Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

Rowan Samuel Ward. My grandson was born today! I'd swing this computer around my head like a lasso I'm so excited, but instead I'll rein in and control myself (particularly since it is not even my computer.) Rowan Samuel Ward. A strong name. "Blimey, 'e is a 'andsome baby, dat 'e is." Names are chain-linked to the theme of self-identity with deep roots in children's literature and common to coming-of-age stories. Richard Peck's tale involves a mouse narrator in search of his identity that goes on an adventure where he learns to embrace his individuality.

The mouse narrator has no name in this book. His tail is a question mark symbolizing his bucketful of constant questions he peppers his Aunt Marigold and other adults with on a daily basis. Marigold's typical response to him is some saying, "Ask no questions and you'll be told no lies" or her mantra, "Nameless is Blameless." Blameless this mouse is, but he still needs a name when he goes to the Royal Mews Mouse Academy for the first time. His school community names him, Mouse Minor, a condescending name that is a reminder of his insignificance, small size, and uncertain heritage. As a bully target, he spends more time fighting than learning it seems. When he accidentally breaks the cardinal rule of being seen in his school uniform by a human, Queen Victoria's granddaughter, he runs away in disgrace.

His adventure leads him from a cat's tail to a horse's ear to the Yeomice Guard. Convinced that Queen Victoria has magical abilities, he seeks her out to help him figure out who he is inspite of everyone telling him it is impossible to see the Queen. Set during the 1897 Diamond Jubilee in London, the Victorian flavor is found in the unique tone of voice in the characters. Mouse Minor's speech sounds a bit formal, while the servants dropped their "h"s in most sentences, and the hysterical bat bards sing in rhymes using speech that turns "w"s into "v"s such as, "Vat are dem black bits?" and has fun slang such as "blimey 'oo." Part one had a nice adventure. Part two I nodded to sleep. Part three I laughed out loud and loved how the author pulled the story together with some surprise twists.

Richard Peck's writing craft shows his command of the language. While the text has quite a few high vocabulary words the beautiful illustrations and repetition are helpful in determining some definitions. Some will need to be looked up. A favorite word, "susurrate" is used many times; others such as "convivial," "bilious," "accession," should give you an idea of what lies in store or what lies in story. The high vocabulary and cockney accents are hilarious, but might trip some readers up. This 200 page book would be a good read aloud. The author's play on words add humor along with the jabs at odd royalty traditions.

Mouse Minor asks "Who am I?" throughout the story which set me off like a hyperlink onto the concept of self-identity in stories. I've wasted quite a bit of time looking at scholarly articles on it. And when I did start hyperlinking from "looking glass self" to "self-categorization theory" to "Michelangelo phenomenon" I was completely confused. However, it did make me think about how novels can show an individual's pursuit of self-identity as well as societial influence on that identity. While on the one hand Mouse Minor is learning to embrace his individuality, he is also learning to conform to the structure of the mouse society that mirrors English society and culture exactly. At the end of the story he has found his place within his society and grown in confidence. I can't help but think of my new grandson, Rowan. "Who will he be?"

3.5 Smileys

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Shadow Throne (The Ascendance Trilogy #3) by Jennifer A. Nielsen

This book tries to create an epic conclusion to the Ascendance trilogy with Jaron, the reluctant King of Carthya, going to war with neighboring countries. The coming-of-age story concludes in this book with Jaron having embraced his leadership role and trying to bring out the potential in others. In some ways the book reminded me of the last book in the Pyrain chronicles in that it tries to create an epic feel through battles and romance, but doesn't quite succeed. While entertaining, fast-paced and filled with a few fun twists, this story was more predictable and less funny than the previous two.

King Vargen of Avenia has captured Imogen knowing that Jaron will launch a rescue that Vargen plans to use as a way to take over Carthya. His goal is to kill Jaron and take over his lands. Vargen has talked two other countries into joining him to attack Carthya with promises of riches and more land. When Jaron's rescue goes horribly awry, war breaks out, and the people he loves either die or get hurt; he isn't even sure he wants to live, much less be king.

The plot felt circular at times and perhaps too much like the first book where Connor tortures Jaron. He's tortured again in this plot and Vargen takes him prisoner one too many times. Or maybe the plot was too thin. The battle with the women at the river held my interest but then the following battle didn't. I also didn't buy the whole speech to the men about being the weakest and having a chance to prove their strength in the second battle. It wasn't exactly a pep talk. But then quite a few of the speeches came off as corny or untrue, as well as, the romantic subplot.

The romance was boring. I'm sure many readers will like it, but it slowed the pacing for me. Jaron's story arc over the three books has involved him learning to trust and love others. The romance was a way to continue that arc. I just found it predictable and dragged out too long. The incident with Imogen happened too early and tipped me off so I was able to predict a major plot twist. Same with Fathenwood and the dam. In the author's other books, she'd point me in one direction and I was delighted when what seemed obvious was not. This book leaned more toward the obvious.

One part has Roden struggling with leadership and doubts about himself as captain of Jaron's Guard. He and Jaron have a conversation about earning respect and leading with a vision. Later, Roden has accomplished getting the loyalty of the army, but Jaron just explains how it happened. It was abrupt and I thought short-changed a message that could have had more depth. Because the two never fight side-by-side in later battles, Roden is not seen in action. The first person point of view seemed to work against this character development. However, Roden and Tobias do grow in this novel to become independent, confident people that have a career path to follow.

Jaron is an unreliable narrator and a trickster so maybe I was too onto him, but I guessed most of the major twists. That takes quite a bit of fun out of the novel. The humor is still there but there are more serious moments. While the author is quite good at writing tension and action scenes, the battles didn't have enough strategy and there were too many convenient coincidences. The cannon and gunpowder incident is the most obvious plot contrivance, but also the last escape scene, starvation, and the capture of different characters didn't seem plausible. However, this is tempered by some nice twists with Roden discovering his family and women being resourceful. While it is a fun read, it doesn't stand out like its predecessors.

