The Redwall Series Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

The Redwall series, by Brian Jacques, was one of my favorite series when I was growing up. Although I don’t remember for sure, I think I was about 8 when I stumbled upon Mossflower by accident in the library one day. By the time I was a teen, my brother (also a fan) and I had accumulated a whole shelf full of sturdy hardcover Redwall books, many of them dogeared from re-reading.

The series takes place mainly in and around Redwall Abbey, a sanctuary for woodland creatures such as mice, squirrels, moles, hares, and badgers. They clearly need such a sanctuary, because they’re constantly getting attacked by one foul band of evil-doers or another. High adventure ensues, and I’m warning you now, Brian Jacques is a master of cliffhanger chapter endings, so these books are very hard to put down once you start! For this reason, despite their length, they’re a great choice for reluctant readers. Though I wasn’t a reluctant reader myself, I remember receiving the third book, Mattimeo, for Christmas the year I discovered the series and being extremely proud of myself because I finished the whole thing – nearly 500 pages – in a single marathon reading session on the living room couch, while the rest of the family celebrated Christmas around me.

Buy at Amazon

In addition to being great adventure stories, the series has a lot of humor, and I also credit it with developing my early appreciation for great food descriptions in literature. The descriptions of the feasts are scrumptious. As an adult, I appreciate the many positive role models it contains for both boys and girls.

Eventually, the books started blurring together and becoming more repetitive, or maybe I just outgrew them, so I ultimately stopped reading in my late teens at book 11 (Marlfox), while the series eventually stretched to 23 books by the time of Jacques’s death in 2011. Despite this, I retain a big soft spot for Redwall Abbey and its furry inhabitants. They were some of the defining books of my childhood.

My favorite Redwall books include:

Mossflower

The prequel to Redwall, and the book that first hooked me on the story.  Martin the Warrior teams up with the woodland creatures to overthrow the cruel rule of the wildcat Tsarmina and found Redwall Abbey.

Buy at Amazon

Mariel of Redwall

A young mouse maid must save her father from pirates. Mariel is one of the best of many great female characters in the Redwall series.

Salamandastron

This book focuses a lot on the badgers of Salamandastron and features another of my favorite Redwall heroines.

Martin the Warrior

More of Martin’s exciting backstory. I won’t lie, I cried like a baby over a certain scene.

The Pearls of Lutra

My favorite of the later books I read.

The series can be read chronologically or in order of publication:

[Read more…]

Macdonald Hall Series Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

When I was about 12, my mom attended a reading conference where Gordon Korman was a guest speaker. She was so impressed, she brought home a bunch of his books. We read This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall! out loud together, and my sister, brother, and I have been Korman fans ever since.

The incredible thing is that Korman wrote the novel in 7th grade English class, and it was published in 1978, when he was just 14. Although not as polished as his more recent works (the man is ridiculously prolific and has written more than 85 books total), This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall! is shockingly good for a novel written by a kid, and absolutely hilarious.

The Macdonald Hall series revolves around two roommates at an all-male boarding school in Canada. Melvin “Boots” O’Neal is the more studious and well-behaved of the two; his friend Bruno Walton might best be described as a hurricane in human form. Despite their differences, the two are inseparable friends, but in the first book, the school’s headmaster Mr. Sturgeon (aka The Fish) decides that Bruno is a bad influence on Boots and decides to split them up. Wacky hijinks ensue as they try to get back together.

Buy at Amazon

It is exactly as bromantic as it sounds, up to and including sneaking out at night to meet up, but despite the powerful central bromance and the single-sex setting, the series also does have several fun female characters, including Diane Grant and Cathy Burton, two students at Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies across the road, the grandmotherly Mrs. Sturgeon, and Miss Scrimmage herself.

None of the characters in the Macdonald Hall series is especially well-rounded or complex. In fact, many of the secondary characters are little more than a single characteristic come to life. For example, Sidney Rampulsky’s personality is “clumsy” and Wilbur Hackenschleimer’s is “obsessed with food.” However, the different personalities bouncing off each other make for lots of hilarious dialogue and misadventures, and despite their simplicity, you get attached to all the characters, from Bruno and Boots themselves to crazy old Scrimmage.

Although the series is currently out of print, copies of the books can still be purchased on Amazon and other websites. My favorite novels in the series include:

Buy at Amazon

This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall!

The book that started it all. I recommend starting with this one, but the rest of the series can be read in pretty much any order.

Go Jump in the Pool!

Macdonald Hall keeps getting creamed in swim meets, so Bruno and Boots decide to raise enough money to build the school a pool. Wacky hijinks ensue.

The Zucchini Warriors

A wealthy former student donates the money for a fancy new football stadium, but unbeknownst to him, his star quarterback is secretly a girl! More wacky hijinks ensue.

Beware the Fish!

Bruno and Boots accidentally set off a police investigation into the activities of an operative known only as “The Fish.” Seriously, this series is basically the embodiment of “wacky hijinks ensue.”

Have fun!

