Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits by Michael D. Beil

This fast-paced mystery steams along with humorous characters and unpredictable twists and turns as the adventure starts on the Lake Erie Shoreliner train during the 1930's. Lantern Sam is a calico cat with a penchant for solving mysteries and stealing most scenes with his smart aleck comments and thoughts. This talking cat can communicate with a few people and has little patience for most humans unless they have a can of sardines on them. Luckily the conductor of the train, Clarence, does have Sardines and a disposition that Sam can tolerate. Don't be fooled by this testy cat, Sam has a good heart. When 10-year-old Henry Shipley boards the Shoreliner with his family, he makes friends with the rich girl Ellie who goes missing after a few hours. Once a ransom note is found, Sam and Henry team up to piece the clues together and figure out a jewel heist.

The plot has two parallel stories. Sam has flashbacks that tell how he grew up and ended up with Clarence. It takes talent to make both stories interesting. So often I'll lose interest in one storyline versus the other. You'd think a plot string following a cat would be a dud but the author has some of the funniest parts here. Sam landing on a chihuahua was a favorite. The cat dame he falls for might go over the head of some younger readers, but it echoes the voice of Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and had me snorting. He does a terrific job imitating the hard-boiled detective with cat humor.

Most of the story was unpredictable such as the subplot with the goofy hat lady and Sam's adventures, but the judge at the end was a bit obvious. The subplots misleading the reader as to who the culprits are might be confusing for some readers. The author has the jewel heist, an elopement, and corrupt authority taking illegal actions. The more complex the mystery the more I like it, but it might be hard for young readers. Just something to keep in mind.

While most of the action takes place on the train, the climax occurs at the Blue Streak roller coaster at Conneaut Lake Park. I couldn't decide if I thought it was a let down or not. I was less interested in it but that might have been because I had figured out they mystery. I am not sure young readers will feel the same. I think they'll like the whole roller coaster death ride. The epilogue was a nice touch. Don't miss the outrageous Lantern Sam and his nine-plus lives.

4 Smileys

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

The Boundless is the largest train ever assembled at seven miles long with 1,000 cars carrying 6,500 passengers. Will Everett is traveling first-class with his father who is overseeing its first intercontinental trip. A circus troupe is aboard complete with elephants, tight-rope walkers, magicians, and a sasquatch. Big Foot is alive and ferocious in this adventure full of twists and magic. Add to the mix a mysterious funeral car rumored to be full of a wealthy man's treasures, a spunky girl, a magical painting, and a bunch of murdering thieves and you have a tale that will appeal to many young readers.

Will Everett's father, James, begins as a poor workman on the Canadian Pacific Railway when he saves the life of the railroad's owner. He is given a promotion and the owner recognizes James potential moving him up the company's echelon and becoming friends with the family. Will struggles with their newfound wealth and socio-economic status finding that his father works all the time and has big career aspirations for Will. Unfortunately, James does not support Will's life-long desire of becoming an artist. When Will meets Maren, the wire artist, he begins to look more closely at his career goals and his growing attraction for her.

The pacing is fast and the plot has some nice twists. Taking the myth of sasquatch and making it real is one that grabbed my imagination. There is one gory part at the end and a murder but they are not described in graphic detail. They might bother the reader that is sensitive to violence. The villain is one-dimensional, but scary enough as he chases down Will trying to get the special key to the funeral car. While some of the chase scenes are unbelievable they are fun and add to the fast-paced action.

The minor characters are interesting with Maren compromising her morals in order to save her family from starvation. Mr. Dorian seems a bit out of character at the end. He is quite careful at protecting people until the part when he seems to needlessly put people in harms way to save his own skin. Will's outrage mirrored my own and while Will tries to empathize with Mr. Dorian, I didn't buy it. Some might also find James change of heart too sudden as well.