3 Smileys

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Legend of Diamond Lil (J.J. Tully Mystery #2) by Doreen Cronin, Kevin Cornell

J.J. is a retired search and rescue dog who guards chickens. When a possum shows up, he fears for their lives but trusts his instincts. When the beautiful Samoyed dog, Diamond Lil, offers to partner with him to help protect the chicks, it isn't clear if J.J. needs help or just likes the good-looking dog. When things reach a climax, there's a twist to the mystery of the possum and Diamond Lil that the reader won't see coming. Don't peek! You read-the-last-page readers will spoil the surprise!

This story mimics the hard-boiled detective genre but with a bit of ye ole kid humor of pee, burps, and chick antics. I thought some of the transitions in the beginning were choppy. I didn't quite get it that the chicks were being silly with J.J and using a blindfold with rabbit pee. I had to reread that part. The plot picks up after a third of the way and it's smooth waters from there on out. Or swirling waters. Young readers will like the action once the story gets into the threat of a predator. The story reminded me of the Chet Gecko series by Bruce Hale but easier to read. This 123-page mystery is good for grade 3 with a feel-good ending.

The characters don't have much depth. I didn't really understand Vince's role with the others. He seems to be the villain or busybody and I think it would have helped to read book 1 to understand the relationship with J.J.'s crew. Readers can try and put together the clues to solve the mystery and while some are obvious others are not; unless readers are familiar with possum behavior. This book could be tied in with nonfiction books on rescue dogs, show dogs, and possums. While it was entertaining, it doesn't stand out in the ocean of juvenile mystery books.

3 Smileys

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage

Sometimes I just want to read a book and not take notes. Just enjoy the story in a passive way. That romantic notion doesn't work for my noggin. When it comes to writing a review I can't remember all the thoughts I had along the way. Nor can I remember the great lines in this story. Nor do I want to go back and reread it. I just want to be lazy. So here's a lazy review. If you are wondering why I'm even bothering to write a review it's so that I can book talk with students. This was a fun book and I don't want to forget it even if I feel guilty for not giving this review my best.

This picks up with the same characters from "Three Times Lucky." You'll want to read that book first to understand all the minor characters and background information. The author weaves in the back-story of Mo LeBeau, but details such as the "upstream mom," Lana's penchant for wigs, Dale's no-good father, to name a few are going to be more appreciated if you read book one; plus, it's a great book. I read the book over a year ago and there were some people I couldn't quite place at first.

Miss Lana buys an old rundown inn that is for auction at Tupelo Landing discovering that it is haunted by a ghost. Mo and her best friend, Dale, who started the "Desperado Detective Agency" in the previous book, decide to open a paranormal division in order to solve the identity of the ghost. When Harm Crenshaw comes to town their first impression is that he's a jerk, but the three become friends when the clues lead them to Harm's grandfather. 

Mo struggles a bit with Harm and Dale becoming friends and being left out of some activities. She's got such a unique personality that she deals with issues in ways that can be offensive because she is so blunt but it is balanced by her good heart. I like how she doesn't get too sentimental or emotional about things. Ghosts don't frighten her much. Angry adults don't frighten her much. She can stand her ground and be the sense of reason even when it isn't appropriate such as reminding Dale's mom that her husband is better in jail than out. She sounds too adultlike at times, but she's usually so funny I didn't care. Jack Gantos in his Norvelt sequel does the same thing. I'm not sure if young readers even notice that but I like the unique character voices.

The author captures small-town gossipy life with a community where people know everyone's business. The theme of the past haunting people is explored in this story through the lives of several characters from Dale's mom, Red, Lacy, and Nellie. Mo is still writing to her non-existent mom and there is a hint at the end as to who her family might be. I'm thinking there might be a book 3? Hope so. I do like Turner's entertaining stories.

4 Smileys

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Cress (The Lunar Chronicles #3) by Marissa Meyer

My sandblasted eyes are protesting last night's late finish of this book. I should have shelved it with my weekend, I-can-read-this-late-and-sleep-in, pile of books. With all the plot twists and non-stop action I had a wee bit of trouble shutting off my brain when it came to snooze-time. Much like it's predecessors, "Cinder" (book 1, based on Cinderella) and "Scarlet" (book 2, based on Little Red Riding Hood), "Cress" is a fairy tale twist on Rapunzel that includes strong female protagonists along with political struggles in an alternate world. This story builds on the previous two books and while some background information is given on the war and plague, I wouldn't recommend reading it as a stand alone. Many of the characters and their situations will make better sense if the series is read in sequence. While "Cress" serves more as a bridge to the next book with many plot elements unresolved, I was satisfied by the ending and enjoyed the characters, humor, and fast pacing.

Cress, like Rapunzel, has been imprisoned in an orbiting satellite for more than seven years. Lunar Queen Levana is trying to capture and kill Cinder, the true heir to the Lunar throne. Cress, a whip at technology, is supposed to be tracking Cinder who escaped in Carswell Thorne's ship, Rampion - which happens to be another name for the rapunzel plant. Cloaking ships, spying on nations, or hacking into any piece of software is Cress's specialty. Her handler, Mistress Sybil Mira, brings her food and water by podship every 3 weeks or so. When Cinder escaped New Beijing with Carswell Thorne in the previous book, it was Cress who betrayed Queen Levana by masking their ship from detection by jamming satellite signals. This story starts with Cinder and her crew rescuing Cress. Cinder's plan explodes when complications arise scattering the team throughout the solar system.

