Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen series


The Puzzling World of Winston Breen; The Potato Chip Puzzles; The Puzzler’s Mansion
by Eric Berlin
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I read the first book in this series a while ago and then was fishing around for something new to read and discovered it had two sequels! I love puzzles, and I love that these books are not only filled with puzzles but have an actual cohesive story to tie them together, which is also a puzzle/mystery. I like Winston, and his friends Mal and Jake, and that he can make new friends. His interactions with his younger sister, Katie, seems realistic (except she’s almost always the villain in their fights, while he’s more or less blameless). I like that he makes friends with the puzzle-shop owner in town, who plays an important role not only in the plot of the third book (it’s his friend who owns the mansion) but also provides the ever-necessary third-party adult perspective that would be so great for all kids to have.

Bunnicula, Howliday Inn and The Celery Stalks at Midnight

by James and Deborah Howe
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I guess technically this could be a triple review since I did “read” the three books all together! My carpool buddy and I listened to this set in the car as an experiment. When it was over, I asked if she would be interested in another audiobook and she said, “As long as it’s as cute as this one!” The stories are written by Harold, the family dog, who is kind-hearted and funny and just the slightest bit slow on the uptake, allowing the reader the chance to figure things out on their own.

In the first story, Harold narrates the tales of how his family, quite content with him and Chester the cat as pets, come to acquire a rabbit. Chester becomes obsessed with proving that Bunnicula is a vampire who escapes from his cage mysteriously during the night to suck all the juice and color out of the vegetables in the house. In the second story, Harold and Chester are sent off to the Howliday Inn while the family goes away for a vacation. Over the week, mysterious things start happening and Harold and Chester have to figure out who is doing them before they become victims. In the third book, Bunnicula is back and terrorizing the neighborhood and it’s up to the pals to save them!

Through it all, Chester remains steadfastly convinced that Bunnicula is evil, while Harold rather likes the rabbit’s silent company. Yes, Chester reads a lot and is smart, but he’s also very condescending to Harold. Harold puts up with most of it gamely and it doesn’t seem to bother him, yet he also doesn’t treat Bunnicula badly. Chester’s ideas are also sometimes unfounded and he can be stubborn, where Harold is able to see both sides of the story. He seems like the type of friend who will do what his heart tells him, not his bully, and that is a great role model for kids, especially if it’s not shoved down their throats.

One additional note about the audiobook version – it has a brief essay by the author about how he and his wife came to write this book together, and how she passed away of cancer after so he wrote the other two alone. Tugs on the ol’ heartstrings a bit – very sweet.

Double Review: “I Survived” Series

I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001
by Lauren Tarshis
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I have been wanting to read this for a while, to see how true-to-life it was, and to compare it to another book in the series outside the author’s own memory. I was interested to see that there was a secondary storyline and how exactly the main character experienced each of the points on the timeline that day. Lucas lives outside of New York City and goes into Manhattan that day to see his father and “uncles” at their firehouse. He is near the towers when the first plane hits, then runs to the firehouse where he watches the second one hit on TV. Then he goes to meet his dad down at the scene and experienced the first tower falling, getting dragged into a drugstore by his father and describes the dust everywhere. For the falling of the second tower, they were back at the firehouse and most of the rest of the day is told as an epilogue. After the first tower falls, Lucas and his dad take cover. When they emerge, they have this exchange:

“‘Where is it?’ Lucas asked.
There was nothing but dust.
‘It’s all around us,’ Dad said.”

After the story, there is an equally moving “Why I Wrote About September 11,” a timeline of events, and Questions and Answers. I think this story in particular is appealing to American kids today because they were born after this day but it shapes many aspects of their world and is an event that touched the lives of nearly every adult they know. Many kids may even not have adults in their lives who are willing or able to talk about it, but they still need to know at some point what happened.

I Survived the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, 1941
by Lauren Tarshis
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

This one is almost as frightening and detailed as the September 11 one and in many ways the events are very similar (attack on America by plane). I read the September 11 one first and Tarshis does a horrifyingly great job of making you feel like you were really there. From comparing the two, Tarshis seems to have been able to remove herself sufficiently from the one she actually witnessed so that the stories present themselves as equally objective. Kudos to her – I would find that very difficult! I think I liked this one better, personally, just because I wasn’t reliving that day and all those upsetting feelings; the story really was new to me and gave me something to grasp onto within this huge war whose European front was so thoroughly covered for me in school. One little rhetorical device I like is that the series is called I Survived, so you already know off the bat that the main character makes it through the day. I really enjoyed Danny’s story and he even grew as a character in just 100 pages, so I was glad that I didn’t have to worry about whether he lives or dies when his town is bombed. I also think that there is a fascination with war and adrenaline-rushing experiences, especially among boys, so those aspects will be enjoyed by young readers. It’s also a great introduction to history.

Maze Runner series


by James Dashner
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials, and The Death Cure together tell the dystopian story of Thomas and his new friends. Thomas wakes up one day in an elevator that is depositing him in The Glade with dozens of other teenage boys who are trying to solve the maze that surrounds them. These boys have no memory other than their time in the Glade. Solving the maze, however, leads to more problems as the survivors are taken from this setting back to the real world, in which a deadly airborne disease called the Flare is spreading quickly. Thomas and co. have been told over and over by the government that their participation in trials is all that will save the world, but they need to decide for themselves how much is too much to give.

As with so many trilogies, the second book was the weakest. In addition, it was also the most terrifying to me. I very nearly abandoned this series entirely with descriptions of Cranks (those infected with the Flare, who have gone insane) and the boys’ time in the Scorch (roughly Mexico, with violent windstorms and apprehension for what they face when they reach their destination). But I persevered because I liked Thomas as a character, and was satisfied with the ending. I’m planning to read the prequel, The Kill Zone, at some point too and will post another review about that!