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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos

This story explores the self-delusion of a man, Lucas Biggs, and how it leads to his unhappy life. Bigg's self-justification and a series of bad decisions result in him leading a life as a corrupt judge and hateful person. Once, he was a nice boy. Once, he tried to do the right thing. But the desire for physical revenge, versus nonviolent civil disobedience, and his youthful ignorance led him down the slippery slope of wrong-doing. While the story is somewhat slow at the start and appears realistic before changing into a time travel story, I liked the author's turn of phrases and character development of the protagonist, thirteen-year-old Margaret. The point of view alternates between her and Josh as they try to make sense of and right past wrongs. Most of the time they fail, but they never give up or give into despair.

Margaret's father has been convicted of a crime he didn't commit and sentenced to death. The mining town of Victory, Arizona is owned by the Victory Company along with corrupt town leaders in powerful positions. Margaret learns that this corruption has deep roots in the past and that in order to change it, she must use her family's unique ability to travel into the past and change history. When her mission fails, she learns to pursue other means of reaching Lucas Biggs, the man that lost so much and chose to be unethical. She shows great courage in her choices and with the help of her friend, Charlie, and Josh, they make a difference.

I found that it took me a while to get into the story. I preferred when Josh's flashbacks put the reader directly into the action versus when he was explaining it to Margaret and Charlie in the present tense. If you are a cartwheeling-type person like myself you might find the pace or passive voice too slow in those moments. I also wished the letter that Margaret wrote to the newspaper was revealed to the reader. I did find the information on hydrofracking interesting, I've been hearing that word quite a bit lately as we have friends in North Dakota and never took the time to learn what it meant.

The emotional descriptions of Magaret's inner turmoil are rich and wonderful to read. "What I wanted more than anything was to be alone, to sit in my own pocket of space and just breathe and feel, feel whatever there was to feel without worrying about anyone seeing me." Margaret learns to have courage and be brave rather than hide. She reflects that her motivation to be brave is out of her love for her dad, just like Bigg's love for his dad motivated him to change. The theme of love and family is an undercurrent throughout the plot. A good book for messages on redemption, friends, loyalty, courage, and civic responsibility.

4 Smileys

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw (The League of Princes #3) by Christopher Healy

Good stories have a character's emotional arc linked hand-in-hand with the plot. Great stories dig deep into themes that reflect the human condition. Humorous stories that make me go from snort laughing at to "snot laughing" with the characters are keepers. Christopher Healy takes pop-culture and familiar fairy tale stories and pokes fun at common motifs or gender stereotypes and turns them upside down. Because there are so many characters the emotional payoffs for The League of Princes come in different books and at different times. Ya kinda, wanna, sorta, read these books in order. This plot takes off where book two ended. For a nice balance of humor and action, then Pickety this up, as the sprites would say.

Briar Rose has supposedly been murdered by The League of Princes and princesses making them outlaws. Gustav is disgusted that the "girls" are included on the Wanted posters, but then these are not the brightest princes. In fact, unlike the classic fairy tale where the man saves the princess, it is usually the princesses saving the princes after they've made a mess out of a rescue mission. Each character has a unique skill that comes into play during the action scenes that results in saving the group. Even the most inept characters such as Duncan and Snow help out in some weird way whether untangling knots (Duncan's talent) or hurdling an object with the precision of a major league pitcher (Snow's talent). Teamwork is one of many themes in this series and this crew of noble ninnies never accomplishes anything until they work together.

In Chapter one, Prince Frederic's father, King Wilberforce, worries about his son's safety. Book two has them arguing and Wilberforce tells Ella to leave the palace because she is a bad influence on Frederic, getting him into dangerous adventures. Frederic, in turn, gets mad at his dad and leaves the castle. Book 3 starts with Wilberforce looking for Frederic's whereabouts and questioning Frederic's valet, Reginald, who doesn't answer but tells the King that he needs to treat his son like a man and stop mollycoddling him. When Wilberforce responds stupidly, Reginald gets sarcastic. Wilberforce says, "'You're being cheeky with me, aren't you, Reginald?' 'Cheeky sire?' the valet replied. 'You're giving me cheek. Sass. Cheeky sass.' [great wordplay... I read that wrong the first time, did you?] 'I would never dream of it, Your Highness. Look at all those medals on your chest: Best Posture, Team Solitaire Champion, Silkiest Mustache. I have nothing but the utmost respect for a monarch with so many ...amazing accomplishments to his credit.'" Giggling in an uncomfortable seat at the Amsterdam airport, I felt warm breath on my arm as the kid next to me leaned over to glance at my book. I gave her a thumbs up. Yep, this is a book to recommend.

