Monday, December 31, 2012

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Every summer our family would pack the car and head West to a National Park for holiday. My husband and daughter have built-in GPS brains that can't get lost if they try, while my brain is a mass of tangled wires that has more in common with Peter Pan's Lost Boys. The running joke between my husband and daughter is to ask me which way to go and then crank the wheel in the opposite direction once I reply before laughing wickedly. I am consistently and amazingly wrong every single time I try to guess which way to go. I have told my husband I would never be able to do this overseas gig because I'd be lost in the wrong country with the wrong ID. Kind of like Verity in this story. Except she got caught by the Gestapo because of her lack of direction.

Let me be clear that this book isn't appropriate for elementary kids. Stories about the Holocaust are always upsetting and horrible for me. This story is no different. It begins with Verity being tortured although she makes light of it and not until we get to Maddie's point of view do we see how cruelty of Verity's torture. And others. Heads are cut off, people shot, burned, tortured... the brutalities of war yank emotions up and down like a yo-yo. Ugh. I had many a headaches trying to not cry. I wished I had known that going into the reading. Part of the problem is there are some great plot twists and trying to discuss the book threatens to give away the surprises.

No doubt, this is a well-written story with terrific characters and a complex plot. Verity is a special operation agent and has been captured by the Gestapo for looking left (very British) when crossing the street in France. She happens to be Scottish but good with languages and difficult to place ethnically. She grew up wealthy and well-educated and in-between bouts of being tortured she is forced to write a confession. As long as she writes she knows she can remain alive.

Verity refers to herself as Queenie and the confession introduces her best friend, Maddie, a commoner who would have never been friends with her except that the war breaks down classes, an interesting theme explored throughout the novel. The Commander Von Linden, whom she compares to Captain Hook, is educated and admires her writing craft saying it is "making use of suspense and foreshadowing." None of the villains are one-dimensional and the complexity of characters are a great strength in the novel. The point of view adds interest as well because it changes from first to third person and allows for the reader to see Verity from others making her a well-rounded character.

References to Peter Pan and other famous classic literature are riddled throughout the pages. They add a unique depth to the plot. I've mentioned Peter Pan but there is also, Edward Lear, Shakespeare, Mademoiselle Defarge from a Tale of Two Cities, Rudyard Kipling, Scheherazade from Arabian Nights, Little Princess, Alice in Wonderland, George Orwell, and all the ones I missed. The historical references about too to Scottish history and the use of the WWII British propaganda campaign that used the slogan "Careless talk costs lives" is ironic. The references are well-done and don't stand out or interrupt the story's flow. They add a depth and irony to many of the scenes alluding to the classic and oftentimes making the theme stand out even more, such as Verity/Queenie being the Peter Pan of the story who is trapped and isolated in Neverland being tortured by Captain Hook. Or when Von Lindon calls her, Scheherazade, the woman in the Arabian nights who must tells stories every night to prevent the king from murdering her. The stories changed the heart of Scheherazade's husband; will they change the heart of the nasty Von Linden?

I did glaze over when Maddie went into great detail on her beloved airplanes. This adds to the rich historical setting but it was too much for me at times and I confess I skimmed those parts. If you love planes then you won't mind a page and a half of descriptions of different fighters or the mechanical guts of them. I wish I was more detail-minded but my tangled wires go limp when it comes to machines. 

Themes abound of friendship, courage, mercy killing, women's rights, harassment, torture in war, survival, and heroism. I was never quite sure of Verity's age but my guess was she is in her 20's. Again. Details. Harumph...

Young Adult
4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

Looney Tunes meets the League of Princes Charming (and that isn't a typo). This book reminded me of the cartoons I grew up with the slapstick characters, distinct voices, and nonstop gags. This fractured fairy tale begins with a bang painting the character of Prince Frederic as pompous and fearful along with his girlfriend, Ella (Cinderella), who is spirited and wants adventure. The two argue about how to spend their afternoon. Frederic wants tea and Ella wants adventure; in particular, she wants to find Pennyfeather, the bard of their kingdom who has gone missing. When Ella realizes Frederic won't go with her, she decides to find the inspiring Rapunzel as a potential adventure partner because Rapunzel freed herself from the witch and saved her prince. Ella toodle-oo's and leaves Frederic a note that explains her plans. Frederic takes off after her and meets the other prince charmings all with hangups and quirks that are quite funny.

"Huh?" Gustav grunted, as he and Liam clipped along through the woods, all but dragging Frederic behind them. Duncan, free of the chains, was plodding by himself several years back. 
"Whawadoo, whuwedow?" the out-breath Frederic tried again. He sounded like an asthmatic cat trapped inside an accordion.

The four Prince Charmings from Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty have joined forces to rescue Cinderella who's been captured by a witch. Gustav, of Rapunzel, is a Viking-type brute who cares little for others feelings but is loyal and never backs down in a fight. Duncan, of Snow White's story, is an odd duck who believes he has magical powers and it makes him brave or foolish depending on how you look at it. Oh, and he chatters like a chipmunk.

