Thursday, May 31, 2012

Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix

I was plopped between two 5th graders in the fiction section of S's and W's with my legs crossed booktalking like an auctioneer. Sigh. Joy. My favorite part of my job. These two youngsters were not put-off by my rapid-fire read-this-read-that spiel. I have to tone it down for most as their eyes cross or their whites show. But not these two. They inhaled the book information interrupting me to chuck in their own opinions. So imagine my double joy when one jumps up and says "just a minute," and runs to another section to return with a book she thrusts in my hands and says, "you've gotta read this one."

Found is about Jonah, an adopted boy, whose new friend, Chip discovers he's adopted as well. The two begin getting scary letters in the mail about people coming to get them and being "missing." Katherine, Jonah's sister plunges into the mystery headfirst trying to find answers along with Chip as to the background behind their adoptions. Jonah becomes more reluctant as the answers unfold and he isn't so sure he wants to find out the mysteriousness of his adoption. The story unfolds to an exciting climax that will make you want to read book 2.

Students like this series that sweeps readers along with gobs of action and creepiness. The writing descriptions are not gorgeous nor is the dialogue witty but it is a quick fun read. I do think Katherine upstages Jonah as the main character. She's such a spunky, gutsy gal with a quick brain and eye for details. She's just a plain 'ole fun character. Jonah sticks his head in the sand until the very end where he is forced to either show some leadership skills or fade into the rocks.

Not all the questions are answered in this book. We don't know who Jonah is historically and he isn't really described so the reader can't take a stab at guessing. Well, you can take a stab at it but chances are you'll be wrong. We also don't know what happened to Daniella. It isn't clear Katherine's role in the series either but I think she's an interesting character that has to be in the next book based on how Found ends. A good series for your library.

Reading Level 5.0
3 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Firekeeper's Son by Linda Sue Park

Sang-hee lives in a quiet village where not much seems to happen. Every night his father scans the sea for enemy ships and if the coast is clear he lights a fire on the mountain. Another person on a nearby mountain does the same thing and the pattern continues until roughly 8 bonfires are lit and they reach the King's palace letting him know that the land is safe from enemies. One night it looks like the fire is not going to be lit. Sang-hee's mom knows the coast is free of enemies and thinks something has happened to Sang-hee's father. She sends him up the mountain where he finds his dad with a broken ankle. It is up to Sang-hee to light the fire. Except Sang-hee secretly wants to see the palace soldiers and knows if he doesn't light the fire they will come to fight the enemy. Sang-hee must decide whether to be responsible or not. Will he light the fire or not?

This is based on the bonfire signal communications used in Korea during the 1800s. The writing is descriptive and suspenseful. Older, as well as younger, students will like this book. Themes about being responsible and contributing to a community can be discussed. There is a clear story line with a climax that can be used to teach story mountains. The character struggles internally with his decision to light the fire or not. A good mentor text.

Reading Level 3.0
4 out of 5 smileys

Monday, May 28, 2012

Spellbound (The Books of Elsewhere #2) by Jacqueline West

My journal has the word, "shespies" and I'm thinking what is that? It's actually "she spies." She, is Olive, and the object of her spying, is Rutherford, a new character in book 2, who talks so fast he puts entire sentences together. So "she spies Rutherford in the garden" sounds like "shespiesrutherfordinthegarden." Guess I was unconsciously getting into the character which is easy to do with West. Her characters are distinct, memorable, and flawed. Take Olive. You can count on Olive getting herself into a mess and ticking off those around her before courageously extracting herself from the mess.

In her latest escapade, Olive's found the McMartin's spellbook. Her original intention is to free Morton from the painting and find his parents, but the spellbook has a power and "mind" of its own. It serves the McMartins and Olive doesn't quite know what she's got reading scrunched under her bedcovers late at night with a flashlight. The cats try to warn her but Olive is under a "spell." When she finds herself on a roof ready to jump, she realizes the book is truly dangerous and finds help from an unlikely source.

