Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Seance by Ian Lawrence

I have been a fan of Ian Lawrence for a long time. One of my favorite books ever is his Lord of the Nutcracker Men. Ian Lawrence is good at writing suspense and this book is full of it. A boy, Scooter, is the son of a Madam King, Physic Medium. It is Scooter's job to be behind the scenes, making the special effects that make his mother's seances realistic. One day Harry Houdini comes to town. Scooter thinks Houdini is the "bees knees" but Houdini has a vendetta against fake mediums. Houdini and Scooter strike up a strange friendship and end up working together to solve a murder. Lawrence does a great job capturing the atmosphere of the 1920's and the mania of the Houdini craze. The story is full of great 1920's characters and the descriptions of how both Scooter and Houdini put on their performances is fascinating. The plot is really well constructed, with clues and red herrings in every chapter. This is a great choice for someone who needs to read a historical fiction, but isn't a huge historical fiction fan. Too bad it has such an unfortunate cover. (262 p)

100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson

Sorry I haven't posted in a while, but I had 5 SLJ reviews due yesterday and that ate up all my spare time. I have been reading/listening to some good books so I will try to get caught up today.

This book started a little slow, but once it got going it was a decent fantasy/mystery. A boy, Henry, goes to live with his aunt, uncle, and female cousins because his parents have been kidnapped while working as archaeologists in a foreign country. He is given the attic for his bedroom and a few nights after he moves in chunks of plaster start falling off the wall and Henry discovers 99 cupboards hidden underneath the plaster. With the help of his slightly pushy and adventurous cousin, Henrietta, he discovers that each cupboard is the door to another world. Unwittingly, by unlocking the cupboards, he lets evil forces into his own world, and he finds himself in a battle to save his family. Since this is the first is a trilogy, Henry's victory at the end of the book is only a partial one. This is a pretty standard upper grade school fantasy. I like the idea of the cupboards as a mode of transportation to another world. It is reminiscent of the Narnian wardrobe. I also really liked the personality of the Uncle. At one point he is trying to get into a locked door. He starts out with tools, moves on to an ax and finally a chain saw. It made me laugh out loud. I totally know men who would do that. (289 p)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Secret Kingdom by Jenny Nimmo

This is the first book in a spin off series from the Charlie Bone series. Charlie Bone was one of those series that appeared at the height of the Harry Potter craze. Charlie finds out that he has magical powers, so he gets sent to a school for magical people--sound familiar? I only got through 2 of the Charlie Bone books, but when this new series came out I thought I would give it a try, especially since I had just read two realistic fiction books full of social issues and I was ready for a fantasy. This series explores the life story of the "Red King" a legendary figure in the Charlie Bone world. It is a B level fantasy. There is not much character development, but the story has a lot of elements that young fantasy readers enjoy. Timoken and his sister Zobayda grow up as the prince and princess of a hidden kingdom. They have to flee for their lives when their kingdom is invaded by evil demons looking for a magical artifact that was given to Timoken at his birth. The rest of the book Timoken and his sister wander around the world, discovering new magical talents as they go, looking for a true home. The plot is probably more interesting if you read all of the Charlie Bone books, but I haven't and I still thought it was OK. ( 207 p)

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Danger Box by Blue Balliett

Blue Balliett (pronounced bal ee et) first burst on the children's book market with her very successful mystery novel Chasing Vermeer. That was followed by two sequels. In some ways this new book is very much like the other series. In all of them children come across a mystery related to a famous historical artifact that is in peril. Through research and spunk the children solve the mystery and save the artifact. I think this book, The Danger Box, is her best yet. It is not part of the earlier series and has a whole new cast of characters. The main character in this book is fascinating, and really likeable. Zoomy is a 12 year old boy with some kind of mental handicap, maybe Aspergers, and a vision problem. Abandoned by his mother at birth, he lives with his grandparents in a small town. This boy has a challenge living in a world where sudden changed upset him, and he can only see things that are very close to his face. With the help of loving grandparents, who teach him coping skills and build a safe haven around him, he is able to be high functioning. Of course, that is what I, as an adult, see in the book. Younger readers will watch while he, and his new friend, Lorrol, unravel the mystery surrounded an old notebook, and save it from disappearing into the hands of a thief. If you are the kind of parent or teacher who wants their child to learn something from what they read, this is a great choice. It is tough to write a book that is both educational and really and truly entertaining, but Balliett pulls it off here. (306 p)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Pam Muñoz Ryan is an amazing crafter of words. She is a word artist, and it is probably nowhere more apparent than in this book. Why do the best writers always write sad books? This is a historical/biographical fiction based on the life of a famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Neruda was an assumed name. As a child he was called Neftali Reyes. In the book Neftali is a very shy sensitive boy. He lives with a loving stepmother, but a harsh, overbearing father. The relationship between father and son is achingly painful and all too realistic. Ryan manages to make it clear that the father really does love his son, and wants the best for him, but what he thinks is the best is to toughen the boy so he will survive in the adult world. In reality he crushes the boy's spirit, so Neftali cannot even talk to his father without stuttering. The Father heaps on him verbal abuse and makes him do things that are physically and emotionally battering. The boy is terrified of his father, but still wants to win his approval. Ryan's portrayal captures the complicated mix of emotions so that it rends your heart strings. Since Neftali grows up to be a famous poet, Ryan infuses the narrative with poetry--some of her own and some of Neruda's. It would take a very sensitive child to enjoy this book, but I think many adults would appreciate the honesty and artistry of the writing. (376 p)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Buttermilk Hill by Ruth White

It is sad that there are so many books about kids dealing with divorce. About 40% of all marriages in the US have ended in divorce, so I guess it really is a situation that a lot of kids deal with. In this book, set in the 1970's, Piper thinks her life is just about ideal. She lives in a small town wither her father and mother, and near her grandparents and her best friend, who is also her aunt. Then one day her father leaves and Piper's family slowly falls apart. I like the way the character deals with the divorce. She doesn't whack out or do anything mean or stupid. She is hurt by each of her parents, but she deals with her hurt by calling on friends and extended family for support. The book follows Piper for a number of years, and shows that things really do get easier to deal with over time. I think this is a good book to share with a child who is dealing with a divorce situation, either their own, or a friend's situation. (167 p.)