"Gustav, hold up..." Liam said ...I think our companions could use a break." 
"I'm good," Duncan said cheerily as he jogged to catch up to the others. "The mud is a little hard on my felt boots but it makes a pleasant squishy noise when I step. It reminds me of the bog walks that Snow and I take sometimes. A bog might not sound like the kind of place you want to spend a lot of time in - and the smell would back up the assumption-but when it comes to examining mosses-"
"Pipe down, Nature boy," Gustav interrupted. "The Wheezing Wonder here is trying to say something.: 
Frederic had collapsed facedown in a pile of fallen leaves. He lifted his head and spit out a pinecone, "What do we do now?" he sighed.
"First order of business, we get ride of these chains," Liam said.

Liam (from Sleeping Beauty) is the planner and actually has had heroic exploits. His ego and pride get in the way at times and he thinks if he works alone he would be better off. The four learn that working together not only makes them stronger but they become friends that learn to appreciate the oddities in each other.

This meta-fiction has terrific writing with jokes galore and jabs at language that will make you laugh. The dwarfs insist on spelling "dwarves" because if "wolf" becomes "wolves" and "half" becomes "halves" then they should be "dwarves" not "dwarfs". They warred when the elves bragged that they got to pluralize with a "v". The nonstop humor is for kids and adults alike. There are also a ton of references to classics and comedies such as Frederic's horse is named, Gwendolyn, the same name as Cinderella's fairy godmother, and there's a squirrel named, Captain Spaulding, after Groucho Marx. There are probably a bunch more - I can only recall those two off the top of my head.

We don't know what happens with Snow and Liam and some of the Prince Charmings seem to be interested in other princesses suggesting a sequel. I thought the gags overtook the plot. You know nothing bad is going to happen to the characters and it takes the tension out of the story. I got a little tired of the anachronistic jokes in the middle and thought the book could have been tightened to improve the pacing and provide more plot details. You decide. I guarantee you'll laugh.

Reading Level 6.1
4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, December 20, 2012

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

I couldn't put this novel down with the likable characters and nice pacing. I can't say I loved the ending and I found lots unbelievable but the kind parents, funny young boys, quirky best friend, and nice protagonist make for an enjoyable read.

Carley's world has been turned upside down when her step-dad beats her and her mom so badly they ended up in the hospital. Carly's mom's injuries are so severe that Carley is placed into the foster care of the Murphy's, an outwardly perfect family that is so kind and loving she isn't sure she wants to go back to her mom.

The strength of this story is the character development and emotional pull of Carley becoming attached to the family. Carley is angry at first and lashes out at the Murphy's but learns to love them and be responsible for helping care for the boys. In the beginning Carley has some rough edges and fights with wanting to trust her new family. By the end, Julie Murphy is giving her responsibilities that made me think Carley was more like eighteen years old versus 8th grade. Carley also reacts like an older character. But no matter.

I wanted more of the plot fleshed out. The best friend relationship seemed to happen too fast as well as the reconciliation with her real mother. I did enjoy the best friend and Carley's discussions about the character in the Broadway musical and novel, "Wicked," as they try to make sense out of themselves and the world around them. Carley's voice sometimes sounds too old and her mom didn't sound low income enough when they are apologizing to each other, but it isn't very noticeable. I loved Michael Eric! The author nails this adorable little guy. He's like a puppy. Daniel was believable with his anger toward having to share his family with a foster child. I didn't buy Carley teaching Daniel basketball because even a mediocre male player the same age as a female player is going to have a physical advantage. Unless Carley is an extremely tall, athletic girl, which she isn't.

I was puzzled by the ending that made it seem that the family couldn't contact Carley and that only she could contact them. I wanted to know if this is a law or was just a part of the story. I needed more information. This story misses the grittiness of low income families and doesn't catch the despair or anger like one might find in a Gary Schmidt novel, and because of this, it is a nice book for young readers. The beating is not gone into detail and the horror of it is mostly what the reader imagines in his or her own mind. A wonderful debut novel.

Reading level 3.5
3 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket

You getting this all right, son, or am I goin' too fast for ya? Oops. Wrong character. That's hard-boiled detective Sam Spade. Thirteen-year-old Lemony Snicket would say, This was nonsense, of course. but there's nothing wrong with occasionally staring out the window and thinking nonsense, as long as the nonsense is yours, which pretty much sums up this twisty tale. There's the nonsense of the mystery. There's the nonsense of the word definitions. There's the nonsense of the town with its missing ocean. There's the nonsensical adults. And while Sam Spade isn't in the novel, there is one character by the name of Dashiell, a femme fatale, and roadster, in this hilarious parody of noir detective fiction.

Prepare to parachute into this plot with a duffel bag full of questions and little answers. It's hard to tell what's going on at the start of the novel. Lemony is supposed to take the train to meet someone in the city. He's at a cafe with his parents, when a woman drops a note in his lap to meet him; he jumps out a bathroom window where he's left a ladder for himself (which makes no sense). The couple in the cafe are not Lemony's parents; laudanum was put in his tea because the so-called parents were going to do something to him but I have no idea what it is. Are you confused yet? As the story progresses I don't feel quite as lost or I'm adjusting to the odd plot progression, but I have to say the writing is so funny I wasn't really bothered by all the nonsensical who, what, when, where, and whys.

