It is the sequel to Cycles of the Phoenix, a more complex and multi-faceted novel that we had mixed opinions of. Both books ambitiously confront triggering topics like suicide, self-harm, anxiety, depression, and abuse. With that said, book two is significantly more focused and grounded in comparison to the first one. That was something we actually appreciated.
We love fantasy, monsters, and bizarre stories as much as the next person, however, the issue we had with book one is that it felt like the narration had one foot in the pool and the other foot out of the pool—one foot in reality and one foot in fantasy. It was like the author just couldn't commit or focus on any one thing, creating a bit of a beautiful/chaotic disaster or pretty mess, if we were going to be frank. For that reason, a lot of what was happening seemed less developed, less focused, and less impactful than what the author likely intended. It also came across as a bit confusing and, at times, incoherent.
That's far less of an issue with book two, which is a lot more focused and grounded.
It's a bit funny to say that this book was more focused and grounded than the previous one because it features an imaginative, creative, and perpetually day dreaming character who uses her wild imagination to escape her negative feelings and experiences, but it's true.
It's far easier to understand and digest one character living and working out their issues in a meta, pseudo-symbolic manner than it is to follow ten characters doing the same.
Rather than trying to take us to lands of dragons, monsters, and phoenixes or into a medieval fantasy world, the narrative of When a Phoenix Rose Nevermore stays in a relatively familiar setting, occasionally interrupted by the protagonist's imagination or their stories.
Escapism seems to be one of the key themes of this book, and it's something that we easily caught on to. It wasn't something that we had to do mental gymnastics to figure out like the previous book.
If this book struggles in any one way that's similar to the first, it's that it still insists on playing out the character's deepest, darkest traumas for the audience rather than being subtle about it. Some things don't need to be said. Some things don't need to be shown. In fact, being overly specific and detailed can sometimes take away from the power of a scene. Case in point: the bullying scene. When the protagonist is bullied by her teammates, the narrator makes us privy to every single little thing the mean girls say and do. It would have been much better to keep this scene brief and vague, allowing the audience to fill the gaps instead of potentially triggering them or dampening the emotional impact of the scene.
The author's insistence of over-specificity and on providing a play-by-play leads to the most unintentionally funny line in the book, something which was supposed to sound disturbing but that actually comes across as unnatural or robotic. Dahlia is pressured by her teammates to start shaving her private parts to be more attractive to the opposite sex, to which she responds to her chief bully: "I didn't know that your boyfriend wanted to f**k prepubescent girls, you towering, hairless child."
Geez, did she say this with a posh British accent too? Who talks like that? Seriously, who uses a word like “prepubescent” and calls their bully a “towering, hairless child” when they're about to get pummeled by multiple people? That just seems like something that was scripted by the author rather than something that the character would actually, naturally say.
That was a problem we had with the previous book as well. Everything seemed... contrived and artificial, as if all the moving parts conveniently had to be moved into place for the author to send the message they were trying to send, to serve the purpose they wanted to serve. We had characters neatly fitting into holes and pegs. We had a monster neatly symbolizing depression. We had a character literally teaching and encouraging us not to harm ourselves, using Gideon as a surrogate. So, lines like Dahlia's aforementioned response reminded us briefly that this is the author telling a story rather than the characters living it.
There's a concept in literature called the death of the author. Ideally, the author should disappear from the text and allow the characters to breathe and for the audience to interpret things the way they want to interpret them. You don't want to be force-feeding the audience an interpretation or using your characters as self-inserts or mouthpieces for yourself. That is what made the Gideon sections of the last book insufferable.
We still get the author's voice loudly shouting out over the narration when it comes to the presence of a character literally named C.A. Nicholas and the “Dear Pastor Abigail” letters in which Abigail and Dahlia ramble on about the Song of Solomon and other books in the Bible in a way that sounds an awful more like C.A. Nicholas talking than Abigail or Dahlia.
Because the author insists on self-inserting, we get lines like, “Well, gosh f*ckin' darn. Maybe I'll be famous after I die” which don't help the narrative of the book. Rather, they distract and detract from it.
Again, go away, author. Let your characters breathe their own air and bleed their own blood. Let them find their own way and find their own voice. Don't speak for them or speak through them. It just comes across as forced when an author tries to do that.
Now, with all that said and with all that out of the way: we enjoyed this book. We enjoyed this book a heck of a lot more than the previous book, which is likely still going to be higher rated because of its substance and creativity.
What we loved about this book was the character of Dahlia Noelle, especially when the author stood aside and let Dahlia be Dahlia.
Dahlia has the potentially to be a fascinating and deep character. Like some of the characters in the previous novel, she is a victim of abuse who wrestles with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. However, her coping mechanism(s) seem far more positive and a bit more interesting than Ray's or Isabelle's in the previous book. While Ray and Isabelle attempted to cope with their trauma through a cathartic-like expression of that trauma, Dahlia copes by covering or distracting herself from the trauma using song and dance, jokes, silly situations, and other wonky ideas that come to her imagination. And she's very imaginative!
