Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ottoline Goes to School (Ottoline #2) by Chris Riddell

This book has 170 pages but took me 30 minutes to read because about half of it is filled with gorgeous illustrations. Good for grades 2-4, the story is about Ottoline Brown whose rich parents gallivant across continents as Collectors. We don't know what they are collecting but they correspond with Ottoline through letters while servants take care of her and she spends time with her best friend, Munroe, a hairy creature that looks like a cross between "The Lorax" and "Cousin It." When Ottoline meets Cecily Forbes-Lawrence III she is starstruck by her tea-sipping skills and pony, Mumbles. The two become friends and Ottoline enrolls in the same boarding school as Cecily. When the place seems haunted, Ottoline uses some investigative skills to find out just what is happening. 

The story is a bit predictable and Ottoline doesn't have any internal changes so she is kind of boring, but I really liked the pictures and Munroe who learns to deal with being replaced by Cecily. It can be hard for some students to make friends and this deals with what it feels like to be left out when a new person enters an existing friendship. Munroe is not treated nicely by Cecily. She calls him a dog and treats him as a second-class citizen. Ottoline is just sweet to everyone and understands that Cecily is lonely and sad because her parents don't give her the time of day. I thought the ending was wrapped up too quickly and the implied perpetrator of the "curses" not explained well enough for young readers. I do think students will like the story and it will be interesting having some discussions regarding the plot and what they understand. A good addition to your library and nice book for transitional readers such as "The Stories Julian Tells."

3 Smileys

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Donner Dinner Party (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #3) by Nathan Hale

Uff-da, not your typical migration story. The Oregon trail was well-established, but when Lansford Hastings published a guide in the 1840's claiming he knew of a "shortcut" to California, 80 plus families decided to take his word literally and head West. Hastings was not leading the group nor had he ever taken the route, although Reed was convinced the man was on a wagon train just ahead of him. A series of mishaps, scammers, and tragedy that would make for a depressing tale are lightened by the author's clever use of the narrator, Nathan Hale, the hangman as comic relief, and the British Provost. The author brings history alive with great storytelling, character development, and humor.

Told from the Reed family's point-of-view, the stubborn father's stupidity in taking Hasting's word literally rather than gathering more facts and information and his need to be important in the wagon train shows how he was one of the main culprits in leading the group astray. When a disaster happened, you can be sure that Reed made some dumb decision. When his hotheadedness led to murder he is banned from the group. Yet, inspite of his frustrating inferiority complex, he was brave and he did come back and rescue those he could when he found out the truth. What a misguided, interesting protagonist. I thought it was funny how his wife seemed annoyed with him most of the time, but at the end was so happy to see him.

Irony abounds in this story and of course the cannibalism is going to draw many readers. Hale lightens this part and does not go into details. He also focuses on the obstacles that the families overcame. Hangman is over the top being upset by the people eating the animals, but finds the cannibalism boring. The Grim Reaper is illustrated as traveling through the camp while the narrators tell the reader what pages to skip to if they don't want to hear about the deaths. I can't say I've seen foreshadowing and tension used in this way! And it works because of the graphic novel format. The author downplays the grotesqueness and plays up the lesser of the two evils, making the topic lighter, age appropriate, and funny. I know, you are wondering how can this topic be funny, but the author manages to do it with his writing-wizard-illustration skills. Have I hooked you? Good, because this series is worth reading.

5 Smileys

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

As a third grader I wrote a fantasy story that involved me getting kidnapped during school recess from Earth to "Bubblecloud," an alien planet up in the clouds. My prison cell was a bubble of peppermint gum, with me inside, that was too sticky to sit down on the floor, but smelled good. A young alien with hair that covered his body from scalp to toes befriended me. My illustration bears a strong resemblance to "Cousin It" from "The Addams Family." The hairy alien had thick framed glasses over his hair and showed me how to eat the clouds that tasted like vanilla cotton candy and had a high squeaky voice that hurt my ears. I don't remember much more except I had to escape the alien ship with the help of my hairy friend. Neil Gaiman's book reminds me of my silly story, except his outlandish tale is more sophisticated and makes more sense. I remember writing my story by looking at items around the house - bubblegum on the table, "The Addams Family" playing on the T.V., the clouds in the sky outside my window, etc. Gaiman weaves his story together based on objects in a boy and a girl's bedroom and other items around the family's house as their mum goes to a conference putting the dad in charge.

Mom is gone and there's no milk for breakfast cereal. When dad goes to buy milk, his two kids think it is taking way too long to get home, so he makes-up a crazy tale of being transported in a time machine run by a dinosaur as he saves the World with a carton of milk. Gaiman not only shows his talent for storytelling, but he captures the imagination of a child and ties it together from objects in the house. The adult humor pokes fun at contemporary pop culture such as vampire stories, "My Little Ponies," etc, and shows a loving father entertaining his children. A clever book that I think will appeal to grades 3-4. Our 4th graders do a fantasy unit and I think this would be a good read aloud with its silly caste of characters and plot.

