Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman, Lorenzo Mattotti (Illustrations)

Neil Gaiman's creepy books are quite popular with the students, and this will fit in nicely with "Coraline" and "The Graveyard Book." The black and white illustrations look like woodcuts used for inking, mirroring the woodcutter father in the tale. They add to the atmosphere of hunger and survival. Composed more like the original fairy tales that were written for adults and grisly, Gaiman's take is less violent, but still dark for he has a woodcutter and his wife that purposefully lose their children in the woods so they will die. The two parents think this is the only solution to saving themselves in the face of a famine caused by war.

While the mood is dark, Gaiman balances it with light, just as the illustrations do too. The woodcutter father loves his children and truly regrets leaving them in the woods. He's just a dolt that can't come up with another solution. The mother is more grim (or Grimm) for she clearly wants to save only herself and initially tells the father to "kill them." The father refuses to do a monstrous act like that and instead agrees to "lose" the children in the forest.

The son overhears this conversation and leaves rocks to find his way home with his sister. They return to an overjoyed father who takes them out to the forest to die again. The second time they leave, Hansel only has time to get bread and the birds eat it making it impossible for them to get home. Hansel is clever and while his sister does not seem so at first, she is the one that outwits the old witchy woman. She pushes her into the fire by pretending to be dumb and not know how to cook.

The sparse writing reminds me of some of the original fairy tales I have read that were written for adults, but Gaiman makes it his own giving it a modern flavor. The Author's notes explain how the fairy tale has changed over the years and should not be missed. Those that are purists to the tale they grew up with and want it to read like that might be disappointed on this take. Personally, I ate it up once and read it again for dessert. Truly delicious.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fish In A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

I read oodles of books. Always have. Always will. Sure wish these blogs were around when I was growing up in the age of typewriters. My reading experiences are quite different than the students I chat with on a daily basis. They come at books with their own unique perspectives. Just like me. Just like you. This book has an appealing emotional punch that is similar to "Wonder," by R.J. Palacio and terrific character development. As an adult reader who has many favorites when it comes to books on children with disabilities, I'm getting pickier over what is original and stands out in the herd. While some parts of this story were touching, others fell short.

Sixth grader Ally is in school and her teacher is going on maternity leave. She asks her students to write a short paragraph on themselves for the long-term substitute teacher. The teacher and Ally get in a power struggle because Ally doesn't want anyone to know she can't read or write. Ally gets angry at being forced to write and scribbles hard on the desktop because she knows she'll get out of the activity. The teacher sends her to the principal and cleans the desk. Hmmm... usually the kid would clean the desk but this is one frustrated teacher. And she plays right into Ally's hands.

Ally's brain will think one thing and she'll blurt out another. Making friends is like washing peanut butter out of hair. She is bullied by Shay but also laughed at constantly by other kids in class. Most think she is trying to be funny and her quick-witted responses are often accidental - she doesn't mean to be a jokester or sassy-mouthed. The result is she fools the adults around her and successfully hides her disability. Other outliers in her class are picked on such as Albert, the scientific genius; Oliver, the ADHD tornado; and Keisha, the cooking prodigy. When the new teacher shows up he figures out that Ally has dyslexia and the two bond as she deals with her learning difficulty. More importantly, he draws out the potential in her and she learns to read and believe in herself.

The beginning sets up the stereotyped teacher that can't manage students and is exasperated by an uncooperative student. Her character is flat and perhaps it makes her a more obvious foil to the substitute teacher, Mr. Daniels; however, her lack of complexity made me not as engaged in the plot until Mr. Daniels chalks his way into the classroom scenes. Ally's inner monologue shows the emotional turmoil of a kid that is full of self-doubts. Students will empathize with Ally as she agonizes over making friends, feeling like a loser, and dealing with her problem. She lashes out at others and desperately wants to fit in with her peers. When she makes friends with the other misfits, Albert and Keisha, she finds power in friendship. Although when Ally first meets Keisha she asks her if she likes eggs and rambles on about all the different ways she likes eggs. This painful exchange magnifies her social ineptness. By the end this drastically awkward girl has all but disappeared.

The middle of the story takes off with characters defined by distinct traits and voices. Ally's brother shows that he has an engineer-type brain but suffers from the same learning fate as Ally. The dad is deployed overseas in the Middle East and the mom is doing the best she can with her children. The brother's ingenious design of windshield wipers without a motor reveal his innovative and inventive spirit. Mr. Daniel's character shows he's not always perfect either. Sometimes he singles Ally out to praise her and give her confidence that makes her feel like a charity case, other times he shares her secret. The complexity of trying to teach Ally is captured not only with her fragile ego, but with Mr. Daniel's not always making the right choices when dealing with her. This strengthens the authenticity of their relationship and shows that Ally can forgive even when she's been hurt by adults. I thought Mr. Daniel got preachy at times changing the focus from Ally's internal changes to a slight didactic tone on how to behave, especially at the end.

The humor balances the darker themes of bullies, anger, and misunderstandings. Ally tells Albert and Keisha why Shay is hell-bent on making her life miserable and it is easy to see why they don't get along. And it is Ally's fault. I won't spoil it, because it is so Ally. Needless to say Ally's mistake and Shay's relentless put-down's are understandable. Shay's mother is a bully, as well as her daughter, making Shay's character more understandable and engaging. The author creates strong characters that pull the reader into the plot along with themes such as self-acceptance, confidence, and communication, to name a few.

The ending doesn't seem authentic because Ally goes from this impulsive kid that is a bit odd to a leader in the classroom that the kids look up to, ask advice, and want to be friends with in a very short time. It did not add up with the evolution of her character. Perhaps when Keisha, Albert, and Ally fantasize about the future about how successful they will be and are dreaming big, it sent me spinning off the cliff. I just needed them to be settled in their skin and instead the focus shifts toward them being successful in the eyes of the world and that jarred with me because up to that point they were being successful in their own eyes. In the book, "Absolutely Almost," by Lisa Graff, the boy learns to accept himself without outward success and it seemed more authentic; whereas, this is more wish fulfillment. There is nothing wrong with it, but it made the resolution feel off.

Novice readers have limited emotional experiences and reading is one way they can live vicariously through characters and be exposed to emotions before they happen in real life. This exposure helps prepare them to have empathy for others. By representing the inner qualities of a character such as feelings, beliefs, assumptions, intentions, and thoughts, an author can produce a way for readers to empathize with fictional characters giving them a strong emotional engagement that supports their cognitive and social development. This book does just that. And while I'm coming at it from as an adult reader and see some holes, I know that most will want to be on team Ally. A great addition to any library.

4 Smileys

Monday, April 27, 2015

Hidden: A Child's Story of the Holocaust by Loïc Dauvillier, Marc Lizano (Illustrations), Greg Salsedo (Ink), Alexis Siegel (Translator)

The Holocaust Museum addresses the age-appropriateness of introducing the Holocaust to children. It specifies that students grades 6 and up can understand the complexities and context of the Holocaust, while younger students struggle with the scale and scope of the genocide. Elementary students can be taught tolerance and the harmfulness of prejudice, but the texts need to be more introductory in nature rather than comprehensive. Hidden provides an excellent launching point of introducing the Holocaust through the eyes of a grandma sharing her story of persecution during World War II with her granddaughter. Readers will empathize with the grandmother's fear and pain, while seeing how Jewish students were singled out and mistreated at school. The dark side of human nature is balanced with adults risking their lives in the Resistance to save the young Jewish girl and hide her from the authorities on a countryside farm.