Frederic seems to have made the most progress emotionally out of all the characters and by the end of this book even his father has learned to look beyond his own goal of self-preservation to help others. Frederic seems to have embraced his geekiness and has moments where he's surprisingly witty. At one point he outsmarts the villains and likes it when they acknowledge his brains. Frederic is not a character that I ever thought I would call intelligent, but he seems to be coming into his own. When he sits in pajamas and has a heart-to-heart conversation with Rapunzel it seems that he's matured in a humorous way. Healy does a great job balancing gags, action, and meaning in the series. Briar Rose is probably my next pick in the pack for changing the most. Gustav's character falls in love but he's still trying to find self-confidence. Liam is a chauvinist that is now saying he's worried about Ella's safety. This capey guy's ego keeps blinding him in relationships. Don't worry. I won't go through all twelve characters. The pattern continues as from previous books where the princes are the main protagonists and the females their foils.

Healy pokes fun at conventions and skips along with word plays from start to finish. Frederic notices that the Wanted posters picture of him are so accurate of him he can't deny he's the person in them when captured, "The artist we hire to do our family portraits makes me look like I"m half goblin, the sculptor who crafts the League's victory statue gives me a nose like a toucan, but the guy who draws the Wanted poster? He nails it."  Snow White parodies Disney's "Whistle While You Work" song, "Dunky, you know I'm never one to shy away from chores - they provide an excellent opportunity for whistling." I'm telling you, Healy is a pop-culture sponge. Liam reminded me of Seuss when he called, "twinkle-bugs," "twiddle-bugs" (as in Dr. Seuss's, Muddle Puddle Tweetle Poodle Beetle Noodle Bottle Paddle Battle). Then you have all the made-up words from Duncan that sounds like Winnie-the-Pooh. Rapunzel rides a mare named, Pippi that made me think of Pippi Longstocking. Then there's the pirate, Orangebeard and the Djinni in a bottle that loves the word, "Baribunda" and says it whenever the chance arises. Duncan names the kraken, "Cecil" and the ship is called, "The Wet Walnut." And a character named, Val Jeanval, is a wordplay on the character, Jean Valjean, from "Les Miserable." Here's a good line by Gustav, "I"m irrigated because I"m tired of being on the run." To which Frederic replies, "Igitated... or irritated. I'm not sure which one you meant." Honestly... Healy's an ADHD version of the Brothers Grimm. Or "goofnoodle."

His creation of different character voices is a hoot. Only one pirate, Gabberman, talks like one. "So we'll first be needin' to untie them big ropes. If I could just figger out where they're attached..." Then there is the Djinni, "You are the possessor of the fabled Bottle of Baribunda, gateway to the realm of Baribuna, home of the Djinni of Baribunda." He's your typical crazed genie from being bottled up for hundreds of years, but this one is frustrated at being cut off from giving his spiel when he mists out of his glass cage. And I'm not even going to get into the Elf who wants respect and Greenfang that never gives up on a mission. Or the boy that wants power. Or the woman, Val, that joins the princesses, Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters, or ffff, as Snow dubbed them (Duncan is rubbing off on her). Now say, "ffff," out loud.

Marvel should make a movie out of this series.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Rose (Rose #1) by Holly Webb

Some authors do such a good job slowly divulging the plot. It's similar to how we trained our puppy; a trail of broken treat crumbs snaking across the floor into her kennel at bedtime. Holly Webb leaves clue-crumbs spaced at just the right distance leaving me in eager anticipation of the next event. I'm not very tolerant of slow-paced plots and if the character isn't interesting or the writing beautiful I will abandon the book in a snap. This book was entertaining with its spunky main character, Rose, but it also shows class differences and attitudes between rich people and servants. Even though not much happens in the beginning, Rose either does or has enough odd things happen to her to keep me chugging happily along.

The Victorian setting is flavored with a magical twist. Only rich people can practice magic because it is expensive and when Rose gets a housemaid job at Mr. Fountain's mansion she's ecstatic. Happy to be chosen out of all the girls at St. Bridget's Home for Abandoned Girls, Rose has always dreamed of making an income and being independent. She tries to hide that she has a smidge of magic, thinking she'll get fired if her upper class magical employers discover her secret. When Rose discovers her best friend has disappeared along with other children in town, she decides to use her magic skills to find them. Freddie, Mr. Fountain's apprentice, mentors her on magic as they try to solve the mystery.