Reading grade level: 4.2
4 Smileys

Sunday, October 20, 2013

I Survived the Japanese Tsunami, 2011 by Lauren Tarshis (book #8)

The "I Survived" series is nonstop action with a focus on natural disasters. The protagonist in this story involves Ben who is dealing with the tragic death of his dad in a car accident. He goes to Japan with his mom and younger brother to visit an uncle when an earthquake and tsunami hits their town. The family is separated and Ben doesn't know if they are alive. He has some harrowing escapes from being drowned or crushed by debris but remembers what his father taught him about survival skills. His dad was a pilot in Afghanistan whose plane was shot down and survived a week in the mountain wilderness with a broken ankle and no food or water. The lessons he taught Ben not only helped him make life-saving choices while dealing with the disaster, but it also helped him move forward in his grief of losing his dad.

This story is only 85 pages and with the main focus surrounding the action and adventure of the earthquake and tsunami. Roughly 10 pages in the back give some facts about the disaster and a couple of pages suggest websites and books for further research on the topic. The writing is tight and the third-person limited point of view allows the reader to get involved with the internal struggles of the character over the death of his father. Because the story is so short this is a good choice for simplicity of plot; yet conveying some character depth. The subplot involving Ben's dad and how he was trained as a soldier by the United States Air Force in survival and combat skills was not so detailed as to slow down the plot but an interesting addition to the disaster at hand. A detailed teacher resource guide is at:

The story mentions the nuclear power plant but the focus is on the earthquake and tsunami. The power plant disaster is mentioned more in detail in the section of nonfiction facts titled, "Triple Disaster" at the end of the book. The rising action with episodes of people fleeing from the surge of water is described as humans being "swallowed" as they tried to run to higher ground. The deaths are not dwelled on or described in details so it shouldn't scare readers and seems age-appropriate. The author doesn't skirt the issue that there were many deaths, but it isn't the thrust of action scenes. Instead the story line follows Ben's survival skills and bonding with his family after the disaster. A good read aloud. 

Fountas & Pinnell: R
4 Smileys

The World According to Humphrey (Humphrey's Adventures) by Betty G. Birney

I can't keep this series on the library shelf. Like a hamster on a wheel, it circulates at lightning speed and I only got this copy because I emptied the book return and spied it in a pile of books as numerous as the grains of rice in my dinner bowl. I work at a school of readers, so if a book is popular I take note and try to read it. I can see why this one is a hit. Between school friendships, learning a new language, having a pet, dealing with funny situations such as an overly-friendly dog, and not being a dense tome, this 120 page book with layered messages and an abundance of humor from a hamster's point of view is eyepopping-popular. Just like the students in Room 26 who can't seem to get enough of the hamster, Humphrey, the students at TAS can't get enough of the furry guy either.  If you are looking for a good family read aloud I can highly recommend this one for ages 7-10.
Humphrey the hamster is purchased for Room 26 by Ms. Mac who adores him and cares for him. When Mrs. Brisbane comes back to take over the classroom, Humphrey not only realizes Mrs. Brisbane doesn't like him but she wants him gone, erased from the space he fills in the classroom. She's contemplating offering him to another classroom, but Humphrey is saved from this fate when the students agree to take Humphrey home on the weekends. The first family Humphrey meets is the shy Sayeh who he realizes won't speak in class because she's been laughed at for her accent. This mirrored my own situation at school where I've been reading books with Chinese words to students and got quite tired of kids laughing at my pronunciation and correcting me. I quit counting after the same response from seven classes and was surprised by the consistency. These students are generally super-duper polite; yet, all laughed which I found fascinating. I started experimenting with different ages and there were always a few who corrected me. Interesting! Eventually I quit saying the words and had the students say them for me. In a sense, I reacted the same as Sayeh who quit talking in class because she got tired of others laughing at her accent.

I laughed when Humphrey went home with a student from a large family that watched TV all the time. That was my family growing up. There were four of us within six years of each other and chaos ruled as if we were four hamsters on the loose. We not only had the TV blaring but the radio too. I thought the author was going to get preachy about TV's in the home, but she pulls back just in time and inserts some humor by having the hamster pull a fast one on the family. The result was game-playing inside and outside that was predictable. How Humphrey pulls it off or out is not predictable and funny. The message regarding the harmful effects of watching too much T.V. has become a bit cliched and out-dated, especially with the influx of mobile technology in recent years. This book isn't believable nor is it meant to be. It is supposed to be an animal's humorous look at the way humans behave. "The One and Only Ivan" has a similar point of view but the plot is more complex.

