Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Once, in a letter, Neil Gaiman misspelled the name Caroline and thought to himself, "Coraline. That almost looks like a real name."  (Don't believe me? Watch the video.  Then, again, watch it anyway.  It's an awesome speech.)

And a real name it is, if you're paid, in his words, to make things up and then write them down.

What Mr. Gaiman made up and wrote down is a story about a young girl who has moved into a new house and begins to explore.  Coraline's family doesn't have the whole house--just one flat on the middle floor.  Two ladies with theater in their pasts live on the bottom floor, and a crazy old man who claims to be training a mouse circus lives on the the top floor.

Coraline and her parents have moved in a bit before school starts, so Coraline wonders around trying to entertain herself during the last days of vacation.  Both of her parents work from home, but that doesn't mean they have time to entertain their daughter. Instead, Coraline goes off exploring.  She explores their flat.  She explores outside.  She explores downstairs, where the ladies call her "Caroline" and upstairs, where the crazy old man calls her "Caroline".  But he also tells her that the mice warn her against going through the door.

Actually, they warn against going through THE DOOR.

See, when Coraline was exploring her family's flat she found a door that opens up onto a brick wall.  Her mother explains that the door, probably, formerly, connected one side of the house to another.  Now that the house is broken up into flats, the brick wall separates Coraline's family's flat from the empty one next door.  Despite the obvious obstacle of the brick, Coraline is convinced, after a few strange things start happening, that she can get into the flat on the other side.

And, as you might suspect (or this story would go nowhere), one day when Coraline is exploring, she opens the door and the obstacle is gone.  She can walk through and into the next flat.  Now, a disappearing brick wall sounds odd, but once Coraline walks through things begin to get odder.  She meets her "other mother" and her "other father."  She meets a talking dog and a talk cat.  Her real parents disappear, and she learns to dislike black button eyes.

It's a good thing that
Coraline is both brave and clever.

Coraline has managed to land in a major spot of trouble.  Her "other mother" isn't as she seems, and in order to save herself and her parents, Coraline must be brave and clever.  She has help from the talking cat and a charm the theater ladies once gave her; she also gets advice from the spirits of three children who once were where Coraline is now.

Coraline is a fabulous tale (and it was made into a stop-motion 3D film in 2009), but it's not a a shallow or simplistic one.  I'm calling it PG because is might be frightening to suggestible readers, but there's no adult content.  My library keeps it in the children's collection, and I suspect the ideal reader is somewhere between my genius fifth-grade niece and her precocious first-grade brother.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

There's this thing with librarians; they seem to know a good book when they read it.  So when I was looking for another book to review, I hit the Newbery Medal list.  That's where I found this gem.  When You Reach Me is a little modern(ish) day Nancy Drew part Judy Blume part young adult Dr. Who (the time travel part at least).  Those librarians, they know what they're doing.

Miranda is a sixth grader living with her mother in their apartment in New York City.  Miranda's mom works as an assistant at a law firm with aspirations of becoming a lawyer herself someday.  Someday when she saves enough money and fully recovers from raising a daughter on her own that is.  Miranda and her best friend Sal know how to traverse their neighborhood: stay away from the older kids hanging out by the auto shop and stay WAY away from the crazy guy who likes to sleep with his head under the mailbox.  But then one day, on the way home from school, an older kid punches Sal in the stomach without provocation.  So that's not good but even worse is the fact that Sal has made it clear he no longer wants to be friends with Miranda.

As if that's not bad enough Miranda has to figure out how to help her mom win $20,000 Pyramid, deal with some snobby girls in her class, figure out how to cut sandwich rolls properly, and since when was there a dentist's office in her school?!  That's not even the toughest mystery.  These notes keep showing up.  Notes on tiny pieces of paper show up in places that they shouldn't show up.  And they say things that don't make complete sense.  Almost, but not quite.  Sixth grade is turning out to be tough.

This book is fun, suspenseful, sweet, and surprisingly touching.  I would say it's a PG rating, though I'm struggling to figure out why exactly it wouldn't be rated G......hmm.  I suppose it could be the punch, or the crazy guy sometimes not having clothes, or the surprise at the end.  Yeah, PG is a better fit.  But honestly, it's a great book that I'd be comfortable having my genius niece read.  As a matter of fact, I'm going to text her about it tomorrow.  She appreciates good books and librarians.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass

Wendy Mass is a favorite around my house.  In the past she was just a favorite of my 10-year-old daughter.  After reading Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life she is a favorite of mine now, too. 

Jeremy is one month from turning 13 when a mysterious wooden box arrives in the mail.  The box was sent from his now deceased father and the instructions are to open it on his 13th birthday.  The note with the box claims that the meaning of life can be found on the inside,  but there is one problem.  The box was made with 13 different key holes and the keys are missing!  Jeremy and Lizzy (his adventurous and slightly more social best friend) set out to find the keys.  They are so determined that they get caught breaking into Jeremy's family friends' office building.  As a result of their innocent-yet-law-breaking escapade, they are senteced to community service.  While completing their community service they are assigned to work for Mr. Oswald Oswald, a collector and decendant of a former pawn shop owner.  Jeremy and Lizzy tromp all over the city returning long-ago pawned items to their past owners.  With the  help of Oswald's limo driver James, Jeremy and Lizzy learn that the meaning of life may not be what they thought it was. 

I am a big fan of age appropriate boy/girl friendships like the one Jeremy and Lizzy have in this book.  And Mass does a perfect job of letting Lizzy be Lizzy  and Jeremy be Jeremy but keeps them true to themselves when they are together, too.  It's refreshing compared to the pre-teen drama that is so typical of most books written for this age group. 

Mass gives us a strong characters, too.  Everyone from Mr. Oswald, his driver, and Lizzy and Jeremy are developed just right.  The characters of Lizzy's dad and Jeremy's mom are not central to the book, which seemed lacking to me at first.  Lizzy and Jeremy are the main characters but it is evident that the reason they are so independent is because of their parents.  Their freedoms are a result of being raised by single parents that have set solid rules and boundaries for them. 

The book was a bit emotional (Jeremy reliving his dad's tragic car-accident death) but it's message is touching and heart-felt.  I recommend it for 4th grade through high school. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman

Back in March, I reviewed Polly Shulman's novel, The Grimm Legacy, because I just adored it. I couldn't wait to tell everyone about it (see the review here.)

Come to find out, it was her second novel! Who knew? So, a week or so ago, I decided to order her first novel, Enthusiasm, and I can also recommend it, though it's definitely a different style and type of novel.

Cute cover, no?

Like me, sophomore Julie (or Julia, if you're being formal) has a great fondness for Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. She is a quiet girl, a poet, gawky (she feels) and shy. Her best friend, Ashleigh, however, is loud, excitable, and, well, odd. Ashleigh gets ideas. BIG ideas. She finds something she loves with a passion, for a while, at least, and acts on them in ways that most people wouldn't think to do. Just before their sophomore year begins, Julie is a little unhappy to find that Ashleigh's newest Big Craze is Pride and Prejudice. Ashleigh wants to dress, talk, act, dance like an Austen heroine, and, of course, that means finding a Mr. Darcy for both of them.