Lemony is an apprentice to a secret organization (I never found out what that was) and his boss S. Theodora Markson makes it clear that she is in charge and he is to do everything he asks. Lemony asks what the "S" stands for but she answers that he's asking the wrong question. (Stupid, is my guess.) The two have a job to do which is collect a missing statue in the town, Stain'd-by-the-Sea, which was once on the sea but no longer is - I have no recollection of why, so it must not be important to the plot (or I'm an idget). The plot changes so many times it reminds me of when I have to unknot my jewelry after traveling 22 hours from Taipei to Minneapolis. You'd think I'd learn to not throw it all in one plastic bag... Anyway, you won't know what is going to happen next and the unpredictability made it a page turner.

So many children's books have characters that give word definitions in an effort to aid young readers; however, it is done so much I somewhat dread coming across it. This author parodies this writing technique with nonstop over-the-top word definitions that pokes fun by having the characters do it so much I found myself laughing versus being annoyed. Take the interchange between Ms. Feint, the femme fatale, and Mr. Snicket:
   We can rescue him without kowtowing to a villain like Hangfire.
   What does 'kowtowing' mean?
   To behave in an obsequious manner. 
   I could play this game all night, Mr. Snicket. What does 'obsequious' mean?
See what I mean? Nonstop nonsense.

Then there's the walk down literature lane. Two boys named, Pip and Squeak, drive a taxi (Squeak pushes the pedals and Pip handles the steering), and Lemony pays them in tips by recommending books. How can you not love that! There are constant references to books, films, and other media. No one can possible know them all. I had fun guessing some, such as the character in Johnny Tremain, author Roald Dahl, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I was disappointed in the ending that resolves nothing. If anything, I had more questions than throughout the entire book. I can just picture the author going, Har-Har-Har, gotcha! Okay, so maybe an English guy wouldn't sound like that... instead he'd yell, Stop asking the wrong questions! Ask a few more! A fun read.

Reading Level 5.6
4 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, December 15, 2012

About Average by Andrew Clements

No superstar in 6th grader Jordan. No super-duper grades. No super-duper looks. No super-duper athleticism. Just your super average run-of-the-mill kid. When you read as many fantasy books as I do it is refreshing to get a normal protagonist once in a while which is what I liked best about this book. While Clements descriptions bring alive the story and characters, the forced plot kept it from standing out in a crowd.

Jordan is finishing up the school year and is in the orchestra, but  struggles at being a good instrument player. She bemoans the fact that she is average at so many things and dreams of being a superstar. What she doesn't realize is that she is good at organizing and one of her responsibilities is to set up and take down the music stands and chairs before and after orchestra practice. She's trying to deal with a bully in school and she just isn't sure what to do. When she decides to try and be nice to the bully, it seems to help her attitude and surprise the bully. When a disaster strikes the school, it is Jordan's superior planning skills that come to the rescue.

Clements mentions the build up of heat throughout the novel, that reflects the changing weather conditions and mirrors Jordan's boiling anger toward the girl who is bullying her and the impending disaster. I like his word choices when he writes, but it confused me in the chapter titled, "Furious," because Jordan's emotions were so extreme. The previous chapters paint this picture of a sweet girl and then "Bam!" this chapter starts out "Jordan Johnston was radiating massive waves of negative energy, a huge force field of harsh, burning rage." She is such a mess of anger to the teacher and others, that I thought it was a different character. I think Clements was having too much fun creating beautiful sentences and didn't realize the character was... well, out-of-character. I reread the previous chapter to see if I'd missed something about Jordan having a personality disorder. I hadn't. The next chapter explains her over-the-top anger. If the chapters had been switched and if Jordan had tried to hide her anger I would have been able to buy her extreme behavior. I see that Clements was trying to put suspense into the chapter and wanted the reader to wonder why Jordan is angry but it came off more confusing than suspenseful.

It is obvious, Clements knows his craft as pieces of the plot are pulled together such as Jordan at the start on the stage pretending to be in front of an audience imagining them clapping, to her actually being in front of a clapping audience at the end. But in other parts the story didn't flow smoothly and it felt forced such Jordan being on a winning soccer team but not getting a trophy. Instead she gets a whistle. That wouldn't happen. I've been coaching soccer for 20 years and I played as a kid and every participant whether they are a manager or player gets a trophy or ribbon. The whistle is critical to the disaster, but the author should have had it given to Jordan in addition to the trophy. Perhaps Clements wanted the unappreciative coach to look like a bully; but it was too unbelievable for me. Jordan being a type of assistant coach in soccer organizing the whole team practices was unbelievable as well. First, she's not going to know drills as a sixth grader that she can teach others. I see that Clements is showing her to be exceptionally strong in organizational skills, but it doesn't reflect the age. I could maybe buy a high-schooler doing that who had been mentored by a parent in youth coaching, but not an 11-year-old. I also was wondering Jordan's long (slightly boring) interior monologue regarding babysitting. Clements is showing that she is responsible and a planner and it ties in with the tornado but it seemed forced.

Good discussions can happen around the theme of bullying and if someone is suffering from it and this story has a good message on how to handle a person who is verbally abusive. Jordan decides that saying nice things to this girl bully in her class is the way she is going to react to her ugly comments. But the strength of the message is that by being nice, Jordan's attitude changes and allows her to not take the nasty girl's comments seriously or lose her temper. When a bully can't get a reaction, then he or she usually finds a new victim. While the plot has flaws, this story will entertain most and at 120 pages it is a good addition to an elementary library.