While mainly a coming-of-age story, the middle shows shy Will learning to take the stage and be confident. He is in disguise and it is by pretending to be someone else that Will finds the freedom to overcome his lack of confidence. Will also grows as an artist realizing what is missing when he paints versus sketches. When he sketches Will tries to just capture the essence of a person; whereas when he paints he overworks the drawing. He discovers this during a high-stress moment that shows him growing as an artist and person. A nice message about being confident and pursuing what you love. A piston-packed adventure. Go for it.

4 Smileys

Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson

It takes a heroic writer to pull together characters and plot filled with zombies, football heroes, sugarcane harvesting, domestic abuse and link it into a gripping story that echoes Beowulf. Then there is the fist-bump writing itself. Swollen with seemingly disparate topics and ripe with terrific rhythms, word choices, and action - it swallows the reader like the Florida swampland Charlie suddenly finds himself in at the start of the novel. Mack's football coach has died and Charlie is at the funeral with his stepdad Mack, his mom, and his stepsister. His mom is afraid that her abusive ex-husband who lives in Taper might stir up their violent past. Mack decides to temporarily accept the newly vacated football coaching job and Charlie isn't sure how he feels about it. When cousin Cotton takes Charlie on an adventure in the sugarcane showing him a mysterious stone littered with dead animals, a tall man with a helmet and sword steps out of the swamp scaring the two like rabbits fleeing from burning sugarcane. This ambitious work pulls off most of what it sets out to do for a satisfying adventure that I know my students will be gung-ho over reading.

This appears at first to be a realistic story before quickly morphing into something quite fantastical. Charlie's dad and stepdad were football heroes at their high school going on to play in college and professionally. Charlie's dad made poor choices and ended up in jail while Mack, Charlie's stepdad, made wiser choices with his life. Mack reminds me of Hrothgar in Beowulf as he offers Charlie wise advice modeling how to not be angry with his biological dad. "Your father made mistakes. We all do. But instead of working to set things right, he chose to protect those mistakes-he let them be." He goes on to tell him to overcome those mistakes and focus on his strengths; the strengths he received from his father such as toughness, easy laughter, and fleet-footedness. When Charlie decides to forgive his dad, it has been nurtured to some extent by Mack and echoes his wisdom. And Charlie isn't the only character that learns to forgive. This message of redemption applies to others as well in the novel.

When the Gren or zombies sent by the swamp-hag show up, it's hard not to make Beowulf comparisons. Just as Grendel in Beowulf terrorized King Hrothgar's hall, so the Gren terrorize the sugarcane fields of Taper. A battle ensues and a quest to kill the swamp-hag is tackled by heroes.  In Beowulf, the heroic code is strength, courage, and honor which is also portrayed in Charlie, Cotton, Mack, Lio, Natalie, Sugar, and Bobby. Even the ripped off arm in Beowulf shows up in the ripped off arm of a Gren with toxic blood. Charlie does not have to save Cotton but does so because it is the right or honorable thing to do. The football team learns the heroic code by having to collect 10 rabbits and face a sugarcane harvest fire using speed and courage. How the heck the author came up with that idea and managed to connect it to Beowulf in an understandable way is truly the creative process in full swing.  Don't miss this one.

5 Smileys

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown

Nancy Marie Brown describes her adventures on an archeological dig in Glaumbaer, Iceland where she is convinced that the Viking longhouse the crew is excavating is that of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, a woman, who traveled eight times across the Atlantic from Norway exploring Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and Rome 500 years before Columbus. While it isn't proven that the longhouse is Gudrid's home, Brown sets forth compelling evidence based on her in-depth knowledge of shipbuilding, Viking lifestyle, textile industry, language, farming, and the Icelandic Sagas, to name a few. Much of the cultural history Brown weaves into this story from roughly 985-1050 is from her own travels, experiences, and archeological finds at L'Anse aux Meadows and Newfoundland. While details on Gudrid are sparse and few, the reader does get a feel for Brown's sense of humor and scholarly mind in this well-written nonfiction text. It is obvious that Brown admires Gudrid and while she is limited by the scarce scientific findings on the woman, she inserts her imagination of Gudrid standing at the longhouse cooking and weaving that allows the reader to put pictures in his or her head. While it is hard to create Gudrid as an in-depth character, Brown, at least for me, is the main character holding my interest throughout the pages.