 West's descriptions incorporate all the senses and evoke images such as a "dusty lace of spiderwebs." The humor sprinkled throughout keeps the story from being too dark and scary although the McMartin's are trying to kill those who stand in their way. And just when you think you have the plot figured out, West throws an unpredictable twist that makes the story suspenseful and fun. This well-written fantasy mystery is quite enjoyable.

Reading Level 5.3
4 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker

If you like a character-driven story then you can savor this emotional waltz through the eyes of Stella. If you are more of a shake 'n shimmy type person, then you might want a little more action. Personally? I'm a shimmy up the tree type person but I found the plot intriguing enough to suck me in from start to finish.

Eleven-year-old Stella likes rules and cleanliness. They give order to a not so orderly life. Her mother can't take care of her. Shoot. Her mother can't even take care of herself. Stella's grandma raised her and when she dies, Stella is stuck with mommy-on-the-run. Her mother flits from job-to-job, travels all over, and accepts no responsibility for her only child. Dad isn't even in the picture. When Stella's mom abandons her a few too many times, she has to go live with her aunt Louise. When Stella arrives she finds Angel, a foster child Louise thinks would be nice company for Stella over the summer. Problem? Stella's like orange juice and Angel is the pulp that settles on the bottom.

When Louise croaks one morning the two form an unlikely and tepid friendship as they pretend to the world that she is alive. No way are they going to go to foster homes. And don't worry. This isn't a spoiler considering the author tells you by the third paragraph that Louise dies. Actually, I found it hard to get past that foreshadowing. I thought, ugh... this is going to be a sappy, sad book. I'm gonna love this character and then, POW, she's killed off. But Pennypacker has the plot go kerflooey and pulls a Jack Gantos (The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs) - they don't stuff Aunt Louise but they have her propped by the window and bury her in a grotesque and endearing way that is mesmerizing. It isn't until the girls help with the cottages that I started to shake 'n shimmy a little. But I was hooked by then and exercised a rare moment of patience.

The writing is gorgeous in this book with beautiful images and strong character development.  Pennypacker use images of webs, destructive gypsy moths, gravity, broken objects, music, and more, connecting them to the characters in the story giving depth and traits that make them identifiable to the reader. As a result even a shake 'n shimmy gal like myself had no problem waltzing through this book.

Reading Level 5.8
4 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The False Prince (audiobook) by Jennifer Nielsen

Warning! Do not listen to this audiobook unless you have time. Honest. You won't be able to put it down. And I don't even like audiobooks because I get too easily distracted and loose the plot. Luckily I finished listening to this story in one day. Or lucky for my husband. I unplugged my earbuds when he swung his arms across the room like a grand marshal waving checkered flags at an automobile race asking me to join the living. I did. And gushed about the great book I was listening to on my iTouch.

Sage is being mowed down the street by a cleaver-chasing angry butcher who wants his stolen roast back. The roast is slippery and Sage sarcastically thinks he'll make sure he wraps the roast before stealing it. When the butcher chucks the cleaver at Sage like a tomahawk, Sage can't help admire the "accuracy" of the toss. Thus sets into motion a plot that never lets up.

Sage is an orphan. He's hungry and good at stealing. He gets caught with the stolen roast and sold to a man named Conner who has collected four orphan boys with the intent of making one of them poise as a false prince. Conner knows that the royal family was murdered (the public doesn't know yet) and a regent will take the throne. To stop this, Conner wants an orphan boy to masquerade as the prince who went missing four years ago. He will choose the best orphan boy at the end of two weeks. At this point I'm thinking "Oh, another Liza Doolittle." Wrong. Liza was the part of a bet between two gentlemen. There are no gentlemen here - only the ruthless Conner who justifies murder if it serves his kingdom. When one orphan is murdered for not participating the other boys know they have no choice but to go along with the plan. They also know that the ones not chosen will be killed because the secret is too great. Conner makes it clear (as well as Sage) that whichever boy is placed on the throne Conner will own and manipulate. This isn't just any ordinary contest, it's a contest to the death.