Reading Level 6.5

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great by Gerald Morris

"Camelot! Camelot! I know it sounds a bit bizarre!" I forgot the rest of the lyrics to this 1967 movie but I can hum the whole shebang for you if ya want just the tune.  I'm sure if I Googled it, the rest would come flooding back with Richard Burton blasting the lyrics in his distinct baritone. I thought of that movie when I read this book, although Monty Python and the Holy Grail is probably closer to the book's premise. Or maybe not. Monty Python's adultish humor is not very kidish (wink, wink). What Monty Python and the book share in common is a very funny spoof on Arthurian Legends.

Lancelot leaves France on a quest to become a knight in King Arthur's court. Right away we discover that Lancelot is a hero of a different kind. Sure, he is handsome. Sure, he has superior athletic abilities. Sure, he can get out of any scrape. But when we first meet him he is anything but typical. He is vain and ditzy. The author has a fun play on words when Lancelot takes the phrase, "a knight in shining armor," literally and believes that the only way King Arthur will accept him as a knight is if his armor is shiny. A funny scene ensues where Lancelot defeats knights attacking him lefthanded and he is frustrated that they are getting his armor dirty. How can he meet the King Arthur without "shining armor." Unbeknownst to him the knights he defeated were in a tournament where the winner gets a place at the Knights of the Round Table. From the get-go we know this is a silly tale with twists on the original tale.

Lancelot goes through 5 adventures and I believe most refer to Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" from the 1400's which I haven't read. The adventure I liked the most reminded me Alfred Tennyson's poem, "The Lady of Shalott", from the 1800's. Being familiar with the poem made the chapter all the more funnier. Tennyson's poem is about the Lady of Shalott who is under a curse in a tower where she can't look out the window on the town of Camelot. She sees Lancelot in her mirror with his sparkling armor, feathered plume hat, and gorgeous voice and she decides to go to the window knowing she will die from the curse. Part III of the poem begins, "A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,/He rode between the barley-sheaves." In this children's book, the author has The Lady of Shalott accidentally shoot Lancelot in the butt with a bow and arrow. The Lady of Shalott's mother is lady Elaine which refers to the Malory's Elaine of Astolat who is the same person as the Lady of Shalott; it's just that Tennyson changed the name. I'm sure I missed other references since I haven't read Malory but you can see the nonstop poke on the classic in this romp.

Lancelot gets shot by the Lady of Shalott because King Arthur asked him not to participate in his jousting tournament; Lancelot always wins and it takes the fun out of the competition. Lancelot complies and leaves town only to get shot by the Lady of Shalott when he decides to nap under a tree (he loves naps). Lancelot decides his injury is a great handicap and he can now enter the tournament because it will be hard to win. He straps a pillow to his seat and disguises himself so he can participate. Of course he does well inspite of his injury, but things become complicated when he wears the Lady of Shalott's scarf and people expect him to marry her as the winner. In an ironic twist the Lady of Shalott desires another man and doesn't want to marry Lancelot.

I like how the author presents Lancelot as a trickster and one who is tricked. He's vain and clueless in some spots and funny in others such as when he drops acorns on the Sir Phelot's helmet. And even though he appears to have everything anyone could want, he isn't happy. At the end, he has even lost some of his vanity. The play on words throughout are entertaining such as the "recreant" knights. While young readers aren't going to get the references (I taught the Lady of Shalott to 12th graders in English class) they will laugh at the situations. I am kind of curious to read Malory's work and then reread this book. The book is only about 100 pages and a fast fun read. Check it out!

Reading level 4.8
Fountas & Pinnell: R

5 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones

Fiddle-dee-dee! A nonsense word for a fun nonsense fantasy. A name like Earwig sets the tone along with a talking cat, witch, and demons. While this book is mildly entertaining and serves a much needed niche for low level fantasy stories, it isn't particularly well-done. On the plus side, the constant tension in the plot kept me turning the pages and the Mandrake is a somewhat scary monster, but on the negative side, there are no changes within the characters and they remain distant and vaguely interesting. While I liked Earwig's gumption and positive attitude in a grim situation, she never came alive for me. I wanted to know more about the Mandrake and Custard as well. The unfinished feel to the plot, the lack of world-building, and undeveloped characters kept me from loving this book. In the end, I wanted more answers to my questions.

Earwig lives in an orphanage with her best friend, Custard. A witch and demon come disguised as ordinary people and adopt Earwig so she can help around the house. Earwig says she will come willingly if the witch will teach her magic in return for her assistance. When, the witch reneges on her promise to teach her magic Earwig is furious and gets back at the witch by learning magic on her own and turning the tables on everyone.

I liked some of the unpredictableness of the plot such as with Earwig's spell and the demon's response. More often I had questions. At first I wasn't sure if Earwig was a bossy brat who just manipulates those around her but later I find she has quite a bit of spirit and her strong personality is likable. When Earwig is left at the orphanage, it is implied that her mom is a witch but no powers are manifested in Earwig and we really don't know if Earwig is a witch because she doesn't do anything magical - she only follows a spell in a recipe-type book. The witch who has adopted Earwig, makes spells for clients but it isn't elaborated on who they are or what the spells do; we only know that the clients are called, Friends of the Earth and Mother's Union. This made me wonder exactly what type of the world the characters live in and I wanted more world-building. I'm not sure why Custard is introduced in Chapter 1 and then never makes another appearance in the novel. It seems like he should have reappeared and interacted with Earwig at another point in the plot.

