Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell

The Princess Curse--Merrie Haskell
September 2011 by Harper Collins
328 pages--Goodreads

In the fifteenth-century kingdom of Sylvania, the prince offers a fabulous reward to anyone who cures the curse that forces the princesses to spend each night dancing to the point of exhaustion. Everyone who tries disappears or falls into an enchanted sleep.

Thirteen-year-old Reveka, a smart, courageous herbalist’s apprentice, decides to attempt to break the curse despite the danger. Unravelling the mystery behind the curse leads Reveka to the Underworld, and to save the princesses, Reveka will have to risk her soul.

The Princess Curse mashes-up  "The 12 Dancing Princesses," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Hades and Persephone" while also telling its own story.  Reveka is an awesome protagonist (even though I'm not entirely sure how to pronounce her name).  Her snarky disrespect is rather funny.  She's likable without being perfect and flawed without being infuriating.  She's practical and capable and just fun to read about.

Some readers have an issue with Reveka's goal of entering a convent, but during the middle ages, convents were on of the few places people could dedicate their lives to something other than just working really hard to stay alive.  A convent would be the only place she could become a master herbalist.  Also, I love how Reveka uses herbology (**SPOILER** and awesome underworld powers) to save the day.   

I wish we could have seen more of the underworld.  And dragons.  The fact that dragons were in this book needed to be more heavily advertised. 

The Princess Curse is a quick, enjoyable, curl up on the couch with cocoa read.  It left me longing for more (sequel? hopefully? write it please!).  This makes the second Christmas in a row I've read a fairy tale retelling.  TRADITION!!!!!!!!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel

Skybreaker--Kenneth Oppel
November 2005 by Harper Collins
560 pages--Goodreads

A legendary ghost ship. An incredible treasure. A death-defying adventure.

Forty years ago, the airship Hyperion vanished with untold riches in its hold. Now, accompanied by heiress Kate de Vries and a mysterious gypsy, Matt Cruse is determined to recover the ship and its treasures. But 20,000 feet above the Earth's surface, pursued by those who have hunted the Hyperion since its disappearance, and surrounded by deadly high-altitude life forms, Matt and his companions soon find themselves fighting not only for the Hyperion—but for their very lives.

I really wanted to like Skybreaker, but it just wasn't as good as Airborn.  It was still fun, still exciting, but it had some glaring problems.

Airborn contained some deus ex machina here and there, but Skybreaker took it to a new level.  Oh no!  We're trapped by pirates with no chance of escape.  But wait!  The pirates have been electrocuted by a sky jellyfish.  What?  Again and again, Matt and company got stuck in hopeless situations and then were provided with miraculous escape routes.  I can accept this once or twice in a novel, but it happened too frequently here to ignore.

Matt was really possessive of Kate.  I get that he likes her and that he's hurt by some of her actions, but he took it too far.  He can feel like he's been punched in the gut, but to think to himself, "How dare she?" isn't okay.  He doesn't own her!  If she wants to flirt with other guys, she can.  She's her own person.  She's not even cheating on him since they have no defined relationship.  But no; how dare she.

I wanted to see more of Nadira.  I wanted her to be her awesome gypsy girl self, jumping off buildings and doing other daring things. Instead, she became fuel for a messy love quadrangle and an angst fest from Matt.  

Skybreaker was not as good as the first book, but it was still a fun romp, complete with sky pirates and a bit more steampunky.  It's just so darn compelling. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Review: Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale

Palace of Stone--Shannon Hale
August 2012 by Bloomsbury USA
323 pages--Goodreads

Coming down from the mountain to a new life in the city is a thrill to Miri. She and her princess academy friends have been brought to Asland to help the future princess Britta prepare for her wedding.There, Miri also has a chance to attend school-at the Queen's Castle. But as Miri befriends students who seem sophisticated and exciting she also learns that they have some frightening plans. Torn between loyalty to the princess and her new friends' ideas, between an old love and a new crush, and between her small mountain home and the bustling city, Miri looks to find her own way in this new place.

When I heard that Shannon Hale was publishing Palace of Stone, my first thought was "No; Princess Academy's story is complete.  It does not need a sequel.  A sequel would diminish the story that already exists."  I still hold that position, but Palace of Stone isn't a sequel, weird as that sounds.  Yes, it takes place in the same world with the same characters, but it's not a sequel.  Rather than stretching the Mount Eskel story beyond what it has material for, Palace of Stone is its own story.  Hale explores new situations and new locations while holding onto the characters and spirit we love from the first book.

The political situation is excellently crafted.  Hale poses complicated situations that I think her younger readers will miss the nuances of, but I love them.  We Americans tend to be a overly gung-ho in support of revolutions, but Hale asks the hard questions.  Is it better to support the stability of a bad ruler while some people starve, or to incite rebellion which may improve things or may lead to complete anarchy and widespread starvation and violence?  This part of the plot is wrapped up a bit too easily and neatly, but Miri faces the issue's complexity enough that I'll take it.

Hale even makes a love triangle work!  This is no "Team Edward/Team Jacob" clone thrown in to garner sales from angsty teenage girls or to cover up lack of substance elsewhere in the plot. The triangle is used more as an external representation of Miri's torn allegiance between the familiarity of home and the excitement of new experiences in Asland, which is a much more interesting tension than a romantic one.

I love the characters; I love the world; I love the plot;  I love Hale's writing style.  Palace of Stone was exactly what I needed after a massive disappointment from a different book.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Review: Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

Friends with Boys--Faith Erin Hicks
February 2012 by First Second
220 pages--Goodreads

After years of homeschooling, Maggie is starting high school. It's pretty terrifying.

Maggie's big brothers are there to watch her back, but ever since Mom left it just hasn't been the same.

Besides her brothers, Maggie's never had any real friends before. Lucy and Alistair don't have lots of friends either. But they eat lunch with her at school and bring her along on their small-town adventures.

Missing mothers...distant brothers...high friends... It's a lot to deal with. But there's just one more thing.


