Monday, May 25, 2015

Brief Reviews Fall 2014 part 3

Panic“Panic began as so many things do in Carp, a poor town of twelve thousand people in the middle of nowhere: because it was summer, and there was nothing else to do.”  Panic is a game that can change your life or take it away.  Every school day every student pays a dollar to the pot for the winner.  On the first day of summer any senior can enter the game by participating in the opening jump.  For the rest of summer, participants compete in challenges like walking on a slippery board 50 feet up with no net.  Secret judges watch their progress and eliminate the slow and the scared.  The winner walks away with enough money to change their life forever.  The losers sometimes can no longer walk at all.  But for $67,00 many think it's worth the risk.
This book was certainly gripping and kept me eagerly turning the pages.  The characters are well drawn and are perhaps best described as living lives of frantic desperation.  After all, to participate in these stunts you'd have to be pretty desperate.  This goes way beyond your average game of truth or dare.  The main character's mother struggles with substance abuse and the effect this has on her daughters is shown in an unflinching and deeply moving way.  Every participant is broken in some way and hoping that Panic will be the answer to all their problems.  Which brings me to my main (SPOILER) issue with the book--it is the answer to their problems.  The game itself is completely unethical from the way that they collect money like some high school mafia beating up kids who don't comply (a dollar a day adds up especially in a town with such prevalent poverty and the source of the money is never questioned or depicted as problematic) to the game itself where at one point they have to cross six lanes of a highway blindfolded.  That is insane.  It's mentioned that there were some deaths in previous years but there's no real consequences for any of the characters during the novel.  In fact at the end their experiences brought them all closer together so they're all coupled off, richer, and happier than they were before thanks to their participation in this immoral, illegal, and completely insane game.  There's not even any mention at the end that Panic should stop.  It seems like all the characters are content to let it continue in perpetuity and why wouldn't they?  It worked out pretty darn well for them!  If you're just looking for a quick paced read then this will fit the bill but do not try this at homePanic by Lauren Oliver: buy it or check it out today!

Sway I was eager to read this story when I heard it was a retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac.  That play is very near and dear to my heart, which might have made my expectations unreasonably high, but the fact remains that I was sorely disappointed. Cyrano is the story of a noble, heroic figure with a gift for sword fighting and poetry whose disfigurement leads him to believe that his love, Roxanne, would never return his affections.  So he agrees to the nearest thing he can get--wooing her for the better-looking but less-eloquent Christian.  Christian turns out to be a heroic figure himself with some integrity and after winning Roxanne through Cyrano's letters insists that Cyrano tell her the truth because he wishes to be loved for the fool he is or not at all.  In this version Cyrano is a drug dealer and swindler who accepts payment to stalk a girl so he can help a jerky jock woo her.  Not only does the Christian figure lack the complexity of the original instead filling the usual stereotypical jock role but Cyrano's (completely serious) closing advice to a kid who wants to become popular is that he should become a drug dealer.  This story has a vague resemblance to the bare-bones plot points of the original but has very little of the poetry, complexity, or heart. Sway by Kat Spears: buy it or check it out today!

Rebel Belle (Rebel Belle, #1) I read this book for my book club.  It was billed to me as similar to Buffy but the comparison did not serve it well.  Buffy is both a feminist and geek icon as well as a cheerleader. Her empathy and understanding of others helps her fulfill her destiny as much as her powers.  The main character of this book meanwhile spends most of the novel judging every other character for everything from wearing hipster glasses "I mean, it’s the twenty-first century. There are fashionable options for eyewear." to when she says "--ew--role playing games." None of the characters were really sympathetic or even believable to me.  The boy who teases her (because he likes her and is apparently five) is a journalist and reads biographies of the greats and tries to take his profession seriously.  Yet he has no trouble throwing journalistic ethics out the window when it comes to printing rumors about his crush. Her boyfriend meanwhile pulls a total jerk move towards the end of the book that seems completely out of character and whose only explanation seems to be because it was convenient for the plot. Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins: buy it or check it out today!