Rose is a likable character. She takes action or holds back out of self-preservation when necessary. She doesn't want to acknowledge her magic because she doesn't want to lose her job. She's worked so hard to become independent it is easy to see why she is so cautious. Circumstances force her to reveal her abilities to Freddie and the talking magical cat, Gus. She doesn't want adults to know her abilities from her employers to the other servants who are suspicious and frightened of magic. Her magic frightens her at times too. She denies her magical skills at first and tries to give logical explanations as to why her story came to life in a picture form while she was telling it to Maisie. Her denial turns to acceptance eventually and the slow process of self-realization is one of the character developments I really enjoyed.

I would have liked more of Rose's background and exploration of why magic is in the upper class. The reader is not sure if orphan Rose is of an upper class background or if she is lower class. I hope it is the later for it would be more interesting if the lower class had magic too, but they just do not know how to use it or if it is being suppressed by those in power. Of course, this is a short book and that would have made it denser perhaps losing the interest of the young reader. It is tricky balancing action that moves things along versus slogging through backstory. But I have to mention it because I kept waiting for it to be addressed as I was reading and it never was. Perhaps in the sequels, it will be addressed.

Freddie comes across as a snob who becomes intrigued by Rose and goes out of his way to be her friend when his curiosity gets the better of him. Gus, the talking cat, adds humor and looks out for the two children as they pursue the villains. Freddie's sister, Isabella, is a spoiled brat that is so used to getting her way that it is amazing when the adventure brings out the best in her and her stubbornness is used for the good of others. The differences in what Rose would like to say but knows she can't due to class differences is ripe for discussion. She's good at manipulating the children without getting them in trouble. She also diffused Freddie's jealousy of her powerful magic by her self-denial. She really didn't want it and he couldn't understand her rejection of such a powerful gift and desire to be a servant. The character developments are quite well-done. The end has some violence that might disturb some. The villain has some blood-drinking actions that threaten to kill some children. A good addition for your library.

4 Smileys

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Nethergrim (The Nethergrim Trilogy #1) by Matthew Jobin

This book falls short of its potential. While it has moments where it shines, most of the time the pacing is too slow and the characterizations are stereotyped and choppy. Young readers will like the tight bonds of friendship that are formed between the three main characters and the monsters are good and creepy. The medieval setting is easy to visualize. The tale slants more toward the dark side of human nature. John Marshal provides some relief in being a decent person; however, most of the adults in this tale are cruel, petty, and condescending toward youths. Sometimes they vacillate between bullishness and loving such as Edmund's dad. I wasn't sure of his intentions half the time. Sometimes he seemed bad and other times good. Frankly most of the villagers didn't seem like they were worth saving from the mean-spirited younger brother to the nasty father. I found it hard to be vested in the characters.

The main character, Edmund Bale, wants to be a wizard. He loves books and is mocked by his family for reading. His father thinks it distracts him from learning how to run the Inn so he burns all his books. Edmund is in love with Katherine, a tomboy that wants to be a knight. She is in love with a noble boy and is oblivious to Edmund's affections. Her father is John Marshal, a decent man that has learned from his mistakes and cares for others. Tom is the third supporting character who is physically abused by his owner.

When monsters attack Edmund's village and children disappear, the trio decides to defeat the main culprit, The Nethergrim. It takes over half of the book before the action starts. I almost abandoned it several times, but then a bread crumb of action would be sprinkled here and there and I'd pick it up again. The characters change from feeling trapped to choosing their own destinies. Katherine's characterization bothered me. She is teased for being big and surprised when people like her since she doesn't fit the classic beauty mold. I just finished Frostborn in which the female character embraces and rejoices in her size. She could have cared less what another boy thought of her, unlike this character who only seems to see herself through the eyes of men. Tom is a stereotypical abused orphan with low self-esteem. Maybe the sequel will get down to more action and the characters can grow in a meaningful way.

2 Smileys


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sky Raiders (Five Kingdoms #1) by Brandon Mull

This is a fun read with nonstop action. Cole is trick-or-treating with his sixth grade friends when they are kidnapped for their "shaping" skills and taken through a portal to another world. The land is named, The Outskirts, one of the five kingdoms that exhibits a unique type of magic. The High King of the Outskirts is looking for Shapers and the best ones come from Earth. Cole and his friends will be sold as slaves and when it is discovered Cole has no shaping ability, a special magical power of creating things out of nothing, he is quickly sold to the Sky Raiders. Cole's gig involves scouting sky castles for magical artifacts. If he can survive 50 missions he can move to a less dangerous job. The only problem is that most scouts die before reaching that goal.

