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review 2017-04-21 18:11
Sunny Side Up (graphic novel) by Jennifer & Matthew Holm
Sunny Side Up - Jennifer L. Holm,Matthew Holm

Sunny Lewin has been packed off to Florida to live with her grandfather for the summer.  At first she thought Florida might be fun -- it is  the home of Disney World, after all.  But the place where Gramps lives is no amusement park.  It’s full of . . . old people.  Really old people. Luckily, Sunny isn’t the only kid around.  She meets Buzz, a boy who is completely obsessed with comic books, and soon they’re having adventures of their own: facing off against golfball-eating alligators, runaway cats, and mysteriously disappearing neighbors.  But the question remains -- why is Sunny down in Florida in the first place?  The answer lies in a family secret that won’t be secret to Sunny much longer. . .

Amazon.com

 

 

 

It's the year of America's Bicentennial celebration (1976) and Pennsylvania preteen Sunny Lewin cannot be more excited for the family's summer trip to their beach house! But when her older brother's demons end up ruining family time at the fireworks show, Sunny's parents quickly decide it would be better for her to spend the summer visiting her grandfather in West Palm Beach, Florida. 

 

Not only is Sunny still reeling from the family drama brought on by her brother's struggle with alcoholism, but she's also not sure what to do with herself while trying to acclimate to her grandfather's retirement community, Pine Palms. Pine Palms has strict rules limiting the number of pets or children allowed on the property, so it's not so easy for young Sunny to find her place. Not to mention everyone is old and the place itself is about 2 hours away from Disney World! What's a kid to do?!

 

Luckily, it's not long before she does run into another child her age, Buzz. Buzz and Sunny are soon sharing a love of comic book stories as well as developing a little side business of tracking down "secret" (aka not technically allowed) pet cats of Pine Palms. Just as Sunny starts to settle into a "bloom where you are planted" mentality about the retirement community, she's struck by yet another struggle within the family -- her grandfather trying to hide his smoking habit from her. This is the last straw for Sunny. She is tired of trying to shoulder everyone's secrets and addictions on her small shoulders! Sunny gives the adults in her life a wake-up call that she is a child and needs to be allowed to experience these fleeting moments of innocence before it's too late. 

 

Adults that grew up in the 70s and 80s will have great nostalgic fun with this one! I myself was more of the 80s-90s era, but I could still spot plenty of pop culture references worked into the artwork: the unmistakeable 70s stylin' of the characters' clothing, Donny Osmond posters on the wall, loading up the station wagon to go to Sears to do school shopping, Sunny browsing lunchboxes with a Holly Hobby design faintly noticeable among the selections... it was just fun to make a sort of "I Spy" game of it all! 

 

 

The artwork style itself also brought to mind similar lines and colors seen in Sunday cartoons like For Better Or Worse and LuAnn, maybe even Zits. The coloring in Sunny Side Up is done by none other than Lark Pien, who also did the coloring for the Printz Award winning graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang as well as Yang's follow-up work, the duology Boxers & Saints.

 

Even if the timeframe isn't your childhood era, there are some universal topics addressed within Sunny's story. I got a particular kick out of her starting school and getting a teacher her older brother had, and having to get the scowl when the teacher makes the connection between her and the troublemaker brother. O.M.G., do I ever remember going through that myself! LOL.

 

 

No doubt, Sunny Side Up touches upon some tough themes for young readers: a grandfather's secret cigarette habit, a brother's struggle with alcoholism, certain residents of Pine Palms showing signs of the early stages of dementia, even talk of the Cuban Revolution / immigration issues of the 1970s gets thrown into the mix.