Diana Wynne Jones died last March and this is the last book she wrote. It seems like an unfinished draft - particularly the puzzling epilogue that launches itself way forward in time. It felt as if the author was saying, "Okay, I don't have time to finish this so we will hash out in one paragraph everything that happened to Earwig." My guess is she wasn't able to properly edit it.  Even with flaws, it is entertaining and is going to fill a need for emerging readers who like fantasy books.

3 out of 5 Smileys
Reading Level 5.4 (too high)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mulberry Project by Linda Sue Park

Linda Sue Park reminds me of Lowis Lowry as a writer. You always get a well-crafted, unique story with characters' that have distinct voices and a tight plot. She's also such a sophisticated writer, I don't think readers always get what she's doing. Take the metafictional narrative that occurs between the author and the protagonist in this story. On the outset, it is a story about a girl and her best friend doing a project about silkworms for a state fair competition. Themes abound regarding friendship, prejudice, conservation, ethnic identity, sibling rivalry, phobias, and more. On the inset, there is a metafictional narrative going on between the author and the protagonist. The literary device called, metafiction, is fiction that self-consciously reflects upon itself. Or in simpler terms it is fiction about fiction. This technique can be found in oodles of books such as It's a Book by Lane Smith, Lulu Walks the Dog by Judith Viorst, The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, or Don Quixote, to name a few. I thought Park's use of this technique elevated this book and made it more engaging. However, from the reviews I read it seems that some find it annoying or distracting. You decide.

Julia and Patrick are doing a silkworm project for the state fair through a club at school. Julia thinks the project is "too Korean" and that she already stands out at school as the only Korean-American, but Patrick is so excited that she doesn't say anything to him out loud. Actually they don't really brainstorm other possibilities resulting in friendship problems that they have to resolve as the project progresses.

Julia becomes involved with caring for the silkworms to such a point that she doesn't realize what she must do to extract the silk. When she finds out she gets into an enormous fight with Patrick about how silk is farmed and her feelings are further complicated from a field trip that discussed the ethical treatment of domesticated animals used to feed the population. The topics are heavy but Park doesn't overwhelm the storyline with them. The plot is driven by the character and she adds tension and different themes creating a nice pace.

The senses are engaged in the beginning with the description of the Korean spicy food, kimchee, that one character hates and the other adores. The main character is likable and flawed which makes it easy to identify with her. I did find it hard to believe that she would have problems with the worms and making silk, but I'm not the most sensitive person and I could buy it that another might feel that strongly about what they were doing (can you tell I'm trying to not give away the problem and spoil the fun of discovering it as you read the book). I did like that Patrick emails her the same questions that I wondered about and I could relate more to his feelings than Julia's.

The plot doesn't have loose ends and I found myself admiring how well Park crafts the story. I had questions about the mom's attitude and I liked the unique answer at the end which is appropriate to the fact that the book is in the first person point of view so the reader isn't going to know about the mom's prejudices. I thought it was very real because Julia was so sensitive and it was hard for her to even discuss her feelings about the project with her best friend, much less confront her mother on a complex and serious topic. In the end, the state fair results are given and it was refreshing and realistic what happens to the pair, vesus a perfect-type ending where all the characters' dreams come true.

Julia has a question and answer conversation with the author that is funny and gives the reader a glimpse into what it is like to craft a story. I really enjoyed this technique and thought it elevated the book even more as it tried to do something different than the normal kids-doing-a-school-project story. Like I said earlier, some might find it distracting to the story. I thought it was done sparingly enough to not be a nuisance. I also thought it answered many of the questions I had as I was reading.

If you like Park's novels then I would suggest trying books by the author Kate Messner; both have plots that emphasize science and math, have multiple themes, and strong female characters. 

Reading Level 4.8
Fountas & Pinnell: S

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Fire Chronicle by John Stephens

This was hard to read after the fun I had reading The Vengekeep Prophecies and Deadweather and Sunrise. I needed another edit with more concentration on the plot and less meandering. I skipped along the surface like a rock on water. Of course I have a stack of 30 books to plow through right now, so I might be a wee distracted. Not to mention a humongous order, a two hour speech to prepare for, and lessons for next week. This book reminded me of Michael Scott's series that involve a brother and sister along with a prophecy and Harry Potter (I typed Happy Potter and Harpy Potter before I got to the goldarn wizard's correct name...) with the Screechers like Dementors and a book that has invisible ink and mucho power. This isn't just any book, it is The Book of Life, except the boy that wields it forgets about its powers to heal in the middle of a battle. Duh. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Actually I'm chasing my tail. Talk about needing an edit... I feel like Harpy Plotter. Okay... I'll quit. Promise. 

Kate, Michael, and Emma are searching for their missing parents and trying to find three books that will help them save the world from the evil Dire Magnus. While Kate can control time travel, Michael has The Book of Life, that heals people. The three are hidden in an orphanage by the Wizard Pym where they are quickly found by the forces of evil. Kate gets sucked back to the 1900's by using the Atlas to save her brother and sister from Screechers. Her Dickens-type world is full of orphans, sickness, suffering, and magic. Yes, magical beings live with humans and it is the Night of Separation when they are being banished from living with humans. With the help of a boy and witch, Kate works to get back to the future. Michael, is on a separate quest trying to retrieve The Book of Life. He has to fight dragons, elves, guardians, and the evil Dire Magnus and his henchman.