The story is framed by the granddaughter, Elsa, getting up in the middle of the night and finding her grandmother, Dounia, crying. She crawls into her lap and asks why she is sad, so the grandmother tells her story for the first time in her life. At the end it is revealed that the son didn't even know about his mother being hidden from the Nazis. Dounia shows how deep her grief was over the trauma, but by talking to her granddaughter the story shows the possibility of her healing from her painful past.

The father tells the girl that the star she must wear is a sheriff's badge and she goes to school only to be pushed to the back of the classroom, ignored by the teacher when she knows the answer to a question, and put down by the teacher. The author does a brilliant job unfolding her innocent belief that it was a badge and how her parents in an effort to protect her didn't prepare her for the anger she had to face at school. She later learns of her friend, Isaac's public shaming in class. She and another girl with a badge/star are shunned and isolated on the playground. The color illustrations capture their downcast faces contrasting with the other smiling students playing hopscotch and tag.

When the police ransack her place, she finds a reprieve in the countryside on a farm. Working on the farm helps her forget all the frightening moments that led her to it and the reader learns about those citizens that were not Jewish, but risked their lives to help Jews escape the atrocities that were being done to eliminate them. The speech bubbles change in color to indicate when the Grandmother is talking to her granddaughter. This helps guide the narration and makes the dialogue clear.

The Charlie Brown-type illustrations are childlike and support the introductory text. Tension mounts as Dounia sees stars like graffiti on the glass of the shops owned by Jews and police hurting adults and spitting on them. The images show more than the text and reflects Dounia's bewilderment at why her city has changed into such a harsh place. When she later has to change her name to protect her identity and the people hiding her, her expression is afraid or unhappy. Eventually she learns to smile again but not before having to face physical changes in others and death.

5 Smileys

All the Answers by Kate Messner

Ah, the joys of wish-fulfillment. Remember Rita Skeeter's Quick-Quotes Quill that magically wrote when she interviewed subjects from the Harry Potter series? Most of the stories were sensational but one time it was accurate (sort of). I really want a magical pen that will write for me. Just think, papers or book reviews appear with no mistakes. No drafts. No bad-writing days. Now I'm going to add Kate Messner's magical pencil to my wish list. Imagine having a pencil that answered all your questions. Oh, the places you'd go. Or not. Twelve-year-old Ava has found such a pencil and luckily she is morally grounded and learns to not abuse the pencil's magical powers. Her friend, Sophie, on the other hand, does use the pen to hurt others and learns the hard way that she cannot control a person's free will. There's plenty of humor, emotional turmoil, and strong character development. If you liked, "Bigger Than a Breadbox," by Laurel Snyder, then you'll like this realistic book with a touch of magic.

Ava  Anderson is taking a math test when she hears answers to her questions as she writes on scratch paper. She figures out that her pencil is magical and shares her secret with her best friend, Sophie. Messner is good at creating distinct traits in her characters and Sophie is a rambunctious, tumbling gymnast that uses the curb as a balance beam and does back handsprings when she finds out a boy likes her. She's impulsive and it gets her in trouble when she uses the pencil to feel important with other kids in her grade. When she starts to share secrets about others that hurt feelings, it is Eva that reigns her in.

The two friends balance each other out. Eva is neurotically worried about the future. She has so many fears that it can be crippling. Sophie, convinces her to take risks or lets her know when she's out-of-control. Eva is particularly worried about death. Her grandma passed away five years earlier and Eva's grandpa is in a nursing home. She's also concerned about her parents getting a divorce or her mom having cancer. Many of her fears come true so she seems justified in her worries, although it was appropriate that she saw a counselor at the end to help her deal with anxiety.

The plot is a bit overly ambitious with death and divorce and cancer. Seems like one could have been dropped. The subplot of romance is light with the girls interested in boys but no one is serious for very long. It's spot-on for most middle school behavior. The grandpa's storyline is easy to figure out early in the book but it isn't resolved until the end; however, the pencil twist and where the magic comes from was not predictable. Good fantasy writing explains the source of magical powers and while some might find this far-fetched, it makes for a stronger plot. Some criticized it and I know my readers that really don't like fantasy might struggle with this unbelievable part.

The humor helps lighten the heaviness of the topics and I especially enjoyed the father and his attempt to create some famous recipe that would draw people to his general store. A large superstore is coming to town and he is trying make his small grocery store stand out so that people will choose it over the other. When he starts an oven fire and then pulls out a donut that is charred on the outside and raw on the inside, it reminded me of my sister and me making brownies. I preheated the oven and my mom had sixteen boxes of cereal stashed inside (family of seven). I set the cereal on fire and my sister and I lined up like a fire brigade chucking cereal into the kitchen sink with the faucet on full blast. Later we cooked the brownies only to discover we'd read the recipe wrong and the inside was runny. I was 16 and she was 10-years-old. I'm still a hopeless cook, just like Ava's dad.

4 Smileys

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Boy on the Edge by Fridrik Erlings

An abused and bullied boy named, Henry, searches for a true friend on a farm in the stark volcanic landscape of Iceland. He finds peace but it is not easy at his new foster home run by a childless couple, the Reverend and Emily. The Reverend is more of a screecher than a preacher, reminding Henry of the shouting bullies he endured at school and making him identify more with the outcast Satan than God.

Henry's mom has given him up to the state after he hurt her in an argument. He feels cast out of his home and is angry with the world. He has dyslexia, a debilitating stutter that makes him not talk, a clubfoot that makes him limp, and a long history of being bullied at school. When he meets foster mother, Emily, he learns kindness and begins to feel at home for the first time, especially with the farm animals. He longs for a friend, and is deeply hurt by rejection. He has anger management issues and the adults are misguided in their dealings with him. In the prologue, Fridrik Erlings reveals this as a tale of redemption for him and a chance for him to right a past wrong. Beautifully written and moving, it shows a boy's difficult journey to self-acceptance.

Two older boys, Mark and John, come to the farm, along with a younger kind boy, Ollie, that upset Henry's provisional peace. Tensions mount as Mark and John manipulate Henry so they can have a secret party with some local girls. The two boys want to escape the isolation of the farm and seek Henry's help. However, it is Ollie that threatens Henry the most for he draws Emily's attention away from Henry. Worse, Ollie hounds the illiterate Henry asking him to read. Henry does everything he can to avoid doing that and it leads to a tragic climax.

Henry doesn't speak and most of the narration is his inner monologue where he agonizes over making friends and being rejected. He is incredibly lonely finding the farm animals his closest friends. He thinks John is becoming a friend, but that changes when Mark comes to the farm. Emily helps him feel at home, but when Ollie shows up, Emily gives him her undivided attention making Henry feel lonely again. The imagery of sacrificial lambs is rich in symbolism from the animals to the people. Just like Christ died on the cross and had to be in total darkness cut off from God to take on humankind's sins, Henry feels the darkness of his anger and being cut off from others in relationships. He calls the boys at the farm children of lust and wonders if that is why the world rejects them.

The Reverend uses corporal punishment and religion to be an authoritarian figure. Even the name he has chosen for the boys, "Home of the Lesser Brethren," shows an attitude of superiority and not compassion. He bullies those around him and has no clue what it means to love another human like himself. He even preaches the gospel in a way that suits his needs. He says that when the boys misbehave they are being overtaken by the devil and the Reverend has to punish the devil in them. He punishes anyone who speaks up and questions his authority even if it is done respectfully. He makes them rebuild an altar of stones all night long to get the devil out of them or pray locked up in a boiler room.