The Icelandic sagas describe Vikings that colonized Iceland and Greenland and Brown explores the differences and literary devices she believes were used to enhance the stories or are facts that can be used to determine how the people lived or what Gudrid did in her life. Brown concludes that Gudrid was the daughter of a chieftain with money issues that refused to marry her to a rich slave-born merchant. She landed in Brattahlid, Greenland and lived at Erik the Red's settlement who had been banished there after murdering a neighbor in Norway. She sailed with Leif, Erik's son to Vinland or Newfoundland with her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni, and gave birth to her son Snorri. Native Americans ran them off the land and she settled in Glaumbaer, Iceland and later made a Christian pilgrimage to Rome.

Brown adds many details on gender roles that are interesting. Women were scarce and married men were known to share them. The women enjoyed a certain amount of power as a result. Brown also notes that while excavating womens' grave sites a notable amount of Christian crosses were buried with them while the men grave sites had none. She muses that perhaps the Norsk religion was a reason. Men got to go to Odin's glorious Valhalla Hall after death in battle, but women were not allowed there. Some other gods had halls that were for women but not the majority; they got to look forward to spending time with Loki's halfgiant daughter that ruled a cold, damp, depressing hall called, "Damp-with-Sleet." Christ didn't distinguish between genders and welcomed all. Perhaps this appealed to Viking women.

I wished there were pictures and maps in this book. I am a visual learner and appreciate this type of aid. Of course, it increases the cost of a book so I understand when it isn't there. Fortunately in the age of Internet, all I had to do was Google "Viking spinning whorl." If you are willing to do a bit of research on your own it enhances the text. I did buy the eBook and maybe the print copy does have some visual aids.

Brown describes the use of modern technology and how the past is reconstructed based on the technique. She explains carbon dating from tree rings to determine when a Viking ship was made and radiocarbon dating of animal bones in garbage heaps to show diet changes, to name a few. In Newfoundland soil was sent to a biologist to determine if Vikings landed there. He identified three butternuts in the soil, a place where they do not grow, but a nut that was favored by Norwegians; hence, the conclusion Vikings landed in Newfoundland. While excavating in Iceland, Brown worries about techniques used today and if she is destroying some evidence for understanding a culture out of ignorance or anticipation of some future technology. She cites examples of how it can innocently be done that adds emotional impact. Since Brown can't give us Gudrid's thoughts, she gives us her own or imagines Gudrid. I thought her narrative added to the informational text immensely and helped spice up the facts.

Her debunking of Jared Diamond's theory that the Vikings left because of the drop in seal population is an excellent study in discourse. I realize this is not a book for everyone. I like that she covers multiple disciplines from archeology to science to literature to social studies. I think she has nice pacing so that the text doesn't get boring, but some might not be interested in it and you must know that I really like Viking history. I enjoy studying Norse mythology and Scandinavian folktales. Hence my bias needs to be considered because you might not like the topic. I loved it. Now, I have a better idea of what it was like to live as a female Viking. Oof!

5 Smileys

Thursday, July 24, 2014

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

A clever mix of 19th century immigration, folktales, and folklore makes this a fascinating read. Astri, a Norwegian girl, has been sold by her aunt to a nasty neighbor, Mr. Svaalberd, to help him with his goat farm. From the time she first saw Mr. Svaalberd, Astri saw signs of a man with questionable intentions, sleeping at night with a knife under her pillow for protection. She is a plucky survivalist who uses her wits by taking advantage of opportunities to try and get herself and her sister on a ship from Norway to America. Her father left Astri and her sister in the care of an aunt who sells Astri as a servant to Mr Svaalberd. Astri deals with her situation and abuse under Svaalberd by making comparisons with the folktale character in "East of the Sun West of the Moon." This theme of how stories help people deal with reality is tightly knit throughout this tale. In a nice balance of dark and light, Astri humorously calls Svaalbeard, "Old Goatbeard," "Mr. Goat," and "Goatman" comparing him to the Three Billy Goats Gruff. She also recognizes Svaalberd's stories of the hidden folk or "huldrefolk" are meant to keep her from running away. Preus captures a time when Christianity and the old religion live side-by-side; a time when one God and science along with superstitions, folklore, and magic are used to define the unexplainable and people believe in each to varying degrees.

