Garden of Lost Socks by Esi Edugyan

Garden of Lost Socks by Esi Edugyan
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Akosua was always told she was too nosy.

Her parents loved her very much, but she always seemed to find trouble.

“Trouble isn’t what I find!” said Akosua. “I’m an Exquirologist. What I find is lost things.”

This big-hearted picture book debut from one of Canada’s brightest literary stars follows Akosua, a budding Exquirologist, as she finds both a new friend and a remarkable world hidden right in her very own community. Acclaimed artist Amélie Dubois adds a layer of magic to Akosua’s charming adventure with her delicate, compelling illustrations.

Each turn of the page pulls readers deeper into Akosua’s journey, daring them to become Exquirologists too, and encouraging them to seek out magic in the mundane!

Any day can be an adventure if it’s approached the right way.

Losing a sock is disappointing, but it’s not something I’ve seen mentioned in a picture book before from what I can recall. Seeing how the author expanded this into such a multi-layered topic that touched so many different families made me want to read more from her. It takes talent to write something like that, and I thought Ms. Edugyan did an excellent job of exploring how people think about socks, why some socks are so special to certain folks, and what happens to articles of clothing that suddenly disappear.

I loved the friendship that Akosua developed with another character in this story. They were both curious and imaginative kids who loved to explore every inch of their neighborhood and come up with ideas for what to talk about in the letters he sent home to his nana basia. The fact that they were willing to do everything from crawl on the ground to visit the local laundromat to find out what was happening made me smile. What a good team these two were!

Kindness was woven into every scene of this tale. Akosua and her family had clearly moved into a welcoming area, and I enjoyed seeing how all of the adults quietly kept an eye on the children who roamed around the block in search of adventure. Their gentle care was reflected in how the younger members of this community also treated others compassionately. I can’t go into specific details about how this happened, but I can say that it was heartwarming and provided a beautiful ending to something I was already thrilled to read.

Garden of Lost Socks was a cozy and sweet look at city life. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Christmassy Cactus by Beth Ferry

The Christmassy Cactus by Beth Ferry
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Holiday, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Tiny Cactus loves Christmas!

But she doesn’t love that her little girl seems to be spending more time with the giant sparkly tree in the living room than with her. Maybe if she were decorated like the Christmas tree, her little girl would notice her again.

And so Tiny Cactus makes a wish—to be special, to be noticed, to be a part of the magic of Christmas. With the support of her friend and some Christmas magic, Tiny Cactus learns that wishes can come true if you believe hard enough.

It’s not really Christmas until everyone is included.

Jealousy comes in many forms, but it generally isn’t talked about in books about this holiday in my experience. I liked the fact that the author acknowledged how celebrations can accidentally leave some people – or cacti – out of the fun and what someone should do if they feel like they’re being left behind. This was a thoughtful exploration of how to deal with a difficult emotion and how to think the best of others even if their actions sting a little.

I was surprised by the fact that no one in this story thought to decorate Tiny Cactus, especially given how much she was loved by her little girl. When I was a child, I put small, light decorations on my family’s house plants at Christmas time. It would have been nice to know why these characters didn’t think of that solution as it was a pretty simple fix for the conflict.

One of the other things I liked about this tale was how realistic it is. Other than the fact that the cactus could talk, everything else was firmly rooted in what could really happen that would make the holiday season more memorable for everyone involved without requiring the intervention of anyone wearing a red suit and passing by in a magical sleigh. This is an uncommon choice for this genre, but it worked really well for the subject matter.

The Christmassy Cactus was heartwarming.

Pete the Cat and the Itsy Bitsy Spider by James Dean

Pete the Cat and the Itsy Bitsy Spider by James Dean
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Childrens (0-5 yrs), Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

Pete the Cat’s cool adaptation of the classic children’s song “Itsy Bitsy Spider” will have have young readers laughing and singing along.

The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the water spout. Down came the rain….

As the itsy bitsy spider struggles, Pete and his friends know just what to do to help out!

Fans of James Dean’s #1 New York Times bestselling Pete the Cat will love rocking out with Pete.

I loved this book!

It’s so cute. The itsy bitsy spider story is fun and now it’s been told with Pete the Cat. Children can sing along with the story and it’s repetitive, so it’s easy for younger readers. It’s also got a good message that you should never give up. Keep trying. I loved that. The art is so colorful and bright, too, sure to draw in younger readers.

If you’re looking for a fun book for a rainy afternoon, this one is sure to please.

Splat and the Cool School Trip by Rob Scotton

Splat and the Cool School Trip by Rob Scotton
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Childrens (Ages 0-8), Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

Join Splat the Cat on a school trip to the zoo in New York Times bestselling author-artist Rob Scotton’s hilarious new adventure, Splat and the Cool School Trip.