Kids love pets and many can't have them which is why a classroom pet has a wide-mass appeal to young readers. The author's messages vary from light, such as Humphrey afraid of being alone in the dark classroom at night, to more serious issues like Garth having friendship problems because his mom is sick at home and he is angry that he can't take the Humphrey home for a weekend. All along, Humphrey thought Garth didn't like him. This would make for a good discussion about how difficult it is to figure out other people's motivations when they are being mean to others. Even Mrs. Brisbane's anger at having Humphrey lies more in the fact that he is another thing to worry about and she just can't deal with her crisis at home and an animal to care for. Humphrey helps everyone from Mrs. Brisbane's angry husband to Aldo's lonely social life, but the story also shows that people have many different reasons for acting the way they do and that sometimes when a person doesn't like you, it has nothing to do with you personally.

The repetitive words help emerging readers with decoding skills, as well as, give the hamster a young, distinct voice. Humphrey tries to learn new words in class and he even takes tests complaining when he scores poorly because he's distracted by issues going on in his life or in the classroom. The end of each chapter has funny and informative nonfiction tips about hamsters. I have noticed a spike in students asking about pet hamsters and now I know why. Many teachers use this book as a read aloud and the students get excited about reading. Now I know why I've had so many requests to buy more nonfiction hamster books from students. I love my job.

Fountas and Pinnell: O
5 Smileys

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

This book is supposed pay homage to Jane Eyre. I haven't read Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece, but even not knowing that plot I thought this novel predictable and boring in spots. The beginning held my interest the most. The high-spirited eight-year-old Gemma Hardy is living with her aunt and uncle, the latter having just died. She is no longer considered a member of the family and when she fights with her step-siblings she is sent to a boarding school where she is a working girl student. Work takes precedence over being a student and she gets very little done in way of her studies until she is befriended by Myriam, a regular student shunned by classmates because of her limp. The two form a close bond and help each other survive school. Gemma is bullied and protected by one of the older working girls and the dynamics of Gemma struggling to see the pros and cons to this arrangement make for some tense and dramatic moments. When the school closes Gemma gets a job as an au pair to an orphaned girl who lives with her uncle, Mr. Sinclair, on the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland.

Mr. Sinclair is twice her age and a romance ensues that struck me as unbelievable; hence, I lost interest in the middle of the story. I also struggled with Gemma overreacting to Mr. Sinclair's story. It is the catalyst for her running away, but seemed silly because his grievance took place so long in his past and had nothing to do with her. If she had doubts or cold feet about marriage, it would have made more sense. I didn't really see what she saw in Mr. Sinclair. When Gemma has another romance with a different man, the reason for them splitting actually made more sense to me. Their romance was a series of misunderstandings and the man not really being honest with his feelings toward woman in general. An entertaining read but forgettable in the mountain of books I read each month.

3 Smileys

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

I take for granted growing up in a culture as a middle class kid who got a public education that gave me access to college. College meant a career. A career meant a roof over my head. A roof meant food on my plate each day. I have been taking college courses most of my life and that's because my public education gave me the foundation to go there. What if education in a public school was so bad I could never pass a college entrance exam? What if the justice system was so corrupt I could get falsely accused by others and become a victim because a neighbor was jealous I was making more money than her or him? What if my family was starving and I had to work instead of going to school? Linda Sue Park's "A Long Walk to Water" explains how African children collect water daily for survival spending hours walking to a watering hole. Going to school meant no water for the family. In this terrific narrative nonfiction, Katherine Boo shows life in India, specifically the Annawadi slum, where the public education system is so corrupt that teachers don't teach, where hospitals don't dispense medicine, where the police are brutal, where justice in the courts exists around bribes and lies. While life appears hopeless, it is not.

The cast or caste of characters is manyfold from the abused Meena, who dreads her arranged marriage and wants more from life but doesn't know how to get it resulting in her swallowing rat poison, to Abdul, who is falsely accused of beating a woman who commits suicide by setting herself on fire. Even though hundreds of witnesses saw that Abdul didn't commit the crime, he ends up in the legal system for years resulting in the loss of a good business and savings. The message of women having so few options in their culture and the abuse heaped on many in a patriarchal society is one that results in many choosing suicide. The recent international hoopla over rape cases in India is just another indicator of harmful societal norms toward women, although Boo doesn't show rape happening in the slum but prostitution as a way to earn money.

Boo's account could have become preachy, but she sticks with letting the story speak for itself in an understated tone that adds more power and depth than if she had cried foul at the injustices that happen over and over and over again in her story. She avoids stereotypes of poor people and creates a community where people cling to the hope of a better life and opportunity to break out of a system bent on holding them down in poverty. Don't expect any in-depth economical explanation of what put these people where they are and economic trends that have fostered slums in India. Don't expect point-of-views from police, government, teachers, or hospital personnel. This story focuses on the dramatic situation of human conditions in the Annawadi slum, but does not manipulate the reader's emotions by being overly sentimental.

