Saturday, September 23, 2017

Mark of the Thief by Jennifer Nielson

Cover image for Mark of the thiefJennifer Nielsen visited the library last week so I took the opportunity to read one of her books I hadn't read yet.  In this story Nic is a slave in a jewel mine outside of Rome during the reign of Tiberius.  A powerful senator visits the mine a forces Nic to go into a newly discovered cave that is reported to hold Caesar's treasure.  While there Nick retrieves a magic amulet that used to belong to Caesar, and then escapes with the help of a Griffin.  For the rest of the book Nic and the griffin are on the run from greedy senators who want the amulet for its magical powers, while Nic, with the help of a new friend, Aurelia, tries to rescue his beloved sister who has fallen into the clutches of the bad guy.

It was fun to read a story written in an unusual setting.  It is amazing to me that more books are not set in ancient Rome.  Nielsen does a pretty good job describing the gladiatorial games and animal hunt entertainments that were a staple of late Roman decadence.  The story is fast paced and entertaining, and Nic and Aurelia are likable characters.  I did have to smile a bit that Nic's power with the amulet seemed to be conveniently just as big as his circumstances needed at the moment.  Sometimes he has colossal cosmic power and at other times he can't manage the littlest magical task.  Still, it was a fun read and I will probably recommend it to kids who like Percy Jackson or Harry Potter. (2015, 339 p.)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts by Avi

Oliver lives with his older sister Charity and a neglectful father, in 1700's England.  Charity leaves for London to seek a better life and future, leaving Oliver in the dubious care of his father. One day Oliver's father leaves for London without explanation and severe weather destroys Oliver's home.  Oliver is taken to a Dickensian orphanage, from which he escapes, only to fall in with some thieves.  Oliver, Charity and their father are swept away by the force of fate and the corruption of London to progressively more dire situations. 

I read this book because it received several starred reviews.  I must say I wasn't thrilled.  It had the same problem almost all of Avi's books have.  It fumbles on the finish line.  Once again Avi didn't manage to create a satisfying ending. (heavy sigh).  The book does open one's eyes to the depravity of Victorian England.  I think people who liked "A Series of Unfortunate Events" might like it.  To me it is nowhere near the quality of writing of some of the others I have read lately, like Clayton Byrde and Beyond the Bright Sea. (304 p. 2017)

(I just realized I haven't blogged "Beyond the Bright Sea yet. I will get to that soon.)

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

Cover image for The lost kingdom of BamarreTwo daughters of an enslaved Bamarre couple are taken by the wife of Lakti ruler.  The youngest, still a baby, is raised as the woman's daughter while the other acts as her handmaiden.  The youngest, Peregrine, is trained to be a warrior and is her Lakti father's pride and joy.  When she discovers that she was born as a Bamarre, and with promptings by a good fairy, she starts on a quest to free her oppressed people.

This is an interesting mix of the stories of Moses and Rapunzel.  It is classic Levine, with a strong female lead who can kill griffins with the best of them.  There isn't a lot of connection to the earlier book, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, except the setting and the presence of two magical artifacts in both stories.  This is technically a prequel, but you can read the books in any order(2017, 385 p.)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

Cover image for Originals : how nonconformists move the worldAdam Grant is a social scientist who has studied people who are famous for being original innovators and summarizes his finding in this fairly interesting and readable offering.  Grant supports his main observations with both case studies and research results.  I was impressed with how often he referred to different studies.  He seems to have done a fairly extensive survey of the research in this area.  His examples about well known companies and individuals make the book engaging.

I thought he had some fascinating observations, but sometimes I wondered about his I conclusions.  I think he was too quick to apply principles shown in a small study in much larger applications.  For example, they might have a group of people in a study and they told one group to think of one thought for a few minutes before they did a task, and another group thought another thing for 2 minutes before they did a task and then they would conclude, "group one generated 16 percent more original ideas than the other group."  So question one is, "how to you rate how original an idea is?" Question two is, "how could this possibly relate to what happens in a real corporate setting?"

