Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lincoln's Grave Robers Review

Lincoln's Grave Robbers

Book talk:  In 1875 counterfeiting was a big business.  So big that a new government agency was formed with the responsibility of tracking down counterfeiters: the Secret Service.  The key to counterfeiting is good plates, and for that you need an expert engraver.  The best in the business was Benjamin Boyd.  He was so good that when the Secret Service caught him, his friends were willing to do anything to bust him free.  Even if it meant stealing the corpse of President Abraham Lincoln.

Rocks my socks:  The book read like an old-fashioned heist film at parts as the criminals plotted out their crime and the Secret Service men set their trap.  I enjoyed all the slang and other details that made me feel like I was experiencing life at the time.  Some of the scenes seemed to be straight from a movie, like the story of famed escape expert Pete McCartney breaking out of jail to visit a Secret Service man, make a few glib comments, and then walk right back to prison.  It doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would happen in real life, and I'm delighted to know that it did.  I particularly appreciated all the photographs, paintings, and copies of primary source documents included throughout the book.

Rocks in my socks:  I would have liked the book better if it had a different title.  It never lives up to the promise of Lincoln's Grave Robbers.  I suppose The Coney Men Who Attempted to Steal Lincoln's Body doesn't roll off the tongue though.  The Secret Service agent is aware of what's happening the entire time, so I never felt any concern that they'd pull it off. Some of the details added to focus it more on Lincoln dragged the pacing down--the exact layout of the tomb, etc.  I would have liked it better if it was a more general story of the dawn of the Secret Service or the lives of Coney Men.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to kids 5th grade and up looking for a real-life criminal adventure story and fans of American history.


Scholastic has a page for the book with a discussion guide

I love this student-made trailer for the book:

Source: School library

Lincoln's Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin: buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bushman Lives! Review

Bushman Lives!

Book talk:  Have you ever played a musical instrument?  Are you musically talented? Harold Knishke isn't.  He is terrible in fact.  So terrible that one summer day his flute teacher asks him to quit, and even offers to buy his instrument off him.  With money in his pocket and new-found free time Harold hits the streets of Chicago in search of some entertainment.  He ends up at the Art Institute where he decides to become an artist.  Chicago in the 1960's is an exciting time for aspiring artists and Harold soon blends in with the beatnik crowd where he learns that not everyone is as crazy as they first seem, and some are even crazier.

Rocks my socks:  This book is full of a wonderful, dry humor and a strong absurdist sensibility.  Harold wanders around Chicago running into one bizarre character after another.  They're not entirely realistic but they are highly entertaining and they teach him real lessons in art and acceptance.  To get a sense of the playful tone of the novel, read this excerpt from a book that Harold receives entitled Modern Art, An Invention of the Devil?:

"The reader will no doubt be aware that the Impressionists were nothing but a bunch of unwashed wine-swilling Frenchmen who sat around in cafes or pursued dirty women at the end of the nineteenth century...The activities of these parasites and degenerates give rise to Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Pointillism, Constructivism, Orphism, Surrealism, Dada, and also Impossibleism, Supersurrealism, Dynamic Double-Dog Realism, Ishkabibbleism, and Mama, which is like Dada only nicer."

Of course our protagonist Harold soon sees that the author "was a raving lunatic and a nutbar.  But that did not mean it was not a useful book."  Indeed Harold learns many things from people who fit that description.  The idea that everyone has something to teach you is an important theme in the novel, and Pinkwater shows that in the most delightful way.  On a more personal note, the Gorilla has long been my favorite animal, so I appreciated the sympathetic view of them in the novel.

Rocks in my socks:  There wasn't much of a story arc.  It felt like the narrative just meandered along the streets of Chicago with Harold and then, eventually got tired and stopped. Even though this annoyed me a bit it matched the tone of the story well.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to fans of comedy and art 7th grade and up who are willing to suspend disbelief.  A lot of the novel doesn't exactly make sense so if that would bother you, then this is not the book you are looking for.  But if you're willing to follow Harold's lead and just accept things as they come then you're in for an entertaining and ultimately touching ride.