The Song of the Quarkbeast (The Chronicles of Kazam, #2)This book was just as absurd and hilarious as the first.  It's like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for fantasy instead of sci-fi.  My favorite idea from this book was a light globe that runs off sarcasm.  If only I had one of those I'd never have to buy a light bulb again! Instead of describing the book I'll just share some of my favorite humorous quotes from it.
"The only time we get to fight the powers of darkness is during one of the kingdom’s frequent power cuts."
“If a shred of integrity fell into your soul, it would die a very lonely death.”
"'It’s complicated.' 'Love always is,' said the moose, sighing forlornly. 'I’m only a vague facsimile of a moose once alive, but I share some of his emotions. Ach, how I miss Liesl and the calves.'"
The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde: buy it or check it out today!

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Thickety Review

The Thickety: A Path Begins

Book talk: When Kara was six, her mother was executed for practicing witchcraft.  She can still remember that terrible day.  Now her father is a shadow of the man he was and her family is ostracized by the community for the taint of sin upon them.  They can just barely scrape by in their miserable lives.  But when Kara follows a bird into the Thickety she discovers a book that belonged to her mother.  A book of magic.  The book could give her the power to make all their lives better, but if she is caught with it she'll suffer the same fate as her mother.

Rave:  The basic concept of a witch being persecuted by a religious community is pretty well-trod, but the setting and the style of magic in this novel are completely original.  The Thickety is an ominous presence full of unknown dangers and Kara's feelings of excitement and foreboding as she discovers her power are palpable.  The characters are layered and believable as their father copes with grief and members of the community are silenced by fear of persecution.

Rant: The rules of magic in this world are unlike anything I've read before and at times it can seem a bit confusing or arbitrary.  I'll be interested to see how the mythology and magic of this world develops in the second book.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to students 5th and up looking for a fantasy adventure novel with strong characterization.

Topics and Trends: Magic, fantasy, witches, outsiders

Extras: 

The book's website has posters for some of the creatures found in the Thickety as well as classroom discussion guides: http://thethicketybooks.com/

The author has a website with interviews and other extras: http://jawhitebooks.com/

There's a book trailer by the publisher on YouTube:


Source: school library

The Thickety: A Path Begins by J.A. White: buy it or check it out today!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Greenglass House review

Greenglass House

Book talk: "There was a city that could not be mapped, and inside it a house that could not be drawn."  Milo lives with his parents in a rambling old inn filled with as many secrets as the smugglers that come to stay there.  The inn sits high on a hill overlooking a harbor with two ways up: a steep path, or a cable railway.  Tourist season was long over and snows were arriving to leave them stranded from the main town.  Milo didn't mind--he was looking forward to the time alone with his parents--which is why he was surprised and upset when the cable railway's bell rang to notify them of a waiting passenger.  Soon Milo's quiet holiday has turned into a loud and chaotic mystery as eccentric guests fill the inn and begin to sabotage it in their hunt for hidden treasure.  Milo joins forces with a new friend to solve the mystery and find the treasure the guests are after but what starts as a game to pass the time soon turns into a dangerous adventure.

Rave:  
The premise of the story is filled with intrigue and excitement and it only gets better from there!  An old inn in a smuggler's bay trapped by a winter storm--what more could you ask for from a mystery setting?  The characters are eccentric but instead of using these eccentricities as a cheap jokes they're another layer in these well-rounded characters. The story has a strong emotional core that holds all the adventure aspects together and makes them more resonant.  Milo is portrayed with all his flaws and frustrations and fears.  The way he works to get to know each guest and make their lives better despite the fact that he didn't want anyone to be there is touching.  Most touching is the way the book deals with Milo's feelings around his adoption and an author's note reveals that Milford wrote the book while going through the process of adopting a child herself.  Did I mention that Milo and his new friend  use the framework of a role playing game to provide a cover for and give them courage to investigate the inn's mysteries?  And in case I haven't made it clear yet the main plot revolves around a bunch of thieves competing to find a treasure hidden in an inn that used to be owned by an infamous smuggler.  So much to love about this book!

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to anyone looking for a good adventure or mystery especially those with an interest in role playing games.  I'd say it's fine for 4th grade and up.

