Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester Review

Book talk:  Tooley is the biggest, slimiest bullfrog in Graham pond and he belongs to Owen Jester.  It took him weeks, but Owen finally caught him and after all that effort little miss know-it-all Viola wants him to let Tooley go.  Who does she think she is?  Viola may think she knows everything, but she doesn't.  She doesn't know how Owen is going to build the perfect cage for Tooley so he will be happy.  She doesn't know that Owen and his friends have a code word to use when they want to get away from her.  Most importantly, she doesn't know that one night as Owen was listening to the clack-clack-clack of the train tracks he heard something else: a thud, followed by a tumble, tumble, tumble.  Owen doesn't know what it is, but he and Travis and Stumpy are going to find it.  And one thing's for sure--when they do find whatever fantastic thing fell off that train they are NOT going to share it with Viola.

 Rocks my socks: I love how Owen's relationship with Viola develops from hating her for always being right to recognizing what she has to offer and collaborating with her and eventually growing to respect and value her.  The voice of the narrator sounds authentic and he has a way of personifying his emotions that I love: For example "Owen's disappointment swirled around inside him and then settled with a heavy thunk in the pit of his stomach." He also describes his concern for Tooley as something 'niggling' him throughout the story until he is finally moved to do what he thinks is right.  The narration is tight and makes frequent use of paragraph and chapter breaks to mark the passing of time and speed the story along.  This occasionally leads to wonderful combinations like chapter 17 ending with "There is now way she's going to go down there in those woods and help us." and chapter 18 beginning with "'I got Jarvis's hacksaw,' Viola said when she stepped out of the woods into the clearing. 'I decided to come help y'all, after all.'"

Rocks in my socks: The characters other than Viola and Owen aren't really developed and there's occasional hints of an interesting story around characters like Owen's sick grandfather and Viola's mother that are never explored.  Although the plot does move at a fast pace there isn't much that actually happens which leads to a rather flat climax and an ending that was a bit too neat for my liking.

Every book its reader: This lazy summer book makes a perfect lazy summer read.  Kids who spend their summers playing outside will find it easy to relate to these characters and kids who spend the summer indoors will enjoy living vicariously through Owen.  It's not action-packed, but it is a quick, easy read with a light, easy tone and a hint of humor that keeps you reading.  I'd say the reading level puts it at 3rd and 4th grade but the content has appeal to and would be appropriate for younger audiences as a read aloud.

The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester by Barbara O'Connor

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Liar, Liar Review

Book talk: Kevin is a liar, but who isn't?  Most people lie every day.  It's just good manners if you think about it.  The only difference between Kevin and most people is that he's really good at it.  So good in fact that he convinces his social studies partner Katie that he's come down with a deadly disease so that she volunteers to do their project by herself.  Sure it's a lie, but Katie prefers to work on her own anyway, so who is he hurting?  Besides Kevin has better things to focus his attention on, like Katrina.  Kevin is determined to find out what kind of guy she likes and then become that guy--or at least tell enough lies to convince Katrina that he has.

Rocks my socks: The reason that Kevin gets away with so much is because he is so charming, and he charms the reader just like anyone else.  Paulsen's sense of humor as he depicts the world of 8th grade boys was amusing as well and I couldn't help laughing at Kevin's favorite band, Bucket o' Puke n' Snot, and their hit songs "I Could Kill and Eat You," "You Suck, but Let's Hook Up Anyway," and the classic "Loving You Is a Pit of Death."  Kevin's interaction with the boy he babysits is endearing as well.

Rocks in my socks: As you might expect from a story about a liar, the plot isn't really believable.  The fact that so many people including his teachers believe his outlandish stories stretched my credulity.  The characters themselves aren't really believable either and Kevin is the only one with any dimensions.  At times the novel felt a bit insensitive to me as well with Kevin describing himself as "socially retarded" and another character as "husky, I guess you'd call it if you were looking fora  nice way to say that she's got a great future ahead of her as a load-bearing wall."   He feigns an interest in this girl while really ignoring everything she says because she's his crush's best friend and he justifies his actions to himself by saying they're "allies, not buddies."  In general he treats a lot of people like a real jerk and even when he tries to make amends in the end it didn't feel entirely genuine to me.

Every book its reader: They say you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but we all do.  This one's small size, short length, and cartoony cover image make it look like something that belongs in the easy chapter section.  But the characters are in 8th grade and I certainly wouldn't feel comfortable giving it to anyone younger than 5th.  At the same time the narrator sounded younger than that at times and I'm not sure older kids would pick up a book that looks like this one.  Still, as long as you don't take the novel seriously it is pretty funny and that combined with the short length would make it good for middle school kids with low reading levels.

