Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter

Unbelievable. I wrote a clever intro to this review on the church bulletin (during the sermon, shh...), then sang in the choir during the offering, only to forget about my cleverly written thingamajig on the bulletin and tossing it, unthinkingly, into the recycle bin. Alas, my lost masterpiece is enroute to some recycling plant in Taiwan. Ironically, the intro was regarding how I can forget my original web searches through hyperlinking too many times. Hyperlinking, went the other intro, can lead to many other interesting searches but if you have a lost, random brain like mine, it's easy to shoot off after these distractions becoming a lost piece of cyber debris. This book was like that for me. I found the writing interesting, chapters unpredictable, characters strong and voices distinct, but the plot confusing, with too many hanging clues, and some characters too out-there to be believeable. I preface this because my analysis might be tainted from an overstimulated brain from work being more bonkers than normal or a cough developed from chain-smoking Beijing's polluted air from a business trip a few weeks ago. So here goes... the review that is...

An unknown narrator explains that Otto, Max, and Lucia Hardscrabble's mother went missing when they were very young and the trio obsesses about whether or not their mother is dead or coming back. All three were affected by her disappearance. Thirteen-year-old Otto quit talking afterwards and invented a type of signing to communicate with his siblings. A wrapped scarf mysteriously never leaves his neck. Rumors in their small town say that he strangled his mother with it. Lucia (the middle sibling - I never found her age) tries to be the brave sister who takes care of her brothers. She needs them to be dependent on her so she doesn't feel abandoned and alone. Ten-year-old genius Max, has a stuffed animal named Spoon that he is attached to after their mother disappeared. The father, Casper, doesn't pay close attention to the children and travels often leaving them with a nasty neighbor. Freud could feast on this Hardscrabble situation.

When Casper goes on a business trip and sends the threesome to London to stay with cousin Angela, things go horribly wrong. Angela is not home and the Hardscrabbles are forced to sleep outside. They get attacked on the streets of London before hopping a train to seek out great-aunt Haddie Piggit whom they know is residing by the sea in a small town. Once in town they ask for help from a "great boulder of a man" with "a powerful nose and a chin that looked like it could hammer a nail into concrete." He helps them and thus begins their adventures with Aunt Haddie at a castle and the mystery of the Kneebone boy.

The author has some great lines. Of course my favorite was: "Memory, in my opinion, is a complete noodle. It hangs on the silliest things but forgets the stuff that really matters." (35) Yup... that's moi. Or "Lucia puffed out her nostrils. It was a lovely gesture of contempt that she used quite often." Or "It was the right and responsible thing to do, so they put it off until later." (122) The narrator talks about the structure of writing a story and pokes fun at the plot. I liked this ploy and found it funny in spots such as the one on cliches, "He says that one way to tell if a phrase is overused is if you have heard it in an advertisement. For instance, ...The Such Fun Chewing Gum company promises that their gum will give you a 'dazzling smile,' so I suppose it is a cliche, but the thing is, the sultan's smile was dazzling. It was the sort of smile that made you smile back before you even knew what you were doing." (264) The use of repetition and play on words are also scattered throughout the pages. I liked the experimentation with words and words choices even though some were crude.

The plot. The adults seem to abandon the kids too much. First the dad just sends them off without getting the details right. Then Angela's neighbor is a nasty piece of work who doesn't help the kids. Then the dogwalker abandons them and offers no assistance. In the small town the kids are abandoned at the castle. Haddie also abandons them on their hunt for the Kneebone boy. I thought this pattern was used too much to advance the plot and should have varied more.

Many clues and characters that are introduced just disappear from the plot making it a tad confusing, particularly in the beginning of the story. First, the narrator's identity is never revealed. A bone in chapter one seems significant, but isn't. Max loses Spoon, his supposedly super-duper important stuffed toy, but we never find out what happened to it. Then there are the come-and-go characters of Brenda, Frogface, Willow girl, and Angela's neighbor. I kept waiting for them to crop up again in the story but they vanish from the story line like a wisp of smoke. Saint George is worked in nicely in the second half of the story and I kept thinking that would happen with one of the minor characters in the beginning, but it doesn't and I was left feeling a little muddled by the plot. On the plus side it did make the chapters unpredictable.

