Book Review: Back on Track by Kyle Jackson @JollyFishPress

Back on Track: Mac’s Sports Reports
Kyle Jackson
Jolly Fish Press, September 2018
ISBN 978-1-63163-223-5
Hardcover

“Mac” McKenzie takes his sports-writing seriously, whether he is reporting for his Middle-School newspaper or posting on his own blog. As with any good reporter, his antenna goes up with the sense of an underlying secret.

Having written about most of the stand-outs on the girls’ track team in previous issues of The Coyote Courier, Mac is paying particular attention to the new 6th grader from El Paso, Texas. There’s no questioning her athletic ability and yet…something about her hurdle jumps seems off. He must interview Aleesha Ramos.

If only he could catch her to make the request. She was always disappearing. Undeterred, Mac finally managed to schedule a time. But she cancelled. Repeatedly. He begins to suspect that Aleesha really does have something to hide. When he discovers the truth, his actions show that, alongside his investigative mind, beats a heart of gold.

I absolutely adore the Mac’s Sports Reports Juvenile Fiction/Middle Grade sports series. Mac doesn’t only write about sports, he dominates in his wheel-chair basketball league, he’s a pretty cool big brother and an outstanding friend. He happily helps his peers to deal with issues that some young readers may face, such as social anxiety. Kyle Jackson’s Back on Track would be a welcome addition to any library.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2020.

Book Reviews: Hatchling Hero by J. A. Watson and Two’s a Crowd by Flora Ahn @JollyFishPress @funaek @Scholastic

Hatchling Hero
A Sea Turtle Defender’s Journal
J.A. Watson
Jolly Fish Press, March 2018
ISBN 978-1-63163-161-0
Trade Paperback

The move from Puerto Rico to North Carolina was not an easy for one twelve-year-old Clarita. It wasn’t just geography, or missing friends; there was a life-style change as well. With both Mama and Tio having such busy schedules, Clarita felt isolated and in-charge-of her younger brother, Hector.

So, while she wasn’t particularly pleased to be forced into anything, this Science Squad thing that Mama insisted on might be a good idea after all. When the team chooses to track sea turtles for their project, Clarita is excited to finally find a familiarity. With her first American school-year behind her, she is starting to think that summer with the Science Squad should be fun.

With the recently laid eggs so close to their new home, Clarita and Hector were happy to host their fellow turtle lovers. But when keeping check on the nearby nest turns to witnessing criminal activity, the Sea Turtle Defenders are going to require adult assistance.

Not only did I (a Not-Young-Adult) enjoy this story, but it was educational in a sneaky way. I’m fairly certain I had not seen the word “skeletochronology” before. Now, I know what that means. Although the tiny tome is incredibly informative, it is in no way intimidating or complicated. And, while there’s no doubting the Sea Turtle Defenders’ outstanding deeds, deliberately disobeying rules will not be overlooked.

J.A. Watson’s Hatchling Hero: A Sea Turtle Defender’s Journal will absolutely appeal to Middle-Grade readers, but I kind of want everyone to read it.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2020.

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Two’s A Crowd
Pug Pals #1
Flora Ahn
Scholastic Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-338-11845-2
Hardcover

Sunny lives the perfect pug life. When her human goes to work, she does, too. She has her yoga and Mr. Bunny to tend to. She needs nothing.

So, Sunny was far from pleased when her human came home with another pug. The human calls the spastic pup Rosy. Sunny has nothing to say to wiggly, happy, fuzz-ball following her around.

Until Rosy accidentally loses Mr. Bunny. And then Sunny loses Rosy!

In Sunny’s search for Rosy, she finds fault in her own behavior and vows to make some changes. If she can only find that perturbing puppy.

I absolutely adore this Juvenile Fiction chapter book, but you don’t have to take my word for it. I spoke to the first-grader currently reading it and she says “it’s great” and that Sunny’s yoga poses are “so funny”.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2020.

