Monday, February 28, 2011

Graceling Review

Book talk: When a child's eyes don't match it means that they have been Graced, but a Grace isn't necessarily a blessing.  Katsa discovered her Grace when she was eight, the day she killed a grown man with a single blow.  When the king finds out that she has a killing Grace, he is eager to use her to punish his enemies and scare his people into submission.  Katsa hates being the King's enforcer, but she can't change her Grace, and she can't disobey a King.  At least, that's what she thinks until she meets a boy with mismatched eyes who can actually hold his own in a fight against her.  Soon her whole world is turned upside down and Katsa is fighting for higher stakes than she ever has before, not the least of which are her life.

Rocks my socks: Talk about a strong female lead!  In the opening scene Katsa takes down every single guard in a dungeon, rides all night without sleep, and carries a man up a steep hill only to get back on her horse and keep riding so she can make an appointment to break some fingers.  Oh yeah, and that man she carried and took down the guards for was a complete stranger that she was saving just because he was imprisoned unjustly and she's the head of a group dealing out vigilante justice to protect the people from their own corrupt kings.  Strength, brains, integrity--Katsa has it all!  The world building is excellent as well, and the plot is pretty fast-paced and action-packed without sacrificing characterization and meaty questions of morality and justice.  I started this book at around 10pm and stayed up until 1am finishing part one and then spent a day probably thinking more about it than I should while being on the clock at work and hurried home so I could finish the rest.  Yep, those are all the elements that rocked my socks.  I totally didn't spend all that time spacing at work swooning over the male lead and plotting out their romance in my head.  I'm far too cynical for that.

Rocks in my socks: The climax was a bit abrupt.  The problems were piling on and the rising action kept escalating and I was looking worriedly at the end of the book thinking it would be a cliff-hanger because there couldn't possibly be enough time to wrap it all up and then suddenly the final showdown began and I blinked and it was over and action started falling again and wrapping up all those loose ends nicely.  I probably would have minded more if I wasn't eagerly disinterestedly awaiting the conclusion to the romantic storyline.

Every book its reader: I'd give it to grades 6 and up who enjoy fantasy.  This book has plenty of action as well as characterization and romance, so it should have pretty wide appeal.  Fans of Katniss in the Hunger Games trilogy will enjoy Katsa in particular.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Buy it at your local independent book store or check it out from your local library.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Little Book of Language Review

Book talk: Have you ever wondered when exactly a baby starts taking on the sounds of its mother tongue?  Or where writing came from? or why English spelling is so weird?  Or what the heck is up with Basque?  David Crystal answers all those questions and more in this primer on language.  Everything from its origins to texting, from the mechanics of how we speak to the reasons why we do.  Crystal breaks it all down into bite-sized chunks covered with a smooth caramel coating of British wit to make it go down easier.

Rocks my socks: The scope of this book really is incredible and tantalizing and makes me want to learn more about language.  I love Crystal's narrative tone and all the amusing anecdotes he works in.  Some of the most amusing parts to me, however were parts that were probably never intended as such.  Crystal is English and writing for an English audience, as such he often uses examples that would seem every day to fellow Englishmen but that are delightful to a yank like me.  For example apparently in British Parliament you can't just call a fellow politician by their name, you have to call them either your Honourable (differences between American and British spellings are covered in chapter 10) Friend or an Honourable Gentleman depending on whether they're of your political party or not.  Delightful!  The British political and legal system never ceases to amuse me.

Rocks in my socks: This book seemed like a bit of tease to me.  Its scope is large but its depth is not.  It introduces a lot of topics and gives an overview of them, but I often felt disappointed that it didn't delve deeper.  To be fair, that wasn't the purpose of this book and if it had done so it would have had to be a series of books instead of just one, but it annoyed me nevertheless.

Every book its reader: I'd give this to anyone looking for an introduction to the study of language.  This book is a great starting point because it covers so many topics so you can see which areas you are most interested in to study farther.  I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who has already done much studying in this field because it is a fairly basic introduction.  The text is simple and entertaining enough to be enjoyed by teens if they had an interest in the subject.

A Little Book of Language by David Crystal

Buy it at your local independent book store or check it out from your local library

Saturday, February 19, 2011

When You Reach Me Review

Book Talk:  Miranda's life already feels strange enough now that Sal isn't talking to her.  It means she has to find new friends to spend lunch with, and walk home alone past the gang of older boys, and the man who sleeps with his head under the mail box and constantly talks to himself.  But Miranda's life gets a lot stranger when she finds a note in her library book one day.  She keeps finding notes in the oddest places, and when they begin to predict the future she gets really scared, especially when the notes tell her that one of her friends might die.  Who is sending the notes, and how can she change her future, especially once it becomes her past?

