Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Trouble-Maker by Andrew Clements

I am a fan of Andrew Clements.  I read just about everything I find that was written by him.  His books are short, and very readable.  They are all about young people, usually in 6th grade, who somehow realize they can do something extraordinary or change their life in some way.  There is always an adult involved, who ends up either mentoring the kid, or changing their own bad personality trait because of the child's example.  That basic plot summary fits Frindle, The School Story, The Landry News, and many others. It is a basic plot summary of this one as well.  Clay has been a troublemaker throughout grade school.  His pranks are mostly harmless, but earn him frequent visits to the principal's office.  Then one day Clay's brother, Matt, gets out of jail, and informs Clay that he is going to turn around his life, so that he never has to go through what he just went through.  Matt gets him to cut his hair, and buys him a new wardrobe.  Clay admires his brother enough that he promises to try to stop causing trouble at school.  It isn't easy.  His best friend has always been his willing accomplice in his pranks, and is not sure he likes the new, straight-laced Clay. Even though this is so much like Clements' other books, his character writing is such that the reader soon finds himself cheering for Clay, and hoping that the principal with give him the break he needs to go forward with his new resolve. Where as the last review, The Swallows and the Amazons, was a low/high book, this one is a good high/low (high age, low reading level) option.  A fifth or sixth grader could read and enjoy the story, even though it is closer to a 3rd or 4th grade reading level. (140 p.)

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

This book was an interesting discovery.  It was written in 1930 and is the first in a long series of books featuring a group of four siblings of the last name Walker.  In this book, the four children are staying at a lake with their mother and baby sister while their father is away at sea.  The children get permission to use a small sailing boat and camp out on a small island in the lake.  When they arrive at the island, they discover that someone had camped there before.  They soon meet the previous inhabitants, the Blackett girls, and they all become fast friends and have wonderful adventures together.

As with most books I review, I experienced this one as a recorded book.  The recording was made in 2008, so at first I didn't realize this was an old classic.  It didn't take long listening to figure out that this book could not have been written and published in the last decade.  The children do and are allowed to do things that would never be considered appropriate today.  I guess parents are much more protective now then they were 70 years ago.  For example, when they smallest boy, who we presume is about 6, finally learns to swim on his own, his mother gives him his first pocket knife as a reward. Can you imagine a book written today where a mother gives a 6 year old a pocket knife?

Another old fashion element of the story is how proper the children are, and completely without fault.  They are never tempted to be bad, and are always respectful and responsible.  Their adventures are pretty tame as well.  They get in a storm,  they get lost on the lake at night, but they are never really in danger.

Anyway, it was delightful read, with an innocence reminiscent of the Box Car Children or Little Women.  It would be a great book for a Low/High reader.  (351 p.)

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whelan Turner

This is the final book in one of my favorite series.  I had heard from my kids who had already read it, that is book was not as good as the The King of Attolia (how could it be?) but it is still a solid end to the series. I think I agree.  This book follows the adventures of Gen's friend, Sophos, as he is kidnapped and then sold into slavery, only to escape and ultimately claim his rightful place of ruler of his kingdom.  OK, that is a bit of a spoiler, but it isn't that he does it, but how, that makes this an interesting read.  If you like the political intrigue and maneuvering of the King of Attolia, then you will enjoy this book as well.  The place where this book falls behind the others in the series is that it is about Sophos and he just isn't as interesting as Gen is in the other books. But what could Ms Turner do? Gen is one of the most interesting characters of all teen literature. He is a pretty hard act to follow.  This book does provide an important final chapter to Gen's story, so read it, understanding what it is, and isn't, and then you won't be disappointed. (316 p)

