Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Medusa Plot by Gordon Korman (39 Clues Cahills vs. Vespers)

Dan and Amy have to rescue seven Cahills who have been kidnapped by the Vespers. The two travel to Italy where they have to steal a Caravaggio painting called, Medusa, from the Uffizi Museum. The clues lead them next to the Colosseum in Rome.

Book one is vague on plot. It isn't clear why the Vespers kidnapped that many people. I found this novel less funny, less believable, and more violent. Amy has a boyfriend and Dan is more serious. Dan also betrays his good friend which I thought was out of character. The two aren't stealing from family members but are now stealing from others.  Also, Dan considers lighting a match after drenching three men in gasoline. Another character is shot and the bullet has to be removed by other kids. This tale is definitely darker than other books. The novel has no ending - it's not clear what the Vespers want except to manipulate Dan and Amy. Fans should enjoy all of the action.

Reading Level 4.7

:-) :-) 2.5 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sparrow Girl by Sara Pennypacker; illustrated by Yoko Tanaka

Ming-Li likes birds and so does her brother who has a pet pigeon. When Chairman Mao orders war on the sparrows who are eating the wheat, Ming-Li is worried. She creeps to her brother's bed and asks him what if other birds get pigeon?

Mao tells the people to bang pots, pans, and set off firecrackers to scare the birds to death for three days. Not only is the campaign successful, other birds die as well, including the brother's pet pigeon. Saddened by what is happening Ming-Li and her brother search for birds who have not died. They find seven birds and put them in the pigeon's now-empty cage. Because it is so crowded, Ming-Li secretly moves the birds to the barn and feeds and cares for them. When the crops begin to fail because of too many locusts, the farmers realize that they should not have killed all the sparrows who ate those insects. Find out how Ming-Li becomes a hero for her village.

This book is based on a true story when in 1958 Mao ordered all the sparrows killed because they were eating the crops. A plague of locusts came and destroyed the crops for 3 years. Thirty to forty million Chinese dies from starvation because of the failed crops. There is much to talk about with this book such as the ecological disaster, the civil disobedience of Ming-Li, and wisdom. A great read aloud.

Reading Level 3.5

:-) :-) :-) :-) :-) 5 out of 5 Smileys


Monday, October 24, 2011

The Red Azalea by Anchee Min

We read this adult memoir for book club. The first part is when Anchee Min is a young girl and the Communists take over China. She describes the changes in their living conditions and how she is sent to a labor camp to work in the rice fields. Part 2 of the book is about the oppressive and hard-working atmosphere of life at the labor camp. Part three is when she is chosen to be trained as an actress. Ironically, it's not much better than the labor camp. Communist dogma frowned upon any type of individualism or expression of emotions. Min shows how she and others deal with this through opera, music, knitting, reading and more. The Red Azalea story that Min is supposed to be a movie star in is about Madam Mao who worked beside her husband to provide equal rights for women. This is far from the truth. The irony of the title becomes more and more apparent as the book moves to the climax.

I had to pick up this book twice. I really didn't like the beginning with the choppy writing and word choice. Dialogue is not in quotations and the plot doesn't flow particularly well. Things pick up in part two and the writing improves so that it isn't so jarring.  Min uses swear words throughout and she has a relationship with another woman at the labor camp. There is descriptions of  sex and a suicide.


:-) :-) 2.5 Smileys

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Gray Wolf Throne by Cinda Williams Chima (book 3)

Han Alister, once thief - now wizard, is looking for his missing friend Rebecca Morley.When he finds her in the mountains near death he practices some wizardry that nearly kills him but saves her. He discovers that she is not a tutor who worked for the Bayars but the princess heir to the Fells. Many people want her killed and he begins a plan to protect her and elevate him in status so he can court her as an equal.

The action and adventure is less interesting in this book than the first two in the series. There are a few interesting plot twists but not many. I thought the pacing slow and parts boring. It reads more like a romance novel with Han and the princess heir doing a lot of thinking about their lost love or lovers and how to move on... blah, blah, blah.  It sets up for the next book with not much of an ending. There is violence and smooching.

If you like this type of story about kingdoms, try reading, The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner.

Reading Level: YA

:-) :-) :-)  3 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

Percy's back! And he is wise-cracking his way through another quest with a new set of friends and a different camp; Camp Jupiter. Struck with amnesia, Percy finds himself immersed with a bunch of Roman kids who don't look kindly on the Greeks. However, Percy is tolerated because he saved Jupiter from some Gorgons. When Mars visits the camp to claim his son, Frank, he sends him on a quest to free the god of Death, Thanatos, who has been chained by the giant, Aclyoneus. Frank asks Hazel and Percy to help him. If the three don't free the god of Death, chaos will reign and Gaea, the goddess of Earth, will kill off all of humankind.

