Monday, February 27, 2012

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. LaFevers

Uncategorized | Edit | No Comments »
I like fantasy …fantasy movies …fantasy books …and no matter how mediocre the movie or book, I know there will be action, adventure, and magic. Give me a big screen, a bowl of popcorn, and a soda and I’m entertained.

This book was just that …entertaining and fun. It has flaws but in the end, it satisfies. While certain parts of the story reminded me of the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the book, The Red Pyramid, the plot has some unique twists, is original, and has a fun main character. Theodosia is the brilliant and sensible heroine whose parents don’t pay attention to her because they are too busy pursuing their own careers running their Museum of Legends and Antiquities and making museum purchases. They don’t notice when Theo’s governess quits. They don’t notice that Theo doesn’t go to school. They don’t notice that Theo sleeps in a coffin in a closet. But Theo knows shes special even if her parents don’t. She knows that she is protecting them from all the evil magic they bring into their museum. Theodosia can see and feel the magic oozing from ancient artifacts. While other kids, like her brother, are in school, Theo spends her days at the museum helping her parents and teaching herself how to cure the museum from the curses in the objects her parents keep collecting around the world. Things don’t always go as planned and when she accidentally casts a curse into her cat it becomes crazed and wild. However, when Theo’s mom brings home ,The Heart of Egypt, things become really dicey because the curse from this artifact can topple countries. When the beginnings of plagues and war begin in Britain, Theo knows that it is from The Heart of Egypt and that if she doesn’t return it to the tomb where her mother found it, innocent people will die and chaos will rule. The problem is that there are others who want The Heart of Egypt too. Others who will even kill for it.

What I liked. LaFevers does a nice job making many characters as suspects in the stealing of The Heart of Egypt. An interesting twist in the plot is when the parents become suspects as a result of working so long around black magic without protection. It is suggested that the magic can be absorbed by human bodies and cause people to make evil choices without even realizing it. Perhaps her parents stole The Heart of Egypt? Comic relief comes in the form of a crazed cat who attacks people at the museum after Theodosia accidentally tosses the curse from an artifact into the body of her cat. Sticky Will, the pickpocket, was fun with his Dickens-like voice and character and was a nice addition to the kids caper. The recipes for curing curses was unique and Theodosia goes into detail on how she approaches the removal of a curse. Theodosia grows as a person becoming confident in her parents love for her and confident in her unique power to remove curses.

What lacked. Henry, Theo’s brother, sounded old when we first met him and then young later on. His character was supposed to be the irritating younger brother but he didn’t always come off that way in the dialogue. Also, Theodosia’s power of seeing the magic on the artifacts is never explained. It is hinted that she sees Isis in the hallway and the presence of gods but she seems to be the only person with this unique ability. Her superpowers are never explained. I thought the fortune-teller in Egypt could have revealed some of this. The setting is 1906 in Great Britain and it was hard figuring out the time period. Most came through the political dialogue between the parents and the sights and sounds of the time period are not described much. When Theo goes to Egypt there are more descriptions of the country; however, it could have been set in today’s time versus the turn of the century. The ending leaves many questions such as how did the villians escape, why did one’s face get eaten away by sand, did he die, how did the other get his hand out of the wall, and more. I’m hoping the next book will answer some of the questions and show Theodosia learning more about her unique power.

Was it worth reading? Definitely. Grab your bowl of popcorn and enjoy!

Reading Level 5.2
:-):-):-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner

I haven’t read too many children’s books that tackle the process of aging and how it affects family as a main theme, and Messner not only does that in this book, but does it very well. Gianna is the star on the cross country running team, but she has a problem. If she doesn’t finish her science project on time, she won’t be able to run in sectionals. Bianca, the bully, is waiting to replace her and Gianna has all sorts of distractions from finishing the project such as her Grandma Nonna who is becoming forgetful in a scary way.

Gianna’s science project is on identifying leaves and trees. Gianna and her friend Zig identify trees with people that they know and as a way to remember them. The leaves represent feelings about death, feelings about people, and characteristics of friends, neighbors, and family. They are littered throughout the entire story and add a richness to the text. Messner has nice descriptions and a strong ending. Gianna’s Grandma Nonna has the beginning of Alzheimer’s and everyone deals with it in a different way. Gianna is scared and wants to talk about it while her mother is in denial and doesn’t want to deal with it. Gianna has a classmate whose grandma dies and because Gianna’s father owns the funeral parlor in town, Gianna ends up going and helping the classmate cope with her grief. The two become friends and Gianna learns to stick up for her friend against Bianca, the class bully.