Around the corner of the slum where Asha and her children live is a one-legged woman named Fatima who died after setting herself on fire. Fatima's character is portrayed not as a one-dimensional villain, but a complex human who acts out of frustrations born of living in a slum and being labeled as a cripple. We understand her fury at being defined by a physical deformity. We feel her bottomless pit of wanting to matter to others to the point that she will prostitute herself, even set herself on fire in an attempt to manipulate those around her. She has been victimized her whole life so it is not surprising when she victimizes her neighbors, the Husains, in a fit of jealousy and anger. Why someone would set themself on fire because their neighbor was renovating a wall seems so absurd until you step into the community of Annawadi where survival is cutthroat and violent. Did Fatima know she'd go to a hospital where she would get no care? We don't know. Probably. We do know that she liked the attention she got there. Did Fatima know she would die? I don't think so. I don't think she knew her extreme actions for attention and bringing down her neighbors would kill her in the end. I don't think she knew that she could die from her burns which makes her story all the more tragic.

Fatima concocts her lie because Adul, the Husain's son has a profitable business selling recyclables and garbage as five-star luxury hotels keep building around the slum and dumping more refuse; a reflection of India's rapid growth in a global economy. The Husain's have a T.V., are tiling their floor, have money for an extra plot, and are remodeling their kitchen. They look like they just might make it out of the Annawadi slum life for something better. Fatima wants to bring them down. When Abdul, his sister, and his father are falsely accused of causing her suicide, the corruption of the police, justice system, and complex bribing that occurs shows an unfair society that destroys any chance the Husain's had of leaving the slum. On the outset, life would seem hopeless, but Boo portrays the resiliency and ingenuity of the tenants that shows hope.

Asha's character is particularly interesting because of how far she will go to get ahead in the slum. She is willing to work the corruption of the system in a way that allows her to not only send her daughter to school, but put her through college. Her daughter, Manju, tries to be good and moral, but maintaining standards in a society where they don't exist seems impossible. Manju is judgmental of her mother at first, but later realizes that she would not have had the opportunities she had if her mother hadn't worked the system. She knows that the value of life is not held in high regard in the slum. People are murdered and no one is punished. A man is run over by a taxi and people walk by him all day. His cries for help go unanswered. It isn't until he is dead that his body is carted off. A young man is brutally murdered by the police and the morgue reported his death as sickness. "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" made me think of the dystopian picture book "Ship Breaker," by Paolo Bacigalupi, that shows a society ruled by scavenging for waste and full of corruption and drugs.

The drug of choice in the slum is Erazex, a type of whiteout fluid for correcting mistakes on paper that can be found in large quantities at the dump. When sniffed the fluid not only gives the person a high but takes the edge off hunger pains. This alternative food source can be addicting and Boo describes the skeletal looks of one person who was hooked on it. This wasn't the majority of people and most tried to avoid addiction. While the slum had some explosive problems, it also had a daily life that hummed with some normalcy from the public toilet where teenage girls would gossip and hang-out with friends, to the boys that entertained each other with stories, and the families enjoying their children. It was not all doom and gloom or portrayed with complete hopelessness. This book made me think about what opportunities low-income people have or have not in structured societies all over the world. The theme and symbol of waste and garbage in a global society where people survive is one that touches all of us, especially in wasteful industrial societies. This glimpse into the structure or life style of people in poor communities is the strength of this story for it makes me look at the wrongs in my own culture and wonder what I can do to make it right. The best stories are ones that inspire change and this one does just that.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets by Eric Luper

Jeremy Bender loves to tinker on his father's antique boat with dreams of driving it himself one day. When he accidentally damages the engine and finds out it will cost over $400 to repair he despairs. Argh! His dad will never let him touch the boat again, much less drive it, he thinks.  When he spots the poster for the Windjammer Whirl contest with a $500 first place prize, he sees the answer to his problems. So what if the competition is only for Cupcake Cadets, a girl organization like Girl Scouts or Campfire Girls. When the boys masquerade as girls they have no clue how difficult it is going to be.

The humor in this story is in the embarrassing moments and mistakes Jeremy and his friend, Slater, have while trying to earn Cadet badges. They can't cook. They can't camp. They can't play lacrosse. When another cadet learns their secret and blackmails them, they learn that being a girl isn't as easy as it looks and that even their blackmailer has some redeeming qualities. A subplot involving a bully has the boys creatively trying to deal with him as girls. The contrast between how genders treat each other would make for good book club or classroom discussions. The end has them getting along better with girls, bullies, and each other. A funny book that is good for grades 4-6.