Like the book, Hunger Games, this one has children in a competition where only one person can win and the losers die. The psychology of dealing with eliminating each other or working together yo-yo's back and forth causing great tension and fast pacing. It also adds suspense similar to mystery novels with emotional responses of anxiety, excitement, and fear as readers live through the viewpoint of the main character, Sage. The delicious plot twists have many surprises and the duplicity of the characters make it hard to determine if they are fighting for the good guys or bad guys. Sage's thievery reminded me of the Attolia series, by Megan Whalen Turner, where the main character is a thief in the kingdom.

Nielsen creates a strong voice in Sage. He struggles with the mindless murder of one of the orphans. He fights to not be manipulated by those around him and yearns for family reflecting on the good and bad. He is passionate about remaining true to himself and struggles internally as to whether or not he will embrace being a prince or not. He also tries to do the right thing even at the risk of his life.

The story has violence with killing, torture, and beatings. Sage is always getting hurt in some way or another. A servant girl is being physically and verbally abused. There is a little romance but nothing happens. Sage appears interested in Imogen but the false prince is betrothed to Amarinda and this makes for a love triangle. The audiobook is quite good with the actor changing voices. One character sounds like Clint Eastwood and I couldn't help but laugh. So let the checkered flags wave as you race through this book, it is truly a winner

Reading 5.2

5 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, May 21, 2012

Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! by Jonah Winter

Another great read aloud with grade 5 students studying biographies. Jonah Winter's work is fantastic as mentor texts and I went and bought all of them for our library after reading this one. He captures a character and sprinkles facts throughout the story that allow students to delve deeper into the character or topic (such as the garbage barge story). Picasso is larger than life in this story, as he is today. Picasso plowed through the art world like a matador devouring different styles and moving on to new ones until he created Modern art. It was his own style. It was unique. It was risky.

 As an artistic youngster, I heard more criticism than support for my creativity and when I took a risk and failed it was very hurtful. I even abandoned my craft at one point. This book struck a cord with me. You really, need thick skin to pursue a craft much less break new ground and create a new art style. It takes a special person. It takes a person who can grow 100 feet. It takes a person who paints for himself or herself versus others. This is a lesson that extends beyond art and is worthy of discussion.

Reading Level 4.2

5 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Shadows (The Books of Elsewhere series) by Jacqueline West

I have a favorite pen. The ink seeps out of it so I hardly have to press the felt tip to the paper. Bliss... no callouses, no hand-cramps, just my handy-dandy pen and a cup of tea when I sit down to write. So imagine the irony when I come across this paragraph that I absolutely have to write in my journal and I can't find my blasted pen:
"In her bedroom, Olive dug through the closet looking for a pair of slippers to wear for protection against the chilly stone floor. But there were no slippers to be found. Olive owned six pairs of slippers, but none of them were ever where they belonged. This was because Olive's body often did things without consulting Olive's brain, which was usually busy with something much more interesting than putting things away in the right place. A second pair of socks would have to do."
Olive, I mutter, grabbing a ball-point pen I know will leave my hand cramped, I know exactly how you feel.  The reader immediately gets a feel for Olive's creative, random nature contrasted with her nerdy, brilliant mathematical parents. At dinner, Olive asks for a small helping of lima beans and her mother says, "Twenty-four for you, then."  And while you might not be able to relate to Olive (like myself), you will definitely laugh.

Olive has just moved into a creepy Victorian stone house with a scary basement, talking cats, and paintings where the objects move. She's kind of lonely in the big old house but has a blast exploring its nooks and crannies. When she finds a pair of spectacles she realizes she can climb into the paintings and of course, jumps in the painting that is creepy. She's also intrigued because she can see a boy running through it. Meet Morton. His skin looks like a painting or porcelain but he wants out of the painting. He explains that a bad man brought him there and when a dark shadow chases them she impulsively yanks Morton out of the painting with the help of one of the cats and puts him in another one that is less threatening. 