Book Reviews: Stray Our Pieces by Jason Graff and Runway ZomBee by J.A. Watson @JasonGraff1 @WaldorfReaders @JollyFishPress

Stray Our Pieces
Jason Graff
Waldorf Publishing, October 2019
ISBN 978-1-64370-012-0
Trade Paperback

Stray Our Pieces by Jason Graff is Realistic Fiction, but it feels more like a Memoir of a stay-at-home-mom/wife. Gloria has absolutely no ambitions right now. No desire to be Super Mom. She doesn’t keep their home spic-and-span or super organized. Neither is the kitchen her place to shine.

Gloria isn’t so much bad at household chores and duties as she is so completely uninspired, in general, that her days are spent physically doing nothing. Well, maybe rushing through the bare minimum, on a great day. Mentally, she seems to be almost consumed by her own inadequacies. Not to the point of addressing them, more along the lines of looking for someone, or something, to blame.

Her story is not shared straight through. Rather, the time-line fluctuates, allowing the reader to see the younger, happier, energetic and inspired Gloria compared to the adult she allowed herself to become. In a roundabout (but definitely right) way, we learn about Gloria’s past and begin to understand her newfound place in the present.

I’ve not read many books that weave a world without a life-changing event. A plot around people who, from the outside looking in, seem to be the perfect picture of normal cannot be easy to create. But, regular, every-day living where there may be pain and aching emptiness, alongside joy and contentment, is certainly easy to understand and relate to.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2020.

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Runway ZomBee
A Zombie Bee Hunter’s Journal
J.A. Watson
Jolly Fish Press, March 2018
ISBN 978-1-63163-165-8
Trade Paperback

Raksha’s parents, although proud of their daughter’s ambition, were adamant: two separate, summer-long activities are out of the question. The Science Squad project is essentially a grand-finale. Earning their final badge is important, but the possibility of advancing to the final competition in Hawaii is especially enticing. And Raksha is definitely down with learning more about the Zombie fly/bee infestation…however gruesome the observations may be.

Entirely on the other hand, this admittedly out-of-the-blue fashion camp seems simply serendipitous. True, she could attend another time. After all, she meant to sign up for the fall in the first place. But, if she sticks with the summer session, she will also have a chance to finesse a new friendship with Shonda.

She will do both. Secretly.

Having a best friend like Hannah certainly helps Raksha juggle her double duties; but things quickly become complicated. Raksha is fully aware of the fact that Mari Gonzalez, fellow Science Squad Member and Archnemesis, loves to see her fail. She has no idea that the petty teen would stoop to sabotage.

There is so much to love in this Science-y, Middle-Grade marvel. Written in field-journal format, complete with self-corrections, this catchy little caper makes a quick read. Raksha may have gotten herself into a tight spot, but she is resilient, cunning and all kinds of creative getting out.

And, now I know about zombie-fly infection of honeybees and why that matters.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2019.

Book Reviews: The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Isenberg and Cogheart by Peter Bunzl @frumpenberg @HachetteBooks @peterbunzl @JollyFishPress

The Third Rainbow Girl
The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia
Emma Copley Eisenberg
Hachette Books, January 2020
ISBN 978-0-316-44923-6
Hardcover

The summer of 1980 gave the people of Pocahontas, and its neighboring Greenbrier county, something brand new to gossip and gripe about. A bunch of (probably) dirty, drunk and drugged-out dudes and chicks were about to descend. The Rainbow Family Gathering was moving east for the first time and the meeting place this year was in the Monongahela Forest in West Virginia.

Individually, the people are quite warm and welcoming. However, many did not want this Rainbow Festival happening on their pristine land. Some did long for a spectacle, eager to see a ‘freak show’ of nude, free-loving, tree-huggers dancing and skinny-dipping, flitting through their forests like true faeries.

I was only nine years old. I remember grumblings almost masking anticipation.

Before the gathering properly began, two female travelers were killed merely miles from their destination. Based on the location alone, there was no doubting that the shooter was a local. Determining who it was and why, though, would prove to be more challenging than anyone imagined.

Conducting an investigation when essentially everyone knows each other isn’t easy. There really aren’t secrets in small towns. Yet, the inexplicable killing of two “Rainbow Girls” was not a mystery to be solved quickly, or with collective satisfaction.