The Quadrille

Ashleigh decides that the best way to find a Mr. Darcy and dance the quadrille and such noble pursuits is to crash the local all-boy boarding school's Fall Frolic. Confusion, hilarity, and teen heartbreak ensue. This is not a re-do of Pride and Prejudice - it reminds me a bit more of Emma (or Clueless) though it's still not the same story - but a little knowledge of Austen's style certainly wouldn't hurt, and I probably enjoyed the book a bit more for loving Austen in the first place.

The writing is superbly done, again, and the characters are believable and enjoyable. However, unlike The Grimm Legacy, which had both fantasy and mystery elements, this is a straight-up teen romance. There's not much in the way of adventure, but the love story is quite well done. Ashleigh and Julie are both eyeing the same boy, and Julie's a good enough friend to back off. Ashleigh is, well, clueless, but not mean. There is a bit of comedy-of-errors plot and humor. There is also some family drama - Julie's parents are divorced, and there is a slightly evil stepmother involved - and again, the characters ring true. 

I really liked this book, but again, in a different way than I liked her later effort. I wouldn't recommend this to my boys - I just think it's too much of a straight romance for them to enjoy. However, it's a great read for the slightly older tween girl. 

Rating: PG
There is very light romantic description of kissing, and one mention of (undrunk and confiscated from an icky boy) vodka at a party. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Is this thing on?

Oh, good.

We've been gone because our calendar keeper lost track of time.

But things return to the regularly scheduled fun next week.

Sorry for the radio silence.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Secrets of Shakespeare's Grave by Deron Hicks

I'm only two days late - woohooty! I have a reason, though, as you will see...

12 year old Colophon (more on that to come) Letterford is the younger daughter of a family of publishers that goes back to the Elizabethan Era. Letterford and Sons always passes to the oldest son, with other family members maintaining a share (this does come into play, I'm sorry to say.)

The book opens in the cathedral on Mont St. Michel in 1616, with the founding father, Miles Letterford. A little prologue gives us the teaser of something to do with Shakespeare and a secret, and segues into a craftsman making a mysterious device in a dark room... Oooh!

Colophon's father, Mull, is the current owner and head of Letterford & Sons. Her grandfather passed away not so long ago, and we are told that several nasty accidents have happened to the company since his death. Warehouses on fire with new books inside, losses of long-time authors... The company is in trouble, and Colophon knows it. Her older brother Case, the future owner of Letterford & Sons, is predictably rude to her and doesn't seem to care one whit about the family business that he will someday inherit.

During Thanksgiving dinner at the family's newer home in Georgia, with most of the family in attendance, Colophon both overhears a threatening conversation between her father and his cousin, Treemont; meets another cousin, Julian, who believes in a mysterious family treasure, but who mostly is regarded as nuts by the family; and finally overhears a formal meeting whereby Treemont brings up a clause in which, if the current leader of the company is found to be ruining things, can be ousted and replaced by the direct descendant of the 2nd son of Miles - gee, Treemont himself. Mull is given until Christmas to try to sign one of three bestselling authors that are considering the company for their next book. If he doesn't, well...

Colophon has her suspicions that Treemont is behind some of the "accidents" - particularly when her father's first meeting goes ridiculously awry. And, she begins to think that the treasure legend that Julian believes in may just be the salvation for her father. Julian mentions that the first clue is maybe in the portrait of Miles that always goes with the house.

The family always does Christmas at their traditional home in London, so Colophon arranges to go early with her mother to see some artifacts that might be clues. She begs her brother to tag along to her father's second meeting in New York. Case, in a strange turn of listening to her, agrees. They are in a race to see if they can find the treasure or in some other way help their father maintain his position in the company.

I SO wanted to like this book. I love Shakespeare, I have no problem with international kid quests (I love the 39 Clues series, which are just as, or more, improbable), mysteries are my favorite genre... Unfortunately, the writing was so poorly done that the premise was overcome.

I hesitate to review a book here that I didn't like - I'd rather tell you about books you HAVE to read! - but I got this as an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) from, which sometimes gives me wonderful things, and it's the only kid book I've read recently, and I guess I do think it somewhat worthwhile to warn people off something that's not going to be worth their time.

Some of my problems with this book, in no particular order:

  • As an adult (so surely as a kid, too), I had never heard of the name Colophon. I wondered if it was some rather random Shakespearean character, so I Googled it. Nope, it's the word for the front page of a book, with the publisher/date/edition/ISBN info. That is a fine choice for a publishing family, but why on earth would the author not throw us a bone about it? And forget a nice little "She hated that everyone always mispronounced her name..." kind of literary device to tell us how to say it as we read.
  • It took over 100 pages (not counting the prologue) before anyone brought Shakespeare up again. The family doesn't have an obsession, there aren't characters named after Shakespearean folk, there's nothing to give us anything about a Shakespeare connection at all. I wanted more.
  • At least during the first half of the book, the dialog was ridiculously stilted. Even the 12 and 14 year old characters always talk in complete sentences, and without enough contractions. While I'm a grammar witch, I do understand people often don't talk in full sentences, and while there are some "don't"s and "I'm"s in there, it's not nearly enough for the characters to come off as natural. 
  • The first 10 chapters, around 100 pages, have a great deal of set up, but pretty much NO action. I was bored. That is why I'm late reviewing - while I've had this book for several weeks and it should have taken me about 2 hours to read (the type is large, and it is less than 300 pages), I just could not get interested. This is perhaps my main complaint - I don't know that my kids, for example, would notice the poor writing as much as I do, but they will probably get bored.
  • Even though I can usually suspend my disbelief for kids' stories, there were a few things that just couldn't be overcome. Colophon finds things in a few days that her adult cousin missed after studying the treasure clues for most of his life. The author lives in Georgia, so the Letterfords do, too - yes, rural Georgia, the hotbed of international publishing. Case, the brother, goes from rude disbelief to wonderful, caring accomplice in about 2 seconds.
  • Finally, and the "Letterford Mysteries" on the cover should be a clue, this is actually apparently the first of at least two books. While I normally appreciate and actually prefer series stories, I really like when the individual books can stand alone. Unfortunately, this one had a bit of an end but immediately took us to a cliffhanger and left me feeling rather jerked around. I'm not sure that the prologue actually had anything to do with this story (and I'm pretty bright, so why can't I tell?) and that feels cheap. 

There are some good points. The scenery is well drawn. There are some very funny moments in the (sorry, small spoiler) sabotage that takes place in the father's meetings with the authors. The last half of the book does pick up in pace, with a few exciting moments (not enough, though, still) and the dialog does improve to a slightly more natural flow. However, I can't recommend this book.

