Sunday, January 31, 2016

Drums, Girls, + Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick

I was thinking this reminded me of "Wonder" with its emotional punch and melodramatic ending but it was written ten years before "Wonder" by R.J Palacio, so to be more accurate, I should have reversed that statement. Terrific pacing and a strong voice make this rise above the typical school story. It starts out framed using the convention of a middle school kid writing in his journal in English class but that gets dropped halfway through the novel. Some parts are predictable and a bit dated as this topic has been in the media for ten years with students at schools helping others in need or that are battling cancer. What makes this story particularly good is the strong character development, the protagonist's interest in music, and humor that lightens the serious topic of a sibling dealing with his five-year-old brother who has been diagnosed with Leukemia.

Thirteen-year-old Steven is in eighth grade, loves to play the drums, play with his younger brother, drool over the hottest girl in school, and tool through school as the funny kid when life changes the day his brother fell off the kitchen stool and gets a nosebleed that won't stop. Steven's mom comes home from the hospital only to inform them that Jeffery's nosebleed has revealed that he has Leukemia. First all of them feel guilty for not seeing that Jeffrey was sick. Then Steven's dad withdraws into himself going into denial, while Steven feels anger over the Jeffrey's rotten diagnosis. To top things off, Steven's mom is now gone all the time and his brother is having painful chemotherapy treatments. Steven hides it from everyone at school until an intervention is called and he is forced to deal with his brother's cancer.

Steven's character arc goes from him being angry and resentful because his parents are not paying any attention to him, to one that is not so self-centered. In the end he stops feeling sorry for himself and he recognizes how his parents are doing all they can to help Jeffrey. Steven deals with his anger by banging on his drums for hours learning new musical pieces and driving out his worries at least temporarily. This came across as really authentic. The author says he is a drummer and it comes through in the detailed writing. I particularly like it when Steven talks about being in "the zone" while playing the drums. Anyone that has played sports or been on a team that clicks in a way that all of them work like one unit or just made an individual effort above and beyond, knows the magicalness of moments like that.

At times Jeffrey responds to Steven in ways that sound too old and jarred me out of the narrative. Steven even comments about how does Jeffrey say this stuff and I wonder the same thing. I just can't picture a five-year-old using the phrases like "magnet babe". But who knows? His brother is 8 years older. You'll have to decide for yourself. It does add humor so it isn't annoying. The parents are normal and loving but they too are trying to deal with their lives being turned upside down. Steven sees that it is hard on them but their issues stay on the plot's fringes allowing the reader to get completely absorbed in Steven's point of view. I found this book hard to put down and a fast read. I also thought the subplot with Samantha helped tone down the melodramatic ending. It is a sobering reality but one that many cancer patients have to face. Not everyone survives the disease. A gripping story.

4 Smileys

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Phantom Tollbooth (Essential Modern Classics) by Norton Juster, Diana Wynne Jones (Introduction)

"The Phantom Tollbooth" is about escaping boredom and enjoying the pursuit of knowledge. Milo is bored with everything around him and doesn't see the purpose in gaining knowledge. When a mysterious box appears with a toy car, map, and tollbooth, Milo is sent into the fantasy world of the Lands Beyond ruled by King Azaz in Dictionopolis, the city of words, and the Mathemagician in Digitopolis, the city of numbers, where he changes as each adventure exposes him to the joys of learning. 

On his journey Milo meets Tock, a dog with a clock in his body, and Humbug who wants to be smart and important but  has neither of those qualities. The two kings do not get along because one feels words are more important than numbers and vice versa. Their sisters, the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason, used to settle their disputes until they were banished to the Castle in the Air for telling the kings that both words and numbers are equally important. Milo goes on a quest to bring them back to the kings and establish peace throughout the realm.

While this is brilliantly written, I ironically lost my focus when Milo stops in Digitopolis, the city of numbers. Ironically, Norton Juster is poking fun at contemporary education by showing that words and numbers shouldn't be separate, but I've never liked math and even the funny wizard couldn't hold my attention. That's not to say that this is a heavy-handed moral story. It isn't. It is full of puns, word plays, and wit. I should probably be banished to the Land of Ignorance for my confession regarding numbers. Digitopolis is important in showing Milo's character arc as he realizes that while he doesn't understand math, through questions and answers he can find pleasure in learning mathematics and even trick the Mathemagician that rules there. 

The satire is clever with the Land of Ignorance showing creatures that can't reach their potential for various reasons. The villain, The Senses Taker, manages to take away the trios sense of purpose by asking them meaningless questions. The one sense he can't steal is laughter and that is how Milo learns to defeat him. Maria Nikolajeva writes about this book's use of emblematic characters who possess one trait and are flat. They differ from allegory in that they personify virtues, vices, and other human traits based on conventional signs versus allegory that requires more decoding by the reader. She says this type of writing stems for the Baroque tradition in art and literature. It reminded me of a long fable with many different morals imparted on each of Milo's adventures.