Friends with Boys is an excellent graphic novel about growing up. I can't really narrow the subject down more than that; it deals with friends and crushes and enemies and fathers and siblings and twins and mothers and fitting in and standing out and moving on and dealing with loss and new beginnings. For such a short novel, there was so much going on. Hicks perfectly captured the feel of high school: the isolation, the friendships, the crap "friends" put each other through.

I loved the illustration style. It fit perfectly with the story Hicks told and was deceptively simple. The illustrations were fun and quirky sometimes and deep and poignant at others. Hicks says so much with so little.

The ghost story was weaved in well. It wasn't over the top, as it easily could have been. It served as a way for Maggie to process and cope with all the stuff going on in her life, particularly her mom's abandonment of the family.

I picked up <i>Friends with Boys</i> expecting a quick, fun, fluffy contemporary story. It was fun, but it was also surprisingly deep. And as a bonus, one of my most reluctant readers loved it.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review: Enchanted by Alethea Kontis

Enchanted--Alethea Kontis
May 2012 by Harcourt's Children's Books
308 pages--Goodreads

It isn't easy being the rather overlooked and unhappy youngest sibling to sisters named for the other six days of the week. Sunday’s only comfort is writing stories, although what she writes has a terrible tendency to come true.

When Sunday meets an enchanted frog who asks about her stories, the two become friends. Soon that friendship deepens into something magical. One night Sunday kisses her frog goodbye and leaves, not realizing that her love has transformed him back into Rumbold, the crown prince of Arilland—and a man Sunday’s family despises.

The prince returns to his castle, intent on making Sunday fall in love with him as the man he is, not the frog he was. But Sunday is not so easy to woo. How can she feel such a strange, strong attraction for this prince she barely knows? And what twisted secrets lie hidden in his past - and hers?

I loved all the references to well known and less known fairy tales, but Enchanted  wasn't as strong a retelling as I had hoped.  

First, there was the instalove.  It just didn't work, even for a fairy tale.  Retellings are a way to explore things that are skimmed over in the original tale, particularly the romance.  For me, retellings have to expand on the romance and have the characters more realistically fall in love over a longer span of time, at least a little bit.  Instead, Sunday kept love-at-first-sighting.  And she just wasn't smart in some scenes.  Really, Sunday.  You wake up in a dress that is not yours in a place you've never been before in the arms of a man who was not there when you passed out, and you're not at all worried?  Not even a little bit?  Not even when you first wake up before you get your bearings and realize it's the prince?  Really?  Come on!  You should freak out at least a little bit.  And Rumbold, you took too many liberties in that scene.

That wasn't the only aspect of the story that wasn't fully developed.  The climax was rushed.  So many fairy tales were pushed into that one scene that I wasn't sure exactly what was going on.  And why was the family suddenly okay with Wednesday and Sunday involving themselves with the royal family?  Weren't they supposed to hate them?  

I did like the scene where Sunday and her father swapped stories.  Honestly, Papa needed to be a bigger part of the story.  Familial relationships are sadly neglected in these types of stories.  I would have loved to see more of the father-daughter relationship.  And there should have been more Saturday.

In the end, I think Enchanted's biggest problem was trying to tell to much story in not enough time.  It wasn't the retelling for me.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Ironskin--Tina Connolly
October 2012 by Tor Books
304 pages--Goodreads

Jane Eliot wears an iron mask.

It’s the only way to contain the fey curse that scars her cheek. The Great War is five years gone, but its scattered victims remain—the ironskin.

When a carefully worded listing appears for a governess to assist with a "delicate situation"—a child born during the Great War—Jane is certain the child is fey-cursed, and that she can help.

Teaching the unruly Dorie to suppress her curse is hard enough; she certainly didn’t expect to fall for the girl’s father, the enigmatic artist Edward Rochart. But her blossoming crush is stifled by her own scars, and by his parade of women. Ugly women, who enter his closed studio...and come out as beautiful as the fey.

Jane knows Rochart cannot love her, just as she knows that she must wear iron for the rest of her life. But what if neither of these things is true? Step by step Jane unlocks the secrets of her new life—and discovers just how far she will go to become whole again.

A steampunk fey reimagining of Jane Eyre, Ironskin worked so well until it didn't.  

The first two thirds of the book were great.  It was an adaptation like Cinder, where the base story was important to the plot without being a crutch; Connolly had her own story to tell.  She fundamentally changed Jane by giving her a loving childhood, but it worked for the story, especially with her rage curse.  Helen was too greedy* to deserve her name, but I could cope with it.  I liked how Adelle/Dorie's story was progressing as she developed her fey powers.  Grace Poole got a new and interesting back story. The only thing that really needed improvement was the development of the Jane/Rochart romance.

Then everything fell apart.  As we approached the climax, Jane and the other characters started doing things that didn't make any sense, didn't develop the plot, didn't heighten the suspense, and that were included only because Connolly was crutching on the original plot.  Why did Jane suddenly go back to the city during the siege?  Nothing was accomplished that couldn't have been done back at the estate.  The only way it made a particle of sense was to see it as a shoddy adaptation of Jane's post failed-wedding flight.  And things just got worse with the faces and the fey queen and demonic possession.  

After a strong start, Ironskin was a disappointment.  I'll just go watch this episode of The Autobiography of Jane Eyre instead.

*In an earlier draft I accidentally typed "Helen was too groovy."  Now I need a disco adaptation of Jane Eyre.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Chat: Bookish Gratitude

Hey it's a vlog!  It takes a long time to film and edit these, and I'm usually short on time, so I've been opting for written posts instead of video.  But it's the day before Thanksgiving and I have some time on my hands.  This month's book chat, courtesy of Misty at The Book Rat, is on thankfulness.

