Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Wednesdays in the Tower (Castle Glower #2) by Jessica Day George

The sequel to, Tuesdays at the Castledoes more world building than the first novel explaining the history of the castle and how it got its powers. It is more of a setup for the third book with its cliffhanger ending, but I enjoyed the mythical creatures, pacing, and heroine. Celie is back with her kind ways and important skills of mapping the castle and communicating with it. When she finds a mysterious egg in a new tower, she watches it everyday until it hatches a creature that imprints on her. The castle wants her pet kept secret and Celie must learn how to be responsible for raising it without the help of her parents.

When a creepy wizard comes to the castle to help her brother, Bran, decipher a storehouse of magical and powerful weapons, the castle starts to change in alarming ways forcing everyone to work together to try and make things right. The family decides to trust the wizard, but Celie and Pogue think he is up to something. When things reach a crisis it is up to Celie to make the right decision and save her family.

While the plot's pacing sputters a bit at the beginning, most of the threads from subplots come together and make for a fast-paced ending. I enjoyed the world building and explanation of the castle's powers. I think this is the strength of this book for it gives a better foundation for the characters. I would have liked more development of a diverse culture in the alternate world, but it suggests this won't happen until the next book. The villain or not - it isn't clear - is somewhat one-dimensional and I would have liked to know more about why he was so obstinate in his opinions about what action to take. The cliffhanger suggests it is to come. On the one hand, I liked the superpower explanation, but on the other I want more regarding the alternate world and its culture. Bring on book 3!

World building is not as important as the characters that drive the story. Celie is a likable protagonist. She doesn't change internally as much in this book as learn to be responsible for another creature's well-being. She's good at problem-solving and is not a royal snob. She doesn't fight with others and usually makes the right decisions. If you like flawed characters, Celie is not one. It isn't clear if Pogue is interested in Celie as only a friend or more romantically. She can count on him and while he is called a flirt he isn't one at all in this story. A nice fantasy and entertaining read.

3 Smileys

Paperboy by Vince Vawter

Writing for me is like stuttering for Victor. Most of the time I feel lonely and isolated and I'm trying every trick I can to spit out the right words. And I mean spit. The words splatter, sputter, and stutter in a  nonsensical way all over the page. The random mishmash starts to take shape after multiple rewrites that usually leaves me frustrated, vulnerable, and exhausted when finished. Writing is difficult for me because it requires focus and my ADHD tendencies get in the way. Exercise is the best trick for me, but it doesn't always work. This train of thought happened when I accidentally spelled "Victor's" name, "victory" which is basically the overarching message: do not give up no matter what problem or suffering you face in life. Whether you stutter, are hyperactive, or have an issue, dealing with it requires action on your part in order to move on and grow as a person.

Eleven-year-old Victor suffers from stuttering to the point that he can't talk. Most words are impossible for him to utter. When he takes on his best friend, Rat's, paper route he is showing courage and kindness. Victor is an amazing pitcher with a fastball that no one can match in middle school. When he splits Rat's lip who was catching for him as a result of showing off, he agrees to take on Rat's paper route as Rat visits relatives on the farm for the month of July. The thought of talking to customers to collect money terrifies Victor because most don't know how to deal with his disability. He resents that people think he is stupid, try to finish his sentences for him, and act uncomfortable.  He learns on the paper route the importance of talking about his problem, not giving up, working hard, and that his suffering can bring inner strength.

When Victor meets Mr. Spiro on the paper route he likes him like Mam because the two look him in the eye and are good listeners. Mam is the black maid and while Victor calls her his best friend, she doesn't always give him satisfying answers about his stuttering. She says its God's plan which doesn't make sense to Victor because it makes God seem cruel. Victor likes Mr. Spiro's honest answers and that he treats Victor's questions with respect which inspires him to ask Mr. Spiro why he stutters. Asking this question is a huge step for Victor for it is his first step toward understanding and facing his problem versus feeling there is something wrong with himself. The author suggests that problems need to be verbalized no matter what they are before a person can tackle them.

The plot is well done and has some complex issues. There is an unhappy housewife, a creepy junkman, a mystery of birth, a philosophical Navy man, and a racially divided South. The plot pulls together these different threads and I only had a minor question regarding why Victor jumped to the conclusion that Mam was injured by a specific person. I thought that if some of the information given later in the story could have been put earlier so as to warrant Victor's suspicions. As is, it felt contrived in order to move the plot forward. The plot's unpredictability kept me flipping the pages. Younger readers might have problems understanding some of the issues and making inferences. One of the characters has an affair and is an alcoholic who is abused. The end suggests some reconciliation. Victor's mom hints they might not have Mam in the future. Perhaps there will be a sequel?

Mr. Spiro's four words: student, servant, seller, seeker are explained in a letter as the "quartering of the soul" and share his philosophy about life. Up to that point Mr. Spiro has made references to philosophers Socrates, Voltaire, and Martin Heidegger who explore theories on profound questions. When Victor and Mr. Spiro discuss Jason and the Argonauts that conversation involves more the philosophical question of universal truths found in fiction versus the actual story of "The Golden Fleece." Mr. Spiro becomes an important mentor and friend to Victor. At the end when he leaves before Victor can ask about his father, Victor is able to answer the question on his own; a symbol that he has grown into an independent thinker. Mr. Spiro wants Victor to embrace those words and give them his own meaning.