Milo is able to bring peace to the kingdoms because he is able to take responsibility for his education by addressing his ignorance through experiences that involve asking questions and seeking answers. When Milo returns to the tollbooth he discovers that he must let other children use it. However, rather than be disappointed, he is excited to learn about the world around him. This moral tale will either delight you or bore you which is sort of funny as it is addressing the concept of boredom in education. Either way, I can see why it is a classic. A brilliant work.

5 Smileys

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Don your cape and soar into this smart, well-written book that parodies and deconstructs the superhero trope. While some will think it a blast to read, others will want it Gamma Bombed. It's silly, cartoonish, and a bit like watching the "Laurel and Hardy" TV show - two people acting stupid over and over and over again - only these two are fifth graders, Rory Rooney and his nemesis, Grim (aka Tommy-Lee). But beneath the humor are layers of deeper themes as Rory learns to deal with bullying, friendship, and self-confidence while being surrounded by inept adults. Plenty of archetypes and wackiness. Rocket launch your realistic side to Mars and have fun with this one.

Rory is being bullied by Grim and his minions at school. After he is pushed into a river on a field trip he emerges from it with skin the color of broccoli. He finds himself as a medical subject study along with another "green boy" who happens to be Grim (aka Tommy-Lee). Rory decides he and Grim have superpowers because of the abundance of green superheroes in comics: Hulk, The Swamp Thing, The Green Hornet, Green Goblin -who isn't a hero but villain, but hey, this plot is not only about heroes but villains too. Going from powerless to "super" he thinks that he can slightly teleport and his brain operates at 200% while Grim can break any security code while sleepwalking. Rory feels empowered by his physical change and convinces Grim that they can work for Good. He stops calling him Grim in his first step toward a bully-free life.

While Rory declares the two will use their superpowers for Good, he's not sure Tommy-Lee knows the definition of good. His fears are realized as their powers plunge the city into chaos as they sneak out at night from the hospital where they are imprisoned test subjects and pull pranks. As Rory has a hey-ho time with his escapades, he starts to waffle toward thinking of the duo as villains. Tommy-Lee thinks they are doing good so he wants to rob a bank. Yes, his definition is a bit messed but he's so dumb he thinks a night club is a bank and their robbery is quite creative. The author ka-pows! with plot twists. Next adventure has Tommy-Lee sleepwalking and the two getting into some shenanigans at the London Zoo. Last adventure they meet a green girl who changes the dynamic of their relationship.  One adventure after another leads to green pickled messes that make for a terrific and unpredictable plot.

The author pays tribute to comic book superheroes while poking fun at it too. ""But there's more than one kind of hero. There are heroes with shocking great muscles who can stop a speeding train with their bare hands... But there are also skinny little heroes who destroy big bullies using only their superior intelligence and cunning." This is where Frank Cottrell Boyce deconstructs the superhero trope. Comics have suffered historically as being male-dominated with stereotyped women and men of muscle. Here the hero comes in the form of the puniest kid in the grade, a bully that hides his fears, and a girl that wants to run the world. The shifting between the characters between being good and bad makes them more real and interesting as the story progresses.

The character development focuses mainly on Rory and Tommy-Lee, but the archetypes are funny as well. The nurse watching over them eats different kinds of chocolate every night as she watches them in what Rory calls, "The Fish Tank." They are locked in a glass room with Nurse Rock (as they call her) just outside. "What kind of person can't settle on a favorite type of chocolate? A 100 percent untrustworthy kind of person, that's what." After the two break out at night and explore London, the nurse can smell chocolate on Rory that they'd been eating. Rory calls her a bloodhound.

Tommy-Lee has anger management issues. His parents don't visit him. Nor do Rory's. Or so it seems.  Another pretzel in the plot for you to eat up. The trio use a window washing cage instead of the elevator because "superheroes do not use the lift." Again, the poking fun at superhero tropes makes this fun. The three green children decide that if everyone in the world was green there would be no people fighting over who thinks they are better than others. Yep, I'm for team green.

Rory's character arc shows him learning what a real hero means and that it is the same as being a good friend that knows when to do the right thing. When Tommy-Lee gets in a tight spot, Rory has to decide whether or not he will help him or walk away. All three have weaknesses and strengths that they face throughout the plot and it gives them more depth of character.