Cole's feels responsible for his friends kidnapping. They didn't want to go trick-or-treating at the house and he talked them into it. When an opportunity arises for Cole to find them, he ends up on an adventure where he discovers people from other kingdoms with different powers and rogue magic. This is the first in a series where more questions come up than are answered. It sets up for the next book that I expect will do more world building and explain the complex dream world Cole finds himself in. As is, this story had an unfinished feel to it.

I found myself enjoying the action but not always understanding the governing structure of the rulers. Each kingdom has a special power and the High King is trying to control all the powers, but I'm not sure what those powers are in every kingdom. The High King doesn't interact with the characters and is an absentee villain. His flunkies do his work for him. There is a romantic triangle between three of the characters that causes them to argue much of the time.

Cole has some latent power that I hoped would flare into existence but that must be in a sequel. The overarching message is Cole must save his friends. The author never quite explores in-depth the illusion of dreams. His alternate world has a surreal feel, but the abstractness doesn't resemble any message. Mull knows how to build worlds and I like his monsters, but it seems there were too many holes in this plot. Guess I'll have to read book 2. I like Mull's writing. It's entertaining and very creative.

3 Smileys

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #4) by Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale entertained people during an "Author Klatch" at the American Library Association conference this summer. The man never took a breath. Holding his iPad like an auctioneer, he showed the different helmets from this book giving funny facts and holding the attention of the ten people at the table. He had about three minutes to promote his book before a bell rang and he moved on to the next table. His pacing in real life is reflected in his Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales series. The latest novel, book 4, is a breathless overview of the complexities of World War I and all the players. Hale knows how to simplify facts, add humor, and provide visual aides that help not only students, but adults learn history. I always snag some weird fact from his graphic novels; this one had "Cher Ami" the hero pigeon. The countries are represented by animals adding terrific humor to a sober tale. His portrayal of the ever-growing mythical god, Ares, shows him normal sized and angry to gigantic and maniacal by the end, illustrating the insanity of the war. That said, the topic is so big and so overwhelming, I didn't like this book as well as the other three. Of course, I read it on a 25 hour start-to-finish trip to another country, so perhaps my jet lag was mirroring the war weariness of WWI. Hale's books are brilliant. I just wouldn't recommend starting with this one.

Nathan Hale (the character) tells Hangman and Provost about WWI using formal language that parodies so many dry historical textbooks students slog through in school. Provost loves it and Hangman is horrified. He wants something funny. Something exciting. He wants cute little animals. Hale obliges Hangman and the countries argue when they want similar animals. The Americans end up being bunnies and British bulldogs in a funny argument between the Provost and Hale. The animals help put some emotional distance between the reader and bloody war; however, the mind-blowing scale of death and destruction with the advent of trench warfare and new weaponry is still conveyed. The war ended more on weariness than one concluding victory.

I always learn more details from Hale (the author) than I ever did in my history classes. He adds little quirky facts that are memorable such as the assassination of Duke Ferdinand. I didn't know about the foiled first attempt and the Duke not seeking safety. Nor did I know about the cyanide pill that didn't work for the assassin. Hale shows the use of gas masks and the gas being changed during the war from chlorine to the deadlier phosgene. He shows how nationalism affected the war and how the Russian Revolution was an outgrowth of the conflicts. He covers so much ground and makes it fairly easy to understand. An amazing series.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

Don't read this book if you are hungry. The descriptions of food and images had me drooling. Most of the time. The cooked rat didn't sound good. Katherine Rundell is a good writer creating a world where an eccentric bachelor, Charles Maxim, raises an eccentric orphan girl, Sophie. Both are survivors of a shipwreck that left baby Sophie floating in a cello case with no identification. Charles takes her in and their unconventional lifestyle involves her wearing pants, eating dinner off books, writing on walls, and climbing roofs. Charles heart is in the right place but the National Childcare Agency doesn't think so. They believe Sophie is too wild and a man raising a teenage girl is not right. When they threaten to put her in an orphanage the two seek out her birth mother. With the help of the orphan, Matteo, Sophie has all sorts of rooftop adventures before solving the mystery of the shipwreck.

The plot doesn't answer all the questions about Sophie's mom and the shipwreck. I wonder if there will be a second book. While some of the adventures are completely unbelievable, they are quite fun. It's always fun pretending you are an amazing acrobat that can pick up skills after one lesson. (I fantasize about learning a language in one lesson.) Charles lets Sophie be herself and does not force her to conform to society. She develops into a strong girl that knows right from wrong and is fiercely independent. He explains his unique parenting skills to the childcare representatives, but they are too narrow-minded to recognize that he is a good parent in the areas that matter.