Liar, Liar by Gary Paulsen

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Incarceron Review

Book talk: It seemed like a good idea at the time.  Take all the criminals and put them somewhere out of the way.  Give them a whole new world--vast and varied and equipped with everything they could ever need, including an all-seeing intelligence to watch over them and keep them in line.  It was a great experiment, and a failed one.  Now the prisoners struggle to survive knowing that at any moment they might be killed or disfigured at Incarceron's whim.  Meanwhile those in power on the outside have done their best to stop all progress and trap the world in the past--forcing everyone to act and dress in Era.  Not everyone is happy with these restrictions though, including the daughter of the warden of Incarceron.  When she makes contact with a boy in her father's prison they are determined to change both worlds.  There's only one problem--no one can enter or leave Incarceron, and no one but the warden even knows where it is.

Rocks my socks: I love the way the novel is set in a future that is trapped in the past so that we can enjoy extrapolated technologies as well as drama at court.  The prison also makes a deliciously dark and formidable opponent for our intrepid protagonists to face.  Speaking of which the characters are very well developed with shades of grey and multiple dimensions and unique voices.  I don't know which I love more--Finn, the boy who hangs onto hope even while living in the depths of evil; Claudia, the defiant, intelligent girl who risks her life in period attire; her tutor Jared who is inspired by Claudia to face the dangerous world beyond his books; or perhaps Kerio, the self-described "artist of theft.  Devastatingly handsome, utterly ruthless, totally fearless." On top of all that the pacing is superb with meaty bits to ponder peppered in lightly to keep the reader's mind engaged while maintaining a fast paced adventure.

Rocks in my socks: At points it became a bit heavy-handed--especially towards the end.  It was a too much for me when the prison said "They torment each other.  There is no system that can stop that, no place that can wall out evil, because men bring it in with them, even in the children." I'm pretty sure even young readers could have figured out that something was wrong with the prison's correctional philosophy without Incarceron explicitly stating it.  I also felt a bit uncomfortable when a scholar, upon finding what was really a good source of information says "This is a place where dust gathers and doubt enters the heart...This is not a refuge.  It's a trap."  He was right that they should go, but his reason for wanting to leave concerns me.  What kind of a scholar flees at the sign of information that might challenge his views?  A true scholar should embrace a source like that.  Overall there was a bit too much emphasis on blind faith in dubious stories for my liking.  And I can't go into it without revealing too much, but the ghost of Marley moment at the end was overwrought for my tastes as well.

Every book its reader: I think this book has wide appeal.  It has a science-fiction feel with the sentient prison and a fantasy feel with the parts set in period.  Fisher does a great job creating a compelling cast for those who enjoy character-driven plots but she also keeps the pacing up for those who prefer action.  There aren't long passages of philosophical debate in the narration to turn readers off, but there are bits worth considering for those who enjoy a novel they can debate and discuss.  And everything is woven in well enough together that I'd give it to anyone who enjoys any of the traits I've mentioned.  Alternating between protagonists of either gender helps widen the audience as well.  It can be violent and dark at times though so I'd save it for 7th grade and up.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Buy it or check it out today

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Evil Genius Review

Book talk: Cadel's slight build and curls may make him seem harmless, but beneath those innocent blue eyes lurks the mind of an evil genius.  When he is only seven he gets in trouble with the police for hacking into computer systems and by the time he is thirteen he is attending the Axis Institute.  Axis is not your average college.  Instead of courses in biology, physics, and cultural appreciation they have courses in contagion, explosives, and forgery.  Cadel is getting his degree in infiltration so he can follow in the steps of his father, the infamous Dr. Darkkon.  At first Cadel loves the challenge, but as the student body starts dying off he begins to question the techniques used by his teachers.  Soon Cadel starts planning an escape, but whatever he does he must follow the university's first and only rule--don't get caught!

Rocks my socks: Jinks somehow managed to take a character with a genius IQ who delights in destroying the lives of others and make me not only relate to him, but pity him.  Cadel's youthful transgressions are easily forgiven when the full scale of the manipulation he has suffered is revealed.  I loved the way Cadel's act of showing interest in others and being nice to them, originally designed to disguise his own evil intent, eventually became a genuine habit which ends up saving him.  Just when I cared more about Cadel than ever, Jinks skillfully threw him headlong into danger and picked up the pace to keep me turning pages to discover Cadel's fate. Intellectually Cadel may be able to outwit most adults, but emotionally he is believably young and fragile as he tries to navigate social relationships. I appreciated the humor of the novel and I found the tidbits from his classes interesting, but what really touched me was Cadel's realization that there are good people and that the Earth isn't a lost cause.

