Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nathaniel Fludd Beastologist series books 1-4 by R.L. LaFevers

Nathaniel Fludd doesn’t really question much that is going on around him. His governess tells him they are going overnight to the zoo but stops off at the lawyers office ( we don’t know why) and finds out his parents who have been missing for three years have been declared dead. She collects a large sum of money, grabs her suitcase packed for their zoo trip and deserts Nathaniel in the office. No one is sad for Nathaniel nor give him genuine sympathy. The lawyer wisks Nathaniel off to the train station and send him to his aunt. Nothing is explained and Nathaniel is basically treated as an annoyance. He doesn’t ask questions, which is probably good, because no one gives him a straight answer as it is. His aunt is a Beastologist, who protects animals mythical and endangered, from becoming extinct or as in the case of her pet dodo bird, Cornelius, she has saved an extinct animal but no one knows about it. She, too, explains little and thrusts Nathaniel into his role as Beastologist-in-training. She is sympathetic about his dead parents but too busy saving the world’s endangered mythological keepers to sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with Nathaniel. The two don’t really talk until book 4. Like I said… they are busy saving the world’s animals.

Nathaniel gains confidence through the books but seems to be in a daze at the beginning. He starts to assert himself and doesn’t yell at his aunt until book 4. I thought he’d express outrage long before that. He does fight with the dodo bird and expresses more of his frustration with it than his aunt. Nathaniel has a wonderful sidekick called, Greasle, who is a Gremlin. She loves oil and steals the scene in every book. She’s rip-roaring fun! In book 2 she sneaks out of Nathaniel’s backpack on a riverboat and sits under the engine that is leaking oil so she can catch the drips in her tiny Gremlin mouth. When they take Aunt Phil’s motorbike in book 4, Greasle is so excited she licks the exhaust pipe. She is Nathaniel’s best friend and the source of prejudice from everyone that meets her because Gremlin’s are considered pests and should be killed; however, she is a major reason for the success of their missions. Nathaniel can relate to her because she is isolated by society like he has been. I think the heart of the story lies in their relationship. Greasle is loyal to him because he feeds her at first. Later they become attached to each other. Greasle is the character that shows the most sense out of all of them.

Young readers will find the illustrations helpful in visualizing the mythological creatures and following the plot. There is some history explained about the different places the two visit throughout the world and the glossaries in the back of the books help explain who the people and places are in each story. The plot is very predictable in spots and readers will be wondering about obvious answers such as why Nathaniel can’t remember the letters in the suitcase, or why his aunt keeps taking her eye off Obediah in ugly situations, or why the two didn’t take back the fake book, or why they didn’t check to see if Obediah was truly dead. I don’t think it will frustrate the readers because there are also some nice twists. It was funny when the unicorn found the fair maiden, Greasle, attractive and calming. Or when Greasle pretends to be a jinni and scares the Bedouin girl. The books don’t have an ending. They don’t answer all the questions and some parts (such as Obediah being the villian) get drawn out. By book 4 there are more answers but the reader still doesn’t know about Miss Lumpton or if Obediah is dead or if his parents are dead. This book is similar to the Spiderwick Chronicles but I think the plot is better is Tony DiTerlizzi’s series. Still it is a fun fantasy read and students will enjoy it.

Book 1, reading level 3.9;
Book 2, reading level 5.0;
Book 3, reading level 5.2;
Book 4, reading level 5.3

:-):-):-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

The Lost Stories by John Flanagan (bk #11)

This last book in the series is about the characters in many of the books and fills in the gaps as to what happened to them. It also has many of those characters getting together for two weddings. However, not all the stories are related and is disjointed in spots. Some stories weave together with the wedding of Horace and Evalyn, but it is a loose connection at best. While entertaining and full of action, the characters don’t change much so there is little internal tension. The tension is solely in the plot. The first story is Halt telling Will how his dad fought in the Battle against Morgarath and saved his life. The story is told in more detail than what was told over the series and there is a twist at the end regarding Will’s mom. The next story is about Gilan and his adventure after leaving Halt and Will in The Icebound Land. The stories are filled with familiar characters and the typical banter and humor that goes between them. It is a fun read but won’t make much sense unless the reader has read the other books. I haven’t read all the books so I didn’t know some of the characters. It felt like the author was saying “goodbye” to them and the tone was nostalgic. He even said “goodbye” to Tug, Will’s horse. There is also mention of Hal, a character in the new series, The Brotherband Chronicles.

