Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: Calamity Jack by Shannon and Dean Hale

Calamity Jack--Shannon and Dean Hale
Illustrated by Nathan Hale
January 2010 by Bloomsbury USA Children's
144 pages--Goodreads

Jack likes to think of himself as a criminal mastermind…with an unfortunate amount of bad luck. A schemer, plotter, planner, trickster, swindler...maybe even thief? One fine day Jack picks a target a little more giant than the usual, and one little bean turns into a great big building-destroying beanstalk.

With help from Rapunzel (and her trusty braids), a pixie from Jack’s past, and a man with inventions from the future, they just might out-swindle the evil giants and put his beloved city back in the hands of good people ....while catapulting themselves and readers into another fantastical adventure.

I really enjoyed Rapunzel's Revenge.  While Calamity Jack isn't as great, it is still a lot of fun.  This is Jack's story and it's not a western, so there's a lot less of Rapunzel's spunky attitude and hair lassoing.  The steampunk aspect is neat, but the western vibe fit so well to the first book.  That perfect-fit feeling is missing in this book.  More lassoing may not fix that problem, but it would make me feel better. 

There is a cast of quirky characters, as always.  But in this book, Jack's character doesn't really go anywhere. Instead of going from lovable scoundrel to honest lovable scoundrel, he spends most of the book worrying about what will happen if Rapunzel finds out he was once a crook.  Rapunzel doesn't do much either.  I loved her no nonsense. round-up-the-bad-guys attitude in the first book, but in this, she's just a side character. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that more hair lassoing would improve this book, even though it's supposed to be Jack's story.

The illustrations are as detailed and interesting as the first book.  The jabberwocky and bandersnatch are nice touches.  Calamity Jack is a fun, quick followup to Hale's first graphic novel.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Bookshelf Scavenger Hunt Tag

First by The Library of Sarah. Tagged by Bookrat Misty because she tags everybody :)
In this tag you wee a lot of the back of my head.

Find an author's name or title with the letter Z in it

   Eagle Strike--Anthony HorowitzFind a classic
   Jane Eyre--Charlotte Bronte
Find a book with a key on it
   Splintered--A.G. Howard
Find something on your bookshelf that's not a book
   Bonzai Kit
Find the oldest book on your shelf
   Dragon Seed--Pearl S Buck
   The Orestia--Aeschylus
Find a book with a girl on the cover
   Delerium--Lauren Oliver
Find a book that has an animal in it
   Dragon Slippers--Jessica Day George
   Mossflower--Brian Jaques
Find a book with a male protagonist
   Airborn--Kenneth Oppel
Find a book with only words on it
   The Boy in the Striped Pajamas--John Boyne
   Gilead--Marilynne Robinson
   A Midsummer Night's Dream--Shakespeare
Find a book with illustrations in it
   My Life as a Book--Janet Tashijan
   The Mysterious Benedict Society--Trenton Lee Stewart
Find a book with gold lettering
   Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone--J.K. Rowling
Find a diary (true or fictional)
   Book of a Thousand Days--Shannon Hale
Find a book written by someone with a common name (like Smith)
   The False Prince--Jennifer A. Nielson
   Cryptid Hunters--Roland Smith
Find a book that has a closeup of something on it
   The Lions of Little Rock--Kristin Levine
Find a book on your shelf that takes place in the earliest time period
   Antony and Cleopatra--Shakespeare
Find a hardcover book without a jacket
   Ella Enchanted--Gail Carson Levine
Find a teal/turquoise colored book
   The Fault in Our Stars--John Green
Find a book with stars on it
   Things Not Seen--Andrew Clements
Find a non-YA book
   Poetry 180--Billy Collins
   Mistborn--Brandon Sanderson

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mini Review: Eyes Like Stars by Lisa Mantchev

Eyes Like Stars--Lisa Mantchev
July 2009 by Feiwel and Friends
352 pages--Goodreads

All her world’s a stage.

Bertie Shakespeare Smith is not an actress, yet she lives in a theater.  She’s not an orphan, but she has no parents.  She knows every part, but she has no lines of her own.  That is, until now.