Queen Levana rules a colony on the moon that has a military more advanced than Earth and citizens who can control the minds of human beings and change their appearances to look like anything they want. Not everyone has this Lunar gift of mind control and some are better at it than others. Those who don't have the gift, like Cress, are supposedly killed by the government. Lunar is at war with Earth and Emperor Kai has agreed to marry Queen Levana to stop the bloodshed, as well as, get an antidote for the Plague that is killing thousands of humans. Cinder is trying to stop Kai's marriage because she loves him and knows Queen Levana will kill him after the marriage. Queen Levana's goal is to rule Lunar and Earth. As Cinder and her team try to stop the Lunar queen, they discover some unsettling items regarding the history of the Plague, its use in politics, and the link between it and ungifted Lunars.

In the fairy tale, Rapunzel betrays the sorceress that put her in the tower just like Cress betrays Mistress Sybil Mira by helping Cinder. Meyer chooses to make the character of Mira more monstrous than human. Some portrayals of Rapunzel in the fairy tale show the sorceress as a mother figure who has tried to keep Rapunzel safe from the world and is disappointed when she learns of her betrayal. Other versions show a rivalry between the prince and the sorceress for Rapunzel's affections. "Cress" has Mira as a one-dimensional villain. I would have liked to have seen some internal struggle when she decides to kill Cress, but she's the evil witch through and through. The theme of entrapment runs throughout the characters and plot. Cress and Kai are trapped by the Queen. Cinder is trapped as a cyborg that is not considered human. Wolf is trapped as a soldier with predatory instincts that affect his reasoning, Dr. Erland is trapped from his daughter, people from Earth are trapped by an epidemic and impending Lunar war. Winter is trapped by not using her Lunar gift and on and on the list goes.

Cinder and Scarlet along with their male friends are included in this story with the introduction of Cress and Carswell Thorne as her "prince." After living in a satellite through most of her childhood and teen years, Cress is completely overwhelmed when she crash lands into civilization again. The timid girl who slips into her imaginary world of fairy tales when frightened has problems assimilating with people. She finds the strength to face her fears and grows and matures as an individual overcoming each challenge and threat that is thrown her way. Her childlike love and adulation for Thorne adds humor at first, only to mature and change into a reliable friendship that suggests by the end it might develop into a romance. Cinder's story arc drives the series and I was happy to see her character often in the plot as she fights Queen Levana and learns to deal with her newfound powers of mind control. She is torn between the ethical and social use, or abuse, of those powers and how to deal with them as a good person that wants to do the right thing.
Marissa Meyer uses the conventional fairy tale as a framework for her plot, but has rearranged familiar motifs to provoke readers into rethinking views of fairy tales that empower females and depart from male-dominant roles. While fairy tales focus on physical beauty, Meyer - for the most part - avoids the pitfalls of stereotypes. Cinder is my favorite character because she departs the most from being "the beautiful princess" and is not physically weak. Cress is similar. Unlike the gorgeous-haired Rapunzel, Cress has tresses that are a rope-like tangled mess that is so heavy it gives her a headache. She has it wrapped around her arms to lighten the load and when things get dicey for her, it gets in the way of escape.  When Thorne chops it off it is a relief and freedom, not a symbol of losing something beautiful physically. Some might find her fantasizing about Thorne rescuing her or wearing beautiful clothes to a ball too princessy, but it fits with the character of a person trapped for seven years in ratty clothes and hair experiencing the world like a newborn.

Much of the plot has the main symbols found in Rapunzel such as the tower, long hair, singing, blindness, sorceress, and prince that rescues the princess. When Cress meets Carswell Thorne, she idolizes him as a hero. While Thorne knows his motivations have been less than noble, he likes her hero-worship. When he tells her the truth, she makes him look more honestly at himself. She grows from dependence on Mira to working on an adult relationship with Thorne. They become friends that can count on each other. This story is not strictly the prince rescuing the princess; Thorne rescues Cress, but she also saves his life and must be his "eyes" when he is struck blind. Meyer struck the right balance for me with her character, Cress, because others must rely on her intelligence or superior computer skills and physically for her eyesight. She's a pipsqueak of a person and not like cyberborg Cinder, yet she shows that she is strong in other ways adapting to stressful situations and taking in the world for the first time. It would have been easy to make her a ding-a-ling, but her sincerity, tenacity, and naivety work as a person who has been abused by adults and sheltered from the world.

In one widely known version of the Rapunzel fairy tale the mother is pregnant and craves a neighbor's rapunzel plant to the point of death. The husband steals it and is caught by the neighbor who is a witch. She says he can take the plant but must give her his child when she is born. He agrees. The witch raises the child and locks her away in a tower because she is the most beautiful creature in the world. This can be interpreted as safeguarding the young or obsessive behavior or not letting a child grow up. The reader can apply it to his or her own circumstances. In this regard, fairy tales offer moral and social critiques regarding life in a way that readers can approach reality. For instance, Rapunzel can be interpreted as a story about growing up. The tower can be seen as a family unit with a child dependent on adults before leaving home to form his or her own independent relationships. Cress's story echoes Rapunzel's, but is unique in itself. For instance, Cress's story has her family giving her up as a Lunar child because she doesn't haven't magical abilities. Readers can apply this to their own situations. Perhaps they have parents disappointed in the fact they are not brilliant at academics or sports or music. In real life, people have to deal with others who are in positions of authority and power who can be abusive or wise or mediocre. Children are under the authority of adults and like Rapunzel or Cress they might feel trapped by their lack of power in many situations making them long to be free. The beauty of fantasy and fairy tales is they can serve as a psychological and social medium for readers to look at real-life issues and deal with them. When the characters live happily-ever-after, it gives hope to readers that they too can transform themselves or their world for the better.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Danny's Doodles: The Jelly Bean Experiment by David A. Adler

Fourth grader, Danny is a good sport who agrees to be the subject of new kid Calvin Waffle's experiment, even though Calvin doesn't explain anything except that Danny has to carry a bunch of jellybeans around that he can't eat. Danny spills them and sends them through the wash at home but spends the week more or less carrying out the experiment unknowingly to humor Calvin. Calvin is quite odd compared to other kids dressing with pants that have one leg shorter than the other or wearing mismatched socks that represent how he feels about things. When Calvin shows Danny that he has a great eye for detail, he helps Danny's team win an important baseball game. This short 100 page book is going to appeal to readers that want humor balanced with some character depth.