Rocks in my socks: The pacing of the novel was uneven.  Cadel whips through elementary through high school with only a few key incidents highlighted over the years and even fewer characters worth remembering.  Once he reaches the Axis institute, however, a whole slew of classmates and teachers are introduced and it was difficult for me to keep track of them at first, although this naturally became easier as they died off.  At Axis time is taken out of the narration to describe the lessons the children are being taught which I found interesting but did slow things down considerably. The first half had a leisurely, often humorous feel to it. Then the novel makes an unexpected turn for the serious and begins to speed down a twisty path that kept me up late turning pages and left me a bit exhausted.

Every book its reader: It's hard to put this novel into one neat box. Fans of humor will enjoy it when  Dr. Darkkon hides his communication device  by placing it in a toilet and acting as if he's sick when he's making a video call to Cadel.  Fans of thrillers will enjoy seeing how Cadel escapes from his kidnappers.  Fans of superheros will enjoy reading about the aspiring villains at the Institute and their budding powers.  Fans of Harry Potter will enjoy reading about the unique classes Cadel attends.  And computer and science geeks will enjoy the jokes and riddles like the code Cadel uses with his pen pal involving the periodic table of elements.  But because the humor is mostly at the beginning, the school story mostly in the middle, and the fast-paced thriller scenes are mostly at the end it might be hard to sell it to one person unless they enjoy a variety of genres. I'd give it to 7th grade and up.

Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Okay for Now Review

Book talk: Doug Swieteck once played catch with Joe Pepitone of the New York Yankees and he gave him his signed baseball cap.  It was the first thing Doug ever owned that didn't belong to another Swieteck before him, and like most good things, it didn't last.  His brother took his cap and his father lost his temper and his job and now they have to move to stupid Marysville where everyone looks at him like he doesn't belong.  But Marysville isn't all bad.  There's Lil Spicer who can burp louder than anyone he's ever heard, and the library has these Audubon prints on display with birds that look like they're about to fly off the page.  But the town needs money and the prints are being sold off and just when his life starts going okay things get messed up again.  Still, maybe Doug can put the prints back in the book where they belong and pick up the pieces of his own life.  His science teacher says that man is about to walk on the moon--if that's possible then who knows what other impossible things may come true.

Rocks my socks: Things start off bad for Doug, then they get worse.  Then they start to get better but that glimmer is stamped out and he's thrown ever farther into the abyss.  But then things start to improve again and the complicated knots his life has been tied up in start to get unraveled.  This unraveling is done masterfully in a believable way and avoiding saccharine scenes.  Things will never be perfect for Doug, but they will be okay.  This novel gets very dark but it left me uplifted with a sense that no matter how bad things get, there is always a way to make them okay again.  Each chapter is named after an Audubon print that appears at the beginning of it and these paintings are woven throughout the book in the artful way that they deserve.  There are many people who do bad things throughout the novel but there are no villains.  The narrative voice is compelling and believable and adds humor to the dark corners of the novel.  He's a type of kid that is underrepresented in young adult fiction and  I think many will be able to relate to him (and his desire to punch Percy Bysshe Shelley in the face).  He starts off not wanting to draw because only chumps draw and ends up not only becoming an excellent artist but enjoying Jane Eyre and providing the off-stage scream of Rochester's deranged wife in Broadway production of it.  This book made me cry several times, but it also made me laugh and when I turned the last page I felt happier and wiser than before I turned the first.

Rocks in my socks: None! There wasn't a single thing I'd change about this book.  Plus the cover is great!  It even gives me an idea as to how I could improve the cover of the last book I reviewed (Death Cloud).

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to fans of Catcher in the Rye because Doug's voice reminded me a lot of Holden's (although I like Doug better).  This novel however, while dark isn't really violent and there's no hookers, so I think it can be enjoyed by a much larger age range.  I'd give it to kids as young as 5th grade and I think adults could get just as much from it.  For certain kids who have a lot in common with Doug I think this book could have a huge impact.  But really this book could be enjoyed by anyone who has ever felt like they didn't belong somewhere--and who hasn't felt that?