So, where does the line of dissatisfaction with a book cross from the writer to the editor? This isn't an independently published little book, this is Houghton Mifflin. Why did the editor not say, "Hey, read your dialog out loud and fix things after you do? And, hey, let's do a bit more action at the beginning..." Because, really, that's all it would take to make this better. Mere imagination does not a writer make - you have to have some idea of how to put words to paper (or screen.) I myself know that I'm a much better editor than writer - it's like the old art thing, "I don't know much about it, but I know what I like," except that I do know something about writing, and while I can't necessarily come up with clever ideas myself, I can thing of some ways to improve the writing. And I'm not a pro...

I hope that the next book would move faster as that whole 100/267 pages of set up wouldn't be necessary, but I can't promise that I will read it to find out. This book actually is not being released until Sept. 4th of this year, but I would not encourage anyone to rush out to buy it.

So, the idea here is good, but the execution just doesn't work. And I'm not sure who to blame for that.

Rating: G
No language, violence, romance, anything like that. The publicity blurb in the ARC says it's for ages 9-12. I think 12 would be too old. Though the heroine is 12, most 6th graders I know would want at least a little romance, friendship, fantasy, adventure...something. The type is large, and the chapters are pretty short - I think 8 would be fine, and interest would probably top out around 11. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark by Ridley Pearson

The last few summers, my brother and sister-in-law have generously shared their kids with my parents and with me. To maintain my perennial nomination for Aunt of the Year, I try to schedule "Camp Carrot" activities like swimming (well, dunking them, really), crafting, and watching movies. This year, we branched out, and I interviewed my oldest niece and nephew about their current favorite book.

Today, I'm posting my interview with Natalie, about a book series she REALLY likes--The Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson.

Natalie modge podges
paper to a washer.
(Is modge podge a verb?)
Aunt Carrot:   What is your first name?

My brilliant niece: Natalie

AC:   How old are you?

Mbn: 10 years old

AC:   What do you do for a living?

Mbn: I go to school.  I’m in fifth grade this year.

AC:   What is the name of the book you want to talk about?

Mbn: Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark

AC: Who wrote that book?

Mbn: Ridley Pearson

AC: What are the major things that happen in the book? (Except, don’t give away any surprises!)

Mbn: A group of kids work as DHIs (Disney Host Interactives or Daylight Holographic Images) during the day at Magic Kingdom and then “cross over” after they fall asleep.  When they cross over, they try to stop the Overtakers, the bad people who want to rule the world, starting with Magic Kingdom. It’s going to be confusing in the beginning, but don’t worry.  It gets better.

These five teenagers (Finn, Philby, Maybeck, Willa, and Charlene) notice unusual human characteristics in some of the people that they meet that are clues about the Overtakers . . . if they look closely.  There are lots of surprises in this exciting story (and a little bit of suspense.)

AC:   What was your favorite part of the book?

Mbn: I like the very end where everyone is dressed up like a cast member, and they break a certain spell.  If I say any more about this spell, you’ll be confused and I might give away the ending.

AC:   Did you like the book? Why?
Mbn: I liked this book because it was a break from the realistic fiction that I normally read. Also, it’s about Disney which is one of my favorite places, and I get to learn things about Disney. (It’s sorta like a behind-the-scenes look.)

AC:   Who else do you think would share your opinion?
Mbn: Anyone would like this book, but especially people who really like Disney and know the attractions.  Also, people who like fantasy books.

Natalie says "read this book!"
(And all the others in the series!)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

What would it be like to grow up in a graveyard?  Would you be content to live as Nobody forever, or would you leave your home to find a new one amongst the living?  And what exactly does one get a witch to repay her for her kindness?  Such are the questions Bod (Nobody) Owens must ask himself in The Graveyard Book.  I have to sheepishly admit that I was unaware of how awesome Neil Gaiman is until I picked this up (*ahem* because it was in the "Bargain" section....and, yes, I was at a brick-and-mortar book store buying a paper-and-glue book; I know, I know, how 21st century of me).  Now I'm a fan.  Mr. Gaiman is responsible for a whole bunch (terrible accurate and articulate, I am aware) of cool stuff like Coraline - both the book and the movie, The Sandman, Smoke and Mirrors, Odd and the Frost Giants, and Anansi Boys to name a few.  Not all of those books are meant for younger readers, though, so do a quick scan of the book before you buy it - in whatever form you so choose to read your books.  He also has a stellar web site where you can learn more about him and his widely varied projects.  You can find that here.

This book won the 2009 Newbery Award and with good reason.  It manages to mix creepiness with a bit of suspense, humor, and fantasy and somehow make it appropriate for young readers.  My brilliant niece is ten years old and I would recommend it to her, even though it's not really the kind of book that she normally likes and she has an imagination that is way TOO lively - I still think she'd be able to read it without a nightlight.  Nobody Owens is two when he toddles his way to the graveyard late one night. The nefarious and duplicitous Man Jack had just killed Bod's family, and it's because of Bod's ability to escape his crib that he walks out the open door and up the hill to the graveyard.  There he is taken in by the spirits of the graveyard's permanent residents and the other resident, Silas who is neither of Bod's world or that of the ghosts.  From then on Bod roams the graveyard, finding every visible headstone and some not-so-visible, until nightfall when he learns a different kind of education from Silas. Throughout the book Bod grows up and with his maturation comes new challenges: proper clothes, proper schooling, not falling into a Ghoulgate, learning how to blend in both with ghosts and living people, and protecting him from the man Jack.  It can sometimes be lonely for a boy from the graveyard but then again, meeting someone means talking about where he lives.  Quite the quandary.

I read in his Newbery acceptance speech (printed at the end of the book, and also worth a read) that he originally started the book as a series of short stories.  I can see how that might be, but it certainly doesn't detract from the story.  I also see the comparison made between this and Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book: both boys being raised outside of their "natural" elements and must figure out how to bridge two worlds or ultimately choose one over the other.  I must say I find both books more than a little sad when the boys grow older and start to lose their connections to the worlds in which they were raised.  Of course, I also find Now We are Six in which Christopher Robin becomes to old for Winnie the Pooh to be the saddest book EVER.  So you may not need as many tissues as I do when it comes to tales of growing up and going on.  I'm giving this book a PG rating.  I know that there are mature themes throughout, but they're handled in a manner appropriate for young readers.  Think Disney's Haunted Mansion attraction; somewhat scary, somewhat funny, altogether fun.  So if you're looking for a book that's a little different but well-written (I might even venture that this would be particularly appealing to boys), check out The Graveyard Book.
Jack Black, Will Ferrell, and Jason Segel as the hitchhiking ghosts at Disney's Haunted Mansion.
To see other Disney Dream Portraits by Annie Leibovitz, go here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Divergent by Victoria Roth

Dystopian futures are all the rage in teen lit (seemingly, maybe, replacing the vampires,) and one can't help comparing this novel to The Hunger Games triology (which I enjoyed, but this review isn't about those books, at least not mostly.)

I was recommended Divergent by a fellow mom/tennis friend whose daughters are in college and high school, respectively. Straight out, this is a teen, not a tween, novel. But it is good.