The plot has a couple of slow spots such as when Zig and Gianna take a bike trip to go look at leaves. This is where the two connect people with trees and we see their friendship but not much happens. The tension is that Gianna realizes she’s way behind on her project but we already know that. Also, when she keeps missing the details regarding the project it seemed like it happened one too many times or was forced. I did think at one point, “Are you kidding?” There’s scatterbrained and there’s scatterbrained. But hey, it’s possible. I just think the story would have been stronger if there was another strong reason as to why she couldn’t get make the deadline (versus always just forgetting the details). But this doesn’t detract from a well-told story. Gianna and Zig like each other but only the suggestion of their friendship turning into a romance is evident.

I like how the ending has families and friends putting together memory books as a way to deal with the classmate’s loss of her grandma and Nonna losing her memory. My mom has Alzheimer’s and I like the part where the disease is described as “pages being torn from a book” until all that is left is the covers (the character is quoting Elie Wiesel). What a powerful image. The book also reminds me of my grandma and how much I loved her. Gianna and her grandma have a close loving relationship. What a terrific book.

Reading Level 4.2
:-):-):-):-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, February 20, 2012

Zero by Kathryn Otoshi

 Zero finds her Zorro. Actually Zorro is not a part of this delightful book, I just liked the illiteration.

Zero really finds her zip. Not only does this book make counting fun but it is about how a number doesn’t feel she is worth anything because she adds no value to the other numbers. Zero tries page after page trying to transform into another number or force her presence on the other numbers. The page where she takes a rolling start, leaps into the numbers in order to impress them, only to knock them all down in a pile on the number 9 had the kindergarteners laughing out loud. What did the other numbers think? “All the numbers were bent out of shape.”

Zero discusses her feelings of emptiness and wanting to belong, “to add value” to the other numbers. The concept is a nice metaphor that can be used to discuss what it feels like to not be part of a group. The number 7 advises Zero to be open and “you’ll find a way” to be valued in the world of numbers. Zero “gets an idea” and joins with the numbers to increase their value by 10. The kindergarteners loved counting together and got just as excited as Zero. Students also liked it when I made noises like a balloon deflating when” Zero felt deflated.” When I read the title and the author, one of the Japanese girls in class jumped up and said with a big grin that the author was Japanese and her name sounded similar to hers.

Done in watercolor Zero is alittle blurry around the edges, gray in color, with thin brush strokes showing that she is not quite sure of herself. This is contrasted with the thick, bold brush strokes of the letters one through seven who have bold colors. When Zero discovers she is not empty she changes to a metallic silver acrylic color on a black background. The contrast shows Zero as a new person who is bold and confident. At first I wasn’t sure why the letter one was in gray instead of black but then realized that in order to use a black background none of the colors could be black. It makes it easier to see the number 10 in a mishmash of colors.

The prolific reviewer Elizabeth Bird talks about how it can be difficult to find books that get kids excited about integers in her book review, How Many Jelly Beans? by Andrea Menotti. Make sure you check out How May Jelly Beans? and add Zero to that list.

I take it back. Zorro can be a part of Zero because Zorro was a hero and Zero is the hero in this story.

Ages 3-7
Reading Level 2.2
:-):-):-):-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

I finally finished this book and not because it was bad. Quite the opposite. I kept writing in my reading log all the one-liners I liked - inking up 13 pages. Then I started to read the first chapter out loud to the grade 5 classes - many laughing hysterically at the outlandish behavior of the characters. There are 8 classes and it takes 10 days to see them all – throw in the fact I got bronchitis and it got dragged out another week - but voila, I am finally done with the 2012 Newbery Medal winner… and oh boy, is it a winner, from the nose-bleeding main character-named-after-the author, Jack Gantos, to the no-nonsense, unsqueamish, Norvelt historian, Miss Volker.

Gantos is grounded for the summer for shooting off his dad’s rifle and mowing down his mother’s cornfield. He acts first and thinks later – or doesn’t think at all in some cases. He’s like a Sherman tank. Plus, his chronic nose-bleeding problem makes it hard for him to hide any emotions; his nose becomes a geiser when he is frightened or lies or gets excited or sees dead people. And this is the summer of death. Death of a town. Death of his neighbors. Death of deer, rodents, corn and his summer vacation. When Gantos becomes the “hired hands” for Miss Volker, little does he realize that his new job involves not only typing the obituaries for Miss Volker who writes for the newspaper, but it means donning his Grim Reaper costume from Halloween, and driving Miss Volker, who also happens to be the Norvelt Medical Examiner, to examine the bodies of people who have died in town. Things become suspicious after about half a dozen old ladies die in the town and whispers of murder spread like “air leaking out of a crypt.”

