Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Red Blazer Girls : the ring of Rocamadour by Michael D. Beil.

How many of you ladies out there used to read Nancy Drew novels when you were young? I read a few of them, but I knew girls who read one after another. Edward Stratemeyer who started the Nancy Drew series (Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym, the books were written by ghost writers) really hit on a formula that set the standard for girl detective novels ever since. Now every new girl detective series is compared to Nancy Drew. This is a girl detective book that, in many ways, feels like a modernization of Nancy Drew. There are important differences. In the Nancy Drew novels, Nancy really was center stage. She had some friends, but they were always in the background. In this book, even though the story is narrated by Sophie, her friends, Margaret, Rebecca and Leigh Anne play pretty equal roles in solving the mystery. In some ways the brainy one, Margaret, is the leading sleuth, and Sophie is along for the ride. In this first installment of their adventures they are asked by an old lady to solve a 20 year old mystery that will lead them to the hiding place of a valuable historical and religious artifact. Of course, there are those who try to stop them. The girls use their wits, and their considerable academic knowledge to solve the puzzle. One thing I like about this book is that the girls actually ask for help from adults that they trust. They don't do stupid things, like go into a dangerous situation without any adult knowing what they are up to. In so many children's detective novels, the kids go off and do things alone because they don't think any adults would believe them. The teacher in this book not only believes the girls, but is eager to get involved. The whole mystery in this book was a little contrived--OK, so it was a lot contrived-- but I enjoyed it anyway. It was intelligent and the girls in the book were likable. I will probably read more in the series some time. (299 p.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Best Birthday Ever, by Charise Mericle Harper

Here is another picture book. It is Lana Kittie's birthday and she feels like the queen of the world. Yet Lana knows that a birthday is more fun if everyone, including the birthday girl uses their best manners. This is a great book to read a week before a child's birthday party. Lana Kittie demonstrates appropriate ( and inappropriate) ways to greet guests at the door, show appreciation for a gifts and other essential birthday behaviors. She also suggests that the birthday child practice birthday behaviors with stuffed animals and other toys before the big event. Harper illustrates the book with very fun and feminine cartoons of Lana Kittie and her toy friends. There is even glitter on the bow on the cover. This book is likely to appeal to the children who enjoy Fancy Nancy and is a great way to get a preschool-2nd grade girl ready for the big day.

The Prophecy of the Stones by Flavia Bujor

This is a story within a story. On one level there is a teenage girl in Paris who is dying of some undisclosed disease. The rest of the story is the dreams of this dying girl. The dream is about three girls who are given magic stones and destined to save the fantasy world from domination of the council of 12. This part of the story is pretty stereotypical B level fantasy. The girls find out that their parents are not really their parents. They discover that they are the subject of prophecy. They must go on a perilous journey. At first they don't get along, but they gradually become friends. Two of the girls meet dashing young warriors and fall in love at first sight. Their trials teach them to recognize their true gift, and that helps them save the world. It is really cheesy. The thing that kept me going was the side story of the sick girl in the hospital room in Paris. I couldn't really see how the author was going to resolve that. In the end she didn't. She left it hanging without any real resolution. It kind of bewildered me until I realized that the book was a translation from French. Americans expect a certain kind of plot shape from a fantasy book, but in other countries, they are OK with different kind of plot shapes. Still, I feel like I need to go watch a Disney flick so I can get a dose of "happily ever after." (386 p.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bad News for Outlaws by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Right now at the library where I work we are getting ready for an event called "Big Guy/Little Guy Wild West Adventure." In conjunction with the event I have a western cowboy display in one of the display cases and this is one of the books in the display. I love picture book biographies. They give just about right amount of information I want to know about a person. This one is about a Federal Marshal in the Indian Territories in the late 1800's. It is a fun book. It is written like a tall tale, with lots of superlatives and western jargon so it would be hard to read it out loud without assuming a western twang. But in reality, the facts portrayed in the book are true. Bass Reeves was an incredible marshal, using stratagem and even disguises to "get his man." He was also a religious man and always preached repentance to the criminals while he was bringing them in. He was a marshal for about 30 years, and brought about 3000 criminals to jail. In that time he only had to kill 14 of them. It is illustrated with great oils. It has more words per page than a typical picture book, so it takes maybe an hour to read, but it could be read in multiple sittings. It is a great choice for any little cow poke. (unpaginated)