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron Movie Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

My kids both love Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, an adventure story about a Kiger mustang stallion in the Wild West, but my feelings are a bit more mixed. Speaking as a bleeding heart liberal tree hugger whose sympathies align almost entirely with the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other tribes of the Great Plains in histories of the Plains Indian Wars of the 19th century, this film is way too overbearing with its Indians=good, white people=bad message. No subtlety or nuance whatsoever.  It also suffers from rather overwrought narration that strays too often from the sentimental to the sappy and maudlin.

That said, it’s an enjoyable adventure story, especially for young horse lovers like my kids, and the animation is absolutely gorgeous. I consider it worth watching for the beautiful landscape art alone.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

[Read more…]

Rascal Book Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

Rascal is the author’s Newberry award winning memoir of his experience raising a baby raccoon as a boy in World War I era Wisconsin. It is one of my mother’s favorite books, and one of mine as well. The writing is beautiful, and the adventures of boy and raccoon both funny and touching.

It will also give you new appreciation for the cleverness of raccoons, though beware of actually trying to keep one as a pet! Raccoons are wild animals, not pets, and keeping them as pets is against the law in many states. If you find an orphaned raccoon, make sure it actually is orphaned before you intervene. Sometimes mother raccoons leave their babies alone temporarily to gather food or take a nap. If you believe the raccoon genuinely is orphaned or injured, the best option is to contact a wildlife rehabilitation organization. If there aren’t any local organizations in your area, check out these websites for additional help:

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles is my all-time favorite children’s fantasy series, and one of my favorite comfort reads to this day. This funny and exciting series centers mainly around Cimorene, a very atypical princess who decides to run away from her life in the pleasant but boring kingdom of Linderwall and become a dragon’s princess. Wrede gleefully and hilariously demolishes fairy tale stereotypes and tropes throughout all four books of the series, but in the end its real attraction is its memorable characters. Cimorene, Kazul, Morwen, Telemain, and the rest are like old friends, and I never fail to be cheered up by dipping into their lives.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles is also great feminist fantasy, as it stars multiple intelligent, powerful, and independent-minded female characters and plays with gender roles in interesting ways. In dragon culture, for example, “King” and “Queen” are the names of positions with distinct duties and responsibilities, and the gender of the dragon who holds them is irrelevant. Over the course of the series, there is both a female King of the Dragons, and a male Queen. It’s also suggested that dragons can choose their gender when they reach a certain age, but this is never explicitly stated.

Buy at Amazon

Dealing With Dragons

Book one of the series could easily be read as a stand-alone fantasy novel, but I don’t personally see why anybody would want to. It introduces Cimorene, the dragon Kazul, the witch Morwen, and the dastardly wizards, who Cimorene must foil in between whipping up cherries jubilee for Kazul and trying to get rid of the annoying knights and princes who keep interrupting her work to try and rescue her.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Searching For Dragons

The wizards are at it again! This time they’ve kidnapped Kazul and Cimorene must set off through the unpredictable Enchanted Forest to rescue her. Luckily, her companion is none other than the King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendanbar. I remember being a little disappointed that the story was told from Mendanbar’s point of view when I first started reading this book at age 10 (or so), but it actually ended up being kind of fun seeing Cimorene, Morwen, etc. from somebody else’s point of view, and though I wouldn’t say Mendanbar is Wrede’s most memorable character, he’s certainly one of the nicest, so I couldn’t dislike him for long.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Calling For Dragons

Buy at Amazon

The third book in the series ends on a rather annoying and distressing cliffhanger. Apparently, the fourth book, Talking With Dragons, was actually the first book to be written and published, so by the time Wrede got around to writing Calling With Dragons, she was already stuck with having to make poor Mendanbar disappear for 17 years while Cimorene raised their son without him. Nevertheless, the book is tons of fun, thanks in part to the fact that its main POV character is Morwen, so you can understand her cats. There’s also a 6 foot 11 inch floating blue donkey with wings named Killer (he used to be a rabbit) and lots of witty repartee to liven things up despite the disappointing conclusion, so I’ve always considered it my second favorite after Dealing With Dragons.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Talking With Dragons

Buy at Amazon

A big jump in time and another POV switch, this time to Cimorene’s now 17 year old son Daystar. As I mentioned above, Talking With Dragons was the first book in the series to actually be written, and it follows a somewhat more traditional quest format, with poor Daystar being shoved into the Enchanted Forest with inadequate information (although an excellent education) about what he’s supposed to do and having to unravel it along the way. In the process, he runs into many old friends, including Morwen, Telmain, and Kazul, and makes some new friends of his own.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

If you can find them, I recommend buying the Enchanted Forest Chronicles in hardcover thanks to Trina Schart Hyman’s beautiful cover art:

There is also a story about the Enchanted Forest (set after Talking With Dragons) in Wrede’s short story collection Book of Enchantments. It’s called “Utensile Strength.”