Can you tell I don't really want to write about this story? There is plenty of action although the first chapter is just a boring retell of the last book. The author doesn't work it into the storyline while the action is happening. I did like some of the twists such as the Chronicle being able to see into a person's past. This allowed for the villain's to not be one-dimensional. Some of the plot is predictable and some wasn't. Fans of the first book probably won't be disappointed. It is really a story that is propelled by the action and not the characters or word-smithing. An entertaining read even if I had issues with the plot.

Reading Level 5.1

3 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Fake Mustache by Tom Angleberger, illustrated by Jen Wang

This nonstop fountain of funny lines, kooky characters, and over-the-top plot had me laughing so much people around me kept asking what was so funny. Lenny Jr. goes to buy a special mustache his best friend Casper desperately wants; The Heidelberg Handlebar #7. When Casper dons the mustache he finds that he has specials powers and can talk anyone into whatever he wants. He quickly takes over the world and it is up to Lenny to stop him with the help of television star Jodie O'Rodeo. They race through this rip-roaring adventure using gadgets from a Willy Wonka-type factory that involves boogers, chicken-tasting erasers, and more. Take a chomp out of this one, but place your disbelief outside the door - its wacky humor is out there.

Red and Jodie have the best lines. Red has a string of implied non-shocking swear words that go something like this, "Are you boys selling candy bars for your gottdangled school? No more candy bars! Get the Helchfitz out of here!" He tells the boys his brother died over one hundred years, calls Lenny a "FarDobbled Candy-Bar-selling Punkler" when he looks at hats, and pets the money Casper gives him for the suit. I haven't met such a fun, crotchety character since Yosemite Sam - the cartoon king of irreverent comments.

If Red is Yosemite, then Jodie is Annie Oakley except she slings water pistols versus guns. Check out Jodies gun-slinging slang. I'm reading along from Lenny's point of view when "Kablammo!" I get Jodie's point of view. She's on a rescue mission and loves using variations of the word "ding-dang." We've got "Who the ding-dang-dong are you?" or references to her "...ding-dang TV show" or there's "Ding-dang dude, can't you be more careful?" She's a lovable ding-dong that's fer sure. Other fun words are "goshamighty, cockamamy, kablammo, (yes I borrowed that one), giddyup, woolbusters,whoop-de-doo, bojangles, heinies, and twinkle-toes (she didn't use that one but I think she should have or maybe it should be twinkie-toes in honor of Hostess treats).  Jodie can toss a knife like a circus performer but she doesn't want to hurt anyone so she lets the handle hit the villain between the eyes. She's a keeper, this one.

A imaginative story that will lighten your day! Enjoy
Reading Level 4.6
4 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, December 7, 2012

Lulu Walks the Dog by Judith Viorst; illustrated by Lane Smith

Move over Lucy Van Pelt, there's a new kid on the block and she's just as selfish and bratty as you. Meet Lulu. Big head, big mouth, big ideas. She doesn't run a psychiatry booth like Lucy of Peanuts fame, but she does run a dog walking business and I haven't loved a character this much since ...well, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang. So many things reminded me of Peanuts from the pictures to the characters. The running gag on the poodle called, Pookie, doing "what she's supposed to do" to Lulu informing the reader she's going to call it "poop" reminded me of my younger sister who carried around a stuffed Snoopy dog that turned from pearly white to pukey gray and that she adoringly called, "Poopy." Lulu is spoiled, bossy, loud, in-your-face, irreverent; yet likable, because she says and does things that all of us have wanted to do at one time or another (okay, maybe you haven't but my nasty side has) and she is contrasted by the practically-perfect Fleischman who does everything right and everyone loves. 

Lulu demands her parents to give her some unknown thing at the start of the story. She claims that she is growing up and won't throw temper tantrums anymore to get what she wants, instead she manipulates her parents by making them feel guilty and tries negotiating with them. The latter works and she says she will work to save money for the outrageous item that she wants (and no, I'm not going to natter what it is - that would be like pulling the football away before you kick it through the goal posts). 

Lulu decides to walk 3 dogs for a fee. The bull dog, Brutus, is a hoot and the pictures Lane Smith draws are delicious with Brutus slobbing the face of a pinned-down Lulu, refusing to walk with its square bulk tanked to the ground, or Lulu being lassoed to a tree with Brutus giving her the who's-the-boss-now Miss Smarty-pants look, (there's more pics - look for yourself - lazy me doesn't want to name them all. Are you wondering why I keep inserting myself into this review? Well, I really don't feel like discussing it right now.) Smith's illustrations remind me of a cross between Charles Schultz and Salvador Dali. He has a surreal look and atmosphere that reminds me of a mix between cartoons and abstract art. Smith explains how Schultz influenced his artwork in Dily Evan's book called, "Show & Tell: Exploring the Fine Art of Children's Illustration," and it is evidenced in his simply drawn characters that show tremendous expression in a small shift of a line on the face. The cover shows Lulu looking at the viewer with no mouth or eyebrows; yet the shape of her head and pointed nose suggest pursed lips and a girl who is not happy as well as surprised that she's been outwitted by a dog (eh-hum... don't go by the blurry picture attached to this review - you have to see the actual book to truly see her eyeballing the reader). 