3 Smileys

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristin Levine

I read this book last week and already can't remember the plot that well. I liked the book but obviously it was a forgettable. The story was entertaining if unbelievable. I think the author nails it better in "Lions of Little Rock," with a stronger emotional pull. Dit Sims lives in Alabama in 1917 with so many brothers and sisters, his dad forgets his name. When the new Post Master comes to town with his family, Dit becomes friends with their daughter, Emma. She's black and he's white. Problems ensue and thirteen-year-old Dit starts to like Emma as a best friend. When it takes a romantic turn things turn ugly with his friends.

As Dit becomes aware of other townspeople and their prejudice toward blacks he is still naive when it comes to the fact that people will kill over this issue. His youth makes him blurt out things and act in a way that threatens the black people in the community. When he challenges another black man to take a stand, he has no clue that he is asking him to risk his life. When he learns of some history regarding the white Sheriff and black barber, his interference has terrible consequences. The justice system did not favor blacks in the early 20th century and Dit's ignorance adds to the poignancy of his actions.

I didn't really buy the romantic part between Dit and Emma and the cock-a-mamy staged death was fun, but far-fetched. I do think Levine is quite good at creating characters and their internal struggles with friendships and life choices. The plot has plenty of action and tension but I would have liked a bit more history on why Emma was so educated for a black girl. I have read about the black middle class in the north and found the book, "Crow" by Barbara Wright, on the 1898 Wilmington race riots quite fascinating. I wanted more regarding Emma's background and her father's rise to becoming a Post Master. The author addresses it a little. I just wanted more.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski

Living overseas overtimes feels like living in an alternate world. I slip into a Chinese world where I go from having 3 degrees to being illiterate; unable to read street signs, unable to understand conversations, unable to make friendships because of communication barriers, and being dependent on others to help with all of the above. Students laugh at my horrible pronunciation of the few meager Chinese words I do know. Not that I blame them. I can't get the tones right and while the students are not malicious, I do get tired of tripping over my tongue as it stubbornly refuses to form Mandarin words. When I "portal" back to home to the USA, I tend to be overly friendly greeting people I pass on the street, yapping to the checkout people at Target or any other poor stranger who gets sucked into my vortex. When 16-year-old Darcy Jones gets dragged into an alternate world in Chicago and finds out she's not human, I couldn't help but compare her loneliness and confusion to being an "alien" in another country. 

Darcy is a foster child abandoned at the age of 5 after the Great Chicago fire. She can't remember her past and jumps from home to home because odd things seem to happen wherever she lives. When a mysterious new boy, Conn, starts at her high school she is attracted to him as they work together on an English project about T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". Strange powers start to manifest in her that she doesn't understand, but Conn does. He kidnaps her and drags her into an alternate world where she discovers she isn't human but a Shade. In Conn's world her race is despised and hunted with a devout fear that comes from a history of terrorist activities from Shades. In response to the terrorist activities, humans use torture on Shades that sometimes results in death.

This can be a discussion point for whether or not torture is ever justified by governments. With the movie, "Zero Dark Thirty," and the "War on Terror," the question of how governments can best fight terrorism and still represent democratic values is controversial, to say the least. While torture is used in many regimes no one admits this taboo. This message is one of the many layers in this book that can be explored, but doesn't interfere with the story or become didactic. Details of torture methods enacted on Shades is told secondhand and not described in gory details. The content of this novel makes it more appropriate for students in middle school and up.

I admire how Rutkoski crafts her story creating complex characters who struggle with self-identity, friendships, and ethics. For instance, the weaving of Eliot's poem with Darcy's narrative adds more depth and introspection in understanding the world around her. The alternate world where the author takes famous artists with new works or Jane Austen writing a book that doesn't exist on Earth but does in the alternate world called "Alter" are other creative twists that pay homage to a rich artistic and literary history that evolves even today in cultures all over the world. This symbolism of writing as an act of storytelling, making up imaginative worlds, and creating something brand new adds to the novel's rich layers.

The secondary characters are a hoot with distinct voices and a confidence that comes from consciously choosing to not be a part of the popular group. They come across as a bunch of geniuses who see right through cliques and don't need them for security or friendships. They are protective and loyal to Darcy and add great comic relief. The ending with the popular girl jumping ship from her clique as a result of working on a play with Raphael suggests that the odd group out can influence those around them or the popular girl is just growing up and maturing.

The plot has the secondary characters entering the alternate world and looking for Darcy and while it is a bit of a stretch I welcomed them back in the storyline with their wit and humor. The author does give a plausible reason for them getting past the guards but I did find it unbelievable that they would find a job and miss weeks of school forsaking family in search of a friend. The resolution wraps up a bit quickly; I would have liked Conn's point of view and confrontation with his enemies in a final scene. The world of Shades could have been defined a bit more as well. While the Interdimensional Bureau of Investigation, or IBI, that protects the borders between both worlds is clearly crafted, I wanted more regarding the factions between members of the Shade Society of violent versus passive members. 