History shows over and over people that use religion to justify actions that are contrary to the gospels; they will murder, oppress, and abuse people in God's name. The Reverend is like this. He preaches that the devil was cast out of heaven because God asked him to worship men. However, Satan was actually cast out because he wanted to replace the one true God. Ironically the real Gospel story is a warning about pride, but the haughty Reverend has baptized himself in pride missing the meaning of the scriptures. Tragically, he is a man that does not know how to love others. He just wants to rule and control the boys at the farm. Unable to love his wife, he doesn't ask anyone's opinion and is a hell and brimstone preacher. His goal is to build a church, but he does so at the expense of his marriage. On the day of his first sermon he realizes that he has lost his wife's love to Ollie and expresses regret to Henry.

The character development is particularly well-done in this book. All of them are metaphorically pushed to the edge of the cliff in their relationships. Mark wants to keep running and won't face his past or accept himself. John is pained by his parents abandoning him to the point that he suffers depression. Ollie tries to deal with the death of his parents by quoting poetry to get rid of bad memories. The Reverend does not nurture his marriage. Emily loses the twenty boys she loves because of the Reverend's need for a church. And Henry desperately wants a friend and must learn to love himself.

Emily tries to get Henry to read "The Little Prince," but he throws it over a cliff. Later Ollie tries to get him to read the same book because he wants to hear about the fox. The fox gives advice in the book on human relationships such as, "One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes." The fox also talks about a rose and it being special because it was the object of the prince's love. This ties in with the author's prologue where we discover he is Ollie in the story and Henry was a boy he didn't talk to for twenty years in real life. Instead Henry died and Ollie read his notebooks only to discover that he was the rose in Henry's life because he introduced him to books and it was through literature and writing that Henry found acceptance and peace.

This complex book might appeal to adults more than kids. The swear word "sh**" is used quite a bit and might offend some readers depending on personal taste. I thought it got repetitious with the description of the animal's defecating, but I did think it made the two older boys conversation more authentic when they were using it. While the book is dark there are moments of humor and lightness. The suicide attempt, violence, and abuse make this young adult, but they are not graphic. Henry's confusion and emotional turmoil should keep readers on the edge of their seats.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Chengli and the Silk Road Caravan by Hildi Kang

Chinese protagonists in children's books are like agate hunting on Lake Superior's shorelines. They are hard to spot among all the other rocks. This new addition will help add to the diverse books we have and fill a need for Asian characters that young readers can relate to in our school. Chengli is an orphan who gets permission from his adoptive parent to work on a caravan that is traveling the silk road for trading. The goal of the boy is to find out what happened to his father who disappeared on the silk road when he was an infant. His mother died when he was too little to get answers from her. The journey is full of hardship, dangers, and adventures as Chengli discovers what it means to grow up and discover his strengths.

The master that runs the caravan is a fair man that thirteen-year-old Chengli respects. The caravan is forced by the Emperor to have a child-princess accompany them on their journey. She is to be delivered to her husband-to-be. She reminds me of mooncakes that look gorgeous on the outside, but once you sink your teeth into them the filling might be shredded pork, fish, eggs, or sweet red beans. They are unexpected and not always pleasing to taste, but I've developed a taste for some of them over the years. The princess has tantrums most of the trip, threatens to chop off heads like a dumpling-head, and is superior to everyone around her. The dangers of the road and a kidnapping force her to mature and see her servants as human beings.

The plot and character development have some holes, especially at the end when Chengli describes the master as being like a father to him and he seems to have feelings for the princess. He has respect for the master but not enough to tell him about his moral dilemma or treat him like a father. His adoptive parent he thinks of more throughout the story than the master. The princess and him are just friends. He rescues her and cares about her but she only calls him, "Skinny Boy" or "Camel Boy," giving no indication that she is interested in him. The end made it look romantic and it should have just focused on friendship to stay in line with the character development. There is plenty of action and that will draw readers into the story the most.

The character of Fourth Brother and his actions are never really brought to full light. His last action seemed too vicious for the relationship. His character becomes flat at the end of the story. Chengli is interesting but doesn't have many unique traits that make him memorable. He's a nice kid and its a nice story, but it will be a grain of sand in my constantly shifting sand-dune-pile-memory of forgotten books.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

One Witch at a Time by Stacy DeKeyser

Rudi is back. He is first introduced in the book, "The Brixen Witch" showing a knack for getting into pickles of some sort or another that are not entirely his doing.Yet, he shoulders the responsibility when fixing the problem falls on him. He does not blame others even when he can or maybe should. Internally, his character arc shows a boy that has become smarter about life through his adventure. He thinks about what it means to be a hero and have public glory but decides later that he doesn't do what he does for adoration. He just does what has to be done. The character arc lags at times but comes on strong at the end as Rudi thinks on what makes good leaders or heroes - it implies that greedy people are not fit to lead and heroes can lose sight of what is important if they act for public recognition. Rudi is the unsung hero who has learned that this path is best for him. The twisty ending is a terrific contrast from the classic "Jack and the Beanstalk."

Rudi is ambushed by nine-year-old Susanna on his way to the market to sell a cow. The family has fallen on hard times and needs food for the table. A foreign girl is trying to sell something in the market. Rudi finds her attractive, but not enough to sell his cow for some lousy beans. Susanna, on the other hand, recognizes the beans as magic and sells the cow behind his back setting into motion a plague on the town of Brixen. Everyone knows that magic brings trouble and the Brixen Witch knows that magic from another town must be returned for balance to be restored. Rudi is called upon to right the wrong in this action-filled adventure.

While Susanna's character is spot-on, Agatha's character wasn't rounded out enough. Writing a good plot can be tricky business. You want to tease the reader along, but don't want to give away too much to soon. You don't want to be too obvious because you threaten to bore the reader and slow the pace. You also don't want the characters acting in ways that don't make sense and develop them at the same time. Too many questions surround Agatha at the beginning and Rudi doesn't ask the questions like people normally would when they have been scammed by someone.

It doesn't make sense that Agatha would steal beans, try to sell them, then help Rudi return them. Her motives are obvious that she is not to be trusted. Also Rudi never forces her to explain herself as a normal person would. He just looks at her starry-eyed and accepts everything she says. He comes off really naive which is contrary to a boy that has already saved his village. Agatha shows a person constantly serving her own self-interests. While this story has good descriptions and dialogue, the plot involving Agatha is too obvious making it feel forced. But again, I'm an adult reader. Perhaps it won't be obvious to 3rd or 4th graders.

This works as a stand alone, but I suggest reading "The Brixen Witch." It is well-written and the reader will feel like he or she knows Rudi better. The ending and its twist on "Jack and the Beanstalk," was unexpected and funny. If you like fractured fairy tales, then you will like this one.

3 Smileys

Monday, April 20, 2015

Honey by Sarah Weeks

Melody lives in Royal, Indiana with her dad. Her mom died in childbirth and her dad is a high school teacher. When he starts burning dinners, singing "You are My Sunshine," and staring off into space, it is pretty obvious he's smitten with some mystery woman. Melody talks to chain-smoking Gramp-o who has emphysema and is tethered to an oxygen tank, but he doesn't think she's right. When Melody overhears a late night call where her dad uses the word, "honey," she is determined to investigate. Rather than ask him directly, she goes to the rumor source, The Bee Hive Beauty Salon. A place full of nail polish, people, and a dog named, "Mo," she learns more than just who her dad is in love with. All sorts of miscommunications happen before things get sorted out in the end.

The character arc of Melody shows her dealing with the death of her mother and moving forward with her dad finding someone else. While she investigates she has the unsought-after help of Teeny, a six-year-old tutu-charging terror that adds humor to the plot. Nick helps Melody as well and it is through discussions with him that she reveals her fears of who she thinks her dad is marrying. When she thinks her fears come true, she gets emotional and lashes at the adults around her until the truth is revealed. 