The scene with the government official that won't give Charle's public information shows that he has a backbone too. It is easy to see how Sophie got hers. The start is a bit slow as the relationship between Sophie and Charles is established. The pace picks up when she starts having adventures with Matteo. A fun romp for the patient reader that likes fantasy and a Dickens-like setting.

3 Smileys

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander is a poet who is not afraid to experiment. His choice of fiction verse mirrors the rhythm of the sport basketball and music. Now, I'm no musician. Nor am I poet. But I did see quite a bit going on in this terrific story that layers the complexity of family relationships with the beat of a bouncing basketball. From the beginning chapter you have a concrete poem using gerunds to reflect the movement of the sport and its fast pace. When I Googled "gerunds" and "poetry" I saw quite a few hits that said to avoid it when writing poems. Most argue that gerunds are passive; however, Alexander shows that it has a musical quality that reflects the action of basketball. His sentences don't come across passive. They move. Nor do they stick with one literary format. No worries. You don't get chapter-upon-chapter of gerunds. Alexander uses this style mostly when the protagonist is on the court with the ball playing a ratta-tat-tat beat off the palm of his hand. You could call this book style a "crossover" of experimentation that is a slam dunk in the end. While the topic is more middle school, grade 5 students will like it as well. A great addition to your library.

Josh Bell and his thirteen-year-old twin brother, J.B, are phenomenal middle school basketball players. Josh goes by the nickname, Filthy McNasty, from a song by jazz musician, Horace Silver. Josh can dunk the ball and likes how his dreadlocks separate him from J.B's shaved head. He's a forward and J.B. is a shooting guard. When J.B. falls in love, Josh finds he doesn't like being alone. Rather than dealing with his anger in a healthy way, he takes it out on the court with the basketball.

Josh's mom is an assistant principal of the school and she won't tolerate Josh's physical display of anger. She punishes him and J.B. won't talk to Josh. Meanwhile Josh can't seem to fix the mess he's created because he won't face his feelings. The subtle storyline is an understatement in the complexities of relationships. Josh's dad played professional basketball in Europe before an injury ended his career. His health is not the best and while the mom seems to understand the seriousness of his hypertension, the boys do not. When she argues with the dad about taking care of himself, the dad charms his way out of her concern causing her to put off forcing him going to the doctor.

The author creates an authentic voice in this middle class family and ego of a good athlete. Josh likes the glory of the game and being the top goal-scorer on the team. He talks big about his skills and even when he fails he has this positive mental image of himself doing great feats on the court. This imagery makes it no surprise that he performs well under pressure in the big game. It also shows why he decided to play in the game at the end versus being with his family. He is similar to his father in his love of basketball. They both love the crowds and Josh deals with life by playing the sport. He says he won't miss the game for a "maybe" and it is unclear what will happen to his dad.

In an interesting question-question session between father and son it becomes clear that his dad knows he'll play in the game. And I meant question-question, not question-answer. The two kind of answer each other and kind of don't. The father knows that the J.B. won't play in the big game and he wants Josh to play. He knows that he would do the same thing if he was in the Josh's position. Later when Josh has to make the decision he admits as much. I did have to go back and read the chapter, "For Dad" because I missed the importance of it the first time around. It confused me because I didn't understand the communication going on between J.B. and Josh. Alexander is very subtle with details. Plus, I was distracted by the format. I liked the non-rhyming couplets in this chapter. The choice creates white space with minimal words accenting the inner turmoil of Josh as he is on the court with his thoughts.  The imagery and emotion packed into such a small space is like a punch or bounce of a basketball. Quick and punctuated.

The chapter on Josh's play-by-play is supposed to sound like an announcer's voice. Again it shows Josh fantasizing he's a great star or player, a common activity athletes or viewers do in sports. The format is mostly free verse but there is wordplay and rhyming that has a lyrical quality. I really enjoyed the energetic use of poetry that reflects basketball and the characters' emotions.

Josh likes learning new words and the chapters that define them also show him trying to understand his relationship with his dad and brother. The short chapters on Rules in basketball are more rules for living life and having healthy relationships with others. Josh is intelligent and cocky with an introspective ability that makes the reader know that he will be productive person who can live a happy life.