Reading level 6.1
:-):-):-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney

African Americans Hibernia, Willie, and Otis each tell their stories of life during the Great Depression when Joe Louis was fighting to win the heavyweight title. Hibernia is a typical teenager wanting to be independent. She wonders about her mom, who left them when Hibernia was born, in order to pursue her dream to become a famous singer. Hibernia’s dad is the Reverend who doesn’t like it that Hibernia can sing like her mother. He’s been mad about her mom leaving and wants to squash Hibernia’s singing dreams. He only lets Hibernia sing in the church choir, but she eventually changes his mind. Hibernia reminds me of Anne of Green Gables: impulsive, melodramatic, self-centered, irritating, loveable and filled with a good heart. Willie dreams of being a boxer like his dad. Except his dad no longer boxes, has trouble holding a job, and constantly criticizes Willie. He’s also a drunk. During one bought of drinking, he harms Willie so badly that Willie has to runaway to an orphanage to be safe. He makes friends with a boy there named, Otis. Otis lives at the orphanage after his parents die in a horrible crash. His parents were loving and happily married. They loved to tell jokes, laugh and spend time as a family together. His dad had to live in a different city because of a new job, but when Otis and his mom saw him they had quality time with him. When the family car crashes, Otis is the only survivor and devastated by the loss of his parents. He deals with it by telling riddles – something the family loved to do together. His mom used to be a good singer and when Hibernia comes to the orphanage to sing with the church choir he is attracted to her magnificent voice and personality. He seeks Mrs. Weiss’s help on how to get Hibernia’s attention. When all three finally do get together, it’s a meeting of hope, symbolized in the fights of Joe Louis.

The writing is descriptive and rich throughout the story. Hibernia talks about herself as Happy-Hibernia and Not-Happy Hibernia, Willie likes the words Uh-huh and Uh-uh, while Otis spews riddles like water from a faucet. The language is rich in similes and metaphors giving the words a rhythm of their own: There is practically nothing that could ever make me leave my wagon, but when five special words – Sing,Voice, Win, and Big wave at me with both hands and jump up like new friends ready to say hello, my wagon takes a fast backseat to anything else. Not to mention those dollar signs, which are pretty chorus dancers doing high kicks right next to Big. I thought the beginning and end were not as strong as the middle of this story. The beginning was confusing with all the names. I had no clue who Hibernia was talking to between Skip Gibson, the Savoy, Speaky, and the Reverend. The Savoy is a popular ballroom in Harlem. Skip Gibson is the commentator on the radio for Joe Louis fights. Speaky is the name of the radio, and the Reverend is her dad. In addition, the ending seemed too abrupt. Willie changed emotionally at the end but Hibernia and Otis didn’t which made it less satisfying. Also, when Willie is injured I didn’t realize it was that serious. I thought he would have ended up at the hospital and going to doctors. But these are little quibbles in a very satisfying, wonderfully told story.

Reading Level 4.6

:-):-):-):-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

The Apothecary by Maile Maloy

Janie’s parents are writers who are blacklisted as Communists during the McCarthy era, 1952. The family flees LA to live in London where Janie starts midyear at a new school. The city is still scarred from WWII where chocolate and a nice apartment are hard to come by. When Janie makes friends with the Apothecary’s son, Benjamin, she gets swept up in a mystery (and fantasy) as the two try to figure out who kidnapped his father and why.

The author does a great job with character development using unique voices and engaging personalities. Notice how Sarah Pennington is described and the dialogue of the parents who love to joke, the Russian boy’s father’s, the Chinese woman’s and poor boy’s speech; each is distinct from the others. The novel is historical but shifts after page 50 to mystery and fantasy. The plot has some nice twists such as the not-so-obvious villian. The plot also raises some questions such as why the gardener was killed or why the good guys were going for “containment” versus just stopping the villians. I’m being vague here because I don’t want to give away the ending. Plus, Sarah helping the kids because she liked Pip just didn’t seem plausible to me. And the kids running around naked (but invisible) in London in February was unbelievable as well, but I don’t think most readers will care about these minor questions. The pacing is good and action fun.