Preus has terrific character development and beautiful sentences. When Astri meets the mute girl she dubs her, "Spinning Girl," because she is an incredible weaver. Astri tells her stories: "That's what I tell her, but as her wheel whirs, my mind whirs along with it, and soon I've run out of golden thread with which to spin my pretty stories and I'm left with just the thin thread of truth. And that wiry, rough little thread tells me that if anyone is going to do any rescuing in this place, it's going to have to be me." She uses stories to comfort herself and also give her strength to take action. She is strong-spirited and makes good and bad decisions in her quest to get to America.

This book has many authentic and historical details. Astri makes up names for the people in the story such as Spinning Girl, Goatman, which made me think of how the Norwegians made up nicknames describing people. The Vikings had "Erik the Red," "Unn the deep-minded," and "Gudrun the Fair" to name a few. There was "Haakon the Good," the King that established Christianity. Preus also includes small details such as the Sølje brooch that is Norway's traditional silver, flatbread, goat bells, the Seter, old Norsk versus new Norsk, and more. I wondered how a poor goat farmer could afford help, but Spinning Girl would have made Goatman money. People would pay for a warm coat or jacket during the cold winter months and her weaving would have given him more money than his poor goat farm. If you are interested in a historical book that explains Norwegian economy and the importance of textiles, as well as farming, then read the archeological book, "The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman," by Nancy Marie Brown.  It shows how spot-on Preus is with her details. The only question I had is the use of "lass" and "wee" throughout the story by Goatman and the farmer's wife. I'm not sure that the Scottish language would have influenced the dialect in a remote rural Norwegian village, but hey, those Vikings got around. Maybe it did. My relatives always used "lite" or "liten" for little and a child was a "barn." But dialects vary all over Norway and I don't know how much other countries influenced European languages in the 19th century.

Another terrific detail is the provisions needed to bring in an immigrant's trunk. I know many families that still have these trunks in Minneapolis and I am amazed to think of what they had brought from Norway. Preus details their provisions and it is mind-boggling. Right now I'm looking at my great-grandma's rosemaled bread basket thinking of her packing for America. Did she bring 24 pounds of meat like in this story? Did she bring too much butter like the man in this story that Astri steals from? One warning about content is that Goatman attempts to sexually assault Astri, but it is written in a straight-forward way and Astri doesn't dwell on it. This part might bother some readers while others will not be fine with it. Also, even though Astri is a victim, she does terrible things as well. She steals to survive. She hurts others. But she has a conscience and struggles with her decisions. She regrets her mistakes and has an admirable self-reflective honesty. As a character, she is very real. This is a tale of redemption. Astri must learn to forgive herself and others to move on and find happiness in her life. A Newbery contender. Don't miss it.

5 Smileys

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Qwikpick Papers: Journey to the Fountain of Poop by Tom Angleberger

Give kids books on poop, gas, or burps and they laugh hysterically. Most adults scratch their heads at this scatological humor. For me, it's interesting watching nonreaders become drawn to reading as students huddle around books belly-laughing over a character in his underpants. Some adults find these stories on vomit, poop, urination low-brow, but the reality is that they get kids excited about reading and talking with each other about books. And that is a good thing. I suppose that toilet humor regarding body functions is frowned upon culturally. No wonder kids like the novelty and rejection of this taboo. The Qwikpick Papers involves this fascination but also how sewage plants work, friendship, and best friends dealing with a crush on the same girl.