Beatrice Prior, 16, lives in Chicago in some not-too-distant future. As an Illinois native, it's always fun to read books set in places that I'm familiar with - the idea of "the giant swamp, which some say used to be a lake, but I can't imagine it" are definitely kind of fun.

In this version of the future, people are divided into 5 different groups, the Abnegation (selfless, not to be noticed as individuals), the Erudite (wisdom solves everything), the Amity (can't we just all get along?), the Candor (the truth, and nothing but the truth) and finally the Dauntless (bravery is everything.) You are raised by your parents, who, by definition would be of the same group, until age 16, when you can make a decision to stay with your birth group, or make a change. If you make a change, you will never, ever, see your birth group again. The premise is that there was some sort of horrible global meltdown, and each group would blame its opposite (the Abnegation blame egos, the Erudite blame the uneducated, the Candor blame liars, etc.) So, to keep fighting from happening again, you live pretty much isolated in whichever group you choose, and each group has social responsibilities for the whole. If, for some reason, the group you've chosen rejects you (you choose Candor, but lie constantly,) you'll get kicked out and have to live as Factionless - basically homeless, with no societal resources at all. Not even the Amity seem to want to help these guys, so you have to choose carefully.

Beatrice and her older brother Caleb, born into Abnegation, both attend the same Choosing ceremony (they are apparently not-quite-twins, so Caleb's 16th occurred after the ceremony of the previous year.) Prior to the choice, they are tested with a virtual reality scenario, which is meant to help them make their decision. Beatrice's results, though, are, well, inconclusive, and her tester warns her NEVER to mention that result to anyone - most people are pretty clear cut in their tests. This seems odd, but since no one is ever supposed to reveal results, she doesn't worry too much about it at the time.

Beatrice is sure her brother is a shoo-in Abnegation - he never shows the "selfish tendencies" that she does. And she knows she isn't truly a selfess person (though we, as readers, may view her differently than she does herself.) At any rate, she knows she doesn't want to leave her family, exactly, but also knows that she doesn't want to particularly live with the Abnegation for the rest of her days. Confident that Caleb will stay to soothe her parents' burdens, she picks, as a kind of  "the waitress is here, what am I going to order?" kind of decision, Dauntless.

Dauntless initiation turns out to be VERY hard, and the possibility certainly exists that Beatrice (now calling herself Tris as part of her reinvention) will not make it and be cast out as Factionless. There is huge physical fighting competition, first between those who have switched Factions, then overall with Dauntless-born who also want to join as adults. Much of this also involves more serum/virtual reality mind control kind of things, meant to make you face your fears. Ick.

Turns out, her brother also left Abnegation (surprise!) and went to Erudite. Their father, on Visiting Day, will have nothing to do with either of them, but Mom comes to visit, which is nice.

One of the Dauntless trainers, Four, seems to have a soft spot for Tris, and also disagrees with other trainers and leaders about what "being brave" means. They seem to be drifting into something where physical domination equals bravery, rather than bravery meaning standing up for the little guy, smart risks, and so forth. Come to find out, none of the "perfect" factions are now quite where they were when they were founded. In fact, upon (unapproved) leave visiting Caleb, Tris stumbles over a plot by a couple of the Factions to take over the others. Uh, oh.

Will she make it through initiation? What happens with the takeover plot? Are there others like her who have had "divergent" test results, and what can that mean? Is her family at all what it seems?

Without giving too much more away, this is a tightly-paced, action-packed thriller. It is NOT for the faint of heart. Dauntless leaders and initiates can be vicious - people die and are, perhaps worse, grievously injured. They use mind control/testing techniques which would scare the crap out of most adults.

The characters are well-developed, and I grew to care about them all very much. There were, perhaps, a few too many "baddies" - just in that I would forget who was which, etc., especially among the initiates. The dialog was well-done, and the world was very detailed and nicely imagined, though I guess (like in the Hunger Games, sorry, there they are again) I wish there was a bit more explanation of how this came to be in the first place. Perhaps that's a mainstay of dystopian novels that I just don't appreciate.

The philosophical questions raised by the veering of the Factions into, perhaps, extreme territory was very well done, and should make people think as they read.

Overall, this was a book that was hard to put down, wasn't completely predictable, and was very well written.

Rating: Tris and Four become somewhat intimate. Sex doesn't actually occur, but the fear of physical intimacy is used against Tris in one of her tests, so there is some discussion of the act, and also some make-out sessions do come into play. For that, and the violence and overall seriousness of the subject matter, I'd go PG-13 on this one. As I said in the first paragraph, this is teenage material that my 10-year-olds are not yet ready for. However, if your tween has read The Hunger Games (not seen the movie, read the book), then they'd be OK with this one.

Divergent is clearly meant as the beginning book of a trilogy. While there is a sort of climax to this particular plot, it certainly isn't the end of the story. I have not yet read the second book, so I am definitely looking at this as only its own story. (I wanted to jump right into the second, but some other things got in the way. I am definitely going to go for more, though.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Touch of Frost by Jennifer Estep

I love a good series,
but this one didn't make my Top 10 List.
Sorry, Mrs. Allen.

For those of you who read my reviews at The Family Addiction, you know I love a good series.  You probably also know I REALLY love a good fantasy series.  There's nothing quite like getting to know a group of characters that you can joyfully check in on again and again.  (Alas, the Saxon math series, pictured above, didn't quite have the character development I look for in a good series. Maybe there just aren't enough words in word problems for that to happen. ;D)

So imagine my delight, last week, when I discovered the first bok of a a new series already in motion.  

Happy dance!  I read the first one and then IMMEDIATELY bought the next two so I could have hours of uninterrupted time in the Mythos Academy world.  


I will say I was a bit slow to warm up to the Mythos Academy in Touch of Frost .  At this school just outside Asheville, North Carolina, 16-22 year old descendants of the famous warrior classes (the Amazons, Valkryies, Spartans, Roman, Celts, Ninjas, and Samurais) study and train together. While the students are legally minors, they're constantly faced with the very adult threat of Loki's return and the evil machinations of his supporters.  The basic concept seemed a little to close to Harry Potter for me, but once I got settled into the world I could focus on the story itself instead of constantly making comparisons between the Mythos Academy and Hogwarts.  J.K. Rowling didn't invent the "magic kids goes to school together" concept, so it was probably more my own hang up than anything else.

(Let me stop a minute and say, definitely, that the Mythos Academy books are written for an older audience than Harry Potter, so please don't hand these to any 9-year-olds.  The main character is 17 and is faced with real-time high-school aged problems.  There is discussion of sex, drugs, and alcohol, as well as war, death, and torture, so these are truly meant for a PG-13 crowd.)

