Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Haul #6

Forgive the shaky cam.  I need to find a better tripod than a couple of rickety boxes stacked on top of each other.

The False Prince--Jennifer A. Nielsen
We Fought Back--Allan Zullo
This Dark Endeavor--Kenneth Oppel
Ender's Game--Orson Scott Card
Eyes Like Stars--Lisa Mantechev
Want to go Private?--Sarah Darer Littman
Circle of Secrets--Kimberley Griffiths Little

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Review: This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

This Dark Endeavor--Kenneth Oppel
August 2011 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
298 pages--Goodreads

Victor and Konrad are the twin brothers Frankenstein. They are nearly inseparable. Growing up, their lives are filled with imaginary adventures...until the day their adventures turn all too real. They stumble upon The Dark Library, and secret books of alchemy and ancient remedies are discovered. Father forbids that they ever enter the room again, but this only piques Victor's curiosity more. When Konrad falls gravely ill, Victor is not be satisfied with the various doctors his parents have called in to help. He is drawn back to The Dark Library where he uncovers an ancient formula for the Elixir of Life. Elizabeth, Henry, and Victor immediately set out to find assistance in a man who was once known for his alchemical works to help create the formula.

Determination and the unthinkable outcome of losing his brother spur Victor on in the quest for the three ingredients that will save Konrads life. After scaling the highest trees in the Strumwald, diving into the deepest lake caves, and sacrificing one’s own body part, the three fearless friends risk their lives to save another.

This Dark Endeavor is a prologue to
Frankenstein, but you don't need to have read the original novel to enjoy this book.  I enjoyed the references here and there, such as a street named Wollstonecraft Alley (Wollstonecraft was Mary Shelly's maiden name), but they don't trip you up if you haven't read Frankenstein.  The novel does a good job of explaining Victor's drive to uncover the secrets of the human body.  He both desperately needs to save his brother's life and revels in the glory that each of his alchemical successes give him.

Victor is moody and passionate to the point of being obsessive.  He is self absorbed, over dramatic, short sighted, and compulsive.  This is accurate to his character in the original novel, but it makes him very difficult to connect with .  Don't get me wrong; he is well written. I just don't like dark, brooding, Heathcliff-like characters.  I like Henry and Konrad, but they don't get much screen time.  Elizabeth is very different in this adaptation.  In the original, she is merely an angelic but passive moral force and a strangulation victim.  In this story she is feisty and brave and stands up to Victor's nonsense, making her a much more interesting character.     

There is a love triangle, but at least it isn't one of those wiffley-waffley I-like-Boy-1-no-I-like-Boy-2 oh-I-can't-make-up-my-mind things that drive me crazy.  I still don't like that everyone is in love with Elizabeth, but at least there is no waffling back and forth.

The book has a lot of exciting escapes and daring dos, but I wasn't terribly interested in them.  I don't know if my dislike of Victor got in the way or if I just wasn't in the right mood.  However, most readers will be interested in strangely intelligent lynxes, crazy huge vulture attacks, flooding caves, amputation, and giant man eating fish.  I think it will pull in some who don't normally read.  

I wish the book had gone into more detail about the alchemy.  It's always present, but always behind a screen.  Somehow Polidori mixes up the elixir, but we don't get the step-by-step process, which I think would be interesting.  

It was fine, a decent read, but not one that compels me to continue with the series.  And I can't help but include the super chilling but spoilery ending paragraphs.  
I'd tried to save him, but I had not been smart enough, or diligent enough.
I covered my face with my hands.
And I mad an icy promise to myself.
I promised that I would see my brother again--even if it meant unlocking every secret law of this earth, to bring him back.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Review: The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict--Trenton Lee Stewart
April 2012 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
470 pages--Goodreads

Before there was a Mysterious Benedict Society, there was simply a boy named Nicholas Benedict. Meet the boy who started it all....

Nine-year-old Nicholas Benedict has more problems than most children his age. Not only is he an orphan with an unfortunate nose, but he also has narcolepsy, a condition that gives him terrible nightmares and makes him fall asleep at the worst possible moments. Now he's being sent to a new orphanage, where he will encounter vicious bullies, selfish adults, strange circumstances -- and a mystery that could change his life forever. Luckily, he has one important thing in his favor: He's a genius.