Riordan does a great job with pacing and character development. Chapters are short and Roman mythology is explained in easy-to-understand passages. I like how he uses mnemonics and humor to help with difficult words. For instance, Percy keeps referring to the Feast of Fortuna as the the feast for tuna. I also like how the Heroes of Olympus series uses third person narration versus first person narration. This allows for the reader to get into the minds of the other characters. Like the first book, The Lost Hero, The Son of Neptune is told from three points of view: Percy, Hazel, and Frank. Hazel is supposed to be dead but isn't and Frank is a klutz who lacks confidence. Frank changes the most in the story from the beginning to the end and all have internal (as well as external) conflicts that makes the story tense and exciting.

I like how the women in Riordan's books are strong female characters who stand on their own, as well as, the goofy gods. The god of Death looks beautiful (like Cupid) and consults his iPad to see if Frank's name is on a death list. Frank thinks to himself, Please don't let there be an app for reaping souls.  I was looking for a sidekick in this book like Coach Gleeson Hedge in The Lost Hero - I thought he was hysterical - but there isn't one. The part of the book at Camp Jupiter was predictable and very similar to plots in previous books. It was fun, but I was able to put the book down at that part. Once the quest started I couldn't stop reading. Terrific book with lots of action, humor, and adventures.

Reading Level 4.7

:-) :-) :-) :-) 4 out of 5 Smileys


The Sandman by Ralph Fletcher

This tiny little man stumbles upon a magical dragon scale that puts people into a deep and refreshing sleep. Wanting to help others, the Sandman, who is the size of a thimble, goes around town sprinkling magic sand on the eyes of children who can't sleep. When the dragon scale runs out he goes on a quest to the dragon's lair to fetch another one. See if he succeeds on his dangerous journey.

The illustrations and writing in this book are fantastic! I can read it over and over and not get sick of it. The tension mounts as the Sandman waits for the dragon to return. I like how Fletcher uses repetition such as, He waited..." , at the climax to make the moment more dramatic and scary. The students really enjoy this book. Make sure you read the dedication page. It's funny.

Reading Level 2.6

:-) :-) :-) :-) :-) 5 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Flying Solo by Ralph Fletcher

Imagine you are in 6th grade. Your teacher is gone and a sub is coming. The school bell rings and there is no sub. The class takes attendance and still no sub. What do you do? Karen, a natural leader in the class, goes down to the office and DOES NOTHING. Yahoo. Free day. Right? Well...not exactly. Told from the point of view of Fletcher (not the author-it's the main characters name), discover how a class handles the disappearance of their teacher and sub. Tension mounts as they try to hold class without adult supervision. From Rachel, the mute, to Bastian, the not-so-nice teaser, students get some homework done, goof around some, and fight some. Things reach a climax when they discuss the death of a student that happened in the fall learning that maybe they need to act differently toward each other.

This book has a good pace and some of the issues are resolved at the end of the novel. I like the image/metaphor of flying and how it was used throughout the story. The story reminded me of the Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea where students learn to be responsible for their actions and grieve the loss of someone. I like how Fletcher doesn't give easy answers and choices such as Bastian's choice to give his pet away as being more for his pet than because he has a generous heart. He's mean in his teasing of others and this made sense to me and made the character's choice authentic. I do think the students would have goofed around more than they did, but that's debatable. Another terrific book by Fletcher and a great read aloud.

Reading Level 5.8

:-) :-) :-) :-) 4 out of 5 Smileys


Fig Pudding by Ralph Fletcher

"Sasparilla succotash," says Uncle Billy snapping his fingers. Cliff listens as Billy makes up a story about what "yidda yadda" means. Baby Josh wants a "yidda yadda" and no one knows what it means. In Fig Pudding by Ralph Fletcher a clear picture is painted of 5th grader Cliff and his brothers and sisters. Baby Josh looks like a sickly baby with green snot running down his nose that he  constantly smears all over his face. Teddy is a terror who shouts instead of uses a regular voice. Nate pulls pranks, especially on the gullible Brad. Cyn is the only girl who spends more time with the family down the street than with her own family. And Grandma, is adored by all, and has skin like tissue paper but a grip that is still strong. When a terrible accident happens, everyone has to deal with their "bowl of sadness."

This is a great read aloud. In the beginning of the novel, each chapter stands on its own almost as a story itself. The stories are funny and poignant. The descriptions are terrific:

Teddy was wild in church, wild in school, and especially wild during the holidays. After Christmas, while Josh was still at Good Sam, Teddy started hiding people's presents and unscrewing lights on the tree. He took gobs of tinsel off and made little bird nests that he stuck back onto the tree. One day while Mom and Dad were shopping, Teddy stole baby Jesus from the manger and laughed when no one could find it. See what I'm saying? He stole Jesus and thought it was funny.