 

 

Possibly uncomfortable reading for the young ones, but there is a point to it all, and an important one at that! In a brief author's note at the end, brother / sister author team Jennifer and Matthew Holm reveal that the idea for this graphic novel stemmed from their own tough childhood experiences. They figured there were likely other kids out there who have had or are having similar struggles that need to find stories they can relate to, stories that will possibly help direct them toward the help they need to get through these kinds of challenges. While some moments within this story are undoubtedly hard-hitting, the Holm siblings leave readers with a sense of optimism for the future and a reassurance that there is help and hope out there if you just stay the course and, as Sunny's grandpa reminds her, "keep your sunny side up!"

 

 

Fans of YA literature, note the shout-out to David Levithan in the acknowledgments section at the end! 

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review 2017-02-24 07:00
Paul The Apostle: A Graphic Novel by Ben Avery, Illust. by Mark Harmon
Paul the Apostle: A Graphic Novel - Ben Avery,Mario DeMatteo,Mark Harmon

Experience the biblically based account of Paul the Apostle in COMIC BOOK format! Paul's life story, told to us in the Book of Acts, is filled with bravery, adventure, miracles, faith, and salvation, yet many people are not aware of Paul's amazing life. In Paul the Apostle: A Graphic Novel, the action packed Bible story of Paul is more accessible for kids of all ages, using a visual language they love and understand: science fiction comic books! This 144-page full color graphic novel uses awesome looking cartoon creatures, set in an action packed futuristic science-fiction universe.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

While you may have been told the story of Paul the Apostle in church, you probably haven't heard it approached this way before! In this clever and artistic re-imagining, readers meet Paul shortly after he has been captured and imprisoned, awaiting execution. Coming to terms with his time on this mortal coil possibly coming to an end very shortly, Paul recounts the unfolding of his life's work, beginning with revealing that he began life as Saul, a guard dedicated to thwarting the message of the very people he would later count himself amongst -- proud and vocal followers of Jesus Christ. His work as Saul meant he would often arrest, imprison, beat, stone, even in some instances kill those who would try to spread the message of Christianity.

 

 

While on a road trip to Damascus, Saul is involves in a very serious motor vehicle accident. In fact, it sends him into a near-death experience that puts him face to face with big man Jesus himself. Saul comes back to life from this experience a changed man. Remembering his conversation with Jesus, Saul decides to change his name to Paul and start anew, spreading a message of love and kindness rather than animosity and intimidation through physical violence. 

 

 

above: I found the artwork in the dream sequences especially impressive!

 

This version of Saul / Paul the Apostle travels across many of the familiar locations described in the original biblical tale, and still incorporates many familiar historical / biblical figures (such as Emperor Nero), but in a futuristic, sci-fi like era. This is a little difficult to describe, and (if I may be honest) was even sometimes difficult to completely wrap my mind around while reading, but not so much that you can't keep up. It's a different approach, that's for sure, but I think that was kind of what Beartruth Collective (the publisher) was going for -- parents want their kids to learn their Bible stories but the stock version can sometimes come off as a bit dry and stuffy to young eyes & ears, so here's this fresh, innovative approach. Take a medium kids typically eat up -- graphic novels -- and tell the stories that way. 

 

 

 

My impressions

 

The Good: The overall quality of the book design in physical form is seriously top notch. Nice sturdy hardcover exterior, thick glossy pages inside that seem to really enhance the vivid color choices for the artwork. And that artwork! Holy cow, Mark Harmon (not THAT Mark Harmon, btw... sorry NCIS fans), you go! I freakin' LOVED the detailing in all the unique character illustrations here! As far as overall aestethic, I thought the design work was gorgeous! 

 

The Meh: While I like the unique concept of the book, the actual dialogue for the characters fell a little flat for me at times. Overall decent, I still had a good time reading Paul's story, but there were parts in there where it rang a bit corny, a bit trying too hard to be cool for the kids. There were also a few pages / panels where the text bubble layout got a little all over the place, so at times it took me a minute to figure out which way the conversation was meant to flow. 