There is some swearing by Haddie in a letter and the nasty neighbor man. There is a comment when Lucia asks if her brothers noticed the mysterious person in the window has to be a woman because she has breasts. There are also some crude spots and crude words that seem for older kids like, "piss, crap, stupid, shut up." Another part has the three using a toilet and an adult noticing the smell when she discovers them locked in a room in the castle. I was bothered by Otto's violent attack on the tattoo guy. Even though the tattoo guy attacked the trio first, Otto goes beyond defense mode and into combat mode. His violent reaction was unsettling. I also felt uncomfortable with the resolution of the children's mother and the father's mishandling of her situation. It made me feel sort of ill, especially since her illness is one I've had relatives battle. I do know other readers who love this book, so this is a matter of personal taste.

Stuck with an evil spawn of a teenager? Or maybe a cranky friend? You can try this doozy of a one-liner, "No back talk, thou spleeny canker blossom." You might want to practice it first. It doesn't roll off the tongue easily.

Reading Level 5.5
3 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan

Riordan has a definite pattern to his books. The pacing is fast, the gods are humorous and unusual, the quest is tense, female characters are strong, and the plot twists are unpredictable. Most of this book has that except the pacing is slow in the beginning, the humor is cranked down a notch, and we don't meet an interesting god until page 68. The themes and internal changes in the characters are not as great as in other books. Still, it is rip-roaring fun.

Annabeth, Jason, Piper, and Leo along with Coach Hedge land their flying ship Argo II at Camp Jupiter where they are united with Percy, Hazel, and Frank. The Romans are suspicious of them at first but welcoming when they are assured the foursome come in peace. Plus, Jason's on the ship. Their praetor and hero returns to camp. Plans go awry when the ship's guns are launched on the unsuspecting Romans as Gaea puts her scheme in place to capture and kill two demigods.  The seven demigods team together on a quest to retrieve the Mark of Athena and stop Gaea.

The girls get more voice in this book. We get to hear Piper and Annabeth's thoughts. I didn't find them as interesting in the beginning as the end. In the beginning Annabeth has Percy on the brain like a percolating cup of coffee. I found it more interesting when she has to strike out by herself and use her wits to defeat a monster versus using superpowers. I wanted her to think more about how she really didn't have a special power. She does some. I just wanted more. It seems to work better when there are three voices versus four. Four seems to spread thin the internal dialogue of the characters.

The theme of teamwork and thinking positively were presented in unique ways. When Percy and Jason discover they are stronger working together and they meet gods who don't work together, they decide they don't want to be that way, and set aside their egos. Piper and the cornucopia is a terrific plot twist. Positive thoughts made the cornucopia produce food and feasts accordingly. She uses it to cleanse evilness from nymphs with the combined efforts of Percy and Jason. The message of teamwork is powerful.

The beginning has the reader in the minds of Annabeth, Piper, Leo, and Percy. All who seem to be thinking about boy-girl issues. She loves me. She loves me not. She loves me. She loves me not. Actually, they were more on the "she loves me," but it got boring. Too many characters had the same thoughts and started to sound alike. This seemed to replace the normal  rampant humor that blazes through the books from page 1. Wise-cracking Leo doesn't get out of the starting gate until around page 70 and Coach Gleeson is competing with too many characters to get any page time.

I really think there were too many characters hogging the pages and it took away the usual depth I've come to expect from Riordan's books. I also think the book could have used some editing (like this book review). But with the rate Riordan is cranking out books, I'm sure the pressure to publish on time was great. I read that 3.5 million copies were being printed. Wow! Riordan's obviously doing something right. Students will love this one, (even if this unromantic curmudgeon would have sliced and diced the romantic parts and pared down the voices - what do I know)!

3 out of 5 Smileys
No Reading Level but seems high with different plot lines and multiple character.

Gossamer by Lois Lowry

Not your typical tale. Of course, Lois Lowry and the word, typical, don't go hand-in-hand. Original... Great writer... Risk-taker... Those are words I associate with her. Pick your superlative. But typical? No way. This tale has more echoes of surrealism than realism with surprising juxtapositions of dreams and reality.

