Monday, June 25, 2012

The Dragon's Eye (Dragonology Chronicles #1) by Dugald A. Steer

Daniel and Beatrice have been staying with an uncle and are waiting for their parent's ship to dock (not sure where the uncle is but they are alone). The two haven't seen their parents in four years. While waiting, they get a note from their parents saying that the Prince of India still needs their help, they won't be coming home, and the two need to go stay with a Dr. Drake. Beatrice and Daniel arrive at Drake's place only to be kept waiting in his shop. Daniel hears a noise in the room next door and thinks he sees a dragon. Drake won't talk to him about it and the two find out that Drake runs a school in the summer on dragonology. The two become members of a secret society that keeps dragons a secret from humanity. Drake is in conflict with Ignatious who wants to be the Master Dragon and have the power to rule the world. He's in league with a Russian dragonologist who also has plans of her own. We never find out her goals. When Ignatious starts stealing artifacts it is up to Drake, Beatrice, and Drake to stop them.

Younger readers might be more forgiving of this book and swept up in the adventure but it fell short in many ways for me. As a character Drake is a dweeb and he's supposed to be the wise mentor or teacher. Problem? He's lousy at both. He is unfair with his treatment of Daniel whom he punishes for snooping around when Daniel hears a dragon flapping around in the room next door. Duh! Who wouldn't look in a room if some exotic creature was there. I was willing to buy it except he makes him spend an entire week reading inside. That didn't fit the crime. Drake is never upfront with Beatrice and Daniel and the author uses him to force the plot along. For instance, Daniel reads, The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, and learns about natural selection and his study of dragons on the Galapagos islands. By punishing him for the week the author was able to get in his information about dragons. Beatrice starts out as this fearless tough girl who isn't going to get her hat stolen but then she won't even check out the wild creature flapping in the room with Daniel. That seemed contrary to her character when we first meet her.

The adults avoid talking about things and this type of suspense building drives me crazy. Once used in a plot I can take, but when it is done time again by multiple characters then I get irritated by the lack of plot development. The author also reveals too much or not enough in the plot and it disrupts the pacing. When Billy meets Beatrice and Daniel an avalanche of information is provided. It could have been trickled out with the adults. Then they wouldn't have looked so inept. For instance, Daniel reads a long list of 12 treasures that are needed for the story's plot, but it was boring, and at that point all we needed to know was number 12. Fifty pages or so later when the other items are introduced than the information could have be given.

The setting needed more about the kids in boarding school and why their parents would leave them for 4 years. The uncle wasn't developed either. Why wasn't he with them at the beginning and then why was he the concerned uncle at the end getting the police involved so he could have the children? It wasn't consistent. More information is given later in the book that makes sense of the parents and why they couldn't see their children but I thought it should have been moved to the beginning. I kept thinking, why didn't the parents just bring the two with to India? The dragons aren't very scary which made it somewhat boring and there wasn't a resolution at the end of the story. Maybe the sequel will be better. I'll never know.

Reading Level: 5.7

2 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction: 6 Steps to Writing and Publishing Your Bestseller! by Philip Athans

So I am not a wannabe fantasy writer nor do I have a manuscript collecting dust. But I do wannabe a better book reviewer. I read Ben Bacock's review on Goodreads about the fantasy book, Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, and was inspired with the depth of the review. Not having access to many English books in Taiwan, I borrowed this eBook from a Minnesota Public Library and found it helpful in many ways. Not only does it show key elements in this genre, it also defines the subgenres of fantasy and science fiction - many I had never heard of before.

Science fiction definitions are abundant and confusing but I like this author's: If magic can be replaced with imagined technologies, it is science fiction. In library school I remember a professor saying, "if the characters time travel it's science fiction."  When I was reading all of the science fiction subgenres it did become clear that there are not many children's science fiction books. And hardly any military science fiction. The only subgenre I did not understand by the author's definition was slipstream. I looked it up other definitions online and they didn't make sense either. I think it is one I'd have to read a book in the genre to truly grasp the meaning. The closest I can make out is it is a literary effect similar to surrealist painting. Sounds like a type of dream-state. Would love an explanation if there are any slipstream readers out there. Don't you love that word?