Beside that objection, I found the book quite interesting and stimulating.  Some of the ideas dovetailed nicely with principles from both Smart Trust, and another book I am reading with my husband called, Awakening Joy. I think if I were the kind to read lots of self-help books, I would begin to trust ideas that seem to appear in many sources.  (322 p.)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby

Cover image for The shadow cipherTess and Theo Biedermann, and their neighbor, Jamie Cruz, live in one of the historic Morningstarr buildings in an alternate New York City.  The Morninstarrs were a family of brilliant architects and engineers who created smart robots and interactive buildings that permeate the York society.  They also created the Cipher, a puzzle that was supposed to lead to an amazing treasure, but during the 50+ years since their preeminence, no one has been able to solve the puzzle.  When an upstart developer threatens to pull down Tess and Theo's apartment building, the twins team up with Jamie in one last effort to solve the cipher and use the money to save their home.  As they pursue what seems to be a new line of clues, they discover that the world around them is more mysterious and dangerous than they could have imagined.

This book is getting a lot of attention.  It is a fast paced, fresh, steampunk mystery that a lot of readers will enjoy.  I enjoyed it, but there were two ways that I felt it fell short.  The first is that the kids found the answers to the clues way to easily.  The text hinted that there was a reason for that, and if Ruby will explain it in the next book, I will forgive that shortfall.  The second is that after the author initially introduces the three kids, they stop being materially different from each other.  Theo is supposed to be the analytical one, Tess is supposed to be the paranoid one and Jamie is the mechanical one, but after the first three chapters, those distinctions kind of fade into the background, and the kids move as one homogeneous mass from one adventure to another.  It is clear to me that the author thought up the plot first, and then fit the characters into it.  My favorite books are those where the character comes first, and the plot emerges out of the character's...well...character.

That said, I will probably read the next book.  I think the reason this one has received so many starred reviews is that it ends with a really intriguing cliff hanger. Plus, the alternative technology in the world is pretty fun. We will see if the second book lives up to the promise of the first. (476 p.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Thornhill by Pam Smy

Cover image for ThornhillThis is the story of two girls, Mary and Ella.  Mary lived in the Thornhill Orphanage in the 1980's.  Ella moves into the house next to Thornhill in the present time.  Ella finds Mary's journal that tells how Mary was brutally bullied by another girl in the orphanage.  As Ella reads, she feels a kinship to Mary because, she too is lonely since her mother's death.  Mary's stories are told as journal entries, but Ella's are told through Hugo Cabret like black and white illustrations.  The book is pretty dark and creepy and I am guessing that is will show up on Banned Books lists in not to long because it suggests (spoiler allert) that the girls both commit suicide in the end.

I brought this book home to read because have to decide whether to keep it in the children's department or not.  It is pretty sad and creepy, but I know some kids that will like it because it is.  I will talk about it to my director to see what she thinks. (544 p.)


Sunday, August 27, 2017

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

Cover image for Clayton Byrd goes undergroundClayton loves it when he can sneak away with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and jam with the Blues Men in Washington Park.  Then one day, he grandfather is gone. Clayton wants to hold on to anything that reminds him of his beloved grandfather, but his mother seems determined to get rid of everything her father once owned.  When Clayton's mother takes his last memento of his grandfather, Clayton decides to run away and join the Blues Men on the road. Thus begins his adventure in the rich musical culture of New York's underground.

Here is a book that is likely to be on a lot of potential Newbery lists this fall and a shoe in for the Correttta Scott King award. Williams-Garcia is a wonderful word-crafter, and has created totally authentic and sympathetic characters of Clayton, his grandfather and his mother.  She also captures the heart of blues music and the vibrancy of both past and modern urban culture. The thing is, I don't think it will be an easy sell to kids, especially in my community.  The blues and hip hop culture are pretty foreign to them.  I will see what I can do.(166 p.)