The romantic triangle, prejudices, and terrorist angles add for plenty of tension making this a page turner. Action steamrolls from the first sentence, "Knowing what I know now, I'd say my foster mother had her reasons for throwing a kitchen knife at me." Darcy needs to figure out who she can trust and while she hates Conn at first she realizes she needs his help to get out of captivity. He struggles with his decision to follow orders and is baffled by Darcy who does not fit the profile of a Shade. By meeting her, he questions his career and perception of seeing Shades as inhuman. Tolerance is a timeless message and Rutkoski does a great job getting the reader to think more about the human condition in social, cultural, and personal ways. Perhaps Rutkoski can work some magic and teach me how to speak Mandarin. Sigh.

Young Adult
5 Smileys

Monday, October 14, 2013

The House of Hades (The Heroes of Olympus #4) by Rick Riordan

Riordan explains myths in a way that makes sense to young readers with funny mnemonics and galloping action. The strength of the story lies in this formula and he sticks to it with every book. What I am not liking so well with this series is the deluge of characters that has watered down the development of each of them. As the series has progressed there seems to be a snowball effect of  many characters telling their feelings more than showing them. While the book is entertaining, I am not lovin' it as much as the first two books in the series.

Percy and Annabeth have to hike through Hades trying to breathe poison air and dodge every monster that they've ever killed in the other series. (Reminds me of my trip to Beijing and trying to breathe. An entrepreneurial man was selling bottled fresh air on the streets.) They are trying to get to the Doors of Death before the other five demigods seal it to keep the giants from escaping and raising Gaea, the Earth goddess. Great action along with plot twists have the two trekking through the Underworld with exciting adventures. Percy's internal change is the realization that he takes people for granted and uses them to serve his own purposes whether it is Bob or Calypso. Bob was the most interesting character who has a moral dilemma of choosing good over evil. Percy hasn't changed much since the first series so it was interesting to see a bit of growth as a leader.

Other characters that change are Frank who becomes confident and decisive. Hazel learns to use her powers and believe in herself. Leo falls in love and stops teasing others in a way that hurts feelings. Jason struggles with his identity as a Roman influenced by the Greeks, and Piper still has issues with self-confidence. Nico has the biggest change but we never have his point of view; instead he sulks and withdraws from everyone. Jason is the only one who can interact with Nico because he knows what it going on with him.  Jason reacts with such tolerance and maturity it didn't come off as authentic for me, but didactic. I would have liked Jason to struggle internally with Nico's revelation. Coach Hedge changes from Mr. Reckless to Mr. Careful and for a good reason. I won't tell and spoil it for you. I know that the heroes are going to come out on top so I like it when the tension is not only in the action but with complex character development. Riordan tries with Nico, but it fell flat in my opinion.

I like the gods and goddesses best. This is where the creation myths and the unique mythical personalities are woven into the plot in a fascinating way. Hecate and Frank's ancestors pull in Greek and Chinese myths while Percy and Annabeth deal with creepy mythical creatures and monsters. The symbol of Hazel being at a crossroads and having to make a choice, as Hecate presents her options is a nice representation of the choices people make in life. If you liked "The Mark of Athena" then you'll like this one because it is quite similar to it.

Reading Level: 5.7
3 Smileys

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Celestial Globe (The Kronos Chronicles, #2) by Marie Rutkoski

Oh bother. Pop a great book in my hands and the day careens off course. Duties? What duties? Students? Ummm... yep, I see 'em. Sort of. My nose sticks to the inner spine of a terrific book like a barnacle. Take "The Celestial Globe." Fingers twitch as they near the glossy green-covered novel that rests on my desk. Eventually, I stash it under my jacket sneak-reading every chance I get in-between library classes. In the evening, a pungent scent from my burnt dinner swirls in the air reminding me that the story's climax was more exciting than cooking spaghetti. Gobs of action, complex characters, and an engrossing plot sucked me into this book from the start. I have a good crick in my neck and dent in my reading chair from a late night of blazing through this paperback that was worth every bit of bother.

Prince Rodolfo has sent the Gray Men, or Gristleki, to the home of 13-year-old Petra and her father after she stole back her father's eyes from him in "The Cabinet of Wonders," book 1 of the Kronos Chronicles. Gristleki were once men transformed into monsters with scales for skin, no lips, no eyebrows or eyelashes, and claws that slowly poison victims. They can run unnaturally fast and are difficult to kill. When magician John Dee saves Petra from them using a Loophole, you would think she'd be grateful, but Dee has imprisoned her in his London home. For her own good, so he claims. She's a caged tiger who is hot-headed and angry because she wants to rescue her father captured by Rodolfo. She sees Dee for his manipulative ways and is extremely rude and belligerent towards him. Astrophil, her mechanical spider, is there to advise her as she sorts out Dee's odd family members and political alliances.