Weirdoes of the Universe, Unite! Book Review

Weirdoes of the Universe, Unite! by Pamela F ServiceReview:

Weirdoes of the Universe, Unite! was one of my favorite books as a child. Mandy and Owen are outcasts at school and start their own club to celebrate weirdness. While collaborating on a school project about mythological characters, the characters suddenly start coming to life – and before they know it, Mandy and Owen are being called upon to help save the world from an alien invasion!

Weirdoes is a funny read, with some great banter between the different mythological personalities (who include Baba Yaga, Coyote, and Siegfried), and I really loved the concept of Otherworlds, where all the different mythological characters and creatures dreamed up by mankind exist somewhere, even the ones that nobody has believed in for thousands of years.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Although I don’t remember them as well, I also enjoyed Pamela F. Service’s novels The Reluctant God, about an ancient Egyptian prince who wakes up in the modern world, and Being of Two Minds, about an American girl who has a telepathic connection with a European prince, a connection that becomes extremely useful when he is kidnapped.

Monsters University Movie Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. are my favorite Pixar movies, so I was curious to see  Monsters University, the prequel to Monsters, Inc. Sadly, though Monsters University was enjoyable light entertainment, it was nowhere near the level of the original film.

Even while laughing at Mike and Sulley’s collegiate antics, I could never get over the feeling that the story was just plain unnecessary and the movie, therefore, primarily an effort to liberate more of people’s cash from their wallets. It’s normal in today’s Hollywood to try to capitalize on the popularity of a successful stand-alone film with sequels, prequels, reboots, etc., but you expect something with a little more heart from Pixar.

Monsters University teaches us nothing particularly new or surprising about the characters or the interesting parallel world they inhabit, nor does it offer a particularly interesting twist on any of its moral lessons. (I was pleasantly surprised when, after telling Mike and Sulley that they would be expelled, Dean Hardscrabble actually stuck to her word and expelled them, forcing them to work their way through the ranks of Monsters, Inc. via the mailroom, instead of having them be rescued from their bad behavior at the last minute by Hardscrabble’s change of heart and/or a deus ex machina of some sort.)  Arguably, the film’s very existence contradicts Mike and Sulley’s backstory as laid out in Monsters, Inc., where Mike tells Sulley, “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade,” suggesting that they met each other in elementary school, not college.

As a result, Monsters University is a pleasant enough way to while away 90 minutes of your life, but a far cry from Pixar’s best.

Buy at Amazon

My rating:2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)

[Read more…]

Dragonsdale Book Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

I am pretty sure that if I’d read this book as a 10 year old girl, I would have loved it unconditionally. Reading it as a 30-something woman instead, there were a few conditions, but I found it to be an enjoyable read.

Dragonsdale is essentially a horse book with dragons instead of horses. This is a good thing as far as I’m concerned – I loved horse books as a girl and making the horses into dragons was a fun twist. Wikipedia tells me that 16 year old “Salamanda Drake” is actually two middle aged guys named Steve, and the two Steves must be commended for putting some real thought into the differences you might expect between a riding academy for dragons and one for horses. The worldbuilding was nicely done, especially for the audience, with enough details to bring Dragonsdale to life, yet plenty of scope for the eager imaginations of young girls dreaming of a tame dragon of their very own. 

My main issue with the book (and again, this is the perspective of an adult reader – I don’t think it would bother most children) was the behavior of the father. Admittedly, grief can make people behave quite irrationally, but for a guy so traumatized by his wife’s fatal accident that he can’t bear to let his daughter ride, he doesn’t seem to have any issues riding himself. It seems just plain cruel to forbid her to ride at the same time he’s raising her surrounded by dragons, and forced day in and day out to watch others ride them, including others far younger or less knowledgeable than she herself. Imho, it’s way beyond irrational and into the realm of stupid to expect her to obey him forever under those circumstances.

Similarly, I’m sure dealing with the spoiled daughters of aristocrats is a nightmare (yay democracy!) but as a former equestrian, I was really giving him the side-eye when he let his anger get in the way of his judgement enough to foist off an untrained mount on a rider he knew to be both incompetent and cruel, thus putting the life of both the rider and the dragon at risk. It would be bad enough if it were a horse, but something that can fly, breathe fire, and eat people? Seriously?

Despite my issues with the father’s characterization, Dragonsdale was enjoyable, and I think it would make a great read for kids about 8-12, especially girls who love horses.

Buy at Amazon

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

The Magic Tree House Series

Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series has been a big hit with my daughter, and luckily (given how many of them there are) they’re easy to find at used book sales. In the books, a pair of ordinary children named Jack and Annie are sent on missions by Morgan Le Fay (and later Merlin) to historical and fantastical locations with the help of a magical treehouse, learning about history, mythology, and science along the way. My daughter also enjoyed the games at MagicTreeHouse.com.

[Read more…]

4M Crystal Mining Kit

Buy at Amazon

Review:

An enjoyable one time project for budding young geologists or rock collectors. We had a fun few hours (spread out over several days)  excavating the crystals, which are pretty, colorful, and decent-sized. My daughter now keeps them in the included leather pouch and considers them her “treasures.”

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)