Littlest is being trained by Fastidious to bestow dreams on humans, and yes, the latter is hard-to-please. Littlest asks too many questions, plays, and is off-task when the two go out each night. Fastidious complains to the Ancient One that Littlest can touch things and absorb memories of humans, but she really is not ready to bestow dreams, a much more demanding job. Littlest is passed onto Thin Elderly, a wise and patient spirit-like being that is able to teach, The Bestowal, to her.

The two spirit-beings are in the home of a retired teacher who is in her 70s and has taken in John, an angry 8-year-old foster boy. The beings gather fragments of happy memories from objects around the house and then send them into the sleeping forms of John and the old woman. This gives the two happy dreams and allows them to face the world each day with strength. When the boy starts to recall the horrible abuse inflicted by his father the dreams turn to nightmares and hope turns to despair. Littlest learns, The Bestowal, and she and Thin Elderly fight to hold off The Horde, an evil group of steeds that hiss nightmares into people at night. They are not sure if they can save John.

Meanwhile John's mom is trying to get her act together. She abandoned John and he was taken away from her and put into a foster home. We are never told exactly why she left John except that she too, was abused by the father and a mess when they divorced. John's mom gets a job at a school and learns to trust people again just as John has to learn to trust his foster mom. I found the story more interesting in the realistic sections but that isn't surprising given the dream-like, less concrete beings of Littlest and Thin Elderly. The two represent a person's imagination,the fragments of memories, how we are all connected, how a story is like a vague-like dream before taking shape, and whatever other imagery or theme the reader can connect with life.

The writing is terrific and John's voice changes from one of distrust, anger and hate to one hesitantly trusting. In contrast, Littlest is innocent, playful, and good. I didn't quite think Strapping and Fastidious  moved the plot forward much but I see that they are examples of rigid thinking. Strapping is able to find his potential but Fastidious is stuck in her critical attitude that stifles her imagination and ability to find joy. I wanted to know more about Rotund. I didn't quite understand why he became a Menace. The abuse to John might disturb some readers. He pees on the floor as a three year old and his father rubs his face in it then forces him to eat dog food. When his mom cries, she is hit by the dad. The dad also breaks the boys arm, but no details are given about it. The mom is also a chain smoker with no self-confidence. Like her son, she tries to heal from her painful past.

A gossamer is something light, delicate or insubstantial like butterfly wings, cobwebs or dreams. It can be an idea for a story or a fragment of a memory. Lowry has it take the form of what I think of as a spirit-being. Littlest begins as a creature so translucent she can hardly be seen. At the end of the book she is more solid, representing that she has created memories or begun to live and collect "her story." According to Thin Elderly, "everything has a story," but because she was a baby, she was creating one. At the end, she has to leave John and move on. Some students found this sad. There is much that can be discussed about the content in this book. The abstract concepts might make it difficult for young readers to grasp the meanings Lowry is trying to convey. I think that is why I get mixed reactions from students who have read this book. While I was reading it I was reminded of Franz Kafka's short story, "The Country Doctor," that is written as a nightmare and experiments with punctuation. I'm glad Lowry kept to traditional conventions. An atypical book. Enjoy!

Reading Level 5.4
4 out of  5 Smileys

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Under The Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Enjoy the words in this novel-in-verse as they unfurl and scoop you through the inked pages. Lupita, the oldest of eight children, learns to deal with her mother getting cancer as a high school student. Lupita's family lived in Mexico before moving to the United States. Fluent in both English and Spanish, Lupita, poetically narrates this story enriching the text with a beautiful blend of two cultures and languages. The chapter, Uprooted, can stand alone as a free verse poem. "I doubted los girasoles [sunflowers] would understand me anymore, because now I was speaking a different language. I swallowed consonants and burdened vowels with a sound so dense, the words fell straight out of my mouth and hit the ground before they could reach the river's edge." The author's frequent use of nature-based metaphors and similes reminds me of the Romantic poets.

Part One shows the family learning about mom's secret.  The frightened Lupita barters with God that she'll become a nun if he will let her mom be free of cancer. She goes so far as to tell the nuns at church she wants to join their vocation. When the nuns show up at their house, her mom says, "No!" Part Two is a flashback to when they lived in Mexico. Sometimes I am impatient with flashbacks because it feels like the story is being interrupted and the pacing slows too much. I felt that at this point in the story. We just find out Lupita's mom has cancer and then I'm reading about Lupita being told she can't go play with her friends Mireya and Sarita but has to play with her sisters. It didn't seem to move the plot forward but the author is showing that Lupita's mom expects family to come over friends. It is one of the reasons Lupita became a caretaker of her siblings as the cancer progressed, weakening her mom and drawing her dad's focus to be solely on taking care of her mom. At one point Lupita is taking care of the seven siblings while her dad takes care of their mom at the hospital six hours away. Lupita scrounges for food and tries to keep tabs on everyone as a 17-year-old. Her success is meager.

