Monday, December 31, 2012

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Every summer our family would pack the car and head West to a National Park for holiday. My husband and daughter have built-in GPS brains that can't get lost if they try, while my brain is a mass of tangled wires that has more in common with Peter Pan's Lost Boys. The running joke between my husband and daughter is to ask me which way to go and then crank the wheel in the opposite direction once I reply before laughing wickedly. I am consistently and amazingly wrong every single time I try to guess which way to go. I have told my husband I would never be able to do this overseas gig because I'd be lost in the wrong country with the wrong ID. Kind of like Verity in this story. Except she got caught by the Gestapo because of her lack of direction.

Let me be clear that this book isn't appropriate for elementary kids. Stories about the Holocaust are always upsetting and horrible for me. This story is no different. It begins with Verity being tortured although she makes light of it and not until we get to Maddie's point of view do we see how cruelty of Verity's torture. And others. Heads are cut off, people shot, burned, tortured... the brutalities of war yank emotions up and down like a yo-yo. Ugh. I had many a headaches trying to not cry. I wished I had known that going into the reading. Part of the problem is there are some great plot twists and trying to discuss the book threatens to give away the surprises.

No doubt, this is a well-written story with terrific characters and a complex plot. Verity is a special operation agent and has been captured by the Gestapo for looking left (very British) when crossing the street in France. She happens to be Scottish but good with languages and difficult to place ethnically. She grew up wealthy and well-educated and in-between bouts of being tortured she is forced to write a confession. As long as she writes she knows she can remain alive.

Verity refers to herself as Queenie and the confession introduces her best friend, Maddie, a commoner who would have never been friends with her except that the war breaks down classes, an interesting theme explored throughout the novel. The Commander Von Linden, whom she compares to Captain Hook, is educated and admires her writing craft saying it is "making use of suspense and foreshadowing." None of the villains are one-dimensional and the complexity of characters are a great strength in the novel. The point of view adds interest as well because it changes from first to third person and allows for the reader to see Verity from others making her a well-rounded character.

References to Peter Pan and other famous classic literature are riddled throughout the pages. They add a unique depth to the plot. I've mentioned Peter Pan but there is also, Edward Lear, Shakespeare, Mademoiselle Defarge from a Tale of Two Cities, Rudyard Kipling, Scheherazade from Arabian Nights, Little Princess, Alice in Wonderland, George Orwell, and all the ones I missed. The historical references about too to Scottish history and the use of the WWII British propaganda campaign that used the slogan "Careless talk costs lives" is ironic. The references are well-done and don't stand out or interrupt the story's flow. They add a depth and irony to many of the scenes alluding to the classic and oftentimes making the theme stand out even more, such as Verity/Queenie being the Peter Pan of the story who is trapped and isolated in Neverland being tortured by Captain Hook. Or when Von Lindon calls her, Scheherazade, the woman in the Arabian nights who must tells stories every night to prevent the king from murdering her. The stories changed the heart of Scheherazade's husband; will they change the heart of the nasty Von Linden?

I did glaze over when Maddie went into great detail on her beloved airplanes. This adds to the rich historical setting but it was too much for me at times and I confess I skimmed those parts. If you love planes then you won't mind a page and a half of descriptions of different fighters or the mechanical guts of them. I wish I was more detail-minded but my tangled wires go limp when it comes to machines. 

Themes abound of friendship, courage, mercy killing, women's rights, harassment, torture in war, survival, and heroism. I was never quite sure of Verity's age but my guess was she is in her 20's. Again. Details. Harumph...

Young Adult
4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

Looney Tunes meets the League of Princes Charming (and that isn't a typo). This book reminded me of the cartoons I grew up with the slapstick characters, distinct voices, and nonstop gags. This fractured fairy tale begins with a bang painting the character of Prince Frederic as pompous and fearful along with his girlfriend, Ella (Cinderella), who is spirited and wants adventure. The two argue about how to spend their afternoon. Frederic wants tea and Ella wants adventure; in particular, she wants to find Pennyfeather, the bard of their kingdom who has gone missing. When Ella realizes Frederic won't go with her, she decides to find the inspiring Rapunzel as a potential adventure partner because Rapunzel freed herself from the witch and saved her prince. Ella toodle-oo's and leaves Frederic a note that explains her plans. Frederic takes off after her and meets the other prince charmings all with hangups and quirks that are quite funny.

"Huh?" Gustav grunted, as he and Liam clipped along through the woods, all but dragging Frederic behind them. Duncan, free of the chains, was plodding by himself several years back. 
"Whawadoo, whuwedow?" the out-breath Frederic tried again. He sounded like an asthmatic cat trapped inside an accordion.

The four Prince Charmings from Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty have joined forces to rescue Cinderella who's been captured by a witch. Gustav, of Rapunzel, is a Viking-type brute who cares little for others feelings but is loyal and never backs down in a fight. Duncan, of Snow White's story, is an odd duck who believes he has magical powers and it makes him brave or foolish depending on how you look at it. Oh, and he chatters like a chipmunk.

"Gustav, hold up..." Liam said ...I think our companions could use a break." 
"I'm good," Duncan said cheerily as he jogged to catch up to the others. "The mud is a little hard on my felt boots but it makes a pleasant squishy noise when I step. It reminds me of the bog walks that Snow and I take sometimes. A bog might not sound like the kind of place you want to spend a lot of time in - and the smell would back up the assumption-but when it comes to examining mosses-"
"Pipe down, Nature boy," Gustav interrupted. "The Wheezing Wonder here is trying to say something.: 
Frederic had collapsed facedown in a pile of fallen leaves. He lifted his head and spit out a pinecone, "What do we do now?" he sighed.
"First order of business, we get ride of these chains," Liam said.

Liam (from Sleeping Beauty) is the planner and actually has had heroic exploits. His ego and pride get in the way at times and he thinks if he works alone he would be better off. The four learn that working together not only makes them stronger but they become friends that learn to appreciate the oddities in each other.

This meta-fiction has terrific writing with jokes galore and jabs at language that will make you laugh. The dwarfs insist on spelling "dwarves" because if "wolf" becomes "wolves" and "half" becomes "halves" then they should be "dwarves" not "dwarfs". They warred when the elves bragged that they got to pluralize with a "v". The nonstop humor is for kids and adults alike. There are also a ton of references to classics and comedies such as Frederic's horse is named, Gwendolyn, the same name as Cinderella's fairy godmother, and there's a squirrel named, Captain Spaulding, after Groucho Marx. There are probably a bunch more - I can only recall those two off the top of my head.

We don't know what happens with Snow and Liam and some of the Prince Charmings seem to be interested in other princesses suggesting a sequel. I thought the gags overtook the plot. You know nothing bad is going to happen to the characters and it takes the tension out of the story. I got a little tired of the anachronistic jokes in the middle and thought the book could have been tightened to improve the pacing and provide more plot details. You decide. I guarantee you'll laugh.

Reading Level 6.1
4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, December 20, 2012

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

I couldn't put this novel down with the likable characters and nice pacing. I can't say I loved the ending and I found lots unbelievable but the kind parents, funny young boys, quirky best friend, and nice protagonist make for an enjoyable read.

Carley's world has been turned upside down when her step-dad beats her and her mom so badly they ended up in the hospital. Carly's mom's injuries are so severe that Carley is placed into the foster care of the Murphy's, an outwardly perfect family that is so kind and loving she isn't sure she wants to go back to her mom.

The strength of this story is the character development and emotional pull of Carley becoming attached to the family. Carley is angry at first and lashes out at the Murphy's but learns to love them and be responsible for helping care for the boys. In the beginning Carley has some rough edges and fights with wanting to trust her new family. By the end, Julie Murphy is giving her responsibilities that made me think Carley was more like eighteen years old versus 8th grade. Carley also reacts like an older character. But no matter.

I wanted more of the plot fleshed out. The best friend relationship seemed to happen too fast as well as the reconciliation with her real mother. I did enjoy the best friend and Carley's discussions about the character in the Broadway musical and novel, "Wicked," as they try to make sense out of themselves and the world around them. Carley's voice sometimes sounds too old and her mom didn't sound low income enough when they are apologizing to each other, but it isn't very noticeable. I loved Michael Eric! The author nails this adorable little guy. He's like a puppy. Daniel was believable with his anger toward having to share his family with a foster child. I didn't buy Carley teaching Daniel basketball because even a mediocre male player the same age as a female player is going to have a physical advantage. Unless Carley is an extremely tall, athletic girl, which she isn't.

