Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Mystery’ Category

Ever wonder why cats have nine lives? Catatlantis by Anna Starobinets offers one explanation. Good and bad guys dot the landscape of this fun fantasy hailing from Russia. Friendship and romance also mark its chapters. Highly imaginative, Catatlantis is a madcap adventure that kept me enthralled from start to finish.

At first glance, our hero Baguette seems like just another ordinary housecat. He’s well-fed and loved by his human owners. His most outstanding concern is exactly how safe that window ledge on the twelfth floor is. Oh, and whether the slender and striped female neighborhood cat loves him. The family’s dog didn’t understand the allure. Nonetheless, out of respect for the friendship that existed between him and Baguette, the family’s dog agreed to act as a messenger between Baguette and his love. Soon he becomes witness to a marriage proposal, counteracted by a rival suitor, and a challenge. Baguette’s life quickly becomes anything but ordinary, when he travels back in time to find the flowers that once used to allow cats to live nine lives.

The good and bad guys aren’t necessarily whom you’d expect. Yes, the fate of Purriana’s great-great-grandmother lays in Baguette’s paws. But without the help of a spotted cat princess that he encounters in France during his time travels, Baguette might not have discovered the real reason no one can recall what the magical flowers from Catatlantis look like. Just as important to Baguette finding his way back home is a French baker. True, Baguette’s rival suitor is villainous enough to care more about the magical flowers than Purriana. But Baguette finds more than more one bad guy in his jaunts during time such as Trash Man, a sickly yellow-toothed man raised from the dump to defeat Baguette. Just as disturbing are the greedy and arrogant cats that Baguette encounters on the magic island of Catatlantis itself.

At times, Catatlantis is outlandish and even illogical. To travel back in time, Baguette simply stared at a clock and willed time to stop. If time travel were that simple, why hadn’t any other cat performed this trick? On the other hand, Baguette is a descendant of the magic Catlanteans who lived long ago in peace and happiness on the island of Catlantis.  Perhaps this ancestry endowed him with unusual capabilities. Over all, Catatlantis is delightfully weird. Case in point, Purriana’s great-great-grandmother life is not the only one at stake. Should she die in the middle of spring, the whole line of striped cats will die with her.

Author Anna Starobinets is a Russian novelist. Catatlantis is her first children’s book to be translated into English. Referred to as a European classic, Catatlantis should find a home here in America too in the hearts of all lovers of animal stories, folklore, and fantasy.

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A friend of mine and I like to collect cat books. What follows is a review of three books from her collection and one from mine. Two of the books are about homeless cats, a topic dear to my heart. The other two books are simply fun reads.

Little Bo is the first of quartet about Bonnie Boadicea, a spunky and curious little kitten, and co-written by Julie Andrews and her daughter. Little Bo is the youngest of six kittens born to champion Persian but abandoned ten days before Christmas. The Persian’s owner asks her butler to sell the kittens. When that proves difficult, he decides to throw them in a lake, and the kittens escape before that dastardly deed can be performed. I love the full-page paintings which open each chapter, and the charming spot illustrations of the kittens. Just as much I enjoy the story of sweet Bo, who seems to be the only survivor of her siblings. The structured side of me would have preferred Andrews to jump straight into Bo’s story OR to have followed the adventures of her siblings too. That little nitpicking aside, the story is a throw back to days of children’s literary anthologies. It’s full of strong-will characters, unique settings, and adventure. I’m delighted to know there are four books about Little Bo!

Trapped is the third in a trilogy, all written in 2008, about Pete the Cat. Pete is a highly unusual cat that likes to help his owner Alex solve mysteries. In this volume, Pete helps Alex track down the man responsible for illegal trapping. As in every good crime story, Pete ends up putting his life in danger to find evidence. Pete also likes to help author, Peg Kehret, tell his story. The viewpoint switches between Pete the Cat and his owner Alex. As a fan of Peg Kehret, I have read many of her books. One thing I dislike about her fiction is the villains are always one-dimensional. Case in point, in Trapped, the bad guy not only traps illegally, but he also is slovenly in appearance, drives reckless, and isn’t above threatening violence to animals and people. Sure, these people exist, but sometimes people who hurt animals are nice in every other way. Despite my wishing the Kehret would create more complex villains, I enjoy her main characters and the obvious passion of Kehret for animals. Kehret is a long-time volunteer at The Humane Society and often uses animals in her stories.