On his quest to solve the mystery, Nicholas finds enemies around every corner, but also friends in unexpected places -- and discovers along the way that the greatest puzzle of all is himself.

Like The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict (Stewart seems to like long titles) is a fun adventure with some good old fashioned puzzle solving and quirky characters.  It is fun.  Not quite as much fun as the first book, but fun.

The puzzle solving is intriguing, and I was able to keep up it without the puzzles being so simple so that I had the end figured out from the beginning.  This is one of the best parts of the series; it's what we like about mysteries.  And a little outwitting of the bullying Spiders can't go amiss either.

The background information we get on Nicholas is deeper than I expected.  He goes from disillusionment and loneliness to believing in human decency and unselfishness.  However, I miss the interaction between multiple extraordinary characters.  Sticky, Reynie, Kate, and Constance made such a great team, each with their own unique personalities and gifts.  In contrast, John and Violet are rather ordinary. They are kind but not terribly interesting.  Nick solves the mystery almost entirely on his own, whereas in the other books, the kids could not have saved the day without Constance's stubbornness or Sticky's memory. 

The book also relies too much on Nick happening to be in just the right place at the right time.  I know that has to happen some, but it happened too much to be plausible.  The plot doesn't overuse Nick's photographic memory, which was a problem with Sticky's character in the rest of the series.  

It was a fun book, but it never held my attention so firmly that I couldn't put it down or I was over anxious to pick it up again.  It's great for fans of the series, but the first book was better.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Hobbit Thoughts

Okay, so another set of rantings about a movie that has been out for ages.

Me on the way to the movie
I was torn for a long time on whether or not I wanted to see the movie.  I love Lord of the Rings, but I am against single books being turned into multiple movies.  Harry Potter, you gave everyone else permission and now other movies are abusing that power to make more money.  The Hobbit the book is short enough that it could be done well in one movie.  Then they split it into two.  Fine, I'll grumble about paying for two tickets, but I'll go.  Then it was split into three!  That's just a money grab.  

But, despite my qualms, I really liked the movie.

The Hobbit is a movie for already enthused LOTR fans.  It makes a lot of references to events and people that casual fans might not get.  At the same time, I haven't read The Simarillian and I haven't read any of Tolkein's books in years and I was able to keep up just fine.  So maybe the references are a treat if you get them, but not a stumbling block if you don't.  

There are a lot of fun but unnecessary digressions.  Let's tell a story about Thorin's childhood.  Again.  This movie was nearly three hours long.  Could they not find anything at all to cut out?  I like the extended editions, but I don't necessarily need them in theaters.  Despite these digressions, the movie was paced well.  I never got board, and I left the theater feeling like it was a 2-hour, not a 3-hour movie.  This may be a symptom of being a major LOTR fan and soaking up any bit of interesting story that exists.

The Gollum scene was great! I wish we could see more of him.  And this song still gives me the chills.  I love rumbling base.

What did you think of the moive?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Review: And Still We Rise by Miles Corwin

And Still We Rise:  The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City Students--Miles Corwin
April 2000 by William Morrow
418 pages--Goodreads

Bestselling author of The Killing Season and veteran Los Angeles Times reporter Miles Corwin spent a school year with twelve high school seniors -- South-Central kids who qualified for a gifted program because of their exceptional IQs and test scores. Sitting alongside them in classrooms where bullets were known to rip through windows, Corwin chronicled their amazing odyssey as they faced the greatest challenges of their academic lives. And Still We Rise is an unforgettable story of transcending obstacles that would dash the hopes of any but the most exceptional spirits.

Many books and movies about education are meant to be warm fuzzy feel good stories.  And Still We Rise is not one of those stories.  Corwin doesn't sugar coat anything.  He is realistic.  Some of these students don't make it.  The teachers are not saviors.  I actually really disliked the main teacher.  Granted, she's teaching in a harsh environment, but she lets her own issues with the administration and parents bleed out into her classroom at the expense of her teaching.  The book covers the course of an entire school year, focusing on one student at a time.  Each student is distinct and their story engaging.  We get involved with their stories and it kills us when one of them doesn't make it. 

