Sunday, April 24, 2011

George Washington: Spy Master by Thomas B Allen

This book got a lot of attention when it came out in 2004, and won several awards, but somehow I never got around to reading it until now. I am glad I did. This is a great historical nonfiction about the spy networks the George Washington set up during the Revolutionary War. The author has written numerous books about both the Revolutionary War and the spying. In this book he brings the two interests together and he clearly knows what he is talking about. He puts the things that Washington did in terms of modern FBI/CIA terminology. So kids who are already into the whole spy lingo, will love reading history, and the kids who love history will learn all the cool spy lingo. There are lots interesting stories about daring spies and spy missions. I especially liked the stories of what some of the women did to help the intelligence operations. One mother wrote little reports and then sewed them into the covered buttons on her son's coat. All he had to do to deliver the message was tear off his buttons and hand them to the commanding officer. Another lady had a laundry code. Each handkerchief she hung up on the clothesline represented so many British troops quartered in her village. Allen is meticulous with his sources. He clearly states when facts come from documents or other reliable sources, or just stories passed down through families. This is a great choice for an upper grade school or junior high boy or girl who has to read a nonfiction book over 150 pages. (184 p)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Raiders Ransom by Emily Diamond

20 years ago, when a book was written about post-apocalyptic earth, the cause of the apocalypse was always nuclear war. Now there is a new favorite world altering force: global warming the subsequent continental flooding. We saw it in the book I reviewed in January, Darklife by Kat Falls, and we see it again here. The cover of the book is unfortunate, because if you read the book without looking at the cover, you don't know that Lily lives in a future time until about 1/4 way through the book. The cover it a bit of a spoiler. In this book Lily is an orphaned girl in a primitive fishing village. While she is out in her boat with her seacat, Cat, the village is attacked by raiders. They are looking for a "jewel" but find, instead, the prime minister's daughter, and kidnap her. The prime minister becomes angry with the little village for not protecting his daughter (who was in the town on vacation) and vows to take revenge on the whole village if she is not rescued. Lily, the plucky orphan, heroically, if naively, decides to take the jewel to the raiders as ransom for the girl, and thus save her village. Of course, her plans are not as simple as she had hoped, and she ends up in the middle of an international incident. She survives in the end, but just barely. The final battle scene is rather graphic for a children's novel, with a fairly high body count. Besides that, it was a decent sci/fi. Lily and her friends are likable and interesting. Diamond does a good job making both heroes and villains multidimensional and well motivated. The depiction of partially submerged London is not a vivid as in some other similar novels I have read, but it isn't a major part of the story. The book only partially ends, and now I have to decide to read the sequel right away, or wait a while and come back to it. (334 p)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry

I am not the kind of reader who wants to always read the same genre. After I read a few realistic fictions, I am itching to find a good fantasy. This one fit the bill pretty well. 15 year old Lucinda lives with a cruel aunt and a hen pecked uncle who own a gold smith shop. One day a mysterious lady drops off a rare and beautiful gem to be reset. Unfortunately, before the job can be done the uncle dies and the mean aunt kicks Lucinda out of the house. As Lucinda sets out to try to return the gem, she enters into an adventure that brings her in contact with a thief, a prince, and an amazing being from another world. This book has all the elements that pre-teen/teen fantasy-loving girls could want: a handsome prince, pretty dresses, a ball and a great cover. I laughed when I read a nod to Cinderella. As Lucinda escapes the ball, her slipper falls off while she runs down the stairs. But instead of leaving it there, she reaches down, and puts it back on her foot. Good girl : ). I found this book in the YA section, but there is nothing in here that would be inappropriate for younger readers. (308 p)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Harris and Me by Gary Paulsen

Gary Paulsen is nothing if not a great story teller. This is a story of a boy in late 1940's from an alcoholic home that goes to live with his country cousins for the summer. He has a cousin about his own age named Harris, and together they get into all kinds of trouble. Harris has an active imagination, and a marked lack of common sense. They end up trying crazy things, like jumping from a hay loft onto the back of a plow horse trying to be like Gene Autry, and hooking the clothes washer engine onto their old bike to make a makeshift motor cycle. The two boys just about kill themselves a dozen times but everything ends with a laugh until the magical summer is over and the main character has to return to his drunken parents.