The violence in the story involves a murder, kids being attacked, and a man holding a pistol to a girl’s head. There is kissing and a little romance between Sarah and Pip and Janie and Benjamin. They are all too busy saving the world for much to happen between them. Come at the story as a fantasy not historical novel and the unbelieveable parts shouldn’t get in the way of this enjoyable story.

Reading Level 5.1

:-):-):-) 3.5 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, January 23, 2012

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier

Peter Nimble was found floating in a basket as a baby by sailors with a raven that had pecked out his eyes. Not your usual start to a child’s book but the Narrator tells the story with humor and pokes fun at orphan stories; hence, the reader knows that Peter Nimble is no ordinary baby. He was nursed by a cat, tossed in a tied bag into a river and meant to drown, and enslaved by Mr. Seamus, a thief who taught Peter all the tricks of the trade so Peter became the best thief that ever lived. “Until this point,” the Narrator says, “you have been witness to Peter’s rather typical infancy – probably not unlike your own.” Peter meets the Haberdasher whom he steels a box from that contains three pairs of eyes. Peter uses the eyes and ends up on a quest, with a cat-horse cursed knight, to save a kingdom and discover a place for himself in the world.

The characters in the book are fun such as Officier Trolley who says his sentences so fast they sound like one word or Peg who is a no-nonsense in-the-face girl working hard to survive in terrible conditions. The pacing is fast and the Narrator’s voice interesting. The Narrator keeps the violence in the story at a distance using humor – which is good – considering the surprising amount of characters that get killed. The plot has some loose ends that aren’t tied up such as Old Scabbs and why the raven’s killed him. The narrator also explains difficult words in funny ways and sometimes goes too far explaining the plot such as on page 144 when the Narrator foreshadows the thieves betrayal; thus, taking out all the tension in the plot at that point. It’s the only time I felt truly ticked at the Narrator. The author obviously loves Peter Pan and there are references to the classic throughout the story. A fun fantasy adventure.

Reading Level 5.9
:-):-):-) 3.25 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

What a quirky book. I think people will either like it or hate it. I’m not sure kids will get the humor ( too adult-like?) because it’s a parody of old-fashioned books and famous characters from classics such as Mary Poppins, Heidi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and more. The story involves four children who want to get rid of their parents and the parents who want to get rid of their children. A nanny is hired while the parents go off to travel the world. When the children find their house sold and they can no longer live there, a wealthy tycoon across the street lets them live with him where they all find happiness.

I thought the start was slow and boring in an old-fashioned way ; ) I didn’t really start laughing at the sick humor until the kids pretended to be a lamp, fur rug, and other items in the house to scare people away from buying it. I thought the parents wearing crampons on their heads was pretty funny along with the glossary. For instance: UNKEMPT means untidy and messy. My dictionary says it can also mean disorderly, but I know that a person can be arrested for being “drunk and disorderly” and I don’t think someone can be arrested for being unkempt. Also, I don’t think there is a word kempt – so what is that “un” all about ? Beats me.

See what I mean about adult humor? Read this book to judge it for yourself. It is quite original.

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

Monday, January 9, 2012

Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce

Aly wants to be a spy like her father but both of her parents refuse to let her go into the field. She decides to visit a relative and is captured by pirates and sold to a noble family. She sees an opportunity to begin her spy training when the god, Kyprioth, comes and makes a deal with her. He’ll convince her parents to let her be a spy if she keeps the two daughters of the family she was sold to alive. Aly ends up using all her spy skills and more to keep them safe.

Aly is an independent head-strong character. She doesn’t change much in the story except to learn to believe in herself and see her parents and her behavior to them in a more mature way. Her father and grandfather have been training her to be a spy and she helps him translate coded. She’s bored and looking for adventure which she finds.