Part Three, Four, and Five have more action and are emotionally charged as the family deals with their moms cancer. Many times I found myself making connections with the verses to my own life. For instance, my dad and his actions toward me as he deals with my mom's Alzheimers: "Many times, though, / his anger is nothing more/ than a change of weather - / a blistering breeze, / a pool that's cooled -/ and he doesn't want to talk/ to anyone about it./ So now, not knowing / which face of sadness/ he might show, I play it safe/ and leave him alone." The rich evocative passages and unique images make reading a delightful traipse.

Lupita changes internally from putting her family first to putting herself first. She realizes that she must move on with her life and dreams, while holding onto hope and memories. This is at the end and the change seemed somewhat abrupt. She comes to a realization at her Grandma's house, but I needed one more chapter to show her thinking about how to communicate with her dad who she knows will resist her wanting to go to college. Up to this point the parents have supported college, but now dad doesn't. I can infer why but I felt it needed to be told from Lupita's viewpoint why dad is having a change of heart.

It did cross my mind that there is quite a bit of content that is going to appeal more to girls than boys. Lupita likes to watch soaps with her mom, thinks about clothes, puts makeup on her mom when she is sick, and cooks, cleans and watches her siblings. The theme of friendship is touched on when she gets into a fight with Mireya and Sarita about loosing her accent and trying to act white. Lupita uses drama to deal with her mom's cancer and her teacher gives some wise advice as she copes. While this is a short novel, it has a higher vocabulary and might be confusing for some readers with no prior knowledge of Mexico and its culture. The glossary will be helpful for defining words. A wonderful novel debut.

Reading Level: Young Adult
4 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, October 5, 2012

Pass It Down: Five Picture-Book Families Make their Mark by Leonard Marcus

Swamped? Don't have time to read? Try this 48 page gem. It is the second Leonard Marcus book I have read and it is an excellent glimpse into the lives of five families of people who make children's picture books. The way that the artists and writers find themselves in the land of books adds human interest along with facts. The Crew family is introduced with the artwork specifically described such as Donald Crew using an airbrush and gouache for his book, Freight Train, or his daughter Nina combining collage and photos in her first book.

Marcus is a terrific writer who gives a feel for the picture-book makers he's characterizing. For instance, Thacher Hurd describes his family's life in an old yellow farmhouse with little money. Thacher loved stepping into his parents art-filled studio that was an "'all-senses-at-once experience,'" a wizard's brew of paint smells, paper textures, tools and brushes, and at the center of it all his tall, rail-thin, slow-moving father silently working." Isn't that a great image? Reminds me my Minnesotan family and father's architecture/art studio. I can hear Grandma yakking in my ear in her Norwegian accent, "Yah (said inhaling... sounds like a gasp), check out dah Hurds Barbie, dey goot artists... with published kid books too, don't cha know."  Then in an interesting twist, Marcus reveals that the Hurds who live a simple life with not much money, both grew up in wealthy, high society families. Clement Hurd illustrated, Goodnight Moon, and he and his wife were dear friends with Margaret Wise Brown and Don Freeman of Corduroy. Then in another twist Thacher explains how hard it was to rebel against his parents because they were so open to anything he did. The only thing he felt he could rebel against was becoming an artist. He entered the business at a later age because of this attitude.

Walter Dean Myers wrote 10 pages a day and read out loud to his son and wife every day. He grew up in foster homes and much of his writing is from this past. The Myer's son, Christopher, was nurtured and encouraged by both parents to pursue his dream of being an artist. I really liked the well-written letter from his agent, Regina Griffin. What great insight into how a good publisher critiques a manuscript. In a constructive, funny, and positive manner she makes suggestions for improving the draft. I admit, I felt somewhat convicted knowing that I've written some harsh reviews. I need to be careful with phrasing and work harder to be constructive versus destructive. This mentality is the same when working with students and teaching. Nothing is gained from anger, harshness, or criticism and it flushes motivation down the drain. What's worse, it is a trusting child who expects you to be kind and fair all the time. I have to be a carafe full of positiveness  and "catch them being good" (as my husband always says). A good reminder.