Themes, Topics, and Trends: Adoption, Smugglers, Treasure Hunts, Mystery, Competent Adults, RPGs, Ghosts

Extras:  

Kate Milford has her own website

You can find a fake website for the Nagspeake Tourism Board (the city the book takes place in) to find out more about the setting of the novel.

Source: ebook from public library

Greenglass House by Kate Milford: buy it or check it out today!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming Review

Brown Girl Dreaming

Book talk: I'd just read some of the poems aloud.  No description of this book can sell it half as well as a sample from it.  

Rave:  It's hard to write anything about this book that will do it justice.  On the surface it's a memoir about an African American author growing up during the Civil Rights Movement.  But it's not really about any one thing just as a person's life isn't about any one thing.  There are parts about her family, her struggles with learning to read, and how she eventually found her voice as an author. The poems taken together tell a coherent story of her life, but they could just as easily be read separately and stand on their own.  The things Woodson chooses to describe are just as interesting as the way she chooses to describe them.  Above all the language is simply gorgeous.  I'd read about anything and enjoy it if done with this level of beauty and skill.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to fans of poetry and aspiring authors as well as anyone looking for a story that takes place during the Civil Rights Movement.

Topics, Themes, and Trends: Diversity, Poetry, Authors, Writing, Reading difficulties, The Civil Rights Movement

Extras:

You can learn lots of fun facts about Woodson over at her website including "I can only write with my notebook turned sideways. When I was a kid, I wrote with it turned upside down." and
"I know the lyrics to about a thousand bad songs from the 1970s, including songs from tv commercials and television shows."


Bonus Quotes:

“I believe in one day and someday and this perfect moment called Now.”

“Even the silence
has a story to tell you.
Just listen. Listen.”

"The empty swing set reminds us of this--
that bad won't be bad forever,
and what is good can sometimes last
a long, long time.”

"My mother has a gap between
her two front teeth. So does Daddy Gunnar.
Each child in this family has the same space
connecting us."

"On paper, things can live forever.
On paper, a butterfly
never dies."

Source: ebook from the public library

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson: buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Night Gardener Review

The Night Gardener

Book talk:
"On this March-morning-that-felt-like-October, a horse and cart rattled down the road. It was a fish cart with a broken back wheel and no fish. riding atop the bench were two children, a girl and a boy, both with striking red hair. The girl was named Molly, and the boy, her brother, was Kip. And they were riding to their deaths."

When the Great Famine drives them out of Ireland and separates them from their parents, Molly and Kip are forced to take whatever work they can find.  At first Molly is relieved to find a placement for both of them at a house in the English countryside.  But her relief quickly turns to suspicion when the locals refuse to point her in the direction of the sourwoods where the mansion is located.  From the moment Molly lays eyes on the estate where she is to live and work she can tell that something isn't right:

"At the far end of the lawn stood the Windsor mansion. The house had obviously been left vacant for some years, and in that time it seemed to have become one with the landscape. Weeds swallowed the base. Ivy choked the walls and windows. The roof was sagging and covered in black moss. But strangest of all was the tree. The tree was enormous and looked very, very old. Most trees cast an air of quiet dignity over their surroundings. This one did not. Most trees invite you to climb up into their canopy. This one did not. Most trees make you want to carve your initials into the trunk. This one did not. To stand in the shadow of this tree was to feel a chill run through your whole body."

Soon Molly learns of the strange visitor that always comes at night and leaves muddy footprints behind.  She can tell that the family who lives there knows more about it than they let on, but stranded in the countryside with her brother and nowhere else to go she has little choice but to stay or face homelessness and starvation.  As she uncovers more of the mansion's secrets she starts to think that no home would be far better than one haunted by the Night Gardener--if only she can make it out alive.  

Rave:
This book is deliciously atmospheric in the style of the very best Gothic literature.  Everything is a little off from the beginning and the sense of unease grows steadily as the story progresses.  The final reveal of what holds the family in thrall to the Night Gardener and keeps them there is insidious and brilliant not to mention an excellent moral.  On top of all the top notch fantastic elements it's a great work of historical fiction.  The author explains in a note at the end that he is married to a Victorian scholar which means he spends a lot of time "learning interesting facts about the nineteenth century--and by interesting I mean horrifying."  He finds great ways to work these real-life horrifying facts in among all the fantasy horror elements.