Animal rescue is hot right now. Ellen Miles ought to know. She made a name for herself with the Puppy Place and Kitty Corner series. In both series, a family fosters a homeless animal and helps find it a forever home. Along the way, readers learn lots of tips about the behavior of dogs and cats. They also realize the plight of shelter animals and maybe even find themselves wanting to give a home to an animal in need. Domino is a title in the Kitty Corner series. Siblings Michael and Mia would like to have a cat of their own, but for now they foster. And their latest foster is a kitten found on a ski slope. The less than 100-page chapter book switches viewpoints between the siblings and Domino, and makes for light-reading. Although the books are formulaic, they’re also cute and true to a kids’ world, and could turn reluctant readers into avid ones.

The Cat Who Came in off the Roof is by Annie Schmidt. It’s my favorite of the four chapter books, because the main character is a shy reporter. Tibbles is so timid that he spends his time reporting about cats and nature, instead of about people. He’s at risk of losing his job, when he meets a lady who can talk to cats because was once had been one. She tells him all the gossip around town, including some secret news, and he writes it all up for the paper. Suddenly he is a star. And she has a home. Except nothing can ever stay perfect. There is a bad guy, a quirky neighbor, a pregnant cat, and…. Next thing you know Tibbles has not only lost his job but also been evicted. To find out how things are all righted, read The Cat Who Came in off the Roof by Annie Schmidt, who is considered the Queen of Dutch Literature. She’s won several awards, including the Hans Christian Anderson, and is included in the canon of Dutch history taught to all school children.

This review is dedicated to Marlo, who regularly surprises me with packages full of all things cat. There might be a toy, a movie, or a book. If you want to read more about her story, follow this link: Bonded Together by CKD.

If the terrorists kidnapped your friend, would you know how to save him? Fourteen-year-old Jane not only knows how to track down criminals, but she also knows how to use a gun. However, Jane Blond International Spy by Stan and Brittany Schatt isn’t just about bad guys and espionage. Jane spends a large part of her teen life battling school bullies and dealing with the fallout from her parents’ divorce. Suspense and teen drama mix in this two-hundred page novel aimed at young adults. Sounds too good to miss, right? Unfortunately, I struggled to finish.

From the youngest to the oldest reader, who hasn’t wanted to be either a detective or a spy? Or least doesn’t enjoy a good mystery or suspense story? Jane Blond must prevent terrorists from blowing up her school during a presidential visit, as well as protect CIA secrets from falling into the wrong hands. To do so, Jane draws on the help of a friend with Aspergers and a parrot with an attitude. I enjoyed the positive portrayals of those with special needs, as well as found amusing the scenes with the family parrot.

Its target audience will also appreciate how modern Jane Blond International Spy is. Everyone makes ample use of cell phones and computers. They regularly send emails and text. On one occasion, Jane lands in trouble when an unfriendly computer programmer hacks her account to send a nude photo of her to all her classmates. On another occasion, Jane tracks down an incriminating blog of a bully. In addition, Jane uses the internet at other times for seeking out clues to the whereabouts and activities of the bad guys.

With all these positives, why did I struggle to finish Jane Blond International Spy? Mostly, I didn’t care for the character portrayals. The good characters are too inconsistent in their actions. One minute the adults in Jane’s life are praising her and seeking out her help; the next minute they’re disparaging her and acting as if she’s wasting their time. The same rollercoaster is true for how Jane treats her friends. One minute, Jane praises them but the next minute she’s outlining their flaws. In gym class, despite knowing that her friend is viewed as clumsy, Jane doesn’t even use the opportunity of being leader to stand up for Anouk. Instead she picks her second to last. Many people often do send conflicting messages, and so there’s a certain amount of realism to the characters, but I felt too often jerked about like a yo-yo to feel as if any of them were memorable.

As for the bad characters, they’re sadly all stereotypes. The popular kids in Jane’s school call her names, try to fix votes to keep her off the cheerleading team, and even attempt to get her kicked out of school. More offensive is how anyone who isn’t white was depicted. While Anouk (who is Inuit) is portrayed in a somewhat positive way, her parents not only arrange her marriage but ignore that her intended abuses her. In addition, the popular kids follow the Muslim faith, and use the Koran to excuse their death threats on Jane, her friends, and even on the country. While bad can exist in any nationality or race, there’s an imbalance here.

Jane Blond International Spy has been aimed at young adults. I’m guessing the reason for targeting older readers is the violence. Not only do bad guys attempt to kill Jane and her friends, but she shows no remorse in gunning one down when she’s threatened. However, the simplicity of the book’s style feels more suited to a middle-school novel. While at times Jane Blond International Spy does make for an engaging read, I was disappointed in it.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

StanSchattDr. Stan Schatt and his grand-daughter are the co-authoring team of the young adult novel Jane Blond International Spy. Shatt has taught at the university level, spent many years “as a futurist responsible for forecasting future technology products and markets for Fortune 500 companies,” and authored over thirty books. Below is my interview with Schatt.