Dahlia seems like a pleasant person, at least someone trying to be pleasant. While damaged, she does what she can not to show it or to let that negativity rule her life or control her future. There came a point with Isabelle when we kinda felt like she had accepted a victim-like mentality and had stopped fighting. It seemed like she was content with embracing the abuser as her master and allowing him to rule her life rather than defeating and moving past him. Dahlia on the other hand throws everything but the kitchen sink at her problems.
There are times when we really felt for Dahlia and hurt with her, such as when she put the shower on the maximum heat to intentionally burn her skin. What a harrowing scene!
Another thing we loved about the book is that there's some beautiful writing in it. One of the author's favorite techniques is personification, such as when they personify a sticker experiencing the agony of dampness and heat the same way that Dahlia had in the shower. Another example of personification, and another great line, is empathy is said to have been “kidnapped” from Dahlia. This is a much more powerful way of saying that Dahlia lost her empathy.
“We Are Beautiful” is also a beautiful section, featuring the amazing line:
“...all hues of melanin shine with identical magnificence: ivory, ebony, and all the colors in between”
Our favorite line in the book is: “There is no such thing as a perfect day, but every day is perfectly worth living.” That is an early nominee for “Best Quote.”
One last thing we appreciated is that this book had some carry over and continuity with the previous book. For example, we hear more about what became of Isabelle and Ray. We also learn that the previous book physically exists in the universe of this one. In fact, characters buy and own copies of it!
So, though this series has its issues, there is still a lot to appreciate about it.
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 89+/100 (8.9+ out of 10)
Cycles of the Phoenix is a collection of loosely interconnected short-stories by C.A. Nicholas, many of which explore deep, dark, and—at times—depressing topics like abuse, self-termination, and self-harm. However, the book tends to confront these themes with a positive, inspirational, and/or encouraging approach.
These short-stories range from fantasy and action/adventure to thrillers and realistic fiction.
C.A. Nicholas is a very imaginative, descriptive, and detailed author. That comes with a lot of advantages and some disadvantages. A lot of times, very imaginative and creative people forget to rein it in for the rest of us (the audience). They tend to forget or disregard that 99.9% of us don't have the attention span or memory to keep track of twenty different characters living twenty different lives in twenty different times throughout history or a metaverse.
The same is true with writers like Nicholas who are fixated on being extremely descriptive and detailed. You'd think that would be a good thing, and it can be impressive. Flourishing, flowery prose can be impressive. The thing is, it often impacts pacing and can even be distracting from the main idea or what's going on.
We constantly found ourselves running after one major character to the next, trying to figure out what the main conflict or focus of each and every story was supposed to be. We sometimes found this to be tedious rather than rewarding. Even after four readings, we were still a bit confused. If you look at other reviews of this book online (even the glowing, positive, five-star ones) one word always comes up: confused. Do you really want to confuse your audience? Communicating information clearly and coherently should be the first goal of storytelling with entertainment as a close second. Yes, challenging the audience can be a part of the entertainment factor. That's why mysteries exist. However, you need to be mindful of whether or not your audience is buying your book to read a mystery or buying your book to read a fantasy.
On that note, this book's cover and title would suggest that it is a fantasy book. Yes, the first few stories are fantasy stories. However, this book veers sharply away from that, becoming almost pseudo-biographical in nature. We go from reading about phoenixes swooping in from the sky to save the day from monsters to stories about child abuse and sexual exploitation. Yes, we know that the first may be an analogy to the other, but it doesn't play out smoothly or coherently. You really need to coach yourself and tell yourself: this fantasy story is an analogy for this other, pseudo-biographical story. If you just read each story in isolation and try to enjoy them, it can be a bit difficult to.
So here's what we can tell you about how this book works:
This book is split into three separate but sometimes overlapping anthologies—anthologies full of different short-stories that explore one dark theme or another. It helps (and may be fulfilling) to know that Ray from “Reunion” is the fictitious author of “Sanity's War”--providing a bit of an explanation for the utter chaos that happened in that section. Ray's daughter, Isabelle, likewise wrote the stories near the end of the book, which explains their traumatic nature.
Isabelle is really the first character in the book who we really jived with. She was the first character who seemed more real than metaphorical. Perhaps that was part of what annoyed us so much about the first half of this book: it seemed so... fake. It seemed artificial, like a CGI-plagued Tarsem Singh film that is more concerned about style rather than substance. Now, you could argue: there's a lot of substance, even in the first half of this book. There are analogies for depression, anxiety, suicide, etc. However, we'd counter by arguing: are these analogies helping the story or distracting from/hindering it? When you're overly concerned with checking boxes as an author, sometimes you forget that the point of entertainment is to entertain.