The first of a series
The first of a GOOD series!
The main character in Touch of Frost (and the rest of the series) is Gwen Frost, a Gypsy girl with touch magic.  If she touches you or your belongings she can see your emotion-laden past. Gwen only learned of the Mythos Academy after the death of her mother, and she wasn't raised in decadent wealth like the rest of her classmates.  She's more comfortable in hoodies than Gucci or Prada.  It's safe to say that Gwen has a steep learning curve when it comes to figuring out the world of the Mythos Academy.

Touch of Forst centers around Gwen reluctantly tackling that learning curve while she tries to solve the mystery of the death of a Valkryie that no one seems to mourn.  She encounters a really cute, but troubled Spartan boy and an even more troubled Nemean prowler, she might, JUST maybe, have started to make friends, and she puts herself in peril just to figure out what's going on.

I thought  Touch of Frost was a great introduction to this series by Jennifer Estep. I devoured the second two (Kiss of Frost and Dark Frost), and I'm looking forward to the fourth (Crimson Frost, which comes out in December). The book has all the elements of a good fantasy series, but set in a world of teenagers and young adults who are struggling to learn about themselves and their boundaries.

(If this review has confused you more than helped you, there is a 99-cent introduction available in e-format, First Frost.  It, however, isn't a story on its one--only background information that gets repeated in each of the subsequent tales.)

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsFirst, I want to say I liked it.  Really, I did.  The story was compelling and the characters were accessible and easy to like.  So what's my problem?  Well, I don't really have one except that I don't think I LOVED this book the way many people did.  I liked it.  I liked it a lot, actually.  I would re-read it even.  But if you Google this book, you will come across approximately ninety bajillion reviews stating how this book is the portal to Ultimate Truths and that one should just jump into a box of Kleenex whilst reading.  Don't believe me?  Check out this Tumblr page.  I mean, wow.  Wow.  So.......I liked it, but I only used three or four tissues and I kinda thought we all already knew the Deep Stuff in the book.  But that's also how I felt about the film American Beauty; didn't we already know all that Deep Stuff? Why is this (good) movie becoming the beacon for Truth?  But I do realize that there are people younger than I am and their first experience with Ultimate Truths has to happen somewhere, and this book isn't a bad place for that to happen.

The Fault in Our Stars centers around Hazel.  Hazel is sixteen and has been aware of her mortality for awhile, thanks to the terminal cancer she has lived with for years.  She knows she would already be dead if it weren't for an experimental drug that miraculously has made her traitorous tumors shrink.  She will never be cured, but she is able to live longer with the help of the drug.  Hazel is doing her best to be sixteen and deal with all that.  Personally, I really like Hazel.  She's more mature than she should be but still vulnerable with just enough angst to be a proper teenager.  Hazel has found the perfect novel about a Kid With Cancer, and while she might like to sit in her room and read it for the thousandth time, her mother convinces her to go a support group meeting.  There Hazel meets Augustus and things change for both of them.

Augustus had bone cancer and lost part of a leg, but he's at this particular meeting to offer moral support to a friend.  He and Hazel get to talking.  Then they get to talking over the phone.  Then they hang out.  And eventually they end up in Amsterdam.  Hmm.  It's way more logical in the book.  The point is, they fall for one another.  Augustus gives Hazel a reason to see more of the world beyond her bedroom and her favorite book and Hazel gives Augustus her favorite book and deeper insight.  They are a pretty great couple.  But this is a book involving kids with cancer, so you can probably see that there is going to be some sadness here.  I'll just say that you should be prepared for reality to creep in and take up residence here.

I don't want to say much else about the plot, because it really is a great book.  And for many people this is going to be the first Great Book they read.  For the rest of us who have already explored these themes, it's still well-written, insightful, and even funny read.  I'm torn between PG-13 and R as a rating:  there's some language (they're teenagers), and non-explicit sex (easily a cut away in the screenplay - there's going to be a movie by the way), but really the mature content of death and dying is the toughest stuff here.  I'm not letting my niece  read it for a couple of years.  She's ten but wise beyond her father's years.  But when she's old enough I'll gift it to her because it really is that good.  It's just that I'm not bronzing it like some people are.  So the fault is not in the stars, dear Brutus, but in me.  :)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hearts At Stake by Alyxandra Harvey

For me, summer has always been about sun and shucking the school year's schedule.

When I was little, that meant wanting to swim all day long and being oblivious to the sun.
(Nothing but good times when you're little, right?)

When I was a teenager that meant detassling and trying to assure a dark non-farmer's tan.
(Let's not talk about that, okay?)

This year, it means a quick trip to Florida, a longer trip to Italy, and an appreciation of sunscreen.
(Yep.  Italy.  Three weeks.  And it's work.  I swear.  And, yes, I have the coolest job.)

Knowledge and the aging process have brought on that appreciation for sunscreen.  (When I was in Florida last weekend, I became well aware of just how much of my own back I can't reach; I have the peeling, healing sunburn as a demonstration.)  But, no matter how much I don't want skin that looks like leather and no matter how much I like to sleep in, I still love the warmth of the sun.

Which is why, no matter how much I love vampire books, I would make a HORRIBLE vampire.

Johnny Depp in Dark Shadows
That's requires some serious SPF.
This look is just not for me.  ==>

However, if you want to slather on some SPF 45, throw on your shades, and read a fun YA vampire book while you bask in the sun's yellow glow, I've got a great recommendation for you.

Bonus?  It's part of a series (The Drake Chronicles), so if you like it you've got more to read!

Super bonus?  This one is only $2.89 right now for Kindle and Nook.  Holla!

Hearts At Stake by Alyxandra Harvey is the tale of two best friends, Solange and Lucy.  Solange was born into a vampire family (the Drakes), and on her fast approaching 16th birthday, she'll turn.  Lucy is a human whose parents have raised her to be an open-minded, loyal activist, so she's naturally (super-naturally?) a fit with the Drake family of vamps.  Just because they're different doesn't mean she should fear them. Instead, she loves Solange like a sister, and she might love one of Solange's brothers like, well, very much NOT like a brother.

Solange is not looking forward to turning.  She's a peaceful person, she doesn't like blood, and she knows her turning will make some other vampires very, very uncomfortable.  Solange just might be the vampire at the center of a prophecy that will cause a huge shift in the power structure of the vampire world.
Fun AND on sale!

There are different kinds of vampires in this book, and not all of them are good.  Even the ones who could be good can be pretty big jerks.  (Sounds like humans, no?)  There are also vampire hunters among the humans.  So a shift in the power structure is a very, very big deal.  Solange would prefer to avoid all of that, and she'd like to avoid all the safeguards her family has set up.  The Drakes want to protect her from the different vampire factions that believe that killing Solange before she turns will prevent the prophecy from coming true.

Lucy is significantly more bloodthirsty (har!) than Solange, and, as I mentioned, she's fiercely loyal.  While this battle could be considered the Drakes' alone, there's no way Lucy would abandon her friend at this important, dangerous time.  Lucy's ideas for assistance are sometimes more dangerous than helpful, but her dedication can not be questioned.