Her next painting adventure involves meeting a women in a painting and having tea with her making her first friend. She also breaks the tea cup, puts 10 cubes of sugar in her tea, and thwacks her head on the picture frame when exiting, but she's having a hey-ho time until she starts to find out things from people in other paintings about the bad man that put them there. The man who has now targeted Olive because she lives in his house. The man who wants to kill her.

The pacing is fast, the humor keeps the story from being too frightening for young readers, and the characters are kooky and fun. The writing is very descriptive and the author creates a setting that is easy to get lost in. Mrs. Dewey she describes as looking as if she had been stacked on top of each other like a snowman. The cats are like the Three Musketeers with one cat being the thespian. He switches his voice using a pirate voice or a Shakespearean voice, to name a few. He reminded me of my sister who used to do that except she was either a Looney Tune character or the lion in the Wizard of Oz.

There were some nice plot twists and I was kept guessing as to what would happen next. When all looks lost Olive recognizes that the mess they are in is really because of her actions and it was refreshing to see her take responsibility for them. Only a couple of times did I wonder why the cats do not give Olive necessary information. The ploy is to keep the reader guessing as to whether or not the cats are helping or hindering Olive and the author gives the reason that they are serving the McMartins but I thought it was weak. I thought they should have had a curse on them similar to the necklace.

Morton changes from a frightened mean boy to one willing to stand up to evil. It was funny when he was hiding under the bed and then crawls out to explain how he had decided to fight the bad man and says he's strong flexing his spaghetti arm. Morton and Olive become friends in the story and Olive has to apologize for not believing in him. Morton is younger than Olive and their friendship requires Olive to be kind and not be the know-it-all older brat. She is a good person who learns from her mistakes.

This book reminded me of Breadcrumbs with how the author describes cold weather. It is like another character in the story the way it pervades the pages with images of snowmen, ice daggers, and crystals. West does such a good job getting the senses involved that I was left with a frosty nose a few times. A fun fantasy read.

Reading Level 5.1
4 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Seeing Stick by Jane Yolen; illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini

This is a terrific read aloud. Students love how the color on the illustrations unfolds mirroring the blind girl's attempt to "see" with her fingers. The embossed pages are like Braille and it's so much fun seeing kids gape at the surprise ending. Hwei Ming is the emperor's daughter and was born blind. She is shown as being alone and isolated in the beginning of the story as people try to come from all over the country to cure her of her blindness. When an old man travels from a great distance with his Seeing Stick he opens the world up to Hwei Ming by teaching her to "see" through touching the people and objects around her.

Before reading I tell the grade 3 or 4 students to notice the color (or lack of color) and then stop to ask them to "turn and talk" about it on the page with the old man carrying The Seeing Stick, which is the first page with color. Why did the illustrator put color on this page? This introduces the themes and forces them to make connections between the art work and text.  One might be offended by the portrayal of Hwei Ming's blindness arguing it is a stereotype of a character with a disability who does not do "normal" activities such as playing with other children or exploring the palace. But I think her blindness is balanced by the old man who does lead a normal life and shows Hwei Ming how to "see" whereon she teaches other blind children the same lesson. The story ends with much hope and joy and the focus is on Hwei Ming and how she changes versus how she is blind. It is an opportunity to talk about characters with disabilities and how they are portrayed in literature.

