Monday, June 30, 2008

The Secret Under My Skin by Janet McNaughton

I recommend this book for: grade 7 and up

In a future where the planet has been ravaged by pollution and extreme weather and the people fear technology, a girl who can't even remember her name gets the chance for a new life. Blay grew up on the streets, under the care of an older girl and master thief, protected by one of the tribes of homeless children who roam the city. She now lives in a work camp, picking through a dump for anything useful, and reading poetry in her spare time. It is the reading that gives her a new chance - the opportunity to help Marella pass the tests to become a bio-indicator (someone who is sensitive to the pollution in the environment and helps to protect the people). But there's more here than a tutoring assignment - there's a whole revolution, and everything Blay has learned about the past (of the nation, and her own personal history) is called into question.

This complex setting is actually explained much better than this in the book. Blay is an interesting character, and although the environmental message can be somewhat preachy, the story was still compelling enough to keep me reading. Not a favorite, but not bad, either.

They liked it!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Seeker by William Nicholson

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

A re-read for me, and so worth it! I summarized the first book in my review of Jango, so I won't go into much detail here, but allow me to recommend the Noble Warriors series for fans of fantasy and adventure. I love the fast pace of the plot, the banter between the characters, and the way Nicholson follows a well-known formula but makes it feel fresh and exciting. Even on the second read, I devoured this one and the sequel, and I'm biting my nails waiting for Noman to come in for me!

Read it from the pros.

Quaking by Kathryn Erskine

I recommend this book for: grade 8+

Matt was abused as a child, and has been shuffled from relative to relative for years. Every time, her attitude and emotional damage have been enough to make them send her on. She's now on her last chance, a Quaker couple who have already adopted a mentally retarded five year old boy. Sam and Jessica are kind and peace-loving - in fact, Sam is in charge of weekly peace demonstrations in their community. This puts him in danger, as a series of attacks have been hitting churches, the mosque, and other organizations that do not support the war in Iraq. Matt takes flak at school from a bully she calls the Rat and the civics teacher she dubs "Mr. Warhead" because of his propaganda-filled lessons, simply because they don't think she is 'patriotic' enough. They're completely ridiculous, and unfortunately, that makes them more believable these days.

Despite her normal M.O. of not getting attached to anyone, Matt finds herself beginning to care about her new family and what happens to them, and tempted to join the peace club at school to make a stand against the violence and repression she sees. Definitely a thought provoking book, although it had a few problems. The one thing that really annoyed me was the fact that Matt never used contractions - it was definitely a bold choice for her character, but many times it made her sound like a sarcastic, emotionally damaged robot. Despite that, her voice was interesting and her growth was wonderful to watch. The best part of the book was the developing relationship between Matt, Sam and Jessica, and the little boy they adopted.


* The parental stuff: There is a lot of violence in the community, as well as in Matt's past, which gets described in flashbacks. She frequently talks about God - sometimes reverently, and many times not. She often observes the group of bullies drinking and smoking.*

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Homework Machine by Dan Gutman

I recommend this book for: grades 3-5

What kid doesn't dream about having a homework machine? Probably even before Shel Silverstein's poem planted the idea in millions of heads, kids have been looking for ways to escape homework without getting into trouble. This book explores what happens when a team of four unlikely companions get stuck together in their 5th grade classroom. At first there is a lot of tension between the new kid, the smart girl, the not-so-smart girl, and the genius/loser (they're definitely archetypes, but each character is interesting and not just a stereotype) - until genius Brenton tells them about his homework machine. Suddenly he's much more popular - but is it really a good idea to share his invention? What happens if they get caught?

A fun read, with the interesting premise and the growth of the characters and their relationships. One I definitely recommend to the older elementary crowd!

- but there are important spoilers in the first one, so I wouldn't recommend reading that!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Going Under by Kathe Koja

I recommend this book for: high school

Hilly and her older brother Ivan have always been very close, pilot and co-pilot. They've been home schooled by their (largely clueless) parents and have always depended on one another. This novel is narrated by both of them, and as it progresses the reader comes to understand that the one who seems to be the unreliable narrator is really the one who has it together.

Unfortunately, the storyline was only so-so. Hilly is plunged into darkness when a friend from a public school commits suicide. She wants to deal with it in her own way, by writing privately in her journal, but she is forced into counseling by her parents, then forced to switch therapists by her brother. The new therapist sounds brilliant, but his main goal isn't helping teen girls to heal - it's exploiting them, and Hilly is his new target. It wasn't really believable, but it had good points, such as the extended metaphor of Persephone in the underworld, and the rich and complex relationships between Hilly, Ivan, and to a lesser extent, their parents. And Hilly's poem at the end is chill-inducing. This isn't my favorite Koja book - if you really want to see what she can do, try Kissing the Bee instead.


*I already mentioned that teen suicide plays a role in this book - other issues you may want to be aware of are language, teen smoking (Ivan), and sexuality (Ivan again!)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Araminta Spookie: My Haunted House by Angie Sage

I recommend this book for: grades 1-3

A fun fun fun start to the series! Araminta Spookie (isn't that a fantastic name?) lives in a haunted house, where she has a different bedroom for every day of the week, her uncle has a large tower to keep his many bats, and they both agree that their home is perfect. Unfortunately, Aunt Tabby feels otherwise - she's tired of bats and spiders, and most of all she's tired of fighting with the boiler, which likes to throw tantrums and soot frequently. Aunt Tabby has decided that the house is going up for sale. Araminta, however, has other plans, which involve fiendish stares, impersonating ghosts, and scaring away anyone who has an interest in the house. The crisis comes when a family comes to look at the house and everything she does to scare them away makes them more interested. And did I mention the real ghosts?