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater

Daniel Pinkwater has written a lot of both novels and picture books, and they all have a quirky sense of humor. This book is no different. It starts out with a boy traveling across the country by train with his family in the 1940's. The family is moving to California, but on the way Ned accidentally gets left behind in Arizona. While there a Indian Shaman gives him a small stone turtle, and he meets up with a famous movie star, patterned after Errol Flynn, and his son. Then things start getting weird. He makes friends with a ghost at the hotel and the ghost accompanies him, and the Flinns to meet his parents in Los Angelos. In LA Ned begins to understand that his turtle is very ancient and very valuable. As the keeper of the turtle he is the chosen hero who must save the world. Of course he has no idea how to do that, but the Shaman, who followed him to LA tells him not to worry about the details. The thing about this book is that it is never serious. The reader never feels that Ned or his friends are in any real danger. Instead they are just a bunch of kids who are having the lark of their life. Cool things keep happening to them and they are loving it. This is a lighthearted and fun read with lots of interesting facts about turtle myths, and life in 1940's LA. (307 p)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Operation Yes by Sara Lewis Holmes

I have often wondered what happens to children when their custodial parent gets called up for a tour of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan or some other hostile environment. Where do the kids go and who takes care of them? In this book, Gari's mother gets called to work in a field hospital in Iraq (the father is no longer in the picture), and Gari must leave her home and all her plans for her first year of Junior High and move to North Carolina to live with her cousin. At first she makes plans to get her mother to come back. She considers faking a serious illness, or staging a shocking anti-war protest. When the brother of her charismatic 6th grade teacher is severely wounded in Afghanistan, Gari, and her cousin, Bo (whose father is also facing an overseas deployment) team up to do something big to help their teacher. This book reminds me of a Andrew Clements book (e.g. Frindle, or the School Story). It is about children that are able to accomplish something amazing. In a way, it is deeper than the Clements books because Holmes explores the feelings and conflicts of her characters much more thoroughly than Clements does. Gari and Bo are very believable 12 year olds, and even the minor characters have clear and unique personalities. I also liked the fact that Holmes deals with the fear and anxiety faced by military kids, but nobody actually dies (a rarity in realistic fiction). This is a good choice for kids who have connections to the military, or for anyone who is looking for a realistic contemporary fiction with a feel good message. (234 p)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Whenever there is a major world event, it is inevitable that in a few years there will be children's fiction written about the event. This book is set in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina. Lanesha is a 12 year old orphan who lives with the old midwife who delivered her. Both she and her guardian have special gifts. 82 year old Mama Ya-Ya can sense things in the future, and read signs in nature. Lanesha sees the ghosts that exist all around her, including the ghost of her own mother who died in child birth. As Mama Ya-Ya senses the coming catastrophe she helps prepare Lanesha for the crisis. Lanesha gains strength from her friends, both living and dead, to get through the terrible events of September 2005. This book is at both times realistic and surreal. The depiction of the part of New Orleans where Lanesha lives, the Nineth Ward, is vivid and true to life (though a little idealized). Reading Rhodes description of the coming of the hurricane took me back to when I was living in Florida during Hurricane Frederic. Rhodes descriptions of sounds and colors and smell matched my own experience. Lanesha's experience, however, was, I believe, not typical of most Katrina survivors. Most did not have a clairvoyant warning them to move to the attic, or grab certain supplies. I liked the book, and the relationship between Lanesha and her guardian is very sweet, but I wonder how someone who really lived through the event, without the supernatural help, would feel about the story. (217 p)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Take Me to the River by Will Hobbs

This brand new Will Hobbs books unites two of the author's favorite themes, a love for the South West and a love of rivers. In the book two cousins meet in Texas and take a river trip down the Rio Grande. The story is set against the backdrop of the drug cartel violence in Mexico. While on the river the boys encounter a cartel hit man who tries to get them to help him escape capture. They also happen to be running the river in the middle of a major tropical storm. Flash floods and automatic pistols combine to make the adventure one wild ride. Hobbs action writing and descriptions of the beauty and awesome forces of nature are excellent. As always with Will Hobbs books, the boys are way more skilled and courageous than 15 year olds have a right to be. That said, the boy characters are very likable. Neither of them suffer from major character flaws, and they get along really well together. It was refreshing to read a teen novel completely devoid of adolescent angst and dysfunctional family life. This would be a great book to recommend to reluctant reader boys ages 10+. (192 p)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Starcross by Philip Reeve