The artwork is stunning. The illustrator uses traditional Chinese painting with patterned textures on the clothing. The long robes suggest the period of time to be from the Qing Dynasty that lasted for over 200 years. The brushwork is reminiscent of the calligraphy or ink paintings with monochromatic pictures and little, if any, color. The first page shows Hwei Ming's robe as being almost transparent, a reflection of her isolation or withdrawn nature. She's like a ghost in the palace. The illustrations that pour from the Seeing Stick change and look like folk art. The way they are designed with white outlines made me think of the famous Chinese paper cuts that have around since the 6th century. The women I work with who grew up in Taiwan said the Seeing Stick images reminded them of shadow puppetry.The borders resemble what is seen on walls and temples.

I think the story would have been even more powerful if the illustrator had used symbols from Chinese culture in her textures. For instance, Hwei Ming's flowered dress has what looks like a chrysanthemum design, but this is a flower given at funerals. If the magnolia flower had been used it represents sweetness and beauty which would have added a nice layer to an already well-told story and the tactile nature of the embossed paper. There was also strict codes of colors that only royalty could wear during the Qing Dynasty. While Terrazinni does have the emperor in a yellow robe the design is plain circles. It kind of looks like the sun and the emperor was recognized as, the son of heaven.The circle motif in Chinese art has many symbols such as prosperity, riches, the sacred disc and more. Too bad one of them wasn't slipped in the artwork. I thought about the famous emperor and his yellow robe that I have read in children's literature. Historically the dragon motif symbolized the emperor and is reflected in illustrations of court robes. It seems Terrazinni missed an opportunity with the cultural symbols, but it doesn't detract from the story. Not at all. The illustrations are a feast for the eyes. You'll definitely want this one for your library.

Reading Level 4.4
4 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Serpent's Shadow by Rick Riordan (Kane Chronicles book 3)

As a kid I would watch The Carol Burnett show and loved the skits by comedians Tim Conway and Harvey Korman. Conway was so funny that Korman would forget his lines and  laugh until he was gasping for air. They stole the show. I would sit with my parents bouncing on the couch anticipating their upcoming skits. Obviously they were having a blast and the humor was infectious. Riordan writes like he's having a blast, shooting off jokes, word puns and banter like a circus ringmaster. I can't wait to meet the gods he dreams up in his books. They are cartoonish and entertaining. Take the god of air, Shu. Sadie calls him "shoe" and "trash tornado" because he's surrounded by debris. As he scolds Sadie he puffs on an inhaler complaining, "'Brooklyn ozone levels - deplorable!"

Sadie and Carter are saving the world from Apophis, the god of Chaos, who wants to destroy all humans so he can roam the earth freely versus his current condition where the gods have restrained him. The story picks up where book 2 left off with Sadie, Carter, Khufu, Felix, Walt, and Alyssa trying to get the last scroll from the Dallas Museum of Art that holds the clue to stopping Apophis. When a battle between the Kane group and Apophis occurs at the King Tut exhibit, the Kanes find themselves on the losing side with no scroll and a gold box. With the help of Thoth, the god of Knowledge, they discover the box holds the key to destroying Apophis. However, there are so many obstacles to overcome the task seems impossible. Not only is Apophis out to get them but a group of magicians have assassins after them and they have to rely on a traitorous ghost to help them on their quest.

As always, Riordan has tons of action with battles and monsters galore. Egyptian mythology is more complex than Greek mythology and less familiar so this story might be harder for young readers to follow. Riordan does use repetition, provides a glossary in the back, and uses mnemonic devices to aid the reader. The females are strong characters and Sadie isn't going to take flack from anyone. There is more romance in this book and the characters think quite a bit about the people they are interested in. I think that this, coupled with the more complex mythology, makes the book more for middle grade students, although the reading level is beginning grade 5. Carter is interested in Zia and Sadie is interested in Walt and Anubis. I found this part of the plot predictable. I usually can't predict Riordan's plots, but I could with the romance storyline.