So going back to Isabelle: her story resonated with us because it seemed to be the most REAL, RAW, and RELATABLE. In comparison, we could really have cared less for what Aveline, Kazimar, Neha, Nishat, and Mahli were doing, unless it dealt directly with Soudade (another character we respected). To us, they were like two-dimensional cartoon characters—caricatures crafted to represent someone struggling with something rather than entities unto themselves—ones you can touch, feel, and take home with you.
Karen is another example of a character who seems created just to serve a purpose and to send a message rather than a real, believable entity unto herself. Karen constantly comes at Gideon (a stand in for us as the reader or a suicidal individual) with affirmations and words of encouragement. It just seems so contrived and idealistic. She sounds like an Avon saleswoman trying to convince you of the joys of essential oils. It seemed so flaky and flowery and fake.
It's also a bit humorous that every time a story starts, we pretty much know that the author is going to find some way to describe a major character's hair and eye color as if it has any bearing on the plot at all. It just goes back to how forced and contrived most of this book feels.
On the other hand, there's Isabelle. There's something very natural and organic with her. We hurt when Isabelle hurt and suffered when Isabelle suffered. We felt like crying when Isabelle felt like crying. So, when she gives us the character of Fumi and of the frightening Uncle Gen, we were really engaged with that too. That whole Fumi-Uncle Gen arc actually impacted and affected us emotionally because it seemed real. With that said, what bothered us a lot about those parts was how the author decided to dedicate those stories to victims of child and sexual abuse, then wrote in explicit detail about child and sexual abuse. You know, in a way that could possibly trigger the very people they're trying to honor?
That would be like if we were like, “this book is dedicated to victims of violence” and then wrote a book that was the equivalent of Rambo. Wouldn't that be a bit odd? It's like when they invited all the survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack—people who were probably suffering from PTSD and survivor's guilt—to watch the premier of Michael Bay's explosion-happy Pearl Harbor movie.
There's a right way and a wrong way to do it. What you don't want to do is play out these traumatic, triggering scenes moment by moment, detail by detail for the very people who suffered through these things. Catharsis doesn't work that way. Catharsis is when you want to act out something, can't act out something, so you are relieved/satisfied to see it played out on screen (i.e. male/female power fantasies, a person accomplishing a seemingly impossible task, the perfect romance, etc.). Catharsis isn't being the victim of assault, then seeing the actress playing or representing you being stabbed 327 times for an hour and a half of screen time. There's a part when the creator of a work (the writer or director) needs to know when to cut away and leave certain things to the imagination. Sometimes, leaving certain things unsaid can be more powerful than detailing each and every single thing. We don't need to sit through and read day after day after day of this poor girl's physical, sexual, and psychological abuse to get the point. This reminded us of A Hundred Honeymoons by JS Wilson in that regard.
Interestingly enough, that leads into our next point: you don't need to write a play-by-play of every single fight or action scene either. That's one of the first things that Brandon Sanderson will probably tell you about storytelling. Just get your characters from point A to point B in an efficient manner and in a way that makes sense to the audience. You'd be surprised how their imagination plays out the scene in their minds.
Don't believe us? Take Shakespearean plays for example. Many of these plays involve a fight of some sort, yet these engagements are left intentionally vague, almost in a way in which they may seem brief or abrupt to the reader. However, this leads to some interesting interpretations of the same scene played out on stage and on the silver screen. Let your audience flex their creativity muscles and use their own imagination. Don't tell them this, then that, then this, then that. It just makes the writing seem bloated, stilted, clunky, and needlessly wordy.
Think about what made the fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith so iconic and memorable. It wasn't the slashing and light-saber twirling, it was the back-and-forth (and sometimes cheesy) banter between the two characters.
Anyway, besides compelling protagonists like Isabelle and Fumi, this book has some terrifying antagonists, namely Uncle Gen—who exploits and manipulates his own nieces—and Soudade—the monstrous manifestation of depression who seeks to drive people over the edge.
All of this comes together in a book that seems to suggest that we're all tied together, interwoven with the universe somehow. It's kinda like Cloud Atlas in that sense. Even the title evokes thoughts of rebirth and reincarnation.
If that sounds up your alley, check it out on Amazon!
Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
Welcome to the Land of Wilted Roses, a godless, steampunk wasteland in which nothing grows and in which dark beings and deathly creatures wander. This hellish “land of horrors” is inhabited by the Tenebris and their Priestess-Queen, Malkira, a cult-like figure who robs the lands of the living to fill her temple with sacrifices for the sins of the dead.
With this background, we join Volentus, a nefarious necromancer who is serving a long prison sentence for his evil. Volentus is a villain in his own right, not much better than Malkira. His abilities include the ability to raise entire armies of the dead to do his bidding. He would assume the role of the evil sorcerer in most other fantasy tales, but not here.