To reflect Victor's stuttering the author uses the letters "s" creating sentences such as:
How'd your week go, son?
s-s-s-s Hot. s-s-s-s But okay.
The four words: student, servant, seller, seeker also begin with the letter "s" and reflect Victor's stuttering. In fact, the format of the book cleverly reflects Victor's difficulty with getting words out through the use of extra white space, justified paragraphs, and missing quotation marks with the dialogue. Much of the humor comes from play on words as a result of Victor's disability. He mispronounces his friend Art's name, Rat, and Rat doesn't care. He likes the different words Victor stutters and has his own problems speaking. Although I think it is Art's way of making Victor feel better and make a point that Victor need not take his stuttering so seriously. My favorite is Art or Rat calling "wicker furniture," "wicked furniture." An interesting contrast to Victor's problem is his mother who doesn't understand the meaning of words. When she asks the doctor if Victor's stuttering is "generic," his father interjects that she means "genetic." Later she uses "segregation" when she means "integration" and so on. Victor thinks it might be worse to not understand than not speak.

Victor's internal changes occur on the paper route when he has to deal with a boy, Willie, who steals his newspaper bundle. He picks up a rock and is going to throw it at the back of Willie's head as he's getting away on his bike, until he realizes that it would be much easier doing that than talking to the boy. The next time he sees Willie he courageously walks up to him, shakes his bundle in his face and says it is his. Willie says to take it easy and the two get along afterwards. Victor is learning to handle his own problems and using words to communicate with others. At the end when he stands before the class and tells people he stutters it shows an acceptance of who he is and that he has completely embraced his disability. He has found the inner strength to accept how he is and be vulnerable to others to openly discuss his stutter versus trying to hide it and be negative.

The terrific character development shows different suffering in others as well as Victor. Mam suffers from the loss of someone. I didn't understand why she thought she could take on the villain considering he put her out of commission for several days, but she is portrayed as a strong-willed woman who is fearless. His wealthy mother suffers from not understanding words or her son. She is somewhat shallow in comparison to his loving father and doesn't even know Victor's tastes in food. Mam is his mother figure and he calls her his best friend and usually eats with her versus his parents.

The setting is rooted in the 1950s in Memphis, Tennessee. The Howdy Doody Show, segregation, baseball players, and newspapers show a time before the digital age. The segregation issues are a subplot to Victor's coming of age story and his attempt to overcome his disability. I thought the episode at the zoo was interesting and didn't know photobooths were segregated. The bus situation touches on the slow changes of integration and could be a discussion point regarding Jim Crow laws.

Be sure to read the Author's note at the end that explains the authenticity of Victor's voice. I particularly liked the quote included by James Earl Jones who knew the pain of a stutter and was able to gain control of his speech through hard work and perseverance: "One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can't utter." Writing reviews feels like that at times, especially when I am unfocused. If you met me you wouldn't think I had ADHD. I've learned to live with it and manage it quite well. And even though it is difficult, I like blogging because I can reflect on stories that express truths about human nature and help me grow as a person, as well as, promote excellent stories to students in my job as a librarian. This winner will be easy to book talk. Don't pass this one up!

4 Smileys

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Lincoln's Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin

I admire how Steve Sheinkin weaves historical quotes into engaging narratives where characters are easy to visualize and settings contain details that draw on the senses to create captivating nonfiction stories. He makes it look so goldurn easy. In Sheinkin's award winning book, Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal- the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, he integrates three plotlines into a thriller that I couldn't put down. This latest book is not as complex which makes it accessible for younger readers.  It is a kooky story about grave robbers who want to steal Lincoln's body and ransom it for money and a man. Based on a true story, the robbers ain't the smartest men and neither are the secret service men. A series of bungles make for an entertaining read that I rifled through in two hours. Enjoy a bit 'o the Wild West and don't be surprised if y'all be talkin' in slang 'fore you know it.

Actually, most of the slang in this book surrounds the criminal world of counterfeiting versus cowboy-speak. Criminals can spot a cop easy from the way he talks; hence, the cops would hire ropers, undercover informants who worked for the police. Excons usually made the best ropers because they had the crook lingo down and could exchange crime stories. Lewis Swegles was the roper hired to help the Secret Service in the grave robbing plan by becoming a part of the thieves plot. If he hadn't become involved, the outcome of the theft might have ended up differently.

The story's twist comes from the plot to negotiate not only ransom money for Lincoln's dead bones, but demand the release of an important counterfeiter from jail. During the Civil War more than half of the circulating paper currency was counterfeit. That's right, half! The government decided to put an end to it and actively went after Ben Boyd, the genius behind making fake money plates that made many crooks rich.  Once the government lassoed Ben, the counterfeit business fell apart as he did jail time. The grave robbing scheme was hatched by a big counterfeit crook who had lost so much business he thought he could exchange Lincoln's bones for Ben.

Sheinkin does a good job describing places allowing me to visualize locations and the place of the grave robbing crime. The Memorial Hall's poor ventilation and dripping ceiling is suspenseful, "The air inside was thick with cold moisture and the stink of rotting wood. Water seeped through the stones above, dripping on the men, pooling the muddy floor." The historical quotes add tension, '"The sun had not been visible during the whole of the day," he [Powers] remembered, "and thick clouds hung like a pall over the earth, making it so dark...that a man could scarcely have seen his hand before him."' I liked the irony of the robbers looking at the marble sarcophagus that said, "Lincoln... WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE, WITH CHARITY FOR ALL." The black and white photos spread throughout the text enrich it and help with visualizing the crooks and setting.

