Some Kind of Normal by Juliana Stone

Juliana Stone is an author who is familiar with the hearts and minds of teens. Her newest YA novel, Some Kind of Normal, deals with the after effects of a drunken driving incident chronicled in her previous book, Boys Like You. Here is Trevor Lewis, whose life has been turned upside down after a car accident in his Junior Year in High School. He’s missed some of his Senior Year due to the resulting coma and has to live with the after effects of a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) which includes difficulty with simple tasks, such as playing the guitar and getting the words out properly. Issues which he tries to keep secret from the world. To make matters worse, Trevor must pass his Government Class in order to graduate. His summer tutor, Everly Jenkins, has issues of her own. On the outside her life is in perfect harmony, smart and pretty with the perfect home and parents. As a preacher’s daughter her life seems flawless, yet she too has been carrying a secret for over a year. A secret which could tear her family apart if revealed. These two injured teens find comfort just in the fact of knowing there is someone else out there struggling with obstacles beyond their control to repair. Despite their instant attraction to one another, the author slowly builds up to the point where they are able to verbalize their feelings. The relationship is not a smooth one, as each feels unworthy due to their perceived inner flaws. It is halfway through the novel before they are able to find comfort in each other’s arms. Although Trevor has never had trouble finding a hook up, he realizes that Everly is someone special and is willing to wait until she is ready to take the relationship to the next level. Everly is unsure of her emotions, and is torn between her desires and whether she is ready to fully commit to Trevor. Both teens must work through their demons before they can become a couple. Parents, siblings, and friends play a major role in the story, sometimes making life easier and sometimes worse. When circumstances lead to devastation in both of their lives, their reactions have repercussions which threaten their friendship. In the end, Trevor and Everly must accept “some kind of normal” to replace their past expectations and accept the reality of the new norm. A tender love story of teens left to face some harsh issues at a young age.

This is a romantic story suitable for Middle and High School students, although older readers will enjoy the book as well. When Trevor and Everly finally kiss, you could audibly hear the “ahhh!”. Not only is it beautifully written, but the dialogue is witty and the author paints a visual picture that is easy for the mind to capture, plus the characters’ behaviors ring true. Trevor and Everly take turns advancing the plot by telling their version of events. No one is perfect and the answers to the various dilemmas are not readily available. While there are problems to deal with, the reader has not been invited to a pity party. Don’t expect a fairy tale, happily ever after ending, but a realistic look at people moving forward with their lives in spite of their individual issues. Four stars.

I would like to sincerely thank Netgalley and Sourcebooks Fire for the opportunity to read this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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The Little Brown Animal by DiMari Bailey, illustrated by R Brit Bailey

The Little Brown Animal by DiMari Bailey is the first book in a series, Tales of the Deep Forest, and, I assume, meant to set the stage for the other books. The tale is very simple. A small dog-like one-of-a-kind animal feels he is ugly so he hides from the other animals in the forest. He finds comfort in the surrounding nature which speaks to him, sharing its secret legends. His happiness from this experience gives him the courage to share these stories with the other animals. Eventually he ages and dies, returning as one of the creatures from his tales, The Golden Griffin – a favorite of his listeners and the title for the next book.

Who is the audience for this book? It is not a very compelling story. The simple illustrations by R Brit Bailey are almost crude in their construction. The little brown animal actually is kind of ugly and not very endearing to the reader. Plus his dissatisfaction with life and envy of the other animals ar R Brit Baileue not characteristics to be exemplified. The text Is too difficult for a young child to read so it would have to be a read aloud, yet the vocabulary requires a bit of illumination. Parents would have to define dryads, sylphs, centaurs, satyrs, and naiads, that is if they have readily available information about these mythological creatures. I assume future books will address each of these topics, but they are all thrown at the listener without explanation in this book. Unfortunately, the illustrations are no help either, since they often don’t seem to correspond to the text.

Parents could modify the story as they read it to their children, but that defeats the purpose of a picture book. Perhaps the Golden Griffin is a better volume to start with in this series. My advice to the author is to identify the reader, modify the text, and make sure the art work actually reflects the plot of the story. The Little Brown Animal is a failure on so many levels, but I have hopes that the author’s future efforts will be more successful . One star.

I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I also posted this review on Goodreads.