The jellybean experiment is about making friends. Calvin is new in school and while he isn't trying to "fit in" per se, he is trying to make friends. His creative and wacky use of jellybeans is funny and inventive. When he tells Danny about his dad being a spy, Danny learns inadvertently from Calvin's mom that their dad abandoned the family and works as a truck driver. It seems that Calvin is in denial over his dad's actions. Calvin does not appear to be covering for his dad when he tells Danny he is a spy, he truly believes his dad is a spy that purposefully tells others he is a truck driver to cover up his covert activities. This isn't resolved in this book. Perhaps in book two the parents will divorce forcing Calvin to face the situation.

Danny's character is not sure about Calvin, but he is interested in him because he's different. Danny seems to be deciding throughout the story whether or not he wants to be Calvin's friend. Calvin likes to poke fun at their crabby teacher and get away with breaking rules that appeals to Danny at times and scares him at other times. Calvin tries a bit too hard to be the class clown using shenanigans as a way to make friends. At first I wasn't sure if Calvin was rebellious, but he pulls back when it matters to peers such as during the report presentation. There is a subtle message about tolerance and accepting others for who they are inside and not going by appearances.

The title of the book is a bit misleading and the illustrations don't add to the text. Danny doodles because he wants to be a cartoonist. I kept waiting for more to happen with this. In Marissa Moss's Max series the two boys come up with a comic strip that has erasers that are aliens that come to earth. Nothing like that happens with the doodles and they are not worked into the plot. While I enjoyed this story and the writing is good with fun wordplays, what stands out the most for me is that it is nice and short for the student who does not love to read.

3 Smilesy

Monday, February 17, 2014

Chasing The Falconers (On The Run #1) by Gordon Korman

A fast-paced, straightforward adventure story with engaging characters, but lacks a logical premise and has a predictable plot. At 160 pages this is written for readers who are not ready for advanced sentence structure and vocabulary with a complex plot. Readers who are intimidated by thick books and are working toward fluency will enjoy this adventure.

Aiden, age 15, and Meg, age 11, are at a juvenile detention center because they have no where to go after their parents are sentenced to life in prison after being falsely accused in a high-profile terrorist case. Relatives don't want the parentless children. Foster parents don't want them either. In short, the state doesn't know what to do with them and they put them in a detention center. Aiden believes that if he can find the now missing CIA operative his parents were working for then his parents would be exonerated of treason. When Aiden accidentally burns down the detention center, the two have a chance to escape. On the run, they manage to avoid the authorities with the help of a escapee, Miguel, a nasty piece of work accused of manslaughter. Once the fugitives come up with a plan, they discover that Miguel has been wronged like them and they begin to have empathy for the bully. As the three trek across the country to Vermont in search of a clue that will free their parents, they have to avoid capture and trust Miguel.

Gordon Korman is good with developing tension between characters and in dialogue. It is easy to get into his stories and he infuses emotions and details that create a vivid imaginary world. I have more issues with his plot that is not always logical and has convenient coincidences. That said it is still a fun caper. I just had to overlook a few strange premises such as the government putting kids in a juvenile detention center, especially an eleven-year-old, and pulling them from school. It also would have helped if the author had made it look like some foul play had happened to the CIA agent. As written, the facts show that the CIA agent is duplicitous and the kids are foolish to think he'll help them. Perhaps the sequel will add more interesting elements.

The story arc of Miguel was interesting and his rejection by his family made me want to find out what happened to him in book two. Korman is good at bringing some depth and internal conflict to the plight of his characters. The cliff hanger was a "cliff hacker" job that irritated me. Good stories have a strong beginning, middle, and end. The ending of this book doesn't wrap up much of anything. Andrew Clements does this in the "Keeper's of the School" series. While Korman undermines some of the plot's credibility with too much luck on the part of the characters, he has great suspense and strong characters that have made this popular with students.

3 Smileys

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Meltdown Madness (Looniverse #2) by David Lubar

The characters in this book are not developed well. I think I should have read book one to get the full picture of who is who, but someone checked it out of my library so I tried jumping into the series with book two. Boohoo. This book was a head-scratcher for me. The protagonist, Ed, can't play on the soccer team unless he sells a box of chocolate or wrapping paper. (I've never been at a school that has that requirement to play sports.) When Ed gets outside he realizes it's hot and tells his friend to run the box home, but his magical coin makes the boy run so fast he goes like a rocket, heating the candy to a liquid softness. Ed determines the bars are unsellable and he spends the rest of the story coming up with cockamamie ideas of how to earn enough money to buy the bars.

For a story to work, even with fantasy, there has to be some internal logic to the plot. This tale was missing that logic. First, kids aren't going to be excluded from sports because they can't sell a box of candy. It would have made more sense that the boy was selling candy as a fundraiser to go play soccer in a tournament. The next illogical notion is that Ed couldn't sell lumpy chocolate. I remember buying lumpy melted chocolate from my friends fundraising at school. I was so dang hungry I didn't care if it was melted, just like Ed's brother didn't care when he ate a piece. Even though it is illogical, the imaginative and silly side to the story will appeal to young readers.