Lulu has problems with the other two dogs as well and only Fleischman seems to have the knack for controlling them. Not that Lulu wants his help. Not that Lulu is even thankful for his help. Lulu doesn't like the  practically-perfect Fleischman because she knows she doesn't want to be that way. How boring, she says with an exclamation mark! That's for sure. When she sings her money song throughout the story and has time-out sections I laughed every time (okay adult reader... I see you smiling - you have sung the money song too). But Lulu needs Fleischman's help and he is always there to unfuddle her muddles. At the end, Lulu does show Fleischman respect but they don't go so far as to become best friends. Lulu sarcastically tells the reader this isn't Cinderella with a happy ending. It's just sort of happy.

The author's asides are not intrusive to the plot; they are hysterical, sarcastic, and aid the reader by answering questions that occur while reading the story (errr... yes, I have been trying to imitate the author in this review. Did it work or did I annoy you? I think when author asides don't work they are annoying, don't you?) Depending on the age of the reader some of the humor might go over their heads, but there is still plenty to laugh at. The book is a fast read (took me longer to scratch out this review than read the book) and I am going to  have to try it with different ages as a read aloud.  Lulu is one character I can read overtime and over time. Hope there are more books to come.

Reading Level 5.3

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

I struggled with this National Book Award winner. Not because it lacks originality. The creepy steampunk setting with gear-transformed people, witches, and goblins was well done. Not because it lacked character development. The weird witch, river spirit, goblins, and orphans with a plucky protagonist were engaging enough. And not because of a plot that plods. The 200 page book is concise and clues are slowly revealed. It was unpredictable and imaginative. So why couldn't I immerse myself in the story?

It wasn't a complete loss - I loved the witch Graba, patterned after the fairy tale witch Baba Yaga in Russian folklore with her unpredictable temperament and dangerous ways. In this tale, it is not the house, but the witch herself who lunges around on giant chicken legs made of gears and metal using monstrous talons to grab wayward children. What a great twist on the original! Speaking of twists... Graba gives Rownie a home with food but he is mistreated like the other orphans she takes into her home that echos characteristics found in Oliver Twist's Fagin. Machinery has replaced human parts in the city of Zombay; the police have glass eyes with gears for irises and the animals have coal hearts. Graba has taken in Rownie and his brother, Rowan, but Rowan has disappeared. Rownie joins the goblin theater troupe because they are searching for Rowan. The goblins need Rowan to speak to the river and prevent the flood that threatens the city of Zombay; however, the goblins are not welcome in the city and it is illegal to put on their show which results in all sorts of trouble for the troupe. Rownie combines forces with them only to get caught up in a bigger struggle for power between the goblins, mayor, and witch Graba.

The story is filled with terrific themes from the magic or imagination that comes from within when assuming the identity of a mask to the magic or power that comes from without as symbolized in the witches, mayor, and river spirit; to the social commentary of the goblins being prejudiced by the townspeople; to the humans who can't wear masks to act in plays because it changes them, and more. While there are so many social commentaries, the storyline never stops long enough to explore them. I wanted more of an explanation about the goblin play where the witch uses her reflection to create a bunch of mini-me's who become her slaves; followed by her cooking the heart of one and causing a rebellion. Was this play a suggestion that the witch Graba and Semele were like the rebellious slaves? What is their background? And what about Rowan. Is he with his mother? Why can he wear a mask? How do humans change into goblins? In the end I felt dissatisfied with the overall book and the lack of answers.

The lack of exposition resulted in me going back and rereading passages often and being confused in spots. You really had to figure out the plot as you read along and be patient as the clues unfolded. I kept thinking I missed something but my question would be answered later. As mentioned earlier, not that all questions are answered; you have to come up with your own analysis. I sort of twitched and sputtered through the narrative which never came alive for me. Some spots were jarring or awkward, such as when the characters put on masks and adopted its qualities or when Rownie would think to himself. While not something I noticed all the time, I ended with a disjointed feeling like my gears were malfunctioning. This is a book that I should really reread. I read that the author has a sequel. Most likely some of my questions will be answered. An interesting read.

Reading level 4.3
4 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey (The Chronicles of Egg)

As a kid, I used to fantasize about running away and becoming a trapeze artist in the circus. I practiced my act in the tops of trees, on the roof of the house, on swing-sets  banisters... basically anything high. Mom, wanting me to survive adolescence,  put my hyperactive limbs in gymnastics. I made my best friend spot me as I learned to do flips. I stood on the edge of the chair and instructed her to grasp the waistband of my shorts and make sure I didn't land on my head. I should have worried about her head. When my legs rocketed through the rotation she leaned forward too much and I caught her under the chin. I landed on my feet and found her on the floor knocked out cold. Yes, she is still my best friend, but she never helped me with another acrobatic move. Today I just dream (literally) of flipping as a flexible 13-year-old. Egbert Masterson is 13, and he too, likes to fantasize. He fantasizes about traveling to exotic places found in the books he's read, or eating delicious jelly bread, or rescuing Millicent (the girl he has a crush on) from pirates. Not only do his fantasies come true they careen out-of-control in this non-stop action adventure involving murder, cutthroat pirates, assassins, and treasure.