The subplot of the election going on wasn't tied in tightly with the plot. The historical context is helpful and the connection with the grave robbers shows why no one took their initial foiled attempt seriously, but I kept expecting more to materialize out of the election events and that doesn't happen. I liked the exciting beginning and the information at the end, but their links to the overall plot were also somewhat tenuous.  The man who jumps out of the train has a minor role in the book and makes an appearance only at the beginning. The end doesn't tie in at all except that other body snatchers existed during this time period. These are just a few minor issues in an otherwise very entertaining book. Grab this one and add the phrase, Flush times, to your vocabulary.

3 Smileys

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City by Iric Nathanson

I prefer narrative nonfiction because the characters and setting come alive versus a straight forward presentation of facts that can at times be boring. At times this read like a text book and while the information was good, I didn't think it was organized that well and the first chapter had me confused quite a bit because of my lack of knowledge regarding the structure of government municipalities. I read a link to Wikipedia that cleared up most of my questions regarding mayor-council government. My main confusion was not understanding what made a weak versus strong mayor system. It becomes clear in the chapters that follow as the author digs into the scandals and corruptions involving certain mayors who did nothing to stop illegal prostitution, gambling, and liquor activities.

The first chapter covers charter reform and how the business elite controlled the social and economic patterns in Minneapolis contrasting it to St. Paul where business and labor worked together. The chapters don't follow a chronological order and I found the jumps in time jarring and confusing. My notes says read, "1914 to 1970 to 1948... huh?" I'm not a numbers person so I kept having to go back and reread. By the end of the book it didn't bother me and I was very engaged in the development of downtown Minneapolis's waterfront and the light rail transit. Either I got used to the jumping around or my background knowledge of both projects made those topics easy to follow.

I have always wondered why St. Anthony Main and Riverplace that were so popular in the 1980's went into decline in the 1990's. The author compares the high end condos of Riverplace with the successful Loft apartments by Mill City museum as one reason. In the 2000's St. Anthony Main has been making a bit of a comeback; however, the author doesn't mention this in his 2010 book. The downtown revitalization with the Stone Arch bridge might be a factor but I'm speculating. I suppose that is always a problem with writing a historical book. You can't cover everything (or speculate) and the documentation is labor intensive. The notes section is extensive and the index is dense giving additional resources to dig into topics of interest.

This book touches the surface of major events that caused the city to grow and overall does it well. I learned several tidbits about the city that I didn't know and did learn about the mayor-council government. I would have preferred the book had started with chapter 2 and sprinkled the struggles over government structure within the stories of scandal and bloodshed because then it would have picked the pace up, but I love action so this is more personal taste. At one point I remember thinking... hmmm... what if you wrote a children's book and set it during the height of the milling business when the strikers became violent and killed Arthur Lyman? What if you had a kid who's dad was the salesman for Shell Oil Company like Sam Hynes, who fled for his life when a mob of striking truckers tried to kill him? He was stuck on neutral ground sympathizing with the employers, who he thought had the right to tell people to get back to work while at the same time despising their upper-class arrogance, and with the workers who he thought should be paid more for their work. Next on my list of local books is the one on Minneapolis mobsters. Good stuff.

3 Smileys

Destiny Rewritten by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

Historically, the romance novel has had a bad rap. I've seen a few English teachers use the genre for target practice; a bullseye of their derision. My mom used to hide her Danielle Steele book behind a handmade quilted cloth cover sheepishly showing me the cover when I'd ask what book she was reading. Her eyebrows arched in surprise when I said that this billion dollar industry is the most popular genre in modern literature. When I worked at a public library the book with the highest circulation was a romance novel. The genre is written by women for women and typically features a protagonist who gains unconditional love against all odds while being true to herself which allows her to shape her own destiny to some extent. Destiny Rewritten is a clever mix of the romance novel, pop culture, classical literature, and poetry. Toss in sub characters who like the military, spy novels, and ecology and you have a potpourri of interests for many readers.

Eleven-year-old Emily recounts her mom's purchase of an Emily Dickinson book on the day she was born writing inside, "Emily Dickinson is one of the great poets. The same will be said of you one day." Emily discusses with her best friend, Wavey, how this inscription is her destiny. The problem is Emily doesn't like poetry and is distressed that her destiny is not her passion in life. Emily wants to be a romance writer like Danielle Steele. Yep, you read that correctly... she wants to be a romance writer. She writes funny letters to the famous Ms. Steele that recap what is going on in her life, her turmoil over the concept of fate, and asking her advice on issues she's dealing with in her life.

Emily doesn't know her dad or even his name. Her mom never married and is a strong believer in Fate, meaning a person cannot change his or her destiny. Emily's not so sure and begins to experiment with making changes in her life to test her hypothesis. When Emily asks her mom for the bazillionth time the name of her dad, her mom says it is written in her Emily Dickinson book. A series of mishaps causes the book to be lost and Emily goes on a quest to find it. She learns not only what she wants to do with herself, but she tries to bend destiny to her will. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

Emily's mom is a literature professor so when Emily has the courage to tell her she wants to be a romance novelist, her mom's reaction is typical of an English teacher who would not think highly of that genre, making the episode particularly ironic and funny. "I suppose there's the classics," she finally said. "Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice." Her mom is portrayed as a grown-up who was once a hippie student from Berkeley in the 1960's, a free spirit who doesn't discipline her daughter much or even help her much on her quest to recover the book. This is critical to the plot so that Emily can go searching for the book on her own and have adventures. A couple of spots felt forced to me and somewhat unbelievable, such as the scene with Ginger helping the kids, but overall the plot works quite well.