As a character Ed doesn't give up and he is creative with his ideas of how to make money. He worries about how he speaks because his magical coin responds to his words in unexpected ways. When his sister is playing with her make-up and hairstyling doll head, he manages to let loose pigs and ponies from using the words, "pig-tails" and "ponytails." Ed doesn't show any internal struggles, but mainly external ones. The resolution and how his friend warmed up the milk was funny. A light-hearted illogical early reader. 

2 Smileys

The Forbidden Stone (The Copernicus Legacy #1) by Tony Abbott

An entertaining read that I won't remember a week from now. Wade, Lily, Becca, Darrel, and Wade's dad go to Germany for an uncle's funeral after they receive a coded message from him. In Germany the four discover clues that show the uncle was protecting one of twelve relics that resulted in him being murdered by the Teutonic Order. This group wants the relics for the wrong reasons and Wade learns that his uncle was a guardian of an ancient secret extremely powerful. More consecutive clues lead Wade and his friends on an adventure with the young, evil Galina Krauss, leader of the Teutonic Order, in hot pursuit of them with her thugs. If you like astronomy, puzzles, maps, and mysteries then you will like this action-paced novel.

The plot is choppy at first and jumps around making it disjointed at times. I had problems visualizing scenes and some chapter transitions could have been more interwoven with the two parallel storylines. The plot starts to pull together by the end, but it barely held my interest as it sets up the action for later in the story. Once the kids are on their own and get into the clues and solving the mystery, my interest returned. The cliff hanger ending was terrific and book one is a complete story in itself. I don't mind cliff hangers when it is after the resolution. When they chop the story off in the middle of the action it reads like a cliff hacker, not cliff hanger. This one is well done.

The characters don't have much internal changes and are somewhat forgettable which for me was the greatest weakness in the story. If the characters are not interesting then the book becomes a nebulous mass in my memory. The characters do have distinctive traits, they just lack a interesting arc: Becca is the shy, brilliant linguistic girl; Lily is the computer researching guru; Wade is the smart scientist and astrologist; and Darrel is the musician. They don't really fight among themselves and their interactions are mainly figuring out the mystery. I'm not sure Wade's story arc. I don't think he has one. He's interested in Becca and doesn't know how to deal with it, but there's not much to even that. He and Darrell are stepbrothers but they get along better than siblings. I wanted more dynamics between characters. Something. Anything. I didn't buy Becca being that language proficient, but then I've bumbled my way around so many different countries that most of those situations in books don't read authentic to me. I needed more regarding the villain. She's one dimensional and seems more of an enchantress than anything else. I wanted more background information and suppose it will probably occur in the sequel.

This is the first in a series and I'm sure the characters will get more fleshed out in continuing books. Other reviews have compared it to Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." Brown's mystery is in pursuit of the Holy Grail and Mary Magdalene's role in the history of Christianity; whereas this story is the pursuit of 12 relics to construct a machine that Copernicus built. The kids speculate whether or not Copernicus messed around with history, but nothing is determined and will most likely be revealed in subsequent books. While I liked the premise, the book fell short of its potential by holding back too much plot information.

3 Smileys

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1) by Jonathan Stroud

In the grab bag of genres, ghost stories rank in the top as student favorites. If it's a scary book, usually eager hands snatch or fight over it like banshees. "The Screaming Staircase" is an entertaining ghost story that has plenty of action, humor, creepiness, strong characters, and a somewhat predictable mystery. Jonathan Stroud is one of those writers that understands cadence and has a strong command of words. He is so good at word choice, sentence structure, and descriptions I get completely lost in the story and can't put his books down. He's on my list of "dinner-burning authors." Ones where I get so lost in the imaginary world that I forget dinner on the stove, don't hear my husband talking, and basically become an insensitive ghost to those around me. I'm the opposite of the children in Stroud's tale whose youth give them extreme psychic sensitivity to ghosts as compared to adults allowing them to see and hear them.

Fifty years ago a ghost epidemic threatened the population. People were dying from being touched by ghosts, that only children could see. A rash of agencies rose to protect the populace with adult supervisors of children hunting ghosts. Not everyone has the ghost-seeing talent and the dangerous work meant high mortality rates. When Lucy Carlyle interviews for a job she names all the agents she worked with followed with, "They're all dead now." Lucy, a talented agent at hearing ghosts, takes a job at Lockwood & Company run by Anthony Lockwood, gifted at seeing ghosts, and his partner, George Cubbins, an amazing researcher. She likes the fact the two run a company with no adult supervisors. The threesome soon learn that their talents complement each other making them a powerful force at catching ghosts. The problem is they are not always careful or think through things properly. When they burn a client's house down, their company is threatened with bankruptcy, until a wealthy man comes challenging them to rid ghosts from the most haunted house in the city that he owns. Others ghost hunters have tried this before. No agent has ever survived a night in the house. But this doesn't stop Lockwood & Company taking the case.

Stroud creates an alternate world that has a gothic, Victorian type setting that echoes Sir Conan Doyle's writing. There are mobiles and pizzas that give it a modern flavor; yet the descriptions of buildings and homes have a gothic bent along with Lockwood's paranormal artifact collection. A creepy, dark atmosphere is created that works well with the ghostly thriller. My only complaint is that the mystery was too predictable; however, the unique ghosts save it from being boring. Stroud mixes intense moments with light humor to strike the right balance for readers. "Miasma's intensifying," I said. "My limbs were heavy, my brain tugged by alien emotions of futility and despair. The taste of decay was bitter in my mouth. I took another mint to freshen things."

