House of Secrets by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini - Book Review

Publisher's Synopsis: "Brendan, Eleanor, and Cordelia Walker once had everything: two loving parents, a beautiful house in San Francisco, and all the portable electronic devices they could want. But everything changed when Dr. Walker lost his job in the wake of a mysterious incident. Now in dire straits, the family must relocate to an old Victorian house that used to be the home of occult novelist Denver Kristoff—a house that feels simultaneously creepy and too good to be true. 
By the time the Walkers realize that one of their neighbors has sinister plans for them, they're banished to a primeval forest way off the grid. Their parents? Gone. Their friends? A world away. And they aren't alone. Bloodthirsty medieval warriors patrol the woods around them, supernatural pirates roam the neighboring seas, and a power-hungry queen rules the land. To survive, the siblings will have to be braver than they ever thought possible—and fight against their darkest impulses. The key may lie in their own connection to the secret Kristoff legacy. But as they unravel that legacy, they'll discover it's not just their family that's in danger . . . it's the entire world."

My Thoughts: My last three reviews have been less than glowing.  Lately, I have been disappointed by so many promising ones so I really wanted to give House of Secrets a good review. After all, Chris Columbus wrote Goonies. Who doesn't LOVE Goonies?

And that's where it all starts to make me go, "Ah, Ha!" My issues with House of Secrets are mostly that it reads like a screenplay. How Ned Vizzini's other books read are a mystery to me. I have to honestly say that I haven't read them. But this one?  It's all action and no development. The fast pace may play well into the hands of fidgety middle schoolers, but it does so by creating a fragmented and underdeveloped plot.  Things just move too swiftly.

The thing I was most annoyed with was the lack of caring on the part of the three protagonist siblings. Mom & Dad might be dead, but they are off on the big adventure without an eye blink. I get it: standard children's lit. formula = get rid of the parents. However, they JUST might have died. Even though the siblings have to go into survival mode with the advancing doom, wouldn't they even pause at some point? Yeah, yeah, we all know the parents will emerge at the end, but this sort of nonexistent character development is exactly why this book is a screenplay disguising itself as a story.

Here is a Q & A with the authors on USA Today, along with a video trailer/interview.  After I watched it, I felt even more disappointed that House of Secrets didn't have the intended effect on me. What a cool idea the author's had... sort of like a Pagemaster theme (loved that movie too!)  I know J.K. Rowling must be friends with Columbus, offering him a nice blurb for his cover, but I can't even put House of Secrets in the same sentence as (insert The-Book-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named here).

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Recommended for kids who like adventure, fast-paced writing and books that read like a movie. Library purchase worthy (especially since the certain to be a movie and sequels will entice). Not a quality classroom purchase.

Genre: Fantasy/Adventure
Age: 8 and up
Pages: 496
Themes: Tenacity, Sibling Interactions,
Character Development:  Very little, perhaps more in sequels
Plot Engagement: Non-stop action
Originality: Idea strong
Believability: Execution as a movie might work better than children's "literature"
Thank You to Balzer & Bray a division of Harper Collins Childrens for my advanced eBook edition
Date: April 23, 2013
ISBN: 978-0062192462
BUY House of Secrets HERE

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 © 2007-2013 Cheryl Vanatti for

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

Publisher's Synopsis: "At the School for Good and Evil, failing your fairy tale is not an option.
Welcome to the School for Good and Evil, where best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
With her glass slippers and devotion to good deeds, Sophie knows she'll earn top marks at the School for Good and join the ranks of past students like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Meanwhile, Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks and wicked black cat, seems a natural fit for the villains in the School for Evil.
The two girls soon find their fortunes reversed—Sophie's dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School for Good, thrust among handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.
But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are . . . ?
The School for Good and Evil is an epic journey into a dazzling new world, where the only way out of a fairy tale is to live through one."

My Thoughts:
When you read the "about" page for author Soman Chainani, you will be impressed and it will make you think that writing anything critical about his work is futile. The School for Good and Evil already has a three movie deal (although the first book doesn't even hit the shelves until May 14, 2013).  Mr. Chainani has an MFA in Film from Columbia (my personal dream school), but that's not really enough....... He graduated Harvard with an English Lit. degree too! Wait, not enough?  His bio. page lists all sorts of awards and throws the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Lady Gaga out as peers (Read for yourself: HERE). So, saying what I initially planned to say is difficult. I write for fun, not a job.  I'm a reading specialist, a teacher, a lover of children's literature. I'm not a professional reviewer. What in the world do I have to add when the likes of Gregory Macguire (Wicked),  R.L. Stine (Goosebumps), and the queen of fairytales, Harvard professor Maria Tatar have all sung this book's praises?

The School for Good and Evil is a nice enough book. It has a great premise and the characters are quite likable.  I can think of many students and colleagues of which to recommend it. However, something was always "missing" in the story. It started strong, with a great background foundation, but once the protagonists are whisked into the fairytale world the story starts to tumble. The story idea itself is sound, but the execution seems more like a screenplay. It lacks a cohesiveness. Little details are missing. The final section is especially convoluted; I felt like I was reading in CG, waiting for the next big boom/crash/bang. I looked back several times to see if I had missed something, the plot moved so abruptly. Just when I thought we were headed to a tidy ending, this new scene is thrust upon us and the action starts all over. Again, more screenplay than literature.

So, though I lack the Columbia/Harvard advantage, I do make up for it in kidlit-superpowers. I will still recommended The School for Good and Evil for both middle grade library and classroom purchase, for fans of fairytales and for girls who like some action/adventure with their princesses. This is a book that will be both popular and engaging, but lacking in the literary merit to make it an education tool.

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Genre: Fantasy - Fairytales
Age: Middle Grade
Pages: 496
Themes: Friendship, Overcoming Adversity, Stereotyping, Strength of Character
Character Development: Fair to good, probably more developed in the sequels to come
Plot Engagement: Very engaging, action packed ending
Originality & Believability: Original in idea, Lacking in literary execution, weak development
Thank You: Harper Collins for my advanced egalley
Date: May 14, 2013
ISBN: 978-0062104892
BUY: The School for Good and Evil >>> HERE

Of course with all BIG releases there is a fancy webpage HERE and a fancy book trailer:

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© 2007-2013 Cheryl Vanatti for

Divergent by Veronica Roth. What am I missing?

As much as I try to read those "next big thing" novels, I sometimes miss reading the hot commodities before they grow cold. I also very rarely buy books, borrowing from the library or waiting for a good used sale. But Divergent by Veronica Roth has so much buzz that I felt inadequate by not having read it. So when it called to me from the Target bookshelf on Friday, I tossed it into my cart. Friday night it started off good; Saturday I began to ponder its uniqueness; Sunday I wondered if I would ever invest in any of the characters. On Monday, I threw in the towel and skipped from mid-book to last chapter so I could just get it over.

My problem? It's prescriptive and not unique. Prescriptive in the formula of adolescent breaks away from parents, faces adversity, meets romantic interest, becomes an adult. This I could give a pass, after all we can assign this formula to many kid lit classics. However, there isn't a unique page in this book. The protagonist, Beatrice, is underdeveloped. Her cohorts off-putting by their very nature. Big themes are never really developed and opportunities to expand either character or theme are brushed aside in favor of moving on to the next scene.