upside of downIt’s so exciting to me when I find a new author I enjoy. It’s even better when that author delivers the same high caliber quality through a second project. And for me, it’s a cherry on top when that author happens to be self-published. That’s the case with author Dawn Malone and her second stand-alone middle grade novel, The Upside of Down.

Her first book, Bingo Summer, was a fun, light, rags-to-riches story with some deeper themes that touched on self-acceptance. The Upside of Down maintains that easy readability, but it takes a more serious turn, contrasting Hobbs, an all-star athlete from a middle class family, with peers from far less desirable circumstances. When Hobbs’ life twines with that of a runaway struggling to survive on the streets of his town, the difficult friendship they forge changes both of them forever. It’s a touching story of conscience, self-discovery, and grace.

It took me a little longer to be drawn into this one. There are a few more fringe characters to figure out before the focus really tightens around the main characters. This group of characters, Hobbs’ peers and athletes, are necessary to build a school setting, but they felt a little indistinct to me. I had trouble distinguishing between them sometimes. I wasn’t even sure what race they were. But it’s my single, solitary complaint. As in Bingo, I was soon caught up in the emotion of the central story and the beauty of the prose.

Twice now, Ms. Malone has delivered, sweet, clean reads that touch on deeper issues in a gentle, kid-friendly way. Both absolutely nail the child-maturing-into-adulthood complexities that make middle grade such a dynamic genre. I highly recommend both, and I suggest readers keep an eye out for whatever she has coming out next. I certainly will be.

Grab Dawn Malone’s books on Amazon:
Bingo Summer
The Upside of Down

The Captain’s Dog, by Roland Smith

captainsdogThis is the story of Lewis and Clark as told by Seaman, Captain Lewis’s Newfoundland dog who accompanied the Corps of Discovery on their epic journey to the Pacific Ocean in 1804-6. I’d seen this book before and was very intrigued. I love history. I’ve taught this subject several times for homeschool as each of my kids passed through American history in 5th and 8th grades. I’ve done some additional reading just for my own interest, including parts of Lewis’s journals, which are free for Kindle, thought they are a bit tedious for pleasure reading. And I watched a fabulous documentary of the journey by Ken Burns (which just so happens to be free on Amazon with a Prime membership—American Lives, Season 1, Episodes 12-13). But I’ve never read this book. I’ve wanted to. I finally bought it after reading another Roland Smith novel that I was thoroughly impressed with (Peak).

So, did I love it? Well, not as I loved Peak. A middle grade narrative voiced by a dog just doesn’t have the same resonance as a young adult novel, no matter how epic the subject matter. But I did like it. A lot. It’s engaging and eminently readable. I now wish I had used this book in my homeschool classroom. It definitely has a place on the school shelf. I believe middle graders interested in the historic journey will thoroughly enjoy this one, and I think it will pique the interest of those less inclined to enjoy history.

The journey, which spanned two and a half years, has been pared down extensively in this book. The expedition was a scientific one, in which Lewis and Clark collected and cataloged hundreds of new species, mapped thousands of miles of topography, and finally debunked the myth of a navigable Northwest Passage through the continent. But this novel primarily relates the adventures the men—and the dog—found along the way. These include meeting new Indian tribes—not all of whom were friendly—grizzly bear attacks, becoming lost at the fork in the Missouri, and the night Seaman saved the camp from a rampaging buffalo. The story even gives readers a taste of Lewis’s (probably bi-polar) personality and the struggle he had with depression and self-depreciation. (It does not give any hint of his suicide a few years later.)

The one thing I thought could have been improved upon, because it sometimes proved confusing, was the story’s layout. The book starts after the conclusion of the journey, with two members of the corps back out West, reading one of Captain Lewis’s journals with Seaman and two Indians listening in. (This extra journal is fictional, though the two corps members really did head back into the wild after the journey’s conclusion. The two Indians mentioned are also actual historical characters. There is no evidence that Seaman was left behind as related in the book, however. Here’s an interesting article on what probably really happened to him.) The journal entries are easy to identify as they are dated and italicized—and based on the actual published ones. But the narrative gets confusing. Sometimes Seaman is expounding on what happened in the past. Other times the action jumps to the present, with comments or events taking place between in the readers. A few times it took me a moment to find my bearings. It is my only criticism. Perhaps the paperback version does a better job making these jumps apparent. My Kindle does not show indented text well.

Regardless, I think The Captain’s Dog, particular Seaman’s voice, makes this historic and monumental undertaking accessible to kids. Highly recommended as a curriculum accompaniment or as pleasure reading for middle graders who love history, adventure, or dog stories.

Clean Indie Reads Reviews–Song of the Mountain

I know it’s my off week, but this is too fun not to post. Lia London from Clean Indie Reads has started a YouTube channel of super short video reviews of books listed on that website. Lia herself created this hilarious review for one of my middle grade books, Song of the Mountain. I simply had to share! Many thanks, Lia! (Btw, Song is always FREE on Amazon!)



I’ll Be Seeing You, by Lurlene McDaniel

Ill_Be_Seeing_YouI have to admit, this one was extremely sappy and predictable and I didn’t really enjoy it all that much. But my teen daughter loved it. And it’s clean. So I guess it’s worth a quick review for teens and parents of teens who like sticky sweet drama without all the hot and heavy.

Lurlene McDaniel has made something of a name for herself with many, many titles that deal with death, dying, disease, and other similar misfortunes. This one fits right in there. Sixteen-year-old Carley had cancer as a child, and the invasive surgery that saved her life also disfigured her face. She’s often taunted or just plain ignored. No boy will ever look at her twice. They certainly wouldn’t take time get to know the girl beneath the scars when there are so many other beautiful girls to choose from. Until a rollerblading accident lands her back in the hospital where she meets Kyle.