Ultimately, Volentus landed in prison due to the heroic actions of his arch-nemesis, Alicent. And herein lies the crux of the plot: the only way to gain his freedom is to do the one thing he vehemently pledged not to do: thwart Malkira by helping Alicent, the person he despises more than life itself!
Joining him on this journey is the psychic vampire, Dragan Cellis, who is determined to save the woman he loves, a woman who just so happens to be Alicent Vale.
Dragan Cellis wields the phenomenal blade, Revanant, which he pledges to use on Volentus if the necromancer ever betrays him. This is an early consideration for “Best Weapon” as it receives quite a bit of action and build throughout the book. Other considerations are Volentus's tuning blades which pulsate with magnificent power and colors when they interact with him. They even serve as torches or lamps at times. They reminded us a lot of the soul blades in the Jaralii Chronicles series. Then there's Shadowmaker, the weapon of a Wraith Lord, another powerful weapon that has a lore of its own.
Rounding out the cast is the zombified/undead Lucretia, an old friend of the heroes and a tragic victim of Malkira's cult. She serves as both a warning of the ultimate consequences of Malkira's evil and as a tragic character in her own right. Lucretia is a sympathetic character who, unfortunately, seemed sidelined early in the story. However, we were happy that she continued to be mentioned and even play a role at times long after her introduction.
Going back to Dragan... Dragan is a very cool character, reminding us a lot of Vincent Valentine from Final Fantasy VII. Come to think of it, Vincent Valentine was also a vampire and who also had a friendship with a girl named Lucretia that ended tragically. He got into a conflict with an evil, mad scientist named Dr. Hojo, who may or may not be the direct inspiration for Dr. Hundo in this book.
Well, this might be an example of greatness acknowledging greatness, a sort of homage.
Volentus is a very compelling character, as you might expect from an antihero with a questionable moral compass. He is the perfect foil for Malkira, the villain, who also serves as a mirror to him. Malkira is irredeemably wicked and unapologetically evil, torturing and killing countless innocents. In comparison, Volentus, despite his dark past, realizes the wrongs he has done and is doing what he needs to do to ensure a better life for himself—a life not only free from chains and cages but also of guilt. Well, ok, he still wants power and world domination (or something like that), but that's a discussion for another time.
Volentus gradually develops as he realizes the pain and suffering that his enemy, Alicent, has experienced. It is quite heartwarming to see a dark character show a range of emotions including empathy and compassion. Upon finding her in an unrecognizable state, he gasps: “What have they done with you? They had no right. This is not my opponent... Not my adversary. You deserved far better than this.”
This is obviously a very interesting dynamic to have two former adversaries working together like they're Rocky & Apollo Creed or Tom & Jerry.
It reminded us of the ending of Last of Us II, when Ellie rescued (though later fought) her emaciated arch-nemesis, Abby, from a kill-crazy cult; or Berserk, in which Guts and company rescued Griffin from years of torture in the king's dungeon despite him being the person who essentially manipulated and controlled all of them.
Those are some great works to have yours compared to.
Mammina, as always, showers readers with compelling characters, an interesting plot, and great world-building. Now, this book is a bit more complex and confusing than some of the author's other books, practically all of which are top-notch. It may take a few readings to get a hang of what's really going on. It's complex and nuanced, which is typical of fantasy books.
Another thing that may be bothersome is that the magic in the book can seem inconsistent. There are times when characters can use their magic to accomplish what needs to be accomplished, and there are times when they're tied down by the need for the plot to happen. One such example is the simple fact that Malkira is conveniently immune to the abilities of the protagonists, nullifying them.
This may be an example of really good book that's actually better in concept than in execution. There seemed to be a few things missing that could've really elevated this book to all-time greatness. For Example, did Alicent really have to be Dragan's lover? Why not have it be her former arch-enemy, Volentus? Wouldn't that be more interesting? Could you imagine if the former enemies became lovers?
Secondly, does Dragan really even need a lover? He seemed like someone who would do better as a bad ass loner who shows up every now and then. Could you imagine if Vincent Valentine had wanted to date Tifa and Aerith in Final Fantasy VII? Doesn't that just seem wrong? Doesn't that just seem distracting? Yes, Vincent is a cool character like Dragan, but he's not the focus of the story, and he shouldn't be drawing attention away from the central characters. This problem is especially apparent in the final act of the book which seems to linger on Dragan and his life after the conflict. All the while, what we really wanted to know was more about Volentus. Well, thankfully, we get that, but the author made us wait an awful long time to get back to the character we really cared about.
Speaking about wanting to know more about Volentus, this book arguably starts in the wrong part of the story. It starts in medes res, which is awesome... if you're planning to have the narrator explain years or decades of events to the queen of Carthage. However, in the context of this book, it left us confused and with a lot less context than we should have had. It almost feels like a sequel, a sequel which has no predecessor (that we know of) to refer to.
