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.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

If it's been awhile since you were in high school, prepare yourself.  This book is written from the perspective of a sixteen year-old girl.  A sixteen year-old dramatic girl.  A sixteen year-old dramatic girl that has been rather unceremoniously dumped.  Well sort of.....anyway, expect to spend a couple of pages thinking "Wow.  She is self-absorbed and needs to ratchet it back a bit."  Also, "This is not going to win any Grammarian Prizes due to the proliferation of sentence fragments and run-on sentences." (One could say that about this review as well, I suppose, but then you're being awful picky aren't you?)  And then try to remember that she's a sixteen year old girl.   A sixteen year-old dramatic girl.  A sixteen year-old dramatic girl that has been rather unceremoniously dumped.

I ended up liking this book quite a bit, but our relationship was pretty tenuous at the beginning.  Like I said, sixteen year-old and whatnot.  This book is a letter that Min (short for Minerva) writes to Ed after their relationship has dissolved.  Min is a theater kind of girl; not Drama Club, but film buff.  Ed is the high school basketball star.  Ed is a year older and about twenty high school relationships wiser than Min, and when they meet at Min's (male) best friend's Bitter Sixteen party (natch) they are intrigued by one another enough to go on a date.  From that a relationship is born fraught with high school drama and the tension that is walking a tight rope of clique social norms.  In other words, Jock meets Film Girl and the only two happy about it are Jock and Film Girl.

This is the box that Min leaves for Ed along with the letter.  It is one of many lovely illustrations within the book which is printed on lovely high gloss paper.  The book weighs approximately one ton due to aforementioned gorgeous paper.  Well, the paper and the earnest teenage emotion.  What's in the box? I'll let Min tell you.  "Every last souvenir of the love we had, the prizes and the debris of this relationship, like the glitter in the gutter when the parade has passed, all the everything and whatnot kicked to the curb.  I'm dumping the whole box back into your life, Ed, every item of you and me."  See what I mean?  That's on page 3.  And it is absolutely appropriate for the sixteen year-old dramatic girl to have these feelings about a relationship that lasted little over a month, but I had to remind myself of that for the first 30 or so pages.

Once you get past that, though, Mr. Handler (or Lemony Snicket to other Series of Unfortunate Events fans) writes a lovely and true account of a high school relationship between a not-quite-perfect-match.  I included the Pretty in Pink photo at the top because I am 90% sure if John Hughes were still around, he would option this book as his next teenage-centric movie.  There's a basketball game, bonfire, and two Halloween parties that he would capture pretty gloriously (and I know Min would approve of all the movie talk), and some family issues that he would know how to handle.  Then, of course, there's the male best friend that most people assume is either gay or simply too marginal to be an individual with an individual's feelings.  He also happens to be smitten with the (fairly naively) unknowing Min, which is a story line Mr. Hughes already did well (looking at you, Ducky).  It would have to be PG-13 because there's underage drinking and sex.  The sex is not graphic and is actually written in the perfect kind of way, but it happens. They also drink more than a healthy amount of coffee, though really it's just warm creamer and sugar.  Ultimately, I kind of fell in love with this book.  But the book ended.  And that is why we broke up.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt

Ugh.  This game sucks you in.
Ahhhh, spring break.  I specifically remember one spring break where all I did was read and do latch hook in my room.  Alone.  For hours.  It was heavenly (and yes, a bit dorky).  Twenty-five years later, spring break looks a WHOLE LOT different.  This week I've been sewing (I don't think my husband would appreciate a latch hook flag for his presentation for school).  Both of my kids have been sick all week so taking care of them means I have been the opposite of alone.  And because of all of the sick germs and general lethargy around here, I've played about 1 billion hours of Plants vs. Zombies on the Kinect with my son.  Good times.  However, I have carved out a chunk of time each day to read and I'm glad I did.  If not, I would not have read The Wednesday Wars and might have to had to read and review another book from my daughter's bookshelf.  Simply put, if you haven't read this book, do it now.  It will forever hold a place on my Top 5 list of favorite books of all time.  I think it will on yours, too.  Here's why:

Written in 2007, The Wednesday Wars is about an 11-year-old  boy growing up in Long Island.  The year is 1967 and because Holling Hoodhood is neither Catholic nor Jewish and does not have a Hebrew or Catechism class to attend on Wednesdays, he finds himself the only student in 7th grade.  Just Holling the Presbyterian, and his teacher, Mrs. Baker every Wednesday for the entire school year.  At first, Mrs. Baker has him keep himself busy by cleaning the classroom, the coat room and even worse, the desks.  But as time passes, she has him start reading Shakespeare and writing essays.  Clearly annoyed and starting to hate her even more, Holling has no choice but to comply.   His compliance leads to an eventual appreciation of Shakespeare which in a round-about way gets him the starring role in a local play.  Although he must wear tights as the star of the play, the rest of his year is filled with normal 7th-grade-boy things.  A girl crush.  Sneaking away from school to watch Yankee baseball games.  A love/hate relationship with his older sister.  But what is not normal and the most wonderful part of the book is the warm and inspiring bond he forms with Mrs. Baker.  They navigate the year together one Wednesday at a time and find that more often than not they are all each other has.  They are exactly what the other one needs during some of the most difficult moments in their lives.  It is a beautiful relationship and a very well-written book.

One major highlight for me was Holling and his love of baseball. I couldn't help but think of my dad as a young Holling. I was reminded of the baseball stories my dad would tell me when he was growing up around the same time.  Being a baseball-aholic myself (opening day is tomorrow!), I loved that Holling and his teacher shared their love of the game.

As I mentioned before, the book is set in 1967.  That means the Vietnam War was center stage as were air raid drills and telegraphs from the front.  Mrs. Baker's grown son is serving his first tour, air raid sirens go off almost daily and telegraph deliveries arrive at the school way too often.  Again, the war part of this book touched home to me, but it was also extremely relevant to the time period.

I can't say enough good things about this book. A good friend recommended it almost a year ago and I am sad that I waited this long to read it.  It's touching and sweet and appropriate in so many ways.  My 4th-grader did read it last summer without me knowing and absolutely loved it. However, I wish she would have waited a year or two.  She is an advanced reader, so that was not the problem.  The problem is that a lot of book went right over her head.  She had no clue what Vietnam was (sadly, she just figured it was another war like the ones we are in now), thought the air raid drills were something they made up, and didn't see what all the fuss about the main character meeting Mickey Mantle was all about.  Basically, the historical parts of the book were wasted on her.  I think for that reason it is more appropriately suited for 12-18 year-olds.

If you do nothing else during spring break week, put this book on your list.  Better yet, put down your latch hook and go buy or check-out a copy. And then come back and tell us what you thought.  Hopefully my kids will be better by then.