This story is great for younger readers with its short 2-3 page chapters and clever letters to Danielle Steele that recount what has happened in Emily's adventure. This reinforces reading skills for students who are learning to read for meaning and who don't always follow the plot the first time around. Adult readers will laugh at the humor in the letters. Poetry is sprinkled throughout the pages to be used for discussions ranging from haiku, sonnets, free verse, to Dickinson's use of CAPS in the middle of her verses.  A subplot involving the cutting down of trees and the ensuing protest at Berkeley's campus (of course) makes for a rounded plot that ties in with the rich history of students protests at this university and points out that destiny doesn't always have a happy ending (like a romance); that sometimes Fate can't be changed regardless of what is done to try and change it.

Another subplot that ties in with the romance novel theme is the two adults, Emily's mom and dad, who have been separated, though still in love, by obstacles that have kept them apart for decade; in addition to the budding romance of Emily with her friend, Connor Kelly. The innocence of the two becoming interested in each other also supports the romance genre. They go from tongue-tied adolescents, to him offering her a ring (a plastic one from a Cheerio box), to her saying, "But I couldn't stop thinking how my conversation with Connor was sort of almost exactly like the ending of a romance novel, where two people made plans in their own secret way that no on else could possible understand."

Dontcha love that line, "sort of almost exactly...?" It sounds just like a kid. Fitzmaurice does a great job with character development. The characters distinct voices make them engaging and easy to visualize. Emily is compulsively organized along with her aunt whom she lives with and they both finds it calms them and makes them feel in control of their lives. Mortie, the younger cousin and son of her aunt, loves the military and spy novels. He finds a stray dog and names him, Samuel Morse, and talks like a soldier or how he thinks a soldier would talk. "I didn't know that was your special book. You've never shown it to me!" He scanned the street. "You want me to start a recon mission? Just give the order."  Cecily Ann would normally be teased for her odd behaviors such as wearing red rain boots while spouting poetry all day long, but the kids think she is brilliant and admire her. Emily is particularly kind  and threads of kindness can be traced in all the characters adding to the feel-good tone and happy ending.

Wavey and Emily have several terrific conversations where they use their imaginations and refer to pop culture. The clever technique is first shown when the two girls notice the teacher always asks the boys to lift the heavy boxes and the girls to pour water into the beakers for science class. Students notice so much in class such as if the teacher is calling on only boys or girls or being fair. This dialogue added an authenticity between the girls and is a good reminder of the importance of avoiding stereotypes and inequities in classrooms. The entertaining dialogue has the two girls talking about Princess Leia in the movie, Star Wars, who is always waiting to be rescued by the men. They banter about the men saving her and fighting off the enemy while Princess Leia paints her fingernails and drinks coffee. More comic relief comes from ensuing dialogues between the girls about The Little House on the Prairie books and television series and the good-looking Connor. A terrific book and one my mother wouldn't have to mask with a cloth. Give it a go!

4 Smileys

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The School for Good and Evil (The School for Good and Evil #1) by Soman Chainani

"Now I see why you two are friends," the prince says to the main characters Sophie and Agatha.

But... wait! I want to raise my hand and ask, "Tell me why they are friends!"

This is a problem considering the story hinges on this main point. While Sophie and Agatha are supposedly the best of friends, the character development doesn't show how this happens. When Agatha and Sophie first meet, Sophie isn't Agatha's friend and she says so; she realizes Sophie's just using her. Sophie is beautiful, shallow, and narcissistic.  Sophie wants to go the School of Good and Evil where two children are kidnapped every year from her village later to be found in a fairy tale storybook. She believes she will find her prince at the School of Good and live "happily ever after." Agatha is the perfect villain for the School of Evil, Sophie thinks, because she is ugly, lonely, and isolated, and Sophie thinks if she's with Agatha her chance of being chosen will be more likely. When Sophie is kidnapped (just as she wants) Agatha tries to rescue her and in the process the two end up at the school except Sophie doesn't go to the School of Good, she ends up in the School of Evil, while Agatha is dumped in the School of Good.

The two misfits continue to be friends but mainly because Agatha pursues it the most. She goes to extremes to rescue Sophie and it never made sense to me given Sophie's quickness to betray Agatha at every turn and Agatha's dislike for her at the beginning. Sophie and Agatha are superficial and flit between wanting beauty on the outside to beauty on the inside. Agatha says in the beginning that beauty is temporary but later confesses she thinks it brings happiness. Sophie believes only in beauty with no understanding of ugliness that comes from hate. Her personality struck me as psychopathic, probably because she resembled the murders I just read about in a nonfiction book called, "Greed, Rage, and Love Gone Wrong: Murder in Minnesota," by Bruce Rubenstein. She cheats, murders, and lies with no remorse and Agatha goes along with her because she is her only friend. Sophie's dumber than a doorknob most of the time before transforming into a mastermind villain at the end. An explanation for her surge of brainpower is given, but it felt contrived. The characters are stereotypical and wishy-washy for a good portion of the novel. They start to come together at the end but I wasn't vested in their development because it took too long.