What bookish things are you thankful for?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mini Review: Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

Charles and Emma:  The Darwins' Leap of Faith--Deborah Heiligman
December 2008 by Henry Holt and Co.
272 pages--Goodreads

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary tract on evolution and the fundamental ideas involved, in 1859. Nearly 150 years later, the theory of evolution continues to create tension between the scientific and religious communities. Challenges about teaching the theory of evolution in schools occur annually all over the country. This same debate raged within Darwin himself, and played an important part in his marriage: his wife, Emma, was quite religious, and her faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on a theory that continues to spark intense debates.

Deborah Heiligman's new biography of Charles Darwin is a thought-provoking account of the man behind evolutionary theory: how his personal life affected his work and vice versa. The end result is an engaging exploration of history, science, and religion for young readers.

Charles and Emma
 is an interesting biography.  It let me get to know Charles and Emma Darwin as people.  I love how the biography focuses on their relationship as well as Darwin's theories.  The science story is well known, but I had never known how much Darwin struggled with the publication of his theories, both because of the inevitable public backlash and because of his personal religious doubts.  And I've never seen Emma's side of the story represented before.

Quotes from the Darwins' diaries and letters are weaved in seamlessly with the narration.  Charles and Emma is an engaging text. This is good nonfiction.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review: Ungifted by Gordan Korman

Ungifted--Gordan Korman
August 2012 by Balzer + Bray
288 pages--Goodreads

The word gifted has never been applied to a kid like Donovan Curtis. It's usually more like Don't try this at home. So when the troublemaker pulls a major prank at his middle school, he thinks he's finally gone too far. But thanks to a mix-up by one of the administrators, instead of getting in trouble, Donovan is sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction (ASD), a special program for gifted and talented students.

It wasn't exactly what Donovan had intended, but there couldn't be a more perfect hideout for someone like him. That is, if he can manage to fool people whose IQs are above genius level. And that becomes harder and harder as the students and teachers of ASD grow to realize that Donovan may not be good at math or science (or just about anything). But after an ongoing experiment with a live human (sister), an unforgettably dramatic middle-school dance, and the most astonishing come-from-behind robot victory ever, Donovan shows that his gifts might be exactly what the ASD students never knew they needed.

Ungifted is just a lot of fun. The characters are great.  Some reviewers thought the gifted kids were too extreme or stereotyped, but I thought it worked.  Sure they may be a bit extreme, but it's what worked.  As for Donovan, he is definitely true to life.  He reminds me uncomfortably of some of my students.  "Why are you doing (insert random weird thing)?"  "I don't know..."  And they really don't know.  They have no impulse control and no concept of consequences.  Donovan does bring a bit too much life to the gifted school for it to be truly plausible, but it's a fun book and middle schoolers love that kind of exaggeration. 

I loved the relationship between Donovan and Katie.  I love when sibling relationships are done well.  Korman perfectly captures the I-hate-you-but-if-anyone-else-tries-to-mess-with-you-I-will-beat-them-up feeling.  And the subplot with the dog was a fun touch, if too predictable.

Ungifted is filled with dramatic irony.  I wish the passages were easier to lift so I could use them in class, but without the context of the rest of the book, they don't make sense.  Ungifted is one of those books that both kids and adults can enjoy.  My students love it.  It is a fun and meaningful foray into the challenges and the joys of middle school life.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Review: The Boy Project by Kami Kinard

The Boy Project--Kami Kinard
January 2012 by Scholastic Press
256 pages--Goodreads

Wildly creative seventh grader Kara McAllister just had her best idea yet. She's going to take notes on all of the boys in her grade (and a few elsewhere) in order to answer a seemingly simple question: How can she get a boyfriend?

But Kara's project turns out to be a lot more complicated than she imagined. Soon there are secrets, lies, and an embarrassing incident in the boy's bathroom. Plus, Kara has to deal with mean girls, her slightly spacey BFF, and some surprising uses for duct tape. Still, if Kara's research leads her to the right boy, everything may just be worth it. . . .

Full of charts and graphs, heart and humor, this hilarious debut will resonate with tweens everywhere.

The Boy Project has a great premise.  Unfortunately, the execution wasn't what I hoped.  I loved the idea of having a character use science to figure out relationships, a topic very pertinent to young readers.  Yes, let's prove to kids that science matters, that science isn't boring.  I figured that even if the scientific rigor wasn't perfect, it would be a step in the right direction.  In some ways it was, but in others it fell very short.

This is mostly my personal philosophy coming in, but I wanted Kara to realize that she could be a whole and self actualized person without having a boyfriend.  I really think the drive to find the person who "completes you" is damaging.  I wanted Kara to be okay with not having a boyfriend.  Instead, every female character reinforced the idea that you are incomplete without a boyfriend.  Girls would stay in relationships with boys they didn't like until they had another boyfriend lined up because they didn't want to be alone.  Can we not see how dangerous that line of thinking is?!  If your worth as a human being is determined by your relationship status, you may not get out of a toxic relationship because even abuse is better than not having someone to "love" you.  I know that's not at all the message Kinard intended to send.  I know that middle schoolers are obsessed with crushes and they would want Kara to have her happy ending.  But can we please go beyond audience wish fulfillment when dealing with stuff like this?  Even if Kara's story had stayed the same, could we at least have changed Tabbi's?  Yes, this is a small part of the book and my reasoning might be a bit of a slippery slope, but cultural norms are formed and reinforced by small, subtle, sometimes unconscious messages. 

Kinard does create a realistic school, at least from the perspective of a middle school student.  As a teacher, I can see a lot of the things students fail to see, but from the tunnel-visioned view of a 7th grader, it's spot on.  You've got the popular girls who get all the boys' attention, the unattainable guys, the dweebs, the unfair teachers, the gross cafeteria food, the mindset that dates are way more important anything school has to teach.  Good luck being an informed voter someday since you resist all our attempts to teach you how to think.

The Boy Project is one of those books that will probably be eaten up by students.  It's wish fulfillment with a touch of science thrown in.  Maybe if we can't escape one harmful gender role, maybe we can hope to tackle a different one.  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

13 Little Blue Envelopes--Maureen Johnson
2005 by Harper Collins
322 pages--Goodreads

Would you follow the directions?