Daniel Pinkwater has a website with photos, podcasts, and more

Here's a video of Bushman's remains in the Field Museum:

And here's a more recent video from the Licoln Park Zoo with baby gorillas (because baby gorillas!)

Source: school library

Bushman Lives! by Daniel Pinkwater: buy it or check it out today!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Brief reviews: Fall 2013 Part 1

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag (Flavia de Luce, #2)(This is a review for the second Flavia de Luce book, if you haven't read the first you can find my review of it here)  You have to love an eleven year old who observes: "How exciting it was to reflect upon the fact that, within minutes of death, the organs of the body, lacking oxygen, begin to digest themselves!"  and who can then go on to describe the exact chemical processes at play.  Flavia is just as spunky and delightful as she was in the first mystery and this time there's the added excitement of puppets.  I loved the new character of the former German pilot obsessed with the Bronte sisters!  The way Flavia's sisters continue to taunt her by saying that she's adopted makes me uneasy though.  Still it was a great, quick mystery for a lazy afternoon.  The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley: buy it or check it out today!

Cow Boy I have mixed feelings about this comic.  The art and the design are absolutely gorgeous.  From the endpapers to the title page to the art in the comic itself, there is a wonderful style that evokes old westerns.  The premise of a child cow boy rounding up his outlaw relatives for bounty is funny and they add little touches like a gun that looks like a hobby horse to take advantage of the absurdity of the situation.  I loved the brief interludes between chapters, particularly the one about the female cowboy and the penguin.  I'd love to read a full-length comic based on this premise (and based on my students' love of penguins stories, so would they!)  But despite everything in this comic's favor the pacing felt a bit off to me and the moral ambiguity of the tale left me thinking that it would be better for an older crowd than it's aimed at.   The interludes break up the flow of the story and the plot and motivations seem really bare-bones.  The idea of a boy that age hunting down his family and often threatening them with a gun or injuring them to bring them to justice isn't fully dealt with.  There's another scene where he stands up for a run-away slave only to have the slave say that he would have preferred to be beaten without intervention because now he'll have to run to avoid a lynching.  As an adult reading it, I can fill in the complexities of the situation myself but I think most children would have difficulty understanding what happened in that scene.  Especially because it's just something that happens in passing.  The ending is also troubling to me for something branded as all ages.  The moral of the story seems to be that you can't trust anyone, even your own family.  It's better to live a life alone even if it means you'll never be happy.  Perhaps if the story was better fleshed out, his actions would make more sense, but as it is the cow boy just seems oddly cold and jaded. Cow Boy by Nate Cosby and Chris Eliopoulos: buy it or check it out today!

Goliath  I love classic stories that are re-told from a non-traditional perspective, especially when it re-casts the villain in a new light.  In this version Goliath would rather do admin than patrol and is an all-around soft spoken, nice guy.  When an ambitious captain comes up with a plan to end the war with a battle of champions, he's banking on the fact that no one will take up the challenge once they see Goliath.  Goliath is quick to point out that he's much better at paper work and the fifth-worst swordsman in the platoon, but there is no reasoning with authority.  So he resigns himself to wait for a rival champion he hopes will never arrive.  It's a sparse but beautifully told tale that would work great in a unit about multiple perspectives.  There's a subtle humor and a strong sense of irony throughout as Goliath plays with pebbles and sympathizes with a fighting bear.  When the inevitable happens and David finally comes along the suddenness and pointlessness of it gave the story an existential feel. Goliath by Tom Gauld: buy it or check it out today!

Hilda and the Midnight GiantThis is a fantastic, imaginative story for children.  Hilda gains the ability to see a race of tiny people that have been living outside of her house for years and sets out to make peace between them and her family with the help of a giant.  The varying sizes of all the characters set up parallels in the plot and allow for the exploration of multiple perspectives.  The world created by Pearson is populated with wonderful creatures and the large physical size of the book allows for a close-up view of the many delightful details in the artwork.  There's some light satire of politics as Hilda tries to make peace with the little people, but a knowledge of politics isn't necessary to appreciate the humor and heart of this comic.  I'd recommend it to fantasy fans of all ages.  Hilda and the Midnight Giant by Luke Pearson: buy it or check it out today!