I was puzzled by the ending that made it seem that the family couldn't contact Carley and that only she could contact them. I wanted to know if this is a law or was just a part of the story. I needed more information. This story misses the grittiness of low income families and doesn't catch the despair or anger like one might find in a Gary Schmidt novel, and because of this, it is a nice book for young readers. The beating is not gone into detail and the horror of it is mostly what the reader imagines in his or her own mind. A wonderful debut novel.

Reading level 3.5
3 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket

You getting this all right, son, or am I goin' too fast for ya? Oops. Wrong character. That's hard-boiled detective Sam Spade. Thirteen-year-old Lemony Snicket would say, This was nonsense, of course. but there's nothing wrong with occasionally staring out the window and thinking nonsense, as long as the nonsense is yours, which pretty much sums up this twisty tale. There's the nonsense of the mystery. There's the nonsense of the word definitions. There's the nonsense of the town with its missing ocean. There's the nonsensical adults. And while Sam Spade isn't in the novel, there is one character by the name of Dashiell, a femme fatale, and roadster, in this hilarious parody of noir detective fiction.

Prepare to parachute into this plot with a duffel bag full of questions and little answers. It's hard to tell what's going on at the start of the novel. Lemony is supposed to take the train to meet someone in the city. He's at a cafe with his parents, when a woman drops a note in his lap to meet him; he jumps out a bathroom window where he's left a ladder for himself (which makes no sense). The couple in the cafe are not Lemony's parents; laudanum was put in his tea because the so-called parents were going to do something to him but I have no idea what it is. Are you confused yet? As the story progresses I don't feel quite as lost or I'm adjusting to the odd plot progression, but I have to say the writing is so funny I wasn't really bothered by all the nonsensical who, what, when, where, and whys.

Lemony is an apprentice to a secret organization (I never found out what that was) and his boss S. Theodora Markson makes it clear that she is in charge and he is to do everything he asks. Lemony asks what the "S" stands for but she answers that he's asking the wrong question. (Stupid, is my guess.) The two have a job to do which is collect a missing statue in the town, Stain'd-by-the-Sea, which was once on the sea but no longer is - I have no recollection of why, so it must not be important to the plot (or I'm an idget). The plot changes so many times it reminds me of when I have to unknot my jewelry after traveling 22 hours from Taipei to Minneapolis. You'd think I'd learn to not throw it all in one plastic bag... Anyway, you won't know what is going to happen next and the unpredictability made it a page turner.

So many children's books have characters that give word definitions in an effort to aid young readers; however, it is done so much I somewhat dread coming across it. This author parodies this writing technique with nonstop over-the-top word definitions that pokes fun by having the characters do it so much I found myself laughing versus being annoyed. Take the interchange between Ms. Feint, the femme fatale, and Mr. Snicket:
   We can rescue him without kowtowing to a villain like Hangfire.
   What does 'kowtowing' mean?
   To behave in an obsequious manner. 
   I could play this game all night, Mr. Snicket. What does 'obsequious' mean?
See what I mean? Nonstop nonsense.

Then there's the walk down literature lane. Two boys named, Pip and Squeak, drive a taxi (Squeak pushes the pedals and Pip handles the steering), and Lemony pays them in tips by recommending books. How can you not love that! There are constant references to books, films, and other media. No one can possible know them all. I had fun guessing some, such as the character in Johnny Tremain, author Roald Dahl, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I was disappointed in the ending that resolves nothing. If anything, I had more questions than throughout the entire book. I can just picture the author going, Har-Har-Har, gotcha! Okay, so maybe an English guy wouldn't sound like that... instead he'd yell, Stop asking the wrong questions! Ask a few more! A fun read.

Reading Level 5.6
4 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, December 15, 2012

About Average by Andrew Clements

No superstar in 6th grader Jordan. No super-duper grades. No super-duper looks. No super-duper athleticism. Just your super average run-of-the-mill kid. When you read as many fantasy books as I do it is refreshing to get a normal protagonist once in a while which is what I liked best about this book. While Clements descriptions bring alive the story and characters, the forced plot kept it from standing out in a crowd.

Jordan is finishing up the school year and is in the orchestra, but  struggles at being a good instrument player. She bemoans the fact that she is average at so many things and dreams of being a superstar. What she doesn't realize is that she is good at organizing and one of her responsibilities is to set up and take down the music stands and chairs before and after orchestra practice. She's trying to deal with a bully in school and she just isn't sure what to do. When she decides to try and be nice to the bully, it seems to help her attitude and surprise the bully. When a disaster strikes the school, it is Jordan's superior planning skills that come to the rescue.

Clements mentions the build up of heat throughout the novel, that reflects the changing weather conditions and mirrors Jordan's boiling anger toward the girl who is bullying her and the impending disaster. I like his word choices when he writes, but it confused me in the chapter titled, "Furious," because Jordan's emotions were so extreme. The previous chapters paint this picture of a sweet girl and then "Bam!" this chapter starts out "Jordan Johnston was radiating massive waves of negative energy, a huge force field of harsh, burning rage." She is such a mess of anger to the teacher and others, that I thought it was a different character. I think Clements was having too much fun creating beautiful sentences and didn't realize the character was... well, out-of-character. I reread the previous chapter to see if I'd missed something about Jordan having a personality disorder. I hadn't. The next chapter explains her over-the-top anger. If the chapters had been switched and if Jordan had tried to hide her anger I would have been able to buy her extreme behavior. I see that Clements was trying to put suspense into the chapter and wanted the reader to wonder why Jordan is angry but it came off more confusing than suspenseful.

It is obvious, Clements knows his craft as pieces of the plot are pulled together such as Jordan at the start on the stage pretending to be in front of an audience imagining them clapping, to her actually being in front of a clapping audience at the end. But in other parts the story didn't flow smoothly and it felt forced such Jordan being on a winning soccer team but not getting a trophy. Instead she gets a whistle. That wouldn't happen. I've been coaching soccer for 20 years and I played as a kid and every participant whether they are a manager or player gets a trophy or ribbon. The whistle is critical to the disaster, but the author should have had it given to Jordan in addition to the trophy. Perhaps Clements wanted the unappreciative coach to look like a bully; but it was too unbelievable for me. Jordan being a type of assistant coach in soccer organizing the whole team practices was unbelievable as well. First, she's not going to know drills as a sixth grader that she can teach others. I see that Clements is showing her to be exceptionally strong in organizational skills, but it doesn't reflect the age. I could maybe buy a high-schooler doing that who had been mentored by a parent in youth coaching, but not an 11-year-old. I also was wondering Jordan's long (slightly boring) interior monologue regarding babysitting. Clements is showing that she is responsible and a planner and it ties in with the tornado but it seemed forced.

Good discussions can happen around the theme of bullying and if someone is suffering from it and this story has a good message on how to handle a person who is verbally abusive. Jordan decides that saying nice things to this girl bully in her class is the way she is going to react to her ugly comments. But the strength of the message is that by being nice, Jordan's attitude changes and allows her to not take the nasty girl's comments seriously or lose her temper. When a bully can't get a reaction, then he or she usually finds a new victim. While the plot has flaws, this story will entertain most and at 120 pages it is a good addition to an elementary library.

Reading Level 6.5

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great by Gerald Morris

"Camelot! Camelot! I know it sounds a bit bizarre!" I forgot the rest of the lyrics to this 1967 movie but I can hum the whole shebang for you if ya want just the tune.  I'm sure if I Googled it, the rest would come flooding back with Richard Burton blasting the lyrics in his distinct baritone. I thought of that movie when I read this book, although Monty Python and the Holy Grail is probably closer to the book's premise. Or maybe not. Monty Python's adultish humor is not very kidish (wink, wink). What Monty Python and the book share in common is a very funny spoof on Arthurian Legends.

Lancelot leaves France on a quest to become a knight in King Arthur's court. Right away we discover that Lancelot is a hero of a different kind. Sure, he is handsome. Sure, he has superior athletic abilities. Sure, he can get out of any scrape. But when we first meet him he is anything but typical. He is vain and ditzy. The author has a fun play on words when Lancelot takes the phrase, "a knight in shining armor," literally and believes that the only way King Arthur will accept him as a knight is if his armor is shiny. A funny scene ensues where Lancelot defeats knights attacking him lefthanded and he is frustrated that they are getting his armor dirty. How can he meet the King Arthur without "shining armor." Unbeknownst to him the knights he defeated were in a tournament where the winner gets a place at the Knights of the Round Table. From the get-go we know this is a silly tale with twists on the original tale.