The story unfolds from Melody and a dog named, "Mo's," point of view. Mo's chapters were cheesy, but I would be curious to get a kids point of view. They adore dogs and might like the sappy pooch pining for his one and only long-lost owner, Melody's mom. He has a vision of a girl, that happens to be Melody, hugging him and he knows they are meant to be together. The author uses Mo to give the backdrop on Melody's mom and how she died. It advances the plot but it felt forced to me and I found it boring compared to Melody's mystery. I skimmed those parts which is my usual tactic when the pace slows.

Melody's mother is a prodigy that makes the cover of Time magazine. She gives up her amazing career to be a music teacher and live in a small town. Can you see my thick eyebrows raised to my hairline? I needed more of an explanation on that one. Miss Hogan is a one-dimensional villain and her story isn't wrapped up.

Honey is a great title for this slightly sappy story. The family is loving and accepts each other. Gramp-o loves his son and granddaughter and helps out with watching Melody. Readers will feel good after reading this. Good for ages 8-10.

3 Smileys

Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake (Eleanor #3) by Julie Sternberg, Matthew Cordell (Illustrations)

This reads like an intermediate chapter book, although it is designed like a novel-in-verse. I admire authors that take risks and try different techniques, but this doesn't quite work. Writing an intermediate chapter book is extremely difficult. The vocabulary is for readers that are working toward fluency and the vocabulary and sentence structure tends to be simpler than middle grade novels. I can see how this format might lend itself to the target audience, but most of the text reads more like short sentences instead of poems. It took me about 45 minutes to hop through this plot. Even though this is book #3 in the series, it is fine as a stand alone.

Fourth graders Eleanor and her best friend, Pearl, spend every Monday and Wednesday together since Pearl's mom works after-school. When a new girl, Ainsley, transfers to their school, Pearl ends up being her after-school tutor on Mondays and Wednesdays. Not only does Eleanor feel threatened and sad over the loss of time with her friend, but her puppy is so disobedient that he has to spend two weeks at dog-training camp. To add to her stress, Pearl volunteers Eleanor to be in the school play. Eleanor gets a main role that requires singing a solo. She's terrified, but worse than having a bunch of cheesy lines, she has to hug a boy. When Ainsley starts to tell Eleanor some not so flattering things that Pearl has said about her family, Eleanor gets back at her causing a big fight between the three of them.

Elementary students struggle with friendships and have to deal with issues like this all the time. I'm not sure if this book is going to appeal more to teachers, parents, and counselors than kids. I wondered if it was a bit didactic. Nicholas works as a counter to Pearl and Ainsley becoming friends. He too, is Eleanor's friend, but because he is a boy they don't hang out together. Once the girls resolve their issues, they are able to all be friends.

The subplot of girls having crushes on boys seemed off. Maybe I've been overseas too long. Or maybe its unique to this school that I have been at for eight years; either way, most of the students start their crushes later in school, grade 5. The kids I deal with are interested in friendships more than boyfriends or crushes, but I do think it might be the culture I'm living in. So depending on the reader or where you live, this might or might not be an issue for you. I also don't know of 4th graders tutoring peers. I've only seen peer tutors in high school. But these were questions that crossed my mind. The story is cute and fills a slot where there are not enough books for kids working toward reading fluency.

3 Smileys

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett

Sonya Hartnett's books are like music: a rhythmic cadence, delicious word choices, unusual images, complex themes, and great character development. I feel like I'm in the eye of the storm. My hurricane pace slows for a moment and I think about the beauty of language and what makes a great storyteller. The narration has little action as most takes place in the country-side at Uncle Peregrine's estate, Heron Hall, where twelve-year-old Cecily; her brother, Jeremy; and her mother, Heloise, have sought refuge on the eve of the 1940 London Blitz. While en route they pick up an evacuee, May, who along with hundreds of other children have traveled to the country for safety. Many are without any adult supervision and need to be taken in by families.

At Heron Hall, May and Cecily explore the ruins of Snow Castle where they find two boys in "pantomime" costumes. Perhaps they are runaway evacuees housed with some theater folks. They are distrustful, snobbish, and afraid. Cecily is a snob right back. May cuts through all the blustering and sees the two boys actions are based on them being afraid. This coming-of-age story is historical and has a fantastical element. The author captures the complex relationships of families, friends, and acquaintances.

When we bought a puppy, my five-year-old daughter expected the little furball to sleep with her, patter in her shadow nonstop, and worship her like a goddess. She'd grab the pooch and carry her everywhere. If Cecily had her druthers, she'd collar May and force her to follow her around. When the family scoops May up at the train station Cecily likens it to finding a "kitten in a basket." She picks May like a she's a toy in the store. When she realizes that May is "independent" and does what she wants, things get ugly.

Cecily is a selfish, spoiled, lummox who remains an unsympathetic character until the end of the story. Only a confident writer would risk creating an unlikable character. Cecily says mean things to May bossing her around and acting superior because she has money. She isn't completely lacking in qualities; there are glimpses of kindness and humor. She does feel remorse at times, but only if the other person gets angry. Jeremy and Heloise are usually putting Cecily down although with Jeremy it is more your run-of-mill sibling relationship where they fight but are also loyal to each other. Heloise can be cruel to her children; yet, both she and her husband are indulgent as well. Cecily's superior attitude toward May is her way of feeling important and powerful. May acts as her foil and is the smart hero, so it works. 

The Snow Castle adventure alternates with Uncle Peregrine telling an after-dinner tale of Richard III, who he calls, The Duke. The tale is based on the history of the end of the House of York before the Tudors came to power. Richard III supposedly killed his two nephews and usurped the throne. Peregrine is described like Shakespeare's King Richard III with a limp, long hair (medieval fashion), and a widower. Except Shakespeare's King is not as introspective as Peregrine. The family learns from the Duke's story how the unscrupulous pursuit of power can impact the future.

The overarching theme of power shows how it corrodes friendships, causes wars, is oppressive, and does not bring joy to the usurper even if it does bring money and position. More importantly, the entire plot shows the powerlessness of children. They are under the authority of adults who can be cruel or kind. Adults can use power to shame and control people. In this case, Heloise controls her children and threatens them when they disobey. Also, the moral complexity of children being shipped out of London for their safety and the desire to be independent from the power of adults is reflected the most in Jeremy's character. The nature of power is examined in its abusiveness from children to adults and kings.

Jeremy and his mom have power struggles. He wants to be a man and feel he's helping with the war effort and his parents see him as a kid they want to keep safe. His mom doesn't talk to him about it but just exercises her parental authority enjoying her power over him that comes with being an adult versus a child. Jeremy takes the powerlessness of being a fourteen-year-old under the care of his parents and acts on it to find power in how he wants to shape his future. Jeremy's arc shows that he doesn't have to kill to be a man in the war. He can save people in other ways. Power for him comes in saving others with the results of peace and joy in his spirit. It also awakens him to the knowledge that his father is not perfect. He realizes both of his parents have shortcomings and even though he loves them, he will make different choices in his life.

Jeremy represents young people and the desire to test themselves. I remember doing crazy things as a kid. We'd jump off bridges into the lake. We felt daring and brave. Some kids tested themselves on bikes or skateboards or speeding in cars. Jeremy wants to use war to test himself in battle. This seeking of danger is one that can be a push for independence by teens and is part of the coming-of-age story.

