Rave Reviews Log: Realistic Fiction

April 07, 2012

The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini

By Peter Johnson
Rating: 3 3/4 stars

Set in Providence, Rhode Island, John, also known as Houdini for his obsession with the famous escape artist, decides to write his own book after an author visits his school.  So Houdini begins to chronicle his life, from his friends Lucky and Jorge to their arch enemy, Angel Dimitri.  But writing everything down makes Houdini begin to view his friends, enemies, neighbors and events in totally different ways.  Surprises are in store for Houdini and his friends when they start and leaf raking business and have to deal with crazy Vietnam vet, Old Man Jackson and his killer dog, Da Nang.  Even Angel manages to surprise the trio.  But it all takes  a backseat when Houdini's older brother goes missing in action in Iraq.  In the end, this is a story set in a rough and tumble neighborhood about some rough and tumble folks, but like everywhere else, there is love, loss, good and bad.  Readers will enjoy spending time in Houdini's world and find that sometimes, things just come to an end simply, not with a big bang.

February 25, 2012

The Whole Story of Half a Girl

By Veera Hiranandani
Rating: 3 3/4 stars

Being a kid isn't as easy as it seems.  Sonia is half-Indian, half-Jewish and has spent all of her life at Community, a tiny private school.  But when her father loses his job, suddenly she has to start the new school year at the local public school.  Her best friend Sam begins to seem distant and nothing is like her old classroom.  Sonia tries to make new friends, and is flattered by attention from pretty and popular Kate who encourages Sonia to try out for cheerleading.  But she also is interested in Alisha, a black girl who gets bussed into their school system.  But the black kids sit separately from the whites at lunch and Sonia can't decide--where does she belong?  Her skin is dark, but is she considered black?  White?  A Jew when you don't really go to Temple?  While she struggles to figure out how to belong, Sonia's home life becomes even more complicated as her father sinks into a deep depression.  This is a really interesting story as we root for Sonia to sort out some very difficult problems and sympathize with her when she isn't always truthful.  Her worries feel real and will strike a chord with readers.  A solid school and family story.

December 31, 2011

Hound Dog True

By Linda Urban
Rating: 4 stars

In this short and sweet story, Mattie Mae and her mom have moved yet again, but this time, they are staying with her Uncle Potluck in the old family home.  Mattie Mae struggles with being anxious about the beginning of the new school year and about how hard it is for her to make friends.  But she keeps her anxiety hidden as much as possible since she doesn't want to disappoint her mother.  Bullying from her previous school over the stories Mattie was writing in her notebook just makes her even more withdrawn.  But as she helps her uncle out before school starts with his custodial job, Mattie thinks that maybe she'll be able to hang out with during her recess times and escape having to make friends.  Then the neighbor's niece Quincy comes to visit, and Mattie is expected to make friends with her.  How can Mattie even think of the right words to say?  Misunderstandings and an accident actually help Mattie finally make some progress.  This is a quiet story that is full of hound dog truth and tells that sometimes being a little bit brave can matter  a lot.  Lovely.

November 14, 2011

My Name is Mina

By David Almond
Rating: 4 stars

In Almond's wonderful book, Skellig, the boy Michael meets his unusual neighbor, Mina.  In this prequel to Skellig, we learn all about Mina's story.  Mina thinks outside of the box and questions everything in the universe with true wonder.  However, her propensity to wonder and question ends up causing her to not fall into line properly at school.  She has no real friends and while she can do great work, she also can do just the opposite.  When one day she takes a very serious test at school a bit less seriously than the teacher and principal do, her mother decides to homeschool her.  And so Mina keeps a journal of her homeschooling life, where she learns more than math or science or grammar--instead she also learns that she has to grow up a little bit and to not blame others for her problems because sometimes, a person has to learn to be brave.  And a person has to learn how to be a friend.  It is a story that will make readers to some of their own wondering, and perhaps, bring them to read the next book, Skellig.

November 08, 2011


By Sarah Weeks
Rating: 4 1/4 stars

The tiny town of Ipswitch is famous for one thing: Alice's aunt Polly's shop named Pie.  Polly's pies are so wonderful, she has won 13 Blueberry medals for best pie, an unprecedented achievement.  Then Polly dies unexpectedly, and in her will, she leaves her secret pie crust recipe to Lardo, her mean cat, and leaves Lardo to Alice.  As Alice grieves over her beloved aunt, she finds that how everyone around her reacts to the death seems much more selfish.  Then Lardo disappears and someone trashes Polly's shop--are they looking for the pie crust recipe?  Alice, with the help of her new friend Charlie, begins to investigate, but is her imagination just running away with her?  Is Lardo really the key to the pie crust recipe? But as time passes, Alice discovers that what her aunt always believed was the truth--that it is what you love, and your family and friends, that are the real treasures.  A wonderful story about family, friends and pie, with a healthy dose of mystery.  Readers will enjoy this fun tale and the quick-moving plot.

September 26, 2011

Sons of Liberty

By Adele Griffin
Rating: 4 stars

In this solid, absorbing story, Rock is proud of his heritage which goes all the way back to the American Revolution and the Minutemen.  In fact, he is a bit of a history buff.  So when his father wakes him and his brother up in the middle of the night to work on the roof or some other project, he knows it is just to toughen him up like the patriots of that time were.  But when his brother keeps talking about how controlling his father is, Rock feels it is disloyal.  Even if he does feel bullied sometimes and even if his mother won't even leave the house any more.  But it isn't until his best friend Liza asks for help from Rock and Cliff to runaway from home and her abusive stepfather that Rock starts to think a little more about his own home life and whether or not he wants to stay in it.  If he had to make a choice between father and family and yourself, which would he choose?  Readers won't know until the last page. 

August 30, 2011

Sparrow Road

By Sheila O'Connor
Rating: 4 1/2 stars

In this lovely book, Raine is bewildered when her mom up and moves them for the summer from Milwaukee to the wilds of the old manor house at Sparrow Road, nearest town 8 miles away.  Her mom took a job as the cook for the artists who live in residence at the house for the summer, citing that it will be good for Raine to have the time in the country.  Raine is homesick for her Grandpa Mac, and not that willing to have a country experience, but as she begins to meet the artists themselves, she changes her mind.  Diego encourages her to write and gives her a way to begin.  Colorful Josie is full of grand plans and ideas.  Gentle Lillian talks of orphans at the house--is she speaking to ghosts?  Only stiff Eleanor is to be steered clear of.  As Raine settles in, she discovers that the house used to be an orphanage, and she begins to uncover its past.  She also discovers that there is something in the nearby town of Comfort that is the REAL thing that brought her mother to Sparrow Road--something that could change both of their lives.  Full of great characters, real emotions, a touch of mystery, and the power of art, readers will love this gentle but powerful story.  Fans of Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie will find this book a natural to follow up with.  A wonderful story!


By Andrew Clements
Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Sixth grader Clayton is a troublemaker in school.  Not in a malicious or violent way, but in that clever, funny way that endears him to others as much as it gets him into the principal's office.  He loves to brag about his exploits to his older brother Mitch, who was also a troublemaker in his time, and his folder in the school office grows weekly.  But when his brother Mitch comes back from a short jaunt in jail, he is determined to turn over a new leaf--and that Clayton will, too.  But how does someone with a reputation like Clayton's suddenly STOP being a troublemaker and turn into a regular guy?  Who will ever believe he has changed?  This is a story for anyone out there who tried to change the way they are--or wants to--and for the people who need to give that person a chance to be different.  A quick and enjoyable school story.