According to Tiffany Clark Kent, when Shatt’s grandchildren were young, he began making up stories to tell them at night. As they grew older, his stories became longer and more complex, and he ended up inspiring his grandchildren to write too.

His grand-daughter, who came up with the basic plot and major characters of Jane Blond International Spy. She also wrote dialogue that captured the way teenagers actually talk. Tomorrow I’ll review Jane Blond International Spy. Save the date: May 27!

ALLISON: Have you always wanted to write?

STAN: My childhood consisted of lots and lots of reading. I set out at 12 to write a novel because I wasn’t happy with the selection in my school library.

ALLISON: Why did you start to write?

STAN: I loved reading and couldn’t find the book I wanted to read.

ALLISON: What appeals to each of your about spies?

STAN: There is something fascinating about people forced to play secret roles. There’s a lot of drama built into the notion of someone who is in danger should their real identity be discovered.

ALLISON: How easy or difficult was the collaboration process?

STAN: Very easy — Brianna came up with the characters and plot and later added dialog.

ALLISON: Talk about the road to publication.

STAN: The biggest problem was finding a cover that we both liked; Brianna is much more visually aware than I am. The book went through a number of publishers until we hit upon Booktrope.

ALLISON: Sell my readers on Jane Blond.

STAN: Jane is a normal 14-year old girl with a world of problems that most girls her age don’t have. It’s bad enough having a father in prison and a mother who insists on having her boyfriend living with her, but poor Jane finds herself under constant attack at school from a bully and queen bee. What I think makes the book fun is that Jane is forced to use a lot of skills and traits she doesn’t even realize she has in order to save the day. She’s one of the few people who is nice to or pays attention to a boy with Asperger’s. He provides a clue that helps her solve a mystery. She discovers she has courage and intelligence she never realized. So, in that way the story is very satisfying since most of us would like to believe that we are all superheroes just under the surface.

To read more about the process behind Jane Blond International Spy, check out the below links:

Precious Bones by Mika Ashley-Hollinger is my favorite Advanced Reader Copy this year. It’s partly a murder mystery, and it’s partly a tribute to a natural world which is being lost. But there’s also a depth to Hollinger’s novel that goes far beyond either of these two elements. That’s the biggest reason I’m recommending Precious Bones to anyone who appreciates quality literature for young people.

In the summer of 1949, all is going well for ten-year-old Bones. Idyllic days have been spent with her best friend fishing, hunting, and exploring the swamp that borders her family’s land. This peace gets interrupted when two real estate agents start poking around the family homestead. Her father, Nolay, drives them off with a loaded gun. His actions seem innocent enough until Bones finds Nolay’s knife nearby a buried human leg and then discovers his red handkerchief is gone too. Within the space of just a couple of weeks, two murders occur for which her father is arrested as the prime suspect. Then not only does the sheriff, but also Bones herself, start to wonder if everyone is really who they say they are.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, author Mika Ashley-Hollinger grew up on a small East Coast community in Florida surrounded by swamp and forest. In the former, one might live with pigs and raccoons and run into snakes and alligators. One will also be surrounded by beautiful greens and golds. Silver rains will fall in the daytime and stars will twinkle at night. Hollinger saw nature at its finest during her childhood, a heritage to which she pays glowing tribute to in Precious Bones. Within that world, thanks to there not yet being television and internet, there is room too for Bones to imagine explanations for the odd smells and noises she encounters in nature. And so more mysteries develop. As do more questions about who people really are or want to be.

The depth of Precious Bones can be found in the answers to those questions. For example, is Miss Eunice otherwise known as Soap Sally really a witch who kidnaps children? That’s what Nalay’s wild stories have led Bones to believe. And if Bones is right, what will happen when Bones is no longer able to avoid her? Or what’s the real meaning behind the sometimes cryptic words of Mr. Speed? Are they simply the ramblings of a man broken by war? This is what Bones initially thinks. But then she realizes his words may hold a clue to the two murders. Speaking of which, why is Sheriff LeRoy taking so long to solve the cases? Does he really believe in Nolay’s innocence or does he just visit to take advantage of the family’s hospitality? As he fills his belly, is he collecting evidence for or against Nolay? Not all is as Bones thinks. Or what the neighbors think. And in this realization, Bones starts not only to figure out who she can really trust but also to mature.

Hollinger wrote Precious Bones to give justice and honor to a time and place that no longer exist. Not only do I believe that she has succeeded in this goal, but she’s also written the type of novel one often doesn’t have the joy anymore to encounter. Precious Bones is partly a slow-brewing mystery, and it’s partly a sweet lullaby of a quieter world. And it’s also a complex kaleidoscope of eclectic characters, who together help Bones piece together the puzzle of life.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?


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