The two alternating stories morph together in a fantastical way. Is Peregrine related to Richard III? The locket given at the end suggests that he might be. Peregrine's gift of the locket to May and his comments where he tells her she is the most important person ever to stay at Heron Hall, suggest she is the link between histories in the past and the current life. Out of all the characters, she is the one who sees things that others cannot. I kept thinking of her as the ghost-of-histories past.

Great lines brim the pages of this book from Cecily wanting to bite off her nail to Jeremy describing the blitz. "Her thumbnail, incompletely chewed, was singing a siren's song." I'm a nail biter so I laughed at this one. It didn't matter how many times my parents told me to stop biting my nails, I'd go after them whenever I had to sit still. Jeremy's dramatic description of the blitz: "He'd opened his eyes to the oddest of sights: the sky above him was red. It was slashed across with the white beams of searchlights, and burnt black at the edges by night: but the clouds were red as if the sky had been drenched by buckets of blood. He didn't see aeroplanes, but he felt the vibrations shake though his body, four hefty booms to the chest as the bombs drove themselves into the ground."Another great line is Peregrine's: "Flimsy things like words become lost in time." I don't reckon this authors will be lost anytime soon.

5 Smileys

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Enemy (The Enemy #1) by Charlie Higson

Ever watch a movie splattered with special effects and tense action scenes, but short on plot and character development? This book echoes that type of movie. The nonstop fighting is going to appeal to many readers, but I wasn't even sure who the protagonist was after 50 pages. The end has an interesting development that shows different types of teenagers vying for power that made me think about the formation of autocratic versus democratic governments, but it comes too late. Much of the violence serves itself rather than advance the plot, characters are flat for the most part, and the dialogue is cheesy making it forgettable. If you are looking for zombie books try The Haunting of Derek Stone series by Tony Abbott or the funny Dead City series by James Ponti that have better character development and plot. If you want zombies fighting kids, lots of gore and horror, and a bit of "Lord of the Flies" then try this one. The sloppy writing made me lose interest pretty fast.

London is overrun by zombies over the age of 16 whose main food source is healthy children. The zombie disease happens when people are above ground which is never explained, although one of the adults seems to have an inkling of the cause. However, he dies. People die willy-nilly in this book. Death should bring some emotional response to the reader, but I was never vested in any character so I didn't care who was killed off. Kid survivors have sought refuge in deserted London buildings where they can fortify and protect themselves to some extent against the killer zombie groups. Arran is the leader of one of those groups with his second, Maxie, who has a crush on him. They only know of one other group, the Morrisons, holed up like them.

After they rescue a lone boy under zombie attack at their door, he explains there are groups like their own all over London, Maxie and Arran are surprised. The boy is the only one left of his scouting group trying to get kids to join forces at Buckingham Palace. After a scavenging hunt gone wrong, food becoming scarce, and adults attacking their compound more often, Arran and Maxie along with the rest of their group are more than ready to leave, except Callum. His fear has made him have symptoms that resemble agoraphobia. He refuses to leave and stays behind. The adventure to the Palace is full of perils with not everyone makes it alive. At the Palace, the groups learn about oppressive leadership and must decide their futures.

Maxie is the protagonist and the voice of reason in an insane world. She keeps her humanity and is willing to speak up. While she is supposed to look strong, the reader doesn't see how others look at her. The result is it looks like she is being manipulated by the boy leaders and is only interested in having a romantic relationship. She is described as being not pretty and a great fighter, but she isn't really intriguing. The characters were very one-dimensional for me.

Survivor Sam is the alternate point-of-view and he just spends his time on the run and staying alive. He gains confidence with each dire situation he manages to get out of, but I got bored with the repetitive pattern after awhile. I also thought some of the chapters wasted because when there is a chance to explain what had happened to the adults, it is not given. Another point-of-view is Callum. Why bother? He's supposed to show the psychological trauma of trying to survive a zombie apocalypse but he is more like a deer in headlights. And again, Callum is not rounded out in way that the reader can understand. 

Kids love scary books and this one will make 'em shiver, but its execution misses the mark. While the violence isn't graphic, it is gross. The zombies explode, ooze pus, live in filth, and are decayed. I was disgusted because I actually dreamed of zombies last night and woke up with my heart racing. I've never done well with the horror genre. Can't do the movies or the books. If you do read it, go in with low expectations and don't plan on having your questions answered as this haphazard plot sets up for the sequel.

2 Smileys

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Rescue on the Oregon Trail (Ranger in Time #1) by Kate Messner

Ranger is a search-and-rescue dog that does not pass his final test because he can't resist chasing squirrels. Now, who isn't going to love that type of protagonist? Dog-slobbering squirrel chaser. Shucks, I'm that way with food - enticing smells easily lead me off-task. One day, Ranger spots a squirrel and kicks into ADHD mode only to stumble upon a first aid kit that portals him to Missouri in the mid 1800's where a family is going on the Oregon trail to find better farmland.

Sam Abbott is supposed to be watching his toddler sister, Amelia, when she disappears on him. Ranger's search-and-rescue skills click into place and he sniffs out Amelia keeping her safe and endearing him to Sam's family. Although he isn't endeared enough to get a name. They call him "Dog" as if they know he is only going to be with them temporarily. The Oregon trail is treacherous and just the place for Ranger. He helps many others on their adventure whether warning the group of danger or saving lives.

Ranger is the main character with the mentality of a dog that adds humor. Sam is comforted by having Ranger because his dog was too old to make the long 2,000 mile trek journey. Others on the trail lose family to disease. Treacherous animals and river crossings add to the excitement. While this is a historical book, there are plenty adventures to keep the reader flipping the pages.

Even though the dog failed to pass the search-and-rescue test, his skills saved many lives on the Oregon trail. The dog doesn't really have a character arc but readers can apply the message of never giving up in their own lives. Tests don't determine a person's character. In an age of accelerated student testing, this subtle message is worth paying attention to. Other themes include, grief, courage, and importance of pets. Add to that, Kate Messner's clean, tight writing and you have a well-paced plot that will be a good addition to any library.

While this story reminds me of the Magic Tree House series in that it has a character that finds an item that magically transports it back in time, I think the text is higher. At 125 pages it is easy to think it is at a lower reading level, but when I looked up the levels the book is placed in grades 4 or 5. Not that those levels are always correct, but concepts might need to be explained to younger readers. It would make a good read aloud.

4 Smileys

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Hitch at the Fairmont by Jim Averbeck, Nick Bertozzi (Illustrations)

Eleven-year-old Jack is at the funeral of his mother who has committed suicide. His father died in the war which means Jack is an orphan. He ends up under the guardianship of his chocoholic Aunt Edith who lives in the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. It is clear from the start that auntie wants money from Jack. She is abusive and loves chocolate, eating it in front of Jack and not offering him a thing. Ah, the cruelty. I know if someone had given me that anniversary box of chocolate like Jack, I would have gobbled it up and auntie would have never known it existed. Instead, nice Jack, brings the aunt the chocolate and discovers that the famous Alfred Hitchcock lives across the hall from him in a hotel room. When Aunt Addict, I mean Edith, disappears and a ransom note appears, the two team up to figure out the mystery.

This ambitious attempt to blend all-things-Hitchcock with the orphan story genre works for the most part, but the pacing suffers with long descriptions that are slow at times. Perhaps if I was an avid Hitchcock fan I would see parts as playing homage to his movies, but I just didn't think some of the chapters advanced the plot's action. I kept setting the book down because the mystery wasn't clipping along. I did my usual in those spots - I hit warp speed reading mode.