Rocks my socks: I enjoyed the characters in the novel for all of their quirks and for the hidden surprises to be found in many of them.  Miranda's first impressions of people are often proven wrong as she gets to know them better.  I appreciated the references to Wrinkle in Time and could probably stand to take a cue from the lessons Miranda learns about the importance of getting to know people and make new friends.

Rocks in my socks: Even though the book deals with time travel I wouldn't call it a science fiction book, and it certainly isn't intended for a science fiction audience.  As a result it spends a lot of time explaining basics of time travel that would be obvious and completely unnecessary for any sci-fi fan.  I enjoyed the characters and the time travel theme, but I just felt that neither of them were taken far enough to really interest me.  Perhaps this is a problem resulting from high expectations, but I really thought that a Newbery winner would have more for me to sink my teeth into.

Every book its reader: Despite the time-travel element I wouldn't give this to a sci-fi fan for the aforementioned reasons.  There isn't actually much in this novel for them.  The exception to this would be fans of A Wrinkle in Time who would probably enjoy all the references to it.  I would give it to fans of general fiction with female protagonists and to fans of fiction based in school settings.  Grades 5 +

Bonus Quote: "It's simple to love someone...but it's hard to know when you need to say it out loud"

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Lock and Key Review

** Disclaimer: I had to read this book for work and would never have picked it up on my own because I know it's not the type of book I enjoy.  As such, the only way I'll be able to make it through this review is with heaping helpings of sass.  If you are a fan of Dessen novels, you may want to stop reading now.**

Book Talk: Ruby's mother has taught her not to rely on anyone but herself and that relationships only end in disappointment and abandonment, so she's spent her life keeping everyone at a distance.  But when even her mother abandons her one day and Ruby is left alone, she is determined to get through to her 18th birthday on her own.  She might have been able to, if it wasn't for her landlords finding out and sending her to live with the sister that she hasn't seen since she left for college ten years ago.  During that time she's done well for herself.  She's married now with a fancy house and wants to take her sister out of her overcrowded public high school and send her to a private one.  It seems nice, but Ruby knows that she can't trust her, or anyone.  Not even her cute neighbor who is looking for friendship, and perhaps more.  She has to play along for now, but her 18th birthday and independence isn't far away.

Rocks my socks: I suppose there's a good lesson somewhere in there about learning to trust people and being able to change your life for the better.

Rocks in my socks: Where to begin: the predictable plot, the under-developed characters, the fact that Sarah Dessen has clearly very little understanding of the fringes of society?  I have never read a less-convincing bad boy character and it had nothing to do with the fact that this was a bad girl.  All the characters at the private school ended up being good at heart while the characters at the public school all betray Ruby in favor of their debauched ways.  I think what annoyed me the most, however was the abundance of metaphors all revolving around the same theme.  You'd think that a book 422 pages long would be able to tackle more than one theme, but you'd be wrong.  Every single character was a reflection of what Ruby was going through and every motif brought home the same message.  There was the pond with its balanced ecosystem working together, the fish that returned when she was afraid to get attached to it, and let's not forget the titular metaphor of the key!  That was woven into so many aspects of the book I'm surprised her name wasn't keyla and she didn't join a chorus so she could learn to sing on key while playing a keyboard and wheeling around in old-fashioned roller-skates with a key that she found by decoding a map with a key word that lead her to an arch where she had to look in the key stone to find the treasure.  All of these metaphors wouldn't be so annoying if it wasn't for the fact that they are all so heavy-handed that I'm surprised they didn't fall through the paper they were written on, ripping the book.  A few holes obscuring parts of the text could have only improved the novel.  As it was, by the end she had hit me over the head so often that I believe I developed a sizable bump.

Every book its reader: Even though, as you might have surmised, I did not enjoy the novel I will admit that this may be in part due to my own prejudices against this type of fiction.  I do not enjoy this genre and never have, even as a teenage girl.  However this is exactly the type of novel that some people enjoy, and that's fine.  The predictable nature of the book and its formulaic writing mean that a reader picking it up knows exactly what they are getting into.  Many people find this comforting and will enjoy the way Ruby is saved from rock bottom and makes her way to a bright future while finding romance along the way.  For those looking for a light, easy romance novel with a the faintest hint of contemporary issues fiction, this book is for you.  Grades 7 and up.

Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen

Support your local independent bookstore or check it out at your local library.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Rock and the River Review

Book Talk: The year is 1968 and the civil rights movement is in full swing.  Sam's father is at the forefront of the non-violence movement, along with his mentor and friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Sam has grown up listening to his father stir up crowds and rallies and preach the tenets of non-violence, but when King is assassinated he begins to question if peaceful protest will ever be enough.  His older brother does more than just question his father's methods and becomes a member of the Black Panthers.  Sam loves both his father and his brother, and he can understand the reasons each chose their methods.  But during the increasing turmoil of the times he can't straddle the line between the two extremes forever.  Sam's life is swept along by the tide of both movements and when he realizes he can no longer return to the life he once knew he has to pick which path he will follow.