Everyone reacts in the wrong way to Rory from students to adults. It is so absurd that I couldn't help laughing. It was constant and reminded me of the book, The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom. Although that one is nonstop gags on fairy tales not superheroes. From the nurse checking in Rory at the hospital, to his hypochondriac mother and odd family, to the boys coming up with superhero names, be ready to laugh. This book pokes fun at nurses, doctors, parents, politicians, etc. The nurse grabs Rory's hand and says she needs blood. "This won't hurt," She said, grabbing my thumb and jabbing it with a needle. She squeezed blood out into a test tube. It really, really hurt. "I lie" - she smiled - "a lot. But always for your own good." How often have you heard that at the doctor's office? Everyone is convinced, including Rory's parents that he turned green on purpose. When he is bullied, it is his fault. He's blamed for everything and anything to such an extreme it adds to the absurd comedy.

Humor is not easy to pull off. When it falls flat, it splats. The author mixes comedy and realism with great word choices that kept me flipping the pages. He describes Tommy-Lee's sleepwalking, "Then he gave a snore that sounded like a tiger gargling treacle. Then he rolled over. Plonked his feet on the floor. Stood up and started to do the Spooky Playmobil. I followed him..." Did I mention that the city is under high alert from a Killer Kittens virus plague? Silliness blasts off from the get-go.

When Rory and Tommy-Lee meet Koko Kwok, things get interesting. When I was growing up comics were male-dominated with dippy women in them. Now there is more diversity and women can be their own superheroes. Once Koko enters the plot it shows that she's the brains of the "Laurel & Hardy" show and Tommy-Lee does whatever she asks and never bullies her. She develops a catchphrase for them, "Green is for Go!" The trio even picks-up a couple of penguins on their adventures in a nod to Batman comics. Enjoy this one. Super astounding.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

Gennifer Choldenko is terrific at using historical details to create a strong setting that is easy to visualize. She nails it in her latest book set in San Francisco during a plague outbreak at the turn of the century. Thirteen-year-old Lizzie wants to be a doctor but girls are not in that profession in the 1900s. Still, she follows her father, who is a doctor, on rounds and knows more than the average teen about diseases. Her obsession with science and medicine make her spout big words with peers at boarding school, and one reason she is rejected by them. She adores her big brother, Billy, but lately he is such a grouch she can't even connect with him. It isn't until she meets Noah, a Chinese American, hiding from a quarantine that she discovers a true friend.

While I thought the start showed the characters as somewhat stereotyped, as the story progresses they become more complex and interesting. A strong female character charges through a plot with nice twists, unusual pranks, and predictable spots that make this entertaining. Our grade 5 curriculum has a unit on immigration that this would support as well. A good library acquisition.

Themes involve prejudices and lack of choices. Lizzie is a girl who wants a career that is not available to her. Noah, a Chinese boy, wants the same opportunities as whites such as going to college. Billy, Lizzie's brother, doesn't want to be a doctor, the career his dad has set before him. He wants to be an athlete. The characters try to find their identity in a world that they can't conform to and the result is disastrous and freeing. In a subplot Lizzie learns to make friends at her school where she has been isolated and rejected by adults and students. When a popular girl decides she likes her, Lizzie learns the complexities of friendships.

This part of the novel bothered me a bit as Lizzie seems a bit too out there with her relationships for someone that smart. I've been reading quite a few books this year where the girls that love science are isolated, nerdy misfits and it is beginning to feel cliched. This type of character has shown up in the books: The Thing About Jellyfish, Circus Mirandus, and The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate. The book also seems to try to do too much. Lizzie gets attacked by male adults that want to do her physical harm and the next minute she's stopping a mob. The trauma of that is glossed over and I get she's being portrayed as a hero, but it gets pretty unbelievable at that point. What is believable is Lizzie's in-your-face girl disregard for authority because she is lacking in social cues and inhibitions.

Lizzie makes up some humorous limericks and when she gets back at the snobby older boy with the help of Gemma and her brother, it makes for good fodder. Lizzie also evolves into a more interesting character when she meets Noah. She sounds less like an encyclopedia. Aunt Hortense slowly becomes less villainous and more complex in character and Lizzie's naivety at the beginning has changed completely by the end when she's dealing with the quack doctor. 

Writing historical fiction would require a ton of research. Even when I'm writing book reviews I'm researching facts. It is part of the fun of reading historical fiction. I appreciate Gennifer Choldenko's notes at the end. Make sure you read them. One question I had that was not in the notes concerned the word, "Doh je," that is used in the novel (instead of Mandarin word for thank you, "xiexie"), when Lizzie meets the boy, Noah, from Chinatown. "Doh je" is Cantonese for "thank you." The Chinese word appears many times in the narrative. I would not have guessed that Chinatown's predominate language was Cantonese, but many of the immigrants came from a province in mainland China that spoke it. Enjoy reading, "pung yau."

4 Smileys