Splat the Cat is so excited when Mrs. Wimpydimple announces that the class will be going to the zoo. While everyone calls out his or her favorite animal—Elephant! Giraffe! Monkey!—Splat only wants to see the penguins. After all, penguins are perfect; they are black and white, just like Splat!

All day long, Splat just can’t wait. But when the smallest animal makes the biggest splash and shuts down the penguin exhibit, Splat goes home disappointed and alone . . . or does he?

Fans of Splat the Cat will delight in this story about zoo animals and enjoy Splat’s always-present enthusiasm.

A silly little cat and his obsession with penguins.

I loved this book because Splat is so cute. He’s determined to see the penguins on the school trip, but he’s got to handle the sadness because he can’t see them. I liked how this taught the lesson that you can’t always get what you want, but it’s done in a funny way so it doesn’t feel preachy. I loved the little twist in the story, too. So worth the read.

The writing is fun and the pictures even better.

If you’re looking for a story about not always getting what you want and how to deal, then this might be the book for you and your young reader.

Stick Cat: A Tail of Two Kitties by Tom Watson

Stick Cat: A Tail of Two Kitties by Tom Watson
Stick Cat, book 1
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Contemporary, Childrens (ages 6-12), Action/Adventure
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

There’s a new pet in town: Stick Cat!

Perfect for fans of the Big Nate, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Timmy Failure, and Stick Dog books, Stick Cat features Tom Watson’s trademark combination of laughs, adventure, and hilarious stick-figure drawings.

It’s a big day in the big city for Stick Cat and his best friend, Edith. There are treasures to hunt, songs to sing, pigeons to catch, and naps to take. But way up on the twenty-third floor, danger lurks just around the corner. Terrible noises and violent crashes trap a desperate man in the building across the alley. Stick Cat will need to navigate his way across the alley—and around Edith’s peculiar ways—to attempt a rescue.

Stick Cat’s high-wire act is sure to please cat lovers and Stick Dog fans everywhere—even reluctant readers.

A brave cat and a big adventure with a friend.

Readers who like pictures with their story, but need more of a chapter book format will love this book. It’s cute, has adventure and a lesson to be learned – without being too bold about that lesson. The story moves along well and kept my attention. I’m sure it will for my younger reader friends, too.

Stick Cat likes to have playdates with his friend Edith. They play with cat toys and sleep and are cats. That’s what they do. They also listen to music played by Mr. Music in the piano building across the way. When an accident causes Mr. Music to get hurt, it’s up to Stick Cat to help save him. The way the story enfolds is fascinating and had me on the edge of my seat to know more. I mean, how was Stick Cat, on the 23rd floor, going to help Mr. Music? There are thrills, chills and it’s all fantastic. Plus, there’s a lesson in how to be a friend, how to work with your friend and that sometimes stepping outside of your comfort zone isn’t bad.

If you’re interested in cats, adventure and friendship, then this is the book for you. Give it a try!

The Fate of Fausto by Oliver Jeffers

The Fate of Fausto by Oliver Jeffers
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

There was once a man who believed he owned everything and set out to survey what was his.

“You are mine,” Fausto said to the flower, the sheep, and the mountain, and they all bowed before him. But they were not enough for Fausto, so he conquered a boat and set out to sea . . .

Combining bold art and powerful prose, and working in traditional lithographic printmaking techniques for the first time, world-renowned talent Oliver Jeffers has created a poignant modern-day fable to touch the hearts of adults and children alike.

Greed tarnishes everything.

Fausto was honestly one of the most unlikeable characters I’ve ever met, but that was a good thing. Fables often need these types of flat protagonists in order to make their points obvious, and he served his purpose well. The fact that he was consistently portrayed in the same way over and over again no matter how many chances he had to change only made me wonder what the narrator was planning to do with him. Surely they had something special up their sleeves!

Figuring out the most appropriate age range for this tale was tricky. Most picture books are written for young children, yet the themes discussed in this one were far too complex and abstract for little ones. Middle grade readers would be the youngest audience I’d expect to connect with the storyline, and even there I noticed some things that would probably be more meaningful for teen or even adult readers. It would have been helpful if the author had been clearer about who they were and weren’t writing this for.

The ending was unusual but perfectly suited for the plot. I loved the fact that Mr. Jeffers took so many risks here. They paid off beautifully and have made me incredibly curious to read more from him. It’s always wonderful to find storytellers who know how to surprise their audiences and push the envelopes of the genre or genres they write in.

I’d recommend The Fate of Fausto to older readers who love fables.

The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson

The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Fern

A serial killer and his copycat are locked in a violent game of cat and mouse. Can DI Anjelica Henley stop them before it’s too late?