Rocks my socks: This is one of the most unflinching and well-written historical novels I have ever read.  It takes on difficult issues without backing down and performs an amazing balancing act with elements of historical fact, character development, and plot that resulted in a pitch-perfect novel that keeps you turning the pages while still providing occasional relief from the tension of the plot, which allows each pivotal moment to have all the more impact.  A lot of historical novels make the mistake of allowing historical events to entirely drive the plot and the result is characters that are basically stand-in guides through an era, but the characters in this novel are complex and layered fully developed, which really allows the reader to be immersed in the era and see events and care about them through the character's eyes.  The book left me without any definite answers but with a deeper understanding of the questions, and as far as I'm concerned that's the mark of a great book.

Rocks in my socks:  My eyes were so sore from crying by the time I finished the novel, which isn't a real complaint, but I'm hard-pressed to come up with any.  I do think the ending would have been more interesting if we hadn't found out what Sam's final choice was, if it had ended a few pages sooner.  It would have upset readers, but it would have got them talking and led to some interesting debates.

Every book its reader: This would be a good book to read as a class or in a discussion group both so that more historical context could be provided and because this book screams to be discussed.  I'd recommend it to 7th grade and up.

The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon.

Support your local independent book store or check it out from your local library.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Shark vs. Train Review

Finally a book has been published answering the age-old question of who would win in a fight: a shark or a train.  The book thoroughly explores the possible outcomes given different situations ranging from the standard scenario of a shark winning in the ocean to the more original circumstance of a train using its powerful furnace to win in a burping contest.  The playful illustrations that accompany each scene will delight young readers as they are taken on a train trip through their imagination, or is it a shark ride?  Either way the fanciful landscapes in this book will stretch and spark a child's imagination.  This book will be particularly valuable and entertaining for children in the preoperational stage described by Piaget where children begin to understand symbols and enjoy fantasies and dreams.  The sparse text and elaborate drawings will provide rich materials for children in this stage as they begin to draw pictures from memory and delight in fantasies.

Shark Vs. Train. By Chris Barton & Tom Lichtenheld. Little, Brown and Company, 2010. [16] pages. $16.99, ISBN 978-0-316-00762-7

Velma Gratch Review

It's hard being the last of three sisters to enter first grade.  All of Velma's teachers remember Frieda for her wonderful singing voice and skills in math.  They remember Fiona for how fast she could run on the soccer field and how well she spelled.  But Velma's teachers can hardly even remember her name!  All this changes, however on a field trip to a butterfly conservatory where Velma gets to stand out for her own reasons.

This story will resonate with all children entering school in the shadow of an older sibling and the whimsical nature of the text and the colorful and engaging illustrations will be sure to please and entertain even only children.  The lesson of the importance of being true to yourself and carving out your own path is one that is important to all children, and reflects principals of Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences.  Velma's sister Frieda appears to be strong in rhythmic and logical intelligences while Fiona appears gifted in kinesthetic and linguistic intelligences.  As linguistic and logical intelligences are highly valued in traditional school settings, both older sisters did well in school and are fondly remembered by their teachers.  The interactive nature of the field trip allowed Velma's own skill in naturalist intelligence to shine through.  This shows the importance of differentiated education in making each child feel valued by allowing them to explore subjects using a variety of intelligences and not just through the traditional linguistic and logical modes.

Velma Gratch and the Way Cool Butterfly. By Alan Madison.  Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Schwartz & Wade Books, 2007. [18] pages. $17.99, ISBN 978-0-375-83597-1

Support your local independent book store or check it out from your local library.

Picture Book Reviews

I am taking a course in children's materials ages 5-8 this semester, and I will have to review a lot of picture books for it.  I'm going to post them here, but they will follow the format my teacher has outlined rather than my regular one.  They will also probably contain some odd add-on regarding whatever part of the week's readings in educational theories our teacher wants us to discuss.  I will also keep up with my regular posting of books read in my free time in the usual format.   Just a heads up; I hope you enjoy them!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Great Wide Sea Review

Book talk:  When Ben's mother dies all he wants is some time to be alone, but his father has other plans.  One day he announces that he's sold their house and bought a sailboat and that the family is going to spend a year sailing around the Bahamas.   Ben and his two brothers don't want to go, but he is their father and so they have to go anyway.  Ben is so upset with his father he doesn't even want look at him, so living on a 30 foot long boat with him 24/7 seems like the worst fate imaginable, that is until the worst truly does happen.  One morning they wake up in the middle of the ocean to find their father gone.  The boys are left all alone, and a storm bigger than any they've ever seen is brewing on the horizon.