Some of the twists were predictable (chocolate, setup, code) while others were not. Of course, I did recognize that one of the obvious clues was a MacGuffin, a technique popularized by Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, that is the extent of my Hitchcock mania and I haven't seen one of his films in over twenty years so I can't say I appreciated this book like I was supposed to. Some obvious Hitchcock nods are: false identities, the article on birds, wrongly accused protagonists, names, and more. References to movies are probably sprinkled throughout but I know I missed a lot. While this is a mystery that pays homage to Hitchcock, it also is the orphan story that reminded me of "The Little Princess" except the protagonist is a boy.

The author does capture Hitchcock's creepy humor and he also adds some film theory that adds depth. The author's note is very helpful in understanding what he set forth to accomplish and the Appendix gives terrific summaries on each of the 35 chapters that reference a Hitchcock movie. I wondered if that was why some chapters seemed forced to me. Perhaps the author was trying too hard to make the story fit with the movie-titled chapter.

The unusual and brilliant mix of of techniques in film and literature lift this above your average fare. Each chapter is foreshadowed by a storyboard illustration showing the protagonist in some scene. This is a clever way to mimic the movies where storyboards are a common technique. Storyboards are also used in children's picture books. Jack is an amazing artist making illustrations from memory that is better than your average child. He creates mystery storyboards if you like. That doesn't exist in literature but maybe it should - it was a clever way to show how Jack organizes his thoughts.

This also reminds me of how Hitchcock was known for his unusual film techniques that added tension to his films. Jack's gift adds to his character traits and makes him interesting as a character - a creative way of echoing movies in literature. I did notice that while I looked at the storyboards closely at first, I did less as the story went on. I really thought the book was too long at 400 pages. You'll have to decide yourself. If you love Hitchcock, then you should definitely read this.

4 Smileys

Sunday, April 12, 2015

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

The first few sentences make it clear that Cadence Sinclair Eastman is an unreliable narrator. She paints a perfect picture of her rich family as the story unravels secrets of their past. This reminds me of a psychological thriller I read called, "Thr3ee," by Ted Dekker over a decade ago. Except in this book, E. Lockhart uses the first person point-of-view to create a dreamy, nightmarish narrative. The reader knows from the get-go that all is not well with the mental state of Cadence or Cady. She describes as her father leaves them with his packed suitcase as looking at her. "Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest." She doesn't describe it as a simile but literally. "I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down into the flower bed." If the absurd second sentence wasn't there I would get confused by the description. Cady is a melodramatic or disturbed person. The author's beautiful writing pulls the reader in and slowly reveals the dysfunctional family that is chained to Granddad's oligarchy and the tragic consequences of certain family members actions on each other.

Eighteen-year-old Cady is self-absorbed and readers quickly discover how she and her mother rely on Granddad to fund their lifestyle, as well as, two of Cady's aunts. Each summer Cady's family goes to Windemere House on Beechwood island off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. Cady hangs out with her aunts and cousins: Johnny, Mirren, and Gat (step cousin) dubbed, "The Liars." Cady, who is Caucasian, is in love with Gat who is Indian and whose dad lives with Cady's aunt. Granddad doesn't accept Gat or his father because they are Indian, but he tolerates them. Gat likes to think philosophically, unlike Cady, Johnny, and Mirren who are comfortable with the superficiality of their lives. However, it becomes clear that all of the Liars don't face the truth, including Gat. When Gran dies, Cady's mom and two sisters start to fight over the estate causing stress among the family.

The broken and choppy prose reflects Cady's frail state of mind. Two years ago something happened to her on the island where Cady had an accident but she has amnesia and all she knows is that she was found washed ashore in her underwear. She wonders if she was raped or attacked, but no one will talk about it. The aftermath of the accident has left her with debilitating migraines and she is on heavy medication that clouds her thinking. On a trip to Europe with her father she explains, "I lay prone on the bathroom floors of several museums, feeling the cold tile underneath my cheek as my brain liquefied and seeped out my ear, bubbling. Migraines left my blood spreading across unfamiliar hotel sheets, dripping on the floors, oozing into carpets, soaking through leftover croissants, and Italian lace cookies."

Blood is used to describe Cady's feelings and migraines. In this story, blood symbolizes pain, sacrifice, death, and guilt, to name a few. It foreshadows the novel's end and adds to the surreal, tense narration. Cady has wanted to go back to Windemere but her mother won't let her go until two years after her accident. She is together again with the Liars, but things are different. Their conversations turn from superficial to underlying causes of unhappiness in the family. Plus, Cady is not the only one sick, so is Mirren and the aunts show new characteristics they did not have before the accident. One aunt cleans compulsively and the other suffers from insomnia. This family, with all its privileges, suffers like all families do even though they have so much money they "don't have to think about it." Family members refuse to talk about things in the open and emotions must be hidden behind a false smile and "square chin" in the air.

While the ending is more horrific than I expected, I was able to predict what happened but not the how. Because the author shows the reader immediately that the narrator is unreliable, I looked more closely for the twist. The fun with this writing technique is the big surprise hidden in the plot. While I guessed it in the first third of the book, the author does a great job making it even more complex than what I had figured out.

As far as characters, Cady is not admirable; however, she is compelling. Even though she is self-centered and shallow, she does want to improve and become a better person. She starts to see less importance in materialism, although she does recognize that she and her mother rely on Granddad's money. She thinks Gat brings out the good qualities in her and is one reason she loves him. She does grow and learn to face the truth, but I would not call it a story of redemption. Her character arc is more of a look at post-traumatic-stress syndrome and trying to learn to live with an awful truth.

Cady makes up fairy tale stories during the plot that become a parable of sorts reflecting the Sinclair oligarchy. All the power is vested in Granddad. He is the King and since his Queen or wife has died he has become manipulative of his children. He uses the power of his wealth over his three children who then put pressure on their children to be obsequious to Granddad. When Granddad's wife dies, the three children or direct descendants of Granddad start to fight over material possessions. The fairy tale Cady makes up reveals the lie they are living that their happily-ever-after is more of broken-ever-after-but-now-united. The ending does give hope. All of the relatives are forever changed from Cady's accident. At 225 pages the author does a terrific job making every word count and using the language itself to mimic the protagonist's fragile state of mind. An unforgettable page turner that is hard to put down.

5 Smileys

Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate

Katherine Applegate puts words together creating beautiful images. Dave is a an American helping Kek, a Sudanese refugee, settle in Minnesota with his cousin and aunt. Kek thinks Dave's partial use of Dinka and English sounds like "...a song always out of tune, / missing notes / To help him, / I try some English / but my mouth just wants to chew the words / and spit them on the ground." She captures what it is like to be new to a country. To not understand the language. To know this new place is not home. To desperately long to return to what is comfortable and familiar. Humor is balanced with tragedy through the eyes of Kek, who tries to see the good in life. When he gets a job helping on a farm, it reminds him of back home when he helped take care of the village cattle.

There is a Kirkus review that criticizes this book for Kek's character being stereotyped and not fleshed out enough. I didn't notice this when reading the book, but that could be because I have worked with Sudanese boys and my brain already knows about their culture and plight. I agree that Kek might lack some authenticity and there are didactic moments, but I did like how the author has him deal with grief and life in a new land. I thought the criticism somewhat harsh and not as extreme as the reviewer felt. Perhaps Kek's school interactions might be showing too much how people should act toward immigrants versus what Kek was really going through. You'll have to read it yourself to decide.