The bag of mixed messages continues with the prince, Tedros, who loves one and then the other meanwhile badmouthing each when dating the other girl. He seemed pretty hypocritical to me when he says to Sophie she's a terrible friend because she uses her friends, betrays them, calls them fat, and liars. He too, is prejudiced toward others, lies, and betrays people who are different. The seesaw continues as Agatha hounds Sophie to impulsively kiss Tedros immediately and then lectures her later for not making a plan of attack to kiss him. Teachers are like caricatures that don't offer words of advice. For instance, when Agatha and Sophie are punished by the teachers in burning shoes until the girls want to die, I thought it focused on the cruelty of the teachers versus the girls argument. The teachers are mostly idiots throughout the story with no control of students. When some teachers impart a few words of wisdom at the end, it seemed out of character and too late. I also didn't like the message that failure is unacceptable and students who failed were dealt an awful fate. Failure is difficult to deal with and those who failed were the kids the author kills off the most.

The ending and what it suggests might offend some. I won't give it away but I didn't see that coming. It is one of many reasons it is better for older students. Some of the plot is predictable such as the love triangle, but there were also some interesting twists such as when Sophie has to deal with a duplicate of herself in class creating an introspective moment. Unfortunately there were too few of these occurrences which makes the book fall short of its potential. Transitions were confusing at times such as when Sophie and Agatha would talk to each other in mirrors. I seemed to always be rereading those parts because I didn't' realize they were looking at their reflection to see the other. The action scenes and magic is very creative and I enjoyed these parts.

There is a reader prophecy and riddle. The prophecy didn't seem necessary to the plot because it wasn't told until the end. The overarching theme of good and evil in human nature fell flat because the characters weren't complex enough. The stereotypes enforced in this book are my biggest complaint. That ugly people aren't happy unless they are beautiful, that a girl isn't happy unless she has her prince, that girls only think of boys, that a fat person has no friends, that a married person isn't happy. Some of these are refuted at the end but it comes too late. Or perhaps the author is trying to do too much. At one point Sophie tries to rally the villains into having hope and feeling good about themselves. At first her advice surrounds just superficial beauty before turning toward what it means to accept oneself, but the message never gets delved into because the plot suddenly shifts into a Dark Lord hullabaloo; thus, losing the opportunity to dig deeper into this theme. This book's potential isn't reached and it is a shame because it is an interesting premise and creative fantasy. Maybe the sequel will pull it all together.

2 Smileys

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Greed, Rage, and Love Gone Wrong: Murder in Minnesota by Bruce Rubenstein

Good journalistic writing is characterized by detailed research, descriptive writing, and unbiased facts; something Bruce Rubenstein delivers in an interesting book on ten high profile murders in Minnesota. I particularly liked the retelling of the Congdon murder that filled in the blanks after years of hearing bits and pieces of this murder growing up. I've driven past the old Victorian mansion that overlooks Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, and Rubenstein's story reads like a twisted murder mystery. A pyromaniac and dipso character emerge and the author doesn't neglect to show the likable side of Marjorie Hagen who garnishes loyal friends. She's a complex villain who fooled many people.

The Lund's murder story gripped me the least and I thought the writing format was the culprit. In journalism, reporters are taught to write using the inverted pyramid meaning the most important information is told at the beginning of the article and the least at the end. The old days of the telegraph necessitated this style to make sure vital information was given first in case of a lost connection. Later it benefited editors in that if they needed to cut an article they could eliminate nonessential facts from the bottom. It's not as prominent today because online doesn't have the same layout restrictions, but it still exists. The problem is that this format can work against the fundamentals of narrative nonfiction writing as it takes the tension out of the story as facts are presented up front. For instance, the reader knows immediately that Lund killed his wife and lover after page one, "He never stood trial for the 1992 murders of his estranged wife and her lover, but he surely killed them." The rest of the story shows the bungled work of police and attorneys, which might capture the interest of readers interested in due process, but I found it boring. I would have preferred information being withheld to keep me guessing until the end of the chapter.

I thought the first story was particularly well-written and I liked how the author slowly revealed details beginning with the guy in the cell sharpening a table knife into a weapon. I thought he was going to murder someone in jail and liked the twist. This suspenseful start hooked me on the book. Then a couple of chapters later I was floored reading about my high school biology teacher. I knew he had an affair with a student, but I didn't know that the student later killed a boyfriend who had rejected her and is now serving a life term in the penitentiary. Nor did I know that this biology teacher chased after the student from Minnesota to Florida leaving his wife and two kids. The student also named a second teacher she had an affair with and I wondered if it is my relative that lost his job at that school about that time. No one in my family will talk about it. An interesting read, especially if you live in Minnesota.

3 Smileys

Friday, July 12, 2013

Skis Against the Atom by Knut Haukelid, Collin Gubbins (Adapted by)

After reading, "Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon"by Steve Sheinkin, I wanted to revisit this book I read when I was in my 20's. It details Knut Haukelid's role in foiling the German's plans to build an atomic bomb. Knut lead nine commandos who broke into a heavy water plant and blew up the containers storing the special water the Germans needed to create a nuclear bomb. This gripping story is full of tension as the group broke into the plant. Two commandos crawled into the plant through the floorboards while the other two broke a window to gain entry. They shooed a German worker out who refused to go without his spectacles. "They are on your nose" one of Commandos told him before he ran away into the night. After setting up the bombs the nine waited outside for the explosion, which Knut said was not very spectacular. This was the first setback to the Germans in their atomic bomb program. Unfortunately, the plant was repaired in two months and the Germans continued to collect the heavy water needed to build a bomb. Knut struck again when the Germans tried transporting the water from Norway back to their homeland. He led a group that masqueraded as workers and planted explosives on the ferry transporting the water. The group successfully sunk the ferry and permanently derailed Germany's atomic bomb program.