On the day she returns to active duty with the Serial Crimes Unit, Detective Inspector Anjelica Henley is called to a crime scene. Dismembered body parts from two victims have been found by the river.

The modus operandi bears a striking resemblance to Peter Olivier, the notorious Jigsaw Killer, who has spent the past two years behind bars. When he learns that someone is co-opting his grisly signature—the arrangement of victims’ limbs in puzzle-piece shapes—he decides to take matters into his own hands.

As the body count rises, DI Anjelica Henley is faced with an unspeakable new threat. Can she apprehend the copycat killer before Olivier finds a way to get to him first? Or will she herself become the next victim?

Drawing on her experience as a criminal attorney, debut novelist Nadine Matheson delivers the page-turning crime novel of the year. Taut, vivid and addictively sinister, The Jigsaw Man will leave you breathless until the very last page.

DI Anjelica Henley has had a rough few years, with her marriage on shaky ground, a toddler daughter and recovering from serious wounds – both mental and physical – which she sustained capturing the infamous Jigsaw Killer. While outwardly normal and calm, Henley is barely keeping everything together. So when a copycat killer is leaving dismembered body pieces in highly public places all over London, Henley and her colleagues are drawn back into a psychological game they thought was long over.

I’m often a bit hit or miss with “psycho killer is helping the police – or is he?” style of stories. It’s such a delicate balance to my mind between having your bad guy actually be a bad guy (and not an anti-hero, which is a different thing for me) but also making sure your villain doesn’t appear to be a cartoon character or overdrawn. It’s incredibly hard and that thin line is different for so many readers, and thus a lot of various books out there fall short of the mark for me. I was delighted that – from my perspective at least – this book delivered on many levels and I am already eagerly anticipating hopefully a next book.

I think a large part of this books success for me was much of the story focused closely in on Henley. I loved how her character was flawed – deeply, in a few respects – but Anjelica was trying so hard to keep everything together just as so many women nowadays are. Keeping numerous balls up in the air – husband, child, career, mental health, her own personal happiness – all the while struggling with some serious emotional baggage and well-deserved fears I found her character to be both incredibly relatable but also someone I could hold a deep empathy for. I was particularly pleased that many of her actions weren’t necessarily the “right” choices. I found it deeply relatable but also quite difficult to read about her denial about her mental health and how she managed to juggle these various aspects of her life. While Anjelica thought she did both of these things successfully I wasn’t so sold and this made gripping reading for me. Thankfully, while I didn’t agree with all of her choices, at no time did I feel she was being outrageous or blindly stupid. The author did an amazing job to my mind in showing the reader why Anjelica was making her various choices and how they might not be the “right” thing they were the best decision for her in the moment.

I also was delightfully frustrated but in awe of how well the author doled out the backstory – and particularly the information related to Peter Olivier – the serial killer Anjelica and her coworkers incarcerated a few years previously. Indeed I think much of my enjoyment of this story was learning about Olivier – and what, exactly, was going on – in a slow, drip-feed style of manner. There was no massive info-dump early on, explaining the scene or letting the reader in on the machinations of what was occurring. And while a few times I was frustrated that I had no idea of some of the aspects of the past related to the case, it’s closure and exactly how everyone came to be in the situation they were, the author was exceptional in slowing fleshing out that history as it became relevant to the current circumstances. For a debut book I feel this was handled masterfully and while I’m not sure it will be every readers cup of tea (it really was annoying at times to know I was missing pieces of the puzzle – heh – and having to wait for the author to give it to me rather than having everything up front) it also kept the tension, pace and eagerness for me to continue reading really high. This could easily be a story readers devour in a sitting or two mainly because the urge to discover what’s going on, to solve the puzzle and get those answers was huge. This was a page turner in many respects.

Finally, I really enjoyed how the plot itself was fairly simple the story as a whole was so much greater than that. The way the characters – Henley’s colleagues at the Serious Crime Unit in particular – all interacted and how all the moving parts of the story wove together. This book was refreshing and different but familiar enough I didn’t feel out of my depth. In particular Olivier’s character – even though he’s nowhere near as prominent in the story as Anjelica and her team mates – were all handled exceptionally well and I am really hoping there’s not a big lag before the next book comes out. This story doesn’t end on a cliff hanger as such – the plot is rounded out nicely, but Henley does make a large and serious personal decision in the last few pages of the story. It’s obviously the set up for the next book, and I am deeply intrigued how the author will handle it.

Readers who like a gritty, complex and character-driven mystery story should find this as wonderful as I did. I am eager for more stories from this author.