Lancelot goes through 5 adventures and I believe most refer to Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" from the 1400's which I haven't read. The adventure I liked the most reminded me Alfred Tennyson's poem, "The Lady of Shalott", from the 1800's. Being familiar with the poem made the chapter all the more funnier. Tennyson's poem is about the Lady of Shalott who is under a curse in a tower where she can't look out the window on the town of Camelot. She sees Lancelot in her mirror with his sparkling armor, feathered plume hat, and gorgeous voice and she decides to go to the window knowing she will die from the curse. Part III of the poem begins, "A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,/He rode between the barley-sheaves." In this children's book, the author has The Lady of Shalott accidentally shoot Lancelot in the butt with a bow and arrow. The Lady of Shalott's mother is lady Elaine which refers to the Malory's Elaine of Astolat who is the same person as the Lady of Shalott; it's just that Tennyson changed the name. I'm sure I missed other references since I haven't read Malory but you can see the nonstop poke on the classic in this romp.

Lancelot gets shot by the Lady of Shalott because King Arthur asked him not to participate in his jousting tournament; Lancelot always wins and it takes the fun out of the competition. Lancelot complies and leaves town only to get shot by the Lady of Shalott when he decides to nap under a tree (he loves naps). Lancelot decides his injury is a great handicap and he can now enter the tournament because it will be hard to win. He straps a pillow to his seat and disguises himself so he can participate. Of course he does well inspite of his injury, but things become complicated when he wears the Lady of Shalott's scarf and people expect him to marry her as the winner. In an ironic twist the Lady of Shalott desires another man and doesn't want to marry Lancelot.

I like how the author presents Lancelot as a trickster and one who is tricked. He's vain and clueless in some spots and funny in others such as when he drops acorns on the Sir Phelot's helmet. And even though he appears to have everything anyone could want, he isn't happy. At the end, he has even lost some of his vanity. The play on words throughout are entertaining such as the "recreant" knights. While young readers aren't going to get the references (I taught the Lady of Shalott to 12th graders in English class) they will laugh at the situations. I am kind of curious to read Malory's work and then reread this book. The book is only about 100 pages and a fast fun read. Check it out!

Reading level 4.8
Fountas & Pinnell: R

5 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones

Fiddle-dee-dee! A nonsense word for a fun nonsense fantasy. A name like Earwig sets the tone along with a talking cat, witch, and demons. While this book is mildly entertaining and serves a much needed niche for low level fantasy stories, it isn't particularly well-done. On the plus side, the constant tension in the plot kept me turning the pages and the Mandrake is a somewhat scary monster, but on the negative side, there are no changes within the characters and they remain distant and vaguely interesting. While I liked Earwig's gumption and positive attitude in a grim situation, she never came alive for me. I wanted to know more about the Mandrake and Custard as well. The unfinished feel to the plot, the lack of world-building, and undeveloped characters kept me from loving this book. In the end, I wanted more answers to my questions.

Earwig lives in an orphanage with her best friend, Custard. A witch and demon come disguised as ordinary people and adopt Earwig so she can help around the house. Earwig says she will come willingly if the witch will teach her magic in return for her assistance. When, the witch reneges on her promise to teach her magic Earwig is furious and gets back at the witch by learning magic on her own and turning the tables on everyone.

I liked some of the unpredictableness of the plot such as with Earwig's spell and the demon's response. More often I had questions. At first I wasn't sure if Earwig was a bossy brat who just manipulates those around her but later I find she has quite a bit of spirit and her strong personality is likable. When Earwig is left at the orphanage, it is implied that her mom is a witch but no powers are manifested in Earwig and we really don't know if Earwig is a witch because she doesn't do anything magical - she only follows a spell in a recipe-type book. The witch who has adopted Earwig, makes spells for clients but it isn't elaborated on who they are or what the spells do; we only know that the clients are called, Friends of the Earth and Mother's Union. This made me wonder exactly what type of the world the characters live in and I wanted more world-building. I'm not sure why Custard is introduced in Chapter 1 and then never makes another appearance in the novel. It seems like he should have reappeared and interacted with Earwig at another point in the plot.

Diana Wynne Jones died last March and this is the last book she wrote. It seems like an unfinished draft - particularly the puzzling epilogue that launches itself way forward in time. It felt as if the author was saying, "Okay, I don't have time to finish this so we will hash out in one paragraph everything that happened to Earwig." My guess is she wasn't able to properly edit it.  Even with flaws, it is entertaining and is going to fill a need for emerging readers who like fantasy books.

3 out of 5 Smileys
Reading Level 5.4 (too high)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mulberry Project by Linda Sue Park

Linda Sue Park reminds me of Lowis Lowry as a writer. You always get a well-crafted, unique story with characters' that have distinct voices and a tight plot. She's also such a sophisticated writer, I don't think readers always get what she's doing. Take the metafictional narrative that occurs between the author and the protagonist in this story. On the outset, it is a story about a girl and her best friend doing a project about silkworms for a state fair competition. Themes abound regarding friendship, prejudice, conservation, ethnic identity, sibling rivalry, phobias, and more. On the inset, there is a metafictional narrative going on between the author and the protagonist. The literary device called, metafiction, is fiction that self-consciously reflects upon itself. Or in simpler terms it is fiction about fiction. This technique can be found in oodles of books such as It's a Book by Lane Smith, Lulu Walks the Dog by Judith Viorst, The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, or Don Quixote, to name a few. I thought Park's use of this technique elevated this book and made it more engaging. However, from the reviews I read it seems that some find it annoying or distracting. You decide.

Julia and Patrick are doing a silkworm project for the state fair through a club at school. Julia thinks the project is "too Korean" and that she already stands out at school as the only Korean-American, but Patrick is so excited that she doesn't say anything to him out loud. Actually they don't really brainstorm other possibilities resulting in friendship problems that they have to resolve as the project progresses.

Julia becomes involved with caring for the silkworms to such a point that she doesn't realize what she must do to extract the silk. When she finds out she gets into an enormous fight with Patrick about how silk is farmed and her feelings are further complicated from a field trip that discussed the ethical treatment of domesticated animals used to feed the population. The topics are heavy but Park doesn't overwhelm the storyline with them. The plot is driven by the character and she adds tension and different themes creating a nice pace.

The senses are engaged in the beginning with the description of the Korean spicy food, kimchee, that one character hates and the other adores. The main character is likable and flawed which makes it easy to identify with her. I did find it hard to believe that she would have problems with the worms and making silk, but I'm not the most sensitive person and I could buy it that another might feel that strongly about what they were doing (can you tell I'm trying to not give away the problem and spoil the fun of discovering it as you read the book). I did like that Patrick emails her the same questions that I wondered about and I could relate more to his feelings than Julia's.

The plot doesn't have loose ends and I found myself admiring how well Park crafts the story. I had questions about the mom's attitude and I liked the unique answer at the end which is appropriate to the fact that the book is in the first person point of view so the reader isn't going to know about the mom's prejudices. I thought it was very real because Julia was so sensitive and it was hard for her to even discuss her feelings about the project with her best friend, much less confront her mother on a complex and serious topic. In the end, the state fair results are given and it was refreshing and realistic what happens to the pair, vesus a perfect-type ending where all the characters' dreams come true.

Julia has a question and answer conversation with the author that is funny and gives the reader a glimpse into what it is like to craft a story. I really enjoyed this technique and thought it elevated the book even more as it tried to do something different than the normal kids-doing-a-school-project story. Like I said earlier, some might find it distracting to the story. I thought it was done sparingly enough to not be a nuisance. I also thought it answered many of the questions I had as I was reading.

If you like Park's novels then I would suggest trying books by the author Kate Messner; both have plots that emphasize science and math, have multiple themes, and strong female characters. 

Reading Level 4.8
Fountas & Pinnell: S

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Fire Chronicle by John Stephens

This was hard to read after the fun I had reading The Vengekeep Prophecies and Deadweather and Sunrise. I needed another edit with more concentration on the plot and less meandering. I skipped along the surface like a rock on water. Of course I have a stack of 30 books to plow through right now, so I might be a wee distracted. Not to mention a humongous order, a two hour speech to prepare for, and lessons for next week. This book reminded me of Michael Scott's series that involve a brother and sister along with a prophecy and Harry Potter (I typed Happy Potter and Harpy Potter before I got to the goldarn wizard's correct name...) with the Screechers like Dementors and a book that has invisible ink and mucho power. This isn't just any book, it is The Book of Life, except the boy that wields it forgets about its powers to heal in the middle of a battle. Duh. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Actually I'm chasing my tail. Talk about needing an edit... I feel like Harpy Plotter. Okay... I'll quit. Promise. 