So, there are a lot of assumptions we have to make in order to accept the beginning of this book. For example, we have to accept that Volentus was a bad guy, albeit a misunderstood one. We also have to accept that he had a heated feud with Alicent, who was a good gal. However, wouldn't it have been more effective to begin the story by showing the two individuals working against each other? Or maybe show them working together, then one betrays the other. The relationship between Volentus and Alicent seems like it should be the center of the entire book, yet the opportunity to capitalize on this seems a little wasted. It would be like if Revenge of the Sith started with Obi-Wan and Anakin fighting to the death without any build or explanation for why these two allies (from the previous two films) are suddenly fighting. Then, we have to just accept that Anakin did some bad things off-screen.
One last thing we want to say about Volentus is that we really admired something about his personality: the desire to be himself. This is encapsulated in his determination to choose “death or Volentus.” Essentially, he is saying, “I'm not me if I'm not me.” That sounds strange, but there's a power to that.
Something truly great about this book is that it captures of the spirit of a fantasy RPG that we think we've sorely missed: a group of misfits join together on an adventure to battle a great evil. In addition, similar to Angels of Resistance, we loved that this book was ultimately about saving people from deplorable situations. The drive to rescue and protect people who are vulnerable or in distress is a naturally human inclination. For some reason, so many writers simply ignore that, chalking it up as some sort of tired, old trope. Rescuing people may be an old trope, but it will never become tiresome. This is largely why people become police officers, firefighters, or members of the National Guard. People will always need saving.
Mammina once again captures the fun, adventurous spirit of an RPG.
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 91/100 (9.1 out of 10)
This is the harrowing and exciting story of the most daring Fireworks Flier (firefly) there ever was: Fenix! But Fenix wasn't always a high-flying superstar. In fact, he was uniquely born with shorter wings than usual, which made it difficult for him to fly.
Fenix still dreamed of flying high like his fellow fireflies, specifically being one of the select hundred who participate in the Spirit of the Season performance. During this performance, the fireflies acrobatically light up a big, tall tree, forming the shape of a large insect, similar to a drone show, synchronized swimming, or a marching band.
The most prestigious and prized role in the entire Spirit of the Season performance is that of the Fireworks Flier who lights or acts as the star at the very top of the tree/formation. This is essentially the equivalent of the dot of the Ohio State “i.”
Fenix's fast-flying friend, Bolt, is scheduled to be the star at the top of the tree. However, the night of the performance, he hilariously drinks way too much nectar and can hardly move. It's up to Fenix to assume Bolt's helmet and role in order to save the show! Along the way, however, Fenix encounters several creatures who seemingly want to help him but who may have ulterior motives: a bullfrog, a spider, and an owl. Believing in himself and by the force of his own will, Fenix pushes past these obstacles to live out his dream.
This is the premise of Fenix and the Fireworks Fliers, yet another compelling children's dance book by the fine folks at Once Upon a Dance.
This book is beaming with positivity, promise, and potential. It's a fantastic message to send to kids who may be disabled, disadvantaged, or who may have self-defeating thoughts. Dreams do come true! Good things happen to those who wait and to those who try.
This is an example of a book with a great premise that maybe could have been executed a little better. For one, it took a few readings to understand the plot that we described, and we're adults. This might be due to it being a little on the wordy side. It might also be due to how the focus seems to shift a bit too much. For example, we don't meet our main protagonist, the titular character until the third page of the story. The first two pages of the story take their time introducing us to the flora and fauna of the scene and describing what the Fireworks Fliers are. That sounds good, however, a better approach may have been to show Fenix as a young firefly witnessing this fascinating event and being inspired by it.
Everyone can relate to seeing something that inspired them to do something. Everyone with a passion can relate and empathize to encountering that passion for the first time.
For example, maybe you're a rhythmic gymnast who was inspired after seeing Alina Kabaeva in the late 90s or early 2000s. Maybe you're a football player who watched some Dan Marino highlights. Or maybe you're a boxer now because you watched a Rocky movie.
Instead, we are just abruptly introduced to Fenix and told that he was inspired to be a Fireworks Flier. This is a case of it being better to show than to tell.
Another example of the book shifting focus is how the book went from Bolt drinking too much nectar to Fenix going off to live his dream, then veers off into a bunch of random, probably-figurative/symbolic animals confronting him along the way. It will probably take an adult to explain to the kids that these animal characters are predatory and unscrupulous because they looked and seemed friendly to us (on first glance). It's nuanced and, for a children's book, could be very challenging to come to the conclusion that we did (of the animals not meaning well). In fact, when we first read this, we thought that Fenix came across as rude and ungrateful to all of them. It seemed as though they were supporting him and that he was shooing them away and disregarding them.