Egbert lives on Deadweather on a fruit farm with his father, Hok, brother, Adonis, and sister, Venus. His mother died giving birth to him and he is hated, beat, and verbally abused by the trio. Hok hires tutors for the children because his wife wanted them educated and while the first tutor did teach Egbert how to read, the second tutor didn't teach him anything. But that was okay because he brought books and Egbert continued his education by teaching himself. When Hok discovers something on the farm, the group heads to Sunrise Island, except Daddo doesn't tell his kiddos exactly why they are going there. When Egbert loses his family, is almost tossed off a cliff, and then captured by pirates, you would think things couldn't get worse, but they do. Egg is forced to try and figure out what his dad found that was so important that people are trying to kill him to get it.

The funny pirate talk makes for some good ole fun - it might be 'ard fer sum young-ins ta understand, but ye will have ta decide fer yerself.  The part where the pirate goes after Millicent with intentions that aren't honorable might be confusing also, but I can see young readers not understanding how the whole situation transpired. The characters are so extreme they are funny - almost cartoonish - and while there is violence it is on the slapstick side for the most part. The deaths occur willy-nilly and there is no remorse or much thinking about them. Egg doesn't feel sorry for himself and his decency and humor balance out the other kooky characters, as well as, lighten the violent parts. Egg explains why he likes Millicent's cocky, confident attitude which adds a nice touch to the character development. She's a strong female character with a mind of her own and take-charge attitude. The plot has many unpredictable twists because of her and her actions at the end make sense in light of her personality traits.

The loose ends are not tied up and it seems obvious that there will be a sequel. We do not learn the details of what happened to Egg's family. We also don't know why the most fearsome pirate of the seas went out of his way to help Egg. Maybe they are related? Maybe he's Egg's uncle? Other unresolved issues at the end of the story are the two men hell-bent on killing Egg walk away with no intention of not going after him another time and the treasure has not been found. The end screams, to be continued... The only resolution happens for Millicent. I also wanted to know Guts history and how he ended up with the pirates. The world-building is excellent and characters engaging. I look forward to book 2. Let the treasure hunt begin.  Oy!

Reading Level 5.2

4 out of 5 Smileys

The Vengekeep Prophecies by Brian Farrey

Generations of klutzes run in my family. Grandma is infamous for throwing chicken grease into the furnace and causing an explosion that fried off her eyebrows, eyelashes, and bangs. I am not sure my infamy. Maybe when I set 16 boxes of cereal on fire preheating the oven as a teenager (mom quit storing them in there after that incident). Or maybe when I melted the microwave with a stove-top grease fire. Or maybe when I torched the bamboo steamer basket while making Chinese dumplings. In this book, Jaxter is a kindred spirit - a clod who is finding it difficult to follow the family business of thieving. When his first burglary attempt results in him burning down the house and getting caught... well, you can see why I'd be hooked. But it isn't just the great characters, fast pace, humor, unpredictable plot, and terrific world building that kept me tooling through this book, I also liked the themes of having courage, making friends and discovering what you love to do and pursuing it.

Jaxter Grimjinx comes from a family of famous thieves that spans generations. Da's a master burglar, while Ma's forgeries are second to none. His sister can pick a pocket unseen while Jaxter can break low-level spells using non-magic. When the family plots the big heist, things go "zoc" when the fake prophecy that Ma has weaved into a tapestry that tells Vengekeep its futures comes true bringing natural disasters and monsters bent on destroying the town. Only Jaxter can save them by finding the means to break the tapestry's enchantment.

The twist on prophecies was a whole lotta fun. Here a fake prophecy comes true and the Grimjinx family watches in horror as their heist backfires and an unpredictable and interesting quest ensues with Jaxter making friends with a strong-willed girl and a cowardly mage. The supporting characters are well-rounded and their motivations are clear. Every time I would have a question it was answered in this well-crafted story. The only loose end involves Jaxter's sister and even that question is asked, but the sister doesn't answer, suggesting a sequel.

The madeup words are a hoot along with the delicious humor. Rick Riordan is one of few fantasy writers who makes me laugh steady through his stories. I can add Farrey to that list. I also appreciated that Jaxter and Callie, his friend, are 12-years-old. Callie's wit, attitude, and search for independence and Jaxter's intelligence and search to find something he is good at are spot on. Too often I read a book with a 9-year-old who sounds like a teenager.

I'm not sure how Farrey manages to make a family of thieves so likeable and noble, but he does. The parents have morals and are more like Robin Hood taking from the rich and never the poor. When the townspeople need help, they are there to rescue them. When Jaxter struggles with his future, they give wise, loving advice. The entire family looks on the positive side of a situation no matter how grim. There are some great lines in this book, particularly when the parents don't like Jaxter's comments. Da says, "Sorry, Son, what was that? I was too busy ignoring you." And mom several paragraphs later, "Sorry Son, I missed that... Ignoring you can be a full-time job." Ooh, I'd love to use that on the kids at school. See what I mean? Delicious.

Great read aloud. Great story. "Bangers!" I just can't say enough good things about this novel. Read it!

5 out of 5 Smileys