Monday, October 10, 2011

The Girl Who Could Fly Review

Book talk: Mrs. McCloud knew there was something wrong with her daughter the day she rolled off of a table and floated in the air instead of falling.  She did her best to protect Piper from gossip by keeping her at home and encouraging her to keep her feet on the ground, but Piper was born to fly.  When she finally gets to play with kids her age she soars in the air to catch a fly ball and the next morning the McClouds' farm is swarmed by reporters.  They are saved from the media circus by an elegant woman who whisks Piper away to a special school for those with extraordinary abilities.  Piper is excited for the chance to interact with kids like her and she is provided with clothes and meals customized to her tastes.  But soon the paradise of the school starts to feel like a prison.  Piper dreams of the sky from thirteen floors below ground and makes plans for an escape.

Rocks my socks: Piper is a lovable character with a folksy farm-girl charm and the narration has an old-fashioned storytelling charm about it as well.  The ability to fly isn't anything new in works of fiction but Forester shows a lot of imagination in the abilities of the other children and especially in the animals and plants at the institution.  Watching Piper's parents slowly learn to accept Piper's uniqueness is heart-warming and reminds me of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables (which Forester cited as a favorite of hers in the interview at the back.)  I liked the novel's overall message that you should embrace what makes you unique and use your talents to try to make the world a better place.

Rocks in my socks: Sometimes the folksy sayings and overly earnest narration became a bit much for me and at times it seems to cross a line and make fun of the farm life it is depicting.  Piper's parents eventually come around but the rest of the town never accepts Piper and a lot of focus is placed on the mean-spirited ways of the town gossip.  In contrast everyone associated with the institute outside of the small town is portrayed as sympathetic, with even the main villain revealing a history that softens the reader's attitude twoard her at the end.  The children at the institution have great names that show diverse origins and sound nice but all the town children other than Piper have alliterative double names like Billy Bob, Piggy Pooh, and Lizzie Lee. Some of the characterization is a bit sloppy with the twin characters presented as interchangeable and even Piper lacking dimension with her unfailing optimism and constant commitment to do what she believes right.  I appreciate the fact that the school bully ended up being Piper's ally but this change in his character came from nowhere and was completely inconsistent with the way he was previously portrayed in the novel.  The plot is full of holes as well: from the basic premise of a government facility spending ridiculous amounts of money trying to make abnormal things normal instead of trying to use their abilities to their advantage, to the details like the torture scene where one moment she is in so much pain she can hardly breathe and the next, with the same conditions, she is making defiant quips.

Every book its reader: This book is great for those looking for an old-fashioned narrative with folksy charm.  Fans of superhero stories will enjoy reading about the kids' abilities and unlike most superhero stories the protagonist is female.  There is a torture scene and descriptions of the way the institute is mistreating its subjects, but these scenes are so unrealistic and the resolution is so neat that it is still appropriate for younger children.  I'd give it to fourth through seventh grade.

The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester

Buy it or check it out!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Half Brother Review

Book talk: Ben's father can talk anyone into anything.  He even made a cross-country road trip to their new house sound like fun.  But a few days in he ran out of things to talk about and Ben was left bored, staring out the window as the countryside passed in a blur.  Now Ben's dad is trying to convince him that the baby chimpanzee his mom brought home is his brother.  He says it's an important part of their research to treat him like a part of their family while they try to teach him sign language.  Babysitting is no fun when your little brother is a mischievous chimp.  Ben learns a lot from him, though.  Like how to act like an alpha male to become popular in his new school, and how to study Jennifer's behavior to get her to like him.  Eventually Ben fins himself convinced once again and grows to love his half brother Zan.  But when his parents' experiment turns sour and his father says that Zan is really just a test subject after all, Ben refuses to be convinced and for the first time in his life he decides to fight back, no matter the cost.

Rocks my socks: Full disclosure: I am a sucker for this type of story.  My favorite animal is the gorilla and I have been fascinated by the great apes ever since my 4th grade class did a unit on Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, and Birute Galdikas.  That said, I truly believe that even if I wasn't predisposed to like this novel I would have loved it anyway.  Watching Ben and Zan's relationship develop is touching as it goes from resentment to a vague feeling of concern for his well-being to his confession that "I wasn't good at a lot of things...But I was good at loving Zan." At the end the issue of animal experimentation comes up but it never gets preachy.  Some tough questions are posed and no easy answers are given.  Zan is an extremely sympathetic character, but these kinds of experiments did take place and based on all I've read of them his behavior is realistic for a chimpanzee. Oppel weaves the question of what it means to be a person throughout the book from the consequences of trying to make chimpanzees act like humans to consequences of treating humans like chimpanzees as Ben tries to imitate an alpha male to fit in at his new school and keeps a logbook on his crush because he believes "If I could teach a chimp sign language, I could probably teach Jennifer Godwin to fall for me." Oppel also mirrors the relationship between Ben and his father and Zan and Ben's father cleverly and describes how Ben begins to over identify with Zan and feel like a test subject himself so that when his father rejects Zan, Ben feels rejected as well.  When Ben reaches the point where he looks back and realizes how when he thought everything was going well it was really heading for disaster I couldn't help but remember times when I had been through the same thing.  By the end, while I naturally felt sorry for Zan and his fate I was just as concerned about the effect that had on Ben.  Which is really saying something for for me because I normally care far more about the fate of the animals than the humans in these stories (By the end of the Chaos Walking trilogy I was so sick of animals sacrificing themselves for the protagonists that I no longer cared about their fate and if anything wished ill upon them.)  I picked up this book to read about a chimpanzee, but what kept me turning the pages all night ended up being the human interest story.