I remember watching an America’s Most Wanted episode about “The Rainbow Murders.” Jake Beard was a suspect, whereabouts unknown. Only, my younger sister piped up quickly, “He’s in Florida! I just got a letter from (his daughter).” Before leaving the mountains, Beard would pull his snazzy red convertible into our driveway and happily haul my sister and his daughter around town.

We did not immediately assume his innocence, though. Public opinion was absolutely split down the middle between the people who couldn’t believe Beard would flick off a flea, to the ones that swear he always had a wild, hateful streak.

Finally, there was a trial and a conviction. But that conviction was overturned.

Would the killer ever be identified? Or, do we already know who got away with murder?

I was excited to learn of The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg; although I admit to some apprehension due to a protective feeling towards my home state. I was pleasantly surprised and tremendously pleased with how well this author was able to understand the mountaineers and convey their way of life in an honest, objective manner.

I found her research and study of this criminal case to be tenacious and thorough without being too tough. The way that she shares what she learned was informative, but not suggestive. When I finished this book, my opinion of who killed those young ladies so many years ago has changed. And, I’m feeling a tiny bit homesick.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2020.

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Cogheart
A Cogheart Adventure #1
Peter Bunzl
Jolly Fish Press, February 2019
ISBN 978-1-63163-287-7
Trade Paperback

Set in the skies above and the streets running through London, this scintillating story of clockworks, mechanimals, hybrids and humans is the book that will keep kids reading well past bed-times. It has to be hard for a young reader to step away from this fast-paced, perilous plot because as an adult, I found myself hurrying through a chore or four so that I could get back to the search for the oh-so-secret cogheart.

Professor John’s airship was attacked and it seems the sole survivor is Malkin, the mechanimal fox that serves as family pet and pseudo-protector. He must get a message to John’s daughter, Lily, but even a creature as clever as he cannot make that journey alone.

Slinking and thinking, Malkin has no idea he has been spotted. The teen-aged boy living above Townsend’s Horologist’s was having trouble sleeping and he spied the fox from his window. With a watchful eye, Robert realized the fox was a mechanimal and impulsively sought him out to see if he could be of assistance. He is his da’s apprentice, after all.

Robert and Malkin are indeed an unlikely duo, but it is apparent that they must work together to get to Lily, because they are definitely being pursued. Mr. Creepy-Mirror-Eyes Scary-Face (not his real name) and his equally alarming pal are popping up everywhere and it soon becomes obvious that the four share the same goal but for very different reasons. One pair wants to protect Lily and provide comfort, the other is after the Professor’s greatest invention.

When we finally meet Lily, and she pulls her little nose out of her beloved penny dreadful, we see a young lady that needs no protecting. But she’s no fool, so she is willing to let Robert and Malkin assist in her quest to obtain the elusive perpetual motion machine and to keep it safe from the heinous hybrids and whoever they are working for.

Cogheart could be categorized as an epic action-adventure and that would be accurate; but there are also some subtle, yet intriguing, conversations that provided unique points to ponder. I just love everything about this book and I cannot wait to give my copy to my favorite classroom library.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2019.

Book Reviews: Ghosts of the Grand Canyon by Judy and Brian-James Martinez and Concussion Comeback by Kyle Jackson @LlewellynBooks @JollyFishPress

Ghosts of the Grand Canyon
Personal Encounters that Will Have You on the Edge
Judy & Brian-James Martinez
Llewellyn Publications, April 2019
ISBN 978-0-7387-5944-9
Trade Paperback

Although I’ve never been to Arizona, when I hear “Grand Canyon”, an image of sheer, sunbaked cliffs, surrounding an almost-angry, definitely-defiant crater, instantly pops into my mind. That, and the time during a family dinner when I may have missed my mouth and my father said, “Damn. That’s like throwing a rock at the Grand Canyon and missing,” which is not covered in Judy and Brian-James Martinez’s Ghosts of the Grand Canyon: Personal Encounters that Will Have You on the Edge.

These spooky stories, rich with history and humanity, are exponentially more entertaining and even educational. I enjoyed learning how the El Tovar Hotel came to be, how it has changed since opening in 1905, and who may still call it home.

I did not know that, only a quarter of a mile from the canyon’s rim, is the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world. Within said set of trees is a lodge named for the Hopi Nation kachina god who guards the gulf, “Maswik”.