Would you travel around the world?

Would you open the envelopes one by one?

Inside little blue envelope 1 are $1,000 and instructions to buy a plane ticket.

In envelope 2 are directions to a specific London flat.

The note in envelope 3 tells Ginny: Find a starving artist.

Because of envelope 4, Ginny and a playwright/thief/bloke–about–town called Keith go to Scotland together, with somewhat disastrous–-though utterly romantic–-results.

Everything about Ginny will change this summer, and it's all because of the 13 little blue envelopes.

Meh, this one's not for me.  It just seemed to unrealistic, partially because I would never go off to Europe without having every single step planned out or make out with a boy I had met earlier that day.  I can handle characters who are different from me, but not when they don't follow common sense and personal safety rules.  Sure, I'll go to this random guy's house.  I have no reason to trust him and don't even know his name.  No one knows I'm in this country or will miss me if I disappear.  Sure.  Why not?  What could possibly go wrong?  The whole book was a series of I-would-never-do-thats and they kept me from being able to lose myself in the story. 

Despite the life-changing journey promised in the blurb, Ginny never really grew or changed.  We don't see her before the trip, so we have nothing to compare her end-of-book self to.  A little, she-wouldn't-be-that-spontaneous-on-her-own isn't good enough. That's not significant change.  And I never felt like I got to know any of the other characters either, not even Peg, and the book is supposed to be about her almost as much as it is about Ginny.  

All around, 13 Little Blue Envelopes is just not the book for me.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Review: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart--Brandon Sanderson
September 2013 by Delecorte
384 pages--Goodreads

There are no heroes.

Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics.

But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his wills.

Nobody fights the Epics... nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart—the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David's father. For years, like the Reckoners, David's been studying, and planning—and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He's seen Steelheart bleed. And he wants revenge.

Steelheart is another book to add to Sanderson's already long list of great novels. I never thought I'd enjoy a superhero comic book in novel form so much.  Some of the twists are predictable, but over all the story is still very good.  Dan and I spent a long while after finishing the novel discussing how everything might work out in the next books.  Steelheart is a very visual story, almost begging to be a movie.  You can totally tell when during the action sequences we're supposed to switch to slow motion.  And that was part of the fun of it.

The premise is intriguing:  a world of super villains and a renegade bunch of humans trying to fight back.  But these villains aren't as complex as Sanderson's usually are.  It's too simplistic for all Epics to be inherently and completely evil from using their powers.  There has to be at least one good Epic.  But I trust he will develop the magic system later in the series.  And hopefully he'll explain the physics-defying powers, like never ending bullets, somewhere along the way.

Character development is usually where Sanderson shines, but he had a couple of misses in this book.  Cody is hilarious, David's horrible metaphors and similes are funny, and I really want to know more of Prof's back story.  However, Megan is not very fleshed out.  She's mostly a love interest.  She has potential hidden in her history and the end plot twist, which Sanderson could explore in later books.  But so far, she's kind of flat, just the hot fighter chick that the hero/audience to ogles at but who has no real personality.  Hopefully, that will change.

Steelheart is an great beginning to a new series.  My biggest complaint, beyond Megan, is the long wait until the sequel.  And Nightweilder is SUCH a good name for a bad guy.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Review: Mississippi Trial, 1955 by Chris Crowe

Mississippi Trial, 1955--Chris Crowe
May 2002 by Dial
240 pages--Goodreads

At first Hiram is excited to visit his hometown in Mississippi. But soon after he arrives, he crosses paths with Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who is also visiting for the summer, and Hiram sees firsthand how the local whites mistreat blacks who refuse to "know their place." When Emmett's tortured dead body is found floating in a river, Hiram is determined to find out who could do such a thing. But what will it cost him to know?

I learned about the Emmett Till trial just a couple of years ago and it surprises me that this isn't included in our general education about the Civil Rights Movement.  I think it's something that needs to be discussed in our conversations about race and equality and injustice.  I think Mississippi Trial, 1955 does a good job of framing the trial and the events leading up to it, but it misses the mark on a couple of other things.

What bugged me most was that Hirum pulls a 180 about halfway through the book for no apparent reason.  First he hates his dad and can't see eye to eye with him on anything.  Then, poof.  He sees his dad's side of things and becomes too forward thinking for his time period and his previous actions.  This turn around should have been preceded by a number of small things that made Hirum question his belief system before he made his full transition rather than happening in one fell swoop.  

As the title indicates, this book focuses on the trial rather than on Emmett Till himself.  I'm not sure if I liked that or not.  It did highlight the fact that while most Mississippians did not kill Emmett, they did support the system that promoted the behavior and thinking that allowed the murder to happen.  But I would have liked to know Emmett more as a person.

I really like that this book confronts the fact that good, normal people are capable of doing horrible things.  Not many of us are willing to face that fact.  We like to think of evil as something that exists outside of us.  But I firmly believe that there are very few full-on monsters out there, just a lot of partial ones.  Mississippi Trial makes us face the partial monsters within all of us.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Review: The Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans

The Prisoner of Cell 25--Richard Paul Evans
August 2011 by Simon Pulse
326 pages--Goodreads

My name is Michael Vey, and the story I’m about to tell you is strange. Very strange. It’s my story.

To everyone at Meridian High School, Michael Vey is an ordinary fourteen-year-old. In fact, the only thing that seems to set him apart is the fact that he has Tourette’s syndrome. But Michael is anything but ordinary. Michael has special powers. Electric powers.

Michael thinks he's unique until he discovers that a cheerleader named Taylor also has special powers. With the help of Michael’s friend, Ostin, the three of them set out to discover how Michael and Taylor ended up this way, but their investigation brings them to the attention of a powerful group who wants to control the electric children – and through them the world. Michael will have to rely on his wits, powers, and friends if he’s to survive.

The Michael Vey books are super popular at my school, especially with students who don't normally read, so I figured that as a responsible teacher, I should check them out.  I can see why they're popular with all my students, but they're not the books for me.