This book was first published in 2007 and rereleased. While Tom Angleberger worked as a reporter for a newspaper he stumbled across an article about some kids that had an adventure at the city's sewage plant. Taking that seed of an idea he came up with Lyle Hertzog, the protagonist who lives in Crickenberg, a small town with little action. Lyle lives in a trailer park as his parents work at the Qwikpick convenience store trying to make ends meet. They work long days and hours leaving Lyle with a lot of time on his hands. When Lyle hears at school that the city's sludge fountain is going to be replaced by a new sewage plant, he hatches a plan with his friends, Dave Raskin, and Marilla Anderson to sneak out and see it. Their poop fountain adventure has some unexpected results.

Angleberger's concise writing has a simple plot that makes this book easier to read than the Origami Yoda book series. The reader gets glimpses of his future hit series as origami papermaking has a major part in this book and Star Wars is a topic of conversation with Dave. Lyle and Dave have a crush on the unknowing Marilla. Things go sour when they compete to make the best origami paper object. Dave creates a complex Pegasus horse and gives it to the thrilled Marilla while Lyle bemoans the fact he'll never be able to top it to get her attention. While Dave and Lyle do not talk about their crush on Marilla they begin to compete against each other leading Lyle to do something really drastic at the sewage plant. He impresses Marilla, but it is gross.

The funny photos, illustrations and handwritten notes on the side help guide the reader and add to the setting of a small town that has a hard time getting the latest technology and is a time before the explosion of Smartphones and tablets. The font changes from typewriter to regular typeset that also aids with changing point of views or shifts in scenes. All these clues will help the reader working toward fluency. A funny adventure that will satisfy students.

4 Smileys

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mitosis (Reckoners #1.5) by Brandon Sanderson

If you liked "Steelheart" then you'll be satisfied with this 35 page eBook that continues where book one left off with the Reckoners defeating the enemy. The city of Newcago shows citizens leery of their newfound freedom and pessimistic that another epic will take over the Newcago. Their peace is short-lived when Mitosis comes to town. He not only wants to rule it but he wants to kill David. A true David and Goliath battle ensues full of action and fun.

While Sanderson is a master at world-building, you really need to read book one to understand the characters and what is going on. The dark story is lightened by humor giving it that right mix that made me unable to put it down. The message of working together in order to defeat a seemingly invincible tyrant in order to live in freedom is a common theme, but I like how Sanderson makes it fresh. The awful lyrics David sings to distract the Epic are quite funny. A clear story arc that is well-written with interesting characters.

4 Smileys

Friday, July 4, 2014

Fairy Tale Comics: Classic Tales Told by Extraordinary Cartoonists by Chris Duffy

I had problems seeing the text in this graphic novel. I bought it on the Kindle and the format would not let me enlarge the font and it only had the landscape option for a two-page spread. I need one of those ornate magnifying glasses they sell in Taiwan for older people who can't read the tiny Chinese characters on labels. Never had a book make me feel old before. Nose pressed to the glass, I will remember my eye strain more than the stories. While there were some funny fairytale twists, I thought the illustrations were more memorable than the stories. Hmmm... guess that makes sense considering I couldn't read some speech bubbles.

The writing twists are subtle in some tales such as "Little Red Riding Hood," that follows the classic but the lumberjack is a woman. Snow White follows the same too but begins with a cross-eyed queen pricking her finger and wishing for a child as white as snow with blood-red lips and hair as black as her embroidery frame. Snow white as a baby looks like the female version of Casper The Friendly ghost. Her eyes cross too. When the bell-hop prince with buck teeth comes to kiss her I was wondering what hilarious setup was coming. I was not disappointed. It's pretty funny.

"The Boy Who Drew Cats" was my favorite. Creepy, humorous, with a good message it reminded me of the character from "Harold and the Purple Crayon" with a bit of Tintin mixed in. The misunderstood child just wants to draw cats while the adults around him try to force difference occupations on him. When his cat drawings turn into vampires, he is forced to be a warrior. The trickster tale of the rabbit has strange illustrations with a clear moral. Rapunzel is a lassoing strong women that rescues the prince and "Baba Yaga" has illustrations that are gorgeous. I would recommend getting the book and passing on the electronic version.

3 Smileys