Just as I Am: A Memoir by Cicely Tyson

Just as I Am: A Memoir by Cicely Tyson
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Historical, Memoir, Non-Fiction
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

“Just as I Am is my truth. It is me, plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside. In these pages, I am indeed Cicely, the actress who has been blessed to grace the stage and screen for six decades. Yet I am also the church girl who once rarely spoke a word. I am the teenager who sought solace in the verses of the old hymn for which this book is named. I am a daughter and a mother, a sister and a friend. I am an observer of human nature and the dreamer of audacious dreams. I am a woman who has hurt as immeasurably as I have loved, a child of God divinely guided by his hand. And here in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say.” –Cicely Tyson

Unvarnished and honest.

I never read much about Cicely Tyson. I knew she was an actress and beautiful, but it’s not until I got into this book that I realized how cool she is. I don’t mean cool as in hard to talk to, but cool as in: she’s awesome. She’s not pretentious and tells things how they are without being mean. This book was like reading something a friend would tell me. It’s just her life how she saw it and how she felt while it happened. Some might call it simple, but I consider it engrossing.

Cicely Tyson is definitely someone who deserves more air time. It’s brilliantly written and shows how much she cares for her friends and even past lovers. I felt smarter by reading the book. I also realized the empathy she has while writing this. Her life wasn’t easy. She had troubles and some of her hardest times are what she writes about so eloquently.

If you’re looking for a Hollywood autobiography, then this might be the one to choose. I’m glad I did.

Fancy Nancy: Apples Galore! By by Jane O’Connor

Fancy Nancy: Apples Galore! By by Jane O’Connor (Author), Robin Preiss Glasser (Illustrator), Chloe Hennessee (Narrator)
(I Can Read Level 1)
Publisher: HarperCollins; HarperAudio
Genre: Contemporary, Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

Fans of Fancy Nancy will delight in this festive fall adventure story from the beloved New York Times bestselling author-illustrator team Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser.

Join Fancy Nancy on the perfect fall field trip—to the apple orchard. Fall is an extra-fancy season. Even the trees wear fancy colors! Nancy is determined to find a perfect Gala apple for her dad—it’s his favorite kind, and even the name sounds fancy. But what if the perfect apple is just out of reach?

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I decided to try this little book in the audio version and I’m glad I did. The only thing I missed was seeing the illustrations, but I could tell by the cover that they’re colorful, busy and active. Listening to the story was delightful and charming.

The audio publisher introduces and concludes the story with a chipper musical melody. Young Ms. Henessee’s narration was clear, adorable and easy to listen to. I thought it was really cool when I heard the tree branch sound effects. I didn’t expect that and it added to the level of interest and engagement.

Lionel’s antics reminds me of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, so it’s a wonderful way to teach kids about the consequences of practical jokes that aren’t funny at all. If a parent chooses to use the audio version of this short story, listen for the other sound effects. It took me listening three times in the process of writing this review to hear that the tree branch sounds aren’t the only ones that enhance this story.

I also liked how the story teaches new words by incorporating them naturally during the storytelling and adding “That is a fancy way of saying…” and they’re recapped at the end of the book under Fancy Nancy’s Fancy Words. My favorite is Orchard, a garden of trees. That’s the cutest description I’ve ever heard and I really liked it!

It wraps up with Lionel doing something goofy and the little heroine finding the perfect apple for her dad.

I wish they had audiobooks like this when my kids were little. I could do voices but I know I wouldn’t have been able to do the kind of cool sound effects I heard in Fancy Nancy: Apples Galore! It’s like a mini play and gives a child a well-rounded word experience. So, my recommendation is that parents do both – read the story and have their kids listen too. Since Ms. Hennessee’s voice is young, bright and energetic, I think kids will be able to relate and engage with the heroine’s apple adventure.

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
Publisher: HarperAudio
Genre: Non-fiction, Historical
Rating: 4.5 stars
Reviewed by Lavender

Rehana Haque, a young widow, blissfully prepares for the party she will host for her son and daughter. But this is 1971 in East Pakistan, and change is in the air.
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Set against the backdrop of the Bangladesh War of Independence, A Golden Age is a story of passion and revolution; of hope, faith, and unexpected heroism in the midst of chaos—and of one woman’s heartbreaking struggle to keep her family safe.

This is an action-packed story of one family’s experience during the Bangladesh War of Independence from Pakistan. As events unfold, we get a personal understanding of the war’s effects on everyday people.

Rehana Haque is a widow with two children who just wants to live a good life with her children. When they become young adults, trouble starts because Rehana’s children get involved with the war. Of course this creates much trouble and worrying for Rehana. She gets surprises such as when a former Pakistani army officer turned freedom fighter becomes injured and is brought to Rehana for nursing. She is concerned. This is so dangerous.

Themes such as how women get along during wartime, a love of one’s country, and motherhood underlie every page. It is a serious story but is entertaining and engaging. This is the first of a trilogy but can be read by itself. I recommend this book for anyone who likes history or learning about other cultures.