Welcome to the Théâtre Illuminata, where the actors of every play ever written can be found behind the curtain. They were born to play their parts, and are bound to the Théâtre by The Book—an ancient and magical tome of scripts. Bertie is not one of them, but they are her family—and she is about to lose them all and the only home she has ever known.

I don't have much to say about this book.  I actually liked the premise a lot more than the actual book because the STUPID love triangle got in the way of including an actual plot.  We've got the manipulating bad boy, Ariel, who we know we can't trust but Bertie is inexplicably drawn to him and the nice guy Nathan, who would be just fine as a friend, but he's turned into a romantic interest to create tension and then nothing actually happens.  It was all completely contrived and unsatisfying because it crowded out an actual plot.  What little plot manages to squeeze in is jumbled, disjointed.

I did get a kick out of the allusions to Shakespeare's plays.

Theater buffs may like it, but I didn't care much for it, even though the cover is gorgeous.

Massive Book Haul

So, this book haul was going to be normal sized, but then the library had a big book sale with hard covers for $1 and paperbacks for 50¢.  So I bought 31 books, but I only spent $30.  So bear with me through one of the longest book hauls I think I will ever have.

The Lions of Little Rock--Kristin Levine
The Little Prince--Antoine de Saint Exupery
The Bar Code Tattoo--Suzanne Weyn
One Crazy Summer--Rita Williams-Garcia
Poetry 180--Billy Collins
Thief Lord--Cornelia Funke
The Little House on the Prairie--Laura Ingalls Wilder
Walk Two Moons--Sharon Creech
Stargirll--Jerry Spinelli
Black Beauty--Anna Sewell
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy--Douglas Adams
Julie of the Wolves--Jean Craighead George
The Shakespeare Stealer--Gary L. Blackwell
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe--C.S. Lewis
Guys Write for Guys Read--Jon Scieska
Guys Read:  Thriller--Jon Scieska
Robot Dreams--Sara Varon
Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul--Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and Kimberly Kirberger
Found--Margaret Peterson Haddix
The Wish List--Eoin Colfer
Steel--Carrie Vaughn
The Magician's Elephant--Kate DiCamillo
The Science of Harry Potter--Roger Highfield
Escape from Memory--Margaret Peterson Haddix
Loser--Jerry Spinelli
Heist Society--Ally Carter
Page by Paige--Laura Lee Gulledge
Eragon--Christopher Paolini
The Very Hungry Catipillar--Eric Carle
Hoaxed:  Fakes & Mistakes in the World of Science--YES Mag
The Cat in the Hat--Dr. Seuss
Eyewitness: Mars--Stuart Murray
Off Armageddon Reef--David Weber
By Schism Rent Asunder--David Weber
A Mighty Fortress--David Weber
Puff the Magic Dragon--Peter Yarrow

Hi!  You made it all the way to the bottom of the page.  Thanks for sticking with me.  Have you acquired any books recently?  Have you read any of the ones I go?  Let me know what you think.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Review: Robot Dreams by Sara Varon

Robot Dreams--Sara Varon
August 2007 by First Second
208 pages--Goodreads

Richly endearing and full of surprises, Robot Dreams follows an ill-fated friendship between a dog and robot. After a Labor Day jaunt to the beach leaves Robot rusty and immobilized in the sand, Dog, unsure what to do, abandons him. As the seasons pass, Dog tries to replace his friend, making and losing a series of new ones, from a melting snowman to epicurean anteaters. Meanwhile, Robot passes his time daydreaming, escaping to better places...Through interwoven journeys, the two characters long to recover from their day at the beach.

Although its adorable characters and playful charm will win over young readers, Robot Dreams speaks universally to the fragile nature of friendship, loss, and redemption.

This was my first experience with an almost wordless graphic novel.  There is more text on the inside jacket flap than in the rest of the book.  I like that simplicity with the storytelling being carried by the illustrations alone.  Several times throughout the book, there is only one panel on an otherwise blank page spread.  The illustrations are simple, but carry a lot meaning and emotion, matching the thoughtful tone of the narrative.