Kyle lost his vision in a chemistry accident. He’s scared, alone, and he welcomes Carley’s friendship. But when his sight begins to return, Carley’s afraid he’ll dump her once he sees her face. So she decides to leave him before he has the chance to hurt her.

I bet you can guess how it ends. I did. No surprises here. But the characters are likeable, and the bittersweet angst is right up a romantic teen girl’s alley. And as I said, this one is squeaky clean. At 1.99, the price is definitely right. Going on a road trip with a teen girl? This light read might fit the bill.

Meet the Author

It’s my off week for posting a review, so I’m going to throw in something informal and fun. This is the video I’ve created to place in the back of my ebooks. Since print isn’t always conducive to conveying personality (though blogs are better at this than books), I thought I’d post it here, too. At 1:14, it’s short and sweet!


The Thief (The Queen’s Thief, 1), by Megan Whalen Turner

the thiefThis particular book won Newbery Honors back in 1996, I believe, but I almost didn’t stick with it long enough to find out why. The story is, in essence, a quest. One that starts out slowly, with not much going on except characterization. Which is excellent. I just wasn’t sure where it all was going and considered ditching. I’m glad I didn’t.

Our hero, Gen, is a common pickpocket without enough brains to keep his skills a secret. His bragging landed him in jail, where we first encounter him. But lucky for Gen, the king of Sounis finds himself in need of a thief.

So Gen, the king’s magus, a soldier, and two other boys set off on a journey. And not much happens as they sneak over the mountains and into the neighboring country of Attolia. But don’t stop reading! And pay attention as you go. Because everything becomes crucially important a few chapters later. As the characters interact, you’ll be treated to some history between the countries, the backgrounds of all three boys, and a good deal about the gods of this made-up country. Believe me, you want to keep going.

Let me sidetrack a moment to describe the setting. It feels like it could be a real time and place in history, but I spent the entire story trying to figure it out. The names were very Greek, the mountainous terrain and abundant olive trees could be anywhere near the Mediterranean. The pantheon of gods sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place them (although ancient Greek and Roman mythology is not my strong point). Several actual names from history appear (like Archimedes). And finally, the whole thing has a medieval feel, but guns are referenced. I was quite confused. Finally, in the note at the end of the book, the author set my mind at rest. The setting is strongly influenced by her love of all things Greek, but it’s all made up. No wonder I couldn’t place it!

Anyway, we soon find out our hero has been requisitioned to steal a stone of immortality that has been influential in the line of succession for another neighboring country of Eddis. If the king shows up with their stone, the queen of Eddis must marry him. The problem? The stone has been missing for 500 years. The magus is certain it’s been hidden in an ancient temple in Attolia, but when they are betrayed, the Queen of Attolia isn’t keen on letting them go free.

This turned out to be a great read, but I don’t want to give anything away. Let’s just say I haven’t been surprised by a twist like this for a long time. Now I almost want to read through it again and find all the clues that were planted so cleverly throughout the story—all the way back to page one. You know, maybe I will!

I do want to register one complaint. The use of the word godsdamn is clever, considering the pantheon of gods, but it’s also too abundant, and it actually detracts from the setting. It felt too modern to even fit this story. Other than that, the book is entirely kid-friendly. I’d give this one a 10+ rating.

Grab a copy from Amazon!

Bingo Summer, by Dawn Malone

bingo summerFirst time author Dawn Malone has crafted a winner in Bingo Summer. Charming, sweet, and artfully written, it takes top honors in my summer reading list. It’s just a superb example of middle grade lit. I loved it!

Okay, the initial catalyst for the plot is pretty unlikely. (Summer wins ten million dollars with a lottery ticket.) But the emotions the story conjures up once it gets rolling are absolutely universal. Forced to move across the state by her impetuous mother, Summer starts eighth grade in a new school where kids dress differently and act differently than she is accustomed to. She soon finds herself changing to become like everyone else and not liking the way it makes her feel. Her new friends aren’t friendly. Her dirt-poor past is an embarrassment she tries to hide. She’d give the money back if only she could go home! Rich or not, Summer’s emotional journey is an altogether human response that every single kid out there can identify with.

Now for my favorite part. Drop dead gorgeous writing. Let me show off some of the ingenious images Ms. Malone creates for us…

“…her pout stuck out far enough that I could have pegged her lower lip with my pea-shooter if I had it on me.”

“I followed her into the dining room with a table long enough for a plane to land on.”

“Snow had erased the horizon. Sky and landscape blended together in one solid, white wall. The woods across the road looked like tree-shaped ghosts, draped in snowy sheets.”

“Once I started talking, I couldn’t stop. It all spilled out, at first a little drip-drop of information as she looked over the pictures and articles. Then the words ran together, widening like a fast-moving stream, tumbling over a mountain waterfall, and they wouldn’t quit until I ran dry of every last detail.”

Squeaky Award 2“My throat closed up when he reached for my hair, so any words I had were stuck somewhere between my collar bone and the back of my tongue.”

Doesn’t this remind you of the quality you find in an ALA notable book? Too bad the ALA doesn’t consider self-pubs or this one could sweep their awards! As it is, I’ve decided to honor it with the first Squeaky Award I’ve given out in quite some time. I highly recommend you grab this one up today for your 4th-8th grade reader. (It’s only 99 cents. How many traditional presses price like that?!) Two thumbs way up.