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

Buy it or check it out today!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Death Cloud Review

Book talk: It's the summer of 1868 and Sherlock Holmes is about to encounter his first murder victim.  At first he doesn't believe Matty when he says that a black cloud rose from the dead man's body and moved against the wind, but then Sherlock finds another corpse and sees the same death cloud with his own eyes.  The local doctor thinks it's the plague--but Sherlock knows better.  Nobody will listen to a fourteen year old boy, so Sherlock starts his own investigations.  But soon he learns too much and although the local officials don't take him seriously, the criminals he's investigating think he's a serious threat--one that needs to be eliminated.

Rocks my socks: I enjoyed seeing such a famously confident man as an awkward young boy.  While it may be entertaining to imagine young Sherlock as a shorter version of the adult we're familiar with, I think there's much more to be gained from seeing him portrayed as more of an average teen.  Of course Sherlock could never be entirely average and he's still very intelligent in this  incarnation, but he hasn't yet mastered the application of that intelligence.  It makes it easier to relate to him as well as providing the valuable lesson that raw talent is not enough.  I enjoyed the elements that seemed supernatural but ended up having rational explanations.  The villain ended up being highly entertaining as well, but I won't spoil it by saying why.

Rocks in my socks: Just look at that cover--look at it!  Why in the world would they cast Justin Bieber in the role of Sherlock?  It may be a marketing ploy but I don't know who they think they're marketing this book to anyway.  There's a lot of action with very little romance and even less character development.  It's a much more classically male book than female and most teenage boys I know hate Beiber.  Yeah, I'm going to spell his name two different ways because I really don't care enough about him to look up the proper spelling.  Cover issues aside, the characters are pretty flat and the dialogue and narration felt a bit clunky at times.  Lane clearly spent a lot of time researching for the novel but sometimes these researched tidbits seem forced in and slow down the action.

Every book its reader: I'd give this to 6th grade and up looking for a fast-paced mystery.  Fans of Sherlock Holmes will also enjoy seeing this fairly faithful younger version that is the first of its kind to have the endorsement of the Conan Doyle estate.

Death Cloud by Andrew Lane.

Buy it or check it out today!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Reckless Review

Book talk: Of the two Reckless brothers, Jacob was always the one who lived up to the family name.  Ever since he discovered the world behind the mirror he's practically made Reckless into his job description as he travels the fairy-tale world hunting for treasures.  A comb that turns you into a crow will fetch a high price, if you can escape the witch that  it belongs to and live to collect your reward.  But Will never knew about the world his brother disappeared to, he only knew that he was often left alone.  Until one day when Will discovers his secret and follows him in, only to fall victim to a fairy's curse that is slowly turning him to stone.  Now the clock is ticking and Jacob will have to use everything he's learned in his travels if he wants to save Will.  He never imagined that his own brother's life would end up being the most dangerous treasure he's ever sought.

Rocks my socks: I love a good fairy tale retold and these Grimmer versions (pardon the pun) are a particular weakness of mine.  There's enough of the familiar fairy tales in this world to please readers with recognition and enough new elements to intrigue them.  There are love interests, but the romantic side plots don't detract from the main plot of the story.  The main characters are boys, which doesn't often happen in these fairy tale retellings, so I found it to be a refreshing change.  The illustrations throughout are beautiful.

Rocks in my socks: There is some weak characterization in the novel.  Jacob Reckless is a bit distant, which makes it hard for readers to connect with him.  His brother is a bit overly weak at first to make for more of a contrast as he turns into stone.  We don't get to find out much about Clara except that she loves Will, which seems to be most of her purpose.  The same can be said for the shape-shifter girl who spends most of her time in the shape of a fox but acting like a love-sick puppy following her man to the ends of the Earth.  Hopefully these characters will get fleshed out more in the next installment of the series.

Every book its reader: Don't fall into the trap of thinking that because it's about fairy tales and heavily illustrated this is for kids--it's not.  This isn't a Disney fairy tale of happily ever after, this is a fairy tale world where sleeping beauty never woke up to true love's kiss and her castle is covered in the corpses of those who tried to give it to her.  There's nothing explicit in the novels, but the general tone is very dark and Jacob does spend the night with a fairy at one point.  The darkness will appeal to teens though and the fast-pacing and stronger male presence will appeal to many who might not otherwise pick up fairy tale novels.  I'd focus on the adventure aspect more than the fairy tale aspect when recommending it and I'd save it for 7th grade and up.

Reckless by Cornelia Funke

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