This book gave me a lot of things to think about as a teacher:  expansion of the canon, ways to teach, understanding where my students are coming from, not making assumptions based on a student's appearance, keeping my personal life personal, and continuing on even after making mistakes.

I appreciate that Corwin explores the complexity of the affirmative action.  He is in no way unbiased, but he does back up his position with a lot of evidence.  Is it fair and will it serve America as a whole if we exclude a chunk of the population from college because they didn't have the opportunity for a top-notch K-12 education, or because they had to work 40+ hours a week to make ends meet in addition to going to school so they never had time to study for the SAT when going to college could give them the chance to pull themselves and their families out of poverty?  At the same time, the kid with a better SAT score legitimately knows more, and has better skills, (I'll ignore for now the issue of how accurate SAT is at measuring college readiness).  Should we punish that kid for being dealt a better hand?  Affirmative action is a imperfect solution to a very unbalanced set of starting circumstances.  I don't have an answer, but I appreciate the exploration.

The narrative is occasionally scattered, as if Corwin couldn't remember what he had already said and so went back and repeated himself.  This may have been done to clarify, but as the same wordage is used again and again, it just feels repetitive.  There is also some strong language.  I feel like it is authentic to the inner city kids Corwin writes about, but it will bother some readers.

And Still We Rise is not a boring read, though it is at times a downer.  It presents complicated issues that don't have any clear, much less easy solutions while keeping readers engaged with the human side of those issues.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review: Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Unwind--Neal Shusterman
November 2007 by Simon & Schuster
335 pages--Goodreads

Connor, Risa, and Lev are running for their lives.

The Second Civil War was fought over reproductive rights. The chilling resolution: Life is inviolable from the moment of conception until age thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, parents can have their child "unwound," whereby all of the child's organs are transplanted into different donors, so life doesn't technically end. Connor is too difficult for his parents to control. Risa, a ward of the state is not enough to be kept alive. And Lev is a tithe, a child conceived and raised to be unwound. Together, they may have a chance to escape and to survive.

I have heard a ridiculous number of good things about Neal Shusterman and this series in particular.  A friend was awesome enough to let me borrow it, so I finally got to read it.  I may have built the book up too much in my mind, but I still liked it.  

Unwind is written in first-person in present tense.  I think this is the first book I've ever read in present tense.  It was a little weird at first and took a while to get used to, but it gave an immediacy to the plot: we're right there with the characters instead of watching from the sidelines looking back like we usually do.  And the unusual tense makes Shusterman's book stand apart.

The book is split between the point of view of three main characters.  With as short as the book is, we don't have enough time to explore any of them as deeply as I would have liked since our attention is so split.  Lev's story in particular needs more time and more development so we can understand why he changed; it's there, I just want more time to let it soak in.  However, the multiple perspectives give us a wider view of the situation as a whole.  We focus on the stories of individuals rather than the all of society, but we still get the big picture.  I especially like that Shusterman doesn't turn any of his characters into monsters or saints.  Each is complex, and even if we don't agree with their choices, we see where they're coming from.  

I loved the Humphrey Dunfee urban legend that came up again and again throughout the novel.  It tied things together in an unexpected but satisfying way.  I'm still a bit annoyed at myself for not making the connection to Humpty Dumpty until now.  How did I miss that?

The premise is not terribly plausible, but Shusterman makes it work, and by the end, we can see why society may have chosen to go down such a callous road.  This book deals with some hard issues that can springboard into great discussions.  What is the soul?  Are you still alive if all your physical parts are?  What does the sanctity of human life really mean?  How much choice should an individual have over their own life?  What should society do with with the people it doesn't want?  Shusterman doesn't preach, doesn't tell you what to think.  He just presents the story and lets us think it out for ourselves.  There are no clear answers, but it is the thinking that matters.  We cannot, as the novel's society does, just evade the responsibility of an unexpected baby or a troublesome teenager.

The book does contain some content that will be disturbing to some readers.  It's not graphic, but Shusterman writes in such a way that your imagination fills in the blanks in a heebee jeebees kind of way.  Aside from that, and perhaps because of it, it is a very compelling novel and a satisfying read.

P.S. Register to be an organ donor if you haven't done so already.  You won't need your liver if you're dead, and someone else does.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Les Mis Rantings

So the movie's been out for over a month, but I have to share my thoughts about Les Mis.