This isn't a beautifully written book. It isn't grammatically correct. But it is a story that needs to be told and for that reason it is worth reading. Knut's first language is Norwegian and this book has many awkward sentences, grammatical errors, and incorrect words. It also captures the flavor of a man who was a hero and willing to defend his country and its freedom at all cost. The ugliness of war comes through in his non-emotional account. Knut and the Norwegians didn't kill people willy-nilly, but it didn't always make sense to me when they decided it was right or wrong. At the plant when Jens asks about shooting a lone German who came out of a hut Knut says the task was to blow up the plant not shoot a German. Earlier in the book, he talks about how he and some buddies were on a ferry and saw a German and just picked him up and threw him into the icy fjord waters to drown. Perhaps the point is that nothing is clear-cut in war. 

The tales of how Knut survived in the mountains during harsh winters as a wireless operator for the Resistance is truly amazing. He talks about twisting his ankle while out skiing and living for three weeks under a boulder off of raw meat that he had in his rucksack. The understated writing as he portrays these situations had me going, "Huh!" "He did what!" Then I would go back and reread the passage to make sure I got it right. Another time he explained how he and another guy ate reindeer and in order to get the proper nutrition during the winter; it was important to eat the stomach that contained the reindeer's digested vegetables and grass. When I saw a photo of the hut he lived in for the winter, I couldn't see a door. It looked like a weeny igloo I would build with my best friend in the snowbanks. I know the hut was buried in snow but it didn't look like a person could stand up in it. I could not imagine living like that for months on end. Not to mention the 15 degree below zero weather days. I wonder how many toes and fingers he frostbit over the years. 

2 Smileys

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff

"Mom let me name you after my Barbie doll," my older sister declared when we were little kids. Dippy me believed her well into adulthood before learning that I was named after a friend of my mom's. There is power in names and thinking I had been named after something as frivolous as a doll bothered me growing up. I remember thinking mom and dad had too many kids if they were letting siblings name them after toys. I imagined naming my brothers, "Hasbro" or "Matchbox" or "G.I. Joe." At least I wasn't named, "Rump" as in this tale. Yeek! Talk about having an identity crisis. Rump's mom gasped only part of his name before dying right after giving birth to him. His name is sure to have young readers howling from the first sentence,"My mother named me after a cow's rear end. It's the favorite village joke..." to leaving a breadcrumb trail of butt, poo, and fart jokes. Plot and characterization are driven by this overarching theme that a name is full of meaning and power that determines a person's future. Twelve-year-old Rump, who is smaller than average, agonizes over his name because it is not a whole name and therefore he will not be able to determine his destiny.  He believes he won't grow up but will be trapped as half a person. He lets some town boys bully him and doesn't know how to believe in himself, much less imagine a future that leads to a worthwhile occupation.

His best friend, Red helps him seek out his name and answers to his past. Red looks at facts and is not superstitious like Rump. When the two go into the scary Woods, Rump is afraid of being attacked by squirrels like the boy at school, but Red explains that the boy had chicken pox. She's the voice of reason who is more cautious when dealing with magic and reminds Rump there are consequences to those who use it. When Rump finds a spinning wheel he discovers that he can weave straw into gold. Ecstatic, he believes he has found his destiny that will make his problems disappear. Unfortunately, gold makes his life more complicated with greedy people manipulating him and innocent people being threatened with death. He goes on a quest to make things right and discovers what it means to make your own destiny.

The story oozes with references to other fairy tales that made reading it great fun. Red from "Little Red Riding Hood" has a path that appears in the woods just for her. The two sit on wood stumps that the woodcutter made and Red's grandma has terrific senses even though Rump thinks she's a witch that will eat him like in "Hansel and Gretel." Opal has a weird tick where she licks her lips like a frog which made me think of the "The Frog Princess." Rump rescues Opal like a princess and the thorn bushes made me think of "Sleeping Beauty." The magic mirror and poison apples in "Snow White" make an appearance along with the singing harp and magic seeds found in "Jack and the Beanstalk." The author puts her own twist on these items and ties them in with Jack's internal changes as he grows up. I was so into the Brothers Grimm references that when I read, "Gran once said there would be times in my life when I would be trapped, with walls all around me too high to climb and no way out. Then I would need someone from outside and above to throw down a rope and pull me up," that I thought of Rapunzel. That's probably a stretch but I was having a hey-ho time. And did Hadel have a bug eye as a nod toward some of the depictions of Rumpelstiltskin in past folktales? See what I mean? Once I started  looking, I couldn't stop.

The plot is predictable in spots but that is pretty normal for fairy tale twists. The skeleton of the fairy tale is usually apparent and this one follows Grimm's, "Rumpelstiltskin," somewhat closely. I did have questions in the plot as to why Gran never told Rump about his mom, why she didn't see her other daughters, and why she didn't burn the spinning wheel. The unpredictability occurs in the character development of Rump who is the opposite of the normal hot-tempered, creepy character in the original fairy tale who is outwitted by the princess. The German word, "rumpelstilzchen," means something similar to a poltergeist or ghost. Rump is a decent kid; he's no nasty goblin. I loved the twist with the trolls and their pet. That was hilarious. Even the ridiculous donkey is used to tie in with the overarching theme of finding a name. Rump realizes that his treatment of the donkey might have been one reason for its obstinate behavior. He reflects that if he had given donkey a name besides "Nothing" and treated him differently, the two might have gotten along better. 