It was only after several readings that we realized that they were out to distract or exploit him (perhaps for food). There are people in real life who are parasitic like that—people who are only there for you when things are good and you're successful. They disappear and turn their backs on you when you're not rich, famous, and/or successful anymore.
The thing is, who is the foil to these characters supposed to be? Shouldn't there be a foil character who demonstrates that they always believed in Fenix and always believed in him, even when times were tough? Is the foil supposed to be Bolt? We don't quite get that impression from Bolt.
We don't really get to see the friendship between Bolt & Fenix develop like we saw in something like The Gnatural (which, coincidentally, also featured two bugs who were friends). We're just supposed to accept that Bolt & Fenix are good friends without it really being demonstrated. Maybe it would've been nice to meet Fenix's mom or girlfriend who, hypothetically, always supported his goals. Instead, a lot of other random characters take up page space and screen time (i.e. the snakes, rabbits, and bear).
Also, what's with Bolt? Does he have an underlying problem with drinking too much nectar? If he does, that's a problem that should naturally be resolved as part of his arc, otherwise it's an unfinished arc. Maybe we can assume that he learned a hard lesson about drinking on the job by losing his spot on the team?
We don't want to harp on this too much, but the illustrations may be some of the weaker aspects of this book. They are less impressive than the illustrations found in Andi's Valentine Tree, Eka and the Elephants, and Tammy the Troll. Fenix and Bolt have extremely simplistic character designs, almost to the point where it's hard to tell them apart. One is blue and one is green. One has longer wings than the other. However, in the heat of the moment, it can be hard to distinguish between them. The other issue we noticed is that, at times, the color of the characters blended in too much with the background. For example, many of the characters have a pinkish, bluish, purplish hue. Do you know what else has a pinkish, bluish, purplish hue? The background.
With that said, a lot of this criticism may come from the fact that this series is known for its outstanding, colorful, brilliant, and bold illustrations. This is just a step below excellence, which is still great. We were still charmed by seeing some of these adorable animal illustrations. The butterflies, for example, look great. Kids will find the rabbits and the owl cute and appealing to look at.
The superstar, highlight, and saving grace of this book is definitely Ballerina Konora. She has never been more gorgeous, graceful, beautiful, cute, charismatic, or energetic than she is in this book. In fact, we were more amused and entertained by what she was doing on the right side of the page than what was going on in the story. Actually, in hindsight, maybe that's why all of these random animals had to get involved in the story. Konora had to demonstrate their dance moves to fulfill the dancing component of the book. We can understand that. Anyway, Konora really elevated this book with her performance. She has a very inviting and welcoming presentation, often asking the reader questions and encouraging them to get involved or to use their imagination.
Despite earlier commenting on the wordiness, we did like the sing-songy and appealing way in which the book is written and worded. We imagine that it would translate extremely well to an audiobook which would incorporate these lyrical verses with sound effects and music.
All in all, despite our constructive criticisms, this is still a good and worthwhile book, especially for children older than five or six who can get into the dance portion.
This book is projected to be released in March 2024. Check out the Once Upon a Dance website for updates and other great children's books!
Score: 93/100 (9.3 out of 10)
A quirky 6th grade girl named Janie learns that her family is staying at House 13, the infamous Fortune House which was said to have been burned down with many of its inhabitants inside. Some of their bodies were never found, and it is said that they can still be heard hustling and bustling within its wooden walls. What secrets does it hide? What mysteries might the girl uncover?
This is the premise of Fortune House by Jeannie Rivera!
There's something about middle-grade horror stories that we love so much! Or maybe we're just spoiled by great authors of children's horror like Caryn Rivadeneira and Jeannie Rivera.
In 2022 and 2023, Jeannie Rivera continued to wow us with her stories in Dragons of a Different Tail, Tales of Monstrosity, and Frederick Moody and the Secrets of the Six Summit Lake, proving herself to be a highly adept and skillful storyteller.
Frederick Moody stood out to us in particular for the author's ability to take something absurd like Big Foot and marry it with a compelling adventure story involving children. Fred and Cindy remain one of the best and most memorable dynamic duos we've ever seen in a book.
Fortune House arguably has a better premise, and it succeeds at being a very entertaining middle-grade book that will keep you guessing and at the edge of your seat. However, there seemed to be something missing in the third act—an oomph, if you will.
So much of this book has an aura of mystery and suspense. Characters are constantly spooked or surprised. However, near the end of the book when we were expecting a big, huge, climactic moment full of action and suspense—a showdown with a big, scary, malevolent spirit—we were instead greeted by something a lot more somber and emotional, maybe even sad.
This isn't a book about cheap jump scares. This isn't a book that's intended to keep your kids up at night. It's a book about a girl coming into her own. It's a book about a family confronting a new, unfamiliar setting. It's a book about an outsider and a loner trying to find her place in the sun. All the while there are ghosts in here that are trying to do the same—against all hope. When you think about it like that, it's actually quite a powerful story.