The Prisoner of Cell 25 seems to have been written specifically for some of my short attention span reluctant readers.  It is quite fast paced.  Boom.  I have powers.  Boom.  I can't tell anyone.  Boom.  I told Taylor.  Boom.  She has powers too.  Boom.  Now people are chasing us.  Boom.  Boom.  Boom.  Boom.  Boom.  There wasn't any set up or space to breath between events.  The book is made of short chapters and very, very short sentences.  Come on, vary your sentence length at least a little.  Don't write down to teens, Evans; they're capable of more than people give them credit for.  

The villain is a bit too mustache-twirly, crazy, and evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil for me.  Yet, he can't come up with anything more evil than blackmailing airline companies?  He makes stupid mistakes like running a metal pipe from Cell 25 and the cell where Taylor and the other electric powered kids are being held when he knows that electric powers can be conducted through metal.  And the reason Hatch and company are scary and unbeatable is because "They have private jets and hidden compounds" (pg 156)?  I had to giggle a bit at that line.

The kids are way overpowered.  I'm fine with them having electric powers, even strong powers.  But no police department anywhere is going to let a 14 year old interview a violent suspect because, you know, he might just get more information out of the guy that we have, despite the fact that we've been specially trained and do this as our livelihood.  The final fight seemed a bit unrealistic too, though I can't speak about it in detail since I got bored and skimmed through it.  Beyond being overpowered, the characters are rather unoriginal.  We've got the cute, popular cheerleader; the overweight, genius friend; and the bullied kid with secret powers.  They don't grow throughout the novel.  And Zeus's 180 at the end is just unrealistic.

And Meridian?  If you've ever driven through the West, you know for a fact that there are more obscure, tiny, out of the way places to hide out than Meridian, Idaho.  And how big of a coincidence is it that two electric kids just happened to go to the same school?

The Prisoner of Cell 25 is basically brain candy.  It reminds me a lot of The Maze Runner and all the reasons I didn't like that book much either.  I know some of my students think Michael Vey is the best series ever, but I just don't know if I can in good conscience recommend it except to my reluctant reader when I know there are better written books out there with complex characters and logical plots.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Review: A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

A Tale Dark & Grim--Adam Gidwitz
October 2010 by Dutton Juvinile
252 pages--Goodreads

In this mischievous and utterly original debut, Hansel and Gretel walk out of their own story and into eight other classic Grimm-inspired tales. As readers follow the siblings through a forest brimming with menacing foes, they learn the true story behind (and beyond) the bread crumbs, edible houses, and outwitted witches.

Fairy tales have never been more irreverent or subversive as Hansel and Gretel learn to take charge of their destinies and become the clever architects of their own happily ever after.

A Tale Dark and Grimm was a very quick read; I finished in two days.  It was fun to hop through some lesser-known fairytales, and Gidwitz does not Disney-ify them.  They stay creepy and gruesome and Grimm.  This book might be a bit much for young, young readers, but most 10 year olds would like it.

I loved the narrator.  He pops in frequently to urge you to make sure the children can't hear the next part because it's just too scary for them.  He also points out some of the huge logical fails that fairytale characters make, such as why would Gretel have to cut off her finger for it to work as a key.  This book is a tribute to the Grimm tales, but it is a tongue in cheek tribute.

I wish Gidwitz had done more to flesh out Hansel and Gretel.  Their characters were never really developed.  They started as caricatures and never moved far beyond that.  I get that Gidwitz wrote the book to explore the stories rather than to explore the characters, but I still would have appreciated a bit more depth.  I never felt like I knew Hansel and Gretel as people.

A Tale Dark and Grimm is a fun, quick read with a beautiful cover (I'm a sucker for silhouettes).  It's definitely worth a try for any fairytale lovers.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Why Sandition Was Not as Good as LBD

I loved the Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  Like many of you, I sat in eager anticipation for each new episode and then watched the episode multiple times, squeeing and over-analyzing each move the characters made.  I supported the crew in the Kickstarter and was super excited when they announced they would run a miniseries of Austen's Sanditon this summer.  I hadn't read Sanditon, but I trusted the team to do as good a job with it as they did with LBD.

And then they didn't.

Don't get me wrong, I still love Pemberly Digital, I am watching Emma Approved, and Sanditon wasn't awful.  It just wasn't as good as LBD was.  And here are the two main ways where Sanditon went wrong.

1.  They chose an unknown, unfinished Austen novel as their source material.

I know that a lot of people who hadn't read Pride and Prejudice or seen the movies watched and loved LBD.  However, there is a wide cultural understanding of the general plot of Pride and Prejudice.  Even if you have never read the book or seen the movies, you know it's about guy and girl who hate each other and then fall in love.

Sanditon does not have that same cultural presence.  Because Austen died before she completed the novel, most people have not read it.  Even after seeing Welcome to Sanditon and reading the summary of the novel on Wikipedia, I still don't know what the story is about.  With LBD you knew Lizzie and Darcy would get together in the end; the question was how.  With Sanditon, I couldn't figure out what was supposed to be happening, and I'm still not entirely sure.  What was our end-goal supposed to be beyond Clara and Edward getting together?  Were we ever supposed to resolve Tom's hijacking and re-branding of the town's businesses in a false sense of progress?  Was Clara supposed to have a story arc?  She didn't change like Elizabeth, Anne, Emma, and Elinor did throughout their novels.

And what was with the the spin gym side story?  It was introduced during the last third of the series and then didn't go anywhere.  You don't introduce things that late in the game.  Or if you do, it better be important.  But it wasn't.  It created a negligible amount of romantic tension and then...nothing. 

2.  They sacrificed core content for filler content, specifically the fan videos.

Don't get me wrong, I love the community that sprung up around LBD.  I love that we swapped theories in the comments and created gifs and wrote reaction posts and experienced LBD together.  However, these fan reactions should never take prescient over the professionally written content.  I don't subscribe to see four minutes of fan videos every week.  These videos didn't move the plot along at all.  At least in LBD when we had filler episodes, we got to know the characters better.  The Sanditon fan videos, not so much.  