Six elements are necessary to writing: storytelling capabilities, message, plot, know when to stop, and learn to write developing a voice while incorporating the senses. While I know this it is the details and depth he explores each of these topics that make it helpful in looking at fantasy and science fiction novels. He particularly emphasizes consistency and plausibility throughout the entire novel so as not to turn off the reader. The book is easy-to-read with humor splattered throughout the pages.

The world building and how fantasy/science fiction novels are layered was particularly interesting. The author stresses keeping notes and deciding what type of world to create such as historical, contemporary, alternate history, or near-future science-fiction. Examples of adult books are given in each of these areas so if you want to further explore a particular area by reading an author who specializes in it, you can. The creating your monster section was fun. Who doesn't love a good monster! I liked his point that the monster has to be a superior predator that threatens the human status of being top of the food chain; otherwise it isn't scary.

In one section six drafts are given that shows how a given piece of writing is overworked by adding elements. I found this particularly fascinating and helpful in seeing how the world is layered. It was a terrific culmination of previous points mentioned in the chapter. It might be useful to teachers as a writing exercise that gives ways to add fantasy elements to a regular piece of writing.

The sections on pacing, action, and humor were helpful and he relates it to Jackie Chan movies which offers the reader a visual which I found helpful. He also defines the difference between action, which resolves a conflict; violence which is an assault with a onesided motive; and gore, which is violence or action without any motivation. Avoid gore, he advises.

The author mentions using the SMOG readability formula to determine the level of books. I had never heard of this before. I took my two paragraphs above and put them in the formula (grade 7-9). Wonder how accurate it is? The Chinese librarian wants to level her books but that isn't available in the Chinese publishing world. Wonder if she could use this formula?

Again, this was a helpful book for me as a librarian, teacher, and reviewer. I'm not looking at it from a writer's point of view, the obvious target audience for this book if you go strictly by the title. I read oodles of children's fantasy but not adult books and I have read little science fiction. So while I don't have much background in all the different subgenres of fantasy and science fiction, I enjoyed pushing aside the curtain and getting a glimpse of a writer's craft. Well-written and a worthwhile purchase.

4 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Positive Coaching: Building Character and Self-Esteem Through Youth Sports by Jim Thompson

Effective coaching and learning starts with a positive approach toward athletics. Thompson provides a guide with theories and examples of how to be a more positive coach for any age and sport. When a coach is successful at positive coaching he or she is developing a successful team without the focus on winning and losing. The first chapter challenges the reader to think of himself as a coach and how he reacts with players. Are you a screamer? Do you think about winning at all costs? He acknowledges that it's hard to be a coach. How do you handle different situations? This helped me reflect on my own coaching skills and change a few things that might make me better.

The succeeding chapters get into more specifics and explain ways to handle parents, different types of players, mistakes, winning and losing, as well as, special needs players. It is practical and general with an abundance of stories that make it easy-to-read. I have been coaching a long time so I did not see anything earth-shattering, instead I came away with a way to reflect on my current practices.

The guts of the book is that coaches strive for players to display full effort, positive attitude, and good sportsmanship in all circumstances. When these character traits are pursued by players they will grow in confidence and mental toughness as they learn to deal with adversity while having fun in a sport they love to play. Players will reach their highest potential maintaining integrity and good sportsmanship as they learn life-long lessons that can be carried into other areas of life.

I read this for a class and would recommend it for coaches but I think the beginning coach is going to benefit more than the seasoned one. Also, the author comes at it from a male point-of-view having coached his son in baseball and basketball. I think the book would have been stronger if it had included a female point-of-view. Girls sports differs from boys sports in some ways and some of the issues are different based on gender differences. But there were only a few instances where I noticed the difference. If you coach, you'll get something out of the read. Building character in ourselves and children is critical to creating good citizens. Good stuff.
4 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Mapmaker and the Ghost by Sarvenaz Tash

My husband who has taught 1st graders for 18 years used to whisper in my ear when our daughter was a hell-on-wheels three-year-old, "Barb get sad, not mad." Which of course made me so mad I wanted to rip his eyeballs out. But he was right. And I knew it. I did learn to be sad, not mad (only had one relapse when she turned 13, but that is another story).