What we would've liked to have seen is more direct interactions between Janie and the boy ghost, David. Their dynamic held a lot of potential that we think wasn't explored fully. What we also would've liked to have seen is for the history of the house and of David's family to have been explored more. This book felt a little bit rushed and a bit abrupt, which might just be due to the author respecting the shorter attention spans of children. That's something we both understand and appreciate. However, as adults, we were really hungering for more. We didn't want this story to conclude. We wanted a few more twists and turns. A little more development.
However, what we got was still great.
After three readings, Janie emerged as a much deeper character than we initially realized. Janie is not just a generic little girl character. She's no blank slate. She's actually a lovable weirdo. And how can't she be? Her life has been completely unmoored. She has moved from house to house because it's her family's business to renovate and “turn” them. What impact does that have on a young person who can never establish a stable living situation, never be able to call a place a “home,” or maintain friendships? Janie loves to visit graves, having a fascination for both their beauty and mystery. It actually reminded us a lot of author Joanna Penn.
Death is really something that children and young adults may have a hard time grasping. The finality of it is foreign to many young people. Well, Janie is confronted with the question of what really happens when someone dies yet their course in life remains uncompleted—their purpose unfulfilled. We really wished that Rivera could've dug a little deeper into this, but perhaps it would've been too much for the demographic.
After all, this isn't supposed to be a grim, dark Charlie Nicholas-styled novel about depression, anxiety, and profoundly dark feelings. This is supposed to be a much funner, lighter story, and that tone definitely comes across, even when you have a villain in here who might be as evil as any Charlie Nicholas villain.
However, it doesn't seem like that villain really gets his spotlight (in fact, we forgot his name already), and perhaps that's for the best. Rivera chooses not to glamorize his actions like some slasher film. Instead, we see the profound impact that his evil actions had on innocent victims like David and his mom. That is something we think we can get behind.
Victims of crimes are often not given the attention and spotlight that they deserve, especially when compared to the perpetrators of these crimes.
But let's not dampen the mood. This is surprisingly a very uplifting and positive book. One of the things that's most positive about it is that we get to see Janie break out of her cocoon and actually start reaching out to people, making friends—both living and dead, we suppose.
Before we conclude, we wanted to mention that there's a scene in this book that reminded us of one of our favorite scenes from Frederick Moody and the Secrets of the Six Summit Lake. In Frederick Moody, Cindy twisted her ankle and had to be helped to safety by Fred. Well, in Fortune House, Janie trips in a cemetery and scrapes her leg bad enough to draw blood and actually leave a scab later in the book (which other characters reference). This is significant to us because it makes Janie seem like a real character who actually takes lasting damage, suffers, and struggles through this ordeal. She doesn't have a healing potion or ghost magic to make this wound go away, which is something we appreciated.
So, congratulations to Jeannie Rivera on giving us another exceptional middle-grade book!
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 93/100 (9.3 out of 10)
Precious the Baby Dragon is the highly-anticipated sequel to Dr. Dawn Menge's classic, award-winning book: Dragon's Breath.
This is up there with The Fox's Tower as the most anticipated children's book sequel we've ever read. No kidding!
Dragon's Breath (book one) captivated us with its gorgeous artwork, beautiful characters, and compelling villain: the Dragon. The Dragon was a surprisingly deep, complex, and fascinating character. She was far from pure evil. Instead, she was a sympathetic, misunderstood villain who allowed her desire to be loved, wanted, and adored to override her better judgment. Once she felt she was losing her special place in the hearts of the people, she manipulated the situation in a malicious, short-sighted attempt to turn them back to her. As you might expect, this backfired. However, rather than continuing her reign of terror, she seemed to realize the error of her ways and leave when asked, essentially surrendering to the good guys.
This is not typical villain behavior. Most villains don't usually realize the error of their ways and walk off in defeat. However, the Dragon was not a typical villain. She was a complex character—a real-seeming, believable being. She reminded us of a lover scorned or a mother experiencing empty nest syndrome, taking it to the extreme.
How far would you go to hold onto the people you love? That's a question that the Dragon had to confront herself with. That's a question that a lot of us have to answer throughout our lives. Sometimes, when you try to hold onto someone and smother them, you end up pushing them away. Sometimes, you act and behave irrationally to try to get back with that person, whether they're a past lover, a former friend, or a child who has moved on from you—getting married or going to college.
The Dragon was willing to lie and cheat to get what she thought she wanted, only to realize that she was driving away what she truly wanted: love and acceptance. It's actually tragic when you think about it.
So, Precious the Baby Dragon held the promise of offering some redemption for this tragic character while continuing the story of the kingdom and the loved ones she left behind.
How did it do?