I didn't think there was as much internal changes in the characters as in book one and two. Sadie struggles with not letting Isis control her but that was covered in the previous books. She also tries to be "normal" and go to school. Carter is a reluctant leader. Most of the internal changes is Sadie and Carter thinking about the two people they want to be romantically involved with. Sadie has to find acceptance and Carter doesn't seem to know if Zia likes him as much as he likes her. This is the last in the trilogy but Riordan hints at the possibility of continuing it in the ending. Make sure you have a bundle of time when you read this book - it's a rip-roaring yarn that is hard to put down.

Reading Level 4.9
4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Eye of the Storm by Kate Messner

Tornadoes can be fascinating... and frightening. Usually, there is an eerie calmness before the sky turns a greenish hue and blackens. A stinging wind stirs the air with dead leaves and dirt before sirens wail. Panicked, you scramble indoors to safety.

Now, close your eyes and imagine a future where tornadoes occur so frequently that you can't even ride a bike outdoors. Or go on a hike. Or feel the wind on your face as you swing. Instead, you live in concrete bunkers or underground where it is safe. This is twelve-year-old Jaden's world, set in the year 2050. Tornadoes have become so severe that the Fujita scale has changed from the top level measurement of an F6 to an F10.

When Jaden goes to live with her dad and step-mom at Placid Meadows, she finds a community where the tornadoes don't touch down. A community where she can be outside without fear. Jaden's dad has created a technology that protects Placid Meadows, but she hasn't seen her dad in four years and is not sure how the technology works. Jaden asks him questions and while he shares information with her, she knows that something isn't quite right. That the information does not reflect what is happening around her. Jaden digs deeper into her questions as she goes to a science camp to learn about meteorology. She makes friends with Risha, Alex, and Tomas and is paired with Alex who is interested in tornado dissipation like her. The two discover some inexplicable things about the nearby tornadoes that touch down and become determined to solve the mystery of Placid Meadows.

Messner does a great job with tension and establishing the characters right away, as well as creating a vortex of themes. When we first meet dad he is in the car with Jaden and they are trying to not get stuck in a tornado. They are racing to a shelter as debris and wind threatens to engulf their car. Jaden's dad isn't frightened. If anything he loves it and appears addicted to severe weather. He tells Jaden not to worry and is oblivious to the fact that she is terrified. The reader quickly learns that dad is single-minded and doesn't respect other people's wishes to not live in an artificial environment like farmers or Aunt Linda. He is bent on building Phase II of Placid Meadows and cannot understand why someone would choose a life that is unprotected from severe weather.

The genre is dystopia but I would also call it a mystery as well. There is plenty of action, character development, and tension. Jaden is trying to reconnect with her father, make new friends, solve a scientific problem, and understand choices people make as to where to live. I like how this well-crafted story has raging tornadoes that seem to mirror the storm that is going on inside of Jaden as she changes throughout the novel. She has to decide between saving other people or going against her dad. She also has to learn to trust and believe in herself. It is a multi-layered story that can generate some good book club discussions.

Some might find the story filled with too much science and technology but I really enjoyed that side and thought it was balanced with the rest of the story. I also thought Messner was creative in showing some devices that are currently used by storm chasers, such as a mobile meso-net unit and her futuristic device called a DataDrone. Other clever word plays are DNA-ture and DataSlate. I like how Messner uses the librarian who believes that old technology does not mean it is useless technology. So often we are racing off to collect the newest technology without thought as to whether or not it is better technology. I also got a kick out of the Risha's binary coded bracelets that spelled out words. That was pretty funny. I wonder if Messner dreamed that up or if she knows someone who has bracelets like that?

There is some romance between Risha and Tomas and Jaden and Alex, but not much happens because they are too busy solving the mystery of Placid Meadows. Teachers could use this book for teaching small moments (pages 53 describes eating something delicious, 55 describes swinging) or the scientific method where students at camp are learning if-then statements and hypothesis (page 38). Our students are crazy about science and this should be very hit with them.