Rocks in my socks: The only thing I wish was different about this book is the publication date.  I would have gone absolutely crazy for this when I was in school.

Every book its reader: The premise of this book makes it an easy sell for animal lovers and they will certainly enjoy it, but I think anyone looking for a good realistic fiction story about what it's like to be thirteen will enjoy it as well.  Pre-teens and teens will be able to relate to it best so I'd give it to 6th grade and up.

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel

Buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Prisoners in the Palace Review

Book talk: A week ago Liza's biggest concern was what dress flattered her figure best as she planned her first season in London with her mother.  Now she is a penniless orphan working as a lady's maid.  It could be worse--at least she is working for princess Victoria.  But for a future Queen, Victoria's palace looks pretty shabby and she hardly has any power.  Her mother treats her as if she is still a child and never allows her to be alone.  She plots with Sir John to take over Victoria's power as a regent and keeps Victoria hidden from view so that people will believe the rumors that she cannot handle the position herself.  Before she knows what's happening Liza finds herself spying for Victoria and making deals with newsmen on fleet street.  Victoria may be Queen some day, but until that day comes she is trapped by her mother--a prisoner in her own palace.

Rocked my socks: Liza was a resourceful, intelligent protagonist and I appreciated that.  She thinks on her feet and she isn't afraid to risk herself for what she thinks is right.  She suffers a huge fall in status but accepts her lot and adapts pretty well.  I enjoyed seeing young Victoria and the intrigue behind the scenes.  At first she behaves in a rather immature and thoughtless manner, but as more was revealed about how she was raised it was easy to understand how she became the way she was and all the more exciting when she found the strength to fight back.  Real excerpts from Victoria's diary (which was reviewed by her mom before she could commit it to ink) and letters from her mother are included throughout the text as well as diary entries from the fictional Liza, which provided a nice balance between fact and fiction.  There were some parts that would have been too outrageous to include if they hadn't been based on historical fact, such as the boy that was found living inside Victoria's nursery at Buckingham Palace (although his presence was moved up earlier to her time at Kensington to fit into the timeline of the novel).  I also enjoyed the purely fictional interludes between Liza and her handsome newspaper contact.  There is an author's note with information on the characters and a list of further reading at the back as well, which I appreciated.

Rocks in my socks: The dialogue felt a bit clunky to me at times ("Miss Elizabeth Hastings, you know I am smitten with you.") and while the narration was smooth in general there points where MacColl took time out to wink at the reader that felt forced (Victoria expresses a dislike for studying Queen Elizabeth and her mother replies "They named an entire age after her...You should be so fortunate!")  The way MacColl represented the dialect of the lower class characters drove me crazy as well.  Even with the same character it was inconsistent.  Sometimes when Nell spoke it was 'your' and sometimes it was 'yer.' MacColl seems interested by strange figures of speech and uses the flash patter slang, but she doesn't have a great ear for pronunciation.

Every book its reader: I'd give this to anyone 6th grade and up who is looking for a good historical romance or anyone with an interest in Queen Victoria.  Be warned, however that the romance is Liza's and not Victoria's.  Anyone looking to swoon over Victoria and Albert will be sorely disappointed.  Fans of the noble woman become destitute only to rise once more to success through hard work and high morals story line (I'm looking at you Jane Eyre and Margaret Hale) will also enjoy this novel.

Buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wedding Napkins

When my friends got married this summer, I wanted to make them something extra-special and unique.  They have four adorable pet chinchillas and are very fond of squirrels, so I decided to make them these napkins:

To make them I used a sketch by my uber talented friend Amber as a template for the squirrels and a  random image I found on Google for the chinchillas.  I was visiting my friends in Scotland when I made them so I went to a local charity shop and bought clothes off the 50 pence rack in the colors I needed and then cut them  up.  I traced the designs onto freezer paper, which I ironed onto the fabric.  I ironed fusible interfacing onto the other side and cut out the sandwich to make my appliques.  I ironed the appliques onto the napkins and did some extra stitching for details.  

The backs of my stitches looked messy so I embroidered their names onto more fabric scraps which I appliqued on using more fusible interfacing to cover it up.  I think they turned out pretty well, although it's the first time I made anything like this so I'm nervous about how it will hold up over time.