This was a fun book to read with a little bit of romance and quite a bit of danger and political intrigue.  (Thus the PG rating.) The point of view switches from Solange to Lucy, but the chapter headings make it clear whose voice we're hearing.  The two girls are different enough in personality that it also helps make the jumps fairly easy to follow.  What's a little less easy is keeping track of the difference factions.  There are more than five, and some of them have similar and mostly unpronounceable names.  Still, it makes an ironically good beach read.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck

Confession time.  I broke my own rule.  I read a book in a series out of order and I have no one to blame but myself.  I knew it was my turn to post and had no fresh "BeTween" material to review.  I dove into my daughter's closet (where all of the 'already read' books sit waiting for either me to read or put in the next garage sale) and came out with A Year Down Yonder.  However,  I consider my foray into the closet a huge success for two reasons.  One, the book was an excellent choice.  Two, I escaped the closet without getting a Polly Pocket shoe jammed in my knee cap.  Success, indeed.
Mary Alice is 15 and is used to spending her summers along with her brother Joey, in a small town in Illinois.  She and Joey help their grandma on the farm and in the garden but always look forward to going back to their native Chicago before school starts each year.  The year is 1937 and times are extremely tough for the family. Joey is now 18 and out west working for the forest service.  Mary Alice's parents have been hit extra hard by the depression and this summer she isn't just going to visit the farm for the summer.  She'll be there to stay...for an entire year!  Mary Alice is not exactly thrilled with her new arrangements.  And neither are her new classmates, as they quickly dub her as the "girl from Chicago".  Mary Alice must try to fit it in at a new school, adjust to being on the farm without her brother and build a relationship with her no-nonsense grandmother. 

It was very easy for me to fall in love with this book and it's many themes.  First and foremost was the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter.  While not the most outwardly loving grandmother,  Grandma Dowel would do anything to protect and help her granddaughter fit in, she just has an unusual way of showing it.  Reading as Mary Alice discovered this for herself was touching. 

Also central to the book was the theme of community and hard work.  Even though the small Illinois community was suffering as much if not more than the rest of the country at that time, the townspeople never turned their backs on each other.  Grandma Dowel was front and center when it came to setting the example, too.  Mary Alice watched as she baked pies for hungry neighbors, returned a stolen horse to it's rightful owner and freed the town's grumpiest old man from downed tornado damage.  Can you think of more powerful lessons than those? 

I would recommend this book for children ages 9-13 and even younger if they are more of an advanced reader.  This would be a great family read aloud book, too.  The lessons about family, hard work and community are simple and clean.    I give the book a G rating because there is no language and there are no inappropriate themes whatsoever.  I give myself an A for finding an excellent book. Maybe I should break the rules more often.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Serpent's Shadow by Rick Riordan

So, I'm predictable. While I have lots of "old" books to review for this site, I wanted to do something newer. My last review was about the first of the Egypt trilogy by Rick Riordan, and I was excited because the third book was coming out the following week. It came out, I got it on release day, and it certainly didn't disappoint.

The Serpent's Shadow is a great conclusion to a great series. Carter and Sadie have made themselves a good home full of other kids who have magician talent in the Egyptian tradition. Their uncle has retreated to the First Nome in Cairo, to help put the House of Life back together. Not everyone likes how they're doing it, though, and so while they have to try to find a way to stop Apophis, the chaos snake, from, well, plunging the world into total chaos, they also have to fend off a rival group of magicians who do not like the Kanes and their ideas.

Apophis, the crazy snake guy

While fending off an attack from the anti-Kane magicians, Sadie runs into a ghost who says he can help. He's the most famous of ancient Egyptian magicians, who has many times been sentenced to death by the gods for his spell attacks against them. Their dad, now the embodiment of Ra, allows his sentence to be suspended, because the young Kanes are convinced that he can help them defeat Apophis. But, can he be trusted?

Action, character growth, good story-telling... All fantastic qualities of a good series writer, and very, very well done. I am sorry to think that we won't hear more about the Kanes, but also am happy to know that Mr. Riordan has more good stuff in store for us this year in his other series.

Rating, once again PG. The battle scenes are well written, so they're intense. And, there's a touch of romance-y kind of stuff, nothing major, but it's there.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen

Juvenile burrowing owl
A not so juvenile burrowing owl

"Look," said Roy, "every day we've been reading about regular people, ordinary Americans who made history 'cause they got up and fought for something they believed in.  Okay, I know we're just talking about a few puny little owls, and I know everybody is crazy about Mother Paula's pancakes, but what's happening out there is just plain wrong. So wrong."

That's how Roy Eberhardt makes his impassioned plea to his classmates (in Hoot by Carl Hiassen)  about saving these little guys you see pictured here.  Roy doesn't normally talk so much, and most of the kids in his class don't really know him because Roy is the new kid.  (His dad's job with the Department of Justice moves the family around a lot.)  New kid or not, Roy can't stop worrying about the baby burrowing owls who will be trapped in their nests when the construction crews start up their bulldozers on a lot designated to get a new pancake house.

Roy is a middle-schooler with a lot on his plate.  (Just, you know, no pancakes, because he's worried about those owls.)  Roy misses living in Montana, and school is complicated.  He IS the new kid.  Again.  There's a bully named Dana (sorry, Dad!),  and a tough girl with serious biting power named Beatrice who may or may not be Roy's new friend.  Beatrice has an oddly nicknamed brother who doesn't wear shoes, but is willing to pull some crazy stunts in order to protect the burrowing owls.  Roy wants to save the owls, but he's uncomfortable with the extreme measures that Beatrice's brother is willing to take.

Hoot isn't an easy tale, but it's a really good one.  (It was a Newbery Honor book in 2003 which means that librarians agree with me.)  Hiassen is known for his over-the-top characters and his dedication to Florida's precious ecosystem. There's a certain amount of scorn apparent in most of his work for the institutions of Big Business and Government; that contempt blazes off of some of the pages of Hoot.  I haven't read a Hiassen book, yet, that didn't make me laugh, but he doesn't offer easy answers or soft-pedal the reality of growing up*.

As Roy's mom says "Honey, sometimes you're going to be faced with situations where the line isn't clear between what's right and what's wrong.  Your heart will tell you to do one thing, and your brain will tell you to do something different.  In the end, all that's left is to look at both sides and go with your best judgment."

My best judgment on Hoot is to rate it as a PG-13 based on the illegal activities (both civil and corporate), the age of the characters, and the tough decisions that face Roy.  I say this knowing full well that my oldest niece read this when she was eight or nine, so if your young reader is an advanced reader just know what s/he is getting into with Hoot.