On his quest Rump grows physically which shows he's growing internally too. He isn't a good listener and luckily the author uses this ploy for humor such as when Red, whacks Rump on the head so he'll listen. Rump isn't very good at thinking things through and this is important for his actions at the end with the villain. I find the technique some authors' use of having a character withholding information to advance a plot point annoying and was glad Liesl Shurtliff avoided this in her tale. The villain is one-dimensional and we are not privy to his motivations.

I appreciated the kid and adult humor along with the play on words from "King Barf" to "Yonder and beyond." Troll Mard thinks "Rump" is the best human name she has ever heard because it's not romantic or sentimental. Then she hollers to her brothers, "Gorp! Grot! Out of the stream and into the mud!" Rump describes troll farts as a "hundred times smellier than humans" and their snores like thunder; however, the trolls impart more wisdom to Rump than most humans. Humans are prejudiced toward trolls because of their ugly, nontraditional ways and the author does a great job showing how people need to respect each other in spite of their differences.

Rump's search for his name and destiny is really his search to grow up. He must learn to control his magic and exert his will rather than be trapped by it. He learns that growing up means making a choice of how to live up to his name whether that means choosing to be small and weak or choosing to be strong and smart. This struggle to grow into a better, more confident person is universal and one that many can relate to in life. Plop on your rump and enjoy this wonderful story and message.

4 Smileys

Monday, July 8, 2013

Loki's Wolves (The Blackwell Pages #1) by K.L. Armstrong, M.A. Marr

Loki is one of my favorite characters in Norwegian mythology with his ambivalent ways that constantly disrupt the order of the gods. He is neither Aesir nor Vanir, but the son of giants; the gods archrivals since the start of the world. The giants represent chaos and the gods represent order. Loki's flawed character is the catalyst for bringing about Ragnarok or the end of the world. He plays tricks that are sometimes funny or deadly, he sires monsters, is unpredictable, good, bad, and the closest reflection to human nature in Norsk myths. The gods are usually prejudiced toward him because of his heritage and oftentimes use him for their own selfish purposes. Scandinavian folklore shows Loki becoming darker as time passes. He is complex and fascinating and an author can portray him in multiple ways. Kelly Armstrong and Marissa Marr create Fen Brekke, a descendant of Loki with similar characteristics: he gets in trouble, can shape-shift, is a trickster, and has trust issues (to name a few). Fen spends a chunk of his time protecting his cousin, Laurie Brekke, from his violent relatives who want to incorporate her into the wolf pack. Fen has other ideas for Laurie's future and good reasons to not trust the pack.

Fen shares the narration with thirteen-year-old Matt, a descendent of Thor, who lives with his burly brothers who eat platefuls of rakfisk. I can imagine their mother's accent as she drops the smelly food in front of each stocky youth saying, "Vær så god." My Norwegian grandmother liked to challenge me to eat lutefisk (similar to rakfisk) much like the Asians like to challenge others to eat "stinky tofu." Matt discovers the end of the world is coming and is chosen by the adults of the city of Blackwell, South Dakota to save the world because his "Thor" powers are manifesting moreso than anyone else in Thorville, I mean Blackwell. His task is to gather descendants of the gods to fight monsters trying to take over the world. Matt seeks the help of Fen and Laurie even though they have been enemies throughout school. Fen is reluctant at first until circumstances force the trio together and send them on the run searching for others with superpowers needed for the quest. Only a fraction of the heroes are found so don't expect much of a resolution.

The somewhat abrupt ending leaves more questions than answers, but this pattern is found in many middle grade books and does not seem to bother young readers as much as me. The action and pacing are fast with the threesome going on their quest and being attacked by trolls, shape-shifting wolves, valkyries, and mares. Good monsters are a must in fantasy and you won't be disappointed by the creatures in this one. Did I mention the tornado that is tossed in the mix to heighten the tension? Uff dah! Good stuff! The tornado is supposed to show the violent climate changes which is how the adults know that the end of the world is coming. This plot point is a bit sketchy, but I didn't really care because there's so much action that I created a wind storm flipping through the pages as fast as possible. My ADHD side craves this kind of book.

While the superpowers of each teen is explained well, other parts such as the tornado had me scratching my head. It was weird that the adults weren't home and the kids were leaving notes. People are usually in their basements with a tornado. It also seemed odd that the teenagers weren't using their cell phones to talk to their parents. Later when the adults seem to think Matt and Laurie ran away, it didn't make sense because Matt never had a chance to leave his parents a note. Wouldn't they think he may have been hurt in the tornado? I found that if I just let myself get swept in the story and not think to much about the logic then it was good fun.

Matt's emotional arc travels the path of learning to be a leader. His empathy allows him to get over his differences with Fen and he realizes that the strength of the group is if they work as a team. Fen, on the other hand, is rude and temperamental. His parents are missing and he lives with various relatives. He doesn't trust anyone and considers Laurie his only family. He's so dang overprotective of her it's not normal. Laurie gets frustrated but understands where Fen is coming from given his heritage. I would have liked more depth from Laurie's character but at least she stands up to the overprotective guys and insists that she can help them in their quest. She doesn't get as much page time as Fen and Matt, so perhaps her character will develop more in book 2.