Reading level 4.8

5 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

City of Lies by Lian Tanner

This is the second book in the Keepers series, book one is the  Museum of Thieves . You need to read the first one otherwise this one will be confusing, especially the shifts in plot or references to the museum, Keepers, and Guardians from the city of Jewel. Some of the questions in the first book are answered such as who set off the bomb and we start to see why Goldie was chosen to be a Keeper - this is tied in with her discovering whose voice is in her head.

Goldie plays the hero as she sets off to rescue Toadspit's sister, Bonnie, who has been kidnapped and taken to the city of Spoke. Two slavers, Cord and Smudge, steal children and Bonnie is their latest victim. When Toadspit and Goldie take after them, Toadspit is caught and Goldie is left on her own to come up with a rescue plan. The city of Spoke is celebrating the Festival of Lies (ironic twist on Festival of Lights) where people have to tell lies to each other and are abuzz with hope of getting caught by a magical "Big Lie". This is when the lie takes over a person's senses and takes them to an alternate world. As Goldie rescues her friends she finds out that the slavers are a part of a bigger conspiracy that involves the city of Jewel.

The author does a nice job with characters and the different voices. Cord and Smudge reminded me of Hook and Smee in Peter Pan and the uneducated orphans living in the streets have their own dialect. Goldie is the only character that changes. She has to learn to trust herself and she's a reluctant hero. It is obvious to the reader that she should trust the voice in her head, but she stubbornly refuses to - which I found downright irritating. I see that it is a setup for later when the "voice" is explained and I appreciate that unique twist in the story, but the author has her doubting the "voice" because there looks like a betrayal; however, the betrayal is obviously not one which is why it doesn't work. Okay, that's a tongue-twister. I would have liked more development on Pounce. He was fun, wasn't he? I like the trickster in stories. I would have liked to crawl inside his brain for awhile. The villains are basically the same characters and don't change. While there is plenty of action or external tension in this story there isn't a lot of internal tension through the characters.

The plot is somewhat messy. The beginning is forced when Goldie has to decide between the Keeper and her parents. I thought she was being melodramatic and impractical by saying she'll "never" be a Keeper. She just needed to take care of her parents and couldn't be a Keeper at the moment. This character change was too contrived for me and didn't work. If she had just said, "Look my parents are really sick after being imprisoned and I can't be a Keeper right now," I would have bought it, but she was slamming the door shut and making it all or nothing. It didn't ring true. Also, I thought her being a Beserker was kind of weird. I like that it scared her and forced her to cast off weapons and I think it is supposed to show that she is a warrior, which is why she should be a Keeper, but it isn't fully developed, just suggested.

I love the risks and creativity Tanner takes with her writing. City of Lies doesn't come alive for me like Museum of Thieves, which has a start that reminds me of The Giver and  museum that reminds me of Incarceron. The story is entertaining and the "Big Lie" is truly unique - I can't think of that in any book. There is plenty of action and violence and the villains are somewhat cartoonish which makes them less threatening for young readers. Readers will enjoy this fantasy.

Reading Level 4.2

3 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Precious and the Monkeys by Alexander McCall Smith

I'm confused. This looks like an early chapter reader for grades 2-3. It reads like an early chapter reader. But the reading level is 5.6 which means the vocabulary is at a 5th grade level. Huh? Typo? I'd be curious what others think about that... Maybe I can get a grade 3 teacher to read it and give his or her opinion. Hmmm.

Meet Precious. And no, it's not Gollum, the horrible hobbit from Tolkien's, Lord of the Rings. But it is Precious from an adult mystery series, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith. Mma Precious Ramotswe owns a detective agency as an adult. This story is about Precious as a seven-year-old who becomes interested in detective work.

Precious Ramotswe's dad tells her exciting stories such as when he comes face to face with a lion and out-wits it by jumping in a covered grain bin. He makes the lion sneeze by tossing dusty bits from the bottom of the bin into it's face. The villagers hear the sneeze and scare the lion out of the village and away from her dad.  Precious says that her dad is the person who gave her the idea of becoming a detective. Her first case is at school and involves food that keeps disappearing from the corridor outside the classroom. Students start blaming one another without any proof and Precious decides to set a trap to catch the thief.