Kate, Michael, and Emma are searching for their missing parents and trying to find three books that will help them save the world from the evil Dire Magnus. While Kate can control time travel, Michael has The Book of Life, that heals people. The three are hidden in an orphanage by the Wizard Pym where they are quickly found by the forces of evil. Kate gets sucked back to the 1900's by using the Atlas to save her brother and sister from Screechers. Her Dickens-type world is full of orphans, sickness, suffering, and magic. Yes, magical beings live with humans and it is the Night of Separation when they are being banished from living with humans. With the help of a boy and witch, Kate works to get back to the future. Michael, is on a separate quest trying to retrieve The Book of Life. He has to fight dragons, elves, guardians, and the evil Dire Magnus and his henchman.

Can you tell I don't really want to write about this story? There is plenty of action although the first chapter is just a boring retell of the last book. The author doesn't work it into the storyline while the action is happening. I did like some of the twists such as the Chronicle being able to see into a person's past. This allowed for the villain's to not be one-dimensional. Some of the plot is predictable and some wasn't. Fans of the first book probably won't be disappointed. It is really a story that is propelled by the action and not the characters or word-smithing. An entertaining read even if I had issues with the plot.

Reading Level 5.1

3 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Fake Mustache by Tom Angleberger, illustrated by Jen Wang

This nonstop fountain of funny lines, kooky characters, and over-the-top plot had me laughing so much people around me kept asking what was so funny. Lenny Jr. goes to buy a special mustache his best friend Casper desperately wants; The Heidelberg Handlebar #7. When Casper dons the mustache he finds that he has specials powers and can talk anyone into whatever he wants. He quickly takes over the world and it is up to Lenny to stop him with the help of television star Jodie O'Rodeo. They race through this rip-roaring adventure using gadgets from a Willy Wonka-type factory that involves boogers, chicken-tasting erasers, and more. Take a chomp out of this one, but place your disbelief outside the door - its wacky humor is out there.

Red and Jodie have the best lines. Red has a string of implied non-shocking swear words that go something like this, "Are you boys selling candy bars for your gottdangled school? No more candy bars! Get the Helchfitz out of here!" He tells the boys his brother died over one hundred years, calls Lenny a "FarDobbled Candy-Bar-selling Punkler" when he looks at hats, and pets the money Casper gives him for the suit. I haven't met such a fun, crotchety character since Yosemite Sam - the cartoon king of irreverent comments.

If Red is Yosemite, then Jodie is Annie Oakley except she slings water pistols versus guns. Check out Jodies gun-slinging slang. I'm reading along from Lenny's point of view when "Kablammo!" I get Jodie's point of view. She's on a rescue mission and loves using variations of the word "ding-dang." We've got "Who the ding-dang-dong are you?" or references to her "...ding-dang TV show" or there's "Ding-dang dude, can't you be more careful?" She's a lovable ding-dong that's fer sure. Other fun words are "goshamighty, cockamamy, kablammo, (yes I borrowed that one), giddyup, woolbusters,whoop-de-doo, bojangles, heinies, and twinkle-toes (she didn't use that one but I think she should have or maybe it should be twinkie-toes in honor of Hostess treats).  Jodie can toss a knife like a circus performer but she doesn't want to hurt anyone so she lets the handle hit the villain between the eyes. She's a keeper, this one.

A imaginative story that will lighten your day! Enjoy
Reading Level 4.6
4 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, December 7, 2012

Lulu Walks the Dog by Judith Viorst; illustrated by Lane Smith

Move over Lucy Van Pelt, there's a new kid on the block and she's just as selfish and bratty as you. Meet Lulu. Big head, big mouth, big ideas. She doesn't run a psychiatry booth like Lucy of Peanuts fame, but she does run a dog walking business and I haven't loved a character this much since ...well, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang. So many things reminded me of Peanuts from the pictures to the characters. The running gag on the poodle called, Pookie, doing "what she's supposed to do" to Lulu informing the reader she's going to call it "poop" reminded me of my younger sister who carried around a stuffed Snoopy dog that turned from pearly white to pukey gray and that she adoringly called, "Poopy." Lulu is spoiled, bossy, loud, in-your-face, irreverent; yet likable, because she says and does things that all of us have wanted to do at one time or another (okay, maybe you haven't but my nasty side has) and she is contrasted by the practically-perfect Fleischman who does everything right and everyone loves. 

Lulu demands her parents to give her some unknown thing at the start of the story. She claims that she is growing up and won't throw temper tantrums anymore to get what she wants, instead she manipulates her parents by making them feel guilty and tries negotiating with them. The latter works and she says she will work to save money for the outrageous item that she wants (and no, I'm not going to natter what it is - that would be like pulling the football away before you kick it through the goal posts). 

Lulu decides to walk 3 dogs for a fee. The bull dog, Brutus, is a hoot and the pictures Lane Smith draws are delicious with Brutus slobbing the face of a pinned-down Lulu, refusing to walk with its square bulk tanked to the ground, or Lulu being lassoed to a tree with Brutus giving her the who's-the-boss-now Miss Smarty-pants look, (there's more pics - look for yourself - lazy me doesn't want to name them all. Are you wondering why I keep inserting myself into this review? Well, I really don't feel like discussing it right now.) Smith's illustrations remind me of a cross between Charles Schultz and Salvador Dali. He has a surreal look and atmosphere that reminds me of a mix between cartoons and abstract art. Smith explains how Schultz influenced his artwork in Dily Evan's book called, "Show & Tell: Exploring the Fine Art of Children's Illustration," and it is evidenced in his simply drawn characters that show tremendous expression in a small shift of a line on the face. The cover shows Lulu looking at the viewer with no mouth or eyebrows; yet the shape of her head and pointed nose suggest pursed lips and a girl who is not happy as well as surprised that she's been outwitted by a dog (eh-hum... don't go by the blurry picture attached to this review - you have to see the actual book to truly see her eyeballing the reader). 

Lulu has problems with the other two dogs as well and only Fleischman seems to have the knack for controlling them. Not that Lulu wants his help. Not that Lulu is even thankful for his help. Lulu doesn't like the  practically-perfect Fleischman because she knows she doesn't want to be that way. How boring, she says with an exclamation mark! That's for sure. When she sings her money song throughout the story and has time-out sections I laughed every time (okay adult reader... I see you smiling - you have sung the money song too). But Lulu needs Fleischman's help and he is always there to unfuddle her muddles. At the end, Lulu does show Fleischman respect but they don't go so far as to become best friends. Lulu sarcastically tells the reader this isn't Cinderella with a happy ending. It's just sort of happy.

The author's asides are not intrusive to the plot; they are hysterical, sarcastic, and aid the reader by answering questions that occur while reading the story (errr... yes, I have been trying to imitate the author in this review. Did it work or did I annoy you? I think when author asides don't work they are annoying, don't you?) Depending on the age of the reader some of the humor might go over their heads, but there is still plenty to laugh at. The book is a fast read (took me longer to scratch out this review than read the book) and I am going to  have to try it with different ages as a read aloud.  Lulu is one character I can read overtime and over time. Hope there are more books to come.

Reading Level 5.3

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

I struggled with this National Book Award winner. Not because it lacks originality. The creepy steampunk setting with gear-transformed people, witches, and goblins was well done. Not because it lacked character development. The weird witch, river spirit, goblins, and orphans with a plucky protagonist were engaging enough. And not because of a plot that plods. The 200 page book is concise and clues are slowly revealed. It was unpredictable and imaginative. So why couldn't I immerse myself in the story?

It wasn't a complete loss - I loved the witch Graba, patterned after the fairy tale witch Baba Yaga in Russian folklore with her unpredictable temperament and dangerous ways. In this tale, it is not the house, but the witch herself who lunges around on giant chicken legs made of gears and metal using monstrous talons to grab wayward children. What a great twist on the original! Speaking of twists... Graba gives Rownie a home with food but he is mistreated like the other orphans she takes into her home that echos characteristics found in Oliver Twist's Fagin. Machinery has replaced human parts in the city of Zombay; the police have glass eyes with gears for irises and the animals have coal hearts. Graba has taken in Rownie and his brother, Rowan, but Rowan has disappeared. Rownie joins the goblin theater troupe because they are searching for Rowan. The goblins need Rowan to speak to the river and prevent the flood that threatens the city of Zombay; however, the goblins are not welcome in the city and it is illegal to put on their show which results in all sorts of trouble for the troupe. Rownie combines forces with them only to get caught up in a bigger struggle for power between the goblins, mayor, and witch Graba.