This is the sequel to Larklight that I reviewed in January. Both books are in the "Steam Punk" kind of genre, i.e. books about science fiction set in the 1800's, and both books are silly fun. In this second harrowing adventure Myrle and Art Mumby, with their not quite human mother, take a vacation at an asteroid resort called Starcross. While there they run into the dashing Jack Havoc and his crew who now work for the British Secret Service, and together they foil the designs of a bunch of top hat shaped aliens who want to take over the solar system. Even though I didn't like it quite as well as the first book in the series, it was the perfect level of light fun that I needed during what was otherwise a very intense and slightly distressing week. (368 p)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Alice Rose & Sam by Kathryn Lasky

I felt bad for dis-ing historical fiction in my blog about Thousand Shades of Gray. so I read another historical fiction. This one is a historical mystery set in Virginia City, Navada during the silver boom days. Like so many historical fictions, it starts with the death of the main character's mother. (When Katherine Patterson visited the Provo Library some time ago someone asked her why parents die so often in Historical Fiction. She replied that you have to get the parents out of the way so that the children can face real dangers. If parents are in the picture, the children are protected and protected children don't have very interesting adventures.) Alice Rose's father is not very attentive to his daughter, so Alice Rose has to find her own way and place in the world. While visiting her mother's grave, she witnesses a murder. Soon after she meets a young reporter, and together they try to make sense out of the crime and figure out how it is connected with and other suspicious things that have been going on. It doesn't take the reader long to discover that the reporter, named Sam, it really Samuel Clemens. I think that Lasky searched through volumes of Clemens' actual quotes and tried to work as many into the story ask she could. As a result the Sam in the book really does reflect a lot of the attitudes of the the real Sam Clemens (aka Mark Twain). The character comes across as is very cynical, anti-religion, and not very complimentary to Mormons. It bothered me a bit, but if you can get past that, then the story and the mystery are well crafted. Lasky populates the story will very dimensional and interesting characters. Even the secondary and minor characters seem like real people. She does a good job of giving enough clues to the mystery that you suspect the outcome, but are not sure of it until the end. The descriptions of life in a Navada mining town of 1850 are honest and vivid. All in all it wasn't a bad read, but not necessarily one I am going to recommend to all my young teen friends. (252 p)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

If The Walls Could Talk, by Jane O'Connor, and So You Want to Be President? by Judith St. George

I know I am a little late for President's day, but here are two great informational picture books about the U.S. Presidents.

If The Walls Could Talk
Actually, this isn't technically about the presidents, It is about the White House. Each page talks about some aspect of life in the White House, like pets who lived there, or parties, weddings and baby's births, and then tells trivia about different presidents related to those topics. It is interesting to read and the pictures are amusing. The illustrator uses a style often used by political cartoonist. The president's heads are oversized in relation to their bodies, but are very recognizable caricatures.

So You Want to Be President
This was the 2001 Caldecott Medal winner. It is also arranged by topic. Each spread starts with, "If you want to be president..." and continues with statements like, "It would be good to be named James. 5 presidents had the first name James" etc. This one is really well written. It not only communicates facts about presidents, but challenges readers to think about the implications of the facts. For example, it says, "If you want to be president you don't have to be handsome. Some of our best presidents were the least handsome." (I am paraphrasing because I don't have the book in front of me.) The only problem with the book is that it is beginning to be outdated. Near the last spread it says, "No woman or African American has ever been president" which is now only half true.

So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane

This is not a new book. In fact it has been around long enough it can almost be called a classic, and I thought it was about time that I finally read it. Nita is a book worm, a misfit and a frequent victim of a neighborhood bully. One day while hiding from the bully in the public library, she comes across a book titled, "So You Want to Be a Wizard." As she starts to read, she begins to wonder if it is not a joke. Then she meets Kit, who also has a copy of the book. Together they are catapulted into a harrowing adventure where trees and cars can talk, and they meet the universe's most deadly force. There are two really nice things about this book. One is that the magic system is unusual and interesting. The other is the friendship relationship that develops between Nita and Kit as they gradually learn to use their powers and overcome their fears. It is the first in a long series, I think 7 at the last count. I have heard (from Benjamin who has read them all) that they get darker as the series progresses. This book has a satisfying enough ending that is does work as a stand alone. (369 p)