Previous Armstrong books that I have read tip the scale toward action versus substance. Many of my students like her books for that reason along with their uncomplicated plots. I think this book will satisfy those same readers because the pace is not cumbered by oodles of mythological facts that can be confusing at times. I wondered if my familiarity with Scandinavian mythology made me unknowingly fill in the blanks that might have occurred in the backdrop had I come with no knowledge.  I did like how the authors sometimes followed the myth and sometimes didn't making certain parts of the plot unpredictable. When the myth was followed, I didn't see it coming and was happily surprised. If you liked, "The Lightning Thief," then give this entertaining read a go. Skål!

3 Smileys

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Cragbridge Hall, Book 1: The Inventor's Secret by Chad Morris

I had a student last year who loved computers, but not reading. He needed to read a fiction book for class and I gave him "Brain Boy" by Tor Seidler that he liked (or he lied and said he liked it to not hurt my feelings). This would have been another book I could have recommended. The mixture of virtual reality combined with history and a dose of action will appeal to many young readers.

Abby and Derick Cragbridge are going to the prestigious Cragbridge Hall founded by their grandfather who invented many high-tech devices on campus that create a virtual learning environment. Learning  means being plunked virtually in historical settings that surround the students. The pirate ship comes into the classroom with realistic fighting and gunshots as Maynard, for example, battles Blackbird. Physical education class means running up a virtual mountain or zoology means using avatars that allow students to be inside the animal experiencing extra appendages like tails or wings. When Abby and Derick's parents and grandfather go missing the two must solve the problem or the world will be changed forever.

Abby is ridiculously unsure of herself, but as an average person amongst a family of geniuses it is understandable she has low self-esteem. Even her twin brother is brainy. Abby knows that she got into Cragbridge because of her grandfather and this causes hard feelings and bullying toward her from other students. I did wonder why Abby didn't go find her brother the first night and anyone who has lived in a dorm knows there are residents and lobby couches that seemed like a more logical resolution versus sleeping on the floor. Her insecurities were so extreme at the start I found her unlikable.

The skeleton of the plot is predictable but the technology used to solve the problems is not, which kept my interest going throughout the pages. It is easy to predict what will happen to the parents and grandfather with their brainy children rescuing them, as well as, knowing Abby's emotional arc will go from insecure to confident. Derick's internal changes I didn't expect and him dealing with his first failure adds nice tension and drama. There are some minor "plot spots" that had me confused either by the transition or unbelievability, but they don't detract from the main events and when I reread them I figured out the meaning.

Carol is an interesting supporting character. A bit over-the-top for me but a funny drama queen who develops a friendship with Abby and her brother. The T-shirt thing-a-ma-jig with Derick was unbelievable, but somewhat funny.  I would have liked to know more about Rafa, the teachers, and a confrontation with the villain, as he is surprisingly absent during the climax. I'm sure he'll show up in a sequel. An entertaining read and nice debut novel.

3 Smileys

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Colossus Rises (Seven Wonders #1) by Peter Lerangis

Did you know that "punk'd" means to be fooled, tricked, or be the butt of a practical joke? I guess it comes from an MTV show called, "Punk'd" hosted by Ashton Kutcher that sounds similar to "Candid Camera." I was stumped coming across this new word while reading this book and the previous one where the authors plunked it in their works like an alien word. I have an inferiority complex with foreign languages: my Mandarin sounds like Gibberish and I got kicked out of beginners Catalan language class in Spain. Normally I can fall back with a bit of confidence using the English language. Oh, hush. I can hear you snickering aloud, "Hardy-Har-Har... you got punk'd!" Jack, the protagonist, uses this word to be funny with his new friends, Marco, Cass, and Aly. The group needs doses of humor for their situation is grim. The four have a rare genetic condition that occurs in descendants of royalty linked to the mythological Atlantis that will kill them unless they can locate seven magical Loculi that has power to cure them.

Jack is kidnapped and taken to an Institute that is supposedly keeping the four thirteen-year-olds alive. Part of the tension that works is that it is not apparent if the scientists are using the four teens for their own selfish interests or if they are trying to help them. At times they lie and seem to not value their lives and other times seem to care. If the four are able to get their powers they will have abilities like no other human in the world. Either way, these superpowers are going to interest adults but whether or not they'll be used for good or evil, is unclear. Another faction group that protects the Loculi is introduced toward the end of the book, but the teens don't interact with them in a communicable way and while they briefly work together to solve a crisis, nothing is explained. A cliff hanger ending prepares for a sequel where the role of the Loculi protectors should become clearer.

All the elements of fantasy are here with a quest, monsters, magic, training facility, world building, and villain, that I found entertaining, but a lack of depth kept me from becoming really invested in the characters. Jack's emotional arc is trying to escape and get back to his family, as well as, discovering his superpower and learning to trust his new friends. The other teens are not described much and I found it hard picturing them. I thought the boy, Cass, was a girl for quite awhile and I didn't know Marco's race. He's athletic and calls everyone, "Brother" but that's all I remember about him. The supporting characters weren't fleshed out enough for me to visualize them and I'm not sure if that was a result of a first person narration or just a lack of details.

The plot is pretty straightforward with a quest and action scenes keeping the pace moving along. The maze and riddles made for an adventure that reminded me of the movies, "The Mummy" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark". The teens learn about the history of Atlantis and the significance of their powers. Their superpowers result in the ability to access and use more brainpower than the average person. Each of them has a unique ability. Enjoy this entertaining adventure and don't get punk'd.

3 Smileys