Meanwhile, Tomik decides to rescue Petra and ends up falling through a Loophole where he is captured by a boatload of Roma sailors who are on their way to Morocco to get the celestial globe, a device that allows people to portal all over the world. Neel is with them and the two strike a tenuous relationship deciding to work together to find Petra as they sail to Africa. When the three heroes meet in London, they are embroiled with Prince Rodolfo and traitors to the crown. The different points of view allow for action on the seas as well as action in London as the reader gets to know the traits and motives of the different characters.

Fiction is full of likable characters and unlikable characters. A skilled author creates unlikable characters compelling enough to keep readers hooked to the story. Petra's defiance with John Dee, her stubbornness and ferocity, make her unlikable at times. Yes, as readers, we revel in characters such as Junie B. Jones whose bad behavior makes us feel superior or laugh because we'd never have the guts to do what they do or say what some characters say, but in Petra's case, her unlikable traits aren't off-putting because it shows her vulnerability and lack of control over adult authority. In the first book Dee establishes a mind link with her so that the two can communicate through thoughts, but he never gets her permission and tricks her into it. In this book, he makes her a prisoner in his home even though it is so she won't run off and get killed freeing her father. He's never straightforward with answers and she is unbelievably rude, yet justifiably so, in responding to him.

In addition, her defiant character is a clever creation of subtext that reflects the dual meaning of the mythical creature she represents in myth and genetics. Don't worry, I won't reveal the creature and spoil it for you. This subtext explains on a deeper level her fearlessness and impulsive behavior along with her link to water. None of this is explained. I looked up the mythical creature and my research made me realize how closely Petra represented its traits and gave an additional reason as to why the wind spirit didn't consume Petra. The result of the subtext is more complexity to the plot and characters; thus, creating a richer understanding of the character's behaviors and motives. Quite fascinating.

Rutkoski's mixes quite a bit of history and magic that made me enjoy the story even moreso than if it was a straightforward fantasy. Her author's note usually points out what is factual but I think it is fun figuring it out as I read along and researching historical figures on my own. Many of her descriptions of paintings and artifacts are real in both books of this series. Magical powers and their backgrounds are built on from the first book with John Dee taking a larger role in this story. Historically, the real John Dee was a famous alchemist and the author's fictionalized account uses real people that he influenced or who studied him such as Robert Cotton, Francis Walsingham, and William Cecil to name a few. I recommend reading the first book to get the most out of this book. Back to work. Bother.

5 Smileys

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Cabinet of Wonders (The Kronos Chronicles #1) by Marie Rutkoski

When I was young I hated to cook. I remember purposefully burning the lefse so I could get out of making it with my mom and two sisters. As a newlywed I'd be asked by my mom to bring a dish to some family holiday and it never tasted very good so eventually she asked me to bring the rolls or pickles. Alas, I wasn't trying to get out of that duty, but cooking for me is like flying. I'm only good at it in my dreams. When Petra gets a job at the castle with the plan of stealing back her father's stolen eyes from the prince, she doesn't get along with the cook and purposefully sabotages her recipe. How can I not love a character like that? She's good at using her brains to solve problems and she's courageous; yet flawed. My kind of story. My kind of gal.

Petra's father is a skilled craftsman who builds a clock for the prince that not only tells time, but has the potential to control the weather. The prince takes her father's eyes planning to finish the clock on his own by building the last part to it. (This is a fantasy. Eyes can be surgically removed and popped in and out of sockets like contact lenses.) Petra is spitting mad and with the help of her friend, Tomik, Neel, and Astrophil, she sets off for the castle in search of a job that will give her access to the prince's chambers. She begins in the kitchen before getting shipped off to a job nobody wants with Iris, the "acid lady" that makes fabric dyes for the prince. Iris has skin that oozes acid when she's upset making her a pariah even though she descends from royalty. Gears, metals, and clockworks make this steampunk novel quite different from the usual fantasy trope. 

The plot is organized with the two characters in the beginning having critical parts toward the end of the story. The setting and description of guilds and clocks made it easy for me to picture Prague or even Brussels. The use of the prince as a Hapsburg firmly placed the setting for me in Europe and made me think of World War I starting as a result of a Hapsburg being assassinated, but the end notes explain that the setting presents the 16th century European renaissance. The use of horses as transportation and reference to the historical figure, Dee Smith, placed it at an earlier time and helped give me a clear picture of a place. Clues are given as the story progresses with most of my questions answered except the time Astrophil fell asleep. It progressed the plot so Petra got to go to the Roma camp but it didn't make sense why he passed out. He's a machine. I liked how the Danior story ties in with Jarek and the noble elephant protecting Petra and Neel. Neel's tale of fiddler is a true Roma folktale that reminded me of the Charlie Daniel Band's famous song, "The Devil Came Down to Georgia." I knew the song, but not the origins of the folktale.