5 Smileys

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Frostborn (Thrones & Bones #1) by Lou Anders

The school year starts and I crank into tornado mode whirling through checklists that leave a swath of debris in my office. Reading this story was like the eye of the storm. I ended up sneak reading in-between lesson planning, system updates, meetings, and lunch before devouring it whole for dinner. Consider yourself warned. Read this book on the weekend or when you have a large chunk of uninterrupted time. The action-packed, well-plotted story has plenty of humor and a female character that defies stereotypes. A biracial girl named, Thianna, searching for her identity along with the message to girls to embrace yourself no matter what your size makes this story rise above your average fare. Boys will like the male protagonist, Karn, who loves to play the board game, Thrones and Bones, and uses strategy learned in it to defeat his enemies. He must face responsibility and discover his strengths and passion. The Norse mythology and Viking or Scandinavian history creates a world that is easy to visualize and solidly anchored in high fantasy. The linnorm or dragon, Orm, is like J√∂rmungandr from the Norse myths and the burial mounds where Karn crosses paths with zombies or "After Walkers" are patterned after the Viking burial grounds. This will appeal to fans of Percy Jackson, The Lord of the Rings series, and The Inheritance Cycle. Don't miss it.

Thianna is the daughter of a giant and human. At seven feet tall she is about half the size of most giants with the unique ability of being fast and agile. She struggles with her mixed heritage and is not accepted by some peers her age. When her dad gives her a gift from her mom to remember her human side, he sets in motion a series of events that cause evil people to hunt Thianna. Little does she know that the gift is a magical artifact that gives great power to the owner. While fleeing for her life, Thianna discovers how her mother ended up with the giants and must decide what to do with the gift. She ends up crossing paths with twelve-year-old Karn, a human whose dad trades with the giants. Karn will inherit his father's farm and become a Hauld. This is the most powerful position a free man can become in his culture and means the farm has been in the family for six or more generations. The Vikings traded in silver and Karn receives a lesson from his father. Even though he bumbles his first trade, he shows that he is a clever person with a quick mind as he corrects his mistake and challenges the buyer to a game of Throne and Bones, a board game made up by the author. This is one example of the terrific mix of Viking or early Scandinavian history facts and fiction.

Karn gets duped by a greedy uncle because he does not want the responsibility of running the farm. This causes a series of devastating events that make him decide to flee home. While on the run he meets up with Thianna who is being chased by wyverns. She saves him many times using her strength and agility. The author uproots stereotypes and when Karn calls Thianna enormous and big, it pleases her immensely. Strength is admired among the giants and she likes that she's the brawn in their relationship saving Karn from death many times. The culture she comes from plays violent physical games and she is disappointed when Karn just wants to play board games or "bored games" as she likes to joke.

Thianna's biracial background captures what it is like to be a minority. She is part human and part giant. Her human mother has died and she is not accepted by everyone in the community. In particular, she is bullied by a boy-giant and peer named, Thudgery. She knows how to outwit him and doesn't take him seriously until he puts her life in danger due to his intolerance of her. Not only does Thudgery show that he does not respect differences, he makes decisions that threaten others in the community. His illogical actions show a deluded young bigot whose narrow-minded views limit him from reaching his potential as a human. No one changes him in the end and he takes his friends with him starting his own village. While I envisioned him as the same age as Thianna, he must be older. He's only described as a "young giant." History has many examples of harmful intolerance due to race, social status, religion, or politics. This can be a good launch for discussions on tolerance and its definition in societies. Tolerance does not mean the acceptance of bad behavior, but it does mean treating others with respect.

As others in the community sacrifice their lives to help Thianna, she slowly realizes that they do accept her for being part giant and part human. At first Thianna wants to forget that she is human and be only giant. Her anger and resentment slowly give way to curiosity. And as she interacts with humans through trading and has adventures with Karn, she realizes that she wants to find out more about her human heritage. While she knows she is physically stronger than humans and that she's saved Karn countless times, she recognizes that Karn has saved her too using his intelligence to outwit his enemies. When she takes a last name, something giants don't do, it is the beginning of her learning to celebrate both cultures and find her identity as she moves toward independence.  A good message of focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses.

For a clever character, I thought Karn was a bit naive regarding his uncle and his motives, but he did adore him and obviously had a blind spot. Karn is obsessed with the game, Thrones and Bones. As he flees with Thianna, he discovers that he assesses the situation just like in the game and that he can use strategies that are similar when dealing with dangerous people. Later he finds that running a farm can be similar to his favorite board game and that it isn't as boring as he first thought. He faces his responsibilities and learns to not resent his inheritance. Thianna still doesn't know the entire story as to why her mother left her people and at the end, she sets off to find some answers. A nice breadcrumb that will make me keep my eyes peeled for the sequel.