*We'll revisit these themes tomorrow when I review Hiassen's  Skinny Dip for The Family Addition.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Mother's Day Post

I have two other books lined up to review (The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green), both of which I liked, but I wanted to share with you some of the books that are important to me as a mother.  These books are important to me because my children want to hear them consistently during our pre-bed story reading time.  None of them are ground-breaking.  All of them are geared toward toddlers.  All of them can be recited verbatim - or close enough - by my children.  Carrie reads anything in the English language; books, magazines, deodorant labels, that sort of thing, and as an aunt of the Highest Order of Aunthood she has passed a number of great books to my kids as well as Amy's.  Amy reads books to know what her kids are reading and Chanin reads books to keep up with her boys too.  So, I thought I'd share the books that I read to keep up with my kids.  Sweet Girl and Little Man give all of the following three stars (out of three: we have to use the same rating system as Angry Birds, duh) and I hope that they continue to love books throughout their lives.  That would be an excellent Mother's Day present.

1.  Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld
Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site [Book]
Probably not how the moon gets up there
If you have a kid that loves the big trucks and machines that dig, bulldoze, dump, haul, and lift, then this is an excellent choice.  It's the end of the day and the construction site is shutting down to go to bed.  Each machine/truck gets a chance to star as one-by-one they settle down to sleep.  The illustrations are cute but not overly so.  Little Man loves him some trucks, and he's got the first two set of verses memorized.  Sweet Girl is also a fan, and I will forever remember exactly what an excavator does now. {Scooping gravel, dirt, and sand, Excavator shapes the land.  He digs and lifts throughout the day, But now it's time to end his play.}

2.  The Mine-O-Saur by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
The Mine-O-Saur
Dinosaurs not to scale
This book actually came to us in the mail through Dolly Parton's Imagination Library.  It's a program through United Way that sends a book a month to families with children.  Honestly, I don't remember how we got signed up and I don't know if they still do the program, but it's a great idea and this is a pretty awesome book.  It's time for school and all the dinosaurs are having a good time, but the Mine-O-Saur is wrecking everyone's fun by taking everything.  He takes the toys in the schoolyard before the bell rings.  He takes the snacks at snack time.  And then at recess he takes all the blocks and builds an amazing tower.  But by then no one wants to have anything to do with the Mine-O-Saur.  He soon realizes that it's not fun to have things but not friends and so he returns everything he can and apologizes.  Everything ends well.  It's a good message and though Little Man still has Mine-O-Saur issues, I did hear him telling his sister "Good sharing!" as he took her jump rope away from her.  Eh....we're working on it.
Llama, Llama Red Pajama [Book]
Check out that blanket

3.  Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney
Llama llama has a popular series of books.  This is our favorite.  I believe it has something to do with my dramatic interpretation of: "Llama llama red pajama hollers loudly for his mama.  Baby llama stomps and pouts.  Baby llama jumps and shouts."  I am an excellent stomper and pouter.  Sweet Girl also happens to like Baby Llama's blanket, and she knows blankets.  She sleeps with seven of them herself.  This book covers Baby Llama going to bed and then feeling anxious without Mama Llama.  Things escalate (stomping, pouting, shouting, I think we've covered that) but Mama Llama comes up to reassure Baby Llama.  We have some pretty big anxieties in this house, so I appreciated the fact that it was addressed in a straight forward manner.  However, if your child learns bad behaviors from examples of bad behaviors then steer clear.  Unless of course you like stomping, pouting, shouting, etc.

4.  Fuzzy Fuzzy Fuzzy by Sandra Boynton
Fuzzy Fuzzy Fuzzy
Udder-ly awesome
If you don't own or have never read any Sandra Boynton books, you are missing out.  These books are seriously awesome.  The illustrations are cute, the rhymes are fun, and Ms. Boynton does more for the cow than Chick-Fil-A.  We have a lot of her books.  We love Snuggle Puppy, Barnyard Dance, Lets Dance, Little Pookie, Pajama Time, the list goes on.  This books is actually a touch and tickle book.  There's not much in terms of plot; illustrations and a couple of words throughout.  But the best part, for us anyway, is the last page asks if the reader would like to start over with the fuzzy fuzzy guy then you lift the flaps on two eggs.  One egg is cranky and says "No!" while the other egg says "Yes!"  One night, after having read this a couple of times before, Little Man decided this was the funniest book EVER.  I had to read it ten times before we could move, and he literally had tears rolling down his face from laughing so hard at the eggs at the end.  He would get so excited about the No! and Yes! part that he would start giggling two pages before we got there.  He doesn't go into hysterics about it anymore, but I recorded him today reading the book.  You can hear him "reading" along and his sister's feet make a cameo.  I already loved Sandra Boynton, but I would have loved her just for hearing his little voice try to say "Incredibly Soft."  Enjoy! We sure have.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Static #1 (Flight 29 Down) by DJ MacHale and Stan Rogow

My bags are there.  I just know it.
Bad news:  The airline "misplaced" two of our four bags today. 
Worse news:  I will be wearing contacts 24/7 until our bags are located.
Good news:  I don't have to do laundry tonight.
Better news:  I have time to write and post this review on schedule.

Now that all of that is out of the way, let me get straight to the review.  And I hope that I am not causing too much of a problem by reviewing this book/series of books (yes, we are recommending another one in a series, but really it's not our fault.  You should blame the authors for writing so many good series, not us the innocent readers and reviewers).  You see, this series is out of print.  Yikes!  But, you can still check them out at your local library.  Or you can be like a certain Aunt Sissy and hunt down some used copies on Amazon.  Either way, I think your tweenager would like this series.

Based on the hit Discovery Kids channel series, Static #1 (Flight 29 Down) starts off with a bang.  Flight 29 crash landed and it's seven survivors, all teenagers and one pilot, bound for their school-sponsored eco-trip, have no idea where they are.  The pilot quickly organizes a search party in order to explore the unfamiliar surroundings. Not knowing when or if they will return, the remaining classmates, Nathan, Daley, Melissa, Taylor, Eric, Lex and Jackson must now work together in order to survive.  Their resources are scarce and besides the wreckage of their airplane, shelter is almost nil.  Ranging in age from 10 to 16, the survivors navigate their personalities, hunger, and fear to try and make it through each day. Unlikely friendships are formed and some pretty impressive feats are accomplished.  If it sounds like the TV show Lost, it is... almost.   It's more like Lost and Saved by the Bell had a love child.  How's that for a mental picture?

My daughter gobbled this entire series up as fast as she could get her hands on them.  Are they winning any Pulitzer Prizes?  No.  But they are highlighting common issues (peer pressure, stereotypes, boy/girl relationships) in a nice little paperback package.  Add to that the element of suspense and the underlying theme of adventure and teamwork and they make for fun reads.  Since this is the first in a series you can safely assume the survivors are not rescued by the end of the book. What fun would that be?  There are six more books in the series.  And yes, we have all of them.  Now, if we only had our luggage...

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan

OK, I admit it. Like Amy, I chair my kids' school's book fair. And it was last week, and it lasted for 7 school days, so I was at school for something like 70 hours. Plus we had 3 sets of grandparents visit during those 7 days. So, although my children and I bought a huge stack of exciting new books, and though I have an ARC that I am anxious to read from, I have not managed to read anything new in the last week and a half or so.