I also thought the beginning chapters were choppy. The first has Grandma as a significant character and then it shifts to a sibling and Grandma disappears. The change was abrupt. I think it would have helped if there had been something linking the chapters together in the beginning. Fletcher does tie the baking of stollen or bread to the end of the story but I think some overall theme was needed throughout. The book reminds me of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, but in that story the main character wants to be a scientist and it weaves a thread throughout all the chapters tying it together. Maybe if it had something like that? I'm no expert. What do you think?

There is a death in the story that makes it sad but it is balanced with humor and ways of dealing with grief. Terrific book.

Reading Level 4.9

:-) :-) :-) :-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Spider Boy by Ralph Fletcher

Spider Boy is the new kid in school. He hates it. He'd rather spend time with his pet tarantula than make friends. When his science teacher pairs him with another girl in class he is forced to communicate with others. While 7th grader Bobby likes being with her, he is bothered by the fact she likes Chick Hall, a boy who has been bullying him since day 1. When Bobby catches Chick cheating on a test things escalate in a dramatic climax.

Great pacing, plot, and characters. I loved how this book incorporated nonfiction elements with fiction elements. I kept thinking of students I should recommend it too and how I had never read a book quite like it. Fletcher uses facts about spiders in each chapter as a way of explaining what is happening to the character. At first they are just facts, but as the story proceeds more personal information is sprinkled in with the facts while relating to what is happening to Bobby. For instance, when Lucky kisses him the facts are about spiders mating and when Chick attacks him the facts are about spiders predators and Bobby says how he feels about it. The bully, Chick Hall, isn't one dimensional and Lucky tries to explain that she likes Chick because he isn't boring. She doesn't acknowledge or recognize his mean streak.

Great complexity of characters and situations.

Reading Level 4.4

:-) :-) :-) :-) :-) 5 out of 5 Smileys

Uncle Daddy by Ralph Fletcher

River's Dad, Nelson, split from the family when he was 3 years old. He went to get pizza and, poof, he was gone. No goodbyes. No explanation. Just gone. River's mom's uncle moves in with them and provides Rivers with the love of a surrogate father. Rivers is now 9 years old and finishing 4th grade. All is well until his father shows up unannounced at the front door at River's birthday party.  Everyone is angry and life gets turned upside down as they try to deal with the long lost father who wants to come home.

This book begins by painting a picture of a loving uncle and happy boy before the tension of dad coming home shatters their calm world. Rivers is a stable, kind boy who invites the entire class to his birthday party and is willing to spend time with an annoying boy in his class, Ethan. This book is a quick read and the father explains that he was away for so long because he became addicted to drugs. I really liked the plot and how the conflicts were handled, but I had issues with some of the minor characters. I wanted to get to know Taylor more and I thought Ethan was mentally handicapped in the beginning and that was why River was being so kind to him. Then I wondered if he was ADHD, but that wasn't the case either. In the end, I just got annoyed with Ethan. I enjoyed how Uncle Daddy would say, "I'm going to cloud up and rain all over you." Wonderful images and word choices. Fun read.

This would be a good read aloud with plenty of heavy topics to discuss.

Reading Level 4.2

:-) :-) :-) 3.5 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Melissa Parkington's Beautiful, Beautiful Hair by Pat Brisson

On the outside, Melissa Parkington has gorgeous hair. Everyone comments on it. Her dad even sings to her, Good night, my Melissa of the beautiful, beautiful hair.

At first she feels special, but she realizes her appearance isn't important. She really wants to be known for something special she does on the inside; something she is really good at doing. She makes a list and tries basketball. A neighbor, younger than her, comes over and she teaches him how to play the game. They play after school and he improves but she doesn't. She realizes that she'll never be special in basketball so she looks at the second item on her list which is to paint something good enough to be in a museum. While painting a tree in her backyard, a younger girl  comes over and asks her to paint pictures for her of all different kinds of animals. Melissa realizes that she won't be good at painting either. A Mom comes over and thanks Melissa for being so kind to her children teaching her boy to play basketball and painting pictures for her daughter.

Melissa has a brainstorm and decides she will be a kind person! She shows kindness to her classmates, her family, and when she is walking home with her mother she passes a beauty parlor that has a sign asking people to donate hair for wigs to be made for children with no hair. Melissa decides to get her hair cut off. Her father wisely sings to her the night after her brave act, Good night my Melissa of the beautiful, beautiful heart.

Reading Level 3.4

:-) :-) :-) :-) :-) 5 Smileys