The story is filled with terrific themes from the magic or imagination that comes from within when assuming the identity of a mask to the magic or power that comes from without as symbolized in the witches, mayor, and river spirit; to the social commentary of the goblins being prejudiced by the townspeople; to the humans who can't wear masks to act in plays because it changes them, and more. While there are so many social commentaries, the storyline never stops long enough to explore them. I wanted more of an explanation about the goblin play where the witch uses her reflection to create a bunch of mini-me's who become her slaves; followed by her cooking the heart of one and causing a rebellion. Was this play a suggestion that the witch Graba and Semele were like the rebellious slaves? What is their background? And what about Rowan. Is he with his mother? Why can he wear a mask? How do humans change into goblins? In the end I felt dissatisfied with the overall book and the lack of answers.

The lack of exposition resulted in me going back and rereading passages often and being confused in spots. You really had to figure out the plot as you read along and be patient as the clues unfolded. I kept thinking I missed something but my question would be answered later. As mentioned earlier, not that all questions are answered; you have to come up with your own analysis. I sort of twitched and sputtered through the narrative which never came alive for me. Some spots were jarring or awkward, such as when the characters put on masks and adopted its qualities or when Rownie would think to himself. While not something I noticed all the time, I ended with a disjointed feeling like my gears were malfunctioning. This is a book that I should really reread. I read that the author has a sequel. Most likely some of my questions will be answered. An interesting read.

Reading level 4.3
4 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey (The Chronicles of Egg)

As a kid, I used to fantasize about running away and becoming a trapeze artist in the circus. I practiced my act in the tops of trees, on the roof of the house, on swing-sets  banisters... basically anything high. Mom, wanting me to survive adolescence,  put my hyperactive limbs in gymnastics. I made my best friend spot me as I learned to do flips. I stood on the edge of the chair and instructed her to grasp the waistband of my shorts and make sure I didn't land on my head. I should have worried about her head. When my legs rocketed through the rotation she leaned forward too much and I caught her under the chin. I landed on my feet and found her on the floor knocked out cold. Yes, she is still my best friend, but she never helped me with another acrobatic move. Today I just dream (literally) of flipping as a flexible 13-year-old. Egbert Masterson is 13, and he too, likes to fantasize. He fantasizes about traveling to exotic places found in the books he's read, or eating delicious jelly bread, or rescuing Millicent (the girl he has a crush on) from pirates. Not only do his fantasies come true they careen out-of-control in this non-stop action adventure involving murder, cutthroat pirates, assassins, and treasure.

Egbert lives on Deadweather on a fruit farm with his father, Hok, brother, Adonis, and sister, Venus. His mother died giving birth to him and he is hated, beat, and verbally abused by the trio. Hok hires tutors for the children because his wife wanted them educated and while the first tutor did teach Egbert how to read, the second tutor didn't teach him anything. But that was okay because he brought books and Egbert continued his education by teaching himself. When Hok discovers something on the farm, the group heads to Sunrise Island, except Daddo doesn't tell his kiddos exactly why they are going there. When Egbert loses his family, is almost tossed off a cliff, and then captured by pirates, you would think things couldn't get worse, but they do. Egg is forced to try and figure out what his dad found that was so important that people are trying to kill him to get it.

The funny pirate talk makes for some good ole fun - it might be 'ard fer sum young-ins ta understand, but ye will have ta decide fer yerself.  The part where the pirate goes after Millicent with intentions that aren't honorable might be confusing also, but I can see young readers not understanding how the whole situation transpired. The characters are so extreme they are funny - almost cartoonish - and while there is violence it is on the slapstick side for the most part. The deaths occur willy-nilly and there is no remorse or much thinking about them. Egg doesn't feel sorry for himself and his decency and humor balance out the other kooky characters, as well as, lighten the violent parts. Egg explains why he likes Millicent's cocky, confident attitude which adds a nice touch to the character development. She's a strong female character with a mind of her own and take-charge attitude. The plot has many unpredictable twists because of her and her actions at the end make sense in light of her personality traits.

The loose ends are not tied up and it seems obvious that there will be a sequel. We do not learn the details of what happened to Egg's family. We also don't know why the most fearsome pirate of the seas went out of his way to help Egg. Maybe they are related? Maybe he's Egg's uncle? Other unresolved issues at the end of the story are the two men hell-bent on killing Egg walk away with no intention of not going after him another time and the treasure has not been found. The end screams, to be continued... The only resolution happens for Millicent. I also wanted to know Guts history and how he ended up with the pirates. The world-building is excellent and characters engaging. I look forward to book 2. Let the treasure hunt begin.  Oy!

Reading Level 5.2

4 out of 5 Smileys

The Vengekeep Prophecies by Brian Farrey

Generations of klutzes run in my family. Grandma is infamous for throwing chicken grease into the furnace and causing an explosion that fried off her eyebrows, eyelashes, and bangs. I am not sure my infamy. Maybe when I set 16 boxes of cereal on fire preheating the oven as a teenager (mom quit storing them in there after that incident). Or maybe when I melted the microwave with a stove-top grease fire. Or maybe when I torched the bamboo steamer basket while making Chinese dumplings. In this book, Jaxter is a kindred spirit - a clod who is finding it difficult to follow the family business of thieving. When his first burglary attempt results in him burning down the house and getting caught... well, you can see why I'd be hooked. But it isn't just the great characters, fast pace, humor, unpredictable plot, and terrific world building that kept me tooling through this book, I also liked the themes of having courage, making friends and discovering what you love to do and pursuing it.

Jaxter Grimjinx comes from a family of famous thieves that spans generations. Da's a master burglar, while Ma's forgeries are second to none. His sister can pick a pocket unseen while Jaxter can break low-level spells using non-magic. When the family plots the big heist, things go "zoc" when the fake prophecy that Ma has weaved into a tapestry that tells Vengekeep its futures comes true bringing natural disasters and monsters bent on destroying the town. Only Jaxter can save them by finding the means to break the tapestry's enchantment.

The twist on prophecies was a whole lotta fun. Here a fake prophecy comes true and the Grimjinx family watches in horror as their heist backfires and an unpredictable and interesting quest ensues with Jaxter making friends with a strong-willed girl and a cowardly mage. The supporting characters are well-rounded and their motivations are clear. Every time I would have a question it was answered in this well-crafted story. The only loose end involves Jaxter's sister and even that question is asked, but the sister doesn't answer, suggesting a sequel.

The madeup words are a hoot along with the delicious humor. Rick Riordan is one of few fantasy writers who makes me laugh steady through his stories. I can add Farrey to that list. I also appreciated that Jaxter and Callie, his friend, are 12-years-old. Callie's wit, attitude, and search for independence and Jaxter's intelligence and search to find something he is good at are spot on. Too often I read a book with a 9-year-old who sounds like a teenager.

I'm not sure how Farrey manages to make a family of thieves so likeable and noble, but he does. The parents have morals and are more like Robin Hood taking from the rich and never the poor. When the townspeople need help, they are there to rescue them. When Jaxter struggles with his future, they give wise, loving advice. The entire family looks on the positive side of a situation no matter how grim. There are some great lines in this book, particularly when the parents don't like Jaxter's comments. Da says, "Sorry, Son, what was that? I was too busy ignoring you." And mom several paragraphs later, "Sorry Son, I missed that... Ignoring you can be a full-time job." Ooh, I'd love to use that on the kids at school. See what I mean? Delicious.

Great read aloud. Great story. "Bangers!" I just can't say enough good things about this novel. Read it!

5 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

I blew through this novel in verse like a blizzard on the prairie. This pleasant, fast hour and a half read will be great for students; however, it didn't quite work for me. May lives with her family on the Kansas prairie and is pulled from school so she can make money working for a newly married couple. The bride is young and surly toward May. It isn't clear if she is a mail-order bride (she says she isn't but it seems that she is) or daughter of someone wealthy. I wasn't sure the significance of the red dress except it was impractical. The bride came from Ohio and is depressed living isolated on the prairie in a leaky-roofed sod house. Seems like she was a city girl (or saloon girl in a red dress). I wasn't sure if May was supposed to be a companion to the bride or just a house maid. May isn't happy to be in the new household working either. She wants to be in school learning and longs to be home with her parents and brother. I thought the two lonely females would be drawn to each other, but that is not to be. When things go horribly amuck with the newlyweds, May has to learn to survive in a hostile environment.

The author does a nice job with the feel of the prairie and remoteness.  I was a little confused as to the stories time-frame  At the end of the book it said May was gone for five months which let me calculate that May went to the other family in August. May's family needs money which is why she is sent to work 15 miles away. Before going, we see the rapport she has with her brother and the nice mixture of sibling rivalry with her being jealous of her brother at times and them enjoying each others company at other times. 