Young Fredle by Cynthia Voigt

I am always on the look out for low age, high reading level books, and this is a great one. Fredle is a kitchen mouse who spends his days in a nest behind the utility closet, and his nights foraging on the kitchen floor.  He is very cautious, and timid, but he has a friend, Axle, who is more adventurous. One day Fredle and his friend find a mysterious food that is so delicious that they eat until they are sick.  In the kitchen mouse culture there is only one fate for a sick mouse: he gets "pushed out."  The other mice push him out into the open floor in the day time. Luckily for Fredle, the lady of the house sees him before the cat does, carefully traps him in a bottle, and then releases him outside.  The outside world is bewildering and terrifying to the young mouse, but gradually, and with the help of some barn mice, he learns how to survive in the bigger world. Cynthia Voigt is a Newbery medal winner and knows how to write characters. Fredle and all the animals he meets have well developed, and interesting personalities, that realistically motivate their decisions.  She also does a pretty good job of seeing the world from a mouse's point of view.  The only part of the story that was a little less believable was when Fredle spends some time with a pack of raccoons.   Fredle stays with them for several days before making a serious attempt to escape.  That is pretty un-mouse like, but is was good for the story.  There is a lot to think about in this story, and it would make a good literature circle book for 3rd or 4th grade. Even a younger child, (second or even first grade) who was a good reader, could enjoy it. (227 p)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bomb: The race to build-and steal-the world's most dangerous weapon by Steve Sheinkin

To my credit, I had this book checked out and was half the way through it before it won every major ALA youth nonfiction award last week.  Every award was well deserved.  This was the most gripping nonfiction I have ever read. The author used to be a text book writer, and he notes in the back cover fly leaf, that he is "making up for his previous crimes by crafting gripping narratives of American history." If all history was written like this, history would be every child's favorite topic at school. This is the story of the Manhattan Project from the point of view of a variety of people involved.  It also follows the work of spies from five nations who were trying to either steel the technology from the US or prevent Germany from developing their own bomb.  I am as well versed on the history of the Manhattan project as anyone, having lived, and my husband having worked, at Los Alamos for a summer. But I never realized how amazing successful the Soviet government was in infiltrating the project.  Soon after the first successful test of the bomb at Trinity, spies inside the inner circles at Los Alamos had given complete plans for the bomb to Soviet agents. One of my favorite spy factoids was that at one point one of the agents used milk to write the technical information on a newspaper.  Every cub scout has written a secret message in milk or lemon juice and then made it appear by heating it.  It is amazing the spies used such a simple tactic to steel information that created the whole cold war. Anyway, this is a must read for adults and older children.  It might be too frightening for kids under 11 or 12, because it really brings to high relief the reality of the nuclear threat that still exists in the world. (266 p)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma by Trenton Lee Stewart

This is the third in the Mysterious Benedict Society series.  In this one the 4 children, Reynie, Kate, Sticky and Constance are confined to Mr. Benedict's home for their own safety.  Mr. Curtain is still on the loose, and Mr. Benedict and his team fear he is making plans to steel The Whisperer, the mass brainwashing device the children' captured from him in the earlier adventures.  When Mr. Curtain finally makes his move, the children are caught up in the intrigue and danger. They have to use all of their old talents and even some new ones to foil Mr. Curtain's diabolical plan. This was a pretty good ending to the trilogy.  All the loose ends were tied up neatly, and we gain some new insights into the character of the different children, and even Mr. Curtain himself.  I was a little disappointed that there was no new villain in the story.  I thought the interaction with Mr. Curtain had gotten pretty played out in the first two books.  Still, those who liked the first two books are likely to enjoy this thrilling conclusion. (391 p.)

A Boy and His Bot by Daniel H. Wilson

Here is an interesting twist on Alice in Wonderland.  Code goes on a field trip to see some Native American burial mounds.  Code is particularly interested in them because his grandfather had studied the mounds up until the time he disappeared a year before.  While Code is exploring he meets a small flying robot who leads him "down the rabbit hole," and into a world populated exclusively by robots.  Suspecting this might be the place to which his grandfather disappeared, Code summons up his courage to go and search for him.  Along the way he meets all kinds of robots, and even has one custom made for him.  Soon Code, and his robot, Gary, discover the dark secret the has put Code's grandfather, and the entire robot world in mortal peril.  This is the kind of book that a 4th or 5th grade SciFi loving boy could really enjoy.  The Mekhos world is imaginative, and the boy, Code, gradually overcomes his fear, and becomes a hero just in time, just as we would expect him to.  The story isn't likely to hold up to the scrutiny of a more experienced SciFi reader.  There are a bunch of problems with physics and scale and world building that will bother someone who stops too long to think about them.  But younger readers are not likely to worry to much about that, and will just enjoy the exciting story and likable characters. (180 p.)