Aly is discovering what it is like to be a woman and is falling for crow-boy, Nawat. They kiss. While most of the story is entertaining, one part has Aly telling the family’s children age 4 and up a dumb story about her mom being annoyed by a menagerie and chasing the birds away with no clothes on (which the guards liked). There is some violence. Aly gets herself beat up so that she would not have to be sold to a family where the man would bed her. People get stabbed and attacked. There is no ending. It setups for the sequel, Trickster’s Queen. The Middle School library has the book if you are interested – ask at the circulation desk. This book is similar to Graceling except Aly is more of a jokester. A fun adventure with magic and political intrigue.

Reading Level 6.5
:-):-):-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Chalice by Robin McKinley

Mirasol is the newly appointed Chalice for her village called, Demesne, after the previous Master and Chalice died mysteriously and tragically leaving the House and land in political chaos. A younger brother who was sent to live with elemental priests of fire is called back to the House to run it but he is no longer human. Mirasol greets him as tradition when he arrives but he accidentally burns her with the touch of his hand. Seen as a bad omen, he is not accepted by the people of the village, and struggles to rise above his insurmountable problems.

The story has great details regarding the land, bees, and duties of a Chalice. There is not much dialogue and the pacing is slow as a result. The writing is confusing in spots; for instance when Mirasol’s eating indoors and the faenorn happens she refers to herself as the Chalice in third person and I thought she was talking about the past when she was explaining why she didn’t see the faenorn happen. It was an awkward passage. Also, the bees are critical to the story so the author writes about them in great detail which I found boring. I did find the fire priest intersting but I wished his character was developed more in the story.

The book has some violence. The vocabulary and concepts are going to be difficult for elementary students to comprehend. The duties of the Chalice are to keep harmony with the earth and Mirasol does this using honey and magic by healing earthlines. I would recommend this story for middle or high school students. I borrowed this book from my public library in the U.S. and it isn’t available in our libraries. You can always request it be purchased for the library if you are interested in reading it.

A fairy tale twist of Beauty and the Beast.

Reading Level: Young Adult
:-):-):-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, January 6, 2012

Deep and Dark and Dangerous: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn

Ali finds a ripped photo of her Aunt Dulcie, Mom Claire, and a mysterious girl whose name starts with the letter “T”. When Aunt Dulcie asks Ali to spend the summer at their lake home babysitting her daughter, four-year-old Emma, Ali uncovers the name of the girl in the photo and her tragic death 30 years ago. Emma makes friends with a girl named Sissy who tells her and Ali about the tragedy. Sissy is a spiteful girl and causes all sorts of trouble between Dulcie, Ali, and Emma. Will the family be able to resolve the past or will another tragedy happen?

This ghost story is a quick read. I thought the plot was predictable but I did like the twist at the end with Ali sympathizing with the ghost – going so far as to let her sleep in her bed. Ali changes from being angry to understanding why the people around her act the way they do. Dulcie and Claire are crippled by their past and don’t behave as good parents or adults. Claire is manipulative and Dulcie doesn’t listen or respect Ali. Emma was bratty and sweet. They were somewhat annoying characters which made it hard for me to get into the story. The author is good at writing ghost stories but I prefer the tension and characters Hahn’s previous books: The Doll in the Garden and Wait Till Helen Comes: A Ghost Story.

Reading Level 4.0
:-):-):-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

This dytopian novel creates a world where humans have modified animals, humankind, and tampered with viruses causing an epidemic that has killed off most of the world’s population. Toby and Ren are the main characters who were isolated from the plague when it rips through civilization. Toby is surviving at a spa and Ren is locked in a sex club where she worked. Both knew each other when they belonged to a religious cult called, God’s Gardeners, a science-type religion devoted to preserving the earth and its creatures. Neither women completely embraced the cult to become fanatics. Toby came to the cult for safety after an insane sex-crazed boss wanted to murder her and Ren ended up there when her mom ran off with a man who lived with the cult.

Both women have food but not an endless supply. Ren is running out of food and text-messages her best friend, Amanda, who comes and lets her out of the club. They meet up with some other friends that they know from their days together living in the cult. They are chased by murderers from the club who have personal vendettas against them. They flee to where Toby is and have a battle against their attackers.
This story is violent and gory in parts. The women are victims but both learn to find strength within themselves to survive. Ren is more fragile than Toby and goes through more emotional changes. I didn’t understand the character, Jimmy, and why he was essential to the story. I read some reviews and found out that his story is in the book, Oryx and Crake. This is actually book 2. While interesting and entertaining, I did not find the story as rich or multi-layered as The Handmaid’s Tale.