I needed more tension between characters. I was interested in the bride and May but the interaction ended too soon. Their unresolved feelings left me with wanting more. I did like the twist at the ending in regards to the bride's husband. My interest waned in the middle when the action dropped and the story-line switched to flashbacks about dyslexia and teachers shaming May. The flashbacks aren't really crucial to moving the story forward and it seemed like old information as a result. That's why I lost interest in it anyway. You decide for yourself. 

I haven't read many novels in verse and it seems very difficult trying to provide a tangible setting and well-rounded characters as opposed to prose. The limited use of words in a poetic format make it easy to not give enough information. Add to that the challenges of line breaks and rhythms that make for a clear narrative arc and I have to say I admire those who tackle this type of structure when writing a book. As a reader, I have noticed that with novels in verse I look for the overall effect of both the story and words. Some books I notice the poetic images and words; whereas in other books I notice the narrative arc and not so much the words. Others I notice both. In May B. I noticed the plot more than the stanzas. In the end, I found that I just wanted more to the story with the plot and characters.

Reading Level 3.7
3 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery

The first time I heard the fireworks go off at the Chinese temple next to school, the deafening noise made me cover my ears and flee to the quiet indoors. It sounded like the start of World War III. When Temple Grandin hears noises they are amplified; a ringing school bell can sound like the Chinese fireworks did to me. She has autism and describes the pain loud sounds cause her. Autism can cause a super sensitivity not only to sound but light, touch and other senses. For Temple the touch of clothes hurts her skin. Temple compares her nervous system to an animals. She explains how this allows her to think and feel like an animal; plus she sees images in her head instead of words which is how animals process the world around them. Her autism is what makes her unique and has led to her inventing world-class facilities designed for livestock being slaughtered that are cruelty-free and humane. Her story explains how she has become one of the most influential people in the treatment of livestock today.

This biography traces Temple's life from a young girl to successful professor with a powerful narrative that allows the reader to see more closely what it is like for an autistic person dealing with hypersensitivity to the world around her, as well as, having difficulties understanding other people's thoughts and expressions. The author addresses misconceptions about autism and explains that the causes of it come from the brain growing too fast at the wrong time which creates problems in the cortex. Temple is also painted as a person who doesn't care what others think, does not give up, and works hard.

Honestly, I didn't think I would like this book so much. But I did. Much of this is due to excellent writing. The narrative of the story shows how Temple made friends and was teased when growing up. The author's voice is not preachy or even apparent, at least to this reader. The emotional punch comes from the story itself and the seamless intertwining of facts with the narration make for a fast and fascinating read.

I've read a quite a few great books recently with covers that have adult-appeal, not kid-appeal. Crow. No Crystal Stair. Now this one. How the heck am I supposed to sell a book with that kind of cover to a 10-year old? Cows? Come on... really? I hate it when I have a great book but know that I'm going to have to book talk and gush about it ad nauseum to get any kid to read it. Too bad they don't use the Internet and survey kids with different covers getting their input on what makes an attractive book. I know that my adult perspective is quite different than theirs and find it fascinating when I solicit them. That might make a fun lesson. Have students say what they like about covers of books and write a persuasive essay to a publisher on what makes a good cover. Ummmm, I'm drifting off topic, aren't I? Anyhoo, read this book. Temple is quite a firecracker. Har. Har.

5 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, November 26, 2012

One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson

Our three-year-old daughter named her favorite stuffed dog, "pee-pee." When we got a real dog we wouldn't let her name it that so she called her, "Peach." Although "pee-pee" would have been a better name. Thirteen years I scrubbed up after that darn dog and her pea-sized bladder. Argh! But I digress. Most people have dog stories and our family is no exception, so when I started this book which is about a boy named, Hal, who begs his parents for a dog, it was a walk down memory lane. And when I got to the part of the collie herding sheep, I chuckled as I remembered our border collie rounding up 12 laughing and whimpering and what's-going-on four-year-olds  in a small, tight circle at my daughter's birthday party. But back to this story...

Lonely Hal begs for a dog and when his rich parents say, "yes," he is over the moon. Only problem? His shallow parents have actually rented a dog named, Fleck, for the weekend. They think Hal will get tired of the dog after 3 days. Instead he bonds with the dog and loves him deeply. Not wanting to tell Hal that Fleck isn't for keeps, the parents sneak him back to the rental place while Hal is at the dentist. Hal comes home, discovers the trick and is devastated. And angry. Ooh... he is one mad dude. He goes to the rental place, takes Fleck and runs away with the help of a friend on an adventure where he discovers not only how to make dogs happy, but his parents as well.

This light story has a happy ending, exaggerated characters, predictable plot and will be liked by animal lovers.The adults are dumb and buffoonish in most cases, except the grandparents. There are quite a few unbelievable spots but it is all in good fun. The story was a little slow for me but I'm not exactly a patient reader. I did enjoy how it made me think of our doofy dog and how much I loved her and hated her peeing all over the place. If you are getting a dog, whatever you do, DON'T give it a name that starts with that piddly letter "p."

Reading Level 6.3
3 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ruins by Orson Scott Card (Pathfinder book 2)

In French class I could never roll my "r's" properly so my teacher would have me practice holding my lips together and blowing air out to make a sputtering sound. I never could make my lips sound like a motor boat. I ended up spitting all over the desk and sputtering all right. Sputtering... I can't take it anymore. I'm sputtering at this book the same line. I finished it, but was relieved when it ended. If you love philosophy, physics  science, genetics, epidemiology, sociology, biology and lots and lots and lots of internal monologue than you won't sputter over this book. I needed more action and less yadda, yadda, yadda. Don't get me wrong, the yadda was interesting in parts. But other times it left my head spinning.

Rigg, Param, Umbo, Olivenko, and Loaf have escaped being murdered by the queen by going through the wallfold into one of the 19 territories that split in a time travel experiment. Rigg, Param, and Umbro have learned how to better use their gifts of time travel and they spend time exploring the colony of Odinfold. As they argue with each other and try to learn from their flaws, others are trying to kill them. They do not know who to trust and who not to as they try to save the world. They must learn to trust each other before they can make any progress on their quest.

The world building is brilliant and is one of the reasons I kept turning the pages. The effects of parasites and disease on cultures was done really well, not to mention the different scenarios involving the different territories was complex and intertwined with other plot elements. I admire how the author tackles the complexities of parallel societies and how they evolved over time.

My complaint is the characters. They change internally which adds tension, but the author tells and doesn't show. At times the characters sound preachy and the three young characters sound too much alike. I wanted their voices to be more distinct, like Loaf. His tell-it-like-it-is sarcastic voice is quite distinct from the others. I also got sick of the three teenagers arguing ad nauseum. And having too many philosophical merry-go-round discussions. I finally started skimming those parts because they were exhausting and didn't accomplish anything in the end. When one of the character's explains he hates philosophy because you talk and talk and talk but in the end you don't know any more than when you started I was nodding my head in agreement. Or nodding off to sleep.

I do wish I could walk through a wallfold and learn a language like the characters in the book. I ended up dropping French class and never learned to roll my "r's." I switched to Norwegian. Yah, I can talk like dat, you betcha. Maybe this book was too sophisticated for my brain. Try it! Decide for yourself.

Young Adult
3 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Carolyn Lawrence

Giddyup! A western/detective story for kids with nonstop action, great characters, and nice plot twists. Pull out your imaginary pistols and enjoy this surprising book. Our hero, P.K. Pinkerton begins this tale from the bottom of a cave because he is about to be killed. He has witnessed the murder of his ma and pa who were scalped by Whittlin' Walt and his 'pards in search of a document that will make them rich. Twelve-year-old P.K. holds that document and is on the run as they hunt him down.

P.K. lands in Virginia City where he meets a host of characters who help him and steal from him. While it looks like most are just varying degrees of badness, they are really helping P.K. learn to socialize and read people. P.K. has a problem. He can't decipher people's facial expressions or emotions. He is more than just too trusting and naive. While in the 1860's there was no such thing as Asperger's, it would appear that P.K. is autistic. I didn't pick up on this at first because of the humorous way it is presented and the fact that I miss details like P.K. reads people. There is an excellent NY Times review on the book.

There are some great plot twists especially at the end. I did get a little tired in the middle of P.K. making silly mistakes (if I had thought about the autistic angle then I probably wouldn't have), but they move the plot forward as he learns to socialize. The characters are interesting enough that I kept going but I did put it down just before I got to the part on Jace. Poker Face Jace is fascinating in the way he helps P.K. and it wasn't until I got to his character that I had my "ah-ha" moment and saw what the author was doing with the characters to help P.K. grow up and become more independent.