Some things did not always seem spot-on for me, but other things did. Such as when the cow stops traffic and everyone in the cars are mad. Minnesotans are overly polite in their cars and helpful. Someone would have stepped out to help. Yes, people would have honked and some annoyed, but I can guarantee at least one person would have stepped out of their car to help some kids with a stubborn cow in the middle of a busy intersection. Some observers would have thought it funny. But that's really minor and I only know this because I spent 40 years living in this state. What I particular liked was how the author has Kek think about how there are many tribes in America and that they live side-by-side without fear. When working with the Sudanese students at our school, that was the one thing they marveled at the most. Many times they said, "You have many tribes but you get along. And you don't kill the leader if you disagree with him." While some readers might see this as unalloyed enthusiasm for America, it was something I heard many times from the refugees.

Maybe Kek is too nice and positive for some readers. Yes, he could have more characteristics explained such as his language and looks. But I was able to put a clear picture in my head even if the free verse lacked details. Of course, my personal experience dealing with Sudanese boys needs to be considered. It's easier to picture something when you have background knowledge. The students I worked with had to deal with injuries from camp just like Kek's cousin. No one was missing a hand, but one was missing an eye and another had serious back problems. These four of the kids lived together and three of them worked additional jobs to pay for their apartment. It was not easy for them.

Trying to write a story about a different culture when the author is not from it is always going to be tricky. The pitfalls of stereotyping is one issue, as well as, a lack of authenticity. While this book falls short in some spots I didn't think it should be written off. It did speak to me as a foreigner living in a different country. I could empathize with Kek's culture shock and I didn't think he was quite as two dimensional as other readers thought. Like I said, you'll have to decide for yourself.

3 Smileys

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Caminar by Skila Brown

This quick read on the Guatemalan Civil War is written in free verse showing the genocide of a village from the point of view of one survivor, Carlos, who is in the forest at the time. Carlos lives with his mother in Chopan when government soldiers come through looking for Communists. Carlo's mother tells him to stay away from soldiers and run if the unthinkable happens. Everyone knows that Carlos always listens to his mama. When neighbors turn on the richest man in town who is condemned without a trial, Carlos feels fear. Then Rebel soldiers come through the town. One day when Carlos is in the woods he hears the guns and screams of people in his village being killed. He hides in the trees and sets off to find his grandmother that lives up the mountain.

The ending is strong with Carlos learning to have courage and face the future. Some of the free verse is beautiful and other times not memorable. The author does an excellent job of showing a young boy that is afraid of losing his mother and the focus is on this versus the atrocities of war. The genocide is discussed only from the eyes of soldiers that say they saw bodies piled up by the lake. While some parents might not like the violence in the book it isn't graphic. Carlos describes the sounds he hears such as gunfire and laughter. He knows that bad people are in the village because no one he knew would laugh when guns were going off.

As a whole the story works, but there is not a lot of backstory. The Author's Note at the end explains the history behind what happened in Guatemala that helps the reader a bit in understanding what happened during their Civil War. The book only took me about an hour to read and is good for discussion topics on war, survival, responsibility, and courage, to name a few. Readers intimidated by a lot of text might like this as one.

3 Smileys

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin

Steve Sheinkin is one of my favorite historical writers. His narrative nonfiction writing has the drama and characters found in any fiction novel, with spot-on pacing, and meticulous research. Don't miss this one.  Set during World War II, the Navy has changed policies so that blacks can enlist, but this does not mean equality. Instead, Sheinkin reveals the institutionalized racism in American society, military, and government showing how a small group of fifty men, out of fear, were one of the players in changing attitudes toward African Americans.

In July 1944, an explosion so huge it was mistaken for an earthquake happened at Port Chicago, as sailors were loading munitions on ships. Over 200 black men and 100 white men died at the pier. Only African Americans were assigned to load munitions and after the explosion hundreds tried to voice their fears regarding the dangerous job. No one listened. Unsafe conditions continued and Sheinkin shows how the African Americans were exploited by the Navy. As the men were being marched to load ammunition on another ship after the explosion that killed over 300 men, hundreds refused to go. But when they Navy threatened to charge them with mutiny and shoot them, only fifty were brave enough to continue to take a stand.

A court trial ensued showing the deep prejudices that were prevalent at the time. The courtroom drama and the lawyers building their cases captures the legal processes. Not all of the text is heavy. Sheinkin balances some light moments. The ending has a funny story of how a black sailor made best friends with a white sailor by fighting him. The fight ended up with them both respecting each other and the white sailor saying he learned that "a man is a man" regardless of skin color. Other interesting asides were Eleanor Roosevelt following the case and putting pressure on the Navy officer who could change things and Thurgood Marshall working on behalf of the men in the early stages of his famous career.

History shows that at times when an injustice occurs on the magnitude of the conviction of the Port Chicago sailors, people find the courage to stand up and protest the mockery of it. While these young sailors, many teenagers, didn't realize the significance they would have on history at the time in changing the plight of African Americans, they did not regret their actions as old men as the Epilogue explains. It also shows when the justice system fails to protect basic rights. While this book isn't as complex as "Bomb," it is just as compelling and will reach a younger audience. The primary photographs, graphics, oral histories, documentaries, and Navy documents make it an impressive work. Men stood up for what was wrong at great personal risk. This story is worth noting.

5 Smileys

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

Hmmm... where to start. This is a hard-core classic science fiction novel in the vein of Arthur C. Clarke. Or so I'm told. I never could get through Clarke's popular "2001: A Space Odyssey" as a teenager. In this book I struggled to understand the lengthy expositions on physics, math, science, nanotechnology, and astronomy to name a few, but I kept plowing through it because I did like the historical perspective from the Chinese protagonists; especially the character arc of Ye Wenjie. The book also seems to criticize the Cultural Revolution and in a culture that clamps down so much on freedom of speech, I wondered why it was published as it is written. By the end, it is clear that it doesn't celebrate Western civilization or democracy. Instead it shows China as a world power and savior to the world because it has the most advanced technology and while it seems critical of the Cultural Revolution it shows at the end the government trying to make amends for some past wrongs.While the author doesn't always put China in a positive light, he does not criticize any current administration and shows sympathy for the victims and perpetrators of the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps this is why it wasn't censored.

Astrophysicist Ye Wenjie is the daughter of Ye Zhetai, a professor tortured by the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution for refusing to denounce the theory of relativity. Wenjie watches as her father is publicly humiliated and beaten to death by Red Guards. Her witness of his death defines her future actions that draws empathy from the reader. She is a victim of historical events that show how decisions made by people define history in good and bad ways. There are no villains or heroes. She is shaped by her trauma and later betrayed by those she trusts that make her question all that makes people human. By the time good people and things happen to her, she can't see the joy in them.

This best-seller translated from Chinese to English is easy to applaud for its diversity that show Asian women as brilliant scientists as well as men, but the plot is clunky at times with large sections of information dropped on the reader that detracts from the story. I skimmed some of the pedantic info-dumps because they didn't make a whole lot of sense and made me cross-eyed. If you are a fan of science fiction or knowledgeable about physics, then it might not slow you down like it did me. Obviously, I found it compelling enough to finish it, but I thought as a whole the story fell short in character development as well as being too technical.

After the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie becomes a part of a top-secret government project that supposedly studies satellites. Her scientific expertise is needed, but not for satellites. The book jumps forward forty years and changes to nanotech engineer Wang Miao's  point-of-view who is asked by the police to infiltrate the Frontiers of Science, a club that has seen a spike in science members committing suicide. Wang Miao discovers the group uses a video game called, "Three Body." He discovers an alternate world that is run by Trisolarans who are trying to learn about celestial movement so they can survive on an unstable planet. The video game is a recruitment tool by the Frontiers of Science drawing elite and intellectual members; it is too complex for common people (that part shows a lack of understanding as to what makes up gamers - an excellent book on the topic is "Reality is Broken"). As Miao gets drawn into the complex web of deceit, he learns of a plot that will destroy the world. 