An important question that the plot hinges on is why would Petra's father build a clock that controls the weather in the first place? Who would be crazy enough to think of this and why would he not think that the person, such as the prince, would use the weather to attack other countries or use it to his or her advantage? The author presents the father as a bit of a creative ditz who could only see the challenge of building such a machine rather than the consequences. The stronger argument is that Petra's father wanted to be paid for building the clock by getting a full scholarship for Petra to the Academy. Education is only available to the elite and he saw this as an opportunity for his daughter. Her father is presented as a scholar with his own library and this crucial explanation strengthened what could have been a weak plot point. As such, the author gives plausible motivations by the father even if they are not wise.

The author doesn't present the Roma people as stereotypical and when Neel explains the mathematical concept of zero I loved his insightful comment, "The best thing about wandering everywhere is that you can choose what you like of a place and take it with you, like almonds off a tree." As an international teacher, I can relate to the worldly wanderlust of the Roma people. They are good people who take in Petra and give good advice. Even the man who doesn't like Petra is painted in a complex and sympathetic way. 

The characters are particularly well-drawn, pulling me along the storyline like a hooked fish. Tomik is the gadget-man and childhood friend of Petra. Neel is the thief who helps her break into the prince's "Cabinet of Wonders." He helps Petra so he can help his people too. Astrophil is the adult-like person who imparts or teaches background information that explains topics and history that Petra wouldn't know on her own for her age. Petra has flaws but is basically strong and good. She reflects on things such as if she is being selfish or unreasonable (which she was) or how a person can look and act sweet but has evil actions. Her internal struggles with not being sure about wanting to discover if she can work magic or not, to not trusting or trusting other people, to being mentored by her mechanical spider, Astrophil, along with nice pacing and action make for a terrific read.

Reading Level 4.9
4 Smileys

Friday, October 4, 2013

Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer (Dreamdark #1) by Laini Taylor

Well lassies, I waffled between a two and three star. The potential is there but the book falls short on plot and character development. Magpie Windwitch is a roaming faerie who fights devils that humans are releasing from bottles that had been sealed by fairies long ago. When she finds a devil that threatens to devour the world she seeks the help of the Djinn King that sealed it thousands of years before. In the process she discovers how she came to have strange powers that help heal a world that is slowly unraveling. She must use those powers to defeat the most threatening devil yet, Blackbringer, and save her friends from an inky fate of living in an empty vacuum unraveled but not dead.

The book sets up Magpie's powers and how they came to be. The pace in the beginning as this is revealed is at times confusing and slow. While there is plenty of action, there isn't enough sub-characters that interact with the protagonist. The crows are the main ones and they love her and fuss over her, but they don't really do or say much to talk her out of dangerous adventures. I needed more character traits than an Irish accent, to become vested in their actions. Maniac doesn't mean anything to me, so when something awful happens to him I didn't have the emotional - oh no! - that I should have had at that part of the story. Bored, I started to skim ahead until page 150 when Magpie meets the Djinn King. Shortly after that Talon enters the plot along with another villain and their interactions create enough tension to pull me into the story.

At the heart of this plot is a creation story with the Djinn King being one of the creators. He is awakened by Magpie and finds hope again in her belief that things can change. Magpie is not a flawed character who grows throughout the story. She's impulsive and courageous, but she mainly is trying to survive one adventure after-the-other. She and Talon disagree but it isn't much. She and Poppy are the best of friends who work side-by-side to defeat evil, but their dialogue has little page time. I kept waiting for more emotion and internal struggles, but it is mostly external struggles. There are many creation stories and some really well-written ones such as "The Thief" by Megan Whalen Turner. Rick Riordan uses creation myths in his stories. While I loved the creativity of this book combining faerie and djinn, it comes up a wee bit short - as the crows would say.

If ye be like me and loves a good monster, the author does a nice job creating a creepy Djinn King and Blackbringer. The snag or character of Batch Hangnail seemed to have been a missed opportunity of working in the theme of low creatures being prejudiced by others who considered themselves better. It is touched upon but I kept waiting for the author to go into more depth and instead got a quick wrap-up at the end. For the most part the story follows the formulaic quest of a hero saving the world with unusual powers. She is interested in a prince but the two are too busy saving the world to think much about their feelings for each other.

All ends happily, but I wanted more of an explanation about Queen Vesper's history with Batch. The world and time shifts were confusing and abrupt in spots. I thought Magpie was dreaming in the castle but she was out fighting the Blackbringer in reality. I wasn't sure why she didn't have reinforcements and got a bit confused. Then the action picked up and with a shoulder shrug I plowed onward. The world building was sketchy here-and-there and clear in others. I do think this author shows promise but the pacing and evolving plot lines were not on target for me. If you like faeries, djinn, and a strong heroine with little internal struggles then you'll enjoy this one.

2 Smileys