So, I'm going to an old favorite, and I'm also "pulling a Carrie" by reviewing one book, yet really recommending something like 10. (We'll stick with two for now...) 

The Red Pyramid is an excellent novel by prolific tween author Rick Riordan. He's responsible for the Percy Jackson books (for another day when I haven't read anything new) and also has written several in the 39 Clues series (again, for another day.) 

I found The Red Pyramid particularly fascinating because I like to learn new stuff. I am fairly familiar with Greek mythology, and while I knew a tiny bit about Egyptian mythology, I learned a LOT more from this book and its sequel, The Throne of Fire. Mr. Riordan has done beautiful research and really makes ancient lore (and gods!) come alive and make sense in the modern day.

Carter and Sadie Kane are siblings who've lived apart since their mother passed away mysteriously 6 years ago. Carter, 14, travels the world being homeschooled and taught all sorts of esoteric and practical information by their father, a famous Egyptologist. The family had been living in LA before the death, and Sadie, 12, was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in London. Carter and his dad are African-American, Sadie is light-skinned and blue-eyed like their mom. They are not particularly close - both because they are teenage siblings who don't see each other except for two days a year, but also because they are each jealous of the other. Sadie wishes for the adventure and time with her father. Carter wishes for "normal" with true friends and a home. 

Carter and their dad, Julius, turn up in London for Christmas, and literally all hell breaks loose. Their dad meets a mysterious man named Amos, who seems to be warning him off, then takes the kids to a private tour of the British Museum, where he manages to explode the Rosetta Stone and open a door to the Duat, the Egyptian gods' world. He was trying to summon Osiris, the great king god, but manages to also get Set, who is not a nice guy.

The police are concerned, Carter and Sadie are shocked by what they've seen, and they are taken (sort of against their will) via a magic boat to a mansion in Brooklyn with Amos, who turns out to be Julius's brother. (One of my favorite lines is that at some point Carter thinks he might have seen a flying horse over Manhattan. Amos shrugs and says, "They have their own problems to deal with over there." Percy Jackson fans will smile.) There they find that their parents (and therefore themselves) are part of a long line of The House of Life, protectors and practitioners of ancient Egypt's gods and magic, and that their parents had more or less bucked the system. So, the House wants to protect them, but also get them into the fold, which may or may not be what their parents would have wanted. They have magic, and need to learn how to use it, learn to trust each other, maybe get a first girlfriend, deal with the fact that Sadie's cat is actually a goddess, figure out how to save their dad...

Oh, yeah - Set also wants to destroy the world by building a giant pyramid full of magic. So, yep, they also have to save the world along the way.

The story is told as if transcribed from an audiotape, alternating from Carter and Sadie's separate points of view. Mr. Riordan handles this very well. You are never confused by the switching of viewpoints, and his writing rings true in both the girl and boy voices. 

The descriptions are fantastic - you can absolutely both picture yourself in Egypt and also buy into a cat suddenly becoming human or a wax figure crocodile taking a dip in the rooftop pool. The action scenes are heart-pounding, and I truly sat and finished this book in one evening (and it's 516 pages long) and then couldn't wait to devour the second. Mr. Riordan has a gift, and again (though it's for another day) I recommend anything he writes. I know that girls who try them like the books nearly as well as boys do, even though my son's teacher saw it on the book fair shelf and said, "Oh, that's a good boy book."

My boys did love this book, and I also have a dear friend who highly recommends it as an audiobook, because she reads Riordan books aloud to her children (a 4th grade boy and a 2nd grade girl), but feels uncomfortable pronouncing the Egyptian names. Again, reading this on our own, the boys and I didn't mind this, and we have all enjoyed learning more about a very ancient culture. You feel pretty smart when you finish these books. 

While this is the first of a trilogy, it's no Empire Strikes Back or Dead Man's Chest. The action and plot in this book clearly ends, and while it does let you know that it's possible that another book would be coming, you do not feel cheated because there's not a lack of a finale. 

I chose this book to review as my "old read" because the conclusion to the trilogy, The Serpent's Shadow, is coming next Tuesday, May 1st. I have it pre-ordered and will probably read it in one sweep before I think about picking up some of the other new and probably great books we picked up at the book fair. That's how good I anticipate it being, and how much I urge everyone to try this book and the series.

Rating: PG for some vaguely scary situations; there is no language and very slight romance.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

I fully admit that I read The Thirteenth Child because Nalini Singh recommended it.  I <3 Ms. Singh.  As I said in this review, I'm a fan.

(Probably more like a fangirl, and I'm probably too old for that.  But I digress.)

Like any good fangirl at a loss for YA books to try, I picked up one that came recommended by one of my favorite non-YA authors.  Holla.  Good choice.

I fully recommend Ms. Singh's recommendation.

(See, total fangirl.)

Anyway, The Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede is little bit like a magical version of Little House on the Prairie.  It's got the pioneer, forging new territories piece of Little House (both the book and the eponymous television series) and the coming-of-age elements of the entire Little House book series.  The coming-of-age elements are bit accelerated in The Thirteenth Child because we see our main character, Eff, grow from the five to eighteen in just one book.  Sometimes I find those meandering "and when I turned 12" types of stories a little trying because they lack a definitive focus other than "I grew up", but this one is well done.  I really liked Eff, and I wanted to know more about her.

This is Little House on the
 all grown up.
Or, Melissa Gilbert on
Dancing With The Stars.
Eff, you see, is the thirteenth child of her family, and in this magical version of Little House, there are those that believe strongly in the importance of birth order and numerology.  The thirteenth child is destined to turn out wrong, according to Eff's detractors.  She's a witch.  She has magic, and she's going to be bad.  Very, very bad--simply because twelve sibling were born before her.  Her twin brother, Lan, though, is the fourteenth child and the seventh son of a seventh son, so the very same people that labeled Eff as cursed when she was as young as four believe that Lan will do great and powerful magical things.  Part of this tale is a fascinating look at how we grow up believing what we've been told.
This is a magical
Little House on the Prairie.

Anyone reading along can clearly see that Eff is a good kid.  Her parents know that.  Her siblings understand, and her teachers do as well.  None of that stops Eff from doubting herself.  In fact, as she grows up she tries to bind her own magic so that it can't hurt anyone when she "inevitably" turns bad. Eff's determination to avoid her "fate" leads her to study some magical ways that aren't exactly mainstream, and that knowledge eventually allows Eff to be the hero of our story.  But that moment, when Eff figures out what the others failed to see, is Eff's coming-of-age moment.  It's the culmination of The Thirteenth Child.  Before you get there, you'll take another fascinating look at what America could have been if magic was an every day and if the American West had been full of dragons and mirrored beetles instead of bison.

This is the first book of a trilogy.  The second, Across the Great Barrier, is on my to-read list.  The third is yet to be released.  I look forward to those two installments, and you should, too.

(I'm assigning this a PG rating because of the good vs. evil themes and the elopement of one of Eff's sister's.  There's nothing graphic here (sex or violence), but there some big picture issues.)