Pioneer Cemetery, inside of the National Park, continues to be a place to visit, with walking trails and benches along the route. There’s an RV park, Trailer Village, purported to be a paranormal portal.

The Navajo needed their very own word for ghost, “Chindi”. And they believe in “skin-walkers”—an interesting tale, in and of itself.

In 1910, two brothers boarded a boat to travel the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. One sibling carried a movie camera to capture the entire adventure. To tourists’ delight, the resulting silent film was played, daily, for a full 17-year-run.

When just these few facts are so intriguing, the mandatory myths and folklore mixed in are bound to be good. The authors convey the peoples’ stories, using the peoples’ words, for an authentic, fun-fact-filled read.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2019.

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Concussion Comeback
Mac’s Sports Report
Kyle Jackson
Jolly Fish Press, September 2018
ISBN 978-1-63163-227-3
Hardcover

Stewart “Mac” McKenzie takes his sports-reporting role very seriously, even if he is writing about Middle-Grade activities. As a hard-working student-athlete, who rolls circles around his competitors to crush it on the basketball court, Mac sees both sides of every story. Which is why he is so worried about his next article.

The football coach provides Mac a spot on the sidelines, alongside the team and their supporting staff. But the view from his wheelchair is slightly different and he definitely saw the star quarterback crack his head on the final play. He kept his eyes on Ryan Mitchell and knew he wasn’t imagining the symptoms he saw.

He tried talking, but Ryan wouldn’t listen. Now, it’s not a matter of what he has to do, but rather, finding the best way to do it. Fortunately for Mac, his best friend didn’t just know every fact and stat about practically all of the sports; but, Samira Ahmad is also incredibly thoughtful and kind. She always gives Mac the best advice.

It won’t take a sports fan to enjoy and appreciate Mr. Jackson’s Mac’s Sports Report: Concussion Comeback. Simply written, it is a quick, effortless and entertaining read; but it tackles a timely and important topic. I loved the real-life, varied examples of a few famous NFL players handling this very issue. I’m still stunned to know that one player was hit so hard, it took him more than a year to re-learn how to read.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2018

Book Reviews: Parkland by Dave Cullen and Wild Midnight by Kelsey Abrams

Parkland
Birth of a Movement
Dave Cullen
Harper, February 2019
ISBN 978-0-06-288294-3
Hardcover

This book is not about the tragedy on February 14th, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Instead, it is about all that the student activists accomplished in the following year and how they did it. I felt like I’d followed this story pretty closely, but I was stunned by some of the things I learned. And those things are the reasons I want people to read this book.

I think most folks will be as shocked as I was to find out how ATF background checks are conducted, and why it is that way.

I was floored by all that these students accomplished over one summer and I was delighted to see their efforts to include other young activist groups that were not receiving the same media attention, such as Black Lives Matter, BRAVE & The Peace Warriors.

As expected, being familiar with Mr. Cullen‘s work, Parkland is thoughtful and thought-provoking. Honest, yet hopeful and inspiring.

I simply had to share this with “my” students. I took it in this week, and donated my copy to their classroom library. There was so much interest, I’m going to add a couple more copies soon. Everyone that wishes to read Parkland should have that opportunity.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2019.

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Wild Midnight: An Emily Story
Second Chance Ranch
Kelsey Abrams
Jolly Fish Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-63163-157-3
Trade Paperback

It should not surprise me when a Juvenile Fiction book pulls me in and holds my attention almost as tightly as a well-written, true-crime testament. And yet, when my reading of Wild Midnight: An Emily Story by Kelsey Abrams was rudely interrupted, I was absolutely more annoyed than I should have been.

Admittedly, I picked it up planning to savor it. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Second Chance Ranch series, so reading the last book seems bittersweet. But, I got so caught up in Emily’s quest to acquire a mustang there was no way I was going to stretch it out.

After careful research and a fruitful family meeting, Emily’s parents agreed to apply to participate in the upcoming auction of free-roaming horses, recently rounded-up. Approval was not a surprise, the Ramirez family’s commitment to rescuing animals is well-known in this part of Texas and Mrs. Ramirez is the go-to veterinarian for the area. However, caring for the critters currently residing on their ranch is expensive. Emily had only a small budget and was easily outbid.