There is some adult humor that young readers are not going to get and some of the violence unnecessary, but I did laugh. At the humor not the violence... The narrator tones down or filters the cursing saying that he won't write it because it is not fit for publication or misspells the word leaving out vowels. This was on a some Newbery prediction lists but it can't win because it was published in the U.K. and Lawrence doesn't live in the U.S. Rats! A terrific book.

Reading Level 5.8
4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Lure of the Dead (The Last Apprentice book 10)

Me loves a good scary monster! Delaney creates some awesome predators in his horror books. Book 10  of the Spook Series has Tom working more on his own as a Spook; he's no longer the apprentice. He has discovered that he must retrieve a sacred object and make a sacrifice of someone he loves before getting rid of the Fiend. I thought they had gotten rid of the Fiend when Grimalkin chopped off his head but, alas, he is not gone from the world. Even with his head in a sack being carried by Grimalkin, the Fiend can still speak out loud and manipulate his servants to pursue Alice, Tom, and Grimalkin in an attempt to attach his head to his body and achieve world dominance. Even his talking rotted head that resides in a sack can strike terror in the hearts of the heroes. Except Grimalkin. No one can scare Rambo-woman. She just sticks his head near the fire and toasts him a little to show who's in control. Gotta love that assassin. This sacred object/sacrifice of a loved-one quest looks like the storyline but it isn't so don't read it like I did thinking, "When are they gonna get the sacred object?" Instead this story is about Tom and the Spook going to fetch some books for a library only to find servants of the Fiend trying to bring forth powerful old gods of the dark to create an army to take over earth.

The strigoica and strigoi are the monsters this time with lizard-like vampire features and appetites. They move so fast that victims are dead before they can lift an arm to defend themselves. Tom continues to muse about how he has to use the dark to fight the dark. The Spook no longer gives speeches about the dangers of this, but then the Spook ends up in a horrible predicament that forces Tom to rescue him. He must enlist the help of one who betrayed them, along with Grimalkin and Alice. He is terrified that the prophecy of the Pendle Witches regarding  the Spook have come true.

Delaney does a great job with creating monsters, tension, and violence. This book has more decapitations than I can count, along with stabbings, and blood-sucking creatures. The prose is on the boring side and there was very little character development in this book. Actually there is very little seen of the character, Alice. I missed her. Her voice is different and she's more in-your-face sometimes good, sometimes bad. She's too good and accepting in this book. The Spook seemed out-of-character at the end giving up. I could buy him being weak from his ordeal but I couldn't buy him retreating so into himself. There needed to be a better explanation than just turning old.

This plot wasn't as unpredictable as others. It was pretty obvious the power of the Strigoica's illusion. As always, the monsters shine. They are creepy and unpredictable. They usually have something odd or different about them that makes them not quite your stock vampire or shape-shifter. This book is similar to the others but the plot wasn't as complex and the characters didn't have much internal changes as in previous ones. It was less interesting with the loss of the mentor-apprentice tension that came from Tom learning the trade. Instead the tension was supposed to come between Judd and Tom with his betrayal; however, Judd's situation was too horrible to hate him for his actions. That tension is filled up instead with nonstop action as the plot moves forward and beasts and monsters attack the heroes. Enjoy this fast read and don't read if you have a queasy stomach.

Reading Level 5.7
3 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

"I think I can. I think I can." This little engine that could is chugging through the 2013 Newbery Medal list mentioned in a previous post. My non-picky appetite seems to stack the most recently devoured book on the top of the pile making it number one for my own personal list. Argh! My top 5 are pretty much interchangeable. So many terrific books!  Glad I'm not judging the "most distinguished" book of the year... Right now I'm guessing: Splendors and Glooms, Crow, Starry River of the Sky, and The One and Only Ivan. What's your pick?

While Splendors and Glooms meets the Newbery criteria with its unusual and complex plot, characters, themes, and language; it might not be all that likable to folks not hankering for the Victorian mood and language that slowly builds at the start entwining different plot points into an exciting climax. Not that this matters when choosing a Newbery - that falls under personal taste which is not measured in winning books. The book is creepy and depressing in parts with Lizzie Rose and Parsefall being abused and Clara neglected, to humorous scenes with the wacky dog and Pinchbeck reliving her acting days with Lizzie Rose. Remember the hubbub surrounding The Tale of Despereaux because of the violence in it? I think this might rile up some for the same reason. On the blog Heavy Medal the discussion about the pacing being slow and boring just goes to show some are gonna love it and some are not. It's worth deciding for yourself.

The first chapter introduces Clara Wintermute, the sole survivor of cholera that took the life of her four brothers and sisters. Life is one mournful event after the other with trips to the family mausoleum at Kensal Green cemetery for holidays and birthdays. Clara feels guilty because she lived and her parents neglect her in their grief. When Clara sees a marionette troupe she convinces her dad to have them perform at her birthday party. She likes the girl who plays the music, Lizzie Rose, and the boy, Parsefall, who works the puppets, but she is frightened of Mr. Grisini, owner of the show. Clara disgraces herself at the performance and soon after vanishes. Grisini is the prime suspect but when he disappears, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are left trying to survive with no money.

Circumstances force them to flee London to Strachan's Ghyll, a frigid place that contrasts wonderfully from the smoggy London atmosphere. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are befriended by a witch who is by no means a one-sided villain. She is an interesting study of manipulation and loneliness. All the characters have interesting changes except Grisini, who remains the one-sided villainous character from beginning to end. Lizzie Rose tries to control her environment through cleanliness and caring for those around her. She responds in kindness and rejects hate. Parsefall is a victim who finds relief through the craft of puppetry.  His view of people is what motivates him at the end of the novel. All of the buildup and multiple viewpoints are essential to the plot and characters' actions that leads to an exciting climax.

The Dicken's-like orphan Parsefall adds to the Victorian feel and is a masterful example of character voice. He calls an expensive gem a "gewgaw" and tells Lizzie Rose to not involve the "coppers" with Grisini because "You don't know 'im the way I do." He is a streetwise, illiterate boy who is not as tough as he tries to appear. The witch is another fascinating piece of character building who is vicious and vulnerable. Only Lizzie Rose can truly see her lonliness, but then only Lizzie Rose can truly see the loyalty of Parsefall. Loveable Lizzie Rose is like the comical dog she hauls around who has unconditional love for all the odd (and normal) characters she crosses paths with. Clara becomes friends with Lizzie Rose and must decide whether or not she'll help the children in the end, as well as, forgive her parents and herself in order to move forward with life.

Some of the content to know about beforehand are: a kidnapping, two swear words, characters attacked - one child maimed, a female character having to deal with unwanted male attentions, lots of characters with child abuse and neglect issues, hint of a suicide (due to magic), and many deaths (all except one happen in the past). This gothic tale is best for older readers.

Slow? Boring? Violent? Newbery possibility? Decide for yourself. This one definitely distinguishes itself.

Reading Level 5.5

5 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, November 17, 2012

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

This interesting twine of factual and fictional material brings to life the charismatic bookseller Lewis Michaux who pushed for education and literacy in the Harlem community. He believed that the power of knowledge that came from reading would move blacks from being victims of injustice to educated citizens producing leaders in the community. He created an institution with his bookstore that not only sold books "for black people, [books] by black people, books about black people here and all around the world," but a library where people could read for free and intellects or leaders would gather to change society such as Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammed, and a Ghana president to name a few. Michaux believed that Africans who had been stripped of their identity and culture through slavery needed knowledge to reclaim their identity because "you gotta know who you are before you can improve your condition." Books meant knowledge and knowledge meant power, a sense of history, pride, advancement, and respect.

The author who is Michaux's niece, notes that the years of research and contradictory information made writing this book difficult, but she pulls it together in an unusual and powerful way giving the reader a sense of Lewis' legacy from the 1900's to 1970's. Lewis had a rough start being caught for stealing over and over and whipped for it as a fourteen-year-old and later jailed for the crimes. The author hints that perhaps Lewis felt white people had robbed him and his people of their past through slavery; hence, he had no qualms about robbing them in the present. Later he had a gambling house and then worked for his brother Lightfoot's church before finding his passion and purpose in life.

Lewis was a brilliant man with little education who tenaciously held onto his individuality. He was not going to let religion swallow his uniqueness and while he respected his brother who was a pastor, he also said "you have to be smart about religion. You have to look closely at who's claiming it and how they're using it."  Even when Lightfoot funded his bookstore then withdrew the money in order to force Lewis to buy books Lightfoot felt were appropriate, Lewis didn't give in. When he became friends with Malcolm X and Lightfoot protested cutting him out of his will, Lewis didn't compromise his beliefs and give up his friendship.