Rocks my socks:  I like how layered the characters are and the changes they go through as they deal with their grief.  None of the characters are perfect, they all make mistakes they wish they could take back, but in the end they're family and they know that they have to stick together.  I also found the descriptions of their trip fascinating.  I could tell that the author had actually been to many of these places, and her experience and the sense of place really comes through and enriches the novel.

Rocks in my socks: The tone of the novel was pretty unrelenting and even scenes that could have been nice, relaxing interludes were told in a way that made me extremely aware of the fact that it was just the calm before the storm so I was still on edge.  I read the book in one sitting and by the end I felt like I had been battered by a storm myself.

Every book its reader: This book is perfect for a teenager seeking a fast-paced adventure novel, especially for those who like survival stories or with an interest in sailing.

The Great Wide Sea by M. H. Herlong

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Toby Alone

Book talk: When you are only one and a half millimeters tall, a tree can seem like the whole world, and that world is a dangerous place.  Ants, weevils, birds, and even rain drops can pose a big threat.  But the world is even more dangerous for thirteen-year-old Toby who suddenly finds himself the subject of a massive manhunt.  A whole army of big muscled and small-brained crooks are out looking for him, and with his parents held hostage and his friends turning on him, he quickly finds himself alone.  But Toby's not the only one in danger: with organized criminals taking over the tree, exploiting all its resources and silencing all the opposition, the tree itself is in danger, and all who live in it.  How can Toby save the tree and its people when most of them are trying to kill him?  It's a big responsibility for such a small boy, especially one who's all alone.

Rocks my socks:  The world Fombelle creates is delightfully creative and entertaining.  Just imagining the world as it would appear to someone one and a half millimeters tall is a refreshing lesson in perspective.  Toby is constantly getting himself into scrapes that seem almost absurd from our lofty stature, but Toby's bravery and ingenuity in getting back to safety won me over.  There is also a cast full of wonderful characters, including Toby's parents.  It was nice to see a story where a kid actually has adults he can rely on and look up to, and yet due to the fact of their being held hostage we still get to see Toby trying to survive on his own.  I like the themes it weaves in of sustainability and doing the right thing in the face of danger and prejudice.

Rocks in my socks: Even though the book is full of action the tone of the book is almost one of detached amusement so that the pacing doesn't feel very fast.  When Toby got out of a scrape I often thought "How clever!" but I never thought "Phew, that was a close one!"  The book was very entertaining, but I read it over a week or so right before bed and I never had difficulty putting it down when the time came to go to sleep.

Every book its reader: I recommend it to fans of adventure grades 4th and up.  There's plenty to appeal to a wide range of readers because while the main narrative starts with Toby at 13, it ends with him at 15 and much of the story is spent in flashback to when he was younger.  While there is a lot of action, there's nothing too frightening in there, the only obstacle for younger readers would be its length.

Bonus Quote: "Words are the enemy of darkness.  If you choose to be their friend, they will help you out all your life...that was why people talked about being 'familiar' with a word or language.  They were like a family to you."

Toby Alone by Timothee de Fombelle, translated by Sarah Ardizzone, illustrated by Francois Place
Support your local independent bookstore and buy it through indiebound or check it out from your local library

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin Review

Book Talk: After Will leaves his deaf school for a mainstream one, he has plenty of trouble just trying to fit in. So he stays on the sidelines, lip-reading from afar to see what the cool kids are talking about and writing it down with his own snarky commentary in a notebook.  But a whole new level of trouble is unleashed when one of his classmates dies on a field trip.  Was it a jealous friend?  A jilted lover? A hired hitman? Suddenly, Will's notes and lip-reading abilities become valuable assets in his investigation.  Will and his new friend are a far cry from the Hardy boys, but together they just may be able to find the killer--if they don't get themselves killed first.

Rocks My Socks: The author clearly did his research for this book, and I really appreciated it.  From the politics of Deaf culture that I remember learning about in ASL class to Will's reflections on what the mechanics of certain signs remind him of.  I also really loved Will as a character and it's easy to empathize with his outsider perspective and appreciate his snarky take on the conversations of the cool kids.  The Hardy boys references were amusing to me as well, even though I haven't read any Hardy boys books.

Rocks In My Socks: The characters other than Will aren't particularly well developed, and even Will doesn't make much of a change from the beginning to the end of the novel.  The novel also suffers from Useless Adult Syndrome with most of the adult characters either actively harming the kids in the book or indirectly doing so through indifference or ignorance.

Every Book Its Reader: I'd give it to grades 7 and up who appreciate a sarcastic sense of humor.  Fans of the Hardy Boys who have grown up and are looking for something a bit darker will enjoy this novel.

The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk; Knopf, 2010
Support your local indie book store and buy it through indiebound or check it out from your local library