Understanding the emptiness after seeing your dream horse slip through your fingers, her oldest sister, Natalie, promises to help Emily find the perfect equine partner. It is not enough. Emily’s heart is so broken that even Chandler the Emu cannot lift her spirits. But, when she’s invited to visit the mustangs at a near-by ranch, it is possible that a beautiful, black beast and a persnickety stable-hand can help her heal.

I loved the feel of adventure and action as humans attempt to encourage wild horses to acclimate. Also adrenaline-pumping: matter-of-fact preparation for an approaching storm, while potential danger pulses through the air. Softened by a sweet, strong young lady, this is a stellar story.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2018.

Book Reviews: The Pros of Cons by Alison Cherry, Lindsay Ribar & Michelle Schusterman and Trapped in Room 217 by Thomas Kingsley Troupe

The Pros of Cons
Alison Cherry, Lindsay Ribar & Michelle Schusterman
Point, March 2018
ISBN 978-1-338-15172-5
Hardcover

This quintessential Young Adult read is quirky, cubed. A mad mash-up of three (and a half) conventions under one roof results in a delightfully amusing tale that is not without substance. And it has a pretty great title, you know I love it when something can mean two things.

It isn’t Phoebe’s first time. She’s come before with her high-school percussion ensemble, to participate in the Indoor Percussion Association Convention. Perhaps there is a bit more pressure this time, though.

Vanessa is very excited to finally meet her girl-friend, face-to-face, for the first time. Sweetly naïve, she really does not know what to expect from the We Treasure Fandom con.

Callie came as her dad’s assistant for the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championship, but she’s only here hoping he will see her as his daughter, instead.

The story starts properly, with a literal bang. A collision in the lobby leads to a shuffling and unnoticed exchanges of carrying cases. From that point forward, nothing goes as planned.

Phoebe finds that her mallet bag is actually filled with tools for Buchannan Taxidermy, definitely not the mallets she needs. But, she’s only thrown for a second. Since she has the xylophone solo, she has to improvise. She uses the scalpels.

Vanessa is feeling confused and out-of-place. People are different in real-life than online and she’s just beginning to figure that out.

Callie is bummed that her dad continues to treat her like a disappointing assistant, but when she realizes his cold-shoulder is just the tip of the ice-berg; she plots sweet, public revenge.

I learned a lot from The Pros of Cons. I hadn’t heard of half of the percussion instruments played, nor did I know that “critical listening” is different from “analytical listening. “Fan-fic” and “cons” were familiar terms, but I had no inkling of the depth. Or that it gave way to its own language. By the way, I also know what sock-puppeting means now. Oddly, I did know a bit about taxidermy.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2018.

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Trapped in Room 217
Haunted States of America Series
Thomas Kingsley Troupe
Jolly Fish Press, September 2018
ISBN 978-1-63163-215-0
Hardcover

A father seldom has spare time when single-handedly raising a seventh-grade daughter and second-grade son. Jayla and Dion get that, and the late-night call did wake the whole house only hours ago. They won’t razz their dad, too much, just because the place they are staying during their impromptu Spring Break get-away doesn’t have a pool.

First sight of the historical hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, had them both second-guessing their generosity. Check-in was only slightly less than creepy. Jayla could not have imagined the murmurs when “Room 217” was spoken. But, The Stanley is beautiful and possibly interesting. Two bright and resourceful kids will find plenty to do. Although, assisting a spirit was not an item they would have imagined.

Seemingly strange occurrences compelled the siblings to research their current residence. After reviewing reading material spread throughout the common rooms, it was time to for a self-guided tour of the tantalizing tunnels below. There, Jayla and Dion may just be in over their heads.

I have always loved ghost-stories so, I was thrilled to hear about this historical-fiction series, The Haunted States of America by Thomas Kingsley Troupe. Trapped in Room 217 gave me exactly what I wanted. Cool characters (Dion packed his own suitcase, with books only, and he is my hero now) caught up in a mystery, moving at the perfect pace. Absolutely appropriate for younger readers, I will be introducing it to my favorite HS students because I believe they will dig it as much as I do.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2018.