 

I also noticed that the further along I got into Paul's story, the less it got to be about this sci-fi world and the adventures Paul went on... instead the dialogue turned more scripture heavy. Now, on one hand I can understand this because the point is for kids to learn Paul's story... but the point is ALSO to get kids interested... so as I was reading, I couldn't help but imagine some kids tuning out and closing the book once the story got pretty sermon-like and started to lose the storytelling aspect. Just my two cents. 

 

 

 

If your child has expressed interest in trying out graphic novels, but you are concerned about the potentially high levels of violence or sexuality in mainstream titles, this may be an alternative for your family. Beartruth Collective, at the back of this book, mentions plans to continue on with more adventures of other biblical figures in this graphic novel format, so I look forward to seeing what their future projects look like (once available)! 

 

FTC Disclaimer: Bookcrash.com & Beartruth Collective kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

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review 2017-01-25 22:53
A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay
A Portrait of Emily Price - Katherine Reay

Art restorer Emily Price has never encountered anything she can’t fix—until she meets Ben, an Italian chef, who seems just right. But when Emily follows Ben home to Italy, she learns that his family is another matter . . . Emily Price—fix-it girl extraordinaire and would-be artist—dreams of having a gallery show of her own. There is no time for distractions, especially not the ultimate distraction of falling in love. But Chef Benito Vassallo’s relentless pursuit proves hard to resist. Visiting from Italy, Ben works to breathe new life into his aunt and uncle’s faded restaurant, Piccollo. Soon after their first meeting, he works to win Emily as well—inviting her into his world and into his heart. Emily astonishes everyone when she accepts Ben’s proposal and follows him home. But instead of allowing the land, culture, and people of Monterello to transform her, Emily interferes with everyone and everything around her, alienating Ben’s tightly knit family. Only Ben’s father, Lucio, gives Emily the understanding she needs to lay down her guard. Soon, Emily’s life and art begin to blossom, and Italy’s beauty and rhythm take hold of her spirit.

Yet when she unearths long-buried family secrets, Emily wonders if she really fits into Ben’s world. Will the joys of Italy become just a memory, or will Emily share in the freedom and grace that her life with Ben has shown her are possible?

Amazon.com

 

 

Art restorer Emily Price is sent on a business trip to Atlanta, Georgia to help an Italian family revive some of their family heirlooms. It's there that she meets Benito (Ben) Vassallo, the nephew of her clients, newly arrived from Italy. He's temporarily staying with his aunt and uncle while he helps them try to breathe life back into their restaurant, which has quietly but steadily losing business of late. As their respective areas of work have them frequently running into each other, they find themselves caught up in a whirlwind romance with each other. Ben spontaneously proposes to Emily, she agrees with equal spontaneity, and within hours they're on a patch of grass getting married by the nearest justice of the peace they could find!

 

The newlyweds fly off to Benito's hometown of Montevello, Italy (back cover synopsis mistakenly has it as "Monterello") where it doesn't take long for some of the luster to fall off the rose.  Sure, Emily found almost immediate love & friendship in the arms of Ben, but it won't be so easy when it comes to his family. She quickly starts to feel very much out of her element. Though Emily tries to make herself as amiable and helpful as possible at every turn, it just seems like anything she attempts she royally ruins. Ben feels bad for her, things are not unfolding quite as he envisioned either... but he has his own special blend of stress, being caught in between a sense of loyalty to his family as well as to his new wife. Even outside of the shock of Ben coming back married, the family has additional sources of stress and strife they're all trying to work through. It's a rocky homecoming all around!

 

Emily becomes concerned with her developing feelings of alienation from the rest of the family. That is, until she finds herself surprisingly bonding with Ben's quiet father, Lucio. But is having one ally other than her husband enough to make forever work?

 

This is only the second of Katherine Reay's works that I've picked up. I was surprised to find how deep some of the themes in this one got, as I remember the first book I tried -- The Bronte Plot -- was cute but as far as meat in the story, didn't really get too deep past surface level coziness & fluff.