Molly is a first rate protagonist both in her bravery and in her story-telling abilities.  A lot of the book deals with this issue of how to tell a good story and the difference between fiction and lies.  There's even a character who makes her living as a storyteller.  Auxier himself choose his words carefully and is great at weaving truths and lessons into his fiction, for example Kip uses a crutch which his Dad names Courage  "saying that all good tools deserved a good title. Kip had always liked the idea that courage was a thing a person could hold on to and use.”

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to students looking for a good scary story and aspiring storytellers.  Obviously some kids can handle horror better than others but for students that like to be frightened I'd say it's fine for 4th grade and up.

Themes, Topics, & Trends: Victorian Era, Great Famine, Horror, Stories and Storytellers, Greed, Dark, Atmospheric, Diversity (physical ability)

Extras:

You can find a soundtrack for the book over at Jonathan Auxier's site

Bonus Quotes:

"A story helps folks face the world, even when it frightens ‘em. And a lie does the opposite. it helps you to hide."

"It’s a bad tale that tells all the answers."

“Stories come in all different kinds...There's tales, which are light and fluffy. Good for a smile on a sad day. Then you got yarns, which are showy--yarns reveal more about the teller than the story. After that there's myths, which are stories made up by whole groups of people. And last of all, there's legends...Legends are different from the rest on account no one knows where they start. Folks don't tell legends; they repeat them. Over and over again through history.”

Source: ebook from public library

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier: buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

School Library Journal's 2015 Battle of the Books

I always love following School Library Journal's battle of the books, but this is the first year I got my act together in time to read all the books before the judging began.  I made it in just under the deadline with the first round posted tomorrow and my final 3 books finished this weekend.  To see the brackets yourself and follow along, check out the official Battle of the Books blog.  I haven't had time to write reviews of them all, but here's how I hope the battles will go down.  Be warned: in order to discuss why I chose each book I have to occasionally venture into spoiler territory.  

The Children of the KingBrown Girl Dreaming
Brown Girl Dreaming V. Children of the King
Both of these books are beautifully written and have wonderful examples of figurative language in particular.  When it comes down to it though, I read stories for the characters, and while I was completely absorbed by Jacqueline Woodson's story I didn't really care about the characters in Children of the King.  I found the plot of Children of the King rather meandering as well and I will confess to an anti-ghost bias.   This one is no contest for me: Brown Girl Dreaming.

The CrossoverEgg & Spoon

The Crossover V. Egg & Spoon
I don't think I have ever seen a full basketball game in my life and most of my memories of the sport involve getting smacked full in the face with the ball.  And yet I loved Crossover.  It had me laughing and crying and caught up in the movement of the words.  On the other hand Baba Yaga is one of my favorite folk characters so I thought I would love Egg & Spoon, but it felt more like an American story that just happened to take place in Russia than a truly Russian story (for one thing all the names made sense--and what's a Russian story without puzzling out the dozen names everyone seems to have?) I did not like the way Baba Yaga was portrayed at all.  Make her evil or make her a misunderstood grandma but don't make her a pathetic creature rattling off unfunny jokes full of references to everything but Russia.  Her knowledge of modern pop culture is never really explained and while we are probably supposed to assume that she has powers to see the future or even time travel it felt like she was just an excuse for Maguire to make jokes he otherwise wouldn't have been able to.  Besides if she did have all that power why should she have to go to the Tsar to solve a problem with magic?  He didn't help and I'm not sure why she thought he would except that Maguire needed a way to get Cat to St. Petersburg.  Nothing Baba Yaga did made any sense except as a way to move the plot along. There were some great lines in Egg & Spoon and I enjoyed aspects of it, but let's break the Newbery curse and move The Crossover to the next round.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial RussiaEl Deafo
El Deafo V. The Family Romanov
This one is much harder than the previous two matches.  El Deafo is adored by my students and I can see why.  I love everything about this comic from the creative ways Bell depicts concepts like words fading away to the frank way she discusses her hopes and fears and pulls it all off with a light touch.  The Family Romanov  was also excellent and made sense of so much of the Russian history I had glimpsed through novels.  It read almost like a novel and I eagerly followed the characters along as I nervously awaited what I knew would be a bad ending.  I particularly appreciated the way Fleming sprinkled in portrayals of the lives of common Russian citizens during the era and her balanced way of pointing out everyone's flaws as well as their strengths.  I can find no fault with either of them, but for the way El Deafo made one of my students light up in a way that no other book has been able to, I need to pick it.  