A better way to do "filler" episodes was Clara's ice cream videos.  Even though they didn't move the plot forward much, we got to know Clara.  

I don't know if Pemberly Digital was just trying to stretch out the series to make it last longer because Emma Approved got delayed or what, but I would have preferred a shorter, fan-video-less series.  I think the community is great and the fans are great, but we are not the central content.  The story is.

I did like Tom and Ed and Clara.  I loved the late night conversation between Clara and Ed.  I loved seeing more of Gigi and her growth as a character beyond her brother's expectations.  Pemberly Digital made some big mistakes with Sanditon, but I think they learned from those mistakes and will avoid them with Emma Approved.  I'm excited to see where this new series will go.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Vlog Adaptations of Classics

As you can probably tell from some of my posts this spring (1, 2, 3), I love the Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  I'm a huge Austen-ite.  I've read her books and seen the movie adaptations more times than is probably healthy.  I thought I knew the story of Pride and Prejudice, but The Lizzie Bennet Diaries took the story in a whole-new-while-still-true-to-the-book direction.  The writers brought a depth to Lydia's character that I didn't know was there.  It is a fantastic adaptation that totally deserves the Emmy it won, and I'm sad that it's over.  However, while LBD may have reached an end, it has inspired a bunch of new vlog adaptations of other classic novels.  I prove my English nerdiness by freaking out every time a new episode comes up in my subscription feed, which is pretty much every day considering how many adaptations I'm following.  Today I am sharing these adaptations with you.  

The Autobiography of Jane Eyre--episodes on Wednesdays and Saturdays

This is probably my favorite adaption.  The actress is Jane.  She totally channels Jane's contemplative seriousness without being gloomy about it.  This Wednesday's episode was the best so far.  Meanwhile, Rochester is a rude, inconsiderate, jerk.  This is more a problem with the source material than the adaptation.  Rochester is supposed to be that way, but it's more problematic in a modern setting than it was in the 1800s.  So far the writers have kept him true to character without making him too easy to hate.  However, I don't see how they're going to deal with some of the issues later in the book.  

For example:  Bertha.  Today's mental health care is words better than what was available in the 1800s.  Back then, it was merciful for Rochester to keep Bertha in his attic where she would be well cared for and comfortable rather than banishing her to an asylum where she would be, at best, horribly neglected.  But modern Rochester could easily find quality care for a crazy wife.  This makes me think that Bertha's not going to be crazy, but then what will the insurmountable Bertha problem be? 

An even bigger adaptation challenge is Jane's flight from Thornfeild.  People can't disappear anymore, not in our internet-saturated world.  But she has to do so without losing viewers.  Jane can't go internet silent, because viewers would get bored and we'd miss all the St. John story and we can't miss that.  If she changed to a new channel, she'd lose the viewers who would miss the memo and Rochester could still track her down.  I can't figure out how they're going to make this work, but I can't wait to see how they do it.

Nick Carroway Chronicles--episodes on Mondays 

I think The Great Gatsby is one of the classic novels that most naturally translates to vlog form since the book is basically Nick telling us what happens to other people.  He's a built in narrator.  Since there is only one episode per week, we're still at the very beginning of the story and have hardly seen Gatsby, but I'm liking it so far.  Also,I love Jordan.  She's hilarious.  I don't even know how to describe her.  She's not goofy, just funny.  This series deserves way more attention than it's gotten.  

Emma Approved--episodes on Mondays and Thursdays

This series comes from the same team that made The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Sanditon (Sanditon has its own post here).  Emma Approved just premiered on Monday, so it's way too early to judge whether this will be as good an adaptation as LBD, but so far it looks promising.  Emma's characterization is perfect.  She's confident to a fault.  She thinks she reads people better than she does.  She's self centered and falsely concerned about other people.  She's so Emma Woodhousey.  I was unduly excited about this when it premiered on Monday.  

Also, does anyone else think Alex Knightly is very Edward Denhem-like?  His voice and personality seem very similar.

The Emma Project--episodes on Tuesdays and Saturdays

I discovered this one just the other day.  It will be interesting to watch this series and Emma Approved at the same time.  They've done a good job of setting up the class distinction with the college seniority and Emma would totally be a psychology major.  I love that Robbie Martin is a farmer going to to community college; we totally get why Emma would think Harriet is above marrying someone like that as well as why Emma a jerk for thinking that.  And we've started seeing more of Emma influencing Harriet in her decisions.

However, The Emma Project doesn't have the same professional feeling that the other adaptations have.  I'm not talking about lighting and sound.  I can ignore that.  I mean that instead of coming across as Emma the character telling us about her life, it feels like an actress reciting memorized lines, so it doesn't feel as real.  They also seem to be rushing through the story rather than taking time to establish the characters.  I'm still interested in it, but it's not the best adaptation I've found.

Notes by Christine--episodes on Tuesdays and Fridays

I found Notes by Christine just today.  I like it so far, but I haven't had time to see how well I like it.  They're taking a risk by having episodes that are just Christine singing opera music.  It's true to character and the story of Phantom of the Opera (book not musical), but it doesn't move the plot forward at all.  So it'll be interesting to see whether or not Youtube audiences latch onto it.  Also, the opera ghost has his own channel where he, without showing his face, offers Christine private lessons.  So that's creepy.  It'll be interesting to see where they take this story.  They could really play up the creepy stalker aspect by making him an internet predator.  We'll see. 

Anyways, go check out these series for yourself and let me know what you think.    Also, are there more vlog adaptations of classic novels out there that I missed?  I must find them all!  

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind--Patrick Rothfuss
March 2007 by DAW Hardcover
662 pages--Goodreads

Told in Kvothe's own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature. A high-action story written with a poet's hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard.