 

Ben was quite the charmer and will likely have the "hopeless romantic" type readers of all ages swooning, even if just a little bit. :-) I liked that Ben had layers to his character. He could be a charming flirt one minute but the next could just as easily show some serious emotional turmoil, trying to hold the family together. It was also nice to see that his love for Emily was not rash or merely physical, he was honestly always about her well-being, making her as comfortable and appreciated as possible at all times. Who's not going to want to get to know a character like that! I also awwed over the relationship between Ben's parents, Lucio and Donata. Donata could be a fiesty one, a bit of a prickly exterior, but around Lucio? A big ol' bowl of melted butter. And Lucio always seemed to know just how to round off her sharp edges when Donata had her claws out. The sense of warmth, patience and love that radiated between them was a real joy to experience. 

 

The symbolism of the sunflowers was the standout take-away for me. I love the idea of the field of girasoli (Italian for sunflower), where Ben explains to Emily that one has to allow them to turn to the light on their own. If you force it, you snap the stem and potentially kill the flower. 

 

"Girasoli - Piovene Rocchette, Vicenza" by Renzo Pietribiasi

 image from Trek Earth

 

 

All in all, I'd deem this a fun read for lovers of Italian food, culture or landscape. Author Katherine Reay does a nice job having her characters make connections between the layering of art and the layering of culinary flavors, as well as the overall importance of always coming back to that strong family bond. You're bound to have a good time getting to know Ben's clan! :-)

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

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review 2016-09-14 08:54
The Misadventures of Maude March by Audrey Couloumbis
The Misadventures of Maude March - Audrey Couloumbis

Eleven-year-old Sallie March is a whip-smart tomboy and voracious reader of Western adventure novels. When she and her sister Maude escape their self-serving guardians for the wilds of the frontier, they begin an adventure the likes of which Sallie has only read about. This time however, the "wanted woman" isn't a dime-novel villian, it's Sallie's very own sister! What follows is not the lies the papers printed, but the honest-to-goodness truth of how two sisters went from being orphans to being outlaws—and lived to tell the tale!

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Sallie March, our narrator, is an 11 year old tomboy living in what we know think of as "the Old West days". Her parents are both dead, victims of yellow fever, so she and her teen sister, Maude, have since been living with their matronly aunt, Ruthie. While running errands with Ruthie one day, the girls become innocent, victimized bystanders in a shootout. Aunt Ruthie is killed instantly by a stray bullet. {I loved that on that fateful day, Aunt Ruthie, having quite the day already, speaks the unfortunate line: "Some days it isn't even a good idea to get out of bed."}

 

Now really orphaned, the girls spend some time living under the roof of Reverend Peasley and his wife. Stifled by too many rules and Mrs. Peasley's tendency to overwork Maude and her sister for selfish gain, Maude reaches the end of her rope. The last straw is when Mrs. Peasley tries to push Maude into a marriage with a much older man.

 

The March girls decide to make a break for it. Their journey requires them to pose as boys as to not arouse suspicion (you know, two young ladies traveling alone, can't be up to any good...) but hope their travels will soon take them to a new town where they can start over. It's no easy road though. Because Maude sorta borrows a couple of the Peasley's horses to aid her getaway, she gets labeled a wanted horse thief. Through a few other misunderstandings, she also wracks up the charges of bank robber and murderer and boom! -- the March girls are suddenly starring in one of Sallie's beloved dime novels! Every time they get their hands on a newspaper, Maude's legend seems to grow! But it's not just the stains on their reputations they're fighting. Additionally, these sisters face up against blizzards, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, food shortages, finding themselves having to evade police, even being taken hostage by REAL criminals!

 

What starts as a sort of comedy of errors grows into a heartwarming story of sisterhood and taking care of family, no matter what. This story is full of honest chuckles, especially from the wit of young Sallie March, who has sass for days!