5 Smileys

Saturday, August 9, 2014

PathFinder (TodHunter Moon #1) by Angie Sage

I thought this was a new series but it is a mixture of the Septimus Heap characters with newcomers, Alice TodHunter Moon, nicknamed Tod, and siblings, Oskar and Fergie. Tod is at an initiation of PathFinders, a group of children that have the unique powers of being able to breathe underwater. Not everyone has this ability and the only way to find out is to risk drowning. When Tod observes her aunt eavesdropping on the secret meeting, she talks to her dad about it. He says he'll ask the aunt to leave but then disappears at sea on a fishing expedition. Tod's mother is dead and the aunt takes care of her but is abusive. Tod and Oskar are worried about the village. Children are disappearing and when Oskar's sister, Fergie, does late one night while sleeping in bed, it becomes personal. When Oskar becomes suspicious of some comments made by the aunt, he rescues Tod from monsters. The two set out to find Fergie and uncover a villainous plot. While the action sequences are good and the monsters interesting, the distractions from referring to incidents in the previous Septimus Heap series from crossover characters left the plot lacking in tightness and cohesiveness. If you read that series then you'll probably like this but if you haven't you might be scratching your head in spots.

I received an advanced reader's copy and some of the beginning chapter transitions and some backstory were clunky. Perhaps it will appear differently in the final copy. Once the action kicks into high gear and the plot sticks mainly with Tod then I was hooked. I would have preferred less Septimus Heap characters. I thought they were a distraction to Tod's storyline. I also think that readers will enjoy it most if they are familiar with the Septimus Heap series. It is confusing otherwise because Sage mentions many past incidents that happened to characters but doesn't explain them all. If she did it would slow the plot down even more which is why I think there should have been less.

The author creates tension by having the characters disagree with each other even if it contradicts the character's traits. Sometimes Oskar would be level-headed and other times impulsive. Sometimes the adults believed the kids and other times they didn't even though their past history would suggest otherwise. I found the pattern tiring, but then I read the book in one sitting and most readers won't do that. (I was stuck on an airplane for for 10 hours.) A light entertaining read.

3 Smileys


Friday, August 8, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Two boys came tooling out of the boy's bathroom yelling in nonstop panicked voices, "Mrs. Middleton! The toilet is plugged and water's on the floor! We flushed two dead goldfish down the toilet." "Huh?" I burbled "You what?" "We had goldfish as class pets. They died! Mr. Hudson told us to flush 'em..." I made the time-out signal with my hands. "Your teacher sent you from the fourth floor to the library to flush them down the toilet? That doesn't make sense." By now a school of students were swimming around me all talking at once. I slapped on my teacher face hiding my confusion and said. "Don't worry, we'll fix it." Come to find out Mr. Hudson, grade 4, told them to flush them down the toilet by his classroom. I have at least 100 students in my library after school and, whoohoo, did they love the goldfish incident. The hot topic bubbled the next day with classes that came to the library for lessons. "The Fourteenth Goldfish" begins with a similar goldfish story except eleven-year-old Ellie's mom has been replacing dead goldfish without her knowing it for seven years. Ellie thinks she has an immortal fish until her mom tells her the truth. Then she "...gave Goldie Thirteen a toilet-bowl funeral." See why I thought about my two Goldie Flushers in the library? Ka-pow! What a great beginning.

Ellie's best friend is now into volleyball and doesn't have time for her. When Ellie finds out from her flakey babysitter that her Mom will be late because her grandpa was at the police station, Ellie has no clue what is going on. Then her mom shows up with a teenage version of her grandpa and she's even more confused. Her Grandpa Melvin has managed to reverse the aging process by using a jellyfish that has the ability to regenerate itself. When he tests it on himself and becomes a teenager he is arrested in his lab for trespassing because no one recognizes his younger version. Gramps is desperate to get back to his lab and retrieve his research and with the help of Ellie and her new friend, Raj, the three have all sorts of adventures.

Jennifer Holm's characters are out there and memorable. Gramps only wants Chinese food for dinner and his fashion sense is either old man clothes or he raids Ellie's mom's closet. When he wears her black leggings I did cringe. Ew! Raj has the Goth look going with a hieroglyphic earring and black garb. Ellie's character arc involves her discovering that she really likes science and questioning when science goes too far and actually hurts humanity. The message of not giving up and new beginnings swim in and out of the plot. Marie Curie and Oppenheimer are discussed as support for these themes.