Several other reviewers talked about the poignant tone capturing that feeling of drifting apart from an old friend.  Friends don't last forever so cherish them while you have them and similar themes.  But what I got out it, at least for the first half, is some people are jerks and leave you to rot in the sand. Or steal your foot.  I did enjoy the robot's dream sequences and the end of the novel, and I see the "moving on to new friends" and "you can never go back" stuff.  It just wasn't quite what I was expecting.

It's a super quick read with a bittersweet ending and on the whole I liked it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Mini Review: One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer--Rita Williams-Garcia
January 2010 by Amistad
218 pages--Goodreads

In the summer of 1968, after travelling from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to spend a month with the mother they barely know, eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters arrive to a cold welcome as they discover that their mother, a dedicated poet and printer, is resentful of the intrusion of their visit and wants them to attend a nearby Black Panther summer camp.

This was a decent read, but it just kind of throws you into the middle of the Black Panthers without any explanation whatsoever.  As most of the middle graders reading this book won't know much about the Black Panthers going into the book, the will probably be lost.  I know books aren't meant to be history lessons, but a bit more background information would have been nice.

The relationship between the sisters is realistic sweet.  However, I think this is one of those books that adults like but kids find a hard time relating to.

Review: Son by Lois Lowry

Son--Lois Lowry
October 2012 by Houghton Mifflen Books for Children
393 pages--Goodreads

They called her Water Claire. When she washed up on their shore, no one knew that she came from a society where emotions and colors didn’t exist. That she had become a Vessel at age thirteen. That she had carried a Product at age fourteen. That it had been stolen from her body. Claire had a son. But what became of him she never knew. What was his name? Was he even alive? She was supposed to forget him, but that was impossible. Now Claire will stop at nothing to find her child, even if it means making an unimaginable sacrifice.

Son thrusts readers once again into the chilling world of the Newbery Medal winning book, The Giver, as well as Gathering Blue and Messengerwhere a new hero emerges. In this thrilling series finale, the startling and long-awaited conclusion to Lois Lowry’s epic tale culminates in a final clash between good and evil.

I have mixed reactions to Lowry's books. I love The Giver and have read it many times.  Gathering Blue is okay, but nothing special.  Messenger is flat out weird.  And, unfortunately, so is Son.  

Rather than being its own complete story, Son is more of a compilation of the other books in the series.  I really enjoyed the first third of the novel.  I liked learning more about the Community Claire and Jonas grew up in.  I loved the bond Claire forms with Gabe.  She does make some connections too easily (specifically that the pills kill feelings), but I was okay with it because I enjoyed the rest of the story.  I thought the whole book would center around the Community and how it healed after Jonas left.  Wrong.  Claire actually escapes the community a day or two after Jonas, leaving me feeling cheated.  

The second third was okay.  It felt like an entirely different story than the first part of the novel, but it was okay.  And then the third part of the novel.  What?  First of all, after being in Claire's head for the entire novel, we suddenly jump into Gabe's and then hop around between different characters.  And the plot just gets weird.  The ending is similar to Messenger's in that I finished the book with a "what the crap just happened?" feeling.  Lowry keeps trying to go all existential with this series, but she doesn't set it up well.  The spiritual stuff feels out of place in the world she created.  Everything is fairly normal and then BOOM:  battle between evil incarnate and the forces of good and love.  And no, not a metaphorical fight between good and evil like Harry potter, but the actual embodiment of evil being destroyed by the actual power of love . . . I don't get it either.

Son  was not what I was expecting.  It just doesn't resonate like The Giver does.  I suppose few things can live up to The Giver, but still.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review: Rules by Cynthia Lord

Rules--Cynthia Lord
April 2006 by Scholastic Press
208 pages--Goodreads

A heartfelt and witty debut about feeling different and finding acceptance--beyond the rules.

Twelve-year-old Catherine just wants a normal life. Which is near impossible when you have a brother with autism and a family that revolves around his disability. She's spent years trying to teach David the rules-from "a peach is not a funny-looking apple" to "keep your pants on in public"-in order to stop his embarrassing behaviors. But the summer Catherine meets Jason, a paraplegic boy, and Kristi, the next-door friend she's always wished for, it's her own shocking behavior that turns everything upside down and forces her to ask: What is normal?