The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave, #1) I hated the beginning of this book.  It kept making vague references to what had happened and jumping around in time instead of clearly explaining what had lead to the current situation.  There didn't seem to be any reason for this other than creating cheap tension by alluding to awful things and then postponing the explanation.  The narrator seemed to revel in every gritty detail of the apocalypse and addressed the reader like some sage describing what happens when you face death, etc.  I imagined her talking in Batman voice the whole time.  Plus she uses 'decimate' incorrectly which is enough to set me off.  The book picks up a bit once other narrators are introduced, but it is still full of unanswered questions.  Why do the aliens use so many waves if their technology is so advanced and what exactly their endgame is to name a couple.  I can't get too much further into how little sense the book makes without revealing spoilers, but suffice it to say that the plot does not hold up to any kind of scrutiny.  On top of all that I have major issues with the romantic plot.  The male love interest stalks the female love interest, violates her privacy by reading her diary among other things, and worst of all their kisses often start with the girl actively resisting him and telling him no only to melt into the kiss and enjoy it.  Perpetuating the idea that a girl could say no and fight physical affection but secretly want it is unconscionable as far as I am concerned. I won't be reading the sequel. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey: buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

H.I.V.E. Review

H.I.V.E. Higher Institute of Villainous Education (H.I.V.E., #1)

Book talk:  Otto is one of the chosen ones.  He is plucked out of his life as an orphan and taken to a school that few even know exists.  There he takes specialized classes different from any normal school curriculum with a group of kids with special abilities who are destined to change the planet.  But H.I.V.E. is no Hogwarts.  Though the school often seems magical, it is technology that runs it.  Otto and the others are being trained not to save the world, but to terrorize it.  The Higher Institute of Villainous Education is where the world's best evil masterminds and henchmen are trained.  Otto isn't just a student, he's also a prisoner.  You cannot refuse an invitation to H.I.V.E., and once you're in there's no escape or communication with the outside world.  But Otto isn't used to taking orders or doing what he's told.  Soon H.I.V.E. will realize that when they recruited Otto, they got more than they bargained for.

Rocks my socks:  I love the way the novel takes super hero and fantasy tropes and turns them on their head.  Otto and his friends are picked up because they have a potential for evil, but they aren't plain villains.  They're being held against their will in many cases and they struggle to fit in without allowing the darkness of the place overwhelm them.  Just like Harry Potter and his friends, they learn to trust each other and use their various strengths to work together; but they do it while fighting the evil tendencies that are being cultivated in each of them.  I love the computer intelligence of H.I.V.E. mind and the way the students recognize and value its emerging intelligence.  It reminded me of poor Dobby.  Hopefully H.I.V.E. mind fares better because I get overly attached to fictional artificial intelligences.  The book is fast-paced, humorous, morally complex, and still manages to drive home some positive messages about friendship and acceptance, which is no easy feat.

Rocks in my socks:  The book felt a bit formulaic at times with the headmaster giving an evil is just misunderstood ambition speech that I felt I had heard dozens of times.  Plenty of well-used tropes from magical boarding school fiction are trotted out.  It's meant to be a quick, fun read though so none of that bugged me that much.  What really annoyed me was all of the fat-shaming it did around the character Franz.  A lot of cheap jokes are made at his expense and in a narrative that otherwise makes a point about accepting others and not judging based on appearance, I found this particularly disappointing.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to fans of superheroes or spies.  There's a lot of fast-paced action and high tech gadgets that are sure to attract readers.  Fans of Catherine Jinks's Evil Genius will enjoy this take on villainous education.  I'd give it to grades 5 and up.


Mark Walden has website with more information about him and his books.

The series has its own official website with an oddly entertaining evil laugh generator, a grapple game, and a test to see which stream you'd be in.

It also has an unofficial wiki page

Bloomsbury also has a page for the books

There's a trailer for the book:

And a video interview with the author:

Bonus Quote:

“Life at H.I.V.E. may have its attractions after all, Otto thought. Friends, as they say, may come and go, but high-powered laser weapons are forever.”
Source: school library

H.I.V.E. The Higher Institute of Villainous Education by Mark Walden: buy it or check it out today!