The next two chapters are about Pinkneys and Rockwells. Brian Pinkney using scratchboard to find his art style that was different from his fathers was fascinating. It also sidetracked me into researching scratchboard and having a discussion with an artist on the technique. Love it. There is a glossary in the back that defines scratchboard. The art form reminds me of woodblock printing but more detailed. Next up, "The Rockwells." They had three girls and Anne describes Lizzy as a "babbler." She also talks about how her parents divorced and her mother abandoned her siblings to pursue her dream of being a writer. The family was split up into different foster homes. There is another letter from the author's editor, but this one gives more insight into the design of the book.

So much for my so-called quick read. I thought I'd buzz through this 48 page book but found myself researching some unknown art techniques, slowing down to enjoy the accompanying photos, letters from editors, and illustrations... basically taking 3 days to mull over the information. Then I thought it is such a quick read I'd buzz through it again. Goes to show you never know what path you'll meander when reading. I am going to hunt down all the Leonard Marcus books I can find to read. My new favorite author. More to come.

Reading Level 6.1
5 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship by Russell Freedman

Sometimes I get a book and think, shucks, this is too hard for most of my half-pints. Throw in a very real picture of a black man hanging on a rope and I'm tossing it upstairs to the Middle or High School libraries. The reading level says this book is best for students at the end of 8th grade. Bummer. My loss, their gain. Actually my budget loss.

Frederick Douglass's life frames the first part of the plot. Born into slavery and fathered by an unknown white man, he was deemed trouble as a teenager for his brains and size (over 6 feet tall). When an employer's wife taught him to read, he discovered the freedom of education and the wretchedness of his condition. The seed to runaway and become a free man set root. He endured cruel slave masters and not so cruel. One master let him learn the skill of ship caulking and gave him some independence. He read whenever he could and self-educated himself. Eventually he ran away to New York where he married and had a family. He was active in the Abolitionist movement and was asked to speak at a two-day convention of the Massachusett's Anti-Slavery Society. He was so eloquent and charismatic, he was hired to be on the lecture circuit. After publishing his autobiography, his previous slave owners learned his whereabouts and sought to recapture him. He fled to Europe where money was raised to pay for him to be legally free.

Chapter four slips into Abraham Lincoln's poor upbringing and his insatiable desire to read. Like Douglass, he taught himself. He became a lawyer and later ran for the Illinois Senate, losing to the incumbent, Stephen Douglas. He ran for the presidency later in his career when the United States became severely divided over slavery. Once he became President, the Civil War broke out, and he signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves. Frederick Douglass criticizes the Lincoln administration's handling of affairs and it isn't until he meets with Lincoln that the two understand each other and Douglass realizes that Lincoln was slow in implementing policies because he first got buy-in from the public. Douglass wanted to take action immediately and he saw the wisdom in Lincoln's leadership after speaking with him. The two became good friends and great admirers of one another.

The theme of freedom through self-education and hard-work is exemplified in Douglass and Lincoln. Both set goals and then educated themselves how to reach it whether that was being a public speaker, author, lawyer or politician.  The two were quite brilliant and yet their personalities were different. Douglass is more of an in-your-face let's cause change RIGHT NOW, while Lincoln was kind, humble, methodical, analyzed public opinion sought to get others to buy-into his policies.

I was looking for more of Lincoln's personality to come through when he is first presented in the text. The facts were too overwhelming for me, but then I am not a regular nonfiction reader. If you love facts then this probably won't bother you. I also wanted a little clearer explanation of when Lincoln ran for presidency. The author presents it from Douglass point of view and I found it slightly confusing. The end gives an excerpt of The Columbian Orator that is fantastic! I think they should have put it on page 10 along with the title. The immediacy would have been more powerful there rather than tucked in the Appendices.

A lot of turf is covered in this book and it is well-done. If you like nonfiction books with lots of facts about slaves, Civil War, and Lincoln's Presidency, then you will like this one.

Reading Level 8.7
4 out of 5 Smileys