Goldenrod's teacher, Mrs. Barbroff also gets mad not sad. When she witnesses Goldenrod stabbing a pencil through a bully's backpack and spearing his protein drink so it explodes like a fountain, she actually screeches like a seagull and lectures Goldenrod that she will turn into a hoodlum. Mrs. Barf ,as Goldenrod likes to refer to her, is militant and doesn't understand how to get students to think about their actions. Luckily Goldenrod's mom and dad are different and tell her they are disappointed with her behavior and ground her for a week. Only problem is they don't follow through either and Goldenrod talks her mom out of her grounding after one day. But it isn't surprising. Goldenrod can be charming and kind or strong and stubborn when she sets her mind to it.

Goldenrod misses her friend Charla who has moved away suddenly. The two pretended they were Lewis and Clark and would make maps and explore. Goldenrod decides she is going to map out the town and when she nears the forest she meets an old woman who sends her on a quest to find a rare blue rose. Goldenrod meets a ghost who helps her and a gang of gross and kooky kids who thwart her quest. When her brother gets in trouble the two team up and battle through all sorts of adventures.

I found the beginning interesting although I wasn't sure this tiny girl was strong enough to stab through a backpack and plastic bottle. I thought that maybe she could with a knife but not a sharp pencil. But no biggie, I could overlook that. The parents were kind of ditzy but enduring in their own way. The relationship between Goldenrod and her brother was real too. When the story shifts to the group of goofy boys and snot-blasting sharpshooter girl I lost interest. I think kids will love the gross humor but the characters didn't interest me. I also thought they were stereotypical with the orphan boy who has been in too many foster homes and wanted to belong and the neglected rest of the crew. I did like that Goldenrod shows kindness to the bully when she didn't have to.

Lewis and Clark is studied in 5th grade and that is the age of Goldenrod. A reader can glean a few nonfiction facts about the explorers but not much. I got a kick out of the ghost when he scared Snotshot into putting the rose where he wanted. There are also a lot of play on words and names that are humorous. The story shines in parts and lacks in others. I look forward to more books by this author as she keeps improving her craft. A good story for elementary-aged kids.

Reading level 6.4
3 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Lavinia tells most of this story and she is a meek, gentle soul. On her way from Ireland, Lavinia is orphaned on a ship and the Captain takes her to his plantation where she is raised by the black folks that work there. One of those folks is Belle, the Captain's illegitimate daughter who people mistakenly think is his mistress. Lavinia develops close, caring relationships with her family and slowly heals from the loss of her family from Ireland. She also becomes friends with the Captain's wife and two children thus learning about the world of whites versus the world of slaves.

The beginning of the book was intriguing with Lavinia transforming from a withdrawn, traumatized child to one who could laugh again. The slaves at the farm are caring and loving. They look out for each other (unlike the white people in the house) and they try to do the right thing at the risk of their lives. Mama Mae and Belle help Lavinia although Belle has to learn to accept her at first. Then the novel changes and loses it's authenticity. Misunderstandings, bad romances, and bad happenings pile up like rocks in a quarry and just when someone is going to enlighten another character, there is an interruption and the character never finishes the sentence. The result is major misunderstandings. The technique was used so much I was gritting my teeth by the end.

The author does a nice job showing how Marshall became such a twisted, evil person. He is not a one-dimensional villian. That's why I thought Lavinia was out of character at the end when she doesn't grieve. The characters seem to act dumb in spots in order to move the plot along. Wouldn't Lavinia figure out about Marshall's tutor as an adult? Wouldn't she put two-and-two together? And wouldn't everyone know on the plantation about Belle's parentage?

The author really nails the beginning theme of families not having to be of the same color but then seems to go overboard as the plot unravels into a series of bad romances. There is plenty of emotional appeal to this story if you can overlook the plot. A story with much promise, but in the end doesn't deliver. If you'd like to try a children's book on a similar controversial topic but explore the theme of how a good man can own slaves and coin the phrase "all men are created equal" then try Jefferson's Sons.

3 Smileys

Friday, June 8, 2012

Art Revolution: Alternative Approaches for Fine Artists and Illustrators by Lisa Cyr

I read the book, The Third Gift by Linda Sue Park, and was baffled by illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline's artwork. The fascinating illustrations looked like he had combined watercolor with photography or oil painting, but the layered look or raised pictures of the human figures in the story made me wonder if he'd layered his artwork using Photoshop. And what had he used to border them? Graphite? Colored pencil? Argh... These questions really are about how digital technologies have changed the landscape of painting and I decided to jump into the canvas of 21st century approaches to creating art by reading, Art Revolution. Sometimes it felt like a trampoline and I didn't always understand what I was reading. But it was fun and I got a bonus of the author showing how artists work through creative processes in very different ways.