Reviewish Thoughts:

So much shaky cam and super super closeups.  It takes a little while to get used to the constant singing, but once you get into the swing of things.  Don't go in expecting Broadway, it's a much more intimate portrayal of the story.

Wow!  Just wow.  Anne Hathaway, you sang an emotional roller coaster of "I Dreamed a Dream" in one long complete continuous shot!  Fantine's story is not pleasant, but man is it powerful.  You are also the first actress I've seen that cried unprettily.  Usually it's just a few tears trickling down an actress's face.  No, you had the real scrunched up face, red nosed, heartbroken sobs.  You lost 25 pounds that you did not have for this roll.  I can't say that I agree with that decision, since it is probably bad for your health, but you were definitely committed to your roll.  A stunning and compelling performance.


I wish Javert's story was explored in more depth.  Sure, Russel Crow has a hard time acting and singing at the same time, but Javert is still one of my favorite characters.  He's a wonderful foil to Valjean, and their names are too similar for that to be an accident. He is unwaveringly committed to the letter of the law.  In a very unfair world  he clings to the law as the only fair and impartial judge.  But then Valjean shows him mercy.  And he sees Gavroche's body, and his heart comes out, just a little bit.  I love the part where he puts his own medal on Gavroche, acknowledging the boy and thinking for the first time, that maybe this boy was innocent.  And if Gavroche is innocent, maybe the others were as well.  And as soon if he question his worldview, he has to take the responsibility for all his actions, and he can't face that prospect.  And then he takes up the "What have I done?" self-crisis song that Valjean sang earlier (I love when musicals recycle themes from earlier in the play and give them to different characters).  Was Russel Crow as good as Philip Quast?  No, but he brought a new dynamic to the role and the two actors are not mutually exclusive.

I love this musical.  I love the story; I love the music; I love the lyrics; I love the characters (now I feel a bit like this girl).  I want to go see it again and again and again.  I cried multiple times and am not ashamed of that. 

Who else saw the movie and what did you think?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Haul #5

I discovered the books section of the second hand store in town.  And bought many things.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--Mark Twain
Airborn--Kenneth Oppel
Cryptid Hunters--Roland Smith
Eagle Strike--Anthony Horowitz
Things Not Seen--Andrew Clements
Tuck Everlasting--Natalie Babbit
Mossflower--Brian Jacques
Delirium--Lauren Oliver
Adaptation--Malinda Lo
Redwall--Brian Jacques

Friday, February 1, 2013

Review: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda--Tom Angleberger
March 2010 by Amulet Books
145 pages--Goodreads

Meet Dwight, a sixth-grade oddball. Dwight does a lot of weird things, like wearing the same T-shirt for a month or telling people to call him "Captain Dwight." This is embarrassing, particularly for Tommy, who sits with him at lunch every day.

But Dwight does one cool thing. He makes origami. One day he makes an origami finger puppet of Yoda. And that's when things get mysterious. Origami Yoda can predict the future and suggest the best way to deal with a tricky situation. His advice actually works, and soon most of the sixth grade is lining up with questions.

Tommy wants to know how Origami Yoda can be so smart when Dwight himself is so clueless. Is Yoda tapping into the Force? It's crucial that Tommy figure out the mystery before he takes Yoda's advice about something VERY IMPORTANT that has to do with a girl.

This is a fun quick read in a less traditional format.  It's presented as a case file, a collection of incidents different kids have with the Origami Yoda.  Tommy compiles the case file to decide whether or not Origami Yoda has powers.  His friends chime in with their opinions with doodles and notes in the margins.  The ending is unexpected, but satisfying.

The characters sound and act like real sixth graders.  The book is very readable, though younger readers may have a hard time keeping track of the large cast of characters.  Each kid gets their own distinct font, which may help readers keep characters straight and it's just a fun extra touch. The instructions to make your own Origami Yoda are fun as well.

You can certainly make the case that the book has a good message (standing up for friends, self confidence, etc) but that makes the book sound like a Sunday School lesson and takes away from its fun.  Sure those themes are there, but they aren't presented overhandedly.  It's just a fun book.  Plain and simple.  And there are sequels.


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