Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Icefall by Matthew Kirby

Solveig is the second daughter of an influential  old Norse war lord/chief.  As the story starts, Solveig and her younger brother and older sister are sent to a secluded lodge at the base of a glacier  as a safety precaution while their father fights the clan of one of the older sister's disgruntled suitors. The children are accompanied by some servants and guards.  Soon after they arrive, more of their father's men join them; the elite berserkers who are their father's most valued fighting men, and their father's bard.  As winter ice seals the water passage to the lodge, it soon becomes apparent that there is a traitor in their midst.  The interaction between the unlikely lodge-mates, each suspecting the other of fowl play, forms the main tension in the story. Solveig, always overshadowed by her more beautiful older sister, and protective of her younger brother, makes friends with both the  bard, and the berserker chief. The relationships between the characters are deliciously complicated.  Solveig wants to trust the other lodgers, but she also fears for her own and her family's safety.  The book is at once and action adventure, a mystery, and a coming of age story. 
I think if I had read the book instead of listening to it, it might have ended up on my starred review list.  Unfortunately, I think the performance of the recorded book dampened my appreciation of the story.  The reader is one of these woman who have a very young sounding voice.  She did a great job interpreting Solveig, the other female characters, and even some of the male characters.  But her performance of the bard character, who ends up being a kind of mentor to Solveig, just didn't work.  He is supposed to be a engaging performer and story teller, but the voice she chose for him made him sound like a whiny prig.  For the first half of the book, I pictured him that way.  Then I began to realize that he was supposed to be charming and persuasive, not ridiculous.  Once I got his character switched in my head, and mentally substituted a different voice for him, the story made a lot more sense. In a nut shell, I recommend the book, but not really the recording.  (325 p)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Countdown by Deborah Wiles

In 1962 the Cuban missile crisis scared the begeebees out of every American.  What was it like to be a child back then? That is the question Wiles endeavors to answer in this  historical fiction/documentary.  Franny Chapman's father is a military pilot stationed in Virginia.  Franny's sister is just starting college and her little brother wants to be an astronaut.  Franny's uncle has serious PTS from WWII and is a source of extreme embarrassment to Franny when he starts to dig a bomb shelter in her front yard.  Then on October 16th J F Kennedy makes his historic announcement that Cuba has nuclear missiles pointed at the US.  All her other problems pale as she contemplates the possibility that she won't live to see her next Halloween. Between chapters of the story, Wiles inserts historical facts and culture bits reflecting the mood of the 60's.  There is a lot about how children were taught to duck and cover if there were a bombing.  There are also fairly long excerpts from Kennedy's speeches, and extended biographies of prominent historical figures of the time period.  It was all well written and tightly woven together.  It brought  back memories from my early childhood in the 60's.  Yet, with all that, I didn't like the book.  I have been trying to figure out why and I think I have it.  The tension never lets up.  It just builds and builds and the reader gets emotionally tired.  I think Wiles was trying to recreate the tension everyone felt during the crisis, but who wants to relive a crisis? Wiles needs to take a lesson from Shakespeare.  He always follows his most emotionally intense scenes with a bit a comic relief.  That is what this book needed.  It needed a bit of comic relief. That is just my opinion.  Two of my librarian friends at work loved it, and another couldn't get through it, so it was an even split.(377 p)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Sammy Keyes and the Night of the Skulls by Wendelin Van Draanen is another long series that I have thoroughly enjoyed.  The first book in the series, Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief,  is actually my least favorite.  Ms Van Draanen had a little difficulty settling into the characters.  But by the second book, things were off and running. So if you want to start the series, know that it is worth plowing through the first one to get to the others. The premise is that Sammy is an early teen (preteen in the first book) who lives with her grandmother in a senior high rise.  The fact that she lives there has to remain a secret because the place is government subsidized for seniors only.  Sammy has to sneak up and down the fire escape, sleep on the couch, and hide all her stuff so anyone visiting during the day won't suspect.  Sammy is a modern Nancy Drew.  Somehow she manages to get involved with one major criminal investigation after another.  Like Nancy Drew she has a cast of friends that help her with her cases.  A nice thing about the books, is that Ms Van Draanen uses the stories to take on interesting social and ethical questions.  In this one Sammy and her friends take a short cut through a grave yard on Halloween night and come across a grave robber.  During the adventure Sammy becomes acquainted with different cultural traditions surrounding death, like the Mexican Day of the Dead and Brazilian Day of Skulls.  It is a side theme, and Ms Van Draanen is good about not making the "morals" heavy handed, but just having them develop naturally with the plot.  The books have fun adventure, snappy dialog and interesting mysteries.  I do have to put in a caveat.  About half way through the series, Sammy acquires a boyfriend.  They don't do anything but an occasional hug or kiss, but 13 is pretty young, in my opinion, for even that level of intimacy. (304 p.)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ranger's Apprentice Book 8: the Kings of Clonmel by John Flanagan