We would say: quite well.
This book did an ok job at continuing the story. With that said, could it have done better? Definitely.
This book takes us back to the Kingdom of Quails, reuniting us with King Teddy Bear & Queen Giggles. Now, right off the bat, we couldn't help but notice: King Teddy & Queen Giggles don't look nearly as polished (or as hot) this time around. Ok, King Teddy still rocks that beard and looks like he's in a Just for Men commercial, but what happened to Queen Giggles? Did she age like thirty years since the last book? She was a young, blonde bombshell, now she's like a grandma all of sudden. Her skin is saggier, her hair is more faded, and her cheek structure is wider than we remember. Maybe we're just misremembering. The first time we saw her on page 5, we were like, “What happened, Queen Giggles?! How did you go from runway model to Golden Girls?” Being a ruler must really take its toll on someone.
Anyway, another thing that kinda bothered us was the design for Precious, the titular baby dragon. Precious looks so much older than she should, especially as a baby. She's also not as cute or as adorable as she could have been. First of all, her head is small and so are her eyes. If you're going for a cute character, you want to make their head and eyes bigger. Next, her hairline appears to be receding. In fact, her receding hairline is the thing that bothered us immediately. Isn't she supposed to be a cute, compelling baby dragon? Why does she look like she's 82?
She also has very sharp rather than angular features, something that's more akin to a villainous or dangerous character.
Now with that said, ironically, the receding hairline is actually the trait that also bothered us about her mother's character design. That's right, the Dragon from the last book also had a receding hairline. So, naturally, it's understandable why Precious has one too. The last thing we'll say about the art/design is that the illustrations sometimes have difficulty with proportions and sizing. On page 9, Giggles is much smaller than Teddy despite them being relatively the same distance from the egg. Likewise, on page 5, the hands of the two characters are much smaller than they should be in proportion to the rest of their bodies.
But ok, those are all nitpicks. This book is generally well illustrated, better so than many of the other books that come our way.
What about the story itself?
Well, this is the story of the life of Precious. It is also a story about nature versus nurture, similar to the last book. Are we born evil or do we become evil? Are we born good or do we become good? Can a positive environment nurture a positive person? What about a negative environment?
Do we still hold some of the darkness that our parents and grandparents had? Are we tainted by our genetics and/or by our heredity? Or are we a blank slate?
This book ambitiously tackles these questions.
However, we kinda felt like it lacked the oomph and impact of the previous book. The previous book was so special and unique because it subverted our expectations for a children's book. It gave us a villain who had as many layers as an onion. We didn't know where the book was going to go.
This time around, we were pretty sure that nothing truly bad could happen. Precious was following a pretty straight-forward character arc of being granted the opportunity to make better choices and be a better person than her mother was.
Ironically, this also somewhat redeems her mother since the characters come to the conclusion that the “Bad Dragon” gave Precious to the kingdom to make up for her transgressions. We then questioned: what if she left Precious behind to destroy the kingdom? Did anyone consider that?
This book, unlike its predecessor, is almost 100% positive, lighthearted, and uplifting. It's more of what you'd expect from a children's book than the previous book. With that, however, it did seem to lack the depth that the previous book had.
However, we're going to give the author credit: topping the previous book was an insurmountable task. Furthermore, Precious really is a better role-model and a more positive character than her mother.
One of the best things about this book is that we can really see the progress and growth that Precious undergoes, not just physically but also mentally. For example, Precious reaches some of the milestones that are unique to her species: learning to fly and learning to breathe fire. She is also knighted (in a ceremony that oddly takes several days). Meanwhile, you still get glimpses of the romantic flame that still burns between Teddy and Giggles such as when he reaches down and grabs her by the arm to prevent her from falling and getting hurt.
Another thing that may hold this book back are the typos. The previous book also had a few typos. In this book, there seems to be an issue with salutations. Usually, when you address another person in dialogue, you want to precede their name with a comma. For example:
“It's not me my Queen” should be “It's not me, my Queen.”
There's also a pretty odd sentence: “She visited the school year each week” which we think was supposed to be “She visited the school yard each week.”
UPDATE: a newer version of the book has fixed many of these grammatical issues. For that reason, we are slightly increasing the score from 9.2 to 9.3.
Let's end on a positive note because a book with this much heart and positive spirit deserves it. This book has great continuity. You really get the idea that the previous book actually happened and that the events in it really mattered to all involved. The characters constantly talk about the “Bad Dragon” and what she did. They even appear to read the school children (and Precious) the story of what happened.
We even get to enjoy a shared literary universe with the rest of Menge's books. For example, Queen Vernita from Menge's other children's book series also makes an appearance. That was quite interesting! We wonder if maybe Queen Vernita may have encountered the Dragon on her many adventures.
This is a really solid children's book featuring a very cool dragon character!
Check it out on Amazon!