Rules is a poignant (Who decided that word should have a g?  It should be poinient) read that draws you in.  I LOVE the relationship between Catherine and David.  It is touching and sweet, and it is the most accurate representation of that feeling of they're messing things up for me and everyone's staring at me and I hate this but I can't be mad at you because it's not your fault and I know you're trying, but still...  The representation of Catherine's relationship with her parents is great too.  

Lord has an autistic child, so I'm going to assume the representation of autism is accurate to at least her own experience.  And Rules won the Schneider Family Book Award, which is kind of the Newbery for books describing the experience of a child or adolescent with disabilities.  It also won a Newbery Honor.

The book is a little bit dated with details like the VCR tapes that Catherine has to keep winding when the tape pulls out of the cassette.  I remember that, but readers more than five years younger than me probably won't.

Wanting to be accepted is a universal desire, not just limited to those with a disability or those who have a family member with a disability.  Rules captures that longing excellently It is short.  It is sweet.  It is a tearjerker.  I read it in a single day.  It is a great read.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Review: How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg

How They Croaked:  The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous--Georgia Bragg
Illustrated by Kevin O'Malley
Marc 2011 by Walker Childrens
184 pages--Goodreads

Over the course of history men and women have lived and died. In fact, getting sick and dying can be a big, ugly mess-especially before the modern medical care that we all enjoy today. How They Croaked relays all the gory details of how nineteen world figures gave up the ghost. For example:

It is believed that Henry VIII's remains exploded within his coffin while lying in state.
Doctors "treated" George Washington by draining almost 80 ounces of blood before he finally kicked the bucket.
Right before Beethoven wrote his last notes, doctors drilled a hole in his stomach without any pain medication.
Readers will be interested well past the final curtain, and feel lucky to live in a world with painkillers, X-rays, soap, and 911.

This is not a good book to read right before bed.  Despite the disclaimer in the first few pages to not read it if you don't have guts for gore, I read it.  And I have a very weak stomach.  I tend to pass out during first aid training.  And after shots.  So, interesting tidbits like Elizabeth I developing puss-filled sores in her throat make me nauseous.  I even got grossed out while writing this review.  So, not really my type of book, but I can see middles schoolers loving it.  I mean, Henry VIII's corpse exploded; even I think that's cool.

It seemed like there were some biographical inaccuracies, but I don't know my history well enough to say so definitively.  It's less of a blatantly incorrect facts and more of a oversimplification/telling history from the winner's bias thing.  Bloody Mary was not all bad and Elizabeth I killed her fair share of people.  I don't know.  

My only real complaint is a few glaring omissions.  Where are Rasputin and Phineas Gage?  Seriously.  Rasputin  was poisoned, beat to a pulp, shot four times, and drowned.  And it was the drowning that killed him!  And Phineas Gage got a steel rod shot through his head and was surprisingly okay, conscious, chatting with the doctor that examined him.  He didn't die until 12 years later.  Maybe Bragg needs to write a sequel:  How They Didn't Die When by All Rights They Should Have. 

How They Croaked has a light, almost conversational tone.  Bragg doesn't overload you with facts or dense text; it's just a nice easy read.  Since each historical figure's death story stands independently, it is easy to put down and pick up the book at will.  It's a fun, though gross, read, and it makes me very happy to live in a world where doctors wash their hands and use antibiotics.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Shakespeare March Madness Showdown

I am not a sports aficionado by any measure.  I filled out my March Madness bracket by pitting each team's mascot against each other, which explains why my bracket is in dead last at work.  Fortunately, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater has provided an alternative:
Shakespeare Showdown

My bracket is hard to see, but if you click on the picture, it should pull up a bigger image.  I have Benedict of Much Ado About Nothing winning the championship.  It eventually came down to Kenneth Branagh vs. Kenneth Branagh vs. Kenneth Branagh vs. the Fool.  Or I suppose I could have worked in David Tennant instead.  Romeo wouldn't have stayed in the game for as long as he did if he had gone up against some decent opponents.  And Poor Lady Macbeth got knocked out in round two only because she was up against Henry V.  Even the creepiness of Lady Macbeth can't stand up against the inspiration of the St. Crispins day speech.