The premise of only children seeing ghosts will appeal to kids because it gives them a skill adults don't have and power over grown-ups - the group that usually has authority over them. Parental authority can be a source of angst and this story is a way to vicariously reverse roles. Or it allows the kid to be not only in-charge, but the hero who gets to protect the adult versus the other way around. Or maybe it is a way to prepare for adulthood when the reader will protect others. The reader can interpret and absorb the premise in whatever way he or she wants creating that visceral element in literature that appeals to deep emotions in readers that elude definition.

The novel's beginning structure is not conventional, but it worked for me. Stroud spends the first 50 pages hooking the reader into the story with little backdrop and descriptions of characters. I didn't really get a clear picture until the flashback into Lucy's past. The hook is full of action and enough hints that I didn't get confused and was willing to go with it. At one point the point of view changed to "we" where the narrator sounds like she's giving the reader a how-to manual on how to catch ghosts. Some might think it slows the pace or doesn't get into the mystery fast enough. I'm not so sure. I like it when an author takes a risk and tries something different. I even wondered what it would have sounded like if he'd switched to 2nd person narration so that it would really have a how-to feel. I only thought of that because of another author using that style in an adult book. It would probably have been too confusing for young readers. But I digress.

A few plot points are not wrapped up and I'm sure the author is saving it for the sequel.  Lucy's story arc involves learning to trust people she works with and by the end the three seem to be a team that can verbally disagree with each other but who have each others backs.  Lockwood's past is not explained and neither is George's. Enough is given to satisfy the reader into making his or her own assumptions but it seems clear that more is to come. I heard the movie rights were bought for this book. Sounds like fun, but I am more eager to read book two of Lockwood & Co!

4 Smileys

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The High King (The Chronicles of Prydain, #5) by Lloyd Alexander

Sometimes it can be hard pinpointing what didn't quite work in a novel. This doesn't read like a Newbery winner for me. Perhaps it is a nod toward the entire series, although books one and five imitate Tolkien's work and do not fill the Newbery criteria of being original. Hmmm... whatever. I do enjoy making my own Newbery guesses for the upcoming year and reading past winners. I don't always agree with choices, but awards never satisfy everyone. Perhaps it won because it satisfied the feelings of most people and hurt the feelings of the fewest. I think Churchill said something to that effect regarding medals.

I liked the action scenes in this final book, but coincidences weakened the plot, such as Eilonwy happening over a ridge while a counterattack was in the progress or the hard-sought magical object appearing on a rock; plus, character changes were minimal and resulted in less tension. Taran has resolved his issues and is a grown-up hero who doesn't make the mistakes found in previous books. He is ready to embrace the responsibilities and consequences of being a leader. When Prince Gwydion's magical sword is stolen by Arawn the rulers of Prydain know that he can take over their kingdoms.  Forced to fight Arawn, the people gather armies with Taran asked by Prince Gwydion to rally the common folk he met in "Taran Wanderer."

The first battle ends in defeat as the armies are betrayed and the Cauldron-born warriors slay the forces of good. Gwydion leads a raid on the unguarded Annuvin where King Arawn lives, in hopes to find the magical sword that will turn the war in his favor. Many of Taran's companions die in the fight against evil and they courageously, and at times willingly, give up their lives for the good of everyone else. Their heroic acts and battles are supposed to be epic and while this is achieved at times, it also falls short in areas.

In the final confrontation, I was expecting more between Achren and Arawn given their past history. It seemed abrupt. Eilonwy is a strong character and I always gravitated to her when she was in the story. I found her adventure interesting, although I think the author should have explained more the connection between the animals of the forest and why they helped her. It was better explained in previous books and I could see if someone was reading book five as a stand alone it would not make sense. I would recommend reading the previous books. There are too many characters that are not explained and the character arc of Taran learning to be a hero is going to be lost on the person who only reads this book. This tale is more of the happy denouement versus the characters struggles to grow up.

The ending has the magic disappearing and the land being given to mortals. This symbolizes the child that grows up and no longer uses fantasies or imagination to deal with problems but has learned to face issues and deal with them realistically. What I like about fantasy is that the hero and heroine tales keep hope alive through vanquishing evil. Life is difficult with hatred and evil evident. When folklore and legends give situations that empower young readers on a visceral level, it helps them deal with unconscious and conscious fears. By questing with Taran, readers can vicariously be afraid and lonely at times and courageous and kind at others. They must decide how they want to be when dealing with similar issues as they grow up in the modern world.

3 Smileys

Taran Wanderer (The Chronicles of Prydain, #4) by Lloyd Alexander

I liked this story the least of the Prydain Chronicles. It's important to the series because it shows Taran really understanding that his identity is based on his ability and accomplishments rather than on position; however, I missed Eilonwy who is barely in it and I found myself not becoming attached to the new characters as much. I didn't think there was enough dynamic. Mostly Taran is being mentored and there isn't as much tension as characters, interact with each other. The story reads more like a folktale with clear morals or lessons Taran learns from his mentors. The usual humor exists and there are action scenes; however the character dynamics didn't hold my interest cover to cover. I didn't burn any meals because I couldn't put this book down.

Taran goes on a quest to discover his parentage so that he can marry Eilonwy. He fantasizes that he is the son of a king and queen and he journeys to far away lands in search of his roots. He gains wisdom and learns how to negotiate and settle disputes by listening to two nobles who are fighting. His ability to empathize with others is a leadership quality that he keeps honing. He continues to learn to rely on himself versus magic and it is his raw honesty with himself and reflections of who he is that makes him so accessible and endearing to the reader. When he is fooled over his parentage, rather than getting angry with the wrong-doer, he realizes that part of the fault lay within himself as well. He realized he had to set aside his shame of not being of noble birth.