Miss Volker has arthritis that has transformed her hands into “talons of a hawk perched on a fence” and some funny images surround them throughout the story. She asks Gantos to line up her Girl Scout Thin Mints on the kitchen counter so she can sweep them off the edge and into her mouth like she is “scoring a goal in hockey.” This will make a fine meal she claims and asks him to also leave a glass of milk with a straw. At one point Gantos who is on his way to play baseball gets stopped by Miss Volker who wants to write an obituary and he knows he’s going to miss the game because “Miss Volker always liked to take her time. The hands on her kitchen clock were just as useless to her as her own two hands.” Later when they examine a dead body, Miss Volker has to sign the death certificate but she can’t write so she has Gantos (whom she calls her hired hands) help her, “I pressed the pen between my hand and Miss Volker’s twisted palm and together we managed to slowly scrawl her name; letter by letter, as if we were receiving it from an Ouija board.” She drops the phone often when calling Gantos and one time hollers as the phone clatters on the floor, “Dang phone!” When she sees Gantos father hauling a Norvelt home out of town on a flatbed truck she “tried desperately to open the door handle but her fingers were so rusted together she gave up trying and leaned out the open window. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself! These are Norvelt homes,’ she shouted, “Mrs. Roosevelt said our homes should stay right in town and never, ever be destroyed!’”

Miss Volker talks to Gantos about how each of us carries history within ourselves. How “every living soul is a book of their own history which sits on the ever-growing shelf in the library of human memories.” This is why Miss Volker always links the obituary of a townsperson to a famous story in history. This book did remind me of my own history growing up with five siblings in the suburbs and having a brother who had nose-bleeds that had to be cauterized by a doctor. But there’s more to the story than just a person’s history. It is the importance of learning from history and learning from past mistakes.

Some readers might find the nose-bleeding gross while others will find it funny. The dad is disrespectful toward other cultures calling the Russians “Commies” and the Japanese “Japs” and some might find it offensive. However, later in the story it is balanced by Miss Volker’s obituary that talks about being respectful and as the novel progresses it shows his dad was scarred by the war. This theme makes for interesting dialogue about how people we love and trust don’t always think and say the right things. While Ganto’s dad is a little crude, insensitive, funny, and sneaky; he’s more like an immature boy versus a cruel man. The reader can see where Jack gets his sneaky ways. The two are like conspirators as they defy his mom and plot behind her back to mow down a cornfield, build a bomb shelter, get out of punishment and fly an airplane.

Here are some of the great lines. Have a good laugh.

When Gantos learns to drive Miss Volker comments: “You’re a fast learner,” she remarked. “You’ve gone from slow poke to safety hazard in one day.”

“Something had to be wrong with me, but one advantage about being dirt-poor is that you can’t afford to go to the doctor and get bad news.”

Gantos dad bought a military plane at an auction that was cheaper than a car and joked that at the next auction he’d see what Sherman tanks were. “That would be so cool, I thought. I wouldn’t have to learn to steer – I could just drive in a straight line and run things over.”

Reading Level 6.0
:-):-):-):-):-) 5 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Summer of May by Cecilia Galante

May is in trouble again. Big trouble. She has two options: either be expelled from school or retake English in summer school. She decides on the latter but it is with her least favorite teacher, Movado the Avocado. May is mouthy, resentful, and furious. But she’s been furious for the past 18 months so just add it to her already long list of things that make her angry.

She’s furious with her mom for leaving them. She’s furious at her dad for not being around. She’s furious at her grandma for staying in her room all day in bed with the door closed. She’s furious with her old friends at school. She’s furious with the school principal and English teacher. Mad May is one unhappy girl… When she spray-paints a teachers room for humiliating her, she ends up in serious trouble. She spends it with the teacher who humiliated her in the first place and the two become unlikely friends.

The author captures May’s anger really well in her character as she lashes out at everyone. I did think some of the characters were preachy in parts especially Olive who doesn’t sound like a teenager but instead an adult counselor telling May how to deal with her feelings. The author has Olive’s mom be a counselor so that it looks like Olive’s learned from her, but it was too sophisticated for a twelve-year-old. May is a jerk to many people in this book; however, she does show kindness to her grandma who is very fragile and suffering from depression and she has fun with Olive like a typical kid. It’s pretty obvious what happened to May’s mom and why she is so angry. In that regard, the plot is predictable but the characters help move it along. There are also some improbable things that happen in the plot, such as May remembering her mom as an infant and May’s punishment. Also, the reader never really finds out what awful thing May said to Olive when they argued. The plot seemed forced in spots such as when the teacher tells her story and the reader figures out her motivations for teaching May that summer.

There are some deep themes in the book but they are not explored in great depth which makes it okay for younger kids to read. The part where May steals and doesn’t know why, except she’s so angry and sad, is interesting. Most of the characters are trying to deal with their grief. The author was trying to add tension to the story by hiding the fact that the mom has died but it pretty easy figuring that out right away. Why else would May be that bonkers? I think the beginning would have been stronger if the reader knew that fact up front. The characters drive this book which makes it an enjoyable read.

Reading Level 5.3
:-):-):-) 3 out of 5 Smileys