Through the collective voices of many different characters Lewis emerges as an energetic, witty man with a purpose of educating black people. He was called The Professor but did not think he was better than others. Lewis admired Malcolm X because he was common, not like the highly educated Martin Luther King Jr, "King has a wonderful program and there's beauty in his words. But he's so educated, a common man has to carry a dictionary in his pocket to find out what the hell he's talking about." I was afraid that I would not be able to keep track of all the different points of view, but the author weaves the dialogue together in such a way that it is easy to remember who's who.

Some of the voices are real and some are fictitious and I found the author's notes at the end revealing. Two of the characters I particularly liked, the reporter and Snooze, were completely made up. Snooze shows how Lewis changed his life from the day he introduced Langston Hughes poem about "no crystal stair" that inspired him to finish high school, to when he joined The Black Panthers, to his pride at finding a job as an adult. The reporter gives a detached view of Lewis that shed a different light on his personality.

This wonderful book is more appropriate for middle or high school students than elementary students. Younger students need to have some historical background to understand the different leaders that Lewis deals with at his bookstore. A long period of time is covered and while the historical events are explained some, I can see young readers being bored or confused without knowing some black history.

Here's a great line in the book to all of you Goodreads authors who are passionate about reading, "When I'm home, I read. I stick to my business. I've found out that if you have a crop to grow, you tend it." On another interesting note when I was in Beijing, Goodreads was blocked by the government. Knowledge is power.

5 out of 5 Smileys
Young Adult

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Crow by Barbara Wright

Last spring, I accidentally tripped over a Goodreads Newbery 2013 prediction list. This small gem of a list has had me blazing through many great novels the past few months. Actually I was blazing a few months ago. Now I'm snatching time here and there. Anyhoo... check out Crow...a worthy recommendation! It is my latest, all-in-good-fun, guess for the Newbery winner.

I have found it fascinating to read how professional reviewers look at Newbery predictions and discuss the details of what might make or break a Newbery winner as it competes in a pile of high quality contenders. For instance, one reviewer said that The One and Only Ivan had language that was too flowery or contradicted the fact that the gorilla claimed to be simple and plain. Another claimed that Wonder had a point of view that didn't forward the plot. A third stated that Three Times Lucky had plot points that were too unbelievable and clues that didn't always add up. Crow was critiqued by a reviewer who felt the plot was forced with Moses presence at every historical event. Some of these details discussed by reviewers I noticed on my own. Most I didn't. I'm not so great with the details. I tend to go for the overall story. Did I like it? Did it move me? Is the author a stylesmith? Did the plot move forward? Did the characters change? Were their voices strong? Was the story unique? My answer to those questions with Crow is yes, yes, and yes! I'm no good at guessing Newbery winners but I have found the discussions from professional reviewers quite fascinating and it has opened my eyes a crack as to what the process entails in choosing the best fiction book for the year.

Sixth grader Moses lives in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1989, where a black middle class has emerged and holds government and city positions of power. Moses father is the brilliant editor of a black newspaper and a city leader. Moses friend, Lewis, comes from a wealthy black banking family, but Lewis thinks he's more important than Moses because of his dad's position and he is bossy to Moses as they play together in the neighborhood. But Moses doesn't care, he has fun with him and puts up with his attitude. When Johnny, an uppity black boy whose dad runs the port, decides to be friends with Lewis he purposefully excludes Moses and is outwardly prejudice toward him because he is not as wealthy as Johnny or Lewis's family. As Moses deals with the every day issues of friendship there are hints that all is not well in the city. That racial tension is high and hatred simmers under the surface of daily living.

Mose's Grandma, Boo Nanny, foreshadows bad things to come when buzzards appear in the sky. Moses peaceful life is turned upside down as hatred builds in the city to the point where the government is illegally disposed of by a white supremacist group that seizes power. People are murdered in the street, businesses burned, and the black middle class leaders driven out of town during this grim period of history.

The strong characters and inspiring prose kept me flipping through the pages and while the topic is dark it is filled with hope and love as evidenced by Mose's family. The contrasting strong personalities of Boo Nanny and Mose's father add wisdom and depth to the story and while Moses is a good kid, he doesn't always make the right choices. He's very real and I chuckled when he got back at Johnny, then felt ashamed for his behavior afterwards.

The theme of prejudice is not only between races, but between humans regardless of color. People are prejudice because of differences such as status, education, or physical disabilities. The author captures the dichotomy of Boo Nanny being illiterate but a survivor with more street smarts than her highly educated son-in-law, Mose's dad, who fights to create a better future for blacks but doesn't always seem to grasp the extent of people's hatred toward his race. He even tells Moses that hatred can't be fought with reason and he's at a loss as to how to deal with it in the community. But he does deal with it. He insists on fair treatment of colored people in small ways whether that be refusing to step down as Alderman or using a front door instead of a servants door. Boo Nanny, on the other hand, is illiterate and blind; however, when Moses reads an article and marvels that while he understands the words he doesn't get the meaning; whereas "Boo Nanny seemed to grasp it immediately, though she didn't know half the words." Boo Nanny grew up as a slave and she's seen so much hatred she refuses to talk about her past. When Moses is distressed at their quarreling his mother says, "So when your daddy and Boo Nanny quarrel, I want you to think: I'm the luckiest boy alive. 'Cause I got myself two ways of looking at a thing, not just one."

Words are shown to have power and Moses father teaches his son new words from the big dictionary in their house, as well as, shows the value of words that make laws for governing and providing freedom of speech. Words can also hurt and keep people in their place from the mean comments the boys fling at each other to the derogatory comments from white people in the community calling blacks, "Sambo," forcing them to use a different coach on the train, telling them to leave their white neighborhood, and more. Moses dad uses small steps to change people's attitude and not back down when others are not being fair or doing the right thing. He chooses his battles and tries to fight injustice with words. Moses changes throughout the story as he learns to emulate his father.

There is one section regarding the father of Mose's mother. I am not sure kids will understand it because it involves Boo Nanny and her previous slave owner.  It isn't explained but an adult can infer what happened; the detail moves the plot forward by showing Boo Nanny's horrible suffering as a slave. Yet... there is an unfinished feel by having no explanation. I'm torn. I really don't want the details but it seems like something should be said. I would love to be a fly on the wall at a Newbery committee meeting.

If you liked Lions of Little Rock, then you'll love this book too. My only complaint is the cover. I think it's ugly. On the positive side many Newbery winners have ugly book covers. I have to really talk up The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Bud Not Buddy to get students to read it.  Don't let the cover turn you off. Grab this winner!

5 out of 5 Smileys

Reading Level 4.6

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Firegirl by Tony Abbott

This slim realistic novel is about 7th grader Tom who learns to deal with fear and friendship when a new girl, Jessica Feeney with a face and body so horribly burned in an accident that her skin looks "melted," becomes a member of their class. The story centers around Tom and his friendship with Jeff whose parents recently divorced and has left Jeff madder than heck at the world. Jeff's anger has made him uncaring toward others, including Tom. Tom gets frustrated with Jeff's hate-the-world attitude but it isn't until Jeff acts cruel toward Jessica that Tom wonders about their friendship.

The characters didn't come alive for me in this book. The first person narrative was too limiting. I wanted to hear Jessica and Jeff's thoughts. Jeff didn't seem fleshed out enough. I wanted more in the chapter with the sports car. Jeff tries to care about Tom, going so far as to get his uncle to make a special trip so Tom can ride in his Cobra sports car, but his fear of Jessica made him run away. I found the half-finished unsaid sentences confusing and Jeff somewhat one-dimensional. I also needed more build-up with Jessica and Tom's friendship. I found Tom crying at the end unbelievable because they didn't know each other well enough. I also kept waiting for the teacher to show more wisdom when dealing with the students telling them how to react to the girl and treat her as normal, but that never happens. The teacher is just as uncomfortable as the students. One last thingy, although I think I am nitpicking. Jessica would not jump into a prayer circle when late for class and hold hands with two boys. She would have found two girls.

The plot doesn't have too many surprises. I liked the twist with Jessica's mom and how Jessica changes internally. Actually Courtney, Jessica, and Tom show nice changes while Jeff remains stuck. There is a small glimpse into his weekends with his dad that made me sympathetic. The ending is a tearjerker, but because I wasn't relating to the characters it didn't touch me. Maybe the story was a bit too short for me. I will have to recommend this to students who liked "Wonder" and see what they think.

3 out of 5 Smileys
Reading Level 4.1 / Fountas & Pinnell: V