The Name of the Wind was fine, but not amazing.  It has a nontraditional premise, and I congratulate Rothfuss for pulling it off.  I mean, how many authors could write a trilogy where the main character sits in an in and tells the story of his life for three days straight.  And that's it.  And the publishers buy it and readers give it some of the highest ratings I've ever seen on Goodreads.  

One of my biggest problems with the novel is Kvothe's obsession with Denna.  She's just dull.  If she wasn't such a big part of the book I could ignore her, but Kvothe keeps mooning over her and it gets very boring.  Seriously, Kvothe; stop moping about your crush and go learn magic.  Denna did show some more depth near the end of the novel, so maybe there's hope for book two.  I don't need her to be a great or even a good person, but I need her to be a real person with goals and motivations.  For now she's just a pretty face.  

It's a very slow burning novel.  Not boring, but not terribly exciting either.  I liked Kvothe's time in the forest and the city.  And I want to see more of the female loanshark.  She's a much more interesting character than Denna.  Why can't we spend more time with her?

So, it's good, but not the best book I've ever read.  I will get around to reading book two eventually, but I don't feel a driving need to finish the series now.  Especially since book three isn't out.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: William Shakespeare's Star Wars by Ian Doescher

William Shakespeare's Star Wars by Ian Doescher
July 2013 by Quirk Books
176 pages--Goodreads

Inspired by one of the greatest creative minds in the English language-and William Shakespeare-here is an officially licensed retelling of George Lucas's epic Star Wars in the style of the immortal Bard of Avon. The saga of a wise (Jedi) knight and an evil (Sith) lord, of a beautiful princess held captive and a young hero coming of age, Star Wars abounds with all the valor and villainy of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. ’Tis a tale told by fretful droids, full of faithful Wookiees and fearstome Stormtroopers, signifying...pretty much everything.

Reimagined in glorious iambic pentameter—and complete with twenty gorgeous Elizabethan illustrations--William Shakespeare’s Star Wars will astound and edify Rebels and Imperials alike. Zounds! This is the book you’re looking for.

To like this book, you need to be both a Shakespeare nerd and a Star Wars geek.  Being a fan of both, William Shakespeare's Star Wars was hilarious.  Doescher does an excellent job of re-scripting the story in Elizabethan English in a humorous rather than stuffy way.  The asides and soliloquies are great and the iambic pentameter never feels forced.  Doescher also weaves in quotes from Shakespeare here and there, my favorite being when Luke starts reciting the Saint Crispin's Day speech to inspire the rebels.

The action sequences are a bit boring to read since the Chorus just gives us a play by play, but there's no other way to make that work in the context of a play.  Shakespeare didn't give stage directions, so we need a character of the Chorus to say what happens.

William Shakespeare's Star Wars is a goofy sounding combination that hits the mark.  It's a loving parody of both source materials.  I'm looking forward to The Empire Striketh Back.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: Okay for Now

Okay for Now--Gary D. Schmidt
August 2011 by Clarion Books
360 pages--Goodreads

As a fourteen-year-old who just moved to a new town, with no friends and a louse for an older brother, Doug Swieteck has all the stats stacked against him. So begins a coming-of-age masterwork full of equal parts comedy and tragedy from Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt. 

As Doug struggles to be more than the "skinny thug" that his teachers and the police think him to be, he finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer--a fiery young lady who "smelled like daisies would smell if they were growing in a big field under a clearing sky after a rain." In Lil, Doug finds the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a whole town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam. Together, they find a safe haven in the local library, inspiration in learning about the plates of John James Audubon's birds, and a hilarious adventure on a Broadway stage. 

In this stunning novel, Schmidt expertly weaves multiple themes of loss and recovery in a story teeming with distinctive, unusual characters and invaluable lessons about love, creativity, and survival.

It's rare that a book can make me cry and laugh on the same page.  I can't tell you how many times I gasped aloud or giggled or teared up (which was bad because I was driving and listening to the audiobook) while reading the book.  And there were actual tears coming down my face as I finished the book.  I put off lesson planning, I put off sleep just so I could finish this book.  It is beautiful.  Just as The Wednesday Wars ties in Shakespeare plays to Holling's life, Okay for Now weaves Audobon's bird paintings into Doug's.  The noble pelican, the terrified eye, the mother bird looking into the distance.  

As a character, Doug is real.  Doug's reactions are genuine, even annoying when he lashes out like a jerk or a thug.  That's how Doug would react.  He has parts of his father in him, mostly sayings and phrases that he has internalized.  Even if he breaks the cycle of abuse, he is still partly his father.  All the other characters are multidimensional too.  Schmidt humanizes almost every single one of them.  Even the bully brother and the bully gym teacher became real people with both light and dark inside them.

The abuse was handled, well, I can't say beautifully because it is not a beautiful thing, but artfully maybe.  It is never stated directly that Doug's father is abusive, is alcoholic, beats his family.  Everything is implied.  And I loved that.  When it happens in real life, abuse is never talked about, even though everyone knows.  Schmidt conveys that through his writing style.  

The title fits the book perfectly.  Will things get better for Doug?  Maybe not.  Maybe they will get much worse.  But for now he is okay.

Part adorkable (the puffins!), part heartbreaking, Okay for Now is a beautiful book that I will definitely come back to again.  Congratulations, Mr. Schmidt.  You have been added to my "I will read anything you publish" list.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: Dead Reckoning by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill

Dead Reckoning--Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill
June 2012 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens
336 pages--Goodreads

Jett is a girl disguised as a boy, living as a gambler in the old West as she searches for her long-lost brother. Honoria Gibbons is a smart, self-sufficient young woman who also happens to be a fabulous inventor. Both young women travel the prairie alone – until they are brought together by a zombie invasion! As Jett and Honoria investigate, they soon learn that these zombies aren’t rising from the dead of their own accord … but who would want an undead army? And why?

A steampunk, wild west, zombie horror, gender bender adventure.  A book like this will either do really well or fail miserably.  Thankfully, Dead Reckoning did not fail.  It's nothing terribly serious, just a fun romp through all the genres.  It's not too gory, even for a zombie book.  No unnecessary romances.  Just sleuthing and sciencing and exploding, and escaping and actually very little gun slinging.  It is quick paced, easily read in just a day or two.