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza (Joey Pigza, #5)Grasshopper Jungle
Grasshopper Jungle V. The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
My decision for this match will not come as a surprise to anyone in my book club who had to listen to me ranting about it at our January meeting.  I really wanted to like this book.  It's so rare to see bisexual characters in literature or any character struggling with their orientation.  But I could not stand Austin.  He's a complete jerk to everyone but especially his girlfriend and he still ends up with everything he wants without seeming to have learned any lesson. Of course we weren't made to feel much sympathy for the other characters because they were all so paper thin that they barely existed--especially the female characters whose main purpose was to make the male characters horny. The only thing that kept me from throwing the book across the room after the 100th time he pointed out he was horny was the fact that I was reading it on my Kobo.  Yes.  Austin is a horny teenager.  We get the point.  It was like a procrastinating student standing at a pencil sharpener grinding away for so long that eventually the pencil is worn to nothing but a point that is no longer even effective for its intended purpose.  I haven't read any of the other Joey Pigza books so I found The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza a bit confusing but it still beats Grasshopper Jungle as easy as pizza pie.  

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My PrettyThe Madman of Piney Woods
The Madman of Piney Woods V. Poisoned Apples
I confess to being a bit confused at the start of this novel because I have a tendency to skip over chapter titles and headings when I get caught up in a story and Christopher Paul Curtis always hooks me in from the start.  As a result it took me a few chapters before I realized that the story was alternating between different perspectives.  That is my own fault though and I can hardly hold it against this excellent story.  Once again Curtis created fully realized characters in a fascinating historical stetting with a plot that has space for both humorous hi-jinks and touching life lessons.  Poisoned Apples has some excellent messages as well involving feminism and body image.  I am 100% behind the messages in her poems and the creative ways she uses fairy tales to describe the plight of modern teenage girls.  The pictures were haunting and lovely.  Still while I loved the ideas behind the poems I wasn't particularly impressed with her use of language.  There weren't any examples of that magical type of poem that says something so perfectly I can never think of that idea or feeling without its words springing to mind.  Perhaps that's a tall order and it's a highly subjective criteria but I have to decide this battle somehow and it's enough for me to give this match's victory to The Madman of Piney Woods.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil RightsThe Story of Owen (Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, #1)
The Port Chicago 50 V. The Story of Owen
I had never heard of the Port Chicago 50 before despite it being local history for me.  I'm glad the contest gave me an excuse to read this book because it was a fascinating albeit upsetting read.  Sheinkin did a wonderful job pulling together first person accounts so the reader could get a sense of what it must have been like to go through what they did. The Story of Owen was just fantastic and I have nothing bad to say about it.  Troubadours, dragons, a boy/girl friendship that doesn't turn into a romance: what more could I ask for from a novel?  Plus I love the alternate history aspect of it and how dragon slaying was retrofitted into explanations for everything from major historical events to Lady Gaga and The Beatles.  I found Port Chicago fascinating but not gripping and it took me a few weeks to get through whereas I finished The Story of Owen in one sitting. I enjoyed both, but this round is going to Owen.