Blue Ocean Bob: A Challenging Job by Brooks Olbrys, illustrated by Kevin Keele

The Adventures of Blue Ocean Bob: A Challenging Job by Brooks Olbrys is a part of a chapter book series featuring Bob, a character who loves the sea and all the life found within its depths. In this particular book, there are five short adventures (51 pages) containing lush illustrations (by Kevin Keele) and various moral lessons. Instead of the author preaching, Bob learns through the advice of various marine life (Doc the sea turtle, Wallace the walrus, Kodi the seal, and Earl the clam) and his own experiences. Although enthusiastic, Bob discovers it takes a lot of practice to master a skill – a good lesson to reinforce with children who get easily frustrated. His friend, a hummingbird named Xena, reflects the negativity some kids hear, but Bob perseveres despite the obstacles he must overcome. Although many of the animals speak and have human characteristics, this is still a good introduction to the some of the creatures found in the ocean with many of the problems they face, such as surviving storms or being caught in the nets of fishermen. The entire story is written in rhyme which adds to the fun. Unfortunately, the meter was sometimes a bit off which could be distracting to the reader. The text was also a little too advanced for beginners to use independently, even though it is packaged as a reader. Instead I would recommend it as a read-aloud for adults to share with children. However, Keele’s illustrations are colorful, detailed, and attractive, making the various sea life memorably lovable. This book does fit a niche in the Character Development genre, so it would be perfect for elementary grades discussing topics such as responsibility, fairness, forgiveness, communication, cooperation, perseverance, and gratitude. Three and a half stars and a Thank You to Netgalley and Children’s Success Unlimited for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Paris Hop by Margie Blumberg, illustrated by Renee Andriani

Grandmother and grand daughter have just one day to see Paris. The goal is to make it to the Eiffel Tower before sundown, but with so many sights to see, can they squeeze it all in? Paris Hop by Margie Blumberg is full of rich illustrations as well as a glossary of the numerous French words peppered throughout the book (including the correct pronunciations). The entire story is written in rhyme – a little off meter but still charming. The activities are perfect for the two generations including having their “portrait” painted by street artists and enjoying a view of the Notre Dame Cathedral while on a boat ride down the Seine. Must “to do’s” include a visit to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa and a stop at a boulangerie to grab a baguette for breakfast. Trying on gowns at a boutique and watching an outdoor Punch and Judy puppet show at the park are two other fanciful activities to be enjoyed. When they finally reach the Eiffel Tower, the sun is setting, but the bright lights of Paris become a special bonding memory for grandmother and grandchild to share, rounding out the perfect day.

While Blumberg has written a cute picture book highlighting the sights of Paris, it is the illustrations by Renee Andriani which steal the show. Andriani’s phenomenal representations of Paris are finely detailed and almost fool the reader into believing that they have been transported overseas and are touring the city along with the grandma and child. Unfortunately, the illustrations simply overwhelm the text, making me wish that there was a little more substance to the story. I will be on the outlook for future artistic endeavors by this illustrator. Three stars for the written portion, five stars for the art work, leaving an averaged total of four stars.

A thank you to Netgalley and MB Publishing for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

In picture book, The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires, a girl, with her cute little dog as an assistant, decides to create the most magnificent thing. She sets up a workshop on the sidewalk outside her brownstone and begins her innovation. The resulting, supposed masterpiece, falls far short of her vision. She keeps tinkering with the concept, attempting to get it right, but to no avail. Frustrated she carries on, smashing the rejected items and hurting her finger in the process. Her assistant urges her to take him for a walk which calms her nerves. When she returns, she notices that there are elements from each of her designs that are actually usable. She sets out once again, this time taking bits and pieces from the previous projects to successfully complete the “almost” magnificent thing. It has flaws, but it is her creation and, in her eyes, still magnificent. The kindly neighbors are able to use the leftover pieces for their own personal needs, showing that ones person’s trash is another’s treasure.

Spires’ colorful descriptive language and alliterative cadence gives the story a nice touch, especially for a read-a-loud book. This wordage, combined with the compelling illustrative caricatures, adds another dimension, with the delightful sidekick dog providing a few laughs as an aside to the main theme. Children (and adults) will relate to the topic, recalling their own attempts at innovation which have fallen short, and The Most Magnificent Thing will hopefully inspire then to persevere and not give up hope in such circumstances. While the destructive behavior of the girl should not be condoned, the end result of her tantrum is positive. I admire the way the author models the concept of taking a break when a situation gets frustrating and demonstrates that physical exertion, such as walking, is good for settling the nerves when agitated. Children need to develop coping skills as well as realize that nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes, so it would be a good book to read to children who are struggling with such issues. Further uses include introducing the concept of creativity, especially at schools which sponsor some sort of Invention Convention in the elementary grades. It’s a shame we have to note that this book is about a GIRL who liked to invent things when stories such as this should be commonplace, not unique. An excellent addition to any library.