The title and cover of this book are clever. Just like Ellie's goldfish that never died, her Gramps is the fourteenth goldfish. And the beaker with the partial jellyfish floating off the page show how experimenting with science has made what seems impossible, possible. Then there is Holm's great lines. Here's a favorite of when her Gramps was complaining about aging: "'They stick you away in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities just because you're old.' Kind of like middle school. [Ellie thinks.]" An undertow of humor will propel you through this book.

4 Smileys



Monday, August 4, 2014

Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor by Jon Scieszka, Brian Biggs

If I get a request for juvenile fiction novels about science, it feels like a black hole. There just isn't much out there. Here's a book that fills a much needed gap in children's literature. Add some of Scieszka humor and even a non-science lover like me can enjoy this fare. While protagonist, Frank Einstein, encapsulates a 10-year-old genius that is crazy for science, his robotic sidekicks are more like Frick and Frack (Google them if you don't know who they are), one has brains and the other brawn-except their names are Klink and Klank. Now say Frank's name out loud. Frank Einstein. Sounds like Frankenstein, right? Plus the birth of Klink and Klank happens the same way as Frankie the monster. A bolt of lightning creates a spark that animates the two robots. Techie-inventor Klink builds strong, huggie Klank as Frank enters a science contest to help his grandfather save his FixIt shop from being bought out by a wealthy family whose son is Frank's rival, T. Edison. Snap up a copy and revel in Frank's passion for science and inventions.

Scieszka cleverly applies the three laws of robots from one of Isaac Asimov's short stories in "I, Robot." Frank and T. Edison use these laws when dealing with Klink and Klank. Scieszka follows similar themes found in the Asimov's robot series such as the benefits of robots in helping humans and providing humanity. Most fiction before he wrote his series portrayed robots that generated fear in humans such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Scieszka creates his own spin on Asimov's themes and original ones as well. While T. Edison doesn't fear Klink and Klank, he doesn't see the benefit of the robots. They are a means to an end which is to hurt Frank. There are many popular culture references to "I, Robot" and the three laws, from Star Trek to the Simpsons. Scieszka's addition of Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants by Dav Pilkey is full of kid humor. However, his creation of T. Edison's evil sidekick chimp that uses sign language is pure Scieszka.

The plot is predictable and straightforward. It is for younger readers in that aspect, but the science concepts are not dumbed-down or simple. I would not have been able to visualize the inventions without the aide of diagrams and illustrations. The fact that the book has the two separate makes a huge difference in understanding and separating science facts from the storyline. I was given an advanced copy and would like to see the final copy. I was unsure of the character Watson and had problems visualizing him in the beginning. He is best friends with Frank and the two are working on their science projects. I thought the prologue was clunky too. I didn't get it until the end when it showed up again in the storyline. I see what Scieszka was doing but not until then. Maybe that's okay.  This unique series is a must for young science lovers.

4 Smileys

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Misadventures of Salem Hyde: Big Birthday Bash (The Misadventures of Salem Hyde #2) by Frank Cammuso

This graphic novel series reminds me of getting up early Saturday morning to watch my favorite cartoons. Salem's lightning bolt pigtails and knack for losing control of her witchy spells while her snarky, mostly inefficient mentor Whammy tries to help her is full of puns and dry humor. I didn't laugh as hard as the first book but it's another whirlwind day in the life of Salem whose best friend is having a birthday party and didn't invite her. So she thinks. Shelly, her arch nemesis, never gave her the invitation. When at the party, Shelly starts to blab about it being boring, so Salem decides to blow things up physically. Or did she shrink everyone? When humongous insects attack things get iffy for the party goers. I marvel at Frank Cammuso's talent to pack his cartoons with energy, expressions, deadpan looks, slapstick comedy, and a whole lotta fun. Don't miss the brain freeze picture. Har-har. It hurt to look at it.

The books in this series are quick reads with usually two color illustrations. This one is pink and black. At the start Salem is learning a spell that she's having problems with and she blows herself up into a tall version of herself. I'm not talking about a stretch version or Shaq-sized Salem. I'm talking about a water tower-sized version of Salem. The drawings had me howling as she tries to hide and run home before her dad finds out she was messing with spells. Giantess Salem walking a bridge like a tight rope because her shoe doesn't fit, tongue hanging out as she concentrates on each narrow step. Then her father is in his car phoning home that he will be late because of a traffic jam and the reader sees a ginormous pink shoe blocking the road. Good stuff. Don't miss it.

4 Smileys