This One SummerA Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown's War Against Slavery
This One Summer V. A Volcano Beneath the Snow
I appreciate the honesty of This One Summer and I think it's an excellent slice-of-life story.  The artwork was well-drawn and I can see why so many people like it.  It's not my cup of tea though.  I prefer more creative uses of panels and artwork in my comics (like in El Deafo) and this one was pretty straight-forward realistic.  I understand that it's supposed to be a slice of life but in the end I just thought "was that all?"  The characters were well rounded and relatable and there were several touching moments but it didn't stay with me.  It took me several sittings to finish and considering how short it is that's saying something.  I finished A Volcano Beneath the Snow in one sitting but that's mostly because I was running out of time to finish all the contenders before the official judging began.  I enjoyed reading all the context provided and I feel like I got a far better understanding of the period from this book than I did from my AP US history class back in school.  I found the chapter explaining the history of the slave trade particularly illuminating and well-written.  I wish Marrin had delved deeper into John Brown's legacy on modern history though.  Still, if my worst complaint is that he left me wanting more then he certainly deserves to win this match.  

West of the MoonWe Were Liars
West of the Moon V. We Were Liars
I have a soft spot for fairy tales retold and I was glad to see a book that explored a less well-known source of folklore in West of the Moon.  I liked the way Preus wove fairy tales and history together with Astri making sense of her upturned life by using the stories she knows so well.  The story was unique and gripping although I'm not sure who I'd give it to.  The plot and characters feel like they'd appeal most to younger grades but the complex language and the 'goatman' make me think it's better suited to older grades.   I still haven't entirely forgiven We Were Liars for differing so wildly from my expectations.  I read it in one sitting and really enjoyed the experience, right up until the climax came out of nowhere to completely shatter me emotionally at a time when I desperately needed a pick-me-up.  Besides, as I previously stated I have a thing about ghosts--especially in otherwise realistic stories.  I think I would have liked it much better if I was prepared for a tear-jerker, but my vote is  still for West of the Moon.  

So that's how I hope round one will work out.  One of the great things about books though is how they're a completely different experience for every reader.  I'm sure other people will feel differently about the contenders and I look forward to seeing what everyone else thinks. For one last summary of my votes:
Brown Girl Dreaming
The Crossover
El Deafo
The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
The Madman of Piney Woods
The Story of Owen
A Volcano Beneath the Snow
West of the Moon

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Absolutely Almost Review

Absolutely Almost

Book talk: Albie has always been an 'almost'.  No matter how hard he tries his work is only ever almost good enough.  So he wasn't surprised when he found out that he was only almost good enough for his private school and he had to leave it for a public one.  That means no more school with his best friend, one in a set of two triplets whose family is now starring in their own reality TV show.  But Albie is starting to make new friends at his new school and they have a special math club there that is way better than sitting through regular math class.  Perhaps this new school year will be better after all. Or perhaps it will just turn out to be another 'almost.'

Rave:  I love how heartfelt this novel is without ever becoming saccharine (unless you count all the doughnut references.) I also like that it's a slice of life without any false climax or easy resolution.  Everything about the novel from the way the characters are drawn to the way events plays out seemed realistic to me except perhaps for how awesome his babysitter is but these flukes do happen.  Let me talk for a minute about the babysitter and the way she gets Albie to take his mind of his problems by making a cardboard tv and remote for him that she places in front of the window.  The math club teacher was another favorite of mine with his proclivity for puns ("Why didn’t the quarter roll down the hill with the nickel?...Because it had more cents") Albie's friends, both the camera-shy reality tv star and the new friend he makes, are great characters too.  The way the model airplane pictured on the cover becomes a physical manifestation of his relationship with his dad is at turns clever, heartbreaking, and hopeful.  The book is full of great characters, memorable small moments, and valuable life lessons.  If you're looking for a realistic school story this is an excellent choice.

Every book its reader:  Albie is in 5th grade but he reads as younger and I'd say it's fine for younger kids curious about older grades.  It would make a great class read-aloud because it's fairly fast paced and easy to understand with plenty of humor but brings up a lot of great discussion points

Bait & Hooks:  
puns, protagonist of color (Albie is half Korean, half Swiss), humor, school story, superstar teacher, learning differences, inspiring artist, bullying, baked goods

Extras:

Lisa Graff has a great page for the book with interviews, reading guides, and further reading suggestions.

Source: ebook from public library

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff: buy it or check it out today!