On his travels, he meets many common people and learns the nobleness of everyday work. It is after he is apprenticed to a weaver, metal-smith, potter, and farmer that he realizes actions determine what defines a person and not ancestry. When he travels to the Mirror of Llunt, the self-revelation that he has good and bad inside of him helps him accept his orphan status and ignoble birth. He is no longer ashamed and gains wisdom to be content with his station in life.

While learning skilled crafts, Taran learns what it means to fail and not be good at something because he doesn't have a passion for it. One of the journey's with growing up is trying to find something one has a passion for or is good at in life. Taran explores this concept and also realizes that he has a limitation when it comes to making pottery. He does not have the greatness within to be like the master potter he is under. This is a powerful message because to be happy in a chosen profession, a person must have a passion for it, as well as some natural bent. I liked the messages in this book, I just struggled with the pacing in parts. And I missed Eilonwy ; )

3 Smileys

The Castle of Llyr (The Chronicles of Prydain, #3) by Lloyd Alexander

Eilonwy wants to be an sword-wielding adventurer but is told she must go learn to be a princess. She is sent to Isle of Mona where she meets Prince Rhun, a feckless boy that can't manage his own two feet. He is funny and reminded me of the doofy princes in "The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom" by Christopher Healy. Taran is showing some signs of jealousy as Prince Rhun's parents will be overseeing Eilonwy's training in court behavior. She must learn to control her magical powers that she inherited from her parents who are now dead. Taran struggles with not being born of noble birth and therefore unworthy of Eilonwy's affections. When Eilonwy is kidnapped by an evil queen, Taran gathers his companions and seeks to rescue her.

Eilonwy has a magical bauble that glows with light. She loses it when she is abducted and Taran's group finds it. They try to figure out how to make the light illuminate inside, but are unsuccessful at first. The bauble reinforces the hero theme found in the previous two books. Taran is developing his own definition of what constitutes an honorable hero. The bauble can only be used if one thinks about others and does not have selfish thoughts.  Taran is loyal to his companions and will not run away in fear. He is willing to sacrifice his life for others in dangerous situations. Eilonwy learns the meaning of sacrifice and rejects using her magical powers to be someone important. She is content to be herself. Like Taran, her journey toward self-discovery is similar and she learns to grow up and rely on her own competence, not magic.

Alexander paints a complex villain in Achren. Eilonwy has always viewed her as a human and has not feared her like others. She sees her aunt's weakness for power and reliance on magic to gain it. An engaging climax shows the strength of Eilonwy's character that overrides the weaknesses found in the adults of Magg and Achren. While Achren is lured by power that comes from magic, Eilonwy just sees magic as a tool and not what defines her as a human being. Because of that, she is willing to give it up easily for the good of others. Her actions are selfless and heroic.

I was afraid that this story would be more stereotypical with the princess being rescued by a male, but it has a nice twist at the end and is anything but that. Eilonwy is a strong person and most of the time she is not in the dialogue of this story. I really missed her and found myself not as vested in the storyline. Taran has his adventures and meets a goofy giant but I missed the tension and dynamic that comes from Taran and Eilonwy arguing as she tries to get him to respect her for who she is. Both characters are searching for their own identity and while it is Taran's story, I wanted to hear more from Eilonwy.

3 Smileys

The Black Cauldron (The Chronicles of Prydain, #2) by Lloyd Alexander

This was my favorite of the 5 books in "The Chronicles of Prydain" because Taran makes mistakes and learns how to be a better person as a result. Toss in the loss of an admired friend, a nasty bully, three unpredictable witches, and great monsters, and you have a terrific story. Taran's new quest launches him with his old companions and some new ones in an adventure where they must destroy a cauldron that King Arawn uses to create deathless warriors. Led by Aadon, a warrior and bard, Taran seeks the cauldron with Gulgi, Eilonwy, and Prince Ellidyr, a bully that Taran at first hates but later comes to understand. Taran still seeks to be a hero and is learning the definition of what this means through sacrifice and self-reliance.

Lloyd Alexander creates complex, not one dimensional villains. Prince Ellidyr and Taran dislike each other from the start. They both want to run the show. Ellidyr is a foil to Taran who eventually sees his own desires in him, even recognizing the same folly that drives the prince drives him as well. He learns that it is easy to "judge evil unmixed," but more difficult to look at it honestly. "I taunted him for seeking glory yet cling to it myself," Taran says in a moment of truthfulness. The two fight ruthlessly at first and goad each other, but eventually Taran starts to exercise self-control and ignore Ellidyr. He tries to make peace with him but Ellidyr will not agree to it.

This overarching theme of a hero's honor is explored in great depth. Ellidyr calls Taran pig-boy to insult him and later when Taran begins to believe it, Eilonwy scolds him. She points out his honorable actions in being responsible as an Assistant Pig-keeper. Taran mulls it over and decides that honor doesn't come from the praise of others but from doing deeds for ones own self. Tied in this is the message of sacrifice. Aadon, sacrifices for the good of the group as does Ellidyr. Even though most of Ellidyr's actions were dishonorable, in the end he redeemed himself with honor.

When Taran is given a magical brooch, it teaches him empathy, especially with Ellidry, the son of an impoverished king, who wanted fame so much he was willing to kill Taran. He understands his need for glory and self-identity, but unlike Ellidry, Taran realizes that he can't seek it from other people. When he gives up the brooch, he realizes that he can't rely on magic to be a hero, but must rely on himself. "You chose to be a hero not through enchantment but through your own manhood." He learns that sacrifice means giving up his most treasured possession.