Four and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Kids Can Press for providing me with this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Manga Classics: Pride and Prejudice, story adapted by Stacy King, art work by Po Tse

I must admit that Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin is one of my favorite books, so I approached this Manga with both dread and delight. While the basic plot of unrequited love, both lost and found, appeals to my romantic side, it is Austin’s way with words, through her descriptions and dialogue, which brings a smile to my lips. Although the story adaptor, Stacy King, tried to capture this essence in her Manga, even, on occasion, using some of Austin’s own dialogue, it fell short of the original. Of course, I’m holding this abbreviated version of the novel to a very high standard. If I take away my bias, I have to admit this Manga presents an appealing story. Our heroine, Elizabeth Bennett is the second daughter in a family of five girls. When Mr. Charles Bingley arrives in town, this wealthy gentleman falls in love with the beautiful eldest daughter Jane. Despite Bingley’s kindly attentions, his best friend, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, seems rude and standoffish, insulting Elizabeth. When the two men permanently leave town, Jane’s heart is broken. Both sisters spend time away from home visiting friends and family. It is on one of these visits that Darcy proclaims he can’t help loving Elizabeth despite her inadequacies. Elizabeth spurns his marriage proposal, especially when she discovers that it was his fault that Jane had been hurt by Bingley. However, all is not as it seems and through a series of misadventures, in the end, there is a satisfying resolution to all their problems. In spite of my criticisms, Stacy King was able to include the major aspects of the original novel, creating an easy-to-follow version for the reader’s enjoyment.

I did have a few problems with the illustrations by Po Tse. While some of the character’s portrayals accurately reflected their personalities, others distracted from the story. I thought the young women were, for the most part, beautifully drawn. Bingley and Wickham, two of the major male characters were also shown to advantage, However, the hero, Darcy, was too angular and sharp in his features. In trying to visually portray his haughtiness, some of the hidden aspects of his personality were lost. I also didn’t feel the father’s caricature accurately captured his humorous side, but instead made him appear too stern. Yet, Mrs Bennett, was the perfect representative of a frivolous mother, while Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s looks matched her overbearing personality. The illustration of the bootlicking, pompous cousin, Mr Collins, was off putting and did not fit in with the other drawings. I did like the way the numerous characters were labeled or referred to in the “dialogue” so the reader was not confused when figuring out who was who. So, for the most part, the intricate, detailed art work of Po was used to enhance the story.

Many teens find literature from the 1800s cumbersome to read, but might be willing to latch on to a condensed version of the classics from that time period. Who knows, they might even decide to pick up some Austin on their own after reading this Manga version. (Or more probable, read the Manga when assigned this novel in their High School English Literature class.) Three and a half stars and a thank you to Udon Entertainment and Netgalley for providing me this free ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Manga Classics: Les Miserables (by Victor Hugo), story adaptation by Crystal Silvermoon, art by SunNeko Lee

I must admit that I’ve never read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, although I have seen bits and pieces of the musical, enough to know the basic idea of the story, but not enough to give an outline of the plot. That is why I was excited to receive Manga Classics: Les Miserables as a free ARC from Udon Entertainment and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I was not disappointed. I felt the author (story adaptation by Crystal Silvermoon) and illustrator (art by SunNeko Lee) did a fine job of retelling the story of Jean Valjean, whose life is spent helping others, often with disastrous results.

Taking place in France in the 1800’s, Jean Valjean, while trying to help feed his sister’s children, is thrown into prison for stealing a loaf of bread. On his release, he is forced to steal again to survive and would have been returned to his cell if not for a kindly monk who urges him to change his ways. Selling the silver allows Jean Valjean to start life anew. With a fresh identity he builds a factory and provides work for the impoverished villagers, eventually becoming their respected Mayor. Enter Fantine, a poor woman working in the factory in order to make enough money to support her young, fatherless child who she left living with two scoundrels that are bleeding her dry. When it is discovered she is an unwed mother, Fantine is kicked out of her place of employment and forced to sell her body, including her beautiful hair and teeth. Jean Valjean discovers her near death and, after hearing her story, vows to find and assist her daughter Cosette. Unfortunately, Jean Valjean’s past has caught up with him. Inspector Javert, a driven, single-minded officer of the law, is determined to find Jean Valjean and return him to jail. The cycle of chase, capture, and escape dominates the plot of this story. Eventually Jean Valjean rescues young Cosette and raises her as if she were his own, taking on the role of father. He remains constantly on the run to escape the clutches of Inspector Javert, but continues to help the poor and unfortunate even though he must deal with the twists and turns of fate which seems to haunt his very existence.

Of course, there is a reason this book is a classic, dealing with emotions such as pride, fear, courage, anger, love, pain, devastation, grief. The author did an excellent job of culling the original novel in order to give the reader a good slug of the plot, although many of the details and backstory had to be omitted. There were a few spots I found confusing and had to reread, although if I were familiar with the original book I would have known what was happening. The illustrations were exceptional. The detailed drawings give us women who are soft and pretty, men who are viral and strong, and two villains who are accurately portrayed as bumbling fools whose greed results in destruction.

I definitely plan to pick up Victor Hugo’s book and read the entire text and I’m sure many others who read the Manga will do the same. (Well, at least the ones who aren’t scared off by novels over a thousand pages long.) However, even if they don’t, it is a good way to introduce youth to those wonderful tales which have stood the test of time. That is why we call them classics. Well done. Four stars.

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