The characters are fun.  Jett is strong and lives her disguise.  She is always the gambling gunslinger outlaw.  Only every now and then does her femininity manifest, like when she fusses over her horse when he returns unharmed after a run in with zombies.  Gibbons is annoyingly committed to science and rationality even when the pursuit of science could get her killed, but that's what makes her fun.  White Fox, he actually isn't really fleshed out.  Side note complaint:  Why didn't Lackey and Edghill just make White Fox Native American?  I get the whole child-of-two-worlds-so-he-belongs-to-neither thing.  But seriously, why not just make him Native American?  Gibbons and Jett would have been fine with it.  Does the entire cast have to be white?  Don't start going off on whether it would be plausible or not; you have zombies, for crying out loud!  Plausibility no longer applies.

There is some major villain monologuing explaining just exactly how and why he accomplished his master scheme.  That could have been handled more skillfully.  And some loose strings are left hanging.  You inject Jett with a vial full of poison and we're not ever going to address that again?  That should have some effect on her even if it doesn't kill her.

Dead Reckoning is genre blending done well.  It's not the book for you if you're looking for a pure western or pure steampunk or a pure zombie horror, but it's a light combination of all three.  I see potential for sequels and would probably have to pick them up.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: Sold by Patricia McCormick

Sold--Patricia McCormick
September 2006 by Disney Hyperion
263 pages--Goodreads

Lakshmi is a thirteen-year-old girl who lives with her family in a small hut on a mountain in Nepal. Though she is desperately poor, her life is full of simple pleasures, like playing hopscotch with her best friend from school, and having her mother brush her hair by the light of an oil lamp. But when the harsh Himalayan monsoons wash away all that remains of the family’s crops, Lakshmi’s stepfather says she must leave home and take a job to support her family.

He introduces her to a glamorous stranger who tells her she will find her a job as a maid in the city. Glad to be able to help, Lakshmi journeys to India and arrives at “Happiness House” full of hope. But she soon learns the unthinkable truth: she has been sold into prostitution.

An old woman named Mumtaz rules the brothel with cruelty and cunning. She tells Lakshmi that she is trapped there until she can pay off her family’s debt—then cheats Lakshmi of her meager earnings so that she can never leave.

Lakshmi’s life becomes a nightmare from which she cannot escape. Still, she lives by her mother’s words— Simply to endure is to triumph—and gradually, she forms friendships with the other girls that enable her to survive in this terrifying new world. Then the day comes when she must make a decision—will she risk everything for a chance to reclaim her life?

Written in spare and evocative vignettes, this powerful novel renders a world that is as unimaginable as it is real, and a girl who not only survives but triumphs.

Sold is an unexpected gem.  Kudos to McCormick for managing to take on such a difficult subject as sex trafficking in a realistic way without making me feel uber depressed.  We see everything that happens to Lakshmi without it becoming gratuitous.  We see the victimization, the drugging, the violence, the disease, the crushing social stigmas, the hopelessness, and the hope.  
This book is real.  I come away from this book feeling like I know Laksmi's home life.  I know her life in Calcutta.  I know the other girls in the brothel.  The whole book just feels real.

I couldn't even bring myself to hate Mumtaz.  She's definitely the villain, but she's not demonized.  I wish McCormick had given her a back story.  I imagine she herself was sold when she was young and is just as trapped in this life as the other girls.

I cannot express how much I love the scenes with Monica.  I love her character.  I love how sharp she is on the outside to protect the teddy-bear-holding child on the inside.  I love her conversation with Lakshmi about their reasons for staying at the brothel.  Ignoring the fact that they cannot leave, they cling to the last shred of dignity this life leaves them.  Monica proclaims she is paying her daughter's school fees and Lakshmi tells of the tin roof she will buy for her family.  This life has torn everything from them, but they hold some small pride in order to survive.  I hate but recognize the reality that Monica is forced to return to the brothel when her family casts her out.  Prostitution is the only life society has left for her.  And when she leaves the brothel because she has contracted AIDS, we never hear about her again because we can never know what happened to this girl who slipped through the cracks of an unjust world.

Even though Sold is a short novel, it is just the right length for the story it tells.  The audio book is excellent, but now that I realize the book is written in verse, I wish I had read it in print. This is a beautiful novel.  It is a realistic portrayal of a horrible life that is still hopeful and appropriate for young adult readers.  Though, it's probably too much for most middle graders.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Mini Review: The Templeton Twins Have An Idea by Ellis Weiner

The Templeton Twins Have an Idea--Ellis Weiner
August 2012 by Chronicle Books
232 pages--Goodreads

Suppose there were 12-year-old twins, a boy and girl named John and Abigail Templeton. Let's say John was pragmatic and played the drums, and Abigail was theoretical and solved cryptic crosswords. Now suppose their father was a brilliant, if sometimes confused, inventor. And suppose that another set of twins-adults-named Dean D. Dean and Dan D. Dean, kidnapped the Templeton twins and their ridiculous dog in order to get their father to turn over one of his genius (sort of) inventions. Yes, I said kidnapped. Wouldn't it be fun to read about that? Oh please. It would so. Luckily for you, this is just the first in a series perfect for boys and girls who are smart, clever, and funny (just like the twins), and enjoy reading adventurous stories (who doesn't? ).

I wanted The Templeton Twins Have an Idea to be one of those fun books with a very present, snarky narrator who comments on all the character's doings, but Weiner just doesn't pull that off. Instead of narrating skillfully like Lemony Snicket does, this narrator is over the top with his complaining gets quite condescending in some parts.  Half the time it annoyed me and half the time I just didn't care.  
The plot is simplistic and dull.  The characters are one dimensional and uninteresting.  Maybe if I had read The Templeton Twins in a different mood I may have liked it, but this time around it was just meh.


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