The beginning of the book gives a history of Modern Art that grew out of the Cubist movement before moving to specific artists and demonstrations of them creating their art. It is meant to inspire existing artists to break out from traditional methods and be innovative. I didn't always understand the demonstration pages but it was enlightening. One artist even makes her own paper! The pages abound with examples of collage, assemblage and digital art. Like a dork I downloaded it on my black and white Nook. When I went to the computer to look at the colored pictures the book had expired. I checked it out while traveling overseas from a public library in Minnesota. Talk about 21st century reading! ; )

I enjoyed the author's writing style. She's a journalist so the artist sections are full of dialogue making it less dry than many textbooks I've read in college or collage (I've been to so many schools it could inspire a large collage). Kathleen Conover explains she's inspired by patterns in nature. She takes her pieces out in subzero temperatures (she lives by Lake Superior) so that the paint freezes into ice crystals. She says, "Looking through the layers of ice is like looking into ourselves." The surface is easy see and understand but as the layers thicken and you look deeper the color deepens and blurs making the ice less easy to identify. One chapter in the beginning has quite a bit of bias as to the importance of contemporary art. It felt like the author is defending herself. I liked her voice better when she sticks to the facts and presents the artists and their works. That alone is powerful enough to make the reader go, Wow... what they are doing is really innovative. The overall tone of the book is not negative and biased - just in a few spots in the beginning.

The author writes a chapter on herself in third person that I thought was kind of funny. She talks about how brilliant her work is. I agree. And I would add that her work is really complicated. She applies a bajillion art techniques. It was nuts! I also found the chapters regarding artists who employ spatial design and architecture to their work fascinating. My dad is an architect and to see that transferred to a canvas or piece of wood is not something I've ever thought about before. The three dimensional work of these artists is inspiring.

The treat for me was reading how each artist approaches his or her work to find inspiration. Some start from chaos to order; others, order to abstraction; others, research to idea. Anyone interested in the creative process will find the multiple ways the artists described their approaches to beginning a piece of artwork revealing. The demonstration section is interesting but you need some background knowledge of techniques and mediums. I chuckled at how the author ALWAYS writes to make sure you are in a well ventilated space. Humor aside, it is truly important. Many artists have gotten sick not using proper safety measures when painting. I laugh because it reminds me of all the mistakes I made not having properly ventilated rooms when I first started to paint. Yes, I tend to learn things the hard way.

I didn't really have my questions answered but I do know that Bagram Ibatoulline is doing innovative illustrations similar to those found in this book. I do think that children's illustrations are going to be more literal versus abstract but they use the techniques mentioned in this book and I found that helpful. I thought of a few books I've seen lately such as Grumpy Bird, by Jeremy Tankard, and Garmann's Summer, by Stion Hole, that employ digital technology in their illustrations. I'll keep collecting knowledge and maybe someday I'll be able to write about this topic in an intelligent matter. Until then, I'll work on ordering the chaos in my brain. Not an easy task.

4 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Obsidian Blade by Pete Hautman

Thirteen-year-old Tucker's dad is a pastor who is replacing a shingle on the roof when he disappears into a disk that is hovering nearby. A short time later he reappears with a girl, Lahlia, who looks like she's from another world. When Tucker pounds him with questions, his dad won't talk about what happened on the roof and denies he "disappeared." But when he announces at dinner that there is "no God" and he has no faith, Tucker knows something happened to him. Not to mention the weird blue paint on his feet when he got back with Lahlia. Then Tucker's mom starts to lose her mind and his dad takes her to a hospital that Tucker suspects is not in this world.

Tucker goes to live with his uncle where he sees another disk on his uncle's roof. He climbs to the roof  and when the disk sucks Tucker into an alternate world, he finds himself on the top of the World Trade Towers just before they fall. His uncle is on the World Trade Towers too but he doesn't recognize Tucker because he has been sucked in by the disk at a different time in history. A time before he knew Tucker. The two escape and Tucker begins to learn how the disks work and who is behind the technology that manipulates history.