This book comes with a huge caveat. It has every kind of potty humor you could imagine. Both boys get numerous groin injuries and land in endless piles of animal dung. Harris swears just about every sentence, mostly damn's. At one point one challenges the other to pee on an electric fence. This is not a book for the prim of heart. But, if you can bear the crudeness, it is pretty funny and 5th and 6th grade boys would love it.

Gary Paulsen spoke at the Provo Library last summer. I wouldn't be surprised if the book is partly autobiographical. His parents were alcoholic and abusive. He ran away frequently and lived in the woods by himself as soon as he could manage to survive alone. I hope he did get one good summer with a kind family and a crazy cousin.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Water Seeker by Kimberly Willis Holt

There is a reason Kimberly Willis Holt has a list of awards as long as your arm. She is an amazing writer. Her language is so lyrical, it almost floats like music on a breeze. It is like a smell that suddenly transports you back to your mom's kitchen years ago. (I am having trouble finding words to describe this, can you tell.) This book is so vivid and sweet, and at the same time achingly sad, I don't think I could ever recommend it to a child. There is no way that a child could comprehend or appreciate the depth of emotion portrayed in the book. You have to go through a few things in your own life before you can appreciate a book like this.

It is the story of a boy, Amos, who lives in the 1830's. His father is a trapper, and his mother dies in child birth. The boy is passed from one mother figure to another and each one loves him in her own way. It seems you are just getting to know and love his current mother figure when she is ripped away from him. Finally he and his father arrange to help lead a group of pioneers west on the Oregon trail. The second half of the book is an account of their adventures and trials on the trail. (spoiler allert!) During the trip he meets a girl his own age who has a disfigured face. At first he is repulsed by her appearance, but as he gets to know her, he honestly can no longer see her scars and she becomes beautiful to him. It is so sweet it makes your heart ache. I listened to the recorded version of the book and the voice actor is excellent. I think the recording itself won several awards. At one point I came home from work, made a lunch, and then took it out to the car to eat it so I could keep listening to the story. Anyway, I was really touched by the book, but I don't think it is for anyone under the age of 30. (309 p)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline by Nancy Springer

This is the fifth book in the Enola Holmes series. I really like this series and have read them all. The premise for the series is that Sherlock Holmes has a much younger sister. When their mother runs away, Sherlock and his brother, Microft, want to put 14 year old Enola into a boarding school. Enola, however, shrinks from the idea of learning stitchery and wearing a corset. Instead she runs away and with the help of some clever disguises, sets herself up as a private investigator. As such she often ends up working on the same cases as her famous brother, but has to avoid contact with him to maintain her freedom. In this episode, her kindly land lady receives a mysterious and threatening letter, and then is abducted. Enola follows the clues to the home of the aged Florence Nightingale. With Nightingale's help, Enola uncovers a plot that reaches high into the ranks of the House of Lords. I like these books because they are intelligent. Enola is intelligent and the story is told in an intelligent way. The reader thrills at the cleverness, and feels smarter for having read the book. I also like that Spinger includes many interesting and well researched details of what life was like for a woman during the late 1800's. Often Enola succeeds where her brother fails because she understands ideas and objects related to females, that Sherlock misses. Often when you have a strong woman character, she succeeds by acting like a man. In this book Enola is strong, but remains truly feminine. These are great for 4-6 grade girls. (160 p)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Crunch by Leslie Connor

Dewey Mariss lives with his parents, two sisters and two brothers on a small farm right off of a highway in New England. They run a bike shop on the side to help add a little extra cash. When his parents go away for a little trip they leave Dewey and his older sister Lil in charge. While the parents are gone, there is a fuel crunch. Suddenly there is no gasoline at the gas stations. The parents are stranded away from home with no way to get back. The bike shop, on the other hand, is booming because everyone needs bikes for transportation. Dewey and Lil have to take the role of parents to get the family through the crisis, but as they face mounting fix-it orders, and disappearing bike parts, it starts to get too big for two teenagers to handle. The book has an interesting premise. What would happen if suddenly all the gasoline ran out? How would people react and what would they do to get by? The problems and solutions in the book, however, are too easy. If that were to really happen I think people would react much more drastically than they did in the book. Dewey and Lil are model kids. They are responsible, sensitive to their siblings needs and kind to their grumpy neighbor. It is all a little too picture perfect to be believable, but it was an OK story that brought up some interesting issues. (330 p)