This one was great! There were a few things that may need to be explained to children (like what a boiler is, the role of a real estate agent, and a few British-isms), but it was very enjoyable with a strong plot, interesting characters, and a situation that many kids can understand - not wanting to move. This one gets an A!

Hmm, not everyone loved it . . .
Don't read the first review if you don't want the ending ruined!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Rules by Cynthia Lord

I recommend this book for: grade 4-7

Catherine is 12, and her little brother David is a problem. He can't help it, because he is autistic, but that doesn't make it any easier to explain why he won't keep his pants on if they get wet, or why the first thing he does when he goes to anyone's house is to tear through it and make sure the basement door is closed. Or why he quotes extensively from Frog and Toad Are Friends rather than using his own words. She loves her brother, but their parents have little attention to spare for her, and now Catherine is afraid that he's going to hurt her social life when a new girl who's sure to be popular moves in next door.

Her vision changes a bit when she meets Jason at the office of David's therapist. Jason is a few years older than Catherine and in a wheelchair, and he can't physically speak. He communicates by pointing to words printed on cards in a binder. As Catherine starts making new words for him and they become friends, she's forced to make choices about how to spend her time and what is most important. This is a great book, with real characters, funny moments, and a protagonist who does the best she can.

Read it from the pros.

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

I recommend this book for: age 4 and up

One of my favorite books from childhood, Just So Stories is a collection of tales that explain why things are the way they are - how the camel got his hump, how the alphabet was invented, where the elephant got such a long nose, and more. Children will meet a mariner with suspenders (which are very important - take care not to forget the suspenders!), a very naughty Elephant's Child, a Camel who says "humph" so much that he earns one of his very own, and a Cat who walks by himself. What makes these tales really special is Kipling's diction - the stories got their name from his daughter's insistence that he tell them over and over just so, with not a word left out . . . and what words he uses! Some of my favorite phrases include "the great gray-green greasy Limpopo River" and a very wise, very verbose "Bi-Colored Python Rock Snake." Many of the words might be challenging or require explanation, but these tales are meant to be read aloud, and even young children need to hear wordplay like this and will enjoy the funny sounds of the words. The strange word choices form oddly lyrical prose, and my guess is that there is more than one child who will beg to hear them over and over - as I did.

Reviews, Best Beloved - have you forgotten the suspenders?

Davey's Blue-Eyed Frog by Patricia Harrison Easton

I recommend this book for: grades 1-2

Davey is playing by the pond, catching tadpoles with his neighbor Becky when he finds something even better than a tadpole. He finds a frog – and it talks! She claims to be an enchanted princess who needs to be kissed soon to change back, but Davey isn't so sure . . . and if she is telling the truth, he wants the frog to put on a good show for his friends before he smooches her. What could have been an interesting fantasy for low-level readers becomes essentially a moral dilemma - should he kiss her and free her, or wait to show her off for his friends and take the chance that the time allotted by the spell will pass?
This is certainly a serviceable story, but it really didn't do much for me. One thing I hated was how Easton kept hitting the reader over the head with the fact that Davey wasn't very responsible about pets, to create fear for what was going to happen to Princess Amelia. I'd still recommend it, especially to boys who are ready for early chapter books, but it's not a favorite.

But the pros sure seem to dig it . . .

Brevity is the soul of book reviews

FYI - some of the reviews might be very short for a while. I don't think I ever go on and on and on about a book (okay, maybe a few of the really juicy ones!), but I'm trying to catch up now on blogging a month's worth of reading. I've been reading almost exclusively from my library's summer reading list to prepare for booktalking, so my apologies for what will probably result in very short reviews for a while. At least I'm back!

Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller

I recommend this book for: grades 5-9

What do you get when you mix Eastern European royalty, a secret city below the streets of New York, a band of rogue girl scouts, and a little espionage? You get the Irregulars, a band of very talented young women led by the mysterious, elf-like Kiki Strike.

Ananka Fishbein has more brains than she knows what to do with and is an outsider at her exclusive private school. Life gets interesting for her when she sees a city park collapse to reveal an underground room, and a mysterious figure fleeing from it. With a mystery to solve, Ananka starts to seek out answers and finds the Shadow City, a complicated network of tunnels and rooms that were a haven for thieves, smugglers, and undesirables of every variety in New York's history. When she meets Kiki Strike and is offered the chance to explore the Shadow City and possibly find wealth beyond her wildest dreams, Ananka finds it difficult to say no. But is Kiki really who she says she is, or does she have a more sinister purpose than any of the Irregulars could guess?

This was a very fun, fast-moving book. It requires a lot of suspension of disbelief - many of the young characters are either too smart or too evil for even adolescent girls - but the storyline is compelling and exciting. I loved Ananka's narration, particularly when she gave out tidbits such as this:
The Boy Scouts were onto something when they advised their members to "Be Prepared." They understood that those who prepare will prevail. Why they chose not to share that bit of wisdom with their sister organization is anyone's guess. Maybe they couldn't handle the competition (83).
Ananka also gives out handy lists of tips for girls embarking on their own adventures, such as "How to Care for an Injured Colleague", "How to Foil a Kidnapping", and "How to Be a Master of Disguise." Major fun, with a serious dose of girl power.

How to Read Reviews of a Fabulous Book.