This book is for middle school and up. Before each chapter there is an explanation of the people who built the disk/portal technology that is vague and uses high vocabulary. There are several different factions that readers need to keep track of and the jumping back and forth in time during the second part of the book is going to be difficult for most young readers to follow.

The start of the book is slow with the setup of a stereotypical fundamentalist preacher, an unhappy housewife, and Tucker as the energetic, bored teen who likes to put excitement in his life by doing crazy things. The second half of the book is full of action and violence.

The plot leaves the reader with more questions than answers that I'm sure the second book will pick up on and start to explain. I think the author tackles too much and the story loses its focus. The themes are huge and abundant delving into topics such as religious beliefs and fanatics, technologically advanced societies, authoritarian leaders, and the degeneration of societies. It overwhelms the plot at times but is also interesting. Because so many topics are covered they are touched on. I think if less topics were tackled there'd be more depth and focus. I found the fundamentalist fanatics and religious aspect the least interesting and more stereotyped; whereas, the notion of digital societies causing physical and psychological illnesses in people, as well as, manipulation of history was more fascinating.

Tucker's dad loses his faith because of aliens who heal him and his mom develops autistic tendencies from playing Sudoku. I think the plot would have been stronger if his mom had developed some weird Plague from using her cell phone or interacting with some technology. He coins the phrase "digital Plague" that creates all sorts of intriguing possibilities. The author was trying to tie the Sudoku in with the use of numbers by the aliens but I think she should have been playing it on a computer or phone.

Lahlia's story is not really told but it hints at the end that it will be in the next book. She's a Pure Girl who is supposed to be sacrificed by priests in the future and in a strange twist that I don't want to spoil for you, this ends up showing up in the past during Tucker's time. There isn't really an ending to the story but a setup for the sequel.

This is a weird book and reminds me of Pathfinder, by Orson Scott Card which has multiple time travels and Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood.

Reading Level Young Adult
3 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Invaders (Brotherband book 2) by John Flanagan

Book one ends with Hal and his crew of sailors fleeing in disgrace from the city they grew up in order to retrieve the Andromal, the sacred artifact of the Skandians, that was stolen by pirates when Hal's crew was supposedly guarding it (they fell asleep). Hal knows that they will be pursued and dragged back home to be punished for leaving the city. They flee under cover of a storm and find a sheltered inlet where Thorn, an adult Skandian warrior who came with on the crew, begins training them on how to fight like warriors. The young boys are no match for pirates and the training is intense. When they discover a girl, Lydia, in a boat adrift at sea they find out that the pirates they are seeking have taken over her town and are pillaging it of emeralds found in a nearby mine. Hal must put together a plan to defeat the pirates and give the town back to the villagers.

Flanagan loves weapons and shines when describing the use and function of them. Hal invents a crossbow that he mounts on his sailing ship, as well as, a way for his sailing ship to go faster in the water. Lydia is an expert using a dart throwing weapon called an atlatl. Flanagan's writing reminds me of nonfiction texts at times. He's good at descriptions, setting and action; less good with interesting word choices and internal character development. He has his usual humor and banter but I didn't think it worked quite as well in this story because it was between adults and boys. Usually he has the banter between adults and if it's with the boys they don't get it half the time and that makes it funnier.

The characters are distinct and have flaws although Hal doesn't really change much from the beginning to the end of the story. Thorn actually changes more becoming the warrior he once was and finding a purpose in his life. Ingvar is interesting as well. His eyesight is so bad that he is almost blind and Thorn teaches him to fight by feel not sight.

Lydia uses darts for a weapon because the crossbows are difficult for women to master since the physical strength necessary to pull them back is lacking in most females. Flanagan is an archer and I like that he is realistic on this point. While I read and see movies where women will perform impossible physical feats and I usually just go with it; it was refreshing to have this aspect presented realistically. That's why I raised my eyebrows when  Lydia hits the oil sack on a moving boat with no practice. Would she be able to do that?  Also, I found it unbelievable that the adults wouldn't give input into the strategy for attacking the village against the pirates. Hal does all the planning and the adult warriors don't really add anything to it. I would have thought it would be a group effort, not just the one brilliant young kid in the form of Hal, coming up with the entire scheme.

There is plenty of action and violence. They are at war so there is some torture and deaths. The details are not graphic but there are quite a few deaths. An entertaining read.

Reading Level 5.8
3 out of 5 Smileys