You can find more information about the Showdown at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's website.  Sadly, they are no longer accepting submissions, but filling out the bracket is fun enough on its own.  You can also vote for your favorite characters on their facebook page from now until April 15th.

Let me know if you disagree with any of my picks and leave a link in the comments if you fill out your own bracket.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Review: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

Scarlet--Marissa Meyer
February 2013 by Feiwel and Friends
452 pages--Goodreads

The fates of Cinder and Scarlet collide as a Lunar threat spreads across the Earth...

Cinder, the cyborg mechanic, returns in the second thrilling installment of the bestselling Lunar Chronicles. She's trying to break out of prison—even though if she succeeds, she'll be the Commonwealth's most wanted fugitive.

Halfway around the world, Scarlet Benoit's grandmother is missing. It turns out there are many things Scarlet doesn't know about her grandmother or the grave danger she has lived in her whole life. When Scarlet encounters Wolf, a street fighter who may have information as to her grandmother's whereabouts, she is loath to trust this stranger, but is inexplicably drawn to him, and he to her. As Scarlet and Wolf unravel one mystery, they encounter another when they meet Cinder. Now, all of them must stay one step ahead of the vicious Lunar Queen Levana, who will do anything for the handsome Prince Kai to become her husband, her king, her prisoner.

Last year, I saw so many 5-star, rave reviews about Cinder, that when I finally did read it, it was killed by the Hype Monster.  It couldn't live up to the reputation i had built up of it in my mind.  I went into Scarlet with more normal expectations, and this time around I quite enjoyed the read. Now freed from the hype, I can appreciate all of Cinder's awesomeness.  Scarlet is cool too, but Cinder is great.   I love all of her cyborg gadgets.  And as her lunar gift emerges, she has to deal with the ethical implications of her ability to manipulate people with her mind.  

While Cinder and Scarlet take center stage, the side characters are great too.  Iko is back, just bubbly enough to be both slightly annoying and very endearing.  And Thorne is hilarious   He takes a bit of getting used to, but once you do, he's great.  He's got that sort of Flynn Ryder "I'm devilishly handsome and I know it" vibe.

And the plot?  Scarlet has several twists that I did not see coming, especially the "Grandma, what big eyes you have" scene.  I didn't realize we were in that scene until it was almost over and then my mind was blown.  It was an unexpected way to work that scene, and the surprise was very satisfying.

One of my annoyances with Cinder was the lack of information we got about Luna.  I mean, how did these moon colonists develop crazy mind powers?  But we learn much more about Lunars in Scarlet, and given the way the book ends, Cress should give us even more.  I am a bit worried that we'll start spreading ourselves too thin between all the characters.  We already spend time in Cinder, Kai, Levana, Scarlet, and Wolf's heads.  The next book will throw in Cress at the very least.  If we go too broad, we won't be able to go deep.  But Meyer juggles the multiple viewpoints well.  You always know where you are and which character you're dealing with, which cannot be said of every multiple-POV novel.

The Scarlet-Wolf romance is a bit rushed, which is annoying.  They know each other for a day and then BOOM!  Kissing.  Scarlet has no reason to trust him, but she falls for him.  Also, the ending is a bit sappy.  And you just can't use the word nuzzle if one of your character's name is Wolf.  It's too close to muzzle.  Horses nuzzle.  I also have some issues with Wolf's behavior during the climax (spoilers for the rest of this paragraph).  Yes, he's being mind-controlled and driven to follow animal instincts, but his defense of Scarlet is just too possessive.  I mean, "She's mine!"?  Seriously?  Protectiveness is good, but not possessiveness.  I can see why Meyer wrote it in, but it just rubbed me the wrong way.  

Despite these couple of flaws, I really enjoyed Scarlet.  I could not put it down.  And I can't wait for Cress to come out next year.


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