Alexander shows that Ellidry's choices have made him a complex, unlikable character; yet he is a sympathetic character because the reader understands Ellidry's misplaced motivations to make a name for himself in the world. The mysterious enchantresses, Orddu, Orgoch, and Orwen, appear evil, but their actions show otherwise. Taran is learning that first impressions are not always correct and that peoples actions show true character. Taran starts to consult Eilonwy during the quest, something he didn't do in book one. He is beginning to respect her opinion and get her input. He grows the most in this tale and is beginning to take a romantic interest in Eilonwy.

The struggle to achieve competence and find one's self-identity is a part of growing up. Good literature reflects heroes that achieve particular feats by accomplishing those feats on their own. It shows the child protagonist growing into a competent, independent adult. This is a common theme in stories for children that feature an inhibited child or impulsive child or scatterbrained child that learns to be competent in an area so as to gain skills and wisdom that will help him or her grow up. Taran also learns ethics and what it means to be a good person in an evil world. This message of achieving moral values externally and internally is timeless and worthwhile. I can see why this story won the Newbery Honor medal in the 1960's.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain #1) by Lloyd Alexander

Some books have gorgeous writing that create a whirlpool of words that swooshes me into the plot like water swirling down a drain. Other books are full of action, humor, and distinct characterizations that have me laughing out loud. This book is more of the latter than the former, the start of a five-part well-crafted series. It is a coming-of-age story that follows the traditions of high fantasy as the protagonist, Taran, goes on a quest to defeat the evil Lord Arawn with the help of the good Prince Gwydion and search for his self-identity. Taran in "The Book of Three" is impulsive, headstrong and temperamental who learns throughout the series to become a leader who is empathic, loyal, and honest to friends and foes. These qualities make Taran a protagonist that most readers can identify with because he does not overcome evil by relying on any great strength or brilliance, but instead on his humanness and moral choices. The characterizations and bubbling humor wowed me more than the descriptive writing.

In the land of Prydain, Taran is the keeper of an oracular pig, Hen-Wen, who can prophecy the future. He wants to be a hero like King Gwydion and go on adventures, not be a lowly assistant pig-keeper. As an orphan being raised by the wizard, Dallben, and Col, he is ambitious to prove himself. When the pig escapes Taran finds he's not the only one after Hen-Wen. The evil Lord Arawn wants her because she knows his secret name. “Once you have the courage to look upon evil,...naming it by its true name, it is powerless against you,” he says. Not only does Taran get his wish for adventure, he begins to ponder the definition of a hero; one that grows to a satisfying resolution in book five, "The High King."

Taran's search for the pig has him meeting companions and friends who join his quest. He is a clod who is endearingly sincere. When he makes bad choices he is quick to apologize to friends. When he treats Princess Eilonwy like a weak girl rather than a respectful equal, she is quick to point it out and he usually comes around to seeing his weaknesses. This makes him an accessible and authentic character. One that the reader can vicariously make mistakes through and learn how to correct. Taran takes responsibility for his actions and accepts consequences. Many will notice the similarities between this series and works of J.R.R. Tolkien's and while the author uses well known legends and myths from Wales, the story is his own, original  and kid-friendly.

Alexander wrote these books in the 1960's and some Goodreads reviewers have complained about the simplicity of style. I would describe the style as more didactic as the adults usually give wise advice. Perhaps the vocabulary isn't as complex as many fantasy novels today. Alexander creates distinct voices with characters that are brilliant and would make a good mentor text for teachers or writers. His companions include Gulgi, a hairy-type pet who uses gerunds at the end of just about every sentence. His favorite line ending is "crunchings and munchings." Princess Eilonwy is the orphaned daughter of a line of enchantresses who helps Taran escape from the castle of the wicked Queen Achren. She speaks using similes in just about every sentence" "Besides I'm not sure I'm going to help you any more at all, after the way you've behaved, and calling me those horrid names that's like putting caterpillars in somebody's hair." She is also unaware of her wisdom she imparts to others in the story that points to heroic and good human qualities. She helps Taran become a better person but in a funny, not condescending way: "Thank you for saving my life," said Eilonwy. "For an assistant Pig-keeper, I must say you are quite courageous. It's wonderful when people surprise you that way."  Flewddur Fflam is a king who wants to be a bard. He has a magical harp that snaps a string every time he lies or exaggerates the truth. He's a hysterical twist on Pinnochio. His dialogue consists of, "A Fflam would never..." or some other boastful comment. Doli, the dwarf, wants to be invisible and his dialogue consists of whining about how whenever anything needs to be done that no one wants to do the Fair Folk (dwarves) get "good old Doli."

These companions help lighten the mood of the dark quest and I found myself laughing in-between action scenes. Eilonwy never panics either. Even though they are in the midst of a serious situation, she just plows along like there is nothing to worry about because things will come out all right in the end. She is a good example of choosing your attitude. My only complaint is that I would have liked her presence even more in the stories. When the group makes decisions, she never speaks up and gives her input. I did like how Taran changes in his attitude toward her. He doesn't treat her with respect in the first book but grows to respect her by the end. A series of quests leads the group to a battle with the Horned King, the evil Lord Arawn's right hand, and main pursuer of the pig Hen-Wen. A magical sword is found that's power becomes more important in subsequent books.

Fantasy is a medium where readers can work through their own personal issues in their lives and Taran is a character that the modern child can relate to inspite of this story being 50 years old. Alexander's story begins with characters' feeling unhappy with themselves and believing that finding magical objects will bring them contentment. Taran thinks that being a hero will make him be important and he pursues the glory before he realizes that being a hero means being motivated intrinsically rather than by prestige. He also learns that evil exists inside all of us and it is the choices made in life that help us cope with it. As characters' give up magical powers they learn they can deal with reality and don't need the fantastical - a lifelong lesson for all.

4 Smileys