Wang Miao wasn't very interesting as the second main character. Da Shi kept upstaging him. I liked the hard-core cranky cop that didn't follow social etiquette rules. He was the Everyman character or represents the common person.  Ye's Wenjie's daughter, Yang Dong, needed more development. I kept waiting for her story to be told but it never is. Ye Wenjie is developed but the author tells her story more than shows it, especially in the last part's flashback. I didn't think that was handled as skillfully as it could have been - although I was more interested in her story than the physics. The parts in the storyline that expose propaganda and its hindrance to progress was fascinating along with the footnotes that explain the posters and their use during the Cultural Revolution. All countries have propaganda, but it isn't always easy seeing it. Translator Ken Liu's footnotes help with the cultural references.

I had an "ah-hah" moment reading this book in that I never really appreciated how unusual it was that families turned on each other during the Cultural Revolution. Ye Wenjie's sister turned in her father to the authorities. Teaching the theory of relativity was considered by Mao as conflicting with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel's dialectical materialism which is why the daughter renounced him. I live in Taiwan and the three Taiwanese assistants I work with are expected by their families, and they feel it is their duty, to take care of their parents. They are raised to not disagree with them and family loyalties run deep. Many children live with their parents and give them part of their incomes. My assistants take their parents to doctor appointments and explain to me that if a family puts a parent in a nursing home it is considered taboo. This is only done as a last resort when the medical intervention is necessary. This filial piety has deep roots in Confucian philosophy and is the reason Wang Miao visits Ye Wenjie for another character that says he cannot do so and would he do it for him? It also shows how radical it was for families to turn on each other during the Cultural Revolution. Wang Miao's sense of duty comes from this Eastern philosophy that gives the the book its unique flavor. I found the different cultural perspective one of the most interesting aspects of this book. It was also funny seeing the author takes jabs at the United States. Many times our pop culture does this with others cultures. Interesting to see the reverse. Many librarians lament the lack of diverse books. Well, here's one that is diverse. Add it to your high school or public library.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man's Canyon (The Expeditioners #1) by S.S. Taylor, Katherine Roy (Illustrator)

A year ago I didn't even know of the existence of the fantasy or science fiction subgenre "steampunk." Lately I've been reading quite a few that fall in that category. This science fiction steampunk novel looks to the future when the world is running out of resources and humans have turned to steam-engines for transportation and other technology. In "The Expeditioners," the gadgets and dirigibles are fun and seem impossible but in a world with Gryluminum, (a play on the word, aluminum), it is easy to envision sleeping bags that can fold into small squares, along with parachutes, and rafts. It is a material that exists in the future that makes the impossible, possible.

Thirteen-year-old Kit West is accosted at the market by a man with a clockwork hand that gives him a map. Kit's father disappeared three years ago and he is living alone with his fourteen-year-old older brother, Zander, and ten-year-old sister, M.K. Kit is an expert cartographer, taught by his father while Zander is a fearless adventurer that knows more about animals than is normal for a someone his age. M.K. is a mechanic that is more aggressive than her brothers. She can sense danger and acts quickly or brashly. She swears and sounds like a kid that has lived too long on the streets without adult supervision. You don't usually see swearing in a middle grade book, but it seems to work with M.K. Life hasn't been easy for her and she's a tough hammer that stands up for the group like a German Shepherd dog protecting its territory which just so happens to be her brothers. She might be the youngest of the trio, but she's the one that bludgeons the agents that come to their house when they threaten to take Kit's mysterious map. She can take down a lion and rescues her brothers several times on their adventures. When Kit determines what the map is, the three take off on an adventure that has them fighting for their lives against others in a race to find a lost treasure.

The name of their parrot is "Pucci," a shortened version of Explorer Amerigo Vespucci, but also sounds like the pet endearment "poochie." However this is no sweet "poochie" of a parrot with its deadly metal legs and talons that were once used to drop bombs on enemies. Not that the parrot is used for that anymore. Zander rescued it from a cat that was making a meal out of it and nursed it back to health. It's high intelligence and ability to fly helps the Expeditioners out of some tight spots. Along with Sukey, an expert pilot and independent thinker. She becomes embroiled in the West siblings adventure when she helps them find some answers. She also rescues the boys a few times as well. I appreciate authors that go against stereotypes and create strong females.

Steampunk tends to lean toward the unbelievable and it is a fine line the author walks when making the story plausible. S.S. Taylor not only does it well, but weaves cartography and government attitudes of colonialism creating a futuristic world full of possibilities. Having just read "Mortal Engines," by Philip Reeve, I can't help but see similarities between the two in terms of political groups that believe in preserving the environment versus those that feel they have the right to take anything they want whether that means relocating natives, exploiting natural resources, or silencing opponents. The Expeditioners must decide between fame and preservation. Doing the right thing can get murky when lots of money is involved. Power is shown to corrupt government leaders making their decisions based on self-interest and money versus human impact.

The world building shows how the people in power making all the decisions oppress the majority of the populace that is starving and running out of water. One of the villains has an action at the end that shows he is not completely bad. Either he has a guilty conscience or he wants to keep a close eye on the West children. It teases the reader into wanting to get the next book to see what happens. Don't miss this treasure hunt.

4 Smileys

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Sorcerer Heir (The Heir Chronicles #5) by Cinda Williams Chima

Book #4 ends on a cliffhanger, but this plot doesn't get around to addressing where it left off until page 50. The first chapters introduce Leesha as a character who has changed from a self-centered person to one who is trying to make sense out of the tragedy of her boyfriend's death in the previous book. Problem is I never had much interest in the superficial Leesha. Actually, I didn't remember her much from the previous books. The author is setting up for Emma to stay with her but I thought it made for a confusing start, especially with the additional murders, and the backstory not inserted soon enough. The pacing was off with not enough or too much information given. I snoozed in the beginning, got interested in other parts, then snoozed again. The plot lacked twists, it was a bit scattered and repetitive, and the romance got cheesy. If you are looking for something light with plenty of action, zombies, cliches, and romances, then you will enjoy this book. I know I'll forget it in about a month.

Leesha is at a Halloween party feeling sorry for herself when the irresistible Jonah refuses to dance with her. Meanwhile Emma and Jonah don't trust each other and are keeping secrets. When the murders are investigated, the two try to hide their past only to push their friendship apart. Emma decides to remove herself from the dormitory life and help Leesha with her Aunt Millie while commuting to classes. The band continues to play and practice and music has a prominent roll in Emma and Jonah's friendship or wanna-be romance. Jonah is gifted as an enchanter which draws people to him but his touch is deadly making it impossible for him to have a girlfriend.

Emma digs into her parents past finding some unexpected answers to questions that involve everyone at the school who survived the Thorn Hill tragedy. Meanwhile Jonah is trying to save his brother that is dying from a poisoned Weirstone. The Underguilds and wizards are trying to broker a peace arrangement and solve the murders that happened in the community but obstacles keep causing them to fight among themselves until an unlikely alliance occurs with the help of Jonah that will either save or ruin the survivors of Thorn Hill.

Jonah's toxic touch reminded me of Rogue in the X-men movie, except Jonah is an assassin with empathy. Death by his hand is a peaceful experience. This common romantic trope works well because the obstacle facing the two characters that are attracted to each other seems insurmountable. They love each other but can't have a physical relationship. I just thought Jonah spent too much time pushing people away. He was so stubborn about telling the truth with Emma it got annoying and repetitive. It would have been better if I had read the previous book closer to this one. I probably wouldn't have forgotten so much of the backstory. Not my favorite by this author.

3 Smileys