:-):-):-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Jefferson’s Sons: a Founding Father’s Secret Children by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Told from three points of view, the story begins with Beverly, the son of slave Sally Hemmings whose father happens to be Thomas Jefferson. He can’t understand why his father, Jefferson, won’t treat him like a son or why a great man like him would write “all men created equal” yet own his own children as property. Jefferson gives Beverly violin lessons and shows some interest but he never calls him son and he pays more attention to his nieces and nephews. Beverly desperately wants a relationship with his father but it will never happen. Maddy, another son of Sally and Jefferson, tells part two of the story. Maddy is angry with Jefferson and doesn’t even think of him as a father. Just when Jefferson seems like a nice man and gives Maddy some extra attention, he turns around and sells Maddy’s best friend, James, to another owner. Heartbroken, Maddy can’t understand how Jefferson could not see the evil in his actions. The third person, Peter Fossett, is a slave and close friend of the Hemings. Maddy looks out for him because he promised James he’d do so after James was sold to another family. Peter thinks life on Monticello is wonderful until he too realizes what is means to be a slave. A powerful ending.

This story is full of information and it is obvious the author spent many years researching it. It is a strength and weakness. The characters tell so much information that it reads at times like an expository text and not a fiction story. The dialogue in which two characters have a casual conversation ends up being a speech on slavery. I thought it slowed the story’s pace. I did think it was interesting how three of Jeffersons’ four slave children planned on passing as white people once they were free. Maddy’s skin is not light enough so he will not be able to live with white people after he is free. Beverly is torn about this and struggles with his decision to enter white society.

The children are illegitimate but because it is told from a child’s point of view it remains innocent. There is a whipping of a runaway slave that might upset some readers. The interesting thing about this book is that the author shows how intolerable slavery is and how a founding father, Jefferson, considered a brilliant and good man, just didn’t see how destructive and evil slavery was to families.

Reading Level 4.1
:-):-):-):-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, January 2, 2012

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy

Zulaikha’s teeth protrude from a cleft in her upper lip that make her a target of abuse and teasing by bullies, relatives, and adults. Life is tough and with her deformity, she has no hope for a future as a girl growing up in Afghanistan. Her sister Zeynab is beautiful and Zulaikha dreams with her about marriage and the happiness that will come with it. This is what most girls dream of in Afghanistan. When an American soldier sees Zulaikha as his tanks roll into town, Zulaikha is offered the chance to have her face repaired at a base hospital for free. She also meets a woman who teaches her to read. Girls do not go to school and cannot read, but this woman plants the seed of Zulaikha getting an education. Will Zulaikha risk going to school? As her life changes, she discovers that happiness is more than being beautiful and getting married.

What a surprising gem of a story. The plot is complex and multilayered and while at first I wondered if the Americans would only look good and the Afghan’s would look ignorant, the characters have a depth that shows why they act the way they do. The Americans are mainly doing good but the author shows the cultural blunders they make and the hypocritical statements about trusting the Afghans but then watching the workers at the base with machine guns (because they obviously don’t trust them). The Afghan men are shown as abusive and loving. It was interesting how Zulaikha loved her father even though he hit the women in the house. The author also makes a clear distinction between the violent Taliban and the peaceful Afghan people. The first 100 pages might seem slow to some readers as it sets-up for a strong ending.

This book has some mature themes and I wouldn’t follow the guidelines of ages 9-13. I would recommend it for grade 5 and up. Women are hit by husbands and have no rights in a male-dominated society. There are allusions to sex but they will probably go over the head of most readers. For instance, Zulaikha’s stepmother receives a blood-stained wedding cloth after Zeynab’s wedding and her sister tells Zulaikha she’s having difficulties with her husband who wants a son, ”but I don’t know.” Nothing is explained. There is a grisly death at the end that might scare readers. The author does a good job showing the story in a nonjudgemental way and it is obvious that it was well-researched. Make sure to read the Acknowledgements at the end where the author explains why he wrote this book.

Reading Level 4.8
:-):-):-):-) 4 out of 5 Smileys