The author does a good job with repetition and explaining concepts that will help the early reader in understanding and decoding this tale. Precious is kind and thoughtful. She explains three things that make a good detective: one that asks questions, one that can tell when people are not telling the truth, and one that doesn't jump to conclusions but looks for evidence. There is humor throughout - I got kick out of the skinny cook echoing everything the big cook said because "it was safe." When the kids accuse another student of being a thief, everyone deserts him except Precious who says she is his friend and knows he's telling the truth when he says he didn't steal anything. This would make a nice read aloud with discussions around topics such as what happens when false rumors and accusations spread, how to stand up for what you believe in, and the importance of being kind to others.

The plot is predictable regarding who stole the food and Precious sounds too old for a  seven-year-old  at times, but I don't think it will matter to young readers. When Precious stands up for the boy I thought the dialogue sounded more like an adult preaching than a seven-year-old talking: "'It doesn't matter what people like that think,' she said. 'What matters is what your friends think. I'm your friend, and I know that you're telling the truth.'" Maybe if my husband didn't teach seven-year-olds it wouldn't have stood out. I know that a seven-year-old's speech is not that sophisticated.

It's fun to make connections between the character in the adult series and the younger Precious. I have not read the adult novel in a long time but I do remember she likes to cook and eat. In this story, she outwits the thief with her cooking, even though I found it hard to believe a seven-year-old could bake a cake. You might have to suspend your beliefs here and there, but this tale is sweet and worth reading.

P.S. That is the eBook title on OverDrive but when I looked for a photo I could only find the title,  The Great Cake Mystery.

Reading level 5.6

3 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, May 4, 2012

Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell

I don't read a heck-of-a-lot of adult novels since I became a children's librarian. That's why I like my book club - it forces me to read one every now and then.  I thought this novel had an awful lot of characters. New ones were hopping on board with less than a fourth of the book to finish. I prefer fewer characters in books but that might be the result of reading so many kids books. That said, there is no denying that Russell is brilliant at developing characters. I guarantee you'll find at least one that you like. My problem is if I don't like a character I buzz through the other characters trying to get to the one I like - something I did with this book. If you are a patient reader then you probably don't have this problem. So.... while I did like the characters, I wished the plot had more twists and was less predictable.

This story takes place in Italy during the Holocaust. The Holocaust. My heart sinks. I know people are going to die. I know they are going to die in horrible ways. I know that fear reigns supreme and that people will turn on each other. I oftentimes approach Holocaust books with dread because I find them depressing, violent, and hopeless. Russell's book was and was not like that. Many of the characters are funny and good ordinary people risk their lives to help them. Russell doesn't really show characters that side with the Germans and turn in neighbors. Claudette is the first character we meet. She is fleeing with other Jewish refugees to Italy that has just surrendered to the Allies. Claudette is hoping for peace, but instead finds Nazis living in cities, Resistence fighters at war with them, ordinary civilians trying to survive, and a man who falls in love with her.

Russell does a terrific job getting you emotionally invested before killing the characters off. Some readers like this type of book. I don't. I didn't want to become emotionally invested in the characters (and I find it harder to when there are so many). So I didn't. I put up a wall and didn't let myself love them. I was having an emotionally exhausting week at work and didn't want to go there. So I force-fed myself the pages of the book and thus have a not-so-good book review. If you want a more well-rounded review on characters and plot, I suggest Ben Babcock's review (contains spoilers). He does a nice job.

Russell is a fabulous writer. I enjoyed her book, The Sparrow, but I didn't really give this novel a fair shake. If you like reading about the Holocaust and enjoy a character-driven book, then I highly recommend this one.

4 out of 5 Smileys