My 15 year old son heard me listening to this book on CD and asked what I was listening to.  When I told him he scrunched his eyebrows and cocked his head.  "Really?  Have you listened to all the others, too?"  I had to admit that I had.  "But, mom, they are like: And then he drew his broad sword with one smooth motion and blocked the killing strike just inches from his head." (this he said in a mock-serious narrator voice) "I know." I said, "But I just like them."  

Of course that made me think: why have I enjoyed this series enough that I am on # 8 and still going strong.  I think the key is strong, interesting characters.  Halt, Will, and Horace are all different, but well defined and likable.  They are like the Harry Potter characters in that way.  I feel like I know them, and often when they do something in the story, I think to myself, "oh, yeah, it is just like Horace to do something like that."  Even the secondary figures are well drawn.  Alice, Gilian, Baron Arald, Lady Pauline, etc all have unique personalities.

The story lines are good, too.  OK, I have to admit the general story line is pretty much the same each time.  They go out on an adventure, and they meet the bad guys.  They seem to lose ground, but come out on top in the end.  But there is quite a bit of variation.  Flanagan takes on different social issues in each book. In this episode, Halt goes back to the country where he was born.  We find out that he really is from the royal family of Clonmel, and why he had to leave. Flanagan also deals with religious scams and explores how and why they work.   Flanagan's pacing is good.  He includes interesting details about being a ranger and a warrior. The reader of the recorded version, John Keating, is fun to listen to because he is good with accents. It was a fun book, and a great series for the kind of kids who breeze through a couple of fantasy books a week.   Hey, this series will keep them busy for a month or more. (358 p)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer by John Grisham

As I perused the shelf at the library I saw this book and thought, "Wow, I didn't know John Grisham wrote anything for kids."  John Grisham, of course, is a hugely famous writer of legal thrillers.  Several of his books have been made in movies, and he has sold hundreds of millions of copies world wide. But being a good writer for adults doesn't necessarily make you a good writer for children, as this book proves. 

In this book, Theodore is the son of two lawyers.  He has grown up hanging around the court house, and is obsessed with the law and everything related to court.  It is an interesting and fresh premise.  I think the problem is that Mr. Grisham knows the law too well.  He asked himself, "what could a child realistically do to influence a real court case?", and the answer is, "not much."  That is exactly what Theodore does.  He gives legal advice to his friends whose dogs get caught by animal control, or whose parents are in foreclosure. But in the main case of the book, a murder trial, the whole book consists of him trying to get the courage to tell someone that he knows of a surprise witness.  Once he does, the adults take over, and he watches as they resolve the issue.  It is all very reasonable and realistic, but not very interesting. There is even a goon in the book, that suspects that Theodore is about to ruin his client's defense, but all he does is glare at the boy.  He doesn't even say anything threatening. Anyway, there is probably some boy, just like Theodore, who is a total legal geek, who will love this book. Most young readers would do better with Alex Rider, or Sammy Keyes. (263 p)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Winterling by Sarah Prineas

Jennifer, called Fer, rides a regular school bus to a regular school, like any other girl.  But she has always felt more at home in the forest around the farm where she lives with her grandmother.  One day she saves a strange boy from a pack of wolves.  The boy, Robin, is from another world, and Fer follows him back through "the way" to the place where her mother had been the true lady of the land.  Now that world is threatened by an evil force, and the longer Fer stays there, the more she realizes that it is her job to cleanse the land of the evil and set things to rights. This is a good, standard kind of strong girl fantasy.  Fer starts out as an unruly kid who doesn't fit but as the story progresses she gradually comes to recognize and accept her own power and the responsibility that goes with it.  She is  a likable character, and one that fantasy-loving girls will easily relate with.  The writing is fairly good, too, with nice description and flow.  The story ends, but is clearly the first of a series. (265  p)