 

Ben Chaplin broke some snow going around the cabin, huffing and puffing as he told us he dreaded a winter that snowed him in as early as December. "I don't mind being snowed in, but there's still January and February still ahead of us. By then I start talking to myself."

 

"My aunt Ruthie used to talk to herself all the time," I said. "So long as she thought no one was around to hear."

 

"What did she talk about?" Ben Chaplin asked.

 

"The shortcomings of other people, mostly," I said. It surprised me that he found this funny.

 

For readers who are fans of novels which include maps, this book features a pretty adorable one! Definitely recommend this fast, fun adventure for any and all lovers of Western comedy!

 

If you end up enjoying this book as much as I did, the adventures continue in Maude March On The Run! 

 

Note To Parents: Though this novel is geared toward middle-grade readers, there is some mild violence to be aware of: some scenes mention a toe being shot off and one character being stabbed through the hand. The criminals in this book are of a bumbling, comical sort though, so even the more violent scenes are lightened with humor. Still, heads up on that in case you want to monitor what your child is reading and prefer to do a pre-read yourself. 

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review 2016-08-30 12:26
Being Henry David by Cal Armistead
Being Henry David - Cal Armistead

Seventeen-year-old "Hank" has found himself at Penn Station in New York City with no memory of anything --who he is, where he came from, why he's running away. His only possession is a worn copy of Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. And so he becomes Henry David-or "Hank" and takes first to the streets, and then to the only destination he can think of--Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Cal Armistead's remarkable debut novel is about a teen in search of himself. Hank begins to piece together recollections from his past. The only way Hank can discover his present is to face up to the realities of his grievous memories. He must come to terms with the tragedy of his past, to stop running, and to find his way home.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

A teen boy wakes up in Penn Station with absolutely no memory of who he is or how he came to be at the station. The only possible clue to his identity is a worn copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau lying next to him when he awakes. Not long after coming to, mystery boy meets two homeless youths, Jack and Nessa, who give him some company while he tries to get his bearings. Not knowing what other moniker to give himself, and inspired by the copy of Walden he continues to keep with him, our narrator at first decides to go by Henry David but then shortens it to "Hank". 

 

Unfortunately for Hank, his new association with Jack unexpectedly gets him involved in a soured drug deal. Jack, Nessa and Hank realize they all need to split up for their own safety and survival. Hank's choice is to travel to Concord, Massachusetts, the location of the Walden Pond that inspired Thoreau's most famous work. Hank starts to suspect his memories are frozen because of something horrible he might have done, so while he half hopes to have his memory return, he also toys with the idea of just starting all over in Concord with a new identity altogether. 

 

As long as I have life, there is hope I can live better. 

 

It wasn't too long ago that I read Thoreau's Walden, so I was curious to see how a sort of YA mystery / thriller might be written around a piece of naturalist classic literature. For a debut novel, I found this to be an impressive entrance for Cal Armistead (threw me to later find out the author is female, I initially just assumed Cal was short for Calvin or something). There are quite a few mystery-thriller type stories starting amnesia patients on the market these days, and while this one doesn't always offer up the most tense plot -- there was a part there in the middle that got a little slow for me -- it made for a fun time reading how Hank put the pieces of his history together, little by little. As the memories trickle in, the people Hank interacts with -- whether it be his street friends Jack & Nessa; the HS janitor in Concord, Sophie; high school student Hailey; or the Harley-riding research librarian, Michael -- each one in their roles plays an important part in unlocking Hank's mind. 

 

I especially liked the almost father-like bond Hank develops with Michael. My one big gripe with the story is that the way Hank interacts with Hailey sometimes struck me as sounding much more middle-grade or jr high rather than someone in their late teens, on the cusp of adulthood, as Hank is described as being. 

 

So while the tension level of the plot might be more of the ebb & flow variety rather than more steady, the novel's end was definitely satisfying for me and, I thought, stayed true to the spirit of Thoreau, at least in terms